“Okay, so you lie down there on the mattress, and then I’ll roll you up.”
“And then I’ll sit on you and you won’t feel a thing because you’re a sausage roll.”
He considers the plan, his stubby little arms folded over his baby paunch. A grin spreads across his face. “Okay!”
Ah, the things you can convince a three-year-old to do when you’re the cool nine-year-old big sister.
The first six years of my life were fun, but lonely. I would go up to random kids in playgrounds and ask, “Can I be your friend?” (At what point in our lives do we lose the ability to be so fearlessly straightforward?) We would play for a time but at the end of the day they would go home with siblings, and I would be alone.
I’d been asking my parents for a baby sister for ages, but the image that finally broke them was one of me sitting, alone and dejected, in a spinning fairground teacup. Every other cup had a small group of children with their brothers and sisters.
By the time we found out my mum was pregnant with a boy I was far too desperate for a companion to care about not getting a baby sister. Anyway, it was a problem easily circumvented by dressing my brother in my ballet tutus for the first couple of years of his life.
As kids we lived with my grandparents in the week and only went home on Saturday nights after my parents were done with work. It was a convenient arrangement: the school buses picked us up before and after school from my grandparents’ place, and as retired schoolteachers both grandparents were able to supervise our homework (a task which sometimes included screaming and angry phone calls to my parents to complain).
In those days (early to mid-90s), the playgrounds had not yet been redone with the child-safe foam-like mats we see now, but were built on sand pits which allowed us to build sandcastles.
During the Midautumn Lantern Festival, children from the surrounding HDB blocks would congregate to light our paper lanterns. It was almost always inevitable that the lanterns would burn to ashes as our candles fell over, but that was never a problem; we’d just graduate to playing with the candles and melting the wax. Sometimes my brother and I would just skip the paper lanterns completely and go straight for the candles and fire, because that was much more fun.
Practically everything would receive a trial by fire: leaves, twigs, hair (as long as it was not still attached to someone’s head), sand, other candles, etc.
Thinking back now, we must have broken almost every single rule of modern child safety. But no one was really worried. As children we were aware that this was the only time of year we’d get to play with candles and fire, and only if we were careful not to hurt each other. There were minor injuries, as always, but I don’t remember anyone suffering major damage.
As it turned out, the biggest problem of having playgrounds on sand pits was not the opportunity for rows and rows of burning candles, but that stray cats mistook them for really big litter boxes.
The cats were everywhere, then, and my granddad would take care of them. An early riser, he would feed them a mixture of rice and Snappy Tom cat food at 5am and 5pm everyday. Every cat in the area knew the drill; every day at those times all you had to do was stand at the void deck and clap your hands, and they’d all come running to their designated spots. We didn’t have individual bowls for them so we made paper plates by stapling sheets of thick magazine paper together to make boxes.
Some cats were regulars for years, and sometimes we’d bring up kittens only for them to be chased to other territories once they were old enough to be considered threats to the old-timers.
One of the cats, a calico we called Kitty-Mao, was brilliant. At one point he decided that he was far too good to take his meals with the other strays, and started going up to our door on the 12th floor every day for food and water. He would either walk up, or – much more impressively – wait by the lift lobby for cat-lovers to come by, then get into the lift with them. He always knew which floor he was on: if the lift stopped at nine (this was years before lifts were upgraded to stop on every floor) he would walk up, and if it stopped at 13 he would walk down. His feline skill stopped short of ringing the doorbell, but somehow my granddad could always sense when he was at the door.
The town council didn’t like the cats much. They said they spread disease and made lots of noise. One day the officer from the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) came to trap the cats, and my granddad went bustling downstairs to meet him.
“We have to catch all the strays,” we were told. “They are a nuisance to the residents.”
“Do you see any cats around here now? Come back tomorrow,” my granddad told him.
That evening, when the cats came for their dinner, my granddad and I slipped collars over every single one. Every single cat belonged to our family. There were no more strays.
But when the HDB upgrading came, we lost all our cats anyway. They ran away from the noise, the dust, the endless stream of strangers, the changing landscape of the neighbourhood. By the time the upgrading was done, there were practically no more cats left. The few who appeared were new, and didn’t recognise or trust us.
I often think of the cats when I think back on my childhood. In a way they’ve become the symbol of long-ago innocent fun, when my life in Singapore consisted of drifting from school to play instead of paying bills and running for trains.