If not for me, my parents tell each other constantly, they would have divorced.
I was born just after they moved into dad’s three-room HDB flat here at Block 98, which is a long rectangular block built by the government in the 1960s. From what I always hear, especially when they quarrel, I am in their way because I stop them from having better lives, free from having to take care of me. Or, maybe, if I had not been born, they might have been a loving couple, doing things together, like going to the movies – any time they want, even at midnight (even though that is way past bedtime) – or giving each other a massage, or having more money for holidays. After all, they are still young. (According to mum, 26 years old is very young.)
But how would I know? I’m only eight years old. Like mum says, I am just a small boy who does not know anything and should keep my mouth shut and my eyes fixed to the floor. I guess when I am twenty-one years old, I will understand everything, because I will be an adult, big enough to have a ‘discussion’. But twenty-one is so far away for me to think about that it makes me feel…’depressed’. I think that’s the word adults use when they are feeling sad or confused: depressed.
Anyway, when they fight, my mum shouts loudly at my dad, who shouts back, then grabs random things off the table or from the cupboards and hurls them down the rubbish chute in the back of the flat, behind our rusty washing machine. Or he flings them to the mosaic floor. When he’s mad he likes to throw away things that my mum bought for him, like the Precious Moments figurine, “We Share A Love Forever Young”. I thought they said that figurine is their favourite belonging. Then he storms out of the house, banging the wooden door and metal gate shut behind him, and doesn’t come home for a few nights. I am sure everyone along our corridor, and upstairs and downstairs like Goosey Gander in the nursery rhyme, can hear them quarrelling because they get so loud and everywhere else becomes so quiet. Once, Mr Teo from the end of our row came to our door to ask if everything was all right, but mum told him fiercely to mind his own business, and nobody ever came again. I don’t know where dad goes to stay or have dinner when he walks away, and it is just me and mum at home again, listening out for dad’s footsteps coming down the long corridor.
I understand from TV that love doesn’t last forever, only diamonds do, so I guess that’s why mum sometimes gets so angry with dad that she will beat me if I am too slow with my food or ask her too many times for something I need to have. I wonder why adults don’t give themselves time-out to think about things in a more mature way.
It’s the most painful when mum uses the thirty-cm steel ruler from dad’s desk drawer in the front room. I’m most scared of that, because it’s the most painful, so I try to run away when mum brings the ruler, but once, when trying to grab hold of me, she accidentally tore my Tom & Jerry pyjama pocket, and then I got beaten even harder. The slipper or the rolled-up newspapers are better, because the pain goes away quite quickly. I am also used to the cane, but like the steel ruler the marks stay on my skin for a long time so I need to wear long sleeves and long pants for a few days when I go out so that people don’t ask me any questions.
I don’t hate my mum. When she calms down she applies baby lotion on my marks and tells me to be a good boy. I also don’t hate my dad, even though he can’t make my mum happier. I just try my best not to cry and to play on my own and look happy so that they don’t say I am such a sulky child. But playing on my own is hard too, because I need to be careful not to be too loud, or to forget to put away my toys when it is time for my bath, or my food, or my bedtime.
I will always remember the time I left my favourite comic book, Tintin in America, on the stool in the kitchen after my toilet time. Mum was so angry at my carelessness that she tore the book down the middle and flung it to the floor, even though I didn’t mean to forget to bring it back into my room. When she went away, I took the two parts and put them under the coffee table, because I thought I could paste it back together with Scotch tape later, but when dad came back from school, he found out what happened and told me to throw it away.
The same bad thing happened to my Yonex racquet too. I love playing badminton, especially with my best friend from First Toa Payoh Primary School, Steve Tan, and after school I am allowed to go to the open-air badminton court on that small hill in front of Block 53 to play until dinnertime. I love going to school. I am very happy there because the teachers say I laugh a lot and I also like playing with my friends. I wish school is the whole day and every day, but it is only until one o’clock and also the school holidays in June and December are so long. I can never understand why my friends like the holidays so much. “We don’t have to come to school, we can go and play,” they tell me but I still don’t understand. I love school and I can play in school too, but I can’t play at home and anyway there’s no one else to play with me, and mum is always angry.
The other afternoon, because Steve and I were enjoying such a good game, I got home fifteen minutes late, and mum was very upset. I apologised and tried to explain, but she screamed at me for talking back, so to teach me a very good lesson, she grabbed my badminton racquet from me, spanked me with it till I cried, then cracked it against her thigh so hard, she yelped as my beloved racquet broke into two. My heart never felt so painful, more painful than my back and legs. That night I lay in bed and hugged my broken badminton racquet close to me and thought that life is truly very hard, not just for adults but also for boys like me. Mum bought me the racquet for my sixth birthday. Why did she break a present she bought for me?
Some nights when I lie in bed and cry myself to sleep, I wonder if I should open the window and jump out. We are on the eleventh floor so it’s quite high up. But I think my parents, especially my mum, will still be sad. Sometimes I really feel so tired, I just exhale all the way and promise myself never to breathe in again, but at the very last second, I somehow always give up and lie back, grabbing my chest and rolling from side to side and gasping for air. Maybe the next time, when I try again, it will work.
Jocelyn Lau is editor, writer and co-founder of Kucinta Books. She has published a collection of haiku in Hello, Baby (Math Paper Press 2013). Two other collections, Hey There, Tot! and Excursion to HortPark, will be published by Kucinta Books in early 2015. She has also written short fiction pieces, and a new picture book series is being planned.