He sat at the back of the class. It suited him fine, even though it strained his eyes to read the blackboard from the distance. The often hastily wiped board leaves a whitish layer, why did the teacher not understand white chalk on whitish blackboard makes a poor medium for boys sitting at the back of the class? He told his mother he was sat at the back because of his height. That makes sense, why should the shorter boys miss out on their lessons if the teacher’s writing on the blackboard is blocked by big fat boys and those with long necks? It is true he was one of the taller ones but it is also true the smart ones sat at the front of the class. The less bright ones somehow congregated towards the back rows. But, this fact was not shared with his mum. He saw no reason to add more anxiety to her life. The more devious and mischievous ones sat along the middle column of the class. Any brief lapse by the voluptuous teacher with the mini skirts, when her sitting position was unladylike, would enable those boys to feast their happy eyes on her white briefs. She was the first person to teach him to have a simple wardrobe. It obviates the need to ponder about which clothes to wear and how to match them. A full set of white briefs will do; somehow, she did not extend her minimalist philosophy to her external clothing. “Everything is going well in school, Ma. It is interesting to be in the teacher’s class. I did not fail any subject.” The goal in school was to get through it unscathed, not about how many A’s as long as there are no F’s. It only dawned on him many years after he became a father that it was not normal to turn up for class and not know there was a test that day. Even in first year university, when he sat for the first semester’s exams, he did so with the wrong assumption that only the end of year exams mattered. He thought it was the same as school in Penang, he could always catch up at the end of the year. What an idiot, right? Publicly, he loathes to be called that. He was chuffed when one day, he discovered the word “idiotes”. He has been using it ever since to describe himself. It is a measure of his self-deluding honesty, to acknowledge his idiocy by referring to himself in that old Greek word which in fact means ” a private, selfish person”.
The idiotes did not visit the beautiful beaches of Penang often during his childhood – no, I shall prevent him from stretching the truth here – he hardly visited the beautiful beaches of Penang throughout his life. His parents feared he would drown in the ghost-infested seas of Penang. A quiet and self-absorbed boy, he described himself as shy when he meant reclusive, quiet when he meant empty of thought. Usually trapped in a world of his own, he was prone to day-dream. Unsurprisingly, his dreams were more real to him than his physical reality. On a beach in Tanjung Bungah, he was in a trance-like state, hurling little stones at the sea, visualising himself killing serpents in the water. The little boy, barely eight at the time, somehow landed a stone on his little sister’s head. She was some twenty five meters away, at the edge of the water. It is still incomprehensible to him today, to understand where his puny arm found such strength that day. “So sorry, little sister. That scar is for you to remember me by.” 2nd Grand-uncle madly smoked his cigarette to produce ashes, which miraculously stopped the bleeding. Her injury was not in vain, he learned something new. That was the first hint of the emergence of the urghhling.
The following year, on a visit to a rubber plantation with his father, the boy saved a cute black puppy of pariah breed from becoming a certain aphrodisiac meal. The boy named his best friend Shiny due to its gleaming fur. Shiny would grow up to become his best buddy and soulmate, well, the best soulmate possible – one that is an avid listener who never opines an opposing view. In a family dominated by girls, the idiotes was no match for his siblings. In his mind, they treated him unfairly, were blind and deaf to his good character and always ganged up against him even when mindless of competing facts. Non-violent by nature, he was frequently bullied by his sisters, many of them exhibited symptoms of trichotillomania, but the focus was on his hair and not their own. Many years later, Shiny would die of a broken heart, when the family home was bereft of family members, some had gone away on a short holiday; others, like the boy, had left home to “further their studies”. In those days, full-time studies were only carried out further away from home, usually overseas. Those who stayed back generally worked full-time and studied part-time or stopped their studies altogether. “So sorry, Shiny. Guilt still bothers me that you died alone. He was my dog, my pal, my soulmate. I let him down.” The emergence of the urghhling was by now undeniable.
He displayed signs of his incertitude about his adolescence by being remarkably quick to protect his ego. When he was in standard 5, he imagined himself to be a hero, as cool as James Dean in “The Rebel Without A Cause”. In truth, his resemblance with the rebel stopped at both being troubled young boys, socially estranged and awkward. When the Malay teacher twisted and deformed his nipples in full view of the class, he stepped off the teacher’s platform and bowed to his fellow school mates. They cheered and whistled at his audacity to challenge the teacher’s authority. To this day, they remain ignorant of the fact that the delinquent boy merely did not understand the Malay word for “understand” (faham). He wasn’t rebelling against the deviant teacher with his perpetual side to side head-shaking when continually asked “faham kah? faham kah? tak faham?” as the enraged teacher increased the frequency and intensity of the twisting.
That young idiotes was me. It was probably in 1972 when I read about Hong Kong people eating the raw brains of screaming monkeys. It angered me. It permanently injured my respect for human beings. Sure, the Law of Nature is clear and absolute, the natural hierarchy for all living things is set like jelly. Who are we to question such laws? It is the survival of the fittest. The stronger animals will eat the weaker ones, and the smarter ones will eat the less brainy ones. Humans are smarter than monkeys, and so, some monkeys will have to sacrifice their brains. Two decades later when served live oysters in Adelaide, instead of being repulsed at eating some living thing alive and raw, I discovered to my horror that I actually relished in their consumption. The realisation that I am also an urghhling has muted my abhorrence of such despicable treatment of living things. All predators feed on raw meat of live prey. Who changed the rules for humans? We are supposed to be sophisticated, refined and therefore civil. Civil man does not eat raw flesh of living things.
A beautiful friend who calls himself Ty-Phoon admitted to his wayward childhood too; fighting Malay kids who lived on his grandfather’s land at his pleasure, accusing them of theft and wilful destruction without much evidence. He even accused them of poisoning their dogs! Again, without evidence. They fought their wars with homemade catapults, each comprising an elastic band of knitted rubber bands or a rectangular cutout from a discarded bicycle inner tube and a Y-shape stick preferably from Jambu Batu wood. They honed their skills on innocent birds nesting high up on tree tops and on thieving bats feasting on ripe chikus. See, the Law of Nature applies even to young kids. They saw their right to maim and kill smaller birds and bats that are judged guilty of eating fruit from trees.
This story cannot end without the tale of the friend with the flaxen hair. He insists it is sun-bleached but sometimes I’m more convinced it is more ginger than flaxen. He happens to admit he too is an idiotes, a local one from Jelutong. In his early teens, he came across a gorgeous looking girl guide who wore the cutest pigtails you’d ever see. He was a shy withdrawn Boy Scout from the 7th Georgetown North. At a campfire on a pleasant October night, their eyes met fleetingly. He smiled and she smiled back. They exchanged a sweet convivial conversation but that occurred in his mind only. Modesty prevented her from asking him his name. Idiocy stopped him from blurting out a simple “Hello.” They sat opposite each other all night singing happy meaningless songs about “Ging Gang Gooley, Gooley” and one about a laughing Kookaburra that sat on an old gum tree. The warmth of the campfire, the licking naked flames of the fire, the crackling of wood and the scent of burnt leaves and firewood lent them to a romantic setting. An unforgettable experience for the sixteen year old flaxen haired lad. He understood from his spies that her name was Janet, and Janet remained secret, deep in his heart and cherished all through his life. Alas, that was their only meeting. Fate was unkind to both of them, he consoles himself on every lonely night since. Recently, he found a photo of that gathering all those years ago. There she is! As radiant as the first time their eyes met and their hearts melted from each other’s smiles. By then, he was already a sixty-year-old retiree but the young-at-heart will continue to act foolishly, as The Mrs would say. The old man shared the photo with all his friends in their chat group, hoping that somehow, somewhere, someone would recognise Janet and let him know she is fine and life is good to her. He said he would die a happy man if his Janet’s life has been happy and rewarding. A chorus went up in the chats soon after her photo was posted. “That’s not Janet! That’s Susan!!” A real idiotes, this friend with the flaxen hair. Urghhling.
P.S. The bloke with the flaxen hair is a product of my imagination. His story is not.