So there I was on a roof in the hot sun. I had parted ways with some people and was making my way down to the ground floor. I saw a mat in an alcove and guessed it was a prayer mat Muslims in the building used when they came up to pray. There had to be a way down that way and indeed some grilled gates were open and I walked down some stairs.
Then another grill barred my way, for it was padlocked and painted over in thick white enamel paint. A side gate was similarly locked. Some giggling Malay lower primary kids appeared in view, seated at the top of a stairwell. They looked up at me, perched above them with no surprise. I asked “boleh turun?” and they chirruped “Tun!”
I prepared to make the jump (you cannot hesitate) but looked down and saw more kids below me. If I fell, they’d be hurt so I crawled backward to leave. It must have been a school and the teachers who I realised had been there all along, were calm, even though I was an intruder from the roof.
Crawling now, I reached another gap and climbed into a room. I was now perched on a ledge, overlooking a room with a low roof. Two elderly Malay women were there, and they were unsurprised about my presence when I greeted them in Malay.
I started out explaining I was passing through in halting Malay, then chatted with them for a long time as they went about their chores, instead of leaving. I realized I was in an old building with many interesting tenants in various units.
They explained it was a rent-controlled building and I responded with how small shops elsewhere were giving way to large franchise outlets who could afford the escalating rent. This was all conducted in my roundabout Malay (e. g. “kedai-kedai yang kechil tu, dah hilang”) and at times I’d pause to think of the words. They listened intently as if needing to cope with my odd sentence construction but then would nod and respond.
As we talked about old shops, at the corner of my eye I saw roof tiles like those of my old school (St. Andrew’s) – I was still perched on some grill in the low-roofed room, on way out of the building.
At one point, I struggled to recall the word for “eye” and they chipped in with other words, none of which was “mata”.
I saw fires at specific units in similar buildings and another one flared up as we spoke. They said there were many fires in the area during lunch time. I explained about “api-api” being a conspiracy to drive out rent-controlled tenants. I said my old friend (“kawan lama saya”) Lutfi had told me as much about the area, which was apparently around Haji Lane (this is all a dream in case you googled your way here). Apparently they’d set fires when tenants were out for lunch. As this was explained, the few people fleeing the fire disappeared and I only saw thick black smoke and some orange flames. A fire in a lower unit petered out as I watched.
I now began translating my broken Malay into more comprehensive English for the grown up son, who had appeared on my right near a window. He was also unsurprised by my presence, now by a window grill. He nodded in serious agreement at my remarks and I said, “I must blog this”, to which he replied, “please do”.
As I was about to leave by climbing out the window but I realised I was somehow barefoot and reached to take my shoes. I saw a slipper with a badge of St. Andrew’s on it, so asked about the school the children went to.
A sister of the man who went into shower (which had appeared) explained there were two lads, one who went to St. Andrew’s but the other to Raffles Institution (“oh so opposites,” I remarked) . She talked about the university degrees they had done and I realised she was an NUS alumni too. I asked “which fac?” and she mumbled her reply (thought I heard MBA) but was more animated about her run she had just returned from. She was in a tracksuit and I knew she was a policewoman, and jubilant about beating her brother’s timing for the run. She was waiting to announce this to him after he came out of the shower partition (I could hear water splashing). I complimented her about her timing.
The older women had faded out and I now left, climbing out the window.
…end of Part I.
Part II. In which I meet Tommy Tan and talk about Biolympics, Raffles Bulletin of Zoology and Photoplates (he will be away), meet an A*STAR team trying to shred loads of documents, looming for Ann Yik, realise I am in my old school (now a heritage building) and see people enjoying the setting sun in the quadrangle. Someone talks to me about a Chemistry mentor I had blogged about whose face I can’t recall (makes sense, I had no chemistry mentors), called “Tan Yit Ping”. She calls him “Tampines” and they are lobbying to get him nominated to a Chemistry Academy (he had not supervised students directly) when he passed away. On the strength of testimonies from former students like mine, they thought they might get him admitted.
This was all typed with one finger while I lay on bed, using the WordPress iPhone app. A lovely deep afternoon sleep from 2-6pm after a hectic week.