The air was musty and acrid. It smelled of the rusty rail lines and charred rocks used to hold them in place. I stood at the edge of the platform, just behind the yellow line, foot tapping to an artificial beat. The day was long and I was tired, but in truth, I was looking forward to going home where my parents would question me about the place I would like to have my birthday dinner at, to which I would reply that nothing would be better than the Thai seafood restaurant next to Chong Pang Village. It was more like zi char but they put in the Thai adjective so it would be more attractive to the locals, but we were a family of modest income and I liked it anyway.
A horn blast from the train in the opposite direction pierced through the platform. An old lady with her trolley was shocked off her bench, then began cursing in Hokkien. She had been there since I arrived, and even when I missed the first train, she just sat there staring at the cement cavern with the little red sign that displayed ‘Bishan’ and looked lost in her own thoughts. The train opposite opened its doors and people began spewing out of its doors like a released floodgate, and when the flow stopped, I looked at the old lady. She remained seated without any intention to move.
Three minutes to go and the platform began filling up with people. There were students heaving with large backpacks, maids with children in tow, backpack slung over their shoulders, and army boys with camouflaged backpacks loitering around. Some were talking among themselves, some nose deep in books. A lone soldier was leaning against a pillar, sleeping while standing. By now, the heat of the sun was beginning to dissipate as the overcast clouds loomed over and the platform grew slightly darker. The shadows grew a little longer.
A minute passed and the yellow line began dotting with droplets as the platform grew a tone duller. The red from the ‘Bishan’ sign turned into a lighter shade of murky brown and the white ‘NS 17’ was eclipsed by an extending shadow from a nearby pillar. The concrete cavern began to look more subterranean as droplets dangled from the roofs, trickling and dripping onto the sleepers and breaking upon the gravel. Breathing in the scent of the afternoon rain made the children hunch more. The aunties took out newspapers to shield them from mild incursions of the weather. The platform was beginning to fill and I moved towards the end to keep clear of the crowds.
I was never too fond of crowds. As I floated towards the corner, I saw a young couple underneath the escalator fondling about, then past a haggard-looking Chinese man with a beard that must have been left unshaven for eons, and I found myself at the pillar approximately four doors from the end. I had to make a rough guess as they did not have any demarcation on the floor in those days. Except for the yellow line of course.
One minute to go. There was a man in a rather drab office attire following me who stopped about a metre away. He put down his briefcase and stared at his watch. Behind him, a primary school girl was busy negotiating the yellow line with her feet, placing one foot in front of the other as she carefully treaded on the yellow tiles. By now, the drizzle had grown into a torrent and nobody was free from the elements. I slung my bag to the front to protect my chest from getting wet as the exams were coming and I was afraid of catching the flu bug, but it was hopeless. The girl’s grandmother cried out loudly in Cantonese for her to stop, attempting to shout over the rain. It was in vain. In the end, she rushed over, her footsteps quick but awkward as her slippers struggled to grip the wet floor and with a firm grasp on her granddaughter, she pulled her in. After a stern telling off in Cantonese, the girl sat down, silent but scowling.
And there it was, two lights piercing through the tunnel, refracted in the thousands of falling droplets. The air grew more acrid as the smell of steel against steel wafted through the platform to replace the smell of tropical rain. Finally, homeward bound with a couple of hours to spare to get ready for my birthday dinner. I was thinking about how to pamper myself when I got home: a refreshing shower to cleanse myself, a short nap so I would look more cheerful when they brought the cake out, maybe even an ice cream cone from the nearby McDonalds on the way home. These thoughts were swimming through my head, and then it happened.
As the train passed me, I noticed the man in the office attire loosening his tie. He was standing at the yellow line but his briefcase was left behind. He took a quick glance at me and smiled, as though he knew I had known what he was alluding to, and in one quick motion, he did it.
It was too fast to tell. There was not much blood, but the news reports that came after said he was hit as if a car had struck directly. I remember it differently. He leaped midway and got caught in between the carriages. There was no grinding of bones, no gnashing of teeth, no screams. The train came to a slow stop, and when it did, his upper torso had been dragged almost twenty feet. His body from the waist down had been slumped over the platform, legs half in the air, revealing his black socks. The Cantonese ah ma screamed as her granddaughter looked on in amazement.
Even though it happened no less than a metre from me, I felt no shock. Instead, a sense of anger and frustration overwhelmed me. Of all the days the bastard had to die, he died on my birthday! The little pleasures that I hoped to savour for the rest of the day began to slip from my mind. No more shower, no more nap and no more ice cream! I paced about as station staff dashed down to inspect the situation. The driver stumbled over and stopped where the upper torso was located under the carriage. He inhaled two large pockets of air, then vomited at the sight.
About five minutes later, several policemen arrived on the scene along with a few men in overalls. Soon, a blue tent was set up while the driver, along with the men in overalls, attempted to extract the man from below the carriage. Meanwhile, the policemen were busy interviewing the spectators of the accident. A woman who must have been in her thirties approached me and accompanied me out of the station. As she sat me down on a bench, there was a looming sense of shock in her eyes at how calm I was.
“Hi boy, are you okay? Were you hurt?” I shook my head.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Her voice was semi-quivering. She must have seen the bodies.
I related what I saw, how I was strolling along the platform and how the man had waited there. I left out some details though, like how the man had loosened his tie and how he had smiled at me before he took the leap. She then asked me for my IC, which I was a little reluctant to give as I had only received it a few months ago. She took it and recorded my name and number, then returned it to me. She could sense the frustration in my voice.
“Do you need me to call you parents?” I shook my head. She handed me her name card and told me to call her if I ever needed anything. She then returned to the concrete cavern.
I sat on the bench overlooking the entrance to the station. Potential commuters were dissuaded by station staff and advised to take alternative transport. Passengers who were on the platform were escorted to the ticket barrier. Some looked distressed, some disgusted, some writing on scraps of paper possible 4D numbers to buy. All the children seemed more amused than shocked, with some even walking out giggling. The station staff assured all that their trip would be refunded. I stared at the red station sign and wondered why he smiled at me before he took the dive. The white words dissolved into incongruity and looked just as Russian as it did English and the red turned a rusty brown from the 6pm sun. I saw a policeman take the briefcase out in a large evidence bag.
That evening, we ate at Jack’s Place, where I was served a porterhouse steak, although secretly I preferred the faux-Thai zi char instead. I did not relate the events that happened at the platform to my parents. I could not insert a word in. Mom was too busy complaining about her co-workers and dad was too busy discussing about how to invest in my university education. He always wanted me to be a lawyer. Like the little girl at the platform, I felt a firm invisible grip on each of my arms. All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. She wanted to walk within the yellow line; I wanted to eat zi char. Somehow, I did not feel the urge to have any cake or ice cream. Throughout the evening, I said nothing to them except that I enjoyed the meal and that the new tie and cufflinks were such fantastic gifts.
The next day, I stood at the platform, rheumy-eyed from a lack of sleep. The 6.30am sky was still dark but there was still sufficient sunlight to notice each cloud in the sky. The southbound train would arrive in three minutes so I decided to stroll to the corner of the platform. Along the way, I passed a grandmother holding her granddaughter by the hand, a couple in school uniform kissing in public, and a dazed-looking young man dressed in office attire. I leaned on a pillar and looked out towards the horizon. Children were trotting to school, their heavy schoolbags making them look sheepish. A soldier was on his way back to camp, dragging his boots. The air was punctuated with moments of horns as impatient cars hastened the vehicles in front of them. An old man stood on a concrete road divider, afraid of crossing the road due to the speed of the oncoming vehicles, but he could not return back to the other side of the road as well.
The melancholic, sickly yellow light of the platform was suddenly swarmed with an almost white beam as the train rolled into the station. I glanced at the young man in the office attire; he was busy straightening his tie and measuring the weight of the briefcase in his hand. He stood still, beads of sweat still falling off his brow. I made my way to the yellow line, just as the train whizzed past. The thunderous sound as steel met steel rushed into the station, and as I looked into the horizon, I faintly saw the sun climb behind the cloudscape, striking a golden ray across the silence of a city waking up. The train slowly came to a stop and right in front of me past the yellow line was the space in between two carriages, and the thought of the man resonated in my head. I smiled and finally understood.
Crispin Rodrigues’ poems have been featured in Kepulauan, A Luxury We Must Afford, From Walden to Woodlands and SingPoWriMo 2015 & 2016. He is currently working on a collection of poetry and a collection of microfiction.