by Ho Soon Hoe
On a hot and humid evening, when the rays of the setting sun could be seen falling on the tops of the trees that lined the road, casting long shadows on the ground below, a double-decker bus had just pulled up beside the bus stop along the road and a crowd of people was jostling their way to the entrance of the bus. It was the usual evening crowd as office workers from the buildings nearby made their way home after a long and hard day’s work.
Amidst that crowd was a young soldier. In his crisp green uniform with a black haversack slung casually on his left shoulder, he looked smart and handsome. His name, rank and vocation badge were all displayed prominently on his uniform, making it plain to everyone who cared to look that he was Second Sergeant Mohamed Luqman, an Infantry Specialist in the Singaporean Army.
Luckily for that crowd, the double-decker bus was quite empty and there were more than enough seats for every incoming passenger. Our Sergeant found an empty seat on the first deck and sat down; sitting beside him was a frail elderly woman who was staring out of the window. Upon sitting down, he promptly took out an iPod from his pocket and began listening to his favourite tracks. Our Sergeant always enjoyed his bus rides home, for the bus was air-conditioned, the journey was long, and he had enough time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride while listening to his favourite songs on his iPod. That evening was no different, and our Sergeant felt so comfortable on his seat that in no time he was nodding off to sleep.
He was on the verge of dozing off completely when he was rudely awakened by the bus screeching to a halt. It had pulled up alongside another bus stop. Evidently, the prospective passenger had not signalled his intention to board until the bus was very close to the stop. Fortunately for him, the driver’s eyes were sharp and he hit the brakes immediately upon spotting him, just in time.
To Sergeant Luqman, the journey home had seemed normal until then. Naturally he opened his eyes wide when the bus decelerated suddenly, and they were now fixated on the passenger who had just boarded the vehicle.
That new passenger was also a soldier, and as it was not uncommon to find soldiers on the streets, nobody on the bus batted an eyelid when he boarded — nobody, except Sergeant Luqman.
There was something about that man’s appearance, bearing and gait that seemed eerily familiar. Remarkably, it was as if he was looking into a mirror of sorts… why, that new passenger looked just like him… in fact, he looked just like a replica of himself!
As that new passenger walked along the aisle of the bus, Sergeant Luqman was staring intensely at him, scanning his whole body from head to toe. Not only did he look exactly like him, he also had the same name, rank and vocation badge displayed on his uniform. To cap things off, he was carrying exactly the same black haversack on his left shoulder!
The new passenger did not appear to notice Sergeant Luqman, who was seated near the rear of the bus. He found a seat a few rows in front of him, sat down promptly and, like his ‘twin’ before him, reached into his left trouser pocket to fish out an identical iPod and started listening to music.
By now, Sergeant Luqman no longer had the peace of mind to continue listening to his iPod. His sleepiness was gone, and he sat upright in his seat. His mind was in a whirr. He was certain that he did not have a twin brother, and even though it was certainly possible that there could be another person in the whole world who shared the same name and rank as him, surely there could never be another man who looked exactly like him? Yet here before his very eyes was a man who looked, in every respect, precisely that!
To ensure that he was not in a dream, Sergeant Luqman blinked his eyes rapidly, pinched himself hard on the arm, and inhaled a few deep breaths. Alas, everything seemed very real and normal.
And so sitting quietly at the back of the bus, our Sergeant began to feel extremely uneasy. The frenzied state of mind made him giddy, but he dared not approach the new passenger — not yet. He decided that he would study the man from behind, observe him while he was not noticing, discover where he would alight and perhaps follow him from behind, just to find out more about him and to make sure that he was, indeed, a different Mohamed Luqman.
The rest of the journey was uneventful — the old lady seated beside him had drifted off to sleep, while the replica did not stir from his seat, and as the bus neared the stop where he would usually alight, Sergeant Luqman was prepared to forego alighting there in order to follow the man.
But he was in for a surprise, for as the bus approached his bus stop, the replica reached out his hand to ring the bell, as if on cue. Then he stood up, excused himself from the other passengers standing on the aisle, and went to stand in front of the exit.
His posture, with his left leg in front of his right and his right arm holding onto the rail, seemed to Sergeant Luqman that it was exactly the way he would stand. And when the bus came to a stop and the door opened, the man got off the bus and walked off in the same direction as though he was going home — to his home.
As these things were happening, Sergeant Luqman was sitting there on his seat, dumbfounded and unsure of what to do next. But as the bus began to pull out of the bus stop, he finally came to his senses and hurriedly pressed the bell, forcing the driver to slam on the brakes again. The driver looked up irritably to see which inattentive passenger had just rang the bell, and if one looked carefully at the rear-view mirror one could see his eyes grow wide as he saw Sergeant Luqman get up from his seat and made his way hurriedly to the exit. Didn’t that soldier get off the bus just now?
When our Sergeant finally alighted the bus, the replica was at that moment crossing the road at the traffic lights, walking in the direction of his own home. In haste Sergeant Luqman dashed across the road and followed him at a distance. Incidentally, the road was deserted and no one was on hand to witness the spectacle of two identical individuals, one creeping furtively behind the other!
The replica was still listening to music on his iPod, and he did not seem to notice his ‘twin’ sneaking silently at a distance behind him. When the HDB block where he stayed in came into view, Sergeant Luqman felt that his worst fear was realised — truly, that man was heading towards his home!
It so happened that Sergeant Luqman was living alone in his flat that whole week, for his entire family had gone off to Kuala Lumpur to attend a relative’s wedding. He had unsuccessfully tried to obtain leave for the occasion, but was rejected because of work constraints. He was an instructor at the Army’s Basic Military Training Camp, and his recruits were at a critical phase of their programme. He could not simply leave for a whole week without placing any extra burden on his co-instructors. Therefore with some regret, he informed his relatives of the reason for his being unable to attend the wedding and sent his well-wishes to the bride and bridegroom. Perhaps it was all for the better, for he did not particularly share a close relationship with them.
As the replica reached the void-deck of his HDB block, Sergeant Luqman knew that he need not continue following him any longer, for he understood exactly where he was headed. So he turned around and hurried away in the opposite direction, with the thought of going over to his best friend’s house to share the bizarre news with him, and perhaps to think of a plan together.
His best friend was living in a nearby block of flats, and as Sergeant Luqman walked briskly in that direction, his mind was feverishly anticipating his likely reaction upon hearing what he had to say. Would he think that he was pulling a prank? Out of his mind? How could anyone rightly believe what he had to say?
Within twenty minutes our Sergeant had arrived at the void-deck of his friend’s block. They were very close to one another, having known each other since secondary school. Their friendship was forged both in the classroom and outside, for they had joined the same basketball club. They even knew each other’s family, and that friend was now an engineer at a construction company.
When Sergeant Luqman arrived at the front door of his friend’s flat, he composed himself and knocked impatiently on the door. From within his friend’s voice could be heard shouting “Coming!”
The door opened, and after a moment’s silence as his friend registered the sudden visit of a visibly anxious Mohamed Luqman, the latter was warmly welcomed inside.
Now, behind closed doors, Sergeant Luqman recounted his strange encounter to his best friend, who listened attentively, captivated by the whole account. But when he finished his story, he could tell that his friend did not believe him at all.
“Might you not have seen another person who simply looks like you?” his friend protested, trying to reason with him. “Or perhaps you were too sleepy to observe correctly?”
Those suggestions were categorically brushed off by Sergeant Luqman.
Therefore, after some persuasion his friend agreed to follow him to his own flat, ostensibly to confront ‘that man’ together, but actually to lend a comforting presence to his buddy in his time of need. His friend simply did not believe our Sergeant’s ‘fairy-tale’ at all, and was convinced that he had temporarily lost his mind.
When the pair finally arrived at his house, Sergeant Luqman held his breath tight as he knocked hard on the door, expecting somebody to open it from the inside, but no one did.
Nonplussed, he knocked again; no answer. He went on to repeat his actions six more times, but no one ever opened the door. His friend was unimpressed.
Defeated, our Sergeant decided to use his own key to unlock the door himself. He was still convinced that the replica was inside the flat. With bated breath he peered inside, only to see no one. He glanced at his friend, who looked back with a concerned expression. Gingerly he entered the house, followed closely by his friend.
“You see, there is no one here,” said his friend gently. “Are you sure you’re all right, Luqman?”
“Of course I’m all right!” snapped Sergeant Luqman, his tone catching his friend by surprise. “He is hiding somewhere. Quick, you search that room while I search this! Don’t let him escape!” His friend complied with a deep sigh.
However, despite combing the entire flat, no sign of the replica could be found.
“Listen to me, Luqman. There is nobody here. Are you all right, my friend? Should I inform your superiors? Perhaps you should take a few days off work?” his friend suggested, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, but Sergeant Luqman pushed it away.
“There is nothing wrong with me!” he said sharply. “I know what you are thinking, Hafiz, but I swear to God, I saw that man with my own eyes. I am not making this up,” he said, burying his face in his hands and slumping onto the floor.
His friend was anxious and wanted to use the telephone to call Sergeant Luqman’s family in Kuala Lumpur, but was prevented from doing so.
“Don’t touch that phone! Get out of here, Hafiz… Leave me alone… Please get out of here!” Sergeant Luqman exclaimed, grabbing the phone from his friend.
Stunned, his friend muttered, “I… I am planning to call your parents, Luqman. Then I will take you to the doctor.”
“There’s no need for that. I’m perfectly sane!” Sergeant Luqman said irritably, pointing his finger at the door. “Please go home now; leave me alone.”
“Luqman, please listen…”
“There is nothing wrong with me… get out of here, Hafiz, get the hell out!”
His friend, surprised by the swear word directed at him, shook his head and walked towards him, with the intention of dragging him to the nearby general practitioner, but Sergeant Luqman shoved him away with such force that he almost fell face down onto the floor.
Fortunately he found his footing and got up immediately.
Sighing deeply, he said, “All right, all right Luqman. I get what you mean, I understand. I will leave now. And I hope that you will get better soon.”
As he was about to exit the flat he turned around and said, “Do not hesitate to call me whenever you feel that you need to, okay? What is your platoon doing tomorr—”
“Shut up and get out!” cried Sergeant Luqman.
Without further ado, his friend slipped out and hurried to the block’s lift landing. While waiting for the lift to arrive he reached for his mobile phone, thinking of giving his friend’s family a call, but ultimately decided against it as he did not want to cause them worry. Besides, he was certain that Sergeant Luqman would recover his senses quickly.
Sergeant Luqman lay sprawled on the floor for a few minutes after his friend had left. Then he got up and re-searched the house again, scarcely believing that the man was well and truly gone. He combed every inch of the flat, peering under beds and opening cabinets, searching every nook and cranny of that furniture-filled house, but the replica was nowhere to be found. Finally, feeling cheated, he gave up.
The rest of the evening passed without any incident. He went straight to the shower after stopping his search. Dinner was a simple affair of bread and jam, downed with a large glass of water — he was too lazy to cook or to go to the coffee shop downstairs to buy something to eat. He felt tired, and the bed looked comforting. He wanted to sleep his troubled mind away. Tomorrow was to be an early day.
The night was long, and despite trying his best to fall asleep, he simply could not. As he tossed and turned underneath the blanket, he felt as though he was being watched. He had an unshakeable feeling that someone was lurking in the house. Every sound in that flat was magnified to his overactive imagination; even the ticking of the clock sounded like the footsteps of someone pacing up and down in the living area. “He is surely here!” he thought to himself.
When he could not bear the tension any longer, he jumped out of bed and dashed to the living room to confront the fellow, all the while shouting “who’s there?!” at the top of his voice. But he was met with silence. Nevertheless he switched on the lights and conducted a frantic search for the ‘intruder’, turning tables and chairs, all to no avail. Eventually after a frenzied search, his faculties grew weak and his tired mind led him back to the bed, where he drifted off into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The alarm clock rang at 4.30 am, but he silenced it automatically and drifted off to sleep again. When he finally awoke, the darkness of night was gradually pierced by the first rays of dawn. He jumped out of bed immediately, hardly believing that he had overslept. Given the events of the previous evening, who could fault him?
He threw himself into his morning routine, washing and preparing to return to work. There was no time to waste — he was supposed to book into camp early as his recruits were to undergo an intense exercise in the jungle early that morning.
Sergeant Luqman dialled a taxi to take him to the ferry terminal on the east coast — the Army’s Basic Military Training Camp was on an offshore island. Our Sergeant spent the thirty minute trip to the ferry terminal listening to the taxi driver’s tales of his time in the military. Although he was neither in the mood to listen nor to talk, he nodded his head every now and then, just to be polite.
Very soon he was on the island rushing towards the camp. By that time, he should have been at the barracks supervising the recruits in their morning exercises. The familiar din of recruits going about their routine became increasingly louder as he neared the complex, and he saw them amassed on the road beside the barracks doing their exercises.
Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks, and his whole body froze over. His eyes had just fallen on the supervising instructor standing in front of the recruits. That man’s face was clearly visible. Like the recruits, he was dressed in slacks and shorts, and he looked very familiar. No, he was not a fellow instructor, nor was he the Officer Commanding. Rather, his appearance and bearing told Sergeant Luqman that he was none other than the replica of himself spotted on the bus the day before, now standing in front of his recruits!
Our Sergeant felt his heart skip a beat, and his jaw dropped spontaneously. The day was beginning to go horribly wrong.
“How can this be?” he thought, as he crept closer to have a clearer view. He was convinced that the man was himself.
Then the latter began to speak. Our Sergeant could not make out the words he was saying, but the way in which he spoke, with such eloquence and confidence, seemed to our Sergeant that it was so unlike the way that he would normally speak! It appeared as though he was looking at a better, more perfect version of himself!
Sergeant Luqman was a confident instructor himself — and a good one too; but that man was different. His mannerism; his posture; the twinkle in his eyes and the smile playing on his lips — all these told our Sergeant that he was altogether a different man; a more excellent version of himself! Yet in appearance he looked exactly like him, and even if he was indeed a different person, his recruits did not seem capable of differentiating the imposter from the real one. They seemed enraptured by the man, hanging on to his every word, as though hypnotised. One of the recruits mentioned something, and Sergeant Luqman clearly heard the man being addressed by his name.
Suddenly, the replica stopped talking and looked up, his eyes falling directly on Sergeant Luqman, who felt a chill run down his spine. The imposter’s gaze was deep and penetrating, yet it showed no hint of a surprise at his real surrogate. Terror gripped our Sergeant’s heart, and he somehow felt ashamed at being discovered — but why should he be, if he was the real Mohamed Luqman?
The replica’s eyes shifted back onto the recruits, following which Sergeant Luqman turned around immediately and fled in the opposite direction.
He dared not approach the replica — he almost feared him. But would a man be afraid of encountering himself? Did the imposter’s existence in some way threaten his own existence? The belief that each man is his own being is a fundamental tenet of our existence — a ‘truth’ so to speak. But what is ‘truth’?
Those were the questions which Sergeant Luqman grappled with as he spent the next few hours wandering around the camp in a daze, his mind coming up with all sorts of explanations for the phenomenon. Yet nobody seemed to bother him, nor did anyone notice this lone soldier staggering up and down the length and breadth of the large complex.
He reached a secluded bend in a road, and in weariness sat down on the kerb, hid his head under his arms, and wept.
“What’s wrong with me?” he mumbled to himself, “Is this real? Who is he? Is Hafiz right? That I am out of my mind? That I am seeing apparitions?”
While pondering these questions, he remembered a physicist friend who had once told him about scientific evidences showing the existence of ‘alternate universes’; perhaps he was inhabiting one then?
He did not know for how long he must have sat on the kerb, but by then the sun had already risen high into the sky and all around him birds were chirping noisily in the trees.
“They must have embarked on the exercise by now,” he thought to himself. Realising that it was pointless to continue sitting on the kerb, he stood up, thinking of making his way to his bunk at the barracks. His legs felt heavy and his pace was slow. His slouched body cut a dejected figure walking unsteadily through the quiet compounds of the camp as the recruits were away at training.
The barracks were deserted. None of his colleagues had any clue that something was amiss — it was plain to everyone that Sergeant Luqman was at that moment with his recruits out in the field.
The real Sergeant Luqman, meanwhile, climbed the five flights of stairs to the instructors’ bunk. Climbing the stairs was now torturous for him, even though it used to be easy.
When he entered the bunk, his eyes immediately fell upon his bed. Evidently somebody had slept there the night before, for the bed sheet was crumpled. He remembered straightening it the last time he had stayed over at the bunk.
He sat down slowly on the mattress and glanced at the bedside table. Everything was intact — his alarm clock; the magazines piled carelessly on top; and his work file placed neatly at a corner.
He reached into his pocket, fished out his cabinet keys, unlocked the cabinet and peered inside. Nothing was amiss — in it were his uniforms; towel; soap and shampoo; and Rina’s beautiful face smiling back at him — everything was intact.
He sank down onto his bed, curled up and moaned deeply. His strength was ebbing away, and so was his courage as the more he thought about the replica, the more disturbed he felt. He used to be a ‘tough guy’ and had a tendency to boast of that ‘tough’ image. He was captain of his basketball club in secondary school, and at that time, whenever any of his teammates had a ‘problem’, he was the first person they would approach to ‘settle’ it once and for all. He was attracted to a military career as it had appealed to his ‘macho’ mentality, but look how weak he felt now.
He knew that something had to be done to resolve this crisis: he would have to confront the imposter, replica, or twin — whatever you call him — in full view of everyone. Let the world differentiate real from fake; truth from falsehood. He could hardly wait for evening to arrive when the Company would return to the barracks; meanwhile he had to wait.
Suddenly the roar of an engine could be heard at a distance. It grew louder by the minute, becoming loudest when the vehicle burst into the compound beside the barracks.
Sergeant Luqman rushed to the window to look downstairs. “Have they returned early?” he thought.
A land rover had just stopped at the parking bay. Out emerged two men, and he recognised them as the Company’s Officer Commanding and Sergeant Major.
He rushed downstairs to meet them, but when he reached the ground floor he noticed that their faces were grim and downcast. They did not appear to notice his presence at the foot of the staircase, and were engaged in a deep conversation. From their hushed tones and serious demeanour, he could deduce that they were talking about something grave.
Then the Officer Commanding turned and walked briskly towards the staircase, but his eyes were trained on the floor and he did not notice Sergeant Luqman standing there — neither did the Sergeant Major.
“Where did you say his family is at?” the Officer called to the Sergeant Major as he walked.
“They’re at Kuala Lumpur, to attend a wedding,” the Sergeant Major replied, hurrying towards the Officer Commanding.
Sergeant Luqman’s heart skipped a beat.
“Fix me a call to them, will you? We need to inform them of this tragedy immediately,” said the Officer Commanding.
“Yes, sir,” the Sergeant Major replied. He was now walking beside the Officer.
They both walked past Sergeant Luqman and climbed the stairs, looking past him as though he was not there at all. But the brief content of their conversation caused our Sergeant to become even more agitated.
He turned to face their retreating figures and shouted, “OC sir! What happened to Sergeant Luqman?”
Alas, no one seemed to hear him.
He rushed up the staircase, hoping to stop them, but his actions were slow, and despite his utmost exertion, he could not catch up to the two men.
“What happened to Sergeant Luqman?” he shouted in between pants. “OC sir!”
Nobody turned around, for nobody could pay heed to a man they could neither see, nor hear, nor touch.