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That’s one of the things I remember most about this boy whom I sometimes played with in primary school. He was DBS‘s classmate, three years my senior, and as agile as a monkey. His friends ended up calling him ‘Ah Meng’ because of said agility.

So why a torn sleeve?

My sister and her friends were playing some variation of catching (or tag, as some of us may know it as) after school one day, and since the objective of the game on that particular day was to catch Ah Meng and only Ah Meng, they very kindly allowed me (and I think some of my friends) to join them.

Ah Meng was impressive. He evaded everyone. Everyone except me. I wish I could have claimed some credit for catching him, but it was entirely a fluke. Maybe I was too small (I doubt it), maybe I was standing so still that he failed to notice me, or maybe he was just too tired to be as alert as usual, but he came charging straight towards me.

Honestly, I had been a bit bored with the game up until then because I thought I was there just to make up the numbers. I didn’t expect to participate fully, much less anticipate that I could be the one to catch that monkey…oops, I mean that boy.

‘Stop him, stop him, STOP HIM!!!’

My seniors were whipping themselves into a frenzy, and one would have to be deaf not to hear them. Ah Meng was not deaf. He finally noticed me, made a turn, and almost got away before I stretched out my arm and made a grab for him.

By his sleeve.

I held on tightly. He was still running, with no idea seemingly that I had already caught him. There was a horrendous ripping sound and his sleeve tore away beautifully along the seam, exposing a smooth, tanned shoulder.

I was mortified, of course, and deeply apologetic. Slightly indignant too when the rest of the seniors teased me about tearing the sleeve off his shirt. I didn’t tear his sleeve off on purpose; I just held onto his sleeve and it got torn off when he tried to run.

I remember worrying about him getting into trouble with his mother, but when I apologised, he was so nice about it. No anger, no scoldings, just smiles and assurances that he was okay going home with one shoulder bared.

As I grew up, I didn’t give much thought to this boy who, I now realise, must have doted on me and maybe even harboured a little crush on me. It just so happened that I came across a letter from him when I was cleaning out my room last month.

He gave me a stuffed cat for my eighth or ninth birthday, and wrote a letter to accompany it. I still remember that he came all the way from Bedok to my house in Potong Pasir, left them both on my doorstep, rang the bell, and took off before anybody could see him. DBS and I opened the door to find the soft toy and the letter sitting just outside the door gate.

In hindsight, it remains as one of the best surprises that anyone has ever sprung on me.

I didn’t understand the letter fully then (note that I was only eight or nine years old), or I did but have forgotten the contents as the years slipped by. In it, he wrote that he found me very cute, with ‘long, flowing hair’ that reminded him of a Korean. He also explained that he found the stuffed cat overseas (I can’t remember where) in a shop where they sold second-hand goods, and that was why it looked a bit scruffy. He continued saying that it was okay if I didn’t understand what he was talking about, and to just enjoy my birthday and the present.

I must admit that there was a little lump in my throat after I finished reading the one and only letter that I have from Ah Meng. It was a sweet gesture, only fully appreciated more than two decades upon its receipt. I miss those innocent days when interactions with friends were straightforward and people didn’t try to play with your mind or your heart.

There was no ‘us’, no sweet puppy love story, no growing-up-together-then-drifting-apart drama. There was only at most, a torn sleeve and an apology, a stuffed cat and a letter. Snatches of memories, tinged with goodwill and laughter. Whoever he is and wherever he is now, I wish him a life full of the good things for a joyous heart, and just enough of the sad things for growth and wisdom.

And friend, I hope your shirts come with better sewn seams now.