Level Twelve Bridge Club

We always sat at our favourite little corner after school to play bridge. It was the four of us, the same four every time. We would take the escalator up to the twelfth story after school. There was a nice Sky Garden at this particular bunch of HDB flats, and it overlooked the entire Toa Payoh neighbourhood. It was a nice place to come to after school; to just unwind as the world below us went about its own business.

We sat in a circle as the cards were dealt. Jason was to bid first. “One Spade” he calls. “Walao…I can’t play spade lah. Two Diamonds, ” bids Wei Lun. It was my turn. I had both the King of Diamond and the King of Spade without a particularly strong suit so I just passed, hoping they wouldn’t go into a bidding war. “Two No Trump.” Bids Adam, without much hesitation. Strange, given that I had two kings. I wonder if he had a domineering suit he was waiting to exploit. The game carries on as everybody passes, and Adam subsequently calls for his partner, the Ace of Clubs. It wasn’t a card I had in my hand. This should be an interesting game if it had to come down to my Kings.

At this moment, a woman walks out of the lift behind the boys, and slips to the corner of the Sky Garden unnoticed. She is wearing a pale beige dress with a thin red belt around her small waist. She is probably in her early-twenties by the look of it, though her eyes were sunken and morose, making her look much older than she actually was. She leaned herself comfortably on one of the railings overlooking the north towards Braddell. They can just see her through a small gap in the pillars. Well, they don’t see her yet, but in time they will.

I put down my King. The ace was out during a previous round so this trick was definitely mine. There would be a change of power, then a tough decision to make. Who could my partner be? Could it be Jason with the Spades or Wei Lun with his Diamonds? I look up at Jason and he smiles at me, a very slight smile that makes it certain, all at once, that he couldn’t possibly be my partner. There was no concrete logic to this, and none of the cards thrown before could lead you to this conclusion, but something just felt wrong. I went with the diamonds and threw down a low-value diamond.

Our games of Bridge were not all for fun. The losers usually had to owe something to the winners. We usually played for cash; the losing pair would give the winning pair one dollar each for every round. We had been doing this for a few rounds today and my wallet got lighter with each round. It wasn’t my day for Bridge. Bad cards were made worst with bad decisions, and no matter who partnered me I was doomed to drag them down. Wei Lun claims the next trick, and if my assumption was correct, it would be one more for the win. I would expect him to throw a Diamond so I could claim the next trick with my King. But instead he opts for Hearts and throws out a mid-range Heart.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Sky Garden, the woman looks on into the distance. One look at her posture will tell you a lot about her. She is probably tired as she hunches forward a touch. She looks almost deflated where she stands, as if held up by something beyond her own strength. Underlying that, if you looked really close, was a minute trace of steely determination hidden beneath layers of skin, muscle and bone. It stuck out like a sliver of morning sunlight through a gap between thick curtains. It was slight, but unmistakable. There was a determination she had, a determination to accomplish something.

Eventually, my pair lost. Predictably, I had trusted the wrong person. Wei Lun was not my partner, and the hint of a smile from Jason was in fact a benign gesture. How do you even sense these things? “I don’t want to pay already, partner this guy always lose one!” Exclaimed Jason, who received a playful nudge from me as I tried to defend myself. “I’ll be better next time lah, promise. So far it isn’t my day for this game.” Jason suggests an alternative. “We just play a dare instead lah. Save some money and increase the fun. You just say it, I’ll do it.”

Jason had an impulsive streak within him that would lead him to do incredible things. Well, more like incredibly stupid things. Last year he swallowed a live guppy whole on the account of a dare that got him free canteen food for a week. Stupid Things that Teenagers Do seemed to be the title of his life story thus far. That aside, he was a nice chap, polite and proper. But he just couldn’t resist the chance to show off his bravado.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t one to go for such dares. There was always a proper way to do things, one that didn’t involve public humiliation and putting my poor body on the line. I mean, there had to be a better way so I always yearned to find an escape from such situations. Do a dare? I think not.

“Ok fine, we try find something for you two to do ah.” Adam offers. “Wei Lun go find something leh. This Jason like won’t be scared of anything one lor look at him.” “Come, find one please, try to surprise me this time, guys,” taunted Jason. I didn’t like where this was going. Wei Lun looked around for something, anything that could be contrived into a test for Jason. There was nothing. The whole place was largely empty, except for Jason’s ego that seemed to fill up the entire space. “Just wait, I think of one that will make you regret your request.” Promised Wei Lun. It was at that moment that he focused on the small gap between the pillars, and saw her in the distance, just standing there.

She stood there quietly, watching the world go by under her feet and wished that the wind would carry her off into a faraway place. A place far removed from where she was. There were memories she held of this place, memories too dark to reconcile yet too sticky to escape. These memories were like excess oil spilling out of a car engine, seeping into deep cracks in the road. They once served their purpose, but now the excess flowed freely into the long empty roads of her mind. She longed to escape this road.

“It’s not that bad lah” Jason assured me, “just go there, tell her that line, then we can just run away. She also won’t remember us and like honestly I also want to see her reaction.” I sighed. The dare was simple yet honestly really childish. We had to go up to the woman together but only I was to compliment her about how pleasant she looked. We all knew Jason would do this without any thought, so according to Adam, the dare was for him to make me say the words to her. Damn. How could this possibly end well? But I knew I was better off rejecting an insurance agent than Jason.

We walked between the pillars; through the ceramic tiles of the lift lobby then back to the stone path that was the other side of this Sky Garden. She was now just a few meters away. Her small back was facing us, the thin red belt the clear divider between her upper and lower torso. The fabric of her dress was silky and almost dreamy on closer inspection. Her spindle-thin arms shot out, pale and innocent while her legs had a little more flesh to them, but looked equally fragile. A slight nudge would be all it took for her to lose her balance and fall, no doubt about that.

Normally I would have stopped here and hesitated but Jason kept walking forward at a steady pace so I kept with the dare and followed close behind. I thought of a lot of things while going forward. Things like, who is this woman? What if I actually ruined her day with my words? What if she sees me as a threat? What if I had played the damn Spade instead of my weak Diamond? I heaved a silent sigh. All of this could have been avoided. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Adam and Wei Lun at the lift lobby, eager spectators to my embarrassing downfall. I should never have agreed to join tables with them back in Secondary Two, I thought bitterly.

The plan had always been so simple for her. She visualized the steps. To put her dominant left leg over the railing, then to bring her body weight over the edge. She would then lean further until her right leg, too, left the ground. Whatever happened after that, she was confident that it would be better than the place she was in now. Her brains would be splattered over the ground, and there would be nothing left of her. There would be bliss. She concluded that she had seen enough misery, disappointment and grief in just over two decades. She sat up one day and decided that no, this world had no place for me. Simple as that, a resolution was forged. Looking back she tried grabbing at a reason not to leave. On paper, her life had been fine. Her time in university was considerably fun. She had friends to go around and scored slightly above average in her work. Her parents weren’t particularly well off but they weren’t poor by a long shot. By right, she was going to graduate now, leave for the real world out there. On all accounts she was your average Singaporean girl heading for an office job. Average. Yes, that was the problem

 

Being average. That was the problem. She dreamed often when she was young, of a place far away, a place where she could build a new life. A place removed from what society was teaching her to become, a rat driven to death by work. She worked as a primary school art teacher after Junior College only to find out how spiritually deprived all her students were. They came in without a drop of creativity, yearning to improve their strokes to get their parents’ approval rather than pursuing something greater. Something greater. These ideals slowly started to seep from her mind the moment she set one foot into the real world. There was nothing great out there, just a long road of being average. Average. Ugh.

 

Under the encouragement of reality, her dreams leaked out slowly from the folds of her brain. These dreams were replaced by something dark and unfamiliar. Something like excess engine oil: dark, sticky and formless; and worst of all, purposeless. This dark matter filled her thoughts day and night as she struggled to find a way to express them. She spent the last few years staving off these ravenous thoughts, for they were meaningless after all. They were meaningless, yes, she thought. But if my thoughts are all I have, doesn’t that make me meaningless too?

 

Lost in dense thought, a hand tapped softly against her upper arm.

She turned around to face Jason and I, and we stood there staring at each other awkwardly. I had never felt a stronger desire to run away. It was awkwardness on such an intense level that it renders you senseless. Your extremities become numb and your mind freezes. Jason was nudging me fiercely. I could almost read his mind. Just do it, say it! SAY IT! IT WILL BE OVER IN FIVE SECONDS SAY THE WORDS GODDAMMIT. I blared what I thought Jason was thinking within the walls of my consciousness. I opened my mouth with a start, but closed it again. At that point, I saw it. Her eyes.

 

His eyes. They looked at her with sudden concern and flickered to life. He was about to say something but then closed his mouth as if awestruck. She now studied him, a young boy of about 15 years old in his school uniform. Yes, it was the same school she attended as a child a decade ago. His friend stood by his side. He was also in uniform; slightly taller, and urging him desperately to fulfill a certain task. But whatever task that was, it didn’t matter, did it? His eyes. They stared at her with such innocence; with the type of sincerity a fully-grown adult could never have given her. There was no trace of malice, no ill intentions. Ironically these eyes made her think of both her ex boyfriends, precisely because their eyes were nothing like the boy’s. They held something against her from the start and she could sense it. They did what every couple did; confess to each other, hold hands, go on cute dates and made out feverishly when they felt like it. But it felt so…empty somehow. There was a part of her that these men couldn’t fill not because they weren’t enough. She figured it was because she wasn’t enough for herself. There was the darkness that they couldn’t expunge from her because she simply wouldn’t let them. She guarded this part of herself so well that her then boyfriends would eventually give up trying to find it, and become frustrated and hurt in the process. And so one by one they left her on their own terms. They simply couldn’t fix me, she was always left thinking.

 

But this young boy, he was different. She felt so naked and exposed. She dropped her defences and he looked right through her with those kind eyes, a graceful dolphin wading in the dark waters of her mind. Perhaps while building her resolution to end her life she had inadvertently exposed more of this inner darkness to the outside world. He must have picked up on that instantly. There was no straightforward way of understanding this, but she would like to think that this boy was special.

 

Her eyes were sunken in, and her face a portrait of despair. She pleaded with these eyes, and at once I knew she had an important story to tell, but had no way to tell it, so I could only guess looking through her eyes. She was probably younger than she looked, her face displaying hints of youth. I could tell that she used to be pretty, her cheekbones were high and her eyes glowed faintly through the curtains of death and despair. There was a hidden vibrancy in her that had been long stowed away and forever lost in transit like misplaced pieces of luggage. I tried imagining her with full cheeks and lips, but couldn’t conjure a solid image. She appeared to be a mere skeleton of her former self. I focused deeper into her gaze. They were searching me, but searching me for what? I was fifteen and I was simple. If I didn’t come up here, I would go home to my X-Box and waste the hours away. Besides, it suddenly hit me that I’ve never looked at anyone, male or female, in such a way before; to stare into the inner recesses of their gaze and to sift out what they had to offer. I had seen little of the world. Every second spent in her gaze was like a brand new encounter, a unifying of two totally different worldviews that melded perfectly to form what we knew as this moment.

We stood there in a comfortable silence. The initial awkwardness had been shed, and I lost track of how many seconds passed, though it couldn’t have been many, because Jason was still tugging at my shirt. There was now something tugging at my right hand, and I looked down to realize it was her left hand holding onto me. I took the hint and held her hand in mine. It felt small in mine and made me conscious of how much I’d grown in the past year. Her hand felt deathly cold too. It was a lack of warmth rather than the cold that disturbed me, as it felt so unnatural, like a dark cloud on a clear day. Yet through the cold, I could sense that this hand was searching for something. I was holding on not to a mere hand but the vessel in which her desires were expressed. Desire for what? I couldn’t go as far to tell, but this was a strong, suppressed desire that should have been expressed long ago. Jason stopped tugging at my shirt and I could see his jaw drop at the periphery of my vision. If he had felt the connection we had, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so surprised. I probably didn’t know better, but at that moment I started to believe there are some things in this world that are meant for only two people to feel.

It was not long before I observed her bottom jaw tremble, and her eyes become glossy. She held on tightly to my last three fingers, and proceeded to lean her body against mine. She locked her arms around my back and pulled me in, hugging me firmly. I did the most I could by putting my arms around her as well. We stood quietly in our tight embrace. I started to feel a steady moisture settle on my shoulder where her face was, and could feel her hiccups as they resonated off her chest. I felt as warmth returned to her, the same way warmth spreads through you when you snuggle into a thick blanket. She held on tighter and wept freely now, saying nothing but showing me everything. I started to understand her story through the convulsions between hiccups and through how her small hands interlocked at the small of my back. I don’t know how, but I could sense it; the dark and vacant space deep within her was steadily being replaced by something greater than she’d ever known. And I was the first person to ever know of this space within.

She knew now, that there were some thoughts that didn’t require words to express. She knew with a sudden finality, that this was the person that would understand her, and understand the depth of her grief. On the edge of her life, she was suddenly willing to lay all her thoughts and fears at the rim of her conscience, and now as he held her close she could feel that he fully understood these feelings. It was this that eventually moved her to tears, the feeling that somebody in the world cared. She hugged him back like the little brother she never had. Within him she saw the part of herself she had wrongfully discarded in the past and replaced with this imperfect version. She understood now, that this was not her time to die. Sure, I may still have terrible issues too deep for anyone to fix, but I will have to face them myself from now on. She thought to herself, that she would do this for him. It couldn’t be coincidence that he would appear in her life, and now he was the only person whose existence made sense to her right at the time she needed it most. No, it wasn’t coincidence. I will live on for him, for he is the reminder that goodness and hope still exists within me. And with that, she decided to walk away from the edge.

 

It ended as abruptly as it began. She released me from her embrace and glanced at me one last time, the kind of glance that entailed a glimmer of hope. Why I could sense this hope from her, I could never quite explain. You just felt these things. She walked away gingerly, looking more at ease than when I first saw her. She made her way through the stone path, past Jason and to the lift lobby where Wei Lun and Adam stood, wide eyed with shock. Did I really just hug her for those few seconds? She pressed the ‘down’ button for the lift and in less than half a minute she was gone, wafted down the elevator shaft in relative safety. There was no goodbye, just the warmth of her body that I still felt on my chest.

It was then that I suddenly felt sick. I felt weak and dizzy and I could feel the colour draining from my face. This feeling came at me strong as Wei Lun and Adam ran over. “Alamak! What did you tell her! She just held your hand like that what in the world, then next moment she just hug you eh. She hug you as if she never hug guy before. But she already so old cannot be what. Should have taken a picture lah Adam, we tell other people sure no one believe one.” Wei Lun was ecstatic. Jason replied first, “But…he didn’t say anything. They just stared for a while then before I knew it she pulled him in and was crying on his shoulder, She was really crying! I don’t believe you so handsome or anything lah, this girl sure got some mental problem. But good job man, you exceeded our expectations lah you damn power.” I appreciated their analysis, but I couldn’t bear to listen anymore, for the weakness sharpened and I felt an intense nausea sweep me off my feet.

I stumbled to the side away from the guys, and kneeled down on the ground. I opened my mouth and a warm, dark liquid came gushing out. I looked closer and realized that this liquid wasn’t merely dark, but black as squid ink. I felt better now but was covered in cold sweat. I kneeled there as the guys surrounded me, asking if I was alright. They looked at what I had produced and grimaced. “What you eat sia?” one of them asked. I had no answer for them. The four of us just watched on as the black liquid started spreading with the help of gravity, and begun to seep into the cracks of the stone path.

The All-Encompassing Package that is Teaching

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This week was my first week working as a teacher in my old secondary school. So much has happened in the short span of five days that I can’t possibly put everything down in nice concise sentences. I feel like a pet fish thrown into open water. It has been immensely tiring yet at the end of all this I feel tremendously encouraged to carry on. I feel at peace with myself after all this. It’s hard to describe this feeling precisely because it has been so long since I’ve felt this way; living my own life and doing the things I believe in. I guess one good way to visualize this would be to imagine a smooth flowing river, water heading towards the ocean, lost in its unobstructed flow, unhindered, free and purposeful.

 I knew before I stepped into my first classroom that I had to strip away all idealistic notions of what “being a teacher” meant. Sure, you get to touch lives and make lasting impressions, so on and so forth. That’s one message MOE advertisements have been trying relentlessly to instill in the public. But I knew with acute clarity that this was not going to be the case; at least not in the short space of one week. I held my reservations as I stepped into my first class.

My first class was a rowdy bunch of secondary three kids, which I was tasked to teach the fine and delicate subject of literature to. Yes, I should expect disaster when it comes to this. I was new, alone, young, and inexperienced. And chances are, these kids knew it. And besides, decades of social reinforcement show that literature isn’t a “guy thing”. First impressions are important. I could start by throwing a table out of the window and scare the living daylights out of these kids. I mean it’s actually not a bad investment. If you scare these kids enough you could actually have attentive lessons in the long run. When they let their guard down you could throw something else out the classroom or break a broomstick. Easy. And it is proven to work almost every time. However, I went for a different approach. Scaring them by being firm was just not my thing. If you’ve known me for any good measure of time you’ll know I’m not the type to be fierce or aggressive over anything involving another human being. I couldn’t be overly firm. So what else was I to do?

I did something one of my literature teachers did in the past. I made them come up with their own ideas after I briefly introduced myself. I asked them to come up with a word and branch out to as many words with an association to this particular word. We made a mind map of sorts. The class was noisy at first, giving unfocused and slightly age inappropriate replies. However, they soon caught on and started giving answers that I valued. If you want to gain a kids respect, it is important to pay attention and credit them for their opinion. I basically started with that, thanking everyone who gave valid answers, and soon the naughty ones started chipping in some valid answers as well, much to their delight.

I explained to them that this is literature in a nutshell: to find meaning, value and significance within certain words, circumstances and characteristics. Of course, I didn’t put it so nicely, but I got the message across. It was from there that everything went smoothly. I went about trying to answer questions, walking to their tables and talking to them face to face. If you could get up close and personal, and give them the attention that they need, it is only natural that they give you the respect you deserve. It is hard work and I admit that.

Later, I got them to write a paragraph for me in the best of their abilities, and at the end of the lesson found out that five of them were copying from each other all along. These were the mischievous five that never failed to cause the occasional ruckus. I could scold them the next lesson, and for a moment I was tempted to. But eventually I just wrote a short personal paragraph at the back of each of their papers telling them nicely not to waste their time and to have fun understanding the poem (probably sounded very lame to them) and to discover “something more” within each line. It didn’t make much sense come to think of it, but in retrospect I guess it didn’t really have to make sense. The fact that I was willing to write so much for them despite their behavior probably spoke the loudest to them.

They were much better the next lesson. I asked them to copy down notes this time and to my pleasant surprise, every last boy did it. Halfway through the lesson one of the boys in the mischievous five even asked me “Sir when are you leaving?” and when I told him probably by term two, he replied, “Sir, we want you to stay to the end leh.” I was taken aback by that and mildly touched. Sometimes you have to wonder, what makes these kids that seemed so horrible to work with at the start, say something so heartwarming?

I am very new to this and have no previous experiences to relate to, but if I had to go by first impressions, I believe it is absolutely crucial to let them know you care. Between all the harsh scolding and sending offs, a child often stops believing that you care. They deprive him of the attention he truly needs and in the end you will be unable to direct his energy in a positive direction. Sure, this is all very theoretical and abstract, but it’s all I’ve got to last the next two and a half months. Bottom line is, I have to continue paying close attention to these kids and understand them. These kids have encouraged and inspired me so much thus far. I feel hopeful when I take my literature class, hopeful when the kids smile and say hi when I walk past them during change of periods, when they bombard me with questions about the poem which they refused read just a few minutes ago.

So yes, that was my first week. Probably not the best indicator of the coming weeks but it is a highly encouraging start. Working here was never going to be a breeze and I knew that. There have been grumbles, curses and times I wished I were on the other side of the desk. This is part of the all-encompassing package that is teaching. And I know that for sure now.

It’s going to be an interesting and tiring next few weeks. I hope to continue working with my class, to understand what literature means to them both inside and outside the classroom. The rowdiness, raised hands, broken paragraphs and looks of heavy contemplation will be a sight to behold every day. And that in itself makes for good literature.

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The Eternal Underground

I woke up with a start as the train ground to a halt. I opened my eyes to unfamiliar faces straining to take clean breaths in the crowded carriage. Yes, this was my subway stop. The pillars were a darker tinge of brown, something I noticed about this station. These were the small details you would only have noticed if you alighted at the same exact place every working day. I grabbed my suitcase and bolted out the door without a second thought. That was when I realized that something wasn’t right. The whole platform was empty. I looked back into the carriage, and nobody stirred or showed signs of getting out. I got the same feeling you’d get when you accidentally leave your valuables behind in a public space, except I felt that I was leaving my entire self in a place I shouldn’t be. I should jump back in I told myself. This isn’t normal, its 8 AM … there’s no way this station could be empty. 

But I just stood there.

The train door closed with a vacuum-like sound. A Caucasian boy of about 5 years old wearing a pink shirt and with flowing blonde hair waved goodbye to me from the inside. His mother pulled him back from the window and held him close. I hesitated for a while and then waved back. The train pulled away within ten seconds and I was left utterly alone on a usually busy Thursday morning.

Being alone in a place that should have been bustling with people has two effects on a person. Firstly, you feel confused. You’re confused simply because this isn’t what you’re used to. You only latch onto ideas and put them under the label of ‘reality’ after repeatedly seeing the same things happen, with ultra-predictable outcomes. You see babies cry when they are born, you only hear thunder after seeing the flash of lightning, and you definitely would observe there to be a crowd on a typical weekday morning at a train station with good access to a big cluster of office buildings. When you didn’t see this, then reality has failed you, or worst, you have failed reality by observing something that simply can’t be true! You feel like you’re in an unrealistic world, a world no longer bound by a network of logic. That is the main cause of your confusion. Secondly, you feel terribly lonely. Empty spaces are known to give people a sense of tranquility, but only when there is an expectation of absence. When your mind is so focused on the presence of something, so utterly certain of it, that is when things start to fall apart the moment you realize that there was nothing all along. I stood with one hand on my hip and the other hand scratching my head. I felt lonely. A terrible cloak of dark emotions threatened to swallow me up. I felt like I had been cheated, goaded into leaving the train when everyone knew, somehow, that they had to stay put.

I noticed something amiss immediately. There was a set of escalators that went down. This was a single line station unlike Raffles Place or City Hall. Those stations had platforms on multiple levels, but this station had a simple single-layered platform that only had escalators heading upwards, up to the tap out area and then another set that wafted you up to ground level. There weren’t any escalators that headed down. And yet, there it was: a downward-heading escalator tucked exactly under the upward-heading one. It was totally out of place to the eye, but deep in the recesses of my mind there sparked an uncomfortable familiarity. I couldn’t shut away the after thought that I may have actually been here before, a station with escalators heading up and down. I dragged my focus back to the logical world. Think think think… and then it suddenly made sense. Yes! It had to be that the station was under upgrade. It was under upgrade (maybe it was building a deeper underpass) and so there was an announcement that no one was to get off at this particular stop. This must have been extremely inconvenient for everyone who normally got off here. There must have been audible groans and complains, all-round annoyance and confusion on board, but I was sleeping and none the wiser. But if my theory is true then why didn’t anyone call me back into the train? Singaporeans and their inability to speak up against a wrong! I thought angrily to myself. And now everyone went about their lives while I got stuck in this mess.

The next train arrived, and heaved a sigh as the train doors and platform doors aligned. The doors opened mechanically. I frowned. The entire train was empty; even Chernobyl had more residents. The silence caused a wave of unease to spread through me. I pondered if I should hop on to this empty train, and then thought better of it. I mean, what if this train goes straight to the maintenance hangers or just suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere and plunges into darkness? Nobody would know I was inside. I stood still as the doors closed and the train withdrew from the station. The monitor read “Next train: 5 Minutes”.

Instead of waiting around, maybe it’d be better to try to actually leave this station and just head for work, I began to think to myself. It would be a tremendous hassle to travel to a different station just to come back here by bus. Ignoring the downward heading escalator, I headed up for the tap out to see if I could just jump over unnoticed and escape to the fresh air. I stood on the escalator and it brought me up one level. What I saw up top left me unable to think properly.

What I saw upstairs was the same platform as downstairs. Going up this escalator led me to the exact same platform again. No. This couldn’t be. To my left was the sign ‘to Punggol’ and to my right ‘to Harbourfront.’ The station name was also the same, the plastic signboard hung silently in front of me. No. No. I walked down the steps again and looked around. Yes, upstairs had to be an exact replica of what I saw here. But this couldn’t be possible. At least not in this world, not within the time frame of one day could another identical platform be constructed right above the one I normally got off on.

Before jumping to any conclusions, I doubled down the escalator steps, and jogged to the new escalator I saw going down. What lay below was unchartered territory to me, so whatever I saw would give me a big clue as to the problem I was currently facing. Stay calm now, strange situations like this aren’t entirely foreign to you. As I was walking down these steps I recalled myself as a child, travelling with my family to Yorkshire. We visited a castle and beside it was a huge hedge maze. I was only a small boy no older than five, and rushed into this maze without second thought. It is human nature to explore, find their way into situations that are out of the ordinary. There was a certain unusual kick we sought in this, finding our way through the unknown. Anyhow, I wandered about this maze without telling my parents, but soon realized that I had underestimated it. It was much more complex, much larger and the hedges much too tall for me to simply give up halfway and climb across to freedom. The more I explored, the more new paths I stumbled upon. These new paths of the maze led to more new sections, and just when you thought you were going somewhere, just when you thought that your explorations would lead to your eventual freedom, you hit a dead end. The hedges watched on quietly, blocking any path of escape. Before I knew it, I was stuck inside for half an hour, and by the hour I started to panic; tears and mucus flowing gently down my cheeks and lips, warm and wet. It was the exact same feeling of loneliness and abandonment. You were trapped in a world far removed from what you were accustomed to, and that feeling really stuck with me. I knew from then: I was going to stay in the real world no matter what, a world where things made perfect sense. Eventually I was saved not by my own efforts, but by luck. A tall German tourist chanced upon me and showed me the way out, reuniting me with my worried parents.

Shoving that particular childhood episode aside, I walked down further. What I saw made no sense, yet perfect sense at the same time. It was, yet again, the exact replica of what I saw one story above, two stories above. I began to feel sick. I walked to the other end to find another set of escalators going down. This was just like above, the new installment of the downward heading escalator. I ran down yet again, and I already knew what I would have seen before seeing it: the same platform again. There were the lonely benches sitting idly, the same signboards and the same tone of lighting. NO. I ran down five more stories, rushing down in a frantic state, with each story down the certainty of seeing another similar platform increased. I observed five more similar platforms and was panting hard. I sat down to think. I couldn’t be stuck here. No. But somehow, in some insane corner of my mind, this made sense. It made sense in explaining the staircase going down, it made sense because only with an entrance and exit could the platforms perfectly replicate themselves, over and over. But first I had to prove this. I had to prove that it was being replicated. I put all logic of the old world I was in aside. That was a world that didn’t entertain the idea of eternity. Everything in the old world worked around the finite. Cars travelled a certain finite distance to get from place to place, skyscrapers had a finite number of stories. When you got married you told your other half till death do us part. The finite even encroached upon the eternal values of love. But damn it! This wasn’t about love. I thought, I’m stuck here. Stuck in this seemingly infinite world, that is more than willing to replicate itself. I came to a conclusion: the only way to have a chance to escape would be to play by the rules here.

I started by making three assumptions of this new world. First was that this world is infinite. It cannot be escaped from because the platforms replicate themselves eternally. I couldn’t possibly prove this by running up and down forever, but I had to ascertain this without substantial proof so I wouldn’t waste my energy chasing a non-existent exit. Secondly, I assumed that I was alone. There was an overbearing silence all around from the start, and my smartphone had no reception upon stepping out onto the platform. I couldn’t find any information from the outside world and there was nobody who knew of my existence here. The third and most crucial assumption was that I could only exit this world the same way I came in. The same way I came in…

The next train arrived on cue, five minutes after the previous. Again, it was empty. Not entirely surprising. This time though, I stepped into the train. I had to. It was my only real chance of getting out; the closest available alternative to the same way I got in; from a train. It didn’t matter if there was an awkward confrontation with the subway staff. It beats getting trapped in an alternate reality of everlasting train platforms. You could only exit the same way you entered. I was banking everything on this assumption. The train doors closed with a sigh and the train started smoothly to the next destination. I was leaving the world of eternity behind. I took a seat and waited, studying the subway map.

The train doors opened, and my mouth went dry. I stepped out onto an empty platform. That would have been bad enough, but then I saw the darker pillars of the station. I saw the downward heading escalator, and saw that the station name was unchanged. The train brought me to the same station again. I stepped out and allowed the train to leave. I walked up 5 stories of repetitive platforms and began to feel sick, my innards so numb from the initial panic that I no longer felt anything. The next train arrived and I boarded it. I needed to confirm with some time that this, too, was a train that would lead me to the same station over and over. I sat there without the slightest hint of an expression on my face as 7 of the exact same station passed before me, the doors opening mockingly each time as if challenging me, challenging me to leave and explore. Maybe there’s a lapse in this world, maybe this station will lead you to an exit. Maybe you can find a glitch within this system and get your life back. Before the doors could open for an eighth time, I took out a pen and a piece of scrap paper from my leather suitcase. I needed to think. I drew a vertical line and a horizontal line. The vertical line represented the infinite layers of platforms that stretched up and down. The horizontal line represented the tunnels that also seemed to stretch on infinitely, bringing me to the exact same station time after time. I imagined that the paper was infinitely big, and replicated the lines accordingly forming a network of lines that looked like the strings on a tennis racket. I drew dots on the intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines. These were the individual platforms themselves. It was like a map of the network I was trapped in. I imagined I was stuck within this network on this piece of paper that stretched on for eternity. Then for the third time today, it all made sense.

Of course, it was that simple. The only way to leave this network could be visualized with the piece of paper I had. I didn’t have to be bound by this piece of paper even if it stretched on forever. This piece of paper was two dimensional, but that didn’t mean I had to be constrained by that. Let’s say a fly landed on an infinitely big piece of paper. It need not walk forever to find the end of this paper until it starved to death. It could just fly away from the paper. That was it! I had to find the third dimension in this world and use that to escape, and with a sudden, instinctive realization I had just the method to find it. Before the train arrived at the next station, I ran to the last carriage. Tucked in one corner were a red button, and a blue button. The red button was the emergency stop with a warning of a fine if misused. The blue button would direct me to the intercom. I quickly decided against activating the intercom. A part of me already knew I would only hear silence on the line. I was like I had already tried this alternative. You are alone in this, I thought, don’t forget that. I held my breath, and pounded down hard on the red button.

The train jerked hard and almost knocked me off my feet. I grabbed onto the rail for support as the train screeched in the act of slowing itself down. It was like the sharpening of a thousand kitchen knives. In my mind’s eye the lights flickered and the wheels produced sparks, though in reality neither of the above happened. Reality, I scoffed. Reality was sorely lacking from my day. Gathering myself, I walked over to the emergency exit at the end of the carriage and yanked on the tab. It came free and pulled along with it a bendable metal pin. It felt therapeutic, like pulling a parasitic worm out from your skin. The door slowly opened, collapsing itself away from me like the opening of an escape pod. I clambered out cautiously, prepared to face a wall of darkness.

As soon as I walked out of the train I realized it was brighter outside than I imagined. I took a few steps forward. There were small lights stuck to the tunnel wall every fifteen meters or so, and they were like a comforting constellation of stars pointing terrified sailors in the right direction. As soon as I took ten steps forward, the emergency exit whirred to life, the gears working to heave the door shut. I stood there and watched. Once the emergency door fully shut, the train came to life and started inching forward, steadily gaining momentum before disappearing from sight entirely. I supposed that the train had to keep within the rules of this world and continue on with the flow. It truly left me without any company, real or imaginary. Just gets better, this day. I couldn’t help but surmise. From being in a busy subway carriage to this: alone in a dark tunnel looking for a way out.

I realized I had to work against time. The train tunnel looked awfully narrow. Though I could probably fit myself nicely at the side, I wouldn’t want to risk getting crushed by the next oncoming train. I had to find a hatch, a door. Anything. What started off as a fast walk became a steady jog. I brushed my hand along the concrete wall of the tunnel and looked closely for any sign of a hatch. I made sure I felt the outer side of the tunnel so as to move outwards from this world. To fly away from the paper! Yes, that was it. But after fifty meters of close inspection and feeling about, I didn’t find anything. I cursed myself for not keeping track of time. Given that trains came at five-minute intervals, I had to know the amount of time I had, to the last second, and yet I was clueless. The tiny white lights zoomed past one after the other. This was a subterranean space that truly looked out of this world. In the dim light, my mind wandered back to when I was stuck in that hedge maze in Yorkshire. I felt the same sense of removal, the same sense of loneliness. The more I wandered, the less I discovered. Everything was a dead end or a repetition of the same wall of hedges. Over and over again I debated if I should just cry out for help in my loudest voice but I knew then the same thing I knew now. I was totally, unapologetically alone. Only I could help myself. That was the source of both my joy and despair. To know I had control of my fate was thrilling, yet the responsibility that begot that terrified me. My five year-old self honestly thought I may be lost in there for eternity.

But of course I wasn’t alone at the end of my hedge maze ordeal. Light after light passed me by as I remembered the handsome face of the tall German man who guided me out of the maze. My parents thanked him profusely as I clung onto them and wiped my mucus on my mother’s shorts. At the end of it, I wasn’t alone. What could this mean for my chance of escape here? That I could never conquer this alone? That I was doomed to be trapped unless a certain someone helped me? I decided right there that loneliness is underrated. This line came to me from a youthful Joseph Gordon-Levitt acting his line in 500 Days of Summer. It was funny that I would remember such an absurd moment of the film at such a time, being trapped in a never-ending series of tunnels and platforms, but the human mind dredges up the most irrelevant matters at the most stressful of times. I couldn’t help but think that we had no choice in this world but to account for ourselves. We come into this world alone and we leave it alone. If I had to die solving this problem, I would.

Such hardy resolutions quickly melted away when I saw the dim headlights of the next oncoming train in the distance. It looked like a dim candle at the end of the tunnel at first, but it was unmistakable. This light would soon glow in intensity and engulf me, crushing me against the tunnel walls. My windpipe closed up slightly and fear knocked the breath out of my lungs. Oh fuck. I may actually die here. I started thinking this for the first time. No, I was certain there was a way out. After all this time I couldn’t help but think that I’d actually been in this situation before. Whether it was my past hedge maze experience or something less tangible, I couldn’t say for sure. Anyhow, at the back of my mind one fact remained, and it was that I was going to get out of this. This was a known fact. The clear sky was as blue as my chance of escape. I felt the wall with a fierce concentration; all the while noticing the headlights grow brighter at the corner of my eye. I was at a full sprint now, covering more portions of wall then before. I suddenly felt no fear, but the steely resolution of a man with nothing to lose.

It was then that felt it. It wasn’t very remarkable and could be easily missed if your hand left the wall’s surface for just a short while. But it was unmistakable. The cold smoothness of metal against the warm jagged concrete felt like the sweet kiss of a long awaited loved one. I stopped in my tracks and felt this surface. It was about the size of a mini fridge and had a small rusty handle. I tried for the handle but it wouldn’t budge so easily. The approaching train made itself audible. It screeched and roared in the distance like a pack of hungry wolves. The headlights from the train became so glaring it illuminated this metal contraption. It was probably an emergency escape, given the size and build. It even had the manufacturer label SACKGASSE written on the surface that I hadn’t realized before. Sackgasse…wasn’t that German? I thought back on all the Europe guidebooks I read in my younger days. Yes…it was unmistakably German, though I couldn’t decipher its meaning. I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed as to how it all fit…almost too well. A German man rescued me when I was five, and I was about to escape through a German-manufactured hatch. Ignoring the coincidence, I strained to turn the handle, pounding it with my fists and kicking at it with my work shoes. I observed the area around me illuminating, and the heat of the glaring headlights could now be felt as I desperately pounded at the metal hatch.

The hatch opened with a hiss. Another bright light came from beyond the hatch. Of course, it was the light from the world that awaited me. My heart lifted. I frantically gripped both sides of the opening and pushed myself through in one swift motion. The violent air currents caused by the oncoming train helped to catapult me out into my new world, like a tennis ball leaving a tennis ball machine. It was a narrow escape. I watched the body of the train through the small hatch pass by in a blur. Again, this had the most hypnotic effect on me. It was like staring at the center of a whirlpool or the aggressive white foam created at the base of a waterfall. The power generated and the potential to be crushed to bits intrigues us, draws us in and keeps us humble.

By the time I snapped out of my trance, it was already too late. The source of light beyond the hatch was anything but from a new world. In those few seconds, I thought of the paper, how the fly thought it was so smart to try fly out of it. I pictured a fly stuck in an infinitely high stack of paper, wedged between two pieces and unable to move. Even if it could bite a hole through one piece it would end up facing another piece, then another, then another. The fly was stuck in a three-dimensional system that was determined to hold it prisoner for a long time, perhaps forever. I thought of myself, a commuter on the morning train, getting off to a world of infinite layers. I thought of the Caucasian boy I waved at, my last form of human interaction. I thought of the German man and his big hands. I thought of the world I had left behind, and the people out there, the food, the smells and the freedom. My heart shrank and withered yet pulsated madly as it would before the gallows. The air around me stood still for a split second before a great gush of wind almost knocked me off my feet. Then there was the bright light of an oncoming train, illuminating every part of me. I stood still and for the first time in my life felt afraid.

There was a bright light. I opened my eyes with a start.

I was ensconced amongst the sound of people. The train was coming to a stop.

Did I miss my stop? It is the first panicked thought of every sleepy traveller who dozes off too comfortably. I felt edgy and disorientated as I observed the people around me. An old lady looked down at me as I gathered myself. There was the faint notion of a dream. If I had been dreaming, I couldn’t remember much of it, just the abstract feeling of fear that lingered like a bad aftertaste. Could you even dream so deep on a twenty minute commute? As I wiped the cold sweat off my forehead, the door opened. I observed that the pillars on this station were a darker brown, and with a sudden realisation, bolted out of my seat. I startled the old woman who gave me a grave look of disapproval as I rushed past her out of the door. A Caucasian boy with a pink shirt waved at me and I smiled hesitantly back. I had no intention of being late for work, and even if I was late, missing my stop would be a terrible way to achieve that. Today, though, something was different.

It took me three steps out of the train to realize it. The whole platform was empty.