Sheer desperation. Bus ride into Lil’ Ind. did not appeal. The uncles and aunties were perfectly alright of course, much preferable to the smartly polished on the trains. But as one slowly/not so slowly approached years of sere, you felt a little.… out of sorts among that company all the time. So, with the late hour following some extended labour on the pages, after a local lunch at the Haig, a café. This was the second in the last ten days. Since the return the third or fourth. There had not been a single café in three months on the Peninsular; a few in Jogja and Jakarta, so no more than three/four since old/new Melbourne town. The Starbs outlet here on Tanjong corner was renovated last year; enlarged after it overtook Superheroes next door. There had indeed been a noticeable downturn in the heroes on the street in recent times. It may have been almost a week Superman had not appeared; the Bat was holding up better, film treatment and related helping him retain some grip. Meanwhile Starbs had justified its investment in spades, weekends and evenings in particular chockers. Cheap wifi—and pretty rapido at that; aircon always precious; escaping the pigeon-holes of course. Eric at Wadi the other night had mentioned the enthusiasm for Starbs among all the young guys at his ad. agency. Starbs and only Starbs for that crew; they held all their meetings there, lounged and dated under the F&B golden arches equivalent. Window lounge chairs today all taken except close by the White guy up on the stool fixed on his top. Impossible to park one’s bottom in that vicinity. Two guys of an age, stubbled, oozing plenty cool between them, sitting adjacent would not be right. Dispirit the locals on the one hand, and inevitably dilute the brand on the other. No way. Worse still, another chap of the favoured race sat only ten metres distant hard against the window beneath a cheap, fake panama. Imagine that triangle had one stumbled blindly, switched off and witless. Over to the other side with you Buster well outta harm’s way, beside the escalators, good back-rest against the wall. Not prime viewing in that corner and sucked into the mall proper, but what to do? decision had been made. Almost immediately like a sprung trap the Malay girl from the cosmetic shop on the other corridor swanning past Helloing. Scarf and baju; a sweetie beneath all that assemblage. The layers were always laid on a bit thick by that gal. Occupational hazard maybe; but only maybe. The confession must not be withheld: today the lounge and blues re-masters actually hit the spot more or less at Starbs Tanjong corner. Satchmo, Billie and two or three other hoarse voices. Love is like a prophet (if that was right). As long as I have youuuu. I—love—you—madly. The dial down a bit. There had been no music many months now. It was possible even the notices of publications during the term on the Peninsular had not been celebrated with the usual Maria Call. and Jussi. Steely cold discipline had to give eventually. You make me feel so young / You make me feel Spring has sprung was not a favourite. What a strange, strange period it had been, that two or three years of Deano in his tuxe, Bob dropping his well-timed lines (and later learning he had in fact been such a dunderhead; all scripted and the man himself boring as batshit), the ladies in the flouncy dresses. Shaky B&W TV back then, songs, chat, dances, joke routines. Here they had never quite overcome the attraction. There had been no rebellion in the 60s or 70s here. We had all come full circle now of course across the globe, back to the future. But Sing’ had kept the home fires burning all the long while. They were hanging a man here in the morning; first light. There had been no news locally. Up on the Peninsular the family had received a letter from the prison on Monday advising them to make their arrangements. Friday tomorrow. Hangings here always took place Fridays; the powers found value in the designated marker day. Beefy had said 100gm was enough for the noose in Sin’pore. He showed the usual 300 pack about the size of two ciggie boxes; a bit larger. A third of that. In a comment on the Malaysiakini piece that delivered the news the writer had suggested that doubtless Sing’ Pharma would in short order be involved in the medicinal trade in this changing climate. Too late for the man tomorrow.
Beckett in Life
The tall, thin, younger Malay guy was outta it, easy to see from the outset. And the older Indian accompanying made it a strange pair. In passing the former revealed I’m a chef, as if presenting impressive credentials. Fellow looked the part more or less, some average hidden away eatery most like. When his scattering clearly emerged that part fitted too: everywhere the heat of kitchens needed something for dousing the flame. Drinks being fetched the Tamil starts up a conversation. Handsome worn old guy, last couple of weeks noticeable around the traps. Thin, tallish like the other—relative to the average. Oh, he had encountered a writer. What do you write about then?… Shortly thereafter the man guesses “culture” might be added to the list of themes, when it had not been mentioned previously. Man was on the ball. As that unfolded we must have progressed to the most recent subject matter. Well, the next morning’s hanging actually, Uncle. That had been playing a bit in the mind…. Produced the desired effect. Oh! Hanging? Tomorrow?… Yes. Dawn. Indian from Malaysia. Caught with dope the memory had it. (Turned out it had been the other.) Hanging a man. A human being. Shaking his head. Uncle was slowly protesting the matter in a way of his own. Can we pray for him? he unexpectedly asked. The precise words. For a brief moment there was a thought the man might bow his head over the Wadi table, close his eyes and begin. Christian was the thought. No, Hindu, the man answered. A reformed boozer by the looks. Later he would say he was a good man, good man. With quiet insistence pleading his case against an accusation that had not been put. The man had only been asked in turn what he did; a conversational gambit that slipped. Very good English level. We got to the Law or Justice Minister, the man here who would decline the last minute plea from the various quarters, along with the recently elected/drafted President. A fellow Indian the Minister, Tamil possibly too. Earlier in the year the man had grilled a historian over six hours at a parliamentary enquiry into the early PAP action against the communists. The Tamil knew of the chap concerned. Attempting to say something in response to the name, the man, the Tamil Uncle, was lost for words. That Shanmugan…. Eventually he threw a hand away from the table palm up: That man was…. And the hand thrown out. Shortly thereafter there came the revelation that this man, the handsomely worn Tamil Uncle, had had a brother hung at the prison here. Yes. Close, exceedingly close personal acquaintance with capital punishment. Hanging; judicial murder. You could hardly get more personal. With his mother the man had gone to visit the condemned, his brother. Sitting opposite him, he went on, the old worn, formerly handsome Tamil Uncle who looked a lot like Beckett, only more handsome and not as sharp featured, sitting opposite his brother at Changi, words had failed. Final words with his brother the Tamil Uncle had not been able to utter at the prison. Nothing would come out. The condemned brother had turned to their mother to ask, What’s wrong with him? He can’t speak. The brother must have spoken to the other, the visiting brother, and received no reply. So many years later the Tamil Uncle was still surprised at how he had clammed up. Returning to that time at Changi with his brother the Tamil Uncle spoke like a man forced to own a personal circumstance that was still barely credible, that over the years had been pushed from the forefront of memory and still when it reared up its simple reality overwhelming. A few minutes later without anything further the Tamil Uncle rose to his feet, adjusted his backpack and turned to leave the table without a word. Off and slowly pacing away in a kind of suspicious saunter. The wasted younger Malay companion who had taken prata between times and withdrawn, asked after a lag, Where’s he going? The old Tamil Uncle did not look back, more than half his cup of tea left behind. The man walked on up toward the Haig and disappeared. If the market here could sustain a Godot this Tamil man would be perfect for either Vlado or Estragon. Brilliant, no tuition necessary. Learning the lines would be a cinch. His delivery, the pauses and hesitations would have the audience enthralled.
Pronounced chor chor–chop, chop more or less. The street term for a couple of deep probes with the blade.
Arab version was in question here; the Malay weapon was a short length. Arab was a good ten inches long.
The Reprobate knew the difference; he had seen, if not hefted, the latter.
A dictionary was useless in such cases. They had not produced Slang dictionaries on the Equator; dictionaries were still for polite, correct language hereabout in this strange, Anglophile corner.
Full of his subject matter the Reprobate, Jack Nazri, the man prodded sharply in the midriff in order to demonstrate.
Two or three rapid doubles to get his point across. (Pun unintended.)
All the fellow could talk about the last week was the Khashoggi murder in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul. Seemed like his dignity as a Muslim had been outraged; that seemed to be a significant part of it for this Jack.
Sidling up to the table as usual his initial question had been the daily news. Hearing there was nothing much the man immediately turned to Khashoggi. Could not tip it out of his head the entire week.
Will they find the body? Convict the killers? Istanbul was not Geylang after all. How big! Cannot possibly find.
The fact the body pieces seemed to have been disposed of in “Belgrad Park” grated rather for a Serb, for a Montenegrin. Belgrad Park. After five hundred years the Ottomans had been forced out of the country, but still they harkened back to glory days for their Sunday picnics in the park! Like all empires. Here for example, rather than open up a can of worms, they had retained all the old colonial street names. Therefore Kitchener, Allenby, Clemenceau. Petain was an especially troublesome case; every so often the Israeli embassy complained.
Belgrad Park had not been something for the Reprobate. That particular sharing had been with someone else, a non-Muslim.
You can murder a man just like that, huh? Reprobate kept on. (The State he meant.) A ruler or President give an order and done without demure.
Run of the mill my man. How did you get to this ripe old age so naïve? You have heard of the Mongolian girl in KL, right? The Korean in KL, just keeping it local for starters. They did it all over. Elementary. What could be more simple? Heads of State they kill. You remember the case in Chile, fella by the name of Salvatore? How many have they killed over the years? What did the Americans do with Osama for Christ’s sake! Cut off his….—
— But that was the enemy, Reprobate demurred.
The gentlemanly game of War he meant. Khashoggi was a civilian going about his business innocently. Going into his own Embassy in another Islamic country…. (After the secularists for so long in Turkey, Erdogan was winning big plaudits in this region.)
Nonetheless, Reprobate did in fact know something about this kind of State-sanctioned murder and mayhem. Brought up the case himself of the current old Sultan Salman in Saudi. Eighteen notable murders of opponents carried out on his orders during this present reign. (It must have been a well-known series in Muslim circles. Shock value zero at that table with his interlocutor, mind you.)
….And that death that the Reprobate had been informed about here on Friday just gone? Well, he could double that now. Two were hung here at Changi on the same day. Perhaps simultaneously; perhaps sequentially to give the witnesses time to adjust.
Furthermore. Moving right along. What month were we now, my man?
— Islamic or modern calendar? Jack Reprobate Nazri asked before he would answer…. The latter? Well, October then.
Correct. And the current date if you would be so kind?
Twenty-seven, answered Jack promptly.
OK. Gee, pretty good. A pass. More than good indeed. Out by only a single day. Excellent tracking of days for a fellow living on the streets, starting his days with his “orange juice” that he bought around the back of Joo Chiat somewhere cheap. Early morning this Repro. chap often passed by the house en route.
A fair perfume he was giving off too at the Wadi table incidentally, man had topped up just recently, the last half hour one would wager.
The 28th. Well, hear this then, my man. In this month of October, this current month of the current year, in this Republic of yours here, there have been a total of six judicial executions.
Six. Men. Hung at Changi Prison down the road here. (On Joo Chiat corner beyond the lights Geylang Road became Changi Road.)
(On the Saturday before the update had been received from foreign news sources the Reprobate had been told of the single hanging the day previous of the young thirty-one year old Indian Malaysian. Up until then the only execution that had been known.)
Add five more for the month of October alone, you think the man blinked?…
No, he did not. Not a jot; not a flicker.
Indeed, instead, and quite on the contrary, the Reprobate waved that little tid-bit away from the table immediately. Peremptorily.
Wave…. Wave again…. As if to say, A nothing that. So?…
‘Twas nothing. What was that?
During his own term at Changi three years he had spent, Reprobate Jack had spent, charged with the responsibility of keeping tabs on the attire of the condemned men. The Death Rowers.
Suddenly. When not a word previously.
This was straight out of the box. How many chats had we had over all these many months, over the morning newspaper usually, The Straits Times.
A task and a challenge the assignment, given particularly to one-eyed Jack inside. Supervisor with a wicked sense of humour. Or had Jack’s eye only been turned subsequently, a fight in the cells or the yard, or following release perhaps?
If you had asked Jack Nazri he would probably have told you coolly how it had happened.
The figure had always hovered around two hundred. Ups and downs; but never straying too far.
A great number of baju and seluar; shirts and pants. (Although not all of the victims could have been Muslim; Jack probably used the terms indiscriminately.)
So many of the former; so many latter. Baju and seluar of various sizes.
All in order.
Tick and sign off.
Answering for it too, should any discrepancy arise. Any error. They prided themselves on their efficiency in Sin’pore; they could manage it all as well as any Whites.
A pair gone, used up, no more. The name of a friend crossed off gave Rep. Jack the news. The men inside often knew on the grapevine who was going despite the attempted secrecy; often, but not always.
Ah-ha! Now this many baju; this many seluar. Matching numbers it had to be.
Up and down figures over three years.
Two or three times the man, the Reprobate, rabbiting more loudly even than usual, needed to be told to pipe down—the Scarves from the table the other side of the fire hydrant were turning their heads. What was all that commotion? Rare those tones in that temperate quarter.
Almost Kapo status from those other camps last century our Reprobate Jack had been back then during that term of his at Changi.
The man could not have kept count of the number over three years. Impossible. Thirty-six months.
Geylang Serai, Singapore 2011–20
Australian by birth and Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic’s eight years living and writing in S‑E Asia has provided unexpected stimulus. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, including Ambit, Big Bridge, Citron & Antigonish Reviews.