One day, when I was in primary one, a new kid arrived in my class.
“Everybody,” said Miss Nam, our formidable form teacher, “you have a new classmate. His name is Eng Khong! Be nice to him!”
Over the years, I’ve often wondered why she said that. “Be nice to him.” Could she really have read us that well? Were we six-year olds already displaying sadistic tendencies to torture innocent classmates?
It didn’t help that by recess, a limerick was already spreading through the school quadrangle. The culprit was Victor, an abnormally bright kid who would grow up to be an important poet.
“Please don’t use my name,” he begged recently on Facebook Messenger. I’d just told him what my topic for this week’s column was. “I have a reputation to uphold!”
“Names will be changed to protect identities!” I assured him.
“Oh good! I’ve got a new book coming out, so I shouldn’t be associated with that kind of juvenile rhyming couplet. But you have to use Eng Khong, right?” he asked.
I stared at my screen and frowned.
“What do you mean?” I typed.
“Well, if you don’t use his real name, how is the rhyme going to work?”
I blinked. I hadn’t thought of that. I typed: “Oh, I’m sure he won’t read 8DAYS! Besides, no one’s heard from him since school!”
So, as I was saying, by lunchtime, Victor (not his real name) had come up with a limerick and we were all chanting it. Even kids from the other classes.
‘Eng Khong went to Hong Kong to play ping-pong with King Kong, and came back gong-gong!’
The poor kid smiled bravely. Happily, by the second day, we’d all lost interest in the limerick because someone else had joined our class, and her name was Regina.
“Children can be such beasts!” Amanda pointed out. “And so expensive to bring up!” We were on our way to the hospital to see our friend Betina who’d just given birth to a son. There was a traffic jam on the CTE and to kill time, I told her about my column.
“Well, this is what happens when people get bored,” I said.
“Yes, but still. That poor Eng Khong!”
“Well, it was only for a week, because then Victor had come up with a limerick for Regina Hung.”
Amanda shuddered. “Don’t tell me what it was. I know what the rhymes would have been!”
“Speaking of names,” Saffy piped up, “do we know what Betina’s kid is called?”
“Something sensible, I hope,” Amanda said firmly. “I simply can’t deal with any more unusual names! I’m still getting over Billion!”
As one, the three of us groaned.
“Seriously, what was Penny thinking?” Saffy asked no one in particular.
By the time we got to the maternity ward, it was clear that half of Singapore had already dropped by Betina’s room to offer congratultions. The air that wasn’t thick with the perfume of flowers, was crowded by a cloud of congratulatory balloons.
Betina sat up in bed in a puff of white, cradling her new-born cost centre.
“How adorable!” we cooed on cue. “What’s his name?”
Betina glowed. “Lucifer!”
You could hear the air go out of the room, though Saffy later said that might have been her bosom deflating.
“Oh…,” Amanda said.
“As in Satan?” Saffy asked.
Betina’s smile stayed fixed on her face. You could tell she’d already gone through this all day. “Actually, as in ‘Shining One’!” she said stiffly.
Saffy cocked her head. “Really? Since whe – ow!”
Amanda took her elbow out of Saffy’s ribs. “Just lovely!” she said in the same soothing tone one uses to when confronted with an angry tiger in a confined space.
We couldn’t get out of that maternity ward fast enough. Not a word was uttered till we fell into the cab.
Amanda spoke first. “Oh. My. God.”
“I didn’t mishear, did I?” I asked.
Saffy sighed. “That poor kid!”
“What’s going to happen to him when he gets to school?” Amanda wondered. “He’ll be destroyed by recess. What is she thinking? She might as well have named him Adolf!”
“There should be a law against such things,” Saffy said. “That’s child abuse, is what it is!”
When we told Sharyn, she didn’t seem particularly fazed. “Why? Is nice name, what!”
“If you’re a devil worshipper!” Saffy snapped.
Sharyn waved her hands. “Aiyah, you so old fashion! Nobody know what Lucifer mean, lah! Anyway, she is Buddhist, right? Can, lah!”
“Better than Eng Khong, right?”