Ozek started it off with fifty-cents that he stole from the change left out on the counter by a distracted convenience store cashier before she could put them all into the register. For that, she could thank the asshole who thought leaving out all the coins he had in his pocket in exchange for two cans of beer was enough to impress the girl he was trying to flirt with. I asked Ozek why he didn’t take more since he had the chance and I thought he’d probably have a really good reason for that, but he just shrugged and threw his head forward slightly in gargly laughter and said that he felt like fifty-cents was “right on the money”. He said that while twirling the little dreadlocked clump of hair away from his forehead.
“Where do you wanna go, Sté?”. He’d always ask me even though he knew I never had anything in mind that was clear enough. I gestured the question back to him and dropped my board on its wheels in a way that was trying to be casual. The maplewood gave that familiar crispy squeak as I tic-tacked diagonally ahead of him, trying to see whether I could get him to chase after me a little, bend his will around me a little. He continued to walk with his under his arms and in both his pockets. Somehow, even in the slow haze of his measured movements, he still manages to keep up with my pace. And that’s how it always was, Ozek and me. Caught in a strange tangle.
Ozek and I kind of go back quite a ways even though we hadn’t actually known each other for that long of a time. It’s been maybe only a couple of years since secondary school, but it felt like he had always been there, like a fixture that you walk past every day but never acknowledged its existence until you accidentally walked into it one day and realised that it was there. I mean this literally in some sense because when I first met him, he was running into me trucks-first trying to manual his way out of the classroom block. He clipped me in the leg and there was a lot of blood, but I didn’t mind it because of how insatiably new it felt. Up to that point, I never knew what it felt like to have so much red running veinlike down your shins and I remember thinking that it was a lot less viscous than I’d imagined. Life hadn’t marked me the way it has marked some as a reminder that at the sinew of muscle and bone was paper. Blood was the architect of these almost-mythological bodies, as fragile as they were powerful, and the pain stung like comforting hell in a way that made its home in the back of my mind. I lost something both profound and inarticulate at that moment, but it felt also like I’d just been through a rite of passage that everyone had, like getting a finger stuck between elevator doors or touching a boiling kettle. All this time I’d been slipping and sliding, and between that and the lack of sleep I either felt like I was sedated or wanted to be. In Ozek I first recognized that we were both runty little kids with nothing else to live for although he had his skateboard at least, and I wanted the skid marks, road rash, and greasy hands that would give me the same sense of irreverence because you can only act like you don’t care if you had something to care about. So I asked him to teach me.
We’d ride after class, sometimes even before. Numbering those years were the lies, the adrenaline, the feigned illnesses and the mad scramble away from security guards as we threw our boards over tall fences. We eventually found a spot to call our own, and draped it in leathery, hard-boiled accounts of our skating exploits: hits, near-misses, injuries, the whole messy shindig. It never really belonged to us—does anywhere ever belong to anyone? But if Coleridge could take Xanadu from Khan, we didn’t see why we couldn’t claim the old mall.
For years, home was the old mall that aged as well as the old folk that owned the shops in it. It was supposedly quite the site in its heyday, a mid-century vision of upmarket appeal and capitalist ambition when it was first built, a palace of the proverbial “third place”. It was the first time anyone had seen so much white, just so much unmarked, unblemished, fresh-as-hell white paint cascading down in concrete tiers from windowed ceilings, the kind of white that blinds even in memories darkened by time. The gloss from the sunlight overhead illuminated the interiors and made the levels look even loftier than they already were, too high up to be touched by graffiti or the dust from down below. Even so, everyone dove into the mall on weekends anyway because if there’s anything that could set differences aside and make people forget about life for awhile, it’s air-conditioning. It’s the mark of everyday human triumph over nature in which the novelty of indoor plant features in a tropical city remains unfettered by its irony. A real landmark of modern comfort it was, and for a long time this town would gather here within the gilded enclosure of its temperature-controlled core, charmed by the light falling grid-like upon childrens’ faces as parents could afford to roll their sleeves down a little more. It was sweet, how charming the whole scene was, but a city never can love itself in the same way for too long.
These stories I heard from the old folks who inherited the shops and their childhood from the mall. Days of peering at customers from behind the counter on the tips of their toes gave way to the retrospective moment when they realized that their ambitions were way past them while walking through the atrium one unexceptional night after closing, lit only by a single sympathetic lamp left out by security. Decades later, the building’s facade became as depressed as their spirits after later waves of gentrification brought in some major real estate further upstream. The dying was slow and undignified; you could see the shine go out from its concrete face as the sun barely made it through windows clouded with dust. Too many leaks began to spring in places that weren’t worth fixing, and as stores began to close, the exposed walls began to look too severe especially when compared to the off-whites that were the colour of changing times. As it stands now, the old mall with its dead ferns and yawning, empty space was the image of a betrayal. The city spurned it. Its people gave up on it. That’s what we’ve been told and that’s what I believe when I see the few renegades that are left, their aged shoulders sloped and sagging like the wallpapers that have outlived their rooms as the people here recounted the time they began to notice an echo in their voices.
I still don’t know how the rent gets paid and how a living can be made in this corpse of an establishment, but I’ll leave it up to the mystery of this place and have enough respect for it to not want to unravel it all. Ozek and I first tried to skate in the old mall because we were feeling belligerent and cool, but we were humbled at how no one gave a shit about our teen egos. They didn’t give a shit because what’s another broken railing or dirty wall in another decrepit building? We thought we were the kings of the world when we snuck a trick or two on the empty fifth floor corridor, but in the face of Uncle Eng as he looked at us from his storefront across the mall, we recognized how squalid our universe was. Eng smiled his toothy smile and told us in not so many words that while he wasn’t the master of this empire—none of them were—we really were just young punks, even to them. The shots he fired prickled to the bone, but within the heat of our embarrassment and their casual pretense of disapproval, Eng and the rest of the old folk there let us ride there any time we wanted.
We broke their disillusionment as we broke the rules. We made them up as we went. A new piece of the building would crumble every now and then, and we’d rearrange the furniture and turn it into a new feature in our makeshift park. Sometimes folks would take a break from lounging in their stores and peer over the balcony to watch us, bodies being thrown like bricks as we fought losing battles against the laws of physics. Occasionally we won and took victory laps around the atrium. I’d crouch on my board like I was surfing on concrete and let my fingertips sweep across the tiled floors. The grout passed under me like thin grey ocean waves that have simmered and petrified underneath the blank moonlight of this great and prelapsarian island, a garden of steel and synthetic rot. I drew my name in the dust and blew it all away.
For a long time though, we couldn’t shake the feeling that our freedom was borrowed. On a skateboard you become an encroacher, constantly having to claim your space and protect it doggedly whether it’s by tagging a wall or staring someone else down. But with the old mall we almost had too much respect for it. Ozek and I still skated with the same physical abandon as before, but emotionally it sometimes felt like church, that we had to be precious with our time there because it was not entirely ours. Subconsciously, we numbered the days we spent, waiting for someone to kick us out once they got tired of us. Boosting over walls and fences was a thrill in itself, but it was also nice to have somewhere to be a testament to all your victories and defeats; the former measured in dents and nicks on industrial bodies, and the latter by the cuts and bruises on yours. Even though we tried hard to speak the language of misunderstood rebellion and caged independence, our voices were soft and adolescent; swagger tilted by an anxiety for a place that would still remind us to head home when you hear the dogs howl and the fat lady sing—usually from the stairwell of the third floor as she closes for the night.
People in the old mall traded mutual understanding not in conversations but in slight gestures and knowing looks. For a long time I couldn’t cut through the thickness of it all and decipher how much this place meant to me and what it meant for us to be there. Have we been trespassing all this time, or are we part of this ragtag bunch waiting for the time they’ll pull the carpet out from under us and tear this place down? Our camaraderie was never entirely easy, but there was a moment in time where I felt that maybe some room had been made for us at this table of odd folk. In return, they got to be entertained by b-roll fails and the awkward, haphazard dance of imbalance as we tried to do kickflips over a feature that we constructed—a gap formed between two wheelchair ramps on either side of a short staircase landing at the entrance of the building. The sun crawled into my teeth and eye as frustration festered in a heat too muggy to pretend like I was all cool about it, and I eventually gave up and board-stomped my way into Uncle Eng who, in his old-fashioned sort of way, asked me if that was it. If there was any hint of condescension, I was too caught up in the mystical feeling of the moment to notice as he slowed down time, words swimming, and said to me that nobody had thought about those steps for decades until I did, so I might as well put my name down on it in blood or in glory. For a split second he seemed completely unmysterious to me—that flight of stairs was more than just concrete and both of us knew it. I did eventually land it, not on the same day but days or maybe months later, and even though the blood I had shed dissipated in dust, I claimed it for me, for Ozek, for old Eng and everyone else who still chose to be in the building. I carved my initials on the highest step of the stairs using a sewing machine needle I took from the floor of a defunct tailor’s shop and rubbed it into the earth with the toes of my gum-soled sneakers.
Ozek and I were now lazily speeding past the tailor where I got the needle, past the nasi padang store that we used to get our post-skate grub from, and past Eng’s provision store. “I guess it’s time, huh,” I said as I looked back at him peripherally. His silent acknowledgment confirming what we were both feeling, and he ran his hands over the walls as we stewed in a raging silence. I bent down and swiped a broken tile as a souvenir on the way out, still a little shiny with the black that bordered the old mall’s original logo that no one paid any attention to as they walked through the entrance in search of good times. I now have a piece of the path covered with the dirt of forgotten years. It’s cool, but I’m not about to get all sentimental about it.
The green of the exit sign lit the way as one of the very last things that had electric life flowing through it; it was getting dark and the only vision we had was from the sign’s muddy glow and patches of moonlight streaming through from where glass fell from the skylight. As it loomed, we turned left against it, just as we planned; we had to give it the dignity of a skater’s send-off not through what used to be the grand entrance of the old mall, but in the cover of shadows through prohibited doors, loading bays, and narrow labyrinthian corridors snaking into side-exits. Through the gift shop it was certainly not, but the narrow and dangerous profile of the fire escape suited us just fine. I savoured the lingering sounds of metal against mortar as we made our way down the ladder for the very last time. “Well this didn’t last long,” Ozek said, picking up a large sign that had been left among the debris in the courtyard on the way out. It had today’s date scrawled over with graffiti in a child’s handwriting. “Neither will we,” I offered without looking at him. Holding it precariously for a moment, he followed my gaze to the facade of the old mall as the first bricks fell, but our feet were already crunching gravel before we could hear them hit the ground. Fences shook, wood split against asphalt, and we were off.
Olivia Djawoto writes about time and space to make up for lost time and space. Currently working at a local arts non-profit organisation, she embraces the literary arts as a profession and as pleasure. Graduating from Nanyang Technological University with an MA in English Literature, her critical essays have been published in academic journals such as Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings and FORUM by The University of Edinburgh.