Pavle Radonic ~ Strange Fruit (Singapore)

Lounge

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.

 

Wardrobe

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.

Check.

Double check.

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.