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Two Night Scenes

I.

The Esplanade is a familiar place to me. I have been here often as both a performer (I play in the band) and as a member of the audience. And despite the number of times I have been here in the arguably short period of three years (the count is close to twenty), I experience a sensation akin to exhilaration every time I visit it. It may seem strange but I do not exaggerate when I describe it. It could simply be due to the lights and displays, the art and the music.

To you, perhaps, the Esplanade still seems another symptom of Singapore’s almost neurotic search for a ‘cultural identity’, or part of a bid to be a ‘regional hub’, in this case for culture. But even the pretensions lurking in these halls aglow with light and music have become dear to me. In the same way you get to know a person, initially seeing only his affectations and laughter, after some time you know what part of what he shows is real and what parts are merely masks, and you cherish the knowledge because you know what each mask disguises.

This night, I had attended a concert by a local semi-professional band. The standard was higher than most school band standards, but still sorely lacking by international standards. I leave the hall, making my way to the MRT station.

I always stop to take a look at the displays in the connecting tunnel between the Esplanade’s main building and City Link Mall, when I’m not running late for a concert or with other people. I suppose not many people take more than a cursory interest in the art, but I wonder how it would be if everyone who passed them by had even let their eyes linger on the images, or take in more than a few words scattered on scattered consciousness. Surely the thoughts just one image could evoke in one person multiplied by the sheer volume of people passing through would have resulted in something. A discussion, or a consensus, or culture. It is mostly local art after all. But other than the tourists, I think people are too busy to do more than just pass through.

Tonight there are works from a local photographer on display. I stop and look at the first few pictures, arranged asymmetrically on the wall. I look up at a lonely lamppost shining down on a green field. The grass takes on the hue of the lamp. I see a skyline composed of blocky HDB flats. Strange that there are lights on all down the middle, but almost all the other windows are unlit. I remember the lift landings and stairs run through the middle of the blocks. I gaze out at a wide-open space, bordered by more of the ubiquitous public housing and pruned greenery. The landscape seems oddly empty, but there is movement. The artificial lights cast odd shadows.

As I make my way unhurriedly down the link-way, I see more of these shots. Almost all of them are devoid even of human silhouettes, yet undeniable signs of humanity mark the landscape. The green from the leaves and trees seems unnatural, maybe because of the artificial light. I think it is also because there are no people around to offset it. No one walks on the grass or under the trees. But then I realize the green seems so jarring because it is in conflict with the landscape. Green and gray don’t match. Each patch of grass is circumscribed by paving and walkways, and even the open fields don’t go on for very long before being interrupted by an admonitory signpost.

I am midway down the link-way. I read the text. Facts about the photographer and a few words about the photographs. They were shot late in the night when there were no people around, to reveal the suburban landscape in quiet and the absence of activity. I don’t read beyond that, and move on at a slightly quicker pace through the link-way, simply glancing and allowing an impression to register before moving on to the next picture.

Eventually I reach the station. The train is half-filled with the late crowd, and it is quiet. I find the train ride dulls my thoughts and numbs my senses. The enunciations of the announcer blur into the other train sounds as I wait my way home.

II.

It is late, past eleven p.m., and I am out. Not ‘out’ in the traditional sense, with friends, or in the city. Just out of the house; in the neighborhood, even. I am running.

At this hour, the pavements are relatively clear. There are two people at the bus stop. They sit in their separate seats, and one stares as I pass. I am about to hit the main road.

I notice the roads are still alive with traffic. There seem to be more cars than people. It’s easy to forget that cars have people inside driving them. I fumble with my earphones and turn up the volume on my iPod. There is more noise on the main road. I run onward.

This is not my first time running at night, although it is probably one of my later runs. The route is a familiar one. I had started night running a few months ago. It wasn’t New Year’s or anything when I decided. I think New Year’s resolutions are for procrastinators. I, on the other hand, have kept my resolution.

When I made the resolution, my unexamined intent was ‘to improve my fitness’. It was true to an extent. But I should say I ‘mostly’ kept my resolution because I don’t really run for the exercise. Now I think the resolution had more to do with getting away from my computer and mobile phone and people, in general. I think I like running because I have some time alone, and I think I prefer running at night because of the quiet.

I reach the junction where I usually turn and start running back in the direction I come from. But I don’t feel tired enough yet. I had explored the road beyond the junction on a recent run, so I know there is a park ahead, which I can loop around before I head back. Under the traffic lamp, I select a new playlist on my iPod before the light turns green. When it does, I quicken my pace, matching the new beat.

The park at this late hour is empty. I don’t run through it, because it is darker inside with no cars and their headlights glaring as they pass, but I can still see the empty benches and silent play area from the pavement as I complete the circuit.

I run hard, back to my start point. I am working harder to breathe, and I feel the slow burn that starts after a long time running. I concentrate on the beat of the music now.

The familiar buildings form a progression as I run even harder down the road. But I relish the exertion. Now there is almost nothing left other than the road, the music and my footfalls. I fight with each step. It is pain, but I fight for each step born of it. I am barely aware of turning off the main road.

I run. I slow. I stop. I breathe again.

I sit down on the rubber-like material used for flooring at the fitness station. I feel the texture of it acutely. The heat starts to rise in the still air and the sweat starts to soak through my old shirt. I lean against the cold metal post of a balance beam and wait for the heat to recede.

My watch reports the hour with a discreet beep. I take it off along with my earphones. My iPod and Timex rest on the artificial flooring next to me. I am still sweating, but I am cooler now. I stretch out. The heat is gone. But like the distant cries of seabirds off the coast, indistinct but gradually becoming more immediate only because you noticed, the memories of the previous day return.

Again I hear the raised voices, more strained than loud, now seemingly far-off. Angry expressions and abrupt gestures accompany the rising and falling speech, still just a sequence of indistinguishable syllables.

Now I remember the words. They seem detached from the scene in blurred memory, despite the fact that I know that was when the words were spoken. Or maybe not; the scene could have been one of many similar ones. But from tonight, the words alone are clear in memory, and the clarity stings. I’d tried to numb myself.

I lay back, flat. I can feel the rubber grains of the flooring through my soaked shirt. The steel beams and bars loom over me, forming an unnatural, alien landscape, their outlines silhouetted by the moon. It is always full at this time of the month. I should know. Fifteen years ago, give and take a few hours, I was born to a house that, at this moment, does not feel like home.

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Categories: Writing
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  1. 27 September 2015 at 1:06 am

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