'True Blue': a short story
Two years ago, I was invited to submit to a short story anthology for Singapore school students, but my entry was spiked at the last minute.
Here’s a short story I wrote two years ago, loosely inspired by this incident. I had been invited to submit to an anthology of short stories for use in teaching in Singapore schools. Everyone in the editorial process spoke warmly of this story, including lower-level education ministry folks, but it was axed in the end by (as I understand it) higher-level gatekeepers.
I still don’t really know if there were objections to something specific in the story, or just to the person of the author. Bureaucrats don’t always feel obliged to explain themselves intelligibly.
I should maybe submit it somewhere else, but I wrote it with a Singapore secondary school student reader so centrally in mind – and its prognoses for the pandemic have now (perhaps happily) been outpaced by reality – and the truth is, I just don’t have the heart for more revisions. In the spirit of “More volume of output and less fussiness”, here is ‘True Blue’. I hope you enjoy it. If you like it, please share it.
(a short story by Jolene Tan)
Probably, to begin with, someone elbowed someone else aside. Nothing personal: the intention was only to remove an object, like a bulky bag or a cloth-covered arm, blocking the way to the bus. The owner of the elbow might not even have been looking when they did it. Shuffling forward, head down, eyes fixed on the feed.
But Mona hadn’t actually seen any of that, so she couldn’t say for sure.
“I was looking in my bag for my bus card,” she told the young policeman. “And I suddenly heard a woman sounding very angry. Like when teachers are angry when a student talks back, that kind of anger.” The officer looked not long out of school himself. He might remember. “I heard her say, did you touch me, you better not touch me. I looked up, and I saw the man and the woman in front of me in the queue, arguing.”
Mona gestured discreetly. Like her, the antagonists had been moved to quiet spots by the long wall in the bus interchange, each engaged by a separate cop. A lumpy clot of discontent, dissolved for other bodies to resume their flow through the terminal.
The middle-aged woman in the yellow cardigan was Goh Siew Mei. She had declared her names in klaxon tones, on sighting the police. Go ahead, write it down. My conscience is clear. The man, stocky and weather-beaten, looked younger. He might be called Nasir, but Mona had only heard that refracted through Goh Siew Mei’s rage, so she was less certain.
“Can you tell me what they said?”
Mona hesitated. At the grand age of fifteen, it was her first time so close to such a disturbance. She wanted to be fair, which she guessed meant neither making stuff up nor leaving things out. But she wasn’t sure what would interest the police officer, and also—“I don’t know if I should say all the insults.” There had been grubby, slimy words on both sides, and the thought of them trailing from her own mouth was disturbing.
“I need to know what happened,” the officer said. “Just tell me everything you heard.”
Nasir sounded annoyed. “No, I didn’t touch you.”
“Don’t lie,” said Siew Mei. “I felt it very clearly.”
“Maybe you bumped into me.”
“I was already in front of you, why would I bump into you?”
“Okay, so we bumped by accident. No big deal. Keep your panties on.”
“Ah, now you’re changing your story.”
Nasir rolled his eyes and gave a mocking, extravagant shrug. Behind them, a small group of would-be passengers milled in an awkward clump. Chittering children in primary-school blue and yellow, a young man comfortably burrowed in a K-drama on his phone, and a plump, greying woman in a sari. The last, alone, met Mona’s questing eye. She said something in a quiet but irritated voice, in what Mona guessed was Tamil. Mona shook her head—I don’t understand—and they grimaced at each other in friendly incomprehension.
From his shadowed cabin, the bus driver snapped in Mandarin, a language Mona did understand, “Faster, faster.”
This seemed to activate Siew Mei—she mounted the steps and tapped her farecard against the sensor—but her attention stayed on Nasir. “Try to cut the queue, then pretend it was my fault. So typical of you people, no integrity.”
Nasir, too, spoke over the beeping of the farecard machine. “If I bumped into you it’s because you’re so fat and slow, blocking the way like … a big ugly cow.”
Mona hung back, waiting for them to move in. Just as well, because Siew Mei suddenly whirled around. Somewhere in the narrow space hands and shoulders met, applying sudden pressure. Action generated equal and opposite reaction; two masses were mutually repelled. Both Nasir and Siew Mei alike staggered back a step or two from each other.
Nasir swore. “Coming or going, make up your mind!”
“You touched me again!” Siew Mei exclaimed. “It’s confirmed—you’re not Singaporean, are you? Cut the queue, anyhow touch women, use bad language, only backward people from Third World countries are like this.”
“You are the one—”
“Can the two of you please calm down?” the bus driver complained. He waved at Nasir and switched to English. “Stop, stop.”
The combatants ignored him. For a few minutes, Mona found it hard to make out who said or did what: both hooted and gestured in what looked like a coordinated dance. “Prove it—prove that it’s pink!” Nasir was pumping his hand toward Siew Mei’s face. Mona saw, in his fingers, the small rectangle of a national identity card; then she noticed Siew Mei, deeper in the bus, doing the same to Nasir with her own IC.
“—you even know ‘Majulah Singapura’ or not—”
“—can’t even pronounce Singapura correctly,” Nasir scoffed. “You just blindly learned it for your ceremony when you became a new citizen, right?”
“I am a true blue Singaporean!” Siew Mei shouted. “Born and bred. Nasir, Nasir … nasi, nasi, go sell your nasi padang and don’t bother higher-class people.”
Nasir lunged forward. He didn’t seem to touch Siew Mei, but a ragged scream of distress issued from her throat, and she reached a ginger hand towards her own face.
Mona gagged when she realised what Nasir had done.
“You’re lucky you’re a woman,” he growled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Or you’d really get it from me.”
The police appeared. Lin Hongyu, behind the thick barriers of the driver’s cubby, had called for them, because these passengers would never listen to him. He knew they saw him as an extension of gears and pedals, a mechanical component from which speech was unnecessary. Besides, he’d seen people tune out once they caught tints of Jilin in his voice.
Now the afternoon was destined to vanish in official fussing, his shift disrupted beyond repair. The consequences of this silliness for his paycheque could not be good. All for a moment’s jostle, a few impatient words.
Hongyu sighed. This country was so peculiar. Wealth had woven a lightshow, draping an optical illusion of worldly flamboyance over a tiny parcel of land. They had no idea how small they were. And now two cockerels strutting and stamping over a puffed-up nothing. And he at their mercy.
The police sergeant took Mona’s details when the story ended. “I need your IC, please.” He added, half chuckling, “Don’t worry, it’s not a test, I won’t spit at you.” He waited as she first popped the button to open her purse, then drew out the flat piece of plastic which said who she was, greyscale photograph and black capitals on pale blue.
Another bus came. Almost no one got on this time, and Mona was alone on the top deck. Ordinarily she would slip into her phone—check her virtual garden for a rare cat, feed her ears with liquid synths—but today something tugged at her to touch the cool glass of the window, to follow the percussive line of the vehicular rattle and bump. Her feet and shoulders ached gently, as if she’d done more than stand witness for a few minutes. It made her conscious of her own body, which seemed to need anchoring to a seat so as not to vanish.
The interview with the police must be serious business, she thought, with that official-looking statement, and all her personal details taken down. She hoped she had got it right and that she would be forgiven for any mistakes if she hadn’t. Some of her descriptions didn’t seem wrong exactly but too simple, too flat. But when you spoke out loud to someone in that uniform, you felt you had to keep things flat. Mona toggled back and forth, trying to match the scene she remembered inhabiting against the words she remembered saying, spot the difference, until the two ran together, the weird mirror ritual became they showed each other pink ICs, they waved them at each other, the words both blunting the details and absorbing their flavour, and then the exercise made no more sense.
Passengers came and went behind her. The bus pulled up by the food centre, where, as usual, the queue for bak chor mee stuck out far beyond the others. She was almost home.
This food centre had hosted a frustrating family conversation on the weekend, about her mother’s daydream of going to Thailand on holiday. That was how Mona thought of it, anyway; her mother called it going back to see family. Mama kept bringing it up, cycling through a loop of indecision, now that six long years of pandemic restrictions were fully lifted. At last, they could get on a plane to Chiang Mai and return with only post-vacation fatigue, no quarantine necessary.
Or could they? Instagram offered beguiling tableaux of possibility: Singaporeans abroad at last, smiling from infinity pools, posing amid cherry blossoms. But Mama worried about being blocked from re-entry. She might rejoin one set of relatives, whom she hadn’t seen since the first ‘circuit breaker’ period, only to be divided from her Singaporean husband and son. Borders had closed and re-opened and re-closed so many times in the years of masks and phases, shots and swabs, spaced seating and token tapping: it was hard to believe that the drama of the virus could finally be wrapping up for good.
Pa had pointed out that even the strictest border controls never rose to barring Permanent Residents. Mama oscillated between clutching at this truth and fretting over its papery quality. None of them had ever actually entered the country as PRs, only as Pa’s Long-Term Visitors. When the PR applications for Mona and her mother had at last succeeded some years back, the main cause for celebration had been the family finances: the change in status brought Mona’s primary school fees down considerably, at a time when—with toddler Alwin in the picture—money was especially tight. Their minds hadn’t yet turned to travel, and in any case the pandemic kicking in a few weeks later put paid to such thoughts.
Still, in the years that followed, Mama found more occasions for gratitude. Many an evening she sighed with the guilty relief of one who was safe, before offering up bad news from a colleague, a neighbour, a friend of a friend. This one’s work permit was cancelled, leaving her with a few weeks to bundle eleven years of life into a suitcase. That one’s husband threatened not to extend her pass if she diverted his 4D funds to pay for the children’s tuition. A third performed an anxious ritual every few months: begging the gods of immigration for renewals so she could stay with her husband, crying out in relief when they showed mercy. But for some time no amount of money could buy access to vaccines for a short-term pass holder, and that friend soon found herself gasping in intensive care. She told Mama later about the sensation of drowning, drowning, drowning on land.
Mona knew that Mama counted their family lucky. They could wear the blue cards on their person like amulets of protection, they could scan the barcodes to ward off evil. These were life rafts, and Mama feared what could happen if you slipped off into the choppy waters, where hidden sharks circled.
Mona felt sorry on principle for anyone with these problems, but it had little to do with daily life in Bukit Batok: the treadmill of homework, tetchy tussles over space and time with Alwin, and the great mystery of how to tell in advance, as some girls always could, what was about to trend. She and Mama came from somewhere else, but so did most people in Singapore, if you went back far enough, so why did it matter? If Mona had been here since before she could walk or talk, did the somewhere else even count?
So when her stepfather had said, between wet mouthfuls of noodle, “It will be fine, just go,” Mona had shared some of his impatience. Mama was fussing too much. And if it stressed her out so much, why didn’t she just drop the whole thing for another time? Why did she choose the most tiresome position available, of wanting and fearing in equal amounts?
“I thought—” Mama replied. “I had another idea—if I split it into a few shorter trips, one weekend here and one weekend there, I won’t be caught if the rules suddenly change again.”
Pa disapproved. This proposal was expensive and troublesome—and she was needed most on weekends, when Alwin wasn’t at school. Alwin himself intervened here: if they were thinking about a holiday, why couldn’t they staycation at Sentosa and ride the rollercoasters, like his classmate Jason, who always had more fun? Both parents, irritated, united to chide him. Amid the overlapping jabber, Mona’s name came up; it was important, it was said, to go back home soon, for Mona’s sake.
The objection came, semi-automatic, from Mona’s lips: “Don’t bring me into this, I don’t even know most of those people. Just make up your mind, Mama. Why do we keep going around in circles? It’s so boring!”
The words rang louder than she intended. She felt a little bad when Mama grew grave, but she was too annoyed to take it back. Then Alwin spilled soup over his shorts, sweeping everyone into a frenzy of scolding and wailing and wiping, and the moment for apologies was lost downstream.
Isn’t 385 your bus? Mona saw the message from her friend Soo Ping on the walk home, with a link to a cheap-looking news site: ALTERNATIVE PARTY SUPPORTER SPITS ON GRASSROOTS VOLUNTEER. The people in the pictures, snapped by a hidden bystander, were indeed Nasir and Goh Siew Mei, though garlanded with strange titles—what did parties or grassroots have to do with anything? The story made only passing mention of the business with the ICs, the parallel prancing and chanting, like a pair of desert lizards Mona had seen in a nature documentary, poofing their neck frills out at each other.
These people would never be afraid, she suddenly thought, about returning from a holiday. Their places were assured. But they still worried about someone else getting ahead in the queue—the wrong kind of someone, with a card of the wrong colour, or a card of the right colour, obtained the wrong way. Their cards were somehow powerful and fragile at the same time. VIP membership, but of what?
Mona followed the path along the canal, its shallow waters churning with fish. Her seedling suspicion—that she had been unfair to her mother—put out a new shoot.
Mama was not wrong, after all, to sense the hostility that thrummed beneath ordinary life, and to fear that it might at any moment be bared, a livewire current, pulsing with danger. Yes, most people came from somewhere else, if you went back far enough; but there were also, clearly, different ways of coming from somewhere else. Mona had known this in a dim way since the days of preschool activity books, when she drew lines from the box with the songkok to the one with the ketupat, from the qipao to the chopsticks. Growing up, she had found it safest to enroll in the Mother Tongue of her stepfather and speak perfect Singlish, with no trace of the accent that leaked from Mama. The world mapped out at school made no space for Mama’s somewhere else, and any sign of it only invited annoying jokes from classmates, who delivered their own daft version of the early lesson (join the tom yam soup to the KTV hostess!).
And—perhaps she should admit it—maybe Mona had grown impatient because Mama was so dogged about unearthing the cumbersome protrusions that did not fit, while Mona had tried to trim them out. Mama’s insistence on this trip stemmed from the same root as her proud display of royal portraits in their flat and her mannered hand gestures, both of which Mona lived in dread of her classmates seeing. Protecting herself from mockery was not the same as picking stupid fights in a bus queue, but Mona still had the feeling that in some important way, she had been holding out her own membership card, putting herself on the same side as Goh Siew Mei and Nasir. It wasn’t a comfortable idea.
What was camouflage, now, and what was skin? She had limited contact with her Thai relatives: just exchanges of Zoom politesse with a few who spoke Mandarin, mainly her mother’s sisters. Supposedly Mona had visited once, in that fabled pre-pandemic time, but it came to little in her memory. She had joined other children in weaving a shrieking, overexcited line between adult legs; she had admired the elaborate fingernail art of an older cousin, Chantana, who had glowed with perfumed kindness. That was all.
That was all, but it wasn’t nothing. And Mona didn’t want to erase it—or scorn her mother for cherishing a one-time home—just to rush forward, elbows out, a step ahead into nowhere.
Kamlai spared only a brief nod when her daughter entered the flat: all her attention was required to sit in Alwin’s corner and jog his elbow, to keep him at his maths homework. The drone of figuring out area and perimeter on worksheets segued into the noise of mealtime, cutlery clattering, chairs dragged barking into place.
So Kamlai didn’t manage to approach Mona separately. She would just have to take the risk that her daughter was still in a difficult mood. In the relative lull of piled plates and full mouths, she said to her husband, “I was thinking some more about my trip home.”
Choon Seng let out a half-sigh. “This again?”
“I had a new idea.”
“Always ideas, going nowhere, talking us to death. Just book the ticket and go!”
This stung, but Kamlai was determined not to be derailed by his grumbling. “I could fly my sisters out instead, for ten days. They won’t have difficulties with going home afterward.”
He seemed to seriously consider this. “Maybe that can work. Actually, maybe it’s even better, you won’t leave the boy.”
“Yes. But they can’t afford a hotel, so they need to stay here.”
“What? We have no more bedrooms.”
“Alwin can sleep on the living room sofa,” Kamlai said, keeping her voice level. “They can share his bed.”
“It’s for your aunties, Alwin. I haven’t seen my sisters for a long time.” She hoped the boy would relent. If he made things difficult, Seng might knife the plan just for the sake of quiet.
“It’s my bed! How come Mona gets to keep hers, but I have to give mine up?”
“You’re the smallest.” Kamlai tried to sound soothing. “You fit on the sofa the best.” In truth, she’d considered evicting both children, but fearing Mona’s resistance, which was harder to override, she’d decided to minimise any impingement on her daughter.
“It’s not fair!”
Kamlai saw Mona draw breath to speak. She steeled herself.
“Actually, Mama, I can borrow a sleeping bag from Soo Ping. I can sleep in the living room and keep Alwin company.”
Kamlai turned to her in surprise. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Auntie Anchali and Auntie Ying are guests, they should get a room to themselves.”
The air above the dinner table became thick with invisible activity: a shifting of weights and pressure centres. If Kamlai didn’t know how far to trust the hopeful flutter starting up in her ribcage, she also couldn’t bring herself to squash it.
Alwin tried again to kick against what was coming, but Mona cut in. “Come on, Al, we can put up a bedsheet and make a tent over the sofa. It’ll be fun.”
“How’s that fun?”
“It’s like camping! I’ll buy you potato chips.”
“It’s dumb! And what if they stay forever? I bet they’ll like my bed better than grass mats or whatever they sleep on in their home.”
“Silly Al, they have beds too. Nobody’s staying forever.”
“You did! So did Mama.”
“And if she hadn’t, there would be no you, so you should be grateful.”
Alwin could offer no argument against this—only, at last, a sulky concession. “If they get my bed, can we go to the rollercoasters?”
Choon Seng looked from one child to another as they traded claims. Something new was in Mona’s voice, a calm resolve. Kamlai saw him calculate that it was now less effort to accept the plan than to fight it. That was the watershed, and they were across it. The matter was settled in her favour. She could finally, she thought, relax.
But later, as they gathered on the sofa to watch the evening variety show, Alwin rummaged up one last half-hearted complaint. “Sleeping here is going to be so yucky, it’s not fair.”
“It’s totally fair,” Mona said. “Because our aunties will do the same for us. Next year, Mama, take us to Thailand and show Alwin where I was born.”
“I don’t want to go there, it’s boring!”
“Don’t you want to see Mama’s home? That makes it sort of your home too.”
Alwin fell silent here. Kamlai eyed him discreetly. It was hard to tell if he was absorbing this idea, forming a comeback or simply transferring his attention to the TV. She began to see that where her son was concerned, there might be many more watersheds to come. But with Mona to walk beside her, perhaps the uphill slopes would be easier to brave.
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