The Untold Story of the Sergeant Major by Chester Tan

Originally published on STORGY.

Seemingly, I was levitating.

My feet lifted off the ground as my partially debilitated physique pursued a quasi-tranquilised floating manoeuvre forwards, into what everyone would cautiously but not surely call a void, as if the world had heated up so much that it evaporated in the time it had taken me to lose some of my earthly senses. Here, I laid back with all my soul, releasing from my tight and morose grips every extrinsic aspect of my dry, tawdry last thirty years of existence.

I had stumbled upon the National Cadet Corps registration booth on my way to the school cafeteria in 1967 at the exploitable and pristine age of nine. I was diabolically precocious in those days, drawing similarities to a certain ingenious author’s novel characters. An all-time favourite and the only writer whose works I had ever read with fervour, I learned about his eloquent short stories and ravenously brilliant comprehension of the often-ousted and never-understood individual. It was also a rather complimentary piece of magnificent literature that didn’t feel like it needed to be humble and yet managed, with ease, to bring across that narcissistic and delusional portrayal of himself with sheer dignity and public approval. I didn’t think I needed to read anything else again. Those sensations and emotions from reading them made me believe I had a role in the security of my callow nation’s freedom from any other nation’s ideal. Seeing as my fellow nine-year-old countrymen weren’t about to give up any time spent on marble-throwing or spider-entrapment for the independence of their homeland in the near future, the weight seemed personal. Achievements were inevitable, and at fourteen years of age I was the nation’s best National Cadet Corps cadet with the maximal rank of Staff Sergeant. Heartrendingly, Joseph and Cornie were nowhere near my side. Istanbul, was it? They might have scurried off to Turkey for a sumptuous getaway. Nevertheless, dear old me held on effortlessly and quite overwhelmingly to the title for the two subsequent years, prior to my graduation from secondary school upon the culmination of every other kid’s meticulous strife through the GCEs. I won, humbly but perceptively, giving the school’s GCE average a heart-warming boost up the national ranking and walked off campus with no one other than myself.

I signed my life to the armed forces when I eventually turned seventeen and enlisted in the same year, neglecting anticipated further studies and any possible career outside of the force. The utter magnitude of the millstone stuffed the mouths of any lurking hints at mutiny of my chauvinistic mind and every night was touchingly uplifting. I look up and around, forward, beyond the steel jungle, where the alarming resentment looms above everyone’s lifeline. The end can be torturous to foresee, but what is a nation without skyscrapers illuminated with beams of blinding truth, and a solution? I endure ardour and fatigue stoically, so my heart doesn’t have to. I am selfish too.

The time came for the jockey cap to be thrown and the beret furnished. Joseph and Cornie were such obdurate fools in believing that their forthright candour could ever be adulated. How I wished to trample on those slick mouths that inhaled the air of freedom I protected day and night after day and night, wondering in the solitudinous despair of military campsites if my tongue will ever touch the enchanting steamed delicacy Joseph used to prepare in the kitchen – descaling, adorning, glorifying – it was utterly dreadful to watch, yet his touch was so undeniably beautiful. Humans could only wish for death to abstain from all that tender splendour. I last held on to it in my sorry mouth when I was nine and one quarter. As I recall, it was the day all possible existing magic had perished in stale bleakness, when Cornie told Sam the truth and I overheard the entire commotion as well as the bit on the side about how I’ve lost it. Sam was fifteen then, tall, elegant, swaying. Exotic and endearing, she was the ecstasy for all mankind. When she got bored, she would grab a book from the shelves at home and sit down on the ground, legs almost crossed, soles touching each other with a side of each thigh kissing the electric blue carpet floor, and smelt the pages of the book with closed eyes and pouty lips whilst it ran like a flip-book in her hands, stopping at a page with a scent she thoroughly enjoyed. She’d break into the slightest most harmless smirk, heartrending as it was, skim through the page, and stand up to re-enact whatever it depicted. One time, she had to be a blaspheming bird’s nest fern that latched itself onto trees. How I adored sweet Sam. I’d have gone down to the scorching pits of Earth’s core for this lady of the valley – my sister.

Sam grew up fast and within a short span of time after puberty struck gained a cult following in every school she enrolled in. She moved the credulous with her smile and kept everyone close with her breath, the fate of everyone reflecting off her unfathomable eyes. They were deep-sea blue. Cornie would always yell at her for breaking any one of the routines she had painstakingly forced upon her lifestyle since she was four; getting the right amount of sleep and at the best time, abstaining from coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol, the best exercises for the hips, bum, calves, and thighs, what goes best on her, and what to eat for every meal. “You’ll be good and listen to your parents. We know what’s good for our little princess of this island. You’re going to be so pretty you won’t ever have to get a job.”

“What does that even mean?” Joseph’s enquiry was marked with uncertainty and wilfulness.

“It means, silly, that she won’t have to work at all. In an office somewhere. In a god awful building. Like a prisoner of life.” Cornie barked.

“She will be doing something though, won’t she? She will be flaunting her assets, won’t she?”

“Yes dear, of course she will. Why, it’d be preposterous not to. There is certainly something for everyone in this godforsaken world, isn’t there? Yes, there definitely is. Have a slice of this sweetie,” she carved out a slice of the coconut pie and dished it to Sam with sheer content.

“Thought I’d lost you there for awhile my old maid. Yes, that’s exactly what she’s good for. I mean, will you just look at those cheek bones! Such marvellously sculpted cheeks and jaw. Yes dear, I’d just like to admit, right here and now, that I’d have easily chosen our precious Sam over you if I had met the both of you twenty five years ago. That’s the uncensored truth my lover.”

Cornie hesitated to chuckle in delightful disbelief. “You mischievous, sly old fox! Ain’t that the truth though, dearie? Who wouldn’t? Oh! What’re you like!”

“Oh yes! But it’s not like you need our compliments sweetie. I’m certain you’re swamped. Aren’t you dear?! Bet they’re all beating the flip out of each other for a chance to stick it in ya, aren’t they?! Ha!” Joseph remarked with what appeared like slight nostalgia as his meddlesome gaze shone upon his beloved daughter. “Aren’t they sweetie?!”

“Yes, Dad. Yes they are. Ugh.. They’re boys. They’re predictable. Let’s just leave it,” Sam insisted, but not without a sly, encouraging smirk. She was too used to it, people gawking at her, writing and singing songs about her, sending herinnovative creations such as worn shirts with love notes doodled all over them. And yet she was sure she didn’t feel like smirking.

“That’s just how it is dearie. And we’ve prepped you for that. The utter truth – the world. That’s how it is. I’m almost absolutely certain it’ll stay the way it is,” Joseph indicated emphatically.

“Yes dear, you are so very ready. When you’re sixteen, you’ll win that ballet championship and bring home the medal for the fourth time. Oh! People are just going to stick on you the rest of your life, aren’t they? They might even kill themselves over you! Poetic bloodshed,” Cornie’s eyes glistened with juvenile enthusiasm.

“Your mom can be a psychotic and neurotic sow sometimes dear, but this I can’t argue with. She’s bloody right is what she is. That Lazare talent-scouter will be at the competition ticking her checkboxes. You gonna give her something to write about?”

“Oh, I’ve almost forgotten about that woman. Oh, it’d be splendid if they signed you dearie. Auntie Jennifer told me their last contract turned that young lady into some work, really. Some masterpiece. Her entire family moved to the Bay a month after. Honestly, I would have chosen Sents. Oh I think with you, sweet darling, that won’t be a problem.”

“You know how much Sents costs don’t you girl? Hmm? Oh, you will adore the place if you’re anything like your old man. That site is the apex of extravagance! Dear me…”

“Your dad and I haven’t seen eye to eye since the beginning. Yes, my memory does serve well. Since the beginning. The only thing that brought the both of us together was our decision to have you, and of course, sex. But more you. Everything you do, everything you say, everything you stand for. That’s us. That’s how we became one. The both of us saw you as the largest project in our lives.”

“The most costly one too. But naturally, huge risks are rewarded with huge returns. And in this case, we think Sents would be about reasonable, don’t you sweet pea?”

“Oh, yes, dear me, yes. That’d be nothing of course, as compared to the initial investment, but you do see it don’t you? We want the best for you, lovely. Simply the best!”

Joseph and Cornie could have went another half-an-hour before they even needed the tiniest cup of tea, and they certainly would have if the paperman didn’t chuck the Straits Times between the gate and the immense wooden door sealing the four-room HDB flat, causing the unwarranted thud of processed news. The kitchen table broke into silence. Sam was still looking down at her bowl ofLucky Charms, having tried filtering out every undesired word she heard over breakfast. Not a single word missed her dignity. She remained staring into her bowl, right hand with metal spoon shoved in. Thirteen words. That was all she had managed throughout the course of the conversation her dear maniacal parents had. It isn’t fair that I know her so intimately, but it’s simply effortless to go unnoticed at home. It merely requires quiet breathing and an ajar door. Walls are naturally thin, or at least walls that held up the flats I’ve stayed in were. And that was how I was kept in the loop the day Cornie tried to murder Sam with the truth. It was a Saturday as I recall, murderously humid and sultry in the Romani house. I arrived back at home from a parade rehearsal in school that afternoon, all burned out from marching drills under the treachery of the universe. “I’m home guys,” I murmured in my mind. “Who’s that at the door?” Cornie questioned expectantly. “It’s me, Mom.” No reply followed. I stayed rooted to the ground, in the doorway, staring blindly at the carpet floor, wishfully crafting a reply for a subsequent question until my gaze chanced upon the absence of Joseph’s loafers from the shoe rack.

No reply was coming. The wooden door glued itself shut as I heaved a whimpering sigh of anguish.

“Of course Joseph isn’t home. Why else would she bother asking who it was at the door? Pathetic.”

I didn’t like coming home at this time of the day. If I was being more honest I’d say I didn’t fancy the idea of coming home at all. Many members of the SAF would jump at the chance of booking out of camp and returning to civilian life when proffered the opportunity. I abhorred going outside of camp simply because a civilian life is for a true civilian. True civilians have people looking forward to their book-out. They have censored conversations with people who pretend to be actively playing a part in their lives. They look forward to dubious merriment, meaningless social get-togethers, and gossip. More importantly, they required and received social support. On the other hand, I severed every tie I ever had when I was thirteen. Wine was more affordable in military camps and I could lay down the entire weekend making my rifle shine alongside a Banrock Station Crimson in a bucket of ice and a picture of Joseph, Cornie, and Sam; the family portrait from New Year’s Eve, 1979. Inevitably, I was in camp that day the photograph was taken, marching with a contingent of sardonic and embittered reservist troops in the gloomy Pasir Laba camp. Perhaps this was one of the few terrible reasons I enlisted; to be in the company of fellow unjustly abused slave-drones.

I attempted to abolish the incessant resentment and traipsed completely unfelt into my bedroom that afternoon. The vagaries of my potential success and plausible wealth as a burglar sometimes posed a sort of humorous amusement to the day’s effect on my disposition. As I removed my rank epaulette and NCC formation badge for washing, the heavy footsteps of Joseph could be felt. “I’m home guys!”

It was the abrupt and thunderous storm that woke me from my slumber late that afternoon when Cornie spilled the beans to Sam. Joseph and Cornie were already in the middle of their rants. I slipped deftly out of bed and tiptoed closer to the slightly-ajar door with all ears. They were speaking with such incorrigible relish about that dashing young boy Tim they bumped into while grocery shopping at Finest, yet Sam just sat there free from alacrity with eyes glued to the genuine wool carpet. I could smell the awful sense of dread that accompanied her bewitching, then completely bulldozed by Cornie’s unsavoury zeal. “Did you hear us honey? We said Tim would make an excellent husband, wouldn’t he?”

“Oh your mom is just being utterly agreeable today!” Joseph waltzed in unrestrained.

“He is a year your junior, sweetie, but that shouldn’t matter. He can drive, he has a car. A splendid Murano.”

“Yes dear. After all, your mom’s a few years younger than me too. Ah, that luxuriously safe Murano..,” Joseph remarked chimerically while flipping through car advertisements on the Straits Times, warmly tucked into his cream genuine-Italian-leather lilo. What business does a lilo have being leather? “Like driving in the embrace of a grizzly bear who protects you,” he added wistfully.

“Cars, yes. That’s one other thing that has welded us together, your mom and dad. Cars. Not many women out there who can talk about manly vehicles to their husbands,” her smirk cried for lament, I swear. “The Murano is a 3500cc monster on 18-inch wheels. You will adore it sweetie,” she concluded swiftly.

“Now, I didn’t even know the Murano was 3500cc. That Tim has gotta have a lot of backing. How wonderful. No really, it is. He’ll make a fine son-in-law. And…-

“Oh, I have no qualms. Sweetie, don’t you think that is just a marvellous idea? Isn’t it the ideal family? Oh you’re gonna have lovely kids, no question.” Sam’s eyes glistened with untainted hope. “Lovely-looking kids, I mean. Immaculate,” And all faith vanished into the thin, sterile air. Evanescent as it might have been, Sam bore some appreciation for its tenure.

“Oh yes, dear me, yes. Cream of the crop. They’ll look enchanting for sure. You’ve got nothing to worry about Sammie. Ever.”

“Yes honey. Your father and I have planned this out just flawlessly. I even suspect it sparkles. Dear me!”

“Doesn’t it?! Just the other day I was telling old Mr Sundram how our Sam was checking everyone’s boxes. He even asked for parental advice, that old fart. Ha!”

“Oh? What did you tell him then?”

“I said it was far too late for him to contemplate our idea, now that he…he’s…y..y’know..” Joseph had his heart in his mouth all of a sudden, stealing a glance at Sam in questionably hopeful eyes. Sam caught it.

“Oh..err..hmm…right. Now that he’s…uhh..-”

“Went and err..got himself that Prius, hasn’t he? Good Lord, these things need planning I kept telling him. You need tons of backup, not a Prius! It’s too late for them now I’m afraid.”

“Oh right, yes yes. That is very true, and exactly what I thought,” Cornie mumbled tautly.

“I’m sorry? Mom? What was that?” Sam commenced her sparkling counter-offensive.

“Sweetie?”

“What was it you said?”

“Oh.. I said that it was exactly what I had thought.”

Every subsequent second that passed filled the room with tension and disquietude. The coiled spring was on the brink of capitulation. Sam was beginning to straighten up from her slouch, her eyes transformed into two bulging, manic warheads. “What’s this?”

“What’s what honey?” Joseph tried his best to feign innocence with an air of sombre calm.

“What just happened?”

“Nothing happened sweetie! What are you talking ‘bout?”

“Don’t give me that… I know the both of you. Like the palm of my little hand.”

To be unreservedly frank, that was the absolute truth. Sam was a brutally perceptive kid who did what her parents dictated of her because she wanted to, not because she had to. As brilliant as she was, Sam could manipulate almost anyone she’s ever met in her life, and she’s met Professor Helms. I have seen it too many times to confuse it with harmless caprice. If she was doing your bidding in subservience, it was a part of the plan, a plan not necessarily diabolical of course. Sam managed to talk the Buddhist neighbours out of persecuting me for shoplifting when I was 8, withJesus Christ and the Babylon as topics of persuasion. I never could see her as my sister ever since.

Ohh…I knew Joseph and Cornie’s tasty little secret. It was an unparalleled, surreptitious piece of work. Yes. And I was indubitably mollified about only discovering the smokescreen in its final hour.

“Sweetie, don’t be crazy.”

“I want to know what’s happening. What did the both of you do?”

“What do you mean what did we do?!” Joseph retorted as he shunned away from the dining room into the kitchen. “I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re insinuating!”

“Relax, Dad,” she said.

“Relax?”

“Yes. Relax. You’ve never gotten fired up when you’ve been erroneously accused. Why should you be now?”

Joseph stared blankly at Sam in a listless stupor.

There’s no stopping her now. He knew. He turned dismally to look at Cornie, who in turn looked down at her apron stains and pretended to be rectifying them for approximately eight seconds.

“Now there sweetheart. It’s not that we were going to keep this from you forever. We weren’t, I swear we weren’t. I just wanted you to…be absolutely ready when it came-”

“Stop…coating it. Tell me what I want to know.”

***

The Prisoner of War course for the Reconnaissance Guardsmen required plenty of personal hours spent on conditioning and heat acclimatisation through a series of operose and laborious field training designed after the second world war to decide the noble fates of numerous countries’ formidable elite infantry divisions. It was on the day of my induction into this selfless community that I realised how deep I was in. It was hot soup and I was having a bath in it. But I just couldn’t resist it. Even more so, I couldn’t help squandering what life I could have had in Cornie and Joseph’s cradle of pursuits. There was no other way for me, because everyone is born entirely different, yet wholly equal and typical, identical and blank. It takes a mere slap on the palm to change our destined route. People have to know that they become who they are because of dire and similar reasons – they were birthed by individuals they eventually kowtow to while being devoid of the most rudimentary human nature; wisdom. And we all have our reasons.

That’s specifically why when Master Warrant Officer Heng thought he could disrupt my brief self-imposed solitary confinement with a joke about my partial facial pigmentation, it simply wouldn’t have been me not to stand up solemnly, strut on the stunningly warm red brick tiles over to my personal locker and retrieve from my immaculately refurbished iLBV the only item that wasn’t issued by the SAF; my humble, self-purchased rifle-cleaning pouch. I chose to embark with a demented gait, avoiding eye contact at all costs. Upon arriving at the garish IKEA-like mock-mahogany desk where Master Warrant Officer Heng was calmly seated in the bunk, I lowered the half-metre long kit in catatonic expression until it softly kissed the stained surface of the table, the accompanying metallic clink shifting my gaze unto him and his preposterously red nose. The entire scene seemed so sinister and utterly mysterious because I grew up reading mystery stories and crime fiction.

His gaze could hardly stay fixated, rotating between my stone-cold stare and the weighty pouch between us. How tasteful curiosity manages to make any predicament.

“Dalam buka barisan..kekanan luuu…rus!” a resolutely enunciated drill command ricocheted across the living quarters, breaking my sociopathic trance and drawing my sight to the main attraction – the pouch between our bodies. Deafening silence swoop the bunk as I lifted the opening flap, then the one underneath it, and rolled the entire thing open to reveal my most prized possessions.

“What the fuck?!” The common areas echoed. Heng backed up instantaneously, almost flipping over on the plastic chair he rested on. I grabbed the least intimidating item inside the pouch by its handle and swung it up and down once, coming to a rest by the side of my hip. Still remaining mute, I let out a subtle grin that made sense of it all. Heng sprang out of his seat and dashed for the door, starting the hysterical chase that concluded with my demotion to Second Warrant Officer, no possibility of a promotion even on good conduct for the next ten years, a court martial, a dismissal from both the Reconnaissance course and the Guards regiment, an indefinite transfer to the desolated Basic Military Training Centre just outside of the country, and six months of anger management and rehabilitation in the Institute of Mental Health if I wanted to keep my job.

Not many stood witness to the episode that fateful day. Bobby, Les, Marge, and Cecil saw most of it. Believe me when I say that I would pay a considerable amount of money to be greeted by the look on their faces that morning again. I suppose a woman running after a man she would gladly like to scare with a butcher’s chopper isn’t an ordinary occurrence in military camps. On top of that, it took three Guardsmen, two bloody noses, a ripped uniform chest pocket, and a hell lot of cursing to fully restrain me. No one from that outfit ever spoke to me since then, and I truly appreciate it. News got out to Joseph and Cornie, and Sam, unavoidably. The Monday following the incident, Sam put her arms around the back of my neck from the side and gently said when I arrived home: “You’re fine little sister. It’s fine.” I could smell her tantalising scent. Well, she didn’t, not exactly. But I remember it as if she did. Sam wasn’t home anymore. Neither were Joseph and Cornie. I was all alone. Finally.

***

It’s the year 2014. I’m fifty six, five foot ten, a seasoned airborne infantrywoman, and shit-faced on a regular basis in the comfort of my puny bunk in Basic Military Training Centre out here on the dispiriting island called Pulau Tekong. Sam kicked the bucket twenty-nine years ago with leukaemia. Hereditary. Patently, Joseph and Cornie’s dastard lifelong scheme wasn’t so unblemished. They split up the following year after what seemed like sincere grieving and lachryma, although it could’ve been anything; the weather, the apartment, the dress Cornie saw in Dorothy last night. Cornie is living with her sister now in a two-bedroom studio apartment in the West, while Joseph made a fortune on the lottery half a year after the split and emigrated to the Netherlands. Funny thing was that he sent me some money years later, after all that inheritance squabble from Sam’s will. I still haven’t uncovered how Joseph found my new address.

Yes, Sam left me a lot of money, and despite it being a mere ten percent of her ante-mortem wealth, Joseph and Cornie couldn’t help going through the legal dread to ensure I get enough only for a pair of trainers and some unenjoyable wine. They eventually succeeded, but it was all fine by me. What killed them the most was not the money, albeit unbelievable, but the inability to get their hands on the army-green envelope addressed to me by Sam and safeguarded by her solicitor. It was only at thirty-three – after I ripped it open to uncover its contents – when I found written on the inside of the envelope the sentence: “There was no plan, my youthful sister.”

“How intolerably cliché,” I wondered humourlessly as I strolled along the corridors of my Wing. “Morning encik,” the recruit greeted with a salute. “I’m not an Officer, for Christ’s sake, I’m a WarrantOfficer. There’s a huge difference in the two, and I’d appreciate it greatly if you could acknowledge that the need to salute is one of them,” I glared with contempt. “You moron.”

“Yes encik! Sorry encik!”

“Oh, don’t sorry me, pal. You’re staying back in here today while the rest of them get to book out at twelve. You’re staying here with me till you get your essay done.”

“What essay, encik?” the boy was on the edge of tearing, and that kept me going.

“Why can’t I remember not to salute a Warrant Officer, in three hundred words or more.”

“Yes encik,” he agreed in prostration.

“The next time any one of the 252 of you repeats your doltish mistake, no one but you will be doing jumping-jacks all day long on the hard court, rain or shine, shouting at the top of your voice ‘A Sir is not an encik, an encik is not a Sir. A Sir passes and you salute, an encik you show gratitude.’”

The recruit seemed lost. “Encik?”

“Is that fucking clear?!”

“Yes encik!”

“Now get back onto the hard court. You have five seconds.”

“Yes encik!” The recruit disappeared out of sight within six seconds.

The unnerving matter that has been playing on my mind, however, was the absolutely eerie and infuriating blank I drew when I attempted to recover the memory of my asking Sam if there was indeed a sinister and occult ploy in respecting Joseph and Cornie’s wishes unquestioningly all those years.

“They treat you like a pet.”

“Yes, they do.”

“They monitor every detail in your life.”

“Indeed.”

“They tell you what to say to others in conversations pertaining even to personal feelings.”

“That is true, too.”

“And they never ever listen to what you have or want to say. They don’t even ask.”

“You’re quite spot on, Vin.”

“But I know you sis.”

“I agree.”

“I have watched you my entire futile life.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say, Vin.”

“I recognise brilliance.”

“You do.”

“You’re not doing this for them.”

There came no reply. Just calm breathing.

“You have something you want. And you’re getting it.”

Still no reply.

“Hit the spot, haven’t I?”

“You really haven’t, Vin.”

“Oh?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Hmm, no, you wouldn’t.”

“Yes, I woul-”

“Yes, you would, if this was trivial. But this isn’t, I’m telling you this now. It isn’t to me.”

“Well then. I won’t lie, Vin.”

“Why won’t you?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“Because it matters to me.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

“So why don’t you tell me right now.”

“Because I don’t think I can, Vin.”

“Oh?”

There was always a certain sangfroid one could feel at any point in time around Sam, regardless of situation, in that she always knew exactly where to look, where her eyes should be pointing, where anyone’s weakness was. This moment was no different. Sam stared straight into my eyes, and burned it.

“Vin. Some things can’t be put into words, with this language we’ve created, this form of communication we’ve established. I do not understand how people could even attempt to name this bizarre phenomenon, calling it simply a dimensional inadequacy. There are just so many flaws in our existence as a race. This is why I don’t see how it shouldn’t be possible that God exists.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m sorry Vin. I just can’t explain myself to you.”

“Because I wouldn’t understand it?”

“My sentiments exactly.”

“That was a question.”

“In that case, yes, exactly.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s