Orange payphones

An old photo of three children and their father on bicycles in the park
Photo by Jennifer.


I write to you while mulling over the idea of rootlessness. The things we thought impregnable, unchangeable, have been rendered inactive, almost comatose; things we could once only imagine in dystopias move in and among us, treading softly and, sometimes, insidiously. Sure, we go about our daily activities doing the best we can, but the sense of being unmoored persists.

I recently finished reading the new edition of Heartland, Ethos’ latest offering, where the protagonist, Wing, finds himself in a not-too-dissimilar predicament. As he exits his schooling years, enters National Service and feels his way around in the time in between, he finds himself in a peculiar position—refusing to step forward yet unwilling to remain unmoving, the overarching struggle distilled keenly into the question: “Where do I go from here?”

I remember struggling as Wing did, especially during NS, where the days felt like they didn’t belong to me, but through which I was still required to plough. I remember in particular the beginning: receiving my ‘A’ Level results on one day, then sailing away to a different island the next. The trepidation, uncertainty and weight present in the struggle of moving away from a place of familiarity and towards one of potential alienation seemed to bring everything to a standstill—stop, in the name of liminality.

At the same time, I found myself re-experiencing the joy and lightness of my childhood, transported back to the era of the ‘90s where public pay phones stood sentinel at void decks, non-airconditioned buses plied their routes, and mama shops were a more common sight than self-collect letterbox kiosks. I remember once in primary school where I needed to use a pay phone to call my mother, after staying back for a supplementary lesson. The moment I brought the handset to my face, I realised the bottom half of the receiver smelled much like either it was dipped into a vat of saliva then left to dry over several weeks, or someone’s 5-day old breath—I never used that particular pay phone again.

What memories do you have, dear Reader, that anchor you? At some point, everything was an “unprecedented time”; in this space between the familiar and the alien, look for someone to take refuge in, something to hold on to. May we never find ourselves stuck without hope.


(From September 18, 2021)

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