- James Tam
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Gollum will soon be discharged. Thirteen years had passed slowly. Some days had felt like eternity. Life is hard, but starting a new life is much harder. The sun will be up soon. Is Demon still alive?
THE pounding on the door sends him sitting bolt upright.
‘Open! Police check!’
He can’t move or think. All his blood seems to have drained. He’s cold, so cold that he can’t shiver. His stomach is churning, but too weak to throw up.
Three more knocks, ominously gentler.
An indistinct discussion outside, followed by the confused sound of keys clinking…
She stares up at him.
Through a chink in the black paper taped over the windows of the hourly motel, a dim shaft of light lands on her waxy oval face. A thick strand of greasy hair, damp with his sweat, is caught between burgundy lips — plump, dry, faintly wrinkled. They look like pig livers after a long day at the butcher’s counter.
Her dark round eyes, vacuous and wide like a voodoo doll’s, reveal a dazed trepidation.
Mud si ah? Chan Sang? What’s the matter Mr. Chan? Her abstract voice unfreezes him. He raises his hands as if to show nothing’s hidden in his palms.
Shhh. Guai guai. Be good. Be very quiet. Shhh.
He pulls the clammy blanket over her. She doesn’t protest. She never does.
The door swings wide open.
‘Police!’ A bright light shines on his face. Searing heat penetrates his frozen head, setting off a deafening ring inside.
Startled, he pees the bed. The urine keeps flowing, as if his bladder is infinite. The warmth feels comforting for an instant. The stomach lets go. He convulses violently, and vomits all over himself and the unmoving shape of her tiny body, curled up against his drenched lower body.
Gollum wakes from the familiar nightmare which hasn’t recurred for years. He used to have it so often that after a while, he could no longer tell what was dream and what had actually happened on that fateful afternoon. Gradually, the dream had stopped, and then was forgotten, perhaps. In any case, its absence has been taken for granted, until now.
His heart sends shock waves of sharp pain up his temples with every frantic contraction. His underwear and the military blanket serving as mattress are soaked.
He listens to the other inmates.
Nothing unusual. Many seem to be free again in dreamland, back in the underworld, growling bleary threats or gurgling entreaties. Nearly every night, someone would cry or howl in his sleep. Nobody complains. Prisoners understand from experience that dreams are uncontrollable and disturbing — always disturbing. But unlike Gollum, they have no idea that dreams are projected by an inner demon to poison their subconscious with blistering injustice, just to make them scream. There’s no escape.
He wipes his chin with the back of his hand, and is relieved that the vomiting did not transgress on reality. He rolls off the bed gingerly, grabs his towel, finds his slippers, and shuffles noiselessly to the open toilet area. He removes his thin cotton boxer-shorts, and wrings them hard over the sink. He can’t wash them yet. Running the tap or flushing the toilet during sleeping hours is a capital offence. The inmates are remarkably tolerant with shrieking dreams and thunderous snoring, but running water or flushing the toilet now would invite verbal, even physical, objection. As if there aren’t enough rules in jail, the inmates have made quite a few of their own for each other, often enforced more single-mindedly than the official ones.
He dries himself between the legs with the towel, then returns to bed naked. He places his T-shirt over the big wet spot, then unties his pants from the bed pole and puts them on. The dryness feels good.
Lying on the right slope of his hunchback, he stares at the plywood bed plank above. It undulates momentarily as its overweight occupant turns, making the bunkbed creak at multiple points. Fat Idiot arrived just a few days ago. Gollum thinks he’s a fake. He’s been in jail long enough to have acquired sharp eyes for deceptions, plus he knows a thing or two about simpletons. Fat Idiot had supposedly drunk and eaten well at an expensive restaurant, then announced in his overplayed stutter when the bill arrived, holding up a five dollar coin: “T…t…tis all I… I… I ha…ha…have. I… I… I… didn’t know e…e…it’s so…o…o… e…ex…ex…pensive.”
Sure. The owner had no time for poor and stupid folks. Nor did the judge. Fat Idiot got six weeks, all meals provided free of charge.
Having sank into his new position, Fat Idiot resumes snoring. He’s a phenomenal snorer even by the standards of Tong Fuk Correctional Institute. Snoring had long ago been blocked out by Gollum though. One learns to switch off things that are inevitable and ineluctable. In jail, that means practically everything — sounds, smells, bullies, threats, boredom, memories, nightmares, people, time, hopes, anxieties, the past, and future. The here and now has become Gollum’s entire lifetime — nothing before, nothing after. His previous life had been erased, wiped off, leaving a tenuous existence presently sandwiched between voids, until…
A few weeks ago, he learnt that subject to continued good behaviour, he will soon be discharged. Upon that good news, the haunting past and illusive future, including the tormenting nightmare, abruptly resurfaced. How puzzling that forgotten terrors should reappear at night, as daytime ones are about to end on — ha! — good behaviour. Is it good behaviour to adamantly deny having been tortured? That’s lying. Lying is bad behaviour. But neither torture nor lying is negotiable, so, no point dwelling on further.
Anticipating jail had petrified him sick. In the end, it turned out to be much worse than what he had imagined.
He had been deeply religious since an early age, with a strong and rigid sense of right and wrong. Though he had failed to control his Demon in deed, he had never mixed with low-lifers. Before prison, none of his acquaintances would use bad words in conversation.
Remarkably, instead of blaming God for having lost out to Demon, and failed to lead him not into temptation as requested in daily prayers, Gollum had become steadily more devout behind bars. Before each meal, he prays for a good ten minutes. The cons think he’s nuts, or feigning piety, which is rather common. Appearing religious supposedly helps parole officers to write a favourable report. Only Gollum knows that his love for God is a heartfelt passion matched only by his manic fascination with Demon.
God and Demon evidently share his soul. At first he supposed that to be the diametrically opposite competing for his allegiance. It gave him a hushed sense of importance to be a battlefield for the epic tussle. God shall prevail, he was confident. But gradually, he realised that the contenders are inseparable, like the flip-sides of a coin. More appallingly, they seem to have forged a diabolical trinity with his wretched soul.
Eventually, Demon had manifested through Gollum’s body, while God remains adamantly invisible. But his love for the Hidden One intensifies nonetheless. Every prayer is now an ecstasy.
It’s often said that the modern world has been turned upside-down. In jail, everything’s upended again, but without making it upright. The social codes and values there are generally opposite to the larger society outside. Use of language is one example. Everyone swears profusely within the confines of the penitentiary. The odd ones who don’t would appear peculiar, even dubious. Some conversations are a mere exchange of friendly expletives without conjunctions or content. With a high-pitched twang in his cuss-free speech, Gollum’s an outrageous oddity in this community.
Stature is also reversed. Since bankers are ruling-class criminals, it naturally follows that robbers are maverick insurgents. Thieves and conmen are often witty and likeable, while cops are dull and mean by near-unanimous agreement. Among other felons, drug dealers are adventurous spirits with useful contacts. Man-slaughterers are quietly revered; having killed another human is after all a hardcore qualification in the world of crime. Due to the monstrosity of their crime, psychotic serial killers command fear if not necessarily respect (though there’s a tendency to respect anything that instills fear). They also arouse curiosity and titillate the imagination.
Criminality in the inverted world of a prison is comparable to professional qualifications in the upside-down world outside, with one unfortunate exception as far as Gollum’s concerned. According to time-honoured triad tradition, one type of crime remains contemptible on this side of injustice. When a new inmate arrives for what insiders quaintly understate as feng hua — indecent offences — the whole camp shakes with indignation. The screws look the other way.
On Gollum’s first night at Shek Pik Prison, he was stark naked, crouching between two lines of sweaty men. A slipper was tied to his ‘offensive weapon’ with a string.
He tried to talk his way out: ‘Brothers, please, easy on me, I’m Christian.’
He had no idea how stupid his attempt was. Big Mo, a weathered triad with biceps shaped like lotus roots, slapped him so hard it nearly dislocated his jaw. Gollum shut the fuck up as told, and started to crawl, following the dotted line formed by blood dripping from his nose.
‘Move! Arsehole!’ Someone smacked his bare butt with a rubber slipper. It made a thunderous crack, and hurt much more than it sounded.
As he instinctively lurched, Big Mo stepped on the slipper-in-tow. ‘You fucking creep!’ He stamped and kicked hysterically until others pulled him back.
He seemed out to kill. Gollum was the only one in the room who secretly wished him success.
According to fifth-hand gossips Gollum heard much later, during one of Mo’s jail stings which he dubbed ‘business trips’, his wife had a fling with a mahjong den bouncer. The guy also made Mo’s thirteen-year-old pregnant. She was the only person Mo had never raised his voice at. The pair vanished into the mainland masses, and left Mo to deal with his daughter. Since then, Mo had become more reticent, and dangerously prone to infernal eruptions.
For weeks afterwards, Gollum did not shower. Eventually, the guards discovered him to be the source of a strange whiff of decomposition, and forced him to wash.
Gollum has not thought about Shek Pik for a long time. The memory had been successfully buried at some point. Recently, it has been exhumed, displaying shocking clarity and harrowing details which he suspects to be a farrago of fractured recollections and fearful delirium.
He’s certain of one thing though: anyone — anyone! — could spit on a feng hua without consequence.
Feng hua cons often got accidentally injured, especially at the shower quarter. Since Gollum’s victim was a retarded pre-teen girl, he was the dross of the feng hua heap, scum of the scum. That made him particularly accident-prone. He had slipped over a bar of soap numerous times, resulting in an accumulated total of three lost teeth. On those relatively serious occasions, he had to file a report detailing how he had clumsily fallen — entirely his own fault — and promised to be more careful in the future.
On more careful days, he might become the bullseye of a wet towel snapping contest.
“Hey, just for fun. What’s the fuss man? Shy?”
Si Hing, ng goy lah! ng ho wan lah! — Big brothers, please, don’t play lah — was all he would say, spreading a begging smile as wide as he could, back stooped low, hands covering his privates which had become an article of public amusement.
Fortunately, with time, his story had lost intensity, if not exactly forgotten. He had become a decaying piece of old turd, sunk to the bottom of the cesspool, thankfully unnoticed. He continued to be a popular target for bullies, but mostly just good old-fashioned humiliation rather than a desire to inflict permanent damage. Except Big Mo, of course. But Gollum had learned to avoid the broken-hearted psycho. Nevertheless, his back started to collapse, and his eyeballs bulge, as if inflated by the pressure within.
Demon was coming out.
Having served most of his term, he was transferred to low-security Tong Fuk a few years ago. Comparing with Shek Pik, Tong Fuk was Disneyland. The cons here were kind of respectful of his seniority. After all, he had come from Shek Pik, and survived tough guys. He had even served meals to the Rainy Night Butcher, the psychotic serial killer from the 1980s who had dissected his female victims and kept their preserved body parts at home.
‘He’s in isolated confinement. Never speaks with anyone.’ Gollum would occasionally offer selective anecdotes from Shek Pik to impress his new cellmates. ‘He doesn’t smoke or eat junk food. He spends all his salary on mail-ordered anatomy and dissection books, some expensive ones. They’re all over his cell.’
‘Holy Jesus mother fuck! Creeps me right out man. Dissection books? What the fuck for?’
The boys were spooked and puzzled. Gollum felt a strange pang of pathetic satisfaction. He suddenly realised he hadn’t been listened to for ages. He felt like explaining it’s all for the Demon inside. But he just shrugged instead, and smiled his missionary smile.
Thirteen painfully slow years, two long months, and three unbearably anxious weeks all seem a blink of the eye in retrospect. In five weeks, Gollum’s supposed to start anew. How? He doesn’t have a clue, and nobody will tell him.
Life is hard, but starting a new life is much harder.
He can’t wait to walk out of this hell hole, provided it isn’t this very minute. He wants out as soon as possible, but not now. If he could choose, he’d prefer to approach freedom at an exhilarating pace, full of sunshine hope and anticipation, but never quite get there.
The stress of imminent discharge takes Gollum by surprise. He could not have imagined that getting out is even more distressing than being thrown in. Once sentenced, everything was taken out of his hand. There was nothing left for him to decide. Just follow instructions. No questions. Obey, and avoid Big Mo. Then life goes on. On the contrary, leaving jail after thirteen years requires decisions on numerous undefined problems.
‘You’ll soon be on your own again,’ the officer repeated his hackneyed advice in their first review meeting. ‘The world out there has changed a fuck of a lot you know…’ He interrupted his duty with a loud yawn. ‘Be very fucking careful.’
It sounds like everything is extremely dangerous yet avoidable out there if one is good and responsible. But how?!
‘Watch your every single fucking step,’ the counsellor jabbed the grey metal desk with his index finger to underscore his advice. ‘Any fucking slip, you’ll end up back here before you can say Wong Tai Sin.’ He then looked up at Gollum who was standing in attention, and added with a grin: ‘Or Shek Pik.’
‘Thank you. Ah Sir. I understand.’
‘One more thing. Because of your romantic record, I’d stay away from girls if I were you. And keep that fucking thing inside your pants,’ the officer said, pointing at Gollum crotch. Gollum felt a wave of hackles surfing his hump like a rollercoaster train.
‘Ah Sir. Don’t worry. I’m 53 already. No more lah.’ He gave his missionary smile reflexively. How can he not behave anyways? Most of that thing had atrophied, completely withdrawn years ago.
She would turn twenty-four in two weeks, a grown woman with full breasts rather than a little girl with sensitive tiny buds. Luckily, I’ll still be in. Right away, Gollum notices the mental Freudian slip. Luckily?
Everyone had called him a monster. His subsequently divorced wife; siblings; colleagues; the newspapers; his Church friends who were supposedly all-forgiving; and the Judge: ‘I hate to call you a monster, but can think of no other fitting description. You took advantage of a young girl with mental handicap. A little girl who trusted you because you pretended to be a man of God. You’re a disgrace to the community, your church, your family, and yourself. I hope you’ll spend the next twenty years in prison reflecting upon the unspeakable evil you have done to the innocent girl whose life you have cold-bloodedly ruined, just to satisfy bestial desires.’
He didn’t look like a monster at the time though.
At Shek Pik, they even called him Valentino. Big Mo gave him the nickname as he stamped and kicked and shrieked: ‘You fucking creep. You think you’re fucking Valentino huh?’ The string finally broke. The boys laughed, and the name stuck. Hey! You! Valentino! Over here!
Five weeks from now, I might be walking home from work, late at night, in a Mong Kok side street. Coming from the opposite direction is a huge shadow. It stops when we meet under the street lamp. Big Mo is drunk and angry, angrier than usual…
Gollum shudders at the possibility. He involuntarily raises a fist to his mouth. It smells like pee.
He has read hundreds of books in the past decade. His favourites are anything Freudian, especially wild interpretations of the psychiatrist’s erotic mirages.
This great man understands my Demon…
During the past thirteen years, Gollum’s Demon had inched out of the shadow, transforming His host. His back had gradually collapsed, giving his gaunt body a warped profile. His hair had turned dirty grey, with random bald patches. His teeth had grown unnaturally long. Five are missing, three due to accidents. His large eyes bulge out so much now they nearly touch the lens of his diving mask size glasses. When he looks at them in the mirror, they never look back. The young thugs at Tong Fuk call him Gollum. He had no idea what it meant until he saw a Lord of the Rings poster. He laughed, and secretly wept. He’s Gollum, no doubt about that. He takes his new nickname graciously, responding to it with his missionary smile. He had endured hardcore abuse. A nasty epithet is nothing. Just that the startling resemblance hurts.
Regardless of his dramatically transformed appearance, he somehow feels sure that she’d spot him at a glance, like Holocaust victims pick out Nazis in a Brazilian flea market decades later. He wouldn’t recognise himself had he not been witnessing the gradual transmogrification. But as a kid, she was inordinately sharp in visual perception. It seems that whatever denied in her brain had been more than compensated for in the eyes. Would she recognise me on the street? The question has been haunting him since his meeting with the officer.
Chan Sang! Mr. Chan! Remember me? It’s Lin Lin ah. You taught me Bible. You took me to dark rooms to make special offers. You told me never to tell, or God will punish me and Mum. I never! I swear to God! But the police woman scared me. She was very kind but scary. It’s okay to tell the police, right? Will God punish me for that? Wui ng wui ah Chan Sang?
Fat Idiot blows a deep fart, then grunts and turns again. The bunkbed reverberates with delayed response. The soothing darkness outside lightens up softly. Early birds lead an advance chorus. The sun will be up soon. Nothing can hide in its uncompromising light. How will Demon survive?
Gollum closes his eyes, and notices himself trembling uncontrollably.