The sky was greying. Shadows were lengthening, creeping slowly and fading surely as darkness descended to claim the realm. The young crescent moon was awakening to ascend to her throne amongst the night sparkling gems. She peeked silently through the dark tree branches clawing stubbornly on the already darkened heaven. Cicadas and crickets too were awakening tuning for their nocturnal ensemble. Gentle south westerly breeze was blowing serenely and whispering refreshingly into the calm surround of RH@Nassim, our home away from home.
Orientation was long over, fond memories were etched for life and friendships forged for posterity. No more the freshmen-seniors divide. We were all Rhafflesians, one strong and mighty family, marooned away from our families. No more orientation regimentation. Freshmen were glad to have survived the experience, fun to a few, ordeal to some and definitely ragging to many. Now they could be in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops till kingdom come with the heck care attitude. Food however remained unchanged, albeit passable.
Soon, lights were flickering on along the corridors and in most rooms, dispelling growing darkness without, albeit only for a few meters. For many, “Martianing” had begun in earnest as expected by our parents. We were undergraduates in one of the world’s finest universities. Soft singing and whistling could be heard from the bathrooms. Suppressed humming from the washing machine droned on. A lone motorcycle rambled into the parking lot.
The boisterous Rueben Manasseh Dining Hall was almost deserted, subdued. Clattering of cutlery on stainless steel trays was sporadic above muted chatters. Few late diners were hastily gulping down their dinner for the kitchen was closing for the night soon.
RH Ruggers, all lean and all mean sons of the gun, were swaggering vociferously into the dining hall. They were bragging raucously of earlier touchdowns and takedowns. They were unhurried despite dinner being reserved for them was fast turning cold for they ate lead for breakfast or so they claimed. They were still in sweat drenched jerseys and they stank, pheromone to a few, malodorous repellent to many.
Some were just sitting on lazy rattan chairs catching up on the latest gossips on the patio overlooking idyllic RH Valley. They paid neither interest nor attention to the revelry along the monsoon drain in the valley where one poor soul was lying in the drain downstream some 21 guys. He appeared oddly blissful, lips muttering some sort of prayer or spell. He was truly unaware of what was installed for him or was just humoring the 21 gunners. Suddenly, all hell broke loose and they ran helter-skelter leaving the birthday boy all drenched in their 21-gun salutary piss.
Blue and red light flickered silently above a cruiser as it swerved to a stop and two men in blue alighted. The ruckus cheering and jeering stopped almost immediately. After a muttered discussion over the walkie-talkie, they walked briskly towards the badminton courts behind the kitchen. As if practiced, the badminton captain would detach himself and walked to meet them.
He was reminded to keep the racket down for there were complaints from the neighborhood. He nodded understandably. No sooner had the cruiser disappeared around the corner, the racket began to creep up again in decibel, a regular routine and habitual charade.
Regular TV addicts were already bolted in front of the telly for their nightly dose of their favourite Hong Kong drama series. One or two paired shadows could be seen ambling romantically towards the lush tropical Botanic Gardens.
Cracks of billiard balls followed by an exhilarating shout and claps of encouragement emanated from the smoke shrouded Billiard Room. Soft music drifted from the Music Room above muffled snores. Sounds of laser gun blasting away and exploding alien spacecrafts echoed from the Games Room added to the night’s cacophony.
Occasional paging pierced the silent corridors alerting and beckoning a happy recipient to an incoming call from missed or loved ones from home. A slammed door followed by hurried footfalls along the corridor and down the stairs, two or three steps a time, to pick the incoming phone.
Incoming calls were usually for urgent matters or emergencies and rarely for idle chatter for phone calls were very expensive then. Those were the pre-mobile phone days. Communications with family back home were by snail mails, expensive telephones or urgent telegrams. No internet or e-mails or Skype or Iphone or Vibers or Whatsapp or whatsoever or what not.
RH had only one telephone without the usual numeric push buttons or rotary dail specifically for incoming calls. It was strategically located at the high traffic ground floor of the common staircase, sort of along a busy highway where someone would be around to pick up the call, anytime, all the time, conducive. Why bright orange? I haven’t the slightest idea, and well, why the hell not. POTUS has his red phone, FLOTUS probably pink hence RH can have her orange one and a fluorescent bright one in case of blackouts, I guessed.
There were, if my memory serves me correctly, three outgoing telephones. They were the ubiquitous rectangular stainless steel box type. They were akin to ferocious and cold blooded red-eye cyclops with ravenous and insatiable appetite for coins. Not lullaby from a golden harp but only coins could lull the cyclopes to slumber, always fleetingly short. Any delay in feeding the cyclops with coins once its red eye started to blink the wretched cyclops would just cut off the call regardless or urgency without mercy or pity. No coins no call, just like no gold no ride from the Ferryman of River Styx.
As in any tales of old, poverty and necessity were indeed the twin mothers of creative mischief. Various ideas, hypotheses, tests and re-engineering procedures were experimented, and soon a workable solution was found. Admittedly, it was a rather simple solution, simply ingenious.
First cellophane-tape a tread at least 9 inches in length to a coin, preferably the heaviest and largest coin. Remove the handset from its cradle and drop the coin through the coin slot till the red eye indicator light blinks off. Put some tension by tugging on the other end of tread to hold the coin in place and cellophane-tape it to hold the coin in place to trick the phone. Voila, the phone is prep for a free call. Replace the handset back to its cradle and un-tape the tread and let the coin slide out with the tread.
Further, Providence was smiling on poor Rafflesians in the final quarter of the Academic Year when one of the cyclopes went under a magical spell and fell into a deep and indefinite slumber with no appetite for coins. Not even kisses from Snow White could wake him up. Not that there were any Snow Whites at RH anyway. So, it was free calls galore at anytime, to anywhere and for anyone.
RH had no cafeteria back then to cater for late night supper. Many had to be contented with instant Maggi noodles much to the dismay of the cleaners who had to clear hair from choking floor gullies and male urinals. Some early and lucky ones could buy a packet or two homemade nasi lemak, the simply “yummilicious” fragrant coconut milk rice with sambal anchovies, from the “Pakcik” security guard.
Ambulatory and adventurous ones would usually sup at either A&W@Dunearn Road for burgers or Sarabat@ Adams Road for prata, fried noodles and Indian rojak. A few notorious ones would return occasionally with the celebrated A&W root beer mugs as food raid booty. They would smugly display them as trophy and somehow weave exaggerations into their bragging yarn for any willing listening ears.
Brave ones, probably reckless and definitely mentally disordered too, would play chicken on the Bukit Timah/Dunearn Road by wagering on the most number of push-ups on the middle of the road in the face of oncoming traffic. No prize for the champion. They did huff and puff just to experience the thrill of adrenaline surges. Gratefully, all returned unscathed. Sadly, none came back any wiser from such folly for one too many did paralyze in the headlights. Luckily, they were saved in the nick of time, every time and all the time.
As the moon peaked at her zenith, slumber had already descended upon most at RH as room lights were gradually switched off leaving only the corridor lights and a handful room lights from “Martians” on graveyard shift to feebly and faintly fend off complete dark embrace of the cool and tranquil night before dawn.
“September, November or maybe December
Not Gunpowder Treason but RH plot
I see no reason why not to remember
But hey who cares and why not
Twas my intent
To blow up RH affair and event
Two score less nine years ago
Old RH to be fondly re-told”
(Adapted from Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot)