It was like Catching but better.
Like Catching, but more intense. More ferocious. The thrill –
So many times I remember frantically running up and down those stale drink stained staircases, oblivious to the weight of my heavy uniform and backpack. Huddling behind doors in silence, waiting for the sound of footsteps, just waiting. It was strange that one could derive such joy from being chased, from chasing. From hiding.
The chase was everything, and the dull, slowly quickening thump-thumping of the heart beneath my chest was reason enough to come back for it every week.
So strange, so foreign this feeling.
So strange, so foreign, and yet something more vastly indescribable was discovered one Wednesday during these Block Catching sessions.
As in a damp, humid space on the fifteenth floor of a block in Serangoon, I found love at a staircase landing.
The thrill –
I was 11, and he was a year older. A friend of a friend of a friend who had come to join us after school. We skipped our ECA’s in favour of a more exciting past-time where there was no one to shout at you to “throw the ball harder” or command you to run around muddy fields until your white school shoes turned shit brown.
We were at Amy’s block this time, a truly tough terrain to navigate. There were only two lifts which only went to three floors. There were sixteen floors, and the staircases were located on either side of the block. And some floors were only accessible by either of the two staircases. Tricky.
Of the two times that we played this block, my cover was nearly blown both times because of a large dog on the fifth floor which barked loudly the moment someone walked past its owner’s house. I remember making a mental note to avoid that floor at all costs.
As usual, we started at the void deck. Quick introductions, awkward half-glances.
Amy had invited some of her brother’s friends to join us that day. And as usual, the girls got all giggly around the boys. Not me though. It was hard being from an all-girls school I suppose. We were never taught how to behave when meeting these strange sweaty creatures, post-PE odour wafting through the air. Strange children who talked loudly, laughed loudly, farted out-loud. We never knew what to say to them or how to respond when some of them tried looking up our skirts not very discreetly.
I wasn’t paying attention to the names. Only the faces and the sound of their footsteps. I had skill. It was the reason why I was always the last one to get caught every time we played.
“You all know how to play right? O ya pei ya som! First one be Catcher okay?” Amy shouts excitedly.
We nod and the ten of us huddle together close, forming a circle.
“Ready… O ya pei ya som ba leh ya roti prata…” she chants. We steady ourselves in anticipation for that final war cry –
Like conscripted soldiers we thrust out our hands, holding out our fingers, as if pledging our rifles to our country. Some show two fingers, others hold out fists, and I show all five of mine.
“Okay, wait ah. I count,” Amy mumbles and then begins counting the fingers.
“Altogether… fifty-seven! Okay, one, two, three…” Amy points to each of us as she counts aloud.
Not me, not me…
Being the Catcher was horrible. You couldn’t rely on anyone else for help. You were a sole agent. A one-man show. You had a total of one hour to find everyone. No man left behind.
I had only been the Catcher once. But there were only 5 of us playing at the time so it wasn’t too difficult. A group this big would surely be an unwelcome challenge.
“Fifty-six, fifty seven!” Amy shouts, out of breath, pointing at the boy beside me.
“Eh sorry, count wrongly. Fifty-seven!” she repeats again, pointing her finger straight at me.
“Aiyah,” I mumble under my breath. “Okay go, don’t waste time already. I count to hundred. One, two, three…”
I shut my eyes.
Shouting, frantic scurrying, footsteps, laughter.
I stop counting when I hit forty-five. I open my eyes and everyone is gone. There’s an old man staring at me from one of the seats nearby, puffing slowly on a cigarette. I pick up my backpack from the floor and adjust the straps tightly to stop it from bouncing against my back as I run. I should still be counting.
But no one needs to know.
I break into a slow jog and reach the lift lobby, watching the numbers at the top flicker. Someone has just gotten off the top floor. When it arrives, I enter and decide to head to the top. Start high and work my way downwards. Always a good plan.
It’s easy to find the first five – two girls, three boys. A couple of them were travelling in packs. They don’t even realise I’m right behind them until I smack their shoulders and whisper, “Out.”
I find number six behind a large potted plant on the eighth floor, and numbers seven and eight hiding at a staircase landing on the third floor.
Out, out, out. Just one more to go.
Almost forty minutes have passed when I reach the void-deck to check on the casualties. They’re munching on snacks at the benches. Only twenty minutes left before I lose, and number nine wins.
One boy sees me and calls out, “Still haven’t find finish yet ah?”
“One more lah. Don’t know where,” I say. I make a deliberate attempt to sound defeated, just in case the last target is hiding nearby.
Better safe than sorry.
The boy looks around and then laughs. “Oh, Alex, is it. Wah, he quite good eh. Good luck to you man.”
Good? I bite my lips in annoyance and reassess my plans as I stare at the group before me.
And then, a sudden stroke of genius –
“Eh, Alex got favourite number anot?” I ask.
“Hmm. Don’t know leh. But his birthday 15 March I think. Eh, idiot, Alex birthday 15 March right?” the boy verifies with his friend beside him.
“Yah, you call me idiot for what,” his friend replies angrily, spilling ice cream on his shirt.
I leave the two to argue among themselves and take the stairs up to the third floor. I’m tired, but I’m determined for this to end.
March. Third month. Third floor.
I march up those stairs in a flurry of excitement.
I cover the entire floor but there’s no sign of him. I stop to wipe the beads of sweat leaking from my forehead with some tissue. He has to be on the fifteenth floor.
I take the lift up to sixteenth floor, push the door of the staircase landing open and tiptoe slowly downstairs.
And then I see him.
Sitting in a corner. Reading and not even the slightest bit worried. And why is he even reading! Boys don’t read.
I inch slowly towards him and am about to tap his shoulder but he senses my presence. He turns around and looks at me. His mouth forms the shape of an “O” for a brief moment, but then his lips relax. He stands up and walks towards me. He’s a bit taller than I am and his white shirt looks just as dirty as the other boys’. But he doesn’t smell as bad as they do. He smells of soap. Or detergent.
He looks at me inquisitively, as if expecting me to do something. And then I realise… I am supposed to be doing something.
I reach out my hand but for some reason there’s some resistance. He’s frowning now, studying me.
Tap him. Taptaptap.
“Touch, lah,” he says softly.
I mumble something incoherent and reach for his shoulder, but before I can, he grabs my hand with his. It happens so fast I don’t even realise it until I look down and see that he’s holding my hand.
We stay like this for a while, not saying anything. Just looking at each other.
“You catch me already,” he says, smiling to himself as he adjusts his glasses.
I nod, very aware that my palms are starting to sweat profusely.
He looks down at our hands, confused. I seem to be mirroring the look on his face.
“Do you like me? I think you like me,” he says.
I suddenly feel like I’ve lost my voice.
“You smell nice,” I mumble.
He raises both his eyebrows, pauses, and then moves his face to my neck. Close.
“You also,” he says, smiling. “Girls always smell nice.”
And then it happens.
His lips meet mine.
One quick, wet peck on my lips.
“I wait super long for you to catch me leh,” he says, looking at the ground.
“Why?” I ask, also looking at the ground, my lips still tingling.
“Stead me?” he asks.
“Go steady lah. You never hear before ah? Be my girlfriend?” he adjusts his glasses again.
I release his hand immediately.
“Err, no!” I shout.
“I don’t like you lah! I’m too young for BGR!” I shriek and run for the door but he grabs me and holds me in his arms.
In that one moment, I am overcome with breathlessness.
The feeling was amazing. Warm, soft, clean, and yet…
I had already won. The game was over.
“I won,” I say.
“I won! We can go home now!” I say, grinning widely. I break away from him and run out of the door.
“Wahlau! Siao char bor!” I hear him curse from behind me.
But I don’t stop running. I never do.
The thrill –
Love is all about the thrill. The thrill of the chase. The thrill of being chased. The finding it and deciding if it’s worth holding on to or letting go of. Love is thrilling.
Love is a game of catching, and winning, and letting go.
So, in a damp, humid space on the fifteenth floor of a block in Serangoon, I found love at a staircase landing.
Or rather, it found me.
Photo credits for main image and thumbnail: Stephan Kleinert