an excerpt from Lieutenant Kurosawa's Errand Boy
WE are dead.
Appa turned. His eyes, disbelieving black orbs, met mine. The family disappeared behind him. “I can’t believe this, Thambi. They gave up. How could they surrender?”
Surrender. The word still echoes in my head. To stop trying. But what’s the word for not trying in the first place? I am not sure if I thought this then or realised it after, but that Chinese man was right. It was our fault. Appa never fought. I never fought. We never even learned to fight. We just ran and ran from the Japanese like cowards and trusted the British to defend us. We had given up first.
That evening, Appa and I snuck onto an abandoned bumboat on the Kallang River to sleep. The floor bobbed with a deceptive gentleness. There were no gunshots. There were no missiles. Instead, an empty silence hung over Singapore, brooding with the uncertainty of tomorrow, a terrifying sky to sleep under.
At midnight, glass shattered and a baby cried. A saw shrieked through metal as looters tore shutters apart and hammered down doors. I rolled against the damp wooden starboard side and cupped my ears as a man screamed and another man yelled at him. A thump. Then a woman begging. Appa started talking into my ear and I pushed him away. Although the bumboat owner didn’t return, I didn’t sleep that night.
The next morning, a light blue sky dawned on quiet and empty streets, but the night revealed itself in the brown bloodstains congealed on the road, the crusted glass bits and broken metal jewelling the asphalt, and a parang lying in a drain, crimson-tipped. Watch shops and pawn shops and mama shops were laid open, missing shutters and doors. Their shelves were empty, glass cabinets broken, tin containers toppled over, and leftover rice grains and biscuits trampled over. The people of Kallang had boarded themselves inside the tenement houses above the shops and shut the windows, and no sound came from them. The bamboo poles had been emptied of clothes. Only a few men like Appa roamed the street in wide-eyed amazement. One carried a butcher’s knife. I reached for the parang but Appa told me to toss it back into the drain.
We walked up to Jalan Basar and I tugged his arm. A mama shop stood across the street, four jumbo Chinese characters emblazoned across its peeling signboard. Inside the mart, the three men hauled a fourth away from his cash register. They wrestled him against a cupboard stacked with Chinese alcohol bottles, and spread his arms like a crucifixion. They stuffed his mouth with cloth and punched him in the gut. His eyes bulged and they punched him and punched him until he sat. A looter booted his privates and his eyes rolled up into his head. They started pulling an empty rice sack over his body.
© Epigram Books
by Warran Kalasegaran
from Lieutenant Kurosawa's Errand Boy (2017)
published by Epigram Books