At the bottom of a stairwell at block 301 Tao Payoh Street 4 one dark night, a young man sat huddled tightly in the darkest corner. Folding himself up like a Z-frame bed, Teck Guan tried to make himself disappear into the shadows. He crammed his knees under his chin, hunched his back and locked his arms around his shins. Given his scrawny, cat-like frame, this was not difficult. What was more difficult was trying not to shiver. Even in the balmy heat of tropical night, Teck Guan’s entire body quivered and shuddered. Cold beads of perspiration broke out on his brow and rolled down his face and back, soaking his paper thin nylon shirt and grey trousers, collecting in pools in his collarbones, his armpits, in between his toes, icy and still like the surface of a lake on a winter’s morning.
From where Teck Guan was crouched, he could see the dead body that lay on the grass verge just beyond the void deck. It lay in the light of a street lamp, whose beam cast a perfect yellow circle over the corpse, like a spotlight on a theatre stage. In the mustard coloured light, Teck Guan noticed a puddle of blood coagulating on the ground by the body’s stomach. A long gash marked the brown abdomen, where blood had spurted from but now barely trickled down. The head of the corpse was twisted at an odd angle, looking back as if the man was turning around, and the mouth shaped in an O, as if it was crying ‘No!’. The corpse’s legs were flung akimbo, as if struck by a great blast, white and blue rubber flip flops lay a short distance away, one leaning upside down against the street lamp, the other half submerged in a gutter at the bottom of the grass verge.
‘Who is this dead man?’, Teck Guan wondered, his mind chocked with fumes of confusion and fear. ‘He is not the right man. He is someone else.’ Teck Guan’s fingers suddenly felt very sticky and he wiped them down on his trousers. But the stickiness did not go away, and Teck Guan wiped his fingers once more, harder this time. Still they felt sticky, even stickier perhaps. Now he wiped them on his pale shirt, on his arms, down his legs, round his neck, finally dragging them down his face, as if he were sobbing. And then he realized he was sobbing. His entire body, doubled up in this black corner of a stairwell, began shaking. His shoulders heaved up and down, his toes curled up tight and his chest constricted as tears came streaming out of the very marrow of his bones. Teck Guan had to muster up all his energy to stifle the sound of his sobs so as to not give away his presence. He cupped his mouth in his hands and swallowed his cries, turning his moans into silent tremors. When the sobs finally abated, Teck Guan looked down at himself and saw his tears mingled with the blood he tried to wipe from his hands.
Just then Teck Guan heard the screech of a police siren pierce the dark of the night. A police car pulled up alongside the corpse and two policemen got out. They began cordoning off the area, running regulation yellow and black plastic ribbons around the corpse, saying ‘Police barrier, do not cross’. One of the policemen held a large, black walkie talkie to his mouth and was speaking into it. Teck Guan could not hear what the policeman was saying, only the crackle of interference that punctuated the policeman’s speech. The second policeman surveyed the area with a keen gaze. He walked over to a rubbish bin not far from the corpse and peered into it, as if he was looking for something. Then he went to the gutter at the bottom of the grass verge and stared into that. Then he walked to the life landing and inspected that. Then he approached the stairwell in which Teck Guan was hiding. In the silence of the night, Teck Guan could hear the policeman’s soft rubber-soled footsteps padding towards him. He could see the navy blue shadows of the policeman’s legs and smell the authoritative way in which he carried himself. Teck Guan froze and squeezed his eyes close. If he shut his eyes, maybe the policeman would disappear; all of this would disappear. In the darkness of his closed eyes, Teck Guan felt his senses rise to fever pitch—like vibrations captured on a graph, so rapid that they appear as a thin, straight line. The policeman’s presence drew nearer, Teck Guan felt it pressing on him. The air in the stairwell became hot and oppressive; Teck Guan found gulping mouthfuls of air just to breathe normally. The policeman was now standing at the stairwell. He looked upwards, craning his neck and then turned his probing gaze onto Teck Guan’s direction. Teck Guan felt like a trapped animal; the policeman was no more than two metres away from him. The air grew hotter still and Teck Guan neck grew taut as a string ready to snap. There was nowhere for him to run; he just had to sit there and be caught.
Suddenly a fresh gust of wind blew across Teck Guan’s face. The cool blast soothed him and he felt the air grow lighter. He opened his eyes and blinked. The policeman was gone. He was walking back to the police car and Teck Guan thought he heard him say, ‘Cannot see anything now. Barrier the area and we come back tomorrow to look properly’. Without further ado, the two policemen got into their car and drove off. The police car rolled quietly out of the housing estate; its siren asleep, engine humming. When it slide out of sight, the night sky suddenly appeared clearer. Radio music from one of the flats drifted softly over the car park. Teck Guan heard a bull frog droning, and from somewhere under a bush a cat meowed. Sweet relief flooded over Teck Guan. He had not been found! He had escaped capture! Creeping slowly out of his hiding place, Teck Guan looked around furtively to check that the coast was clear. When he saw no soul in sight, he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. The sole thought that occupied his mind was the blood-stained cleaver that he had hidden in the basket of a bicycle next to the stairwell.
For the next three weeks, Teck Guan was a fugitive. He lived like a mole, staying indoors by day, emerging only at night to buy food and the day’s newspaper. Two days after the murder he saw the story in the papers.
MAN IN BEDOK SOUTH KILLED FOR NO APPARENT REASON.
32 year old Chan Wye Leong was attacked and killed on his way home from his afternoon shift at a factory. He was killed by a fatal stab wound to the abdomen. A cleaver covered in the victim’s blood was found near the scene of the crime. Mdm Chan, the victim’s wife, said ‘I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do this to my husband. We owe nobody money, he did not have a girlfriend, we had no enemies.’ Mr and Mrs Chan Soo Ghim, the victims parents, were too distraught to speak to the press yesterday at their son’s wake. Mr Chan was a production supervisor at the factory where he worked, and has two daughters, aged 6 and 3. The police are investigating the incident and treating it as a case of murder homicide.
Next to the report was a photo of Chan Wye Leong and another of his family at the wake. The photo of Chan was obviously the same one used at his coffin; and when Teck Guan turned to the obituary pages he saw it again. Chan was dressed in a plain collared shirt, his longish thick black hair parted to one side, framing his skinny face, thin nose, big gentle eyes and a scanty mustache. ‘So that was what the victim looked like’, thought Teck Guan. The stabbing had happened so fast—Chan had been caught completely unaware and did not have time to compose himself before the fatal blow struck—that Teck Guan never really saw the victim’s face. Now he scrutinised the victim’s photo in the newspaper, and traced over each of the victim’s features with his fingers. He read and reread the story, staring curiously at the photo of the victim’s wife and parents at the wake.
Chan Wye Leong. C-H-A-N W-Y-E L-E-O-N-G. Teck Guan rolled the name round and round his mind. It seemed strange that his victim had a name, a wife, children, parents, a job. That night of the murder he was simply—a total stranger. Teck Guan replayed the events of that night in his head to see how he ended killing this man. He had been instructed by a pair of loan sharks to ‘cause some damage’ to a man that owed them a considerable sum of money and who had defaulted on several payments. Teck Guan knew the debtor in question. Not personally, but he had seen him numerous times at their local coffeeshop. The pay off for this deed was a percentage of the sum owed. Teck Guan would have to wait till the debtor paid up to receive his share, but having been unemployed for many months now he was in no position to bargain. On the fateful night, Teck Guan lay waiting where he knew the debtor would pass on his way home from the coffeeshop. He knew exactly what time the debtor would come—ten past eleven, just after the coffeeshop closed. On the dot, a man came walking by. He was of the right build, the right height and even wore the same kind of clothes. For a split second, Teck Guan remembers a flicker of doubt flashing across his mind, but without thinking further he leapt on to the man and in a matter of moments delivered a deep blow to the man’s abdomen with a cleaver. It was only after the fact, after the man fell away gasping and clutching his wounded side did Teck Guan realize his mistake. This man had on his shirt pocket a company tag from the neighbourhood factory and a few ball point pens lined up neatly—something the debtor would not have had, not in a million years. Seeing his error in judgment, Teck Guan panicked. His first thought was to dispose of the cleaver. Not far from where the man fell was a row of bicycles. Teck Guan found one with a basket containing a newspaper and jammed the cleaver under the papers, not before wiping down its handle on the edge of his shirt.
Now Teck Guan was totally alone. He could not go back to the loan sharks after having made such a mess of his assignment. Surely they were looking for him anyway, as were the police. All he could do was hide until things died down. And then he would run away, leave the country, disappear into the streets of another city, maybe Bangkok. Teck Guan planned his departure carefully. In the evenings, when he allowed himself to come out of his day’s hiding place, he slinked around the back alleys of Geylang and wrangled himself a fake passport. He planned to leave Singapore and enter Johor Bharu by public bus during rush hour, hopefully no one would pay attention to him amongst the throngs of workers that crossed the border each morning and evening. He would bring nothing with him, just a plastic bag with some money and a change of clothes. Everything else that he needed would have to be got once he crossed the border. Then, he would stay in Johor Bharu for a night—two at the most—before catching a bus further north, to Kuala Lumpur probably. There, another couple of nights and then a bus to Hattyai, on the Thai border. Once in Thailand he would have no problem, he figured. He already spoke some Thai, picked up from a few Thai working girls he frequented in Singapore, and he could find work on a fishing trawler or renting motorcycles to tourists on an island.
As Teck Guan waited for the fuss over the murder to subside, he fine tuned his plan in his head during the long days he spent in hiding. He lived mostly in deserted public toilets, moving from one to another, finding that the best ones were in out of the way parks. From his damp hideaways, he chose the hotels he would stay at in Johor Bharu, Kuala Lumpur and Hattyai. They were of course low budget, dimly lit, musty places where accommodation was more in the form of cubicles than rooms and showers were shared. He pictured the hawker stalls at which he would have his meals, each one serving cheap but good food, getting spicier the further north he traveled. He even imagined doing a bit of shopping, CDs, a watch, a new pair of shoes. This was beginning to feel a little bit like an adventure.
Then one day, about three weeks after the murder, Teck Guan saw a headline in the papers that made him jump.
MAN ARRESTED FOR BEDOK SOUTH MURDER
Sammy K. Pillai, 23, a cleaner, has been arrested and charged with the murder of Chan Wye Leong, who was brutally stabbed on his way home from work three weeks ago. The murder weapon, a cleaver, was found in the accused’s bicycle near the scene of the crime. Mr Pillai has a history of violent behaviour, and been arrested twice before on charges of assault. He is single and lives with a friend. If found guilty, he will serve a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Teck Guan could hardly believe what he was reading. Someone else was being blamed for his crime. Someone who had nothing to do with the murder. Someone innocent. Teck Guan gazed at the 3x4 centimetre photo of Mr Pillai next to the story. Mr Pillai was overweight, bald and had several cheap gold chains slung around his thick set neck. He had a lazy eye, lolling off to one side of his face while the other eye stared blankly at Teck Guan. The look on Mr Pillai’s face seemed to say , ‘What does it matter if I go to prison? It’s either now or later. My life is hopeless anyway.’ A sorry looking youth, but no more sorry looking that Teck Guan.
As Teck Guan looked at Mr Pillai’s photo, the impact of what was happening slowly dawned on him. This arrest changed everything. Teck Guan no longer had to run, no longer had to hide. He was no longer a fugitive, a hunted animal an enemy of daylight. He could come out in the open now, show his face in public, live normally. Maybe the loan sharks would even forget what had happened—after all there was no trace of it left. Teck Guan had got off scot free.
Jubilation welled up within him and he dashed out of the public toilet he was hiding in that day. Standing tall for the first time since the murder, he took several deep breaths, savouring the fresh air in his lungs, and looked appreciatively at the flats towering around him, the city skyline in the distance and the condominiums of the wealthy. Life was everywhere and the world was his once again. He sensed opportunities waiting for him round every corner, and a new life ready for the taking. The unfortunate incident was no longer a part of his past. Even by the time Teck Guan gathered his meager belongings and left public toilets for the last time, he had erased Chan Wye Leong from his memory.
The years passed. Teck Guan grew from being a scrawny twenty year old into a rather hefty man, who was ruddy from drinking cheap alcohol a little too often but who indulged in no greater vice than that. He worked at a small garage, fixing motorcycles. The job provided him with a low but steady income, and he was good friends with the garage owner. At the age of twenty-five he got married to a rather sweet nineteen year old girl, the sister of one of his fellow mechanics. In three years they had two babies, and lived in a two-room flat off Serangoon Road. His aged mother-in-law lived with them, which made the flat rather crowded, but somehow they all got along. Teck Guan no longer thought about the murder; some days he even convinced himself that it never happened.
One day his mother-in-law dropped dead. She had a heart attack and collapsed in the middle of their flat. Thankfully Teck Guan’s wife was at home when this took place and quickly called for help from a neighbour. The neighbour in turned called an ambulance, but by the time the paramedics arrive the old lady was already gone. Teck Guan’s wife was distraught of course, having witnessed the whole dramatic affair, but when she calmed down she realised—as Teck Guan did—that the time had come for her mother to go. The funeral arrangements were carried out methodically, with sadness but no extreme emotion.
The wake was held at Singapore Casket on Lavender Street, not far from where they lived. Over the customary three days, Teck Guan was present at the visitation hall almost throughout, going home only to shower and change into fresh clothes. He was an exemplary host, greeting the numerous relatives that came to pay their last respects, chatting amongst them, serving drinks and nibbles, while also comforting his wife and generally seeing to administrative things. The family was Taoist and a priest from the temple the mother was a member of came to say the final rites. Dressed in gaudy saffron robes, he chanted loudly at the head of the coffin, fingering oversized prayer beads, his rather nasal voice amplified by a crackling microphone that was unnecessary given the small size of the hall.
On the last night of the wake, the night before the cremation, Teck Guan stood at the entrance to the visitation hall and looked at the scene before him. Several close relatives were there, huddled round a table with his wife, sipping tea and eating melon seeds. A few modest wreaths lined either side of the coffin, in front of which sat a black and white photograph of the mother. The photo was obviously taken when she was much younger; her hair was jet black and swept up in a fashionable coif, there were no wrinkles on her face and she had make up on. Suddenly and inexplicably, Teck Guan felt a sharp stab of pain in his right temple. ‘Wah,’, he thought, ‘Must be stressed.’ He reached into his pocket for a couple of aspirins, gulped them down and thought no more of the flash of pain which had gone anyway.
The next morning, Teck Guan woke up with a slight headache. The pain was hardly noticeable, more of an irritant than a cause for discomfort, and as Teck Guan got dressed he brushed the pain aside. But it steadily got worse. When Teck Guan reached Singapore Casket, the pain was dull, throbbing, enough to cause him to wince. He had forgotten the aspirins, and he wished now he hadn’t. as he rode in the hearse to Mount Vernon crematorium, the headache pounded with every bump in the road he passed. By the time he was at the crematorium hall, the pain was almost intolerable. The entire right side of his face was hot with pain and his thought his temple was going to burst open. The pain was making him dizzy and he wandered away from the crematorium hall to the cool, tree-lined cemetary to find a bench. He did not have to walk far to find one. There was hardly anybody in the park, just a family visiting the ashes of one of their relatives and they were at the other end of the park. Besides Teck Guan and this one family, the only other occupants of the park were the dead. From their urns in niches set in white concrete slabs, they stared out of photographs laminated in marble. The dead of all ages, races, faiths and genders were there. Buddhist and Hindu and Christian, young and old, rich and poor alike sat side by side, made equal by death. From some urn stones stood joss sticks, in others rosaries, jasmine flowers or other adornments of religion; the forgotten urns lay bare, grey, truly dead.
Teck Guan slowly lowered himself onto a park bench. The coolness and tranquility of the cemetery were beginning to sooth him. He sat still with his head in his hands, rocking himself gently. When the pain stopped getting worse, he raised his head and saw that he was right next to a slab of niches. Within his field of vision were a few urn stones whose inscriptions he could not help but read. Martha De Souza, aged 78, 1905-1983, We will love and miss you mummy. Henry Chua Boon Keng, aged 40, 1950-1990. Rest in peace. Maria Pereira, aged 12, 1985-1997, You will always be in our hearts, Mummy and Daddy. Chan Wye Leong, aged 32 … Teck Guan sat up with a jolt.
He reread the name and the rest of the inscription. 1961-1992, Sadly missed and never forgotten. He looked at the photography on the urn stone. The face that looked back at him was calm, resolute, distant. It was unmistakably the face of the man that Teck Guan had killed ten years ago. The headache that had stopped getting worse started to sear through his brain. It crept down to the base of his neck and flooded down his shoulders and spine, coming finally to rest in his legs. Teck Guan was locked in the pain, his entire body immobilized, with only his heart pounding furiously, thundering in his rib cage. Like a bolt of lightning, the memory of what happened that fateful night flashed through his mind, and he relived every excruciating detail—the lying in wait, the frantic pounce on to his victim, the squelch of the cleaver as it entered the abdomen, the warm sticky blood first spurting out then seeping, the weight of his victim as he fell to the ground, the victim’s flip flops flung aside so lifelessly and the fear, the fear, that bristled through every pore of Teck Guan’s body. Then the face of the poor man the police had arrested in his place. His hopeless, pathetic eyes staring out of the newspaper, staring at the judge as he received a life sentence for a crime he never committed. Innocent lives wasted, never to be regained. This painful reality that had remained buried for the last ten years erupted like a volcano awaking from a long sleep. Teck Guan fell to his knees. He felt sick. His vision blurred before him. Everything that he had built since the murder had fallen apart in the instant he saw Chan Wye Leong’s urn stone. Nothing was true, nothing was real. He looked at this wife and family completing the cremation rites at the crematorium hall, and felt like he was looking at someone else’s family. As he looked at them, all strength left him. Entirely hollowed out and empty, Teck Guan thought that he would simply evaporate, and fell face down onto the concrete path.
When he regained consciousness, he was on a sampan, in the middle of the sea. The sea was very still, and the water an icy, dark blue. He was alone and had no possessions with him. The boat was empty except for a coil of rope and a pair of oars. A cool breeze was circulating, Teck Guan felt it brush against his face. It felt gentle, forgiving, accepting. On the horizon, a warm, orange sun hung low in the sky. Its seemed to smile at him. A couple of white limestone outcrops protruded from the depths of the sea, like two aged sentinels. Tufts of vegetation peeped out of their nooks and crannies, around which sea birds circled gracefully. Teck Guan drifted along, not knowing where on earth he was but not feeling lost at all. As his sampan bobbed, Teck Guan melted into the breeze, the water, the birds, the endless sky. All was one. Gradually, the setting sun made its way towards the horizon. Just before it slipped out of sight, it seemed to wave its beams in a fond farewell. And then, without a sound, the curtain of night fell over everything.
The Wrong Man
Written on 12 October 2003