Twelve years on

The sound of a ringtone echoed in the jungle as night fell, breaking the silence. It was a campy one but then, to one of the tens of men who were far away from civilization it represented the sound of heaven.

A man got up from sitting on the damp grass, plucked out a phone – wrapped up and waterproofed in a Ziploc bag – from his pocket, and strayed away from a group of wet, tired and bleary-eyed men. Despite his hushed tones, all within earshot could hear the sweet nothings exchanged between him and a feminine voice on the other line.

It was that quiet.

He watched the man, who had wandered a fair distance from the group and was immersed in the conversation. With a ring on his finger and from casual conversations exchanged, it needn’t a genius to work out who this caller was. Almost instantly, it reminded the other men within the group to whip out their own Ziploc bags and check their phones.

The stench of unwashed bodies lingered. No one bothered about it as all and sundry smelled the same. It was the second day in the jungle and in between periods of waiting, the only thing that kept most men sane were the precious connection cradled in their pockets and wrapped in plastic to their beloveds. (For those who smoke, there was always that precious packet of ciggies tucked somewhere in their uniforms.)

It was “most” only because not all of them were married, much less him.

***

More than a decade ago when he was first wore jungle green, there was a body of water he had to cross each week twice. On an island a 45-minute boat ride away from civilisation, 30 young men huddled together in a longhouse which they came to know as a “bunk”. Mobile phones were banned then. In their place, a coin-operated phone outside each bunk represented each man’s connection to something close to nirvana.

Long queues would form each evening during the dinner break. Conversations were limited to five minute as anything longer would invite a torrent of “tsks” from the men behind, eager to hear the voice of their beloveds.

For him, there was no one. He could call the ex-sarong kebaya girl, but given they rarely talk at home, it would be most awkward. There were female friends, but a call every evening – even for five minutes – felt odd. So while 90% of the men took the opportunity to maintain their sanity in a sea of jungle green, he, like the rest of the 10%, indulged in idle chatter, a smoke or a pack of Ovaltine biscuits while pottering about in the longhouse.

Weekends were not-so-fondly remembered for the throngs of young ladies waiting for their men at Tampines MRT station or (for those who are desperately eager to see their beloveds) at the bus interchange. Hand-in-hand and arms-wrapped-around-arms, couples – one clad in jungle green and the other stealing ill-disguised, forlorn glances every now and then – they lingered at the mall, dined at the food court and whispered sweet nothing into each other’s ears. The reverse will happen on book-in days with throngs of females – some with tears in their eyes – bade their men farewell as they boarded the bus.

For the rest of the unfortunate ones (particularly those who lived on the other side of the world), Tampines represented the first and last stop of a long and quiet journey back to and from the warmth of their homes. Nodding off in the trains was a popular activity and so was ogling at anything that moved in a skirt.

***

The extent of which technology changed lifestyles could not be felt more than the fact that there were now fewer coin-operated phones in camps. There were no longer long queues either. Instead, with most of them wearing rings on their fingers now, it was common to see men lying on their beds, moving their thumbs frantically, or walking along the common areas with phones pressed onto their ears. For many of them, there is more than one beloved in their lives now, because kids and babies had arrived.

Despite the passing of time, effects of technology and different locations, some things didn’t change. Like the younger version of him twelve years ago, he still pottered about in the bunk while casting mildly envious glances at bunkmates who were engaged in conversations with their spouses, which he eavesdropped unwittingly.

His mobile phone remained in the locker. On vibration mode to ward off unwanted attention, it moved only when messages came in, informing him of this sales promotion or that attractive one-for-one offer from organisations (not even people) that mattered little to him.

And on weekends, there were no large groups of females waiting at the gates, MRT stations or at interchanges. Instead, a convoy of Mercedes, Toyotas and Nissans would zip out of the gates, carrying men who were just a few expressways away from going back to see their beloveds. For the small minority without cars or beloveds, it represented another long and quiet journey back to simply the warmth of their homes.

At a certain age now, anything that moves in a skirt no longer interest them as it did twelve long years ago.

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