SHACKLED

“Ali? Ali, wake up, Ali! You have to get up!”

I felt the swell of my body rising before I had opened my eyes. I sat up. My mind registered the dimly lit room, as the last breaths of air were pulled out of my chest by the involuntary retching of my lungs.

I was hyperventilating. The rushing air rasped against my sandpaper throat. My entire body was made of lead, it was so heavy. I was sure there was an excavator somewhere in my skull, thundering away. I was cold, so cold even though the sheets were soaked with my perspiration.

The demons, I thought, are they still near?

“Ali, Ali? You had a nightmare again didn’t you? There, it’s all right, you’re awake now.” I looked up at my dad, and felt his warm arms around me and against my back. It was a nightmare then, that’s all it was.

“You have to get dressed soon, it’s already six thirty, remember you still have your last PSLE exam today.”

It was nothing then, just a nightmare.

As my father left, he flicked on the lights and my familiar room was illuminated. It was a simple place, a desk, a cupboard and a pair of soccer boots next to a ball. My books were neatly arranged by subject on my desk. I had a cupboard with little stickers of my football starts stuck all over it. I wiped the sweat away and got dressed quickly. I would not have the same nightmare again for a long time.

Later I found out that I had not done as well for PSLE as my friends did. My best friends in the soccer team had all found places in the secondary school that had won the national football tournament for the past scene years. I had to go elsewhere. After that, my dad became angry about my grades and forbade me from playing. For awhile it was the worst thing that happened to me. Then I met him.

His name was Lim. He found me under one of my “favourite” stairwells in school. People who knew him called him ‘Beng’ Lim. People who knew him of his reputation usually steered clear of him, but being a year younger than him, I didn’t.

“Ey, what are you doing here?” He stood dauntingly with fluorescent glare against his back and a fleshy hand jammed in his pants pocket. At the age of fourteen, his eyes were ringed by shadows, and the half buttoned school shirt betrayed the shades of blotched blue skin. I was sitting down in half darkness and muttered something about leaving me alone.

The air quivered. Feet planted, hands folded into fists and muscles tensed, his aggression was unmistakable. I don’t remember feeling scared or angry, just empty. I raised my head for the first time, revealing my bruised cheek and crumpled school shirt. There were several buttons missing from being dragged through the school’s parade square, but I didn’t mind. It was a type of proof, much like the scrapes across my arms or the welt on my back, that I could handle myself. That I wasn’t anyone’s toy.

I wondered if he would hit me. So I closed my eyes. There were steps and a soft thud. He sat down next to me and took his hand out of his pocket.

“Eh, take this. You look damn jialat.” He handed me a little container with a translucent, viscous liquid inside. I paused and dug my dirt-caked nails into the grooves of the little rounded box. It was heavy in my hand. It was heavy like fists were heavy against my cheek. It was heavy like my classmates’ stares on my back. It was heavy like my father’s yell in my ears.

Heavy.

“What to do?” I asked.

He demonstrated in response. Opening the bottle of glue, he inhaled the sickening bitter smell.

“Tip your head back”, he said, “and let blood rush to your head.”

Feel the chemicals drive their way through your mind, dimming everything, the lampshades over your eyes. Feel lighter, like you could float or even fly away, enjoy. Did it matter what it was? Could things really get much worse? I copied Lim with trepidation. Hesitantly, taking in a small lungful. I tipped my head back and waited for the blood to start rushing, I waited for the pain to stop, I waited.

Light.

The air about me was heavier and pooled around my body to form a little floating island. I stretched and waved my arms in the air like a little child would wave at a balloon flying away. They were refreshed and strong, so I sat up and took another breath of heaven.

Lighter.

Laughing, I hoisted myself onto my haunches, and then stood up tall and exuberant. I blinked, did the lights grow dimmer? No matter, I thought. I was a good feeling. I didn’t realise I had stopped breathing until I hit the ground, the world around me already beginning to fade to black.

“Ali? Ali? Eh, Xiong Di! Wake up leh! Get up!”

I felt the familiar swelling of my chest, the hunger for oxygen, my body jerking upright as if it was an automaton. It would not listen to me for the next few seconds. My mind registered the dimly lit room, as the last inhalations were vomited by my lungs. The hyperventilation gave me a second high. The rushing air rasped against my throat. I had gotten used to the heaviness, and I knew that the pounding in the back of my head would go away eventually. I watched as the cold beads of sweat dropped away from me and onto the bleak grey concrete floor. I cradled my head in my hands and groaned.

There was laughter, roaring laughter. “Xiong Di! That was the longest you were ever out man! So brave ah you want to die is it?” So I laughed with them.

As my vision grew better, I made out “Beng” Lim, and his friends. Our friends. There was Lok Sheng, our unofficial leader, Indra, Rajah, Tan and some others. Lim was my first friend. He had introduced me to the rest of the group after our first meeting. Here, it didn’t matter what number was on your report card, whether it was blue or red, or what anyone else thoughts about you. As long as we stayed, we got each other’s “protection”.

We walked about the school together. People would not look me in the eye. I was feared: I was strong because I was feared. My old classmates would huddle in their circles and steal sheepish glances at me. Around here, I was the law. Nobody could touch me and my friends. I wore their fear like a badge, it was a type of proof that I was strong, that I mattered, that I belonged someplace they could not. We were friends.

Then we were not.

Lim stopped coming to school. At first, we were not surprised. It wasn’t the first time someone was absent without a proper excuse. But then another day passed, and another, until it was two weeks. It was not until the fourth week that Lok Sheng told us the news.

“Ah Lim killed himself a month ago. I found out, his cousin say one. He complained that he cannot balance la. Then his ma brought him for a check-up with the doctor, the sinseh said he got… brain damage. he cannot think properly anymore. Ah Lim ask if he can still play sport. Doctor say no. Then Ah Lim start crying. He cannot stop. He go home that time, then take out his knife and…”

Lok Sheng did not finish. His face was contorted in a funny way, like the way it would sometimes be when he was sniffing glue, but he was crying. We took out all the glue we had stashed in a little nook under a tree behind the back fences of the school and threw it into the drain. It was the last time I used glue.

“Ali? You’re home so soon ah?”

“Yah Pa, school ended early today.” I lied.

I stared into my room. Kicking over a pile of books and cans, I waded through the sea of paper on my desk before finding the small container that Lim had given me almost two year ago. There was no more boots, no more soccer ball. No more stickers of famous soccer players. There was just me, my books, and the little box. I studied almost every day, and my results were not bad. I had to keep them that way, for my dad. I threw the box into the rubbish bin.

“Lim, Lim, Xiong Di. Get up ah, you have to wake up.”

♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣

JW – 0700: It’s time for Prison Inmate No. 1786 to wake up. Name: Ali.

0730: 1786 appears to be exhibiting the usual symptoms. He’s still in a cold sweat. His heart rate is still manageable, although he is undergoing some palpitations. Help from the Medical Officer is unnecessary as of now, but will be needed in the event that he experiences difficulty breathing.

0745: Inmate has begun trembling uncontrollably. He appears to be fading in and out of consciousness. He is now having difficulty breathing. Call in the MO.

MO – 0810: Patient 1786 is relatively stable. As this is his third heroin withdrawal, the symptoms are somewhat more severe. Patient 1786 has dilated pupils, extreme nausea, semi-conscious. Patient 1786 appears to have difficulty breathing due to erratic chest contractions. Prescribing Buprenorphine to reduce heart rate and hold back vomiting. Muscle spasms and skin inflammations cannot be stopped without anti-hystemics. Patient 1786 also appears to be hallucinating, a side effect of the pain. Unfortunately, painkillers cannot be used, as they will increase the risk of death. Patient 1786 is describing his pain as if “fire ants were biting him all over his body.” He is somewhat comprehensible. He repeatedly talks about “demons”. Maybe the same ones from his last prison term.

JW – 1000: 1786 received breakfast at 10am. He is unable to eat. The withdrawal symptoms have subsided but will return later in the day. He survived the first two weeks, hopefully this will be his last time in here. Fortunately, 1786 was only a glue-sniffer, and had not taken direct injections, or else his pain would be more unbearable than it already is. The detoxification process will not be fully completed until his fourth or fifth week. He is still extremely weak and unable to feed himself, but his nausea appears to have subsided. He will need a prison attendant or else he might die of malnutrition.

1150: 1786 appears to have been through he worst of the withdrawal syndromes. He remains weak and unable to feed himself or walk properly. His family has requested to see him. Approval will have to be given by the Prison Officer.

PO – 1330: Approval granted.

1420: 1786’s sister is in the waiting room with his children. Do send the Prison Attendant in to help him out.

JW – 1430: The prisoner will be monitored.

ALI: Su, what are you doing here?

SU: I’m here to see you.

ALI: Ha ha. See me very fun meh? Now I’m in this sorry state, what is there to see?

SU: Don’t do this to yourself Ali…

ALI: Do what? I’m almost 40, still got another seven years of prison and six times of caning, still can do what? Tell me Su, still can do what? This is my third time already. You know people say third time lucky.. the third time is the worst.

SU: Ali…

ALI: Do you want to know what it feels like? When I was on it I could do anything, I was so happy and confident. I felt so light. Like I could fly like that . Now every night, I have nightmares. I see so many scary things, so many demons. Even when I’m dreaming, I have no rest. No rest at all. I will feel cold, so cold that I shiver and sweat, but my body is like on fire. You know how painful not? Like there are a million fire ants, crawling all over, biting, biting. They never stop biting. Even on the good days. My whole body is heavy and my elbows and knees are so pain I can’t even move them. I feel like I’ve been banged by a lorry. Sometimes I feel like I cannot breathe, then I go back to my nightmares. I don’t want to have nightmares anymore. No more nightmares.

SU: Ali, you still have me, you still have your children.

Ali: So what? In the cell, I am all alone. I am always alone. But I feel like everybody is watching me, blaming me. I cannot do anything. I am useless you know? A useless father, a useless husband, a useless brother. Anything I try to do I fail at, I cannot do it properly. Last time I told the counsellor I promise I would stop doing drugs, then look at me now. I can’t even keep a simple promise to my family, to my children… you know? Remember the first time I was caught? I still remember, I stole an expensive watch because I had no money. Now I still have no money. Now who will raise my children? I am useless, a failure. I should die. Death is better than this.

SU: Stop talking like that! You want to become like your brother it is? You want to break Ah Pa’s heart again? I know it’s my fault, when your brother started giving you the hard drugs, I pretended like I didn’t know anything. But when he went to prison and died there, I thought you would learn! Ali, Ali, wake up already! Ali, you have to get out of this place.

ALI: How to? Tell me how? If I’m inside, I can’t get drugs, promise then promise la, so easy to keep. But once I get out, there are so many people waiting for me to buy from them again. I hate it, I hate what I’ve done, I hate who I am.

SU: Ali you can’t say that. Your wife wouldn’t have wanted you to say that. Ali.. your wife…

ALI: Su enough! I know she’s disappointed, why do you have to make it worse?

SU: Ali it’s not that, Ali she’s…

ALI: What!

SU: She passed away two days ago! She suddenly passed out at home and then we brought her to the hospital. The doctors said they couldn’t do anything. Ali you have to wake up and get out of here… Ali?

PO: Ali, you had a break of fiteen minutes, do you still want to continue the session?

SU: Ali…

ALI: Go away Su, just leave me alone.

SU: Alright. But Pa wanted me to tell you this. It’s ok if you don’t love us, but please, love yourself, ok? Don’t give up.

♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣

“Siti? Siti, wake up! You’ve got to get up, don’t forget it’s your last PSLE paper today!”

Siti lifted herself out of her sea of sheets and stretched her arms towards the sunlight streaming into her room. She yawned and a gentle upward tug of her lips formed as she recognised her Dad. Her bedroom was simple and neat. There was a desk and some books, a pair of soccer boots next to a ball, and a small cupboard covered in stickers.

“Get ready soon ok, Siti?” Your mum and I are going to send you to school.”

Ali loaded his daughter’s bag into the back of the lorry and helped her into her seat before smiling at his wife. He started the engine. When he arrived, he took Siti’s hand and walked her into the school building before embracing her and waving goodbye, like he has done for the past six years. As she ran off towards her examination hall, Ali walked back towards his lorry. He walked back, feeling lighter than ever. Ali started the engine once more and started driving towards the Police Academy.

“Did you take the day off today Ali? Is your boss okay with it?” His wife touched his elbow lightly.

“Of course! I can’t miss my son’s graduation can I?”

Ali and his wife slipped into the crowd watching as the newest contingent of commissioned police officers received their certifications and stood in formation in their navy blue uniforms. Among them was Ali’s son. Ali felt a swell in his chest, that’s his son, he thought. He cried silently, running a hand through his already greying hair. Ali felt lighter than ever.

Ali wrote a letter to his children soon after he left prison.

Dear Children,

I am writing this letter to say two things to you that I don’t know how to say in person, sorry and thank you.

I am sorry for the many mistakes I’ve made and temptations I’ve fallen to in the past. As a father, I cannot know how different your lives may have been if I was not an ex-convict. Perhaps your lives would have been easier. When I was in prison and going through withdrawal syndromes, I felt hopeless. After all, it was my third time already; I thought you had given up on me as well. But I made a decision to change, not just to say that I’m going to change, but to show you that I have already changed.

When your mother passed away, I thought that you all would blame me too. I felt like it was the end of hope for me, all those nights of pain and torture that my body was inflicting on itself, with no end in sight. Back then, my body felt heavier than ever. My life was like an anchor, dragging me to the bottom of the ocean to drown. But you know, your aunt told me something, that even if I didn’t love the world, or my family, I must start loving myself. And you helped me love myself, by loving me as your father even when I could not. My main motivation for being released as quickly as possible and getting a job was to be a proper father and a son, so that I could raise this family and support your grandfather.

I still had another five years to do in jail when your aunt came to see me, and I was not optimistic that I would get out. However, they let me out 3 years early because of good behaviour. Frankly, I was more worried after I left jail. I promised myself that I would show my family that I had changed through my actions, but now that I was not in jail, the temptations to go back to drugs ad crime were numerous. My old friends who were still involved in illegal activities used to call me up every so often to have “kopi”, but I always refused them. It was worth it you see, but it wasn’t easy. Every day is a conscious choice, to keep within the law and to earn an honest living.

I started working in a factory as an odd job labourer, I worked hard and diligently but people still looked at me as an ex-convict. My boss however, was kinder than most, he gave me the opportunity to start afresh and work hard to sustain myself and my family. Then I met your mother. Together with her, you have me a new family, and there is no end to the thanks I owe you for supporting me, for giving me love and affection at the end of every hard day, for making my footsteps lighter on the way home, and for the strength to face suffering.

I want to thank you for not giving up on me and most of all, for getting me to wake up.

Ali