By Eugene Lim
The first thing you notice is that the sand is gone. It has been replaced by sterile rubber mats – an unsurprising, even laudable, development (think of the children!), but you prefer the sand anyway. There was something different, something invitingly simple and primeval about it. You can almost feel it scrunching between your toes, those sun-kissed kernels of earth.
Yes, you definitely miss the sand. It forms the gritty bedrock of your memory that somehow made it seem solid and real. Without it, time drops a thick veil over the past until everything appears recognizably unfamiliar to you, like the peculiar sensation of déjà vu. You were here. You were never here.
Stay. Be patient. As time passes, the veil sways in its wake, and you catch a glimpse of the playground of your childhood.
Built in 1993, the imaginatively-named Choa Chu Kang Mega Playground was one of the last of its breed of locally-designed playgrounds, before the holy trinity of safety, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness decreed the use of imported modular sets from international suppliers. Located at the heart of the Choa Chu Kang public housing district, it had a slide, a see-saw, rubber tire swings, a zip-line, and a twelve feet high rope climbing pyramid.
You remember the pyramid. Through the fish-eye lens of a child, twelve feet became a hundred, a hundred became a thousand, and yet you climbed anyway. You grasped each frayed cord with your stubby fingers as if your life depended on it – which, given the state of those ropes, it probably did. Once in a while, you couldn’t help but peek down at the shrinking landscape below, wondering if anyone was watching you slip through the clutches of gravity. From that dizzying height (or so you imagined), it was impossible to tell. Everything was basked in the red glow of evening. The sultry air blanketing the playground tugged at you with every drip-drop of sweat. Your heart caught in your throat. You went too far, you left too soon. And yet you climbed anyway.
At some unknown point you reached the top. Glaring out from the peak, you surveyed your kingdom. It was a motley collection: the hardscrabble desert with the barest of weeds holding on for dear life, the broken-down edifices signifying nothing, and the noisy ant-people overrunning the place. The wind rose slightly, and you breathed the ambiguous aroma of tropical suburbia: a curious blend of scorched asphalt and damp topsoil. You felt glad to be alive. It was enough.
As one of the newest estates at that time (significant construction works only started in 1985), Choa Chu Kang had little to offer: a handful of sleepy shops, empty lots, and monotonous rows of Housing Development Board flats. One of the top attractions was the nearby goat farm. But it was cheap and new, perfect for young couples looking to start a family. By 2000, children under the age of fifteen made up a third of the total population.
Y2K. A new millennium. Your fifth birthday. You got a beautiful blue bicycle with training wheels, your ticket out of your block of flats and into the world beyond. Every midday afternoon, when it made no difference how many showers you took – the steaming air clung to your skin the moment you stepped out of the bathroom – you got on your bike, crossed a car park, and went to the playground.
The routine was the same, varying only in the sequence of events. You climbed the monkey bars with your friends, each starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle, where you wrestled with each other, grappling with your legs, trying to pull the other down from the bars. After a few seconds of frenzied struggling, someone would fall with a shout, hitting the soft sand below. You brushed each other off, and went at it again. Then on to ice-and-water, or freeze tag, jumping up the platforms, escaping through the slides, a mess of screaming, running, tumbling, until your forearms were caked in sand and sweat and you couldn’t find your slippers. Flopping down under a tree, you plucked an unfortunate ixora flower and sipped nectar from its base. A plane hummed overhead, joining the chorus of chirping cicadas and rustling leaves. The warm sun tingled and seeped through your bones. It was enough.
2003. The auspicious new millennium showed its true colors at last, in typical catastrophic fashion. And for its second act – a mysterious, deadly disease. SARS, a single sinister syllable that seethed through the teeth and proliferated like panic among a people caught in a fit of end-times millennialism. No vaccine. No cure. It would end almost as quickly as it began, but in the meantime no one knew what to expect. Schools were closed for three weeks. You stayed at home. The playground was out of bounds until it was all over.
You whiled the idle hours away, letting the days blend into one another without variation. You felt nervous, confined. You had the ominous inkling that those days could not last, that the elastic time of childhood was speeding up and stretching itself out until the days were neatly partitioned into the hours and minutes and seconds of grown-ups. You needed to return to the playground and put time back in its proper place, to preserve those precious moments of childhood before they were lost.
When you finally returned, it was different. People were warned to avoid physical contact. A single sneeze sent crowds scurrying away. What more a germy, dirty old playground, with a sandpit filled with cigarette butts, sweet wrappers, and all kinds of trash? And worse, other kids! Better to stay at home. Besides, the exams were coming. You gingerly climbed up the monkey bars, but you had grown too tall and your feet dragged across the ground. The slide was too narrow. The twelve feet high pyramid remained only twelve feet high. It was as if someone had pulled the rug out from under the place while you were gone. You stopped going to the playground not too long after that.
You moved away the next year. From time to time, you heard snippets of news about the old neighborhood. They finally got rid of the graffiti. The swings were torn down. They’re rebuilding the playground. You had other things to think about. You worried about your hours and minutes and seconds. You grew up.
You thought you grew up. But that one summer’s day at the playground never left you.
Everyone has that one scene that forever defines their childhood: a secret garden, a magic mountain, packed tight like grains of sand in our souls. It is at once immutable and impossible; you can never be certain and yet you are certain that this picture-perfect ideal ever existed. You seek to reassure yourself: here are the grubby kids, shorts and slippers, chattering in Singlish; here are the cement footpaths you ran barefoot on; here is the tree, alive and well – but where is the sand? The pyramid? The past? It slips through your fingers. No, you must see it for yourself and grab hold of it with your own hands. You won’t let it go without a fight. And so, even after all those years, some primordial instinct eventually compels you to return in search of lost time. You must confront your memories. You get on your bike and go to the playground.
It is the rainy season and the sun has long fled the scene, taking cover behind an ominous bank of clouds. The wind is picking up, and you catch a whiff of the sharp, earthy scent of petrichor that announces the arrival of rain. The children have gone home. You duck behind the old tree, hoping to wait out a mild drizzle. But then a god clears his throat and the sky rumbles. No, you’re not wanted here. You must go.
You take one last, long look at the playground. It is empty, cold, distant. But in that instant you are once again struck by the strange feeling of déjà vu. You are five again. You are climbing up the towering pyramid. You are hanging from the monkey bars. You are on the swings, going higher, higher, higher…
You were here. You were never here.
A thunderous flash of lightning. Icy sheets of rain dash towards the earth.
You are here.
Eugene Lim ’18 is in Silliman College. Contact him at email@example.com