Inspiring Conversations

Short Story Selection: noncogitoergosum@sg

  • SumoMe

“noncogitoergosum@sg” is a reflection of what it means to be Singaporean. Are we human, dancers – or birds?

By Jun Wen
Short story contributor for Penny’s Daybook

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He raised the glass to his lips again and took another sip of the dark amber liquid. As the ice clinked back against the bottom of the glass he threw another furtive glance into the living room. She was still sitting peaceably on the couch, eyes dazed and transfixed on the television screen.

He could hear the voice of the commentator (why did they always have someone who didn’t sound like anybody on the streets?) and the usual songs. It was much too warm for whisky but it felt right somehow, the crisp oaky flavour lingering at the back of his throat. It was a bloody holiday wasn’t it.

Outside the balcony window everything conspired to hammer the message home. The block of flats opposite was host to a mosaic of red and white. It had been coming on for weeks now. There had been the abrupt crowds of people decked out in red and white suddenly materializing onto the trains around Kallang and City Hall. Then there were the closed routes around town that always seemed to catch him unawares. The radio waves were taken over quite brusquely and the television networks never put up a fight. Everywhere you went you were boxed-in, cornered, ambushed and set upon if you were a non-believer.

“Why can’t you just be happy? Why can’t you just rejoice in our history, in our story?” she had asked on their graduation trip.

They had been strolling hand in hand along the Seine, and he had asked her, just moments earlier, if she would mind all that much if they never went back. He had stared into her earnest dark eyes and said, with all the sadness of realization, “I don’t know.”

How do you explain what you can’t put in words? The walk back to the hotel had been silent, the rain falling lightly on their faces and clothes and hands, no longer tightly clasped.

Another sip of scotch, and another cautious look into the house. He could see the brightly costumed dancers file out as the last strands of music died away. The parade proper was about to start. He set the glass down on the sill, took out a small cardboard box from his pocket and waited.

“The parade is starting,” she said.

“Oh. Alright.”

She hadn’t so much as breathed in his direction. With a smooth grace born of practice he drew out a cigarette and placed it between his lips, turning to the window as he did so she couldn’t see his face. A few years ago he had been forced out of smoking in public, and now he was to be hounded in his own house.

The first draw on the lighted stick was, as always, refreshing and soothing. Another glance over the shoulder and he looked out of the window again to contemplate the mass of flags opposite. How many of those home-owners would have struck up the colours by themselves, he wondered.

Nowadays the town councils didn’t bother sounding your opinions on nationalism or home décor before sticking a flag outside your flat – often sneakily so you came home from work the owner of a flag you didn’t put up and did not feel comfortable taking down.

To avert his thoughts he turned his eyes sideward, to a large patch of grass between the two blocks. Soon, that too would be cleared for yet another block of flats, and then what would he look at if not the television?

At the moment there was a flock of birds, pigeons he would guess by their colour. There were always residents who would feed them, heedless of any bird flu scares. Recently they had grown from strength to strength after a certain local fruit seller had taken to chucking unsold scraps at them. It was a comforting sight that the economic malaise hadn’t affected their numbers.

The poor dumb birds, he thought. They didn’t have the troubles we have. All they have to worry about is food and shelter and even the former not so much. It must be nice to survive on a lower plane of intelligence. Although…

In his university days, to fulfil some administrative requirement or other, he had taken a module on animal behaviour where the lecturer had been vociferous on the subject of animal intelligence.

“We call them bird-brained, but the pigeon is able to nawigate home from terrain it has never before seen, showing cognitive ability and spatial intelligence beyond that of many people I know,” he had said, a stubby finger wagging to punctuate every point.

“Besides, pigeons are monogamous. And any species able to awoid marital trouble so neatly must have no mean intelligence.”

He took another drag on the cigarette.

There appeared to be a shadow, a ripple of unease spreading through the flock down below. In an instant they were airborne, the light clapping of their wings clearly audible in the evening lull. It had been too quick for any communication to pass between members of the flock. It was almost as if they responded like a single entity.

He squinted against the failing light to see what had startled the peaceable flock. The sun had been setting for some time and in its last gasp contrived to dye everything a brilliant hue. At the edge of the grass patch sat a tabby cat, nonchalantly cleaning its paw, his usually gray and white fur dyed a straw yellow by the dying sun. It looked thoroughly innocent of any malice, and utterly unconcerned that its ambush had failed.

“Aren’t you coming to watch? Your old unit is marching in.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“The Air Force is marching in dear.”

“Alright, I’m coming.”

He half-turned to see ranks of uniformed men and women marching on screen, in-step with the music, their lines ostensibly straight. It had taken them months of drilling to get ready for the big event.

Outside, the pigeons were still wheeling in the air. The flock must have numbered thirty birds at least. The individual birds veered and turned in one synchronised movement, each one perfectly in tandem with its neighbours. They plunged and landed at the opposite side of the grass without accident, no wings clattering nor bodies bumping into each other.

It must be instinct, he thought. Animals aren’t that smart. He stubbed out the cigarette, picked up his glass and went in to watch the parade.

Jun Wen is a messy-haired student of 23 years old with interests ranging from chess to prose. Between the consumption of copious measures of caffeine-laced beverages and the sanctuary of idleness, he enjoys crafting short pieces of fiction especially for you.

Check out Jun Wen’s other short story on Penny’s Daybook here.

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