I could hear the neighbour's clock chime as I walk to my door. Instinctively, I look at the watch on my hand to see if it is 6:00 p.m., just in case his clock was telling otherwise.
“Good, I came back on time,” I tell myself.
And then I slip my key into the keyhole to open the door. I don't have the CCTV at home, in case the installer observes me remotely from the backend, and then he would know that I am back.
As usual, he is hiding again.
“Hi, I am back,” I say, to make myself known to him.
He must be in the kitchen, so the first thing I do is to go straight into the kitchen to turn on the light. The light comes on, and no one is inside.
Then I turn on the kettle to register that I am home. I do that to my kettle whenever I see it. My kettle is one of those old fashion pots, it makes a humming sound when the water boils, like a train making its announcement that it is leaving the platform. Of course, I am exaggerating, I know that a kettle is far from being a train.
Then I do my rituals. I go straight to my bedroom to wash my clean hands. I go out alone and come back alone, so that I am certain that my hands have not been contaminated with anything that is likely to spread germs. Yes, I also take the private hire home.
But I am still cautious. Covid-19 is not to be taken lightly. It is an enemy against all health protocols and is the number one disease that has taken 5 million lives, surpassing all other illnesses. You could say that it is a winner if you are betting on a horse. Scientists are still coming out with vaccines and before you know it, it has mutated, and a new variant emerges.
We are in the year 2021 now. The Covid started attacking us in the year 2019 and that is why it is called Covid-19. Our children and grandchildren would forever remember when this dreadful enemy descended upon us. SARS and measles have taken a back seat for now. All we know is that it is gaining momentum and has outwitted us since its entry.
No one even cares about HIV nowadays. If you don’t do certain things, you are not likely to get HIV. But for Covid, you must do all things in order not to catch it. Many things ought to be done now.
We want to blame someone; we want to make someone pay. No one would admit liability as the bill is enormous. So that it must be God’s will. But God will not hurt us. Why would God kill? God only heals, God doesn’t kill.
Ok, he is not hiding in my kitchen now. He might be in some other parts of my house maybe in the bathroom. His presence lingers in the horizon together with the smell of the twigs after a long rain. And he is trying to talk to me again if I am not careful.
After I wash my hands, I take off my mask and my watch, and I place them on top of the side table, the log off point. It is always the first and the last, before I go out, and when I come back. I don’t have any other place to put my mask, this is the most prominent place so that I won’t forget it when I leave the house.
No, I don’t’ want to die. No one wants to die, no one wants to contract Covid. If you have Covid, chances are that you will survive, but that you will have less friends, the good thing is that your enemies will leave you too. Since no one knows if there are still any residue of it for migration.
Where is he now? Again, I ask.
He is in the kitchen, but that I have turned on the light, so that he couldn’t stay in the kitchen anymore. I am unsure if he has moved from the kitchen to my bedroom.
Ok, now I turn on the light in my room. I couldn’t see anybody there, so that I am sure that he is not in my room. What you couldn’t see with your naked eyes, you could declare it absent. I put on my spectacles to allow myself to see more clearly.
Three minutes later, I decide to take a shower. This is to wash off all the virus on my body in case anyone of them was a Covid. I try not to take the shower so often, as I am trying to save on my water bill. But I wash my hands very often. They say that a person who washes his hands very often has obsessive-compulsive disorder. But with Covid around, we really need to wash our hands very often.
So where is he now? Is he in the toilet? Yes, I haven’t taken my shower. I must do so now. Showering has two purposes. One is to kill the Covid, the other is to tell him that the bathroom is my area, so stay out! I turn on the tap, cold water comes out. I remember that I have turned on the heater. So, the heater has conked out on me. Reluctantly I put on my clothes again.
This is very annoying!
Who can I call at this hour?
After 6:00 p.m. no plumber will come to your house to do the job. And even if I could secure a handyman, he would charge me double the rate for an after-hours job. I curse the heater, after having cursed my neighbour, whose clock I encounter just before I come in. His clock distracts me. And then I turn on and off the switch to the heater again. No, it doesn’t work. The heater does not pick up my anger, neither does the neighbour who is not within earshot.
Frustrated, I decide that I must use cold water and I go in to shower again. And then I know that he had come in here earlier on in the day. He came in to spoil my heater. No one else would do a wicked thing like that. No one would be mad enough to inconvenient me. Desperate, I look for Dominic downstairs.
Dominic lives on the ground floor with a Persian cat.
I first met Alfred when I was doing an art class at his studio. He operated at a unit amongst a row of terrace houses. You must walk through a long corridor before you could find his unit. When the driver dropped me off at the entrance, I tried to make enquiry, but no one knew where his studio was. I rang his assistant, but no one picked up the call. In the end I saw the sign board outside the premises, and I followed the instructions given to find his unit.
Alfred was not available when I went in. I was told to sit down at one of the chairs to wait for my turn. I chose one on the extreme left, so that I could walk out anytime if I wanted to. It was an unfamiliar setting that I was not comfortable with.
No one came to my aid, and I didn’t know that I had to make a down payment for the class before I began. I brought my materials, a pallet, and several brushes, and a canvas.
The man, presumably the artist, did not greet me. The first thing he said was, “Where is your apron?”
“I wasn’t told to bring an apron,” I responded, with a slightly mild tone, although I was quite unhappy that it took me so long before he would appear.
“Go sit down, here!” he pulled out a stool and indicated.
Instead of following his instructions I said, “How much are the classes?”
“You pay sixty dollars each time, you could either pay online, with a cheque, or use cash,”
“What would you prefer?” I asked.
“I have no preference,” he said.
“By the way, my name is Alfred, but not Hitchcock,” the man finally introduced himself.
“And I am Suzanne, it’s Suzanne Goh, you can also call me Li Mei,” I replied.
“Pleased to meet you, Madam,” he said.
I was very tickled by the way he called me – “Madam”! No one ever called me that before. Usually they address me as “Miss” and I didn’t like it. I was not a young girl.
“Would you like to pay now? Or after the class?” Alfred asked.
I decided that it would be wiser to do so after the class, as I wanted to make sure that I got something out of this before I committed myself.
It all depended on whether there were enough students. My purpose in joining The Landscape Portrait was to make new friends, not to create art pieces. Art was the least likely way to generate income, unless you were another Picasso.
I looked around, there were only two other people in the room. One was a middle-aged man who seemed to be a photographer, and the other a lady who reminded me of Miss Marple. I told myself I must get to know them before the end of my journey at the studio.
I couldn't find him in the house today. So that I am sure that he is waiting for me outside.
Is he Amin the security guard? Or could he have been the postman who happened to be delivering the mail into my letterbox? And then could he have been hiding in the neighbour’s house downstairs all this while? From the estate I peep into Dominic’s house through his balcony.
Nope. No one is inside. The curtains, half drawn, declares a stagnant air. I ponder on whether I should drop in on Dominic to lodge a complaint. Dominic is usually in at this time. He is a retired journalist, and he knows all the writing styles of the various reporters. But I don’t want him to see me without my makeup, so I decide to do so another day, when I am certain that a mischief had been committed against me.
Reluctantly I walk up to my apartment on the second floor and go in alone. I do not turn on the kitchen lights today.
The lift broke down today.
I had no choice but to climb the steps. But thank God it was just two storeys high. The thing was that it was too coincidental. It happened when I stopped greeting Dominic along his balcony whenever I passed by after work. I was just being friendly.
But Dominic has no supernatural powers. He couldn’t force a breakdown. The lift was not controlled by him. And why would Dominic want to break down my lift to inconvenient me? And how could he have spoilt my heater?
Unless .... Dominic has my front door keys ....
I was beginning to get suspicious. Could Dominic be the man in my house? After all, he came in last week, when my heater broke down. But prior to that, who was the one in my house?
I was told that if you visit your grandparents’ home you could recall your late mother’s spirits.
So, I went back to my old house – which I had been living since the day I was born. My uncles and aunties were no longer contactable, and if they were gone, I was not told about it. My cousins from the other side, contactable ones were all married with their own families, and they saw no need in looking for me – I couldn’t do anything for them.
So long as I didn’t bother them with my loneliness, they were quite happy to exclude me in their family gatherings. I doubt that they missed me.
I walked past the layers of shrubs on both sides of the pathway, tramping over several wet dried leaves on the ground before I could find the white swing still standing in the garage.
There was only one way to describe the house – vacant. You didn’t see anyone there, not even a stray dog or a stray cat in sight. I walked further down from where the car dropped me, and I saw the white wooden door. Some of the paint had already chipped of, leaving another layer of white but less intense paint.
No Coca-Cola cans, no used paper plates, nothing that reminded me that this was the Christmas tree that celebrated several parties. From my handphone I scrambled for the pictures of my parents with their guests in those days when all we did was to “drink and be merry, for Christmas comes but once a year”.
I arrived at the door. I had walked in and out of that door for more than twenty years. Now the lock was broken, you didn’t need a key to go in. And frankly, ordinary people won’t think of venturing inside. I stood at the entrance and thought for a few minutes before I pushed open the door. And I was not surprised to find that most of the furniture was still the same.
The standing lamp stood at the corner; I could see that it hadn’t been used for quite some time now. Instinctively I walked towards it to try to turn it on, almost tripping on the loose wire that connected it to the power socket.
I then realised that I had made a mistake by choosing to come back at this hour. If I didn’t leave soon enough, I would have to grope in the dark to find my way around. I suddenly thought of the ironing board abandoned at the end of the long corridor. Was it still there?
My old room was the first on the right, but I couldn’t go in unless I have walked into the common area. Mother’s large working desk was in the common room together with the television and a large sofa. She and Dad used to sit there waiting for me to come home from school, ostensibly watching television. That used to give me an uneasy feeling that I was being watched.
The floor was cold even if it was ceramics. I stepped inside the geometric carpet. I tripped on the rug. Immediately I fell and hit the back of the sofa.
I stood up without hurting myself. And then I saw the horse on top of the side cabinet. It had a bushy tail and the grains on the wood was particularly intricate. The image was carved from a large piece of wood, and the master was able to depict two houses dancing together. Dad told me that he bought it from a wood cutter in Indonesia.
I searched for a thought, and then I asked myself why I was here again. I knew that I couldn’t find my parents here. So, then what was I looking for? It must have been the memories. Yes, I remembered that we were joyous, and fun filled here a long time ago, and not so long ago. Times have passed, but memories remain etched in my mind.
No, I mustn’t give up. There was something here that I wanted. Every time I came here, I picked up a piece of paper, a note written by Mother, or some items that reminded me of her existence. The notes were all undated, as though she had just written it yesterday.
I knew that one day this place would be closed and that I won’t be allowed to come in anymore. But for now, they haven’t erected a gate or a fence or anything like that, so that I could still come in. It was not trespass or anything like that. You couldn’t call a revisit as trespass. There was simply no one here, so there was nothing, no one, to trespass on.
As I walked around, I tried to breath in the odour of ancient composition. A whiff of fresh azaleas blew away my thoughts for a second, and then I was back in 1983.
Yes, I left in 1983.
Yes, we had a party. In fact, we had several parties.
Mother invited her friends from her journalist circle. They were young, and full of ideas.
But Mother had more ideas than others.
I spent most of my time convincing Mother that her ideas won’t work. I was the wet blanket. But she was not discouraged by me. And her ideas kept on coming. She was always an enthusiast. And she had too many friends. They were more than I could handle. I was jealous of them, jealous of Mother’s popularity.
But I didn’t like crowds. I thrived on solitude. I was an only child; I was not used to having people around. This was me; many people saw me as being unsociable. But I couldn’t change my character, I couldn’t change me!
As usual I walked into the common room. The first thing I looked for was the piano. If it was still there that meant that the house would remain here for some time. The piano stood at the wall; it was a dark brown mahogany. The colour of the wood filtered through the layer of dust. Automatically I went up to it and pulled the piano chair out and sat on it, to recall my piano skills. My fingers hit the keys and I could only work out a C Major. Frustrated, I tried other variations. D Major, E Major, C Minor, .... no use. I had forgotten how to play the piano. My fingers refused to listen to my command. I gave up.
I remembered that I was young. And I remembered that I was still unmarried. Yes, marriage changed everything. I was no longer my parents’ child after marriage. Why do we need to grow up? Why was I in such a hurry to get married? But no use talking about it now. I was married and unmarried. I was entangled and I extricated myself. Now I was free. I was free to roam in this space, free to make recollections of any moments of the past that I wished.
No one was here to stop me.
I stood on the discoloured rug. It was a familiar pattern that I saw. A geometric design not too stark. I tried to figure out the mathematical formula when I found myself on the sofa on top it. The sofa covered some of the mathematical patterns. I was happy to relax on the sofa cushions thrown about carelessly.
“I think one or two cushions are missing,” I told myself.
But what difference did it make if there were four or six cushions?
Maybe Mother is in the kitchen cooking now.
I woke up immediately and walked towards the kitchen. She was always making soy sauce noodles, plain with chillie sauce. But I didn’t see her. I saw a rusty stove and several pieces of old racks all over the kitchen counter. The paint on the kitchen wall was coming off, I couldn’t decide if it were light blue or white. At the same time several cockroaches were waiting to greet me. I gave a small cry and rushed out.
“Enough for the day! I will come back again!” I told myself before leaving the house, using the same white door as exit, although I could see that the side gate at the corridor was unlocked. The house had become inhabited so that there was no boundary. Or rather, it no longer had an entrance as the house had amalgamated with the surrounding trees and scrubs.
In any case, the mission was accomplished. I found my piano scores. Happily, I tucked them under my arm, and I walked boldly out of the grounds as though I was still living there.
It was around that time when I met Dinah.
As I returned to my own home, I rushed to the piano, and I quickly placed the retrieved piano scores inside the piano chair in case it got lost again. I couldn’t help wondering why I had not taken the horse with me when I left St. Anthony Walk.
And then suddenly I saw him coming out of the kitchen. I couldn’t believe my eyes!
“Have you eaten?” I heard him.
“No,” naturally I answered.
“There is food on the table if you want it,” again he said.
I went to my dining table, saw some food. But when I turned on the light, it was gone. Ok, it was my imagination. No one was talking to me.
“Let’s cook some dinner,” I told myself. Soy sauce noodles of course!
As I was eating my noodles, I remembered what Mother used to tell me:
“Life is never one straight line, it is full of twists and turns, things don’t always turn out the way you want it to be, and then you will have to deal with it,”
“No, life is predictable, the sun comes out every morning, and the moon shines every night,” I used to retort.
But she proved to be right after all. No one expected Covid. No one expected the borders to close, and no one expected mandatory masks wearing. It drastically changed our habits and lifestyle.
I was back again. This time I wanted to retrieve the horse.
I could tell that the gardener had come in and swept the leaves away. There were less on the ground, as you could see more of the surface, and one or two pebbles along with the grey. I wore a different pair of shoes this time. And I saw a man on the white swing. When I went nearer, I found a book sitting on it. I remembered that only the stray cat that lived in the estate slept on it when it was stationary. The wind sometimes blew and was strong enough to swing it about.
Now it was an antique.
And then I suddenly heard my mother’s voice,
It startled me, and my first instinct was to react, “I am already awake!”
Mesmerised by my mother’s voice, there seemed no way out but to bring the book back and read it once more. I wanted something physical to consolidate my memory.
When you were young, you have many friends, everyone was a possibility. But when you were old, you would have gone through the process of elimination by then and depended on only those whom you could count on for help. I was neither young nor old. And since I left Gossip News to work in Bull Bank, my top priority was still Alfred the painter I befriended in The Landscape Portrait. You could say that we were more than friends. And we were more than insane.
Of course, I couldn’t go back to him now. We had said terrible words to each other, and he might have been married by now.
So that now all I wanted to do was to retrieve my past, and go back to the time before we met, and then move on from there. The time from I met Alfred to the time now was to be deleted and erased from the record.
So keen was I to move on.
But time always stood still whenever I was back at St. Teresa Walk.
Yes, I went back to St. Teresa Walk again today.
An Indian lady was at the estate as I walked in. She stood prominently right in the middle of the pathway to the big house, as though she was living in one of the quarters. I saw her, and she looked at me.
But she didn’t see me.
At the time that I saw her, she was busy combing her hair, it was jet black, thick, and long. I could see that there was a lot of work to be done before it could be made into something presentable. I hesitated to go near her, and I decided to make a detour and come back later.
“She doesn’t live here, she can’t be here for long,” I told myself.
As I turned back, I found that the private hire which brought me here was still there. I hopped in automatically even though I wasn’t sure where my next destination was. I wasn’t planning on going away for too long.
The driver asked, “Miss, where you want to go?”
“I .... anywhere ....” I just wanted to stay away for a while.
“Anywhere? Do you want to go to the airport?” he asked.
“I am not leaving the country,” instead of chiding him I took him seriously.
“Ok, so I go now?” he said.
“Hey! Wait!” I raised my voice, “I just want to wait inside your car for a while,” I quizzed.
“Wait for what? For whom?” the man started to be uncooperative.
“I ... err ... I want to go inside the house .... again ....” I spoke.
“As far as I can see, there is no one here!” he said.
“No, there is an Indian lady inside,” I insisted.
“Miss, I think you saw wrongly. This is an empty house; no soul belongs here,” “if you want, I can drive you in,” he turned his steering wheel towards the left, anti-clockwise.
I became agitated, afraid that he might disturb the Indian lady. I was sure that she was the gardener’s wife. I wanted to find out if the gardener was still alive. And if he were so, whereabouts was he. The fact that she was here parading in public might suggest that he was absent from this secular world.
“Let me out!” at this point in time, I became desperate. I didn’t want the driver in my house!
He stopped, and then let go of his accelerator, at the same time he came out from his seat, and he came to my side of the car, I squealed in my seat, and I began to run out of the car.
After a distance, I turned back and looked. The driver had gone, and I was left standing where the large Christmas tree stood. I looked around and expected to see the Indian lady, but she had vanished.
I couldn’t help but to go back the next day, today whilst the sun was still up. I was happy that Dinah was there. I approached her and began speaking to her as though she were the gardener’s wife.
“Purab is still alive?” I used a leading question.
She looked at me, and she smiled, showing her unnaturally white teeth. I almost wanted to ask her which brand of toothpaste she used.
And then, she said, “Purab is in the house, I am here to give him his lunch,” lifting a packet of banana leaf. I could smell the fragrance of curry chicken. I wanted to ask her to hand it to me. But instead, I said,
“There is no one in the house now, do you know me ......? I mean, did your husband ever mentioned me? I used to live inside this house.”
Dinah looked at me with a queer expression, “Why are you here?” she asked.
“I am Suzanne, I live here,” instead of using the past tense I used the present. I wanted to cut the present and paste it onto the past.
“Yes, I am Purab’s wife, my name is Dinah,” she said.
And before I could venture further, it started to rain. I became wet, so that I rushed out of the estate before I could obtain more information from Dinah.
But I still couldn’t resist the temptation from visiting St. Teresa Walk again.
This time I brought some flowers, and I had a foldable umbrella inside my bag. I didn’t know why I did that, perhaps I wanted to cheer Dinah up. I felt something for that poor woman, and I thought that since I used to live here, and that the late Purab had tended to my grandparents’ estate, I ought to make some sort of gesture by way of compensation.
She was here. This time she wasn’t combing her hair. It was tied neatly into a bun, and she gave me a warm smile as she saw me, showing off her stark white teeth again. I told myself I must find out if Purab was still alive.
“Oh, it’s you,” she sounded disappointed.
Whom was she expecting?
I went up to her, and I handed her the flowers.
“Thank you,” she said.
Thank God, she acknowledged them.
“I .... have you eaten?” I knew not what to say.
“I am waiting for you to come home first,” she said.
“Oh, well, here I am,” I replied.
“How’s work today?” she asked.
“Same as usual,” I replied, my work is mundane and boring.
“Why don’t you sit down here and eat with me?” she pointed at a packet of banana wrap on the ground, next to some swept leaves. I could guess that she was sweeping the grounds.
“I have food waiting for me at home,” I turned down her offer, apart from the fact that it was unhygienic on the floor, I also did not like to eat with my fingers.
“When are you leaving her?” this time she asked an unusual question.
Who is her?
I decided to ignore her question and focused on the present.
“Do you come in here every day?” I asked.
“Huh?” she sounded confused. And then she added, “I am here every day ....”
I decided to leave her alone. Although her presence prevented me from reminiscing about the past somewhat. But I couldn’t send her away. Not after we have been acquainted.
And then I moved my attention away, and I walked away from her, hoping to gain something from my visit this time. I hoped to bring the horse away this time.
The same procedure. I pushed open the white door, ignoring the ironing board that had now been moved to the door. I turned on the light, and I took my steps along the long corridor. The entire place smelt of dirty wood, and some rainwater has seeped in, making the floor a bit slippery. I was careful not to fall and dirty my nice summer dress. Oh yes, I forgot to take a photograph with Dinah. This was the reason why I wore this dress.
Yes, the horse was still there. No one has come in, and no one has stolen the craftsman’s work.
Three steps, and I got it in my hands.
It was terrible of me, but I am sure people do worse.
This is not theft! I told myself loudly. The piece of art was an abandoned possession. No one laid claim to it, no one wanted it. If it belonged to anyone, it belonged to my parents. And I, being their offspring, was rightfully entitled to it.
Suddenly Dinah appeared right in front of me.
Automatically I said, “Dinah, what are you doing here?”
She was supposed to be outside.
“Why are you taking this?” she confronted me.
“Oh you mean this?” I held up the horse, “This belongs to my parents,” I proclaimed.
“Give it to me,” she demanded.
I realised that she was serious, but she had no legal basis to take the horse away from me, not when it is in my hands now. This woman must be mad thinking that I would surrender my parents’ antique to her!
“Oh ok ok Dinah, have you eaten?” I tried to distract her, deviating the topic. Once she moved away I would run out with my horse, I told myself.
She responded, “Purab, the food is outside,”
Ok, if she thinks that I am Purab, then I would have a chance to run away. I quickly replied,
“Yes, yes, I will go and get my dinner,”
But before I could leave, the woman fell on her knees and broke down right in front of me.
Sensing her grieve, I tried to pick her up and I started to hug her. Her body smelt of mud and my nice summer dress became wet. Realising this I took leave immediately and stood up.
No, I cannot play Purab! I told myself.
“You must see a doctor, perhaps you are sick,” I told the woman.
“You told me you were just going for a while,” she started to talk.
“No, I said no such thing,” I answered her.
“Who are you?” by now she decided that I wasn’t Purab. Once she recognised that I was the girl who presented her with the flowers and that I am not her husband, I could leave. I was getting unnerved.
“Oh, I will be back tomorrow,” I said, giving myself time.
“Ok then, don’t bring me flowers next time, there are plenty in the back garden,” she advised.
I quickly dropped her, rushing out of the house. The horse was not with me.
I was locked in conversation with Dinah the entire day. She told me that she was a child bride, and that she came to Singapore from Chennai some fifteen years ago. Her parents at home were waiting for her to settle down and bring them over. They have a house in Chennai with several restaurants, and .....
Sometimes I could hear her cry out, “Don’t leave me, Purab!”
“For heaven’s sake! Purab is dead!!” I shouted back, only the four walls could hear me.
I was startled by myself, and also that I pronounced Purab dead. How could I make a statement that was not obtained from direct evidence?
No one ever told me that Purab was dead. I had not seen Purab for a long time. I had been working on the assumption. So that I decided that I must make another trip back again to ascertain the mortality status of Purab, even if it was not to retrieve the horse.
When I saw Dinah the next day, I sought her confirmation, “Purab is dead, isn’t he?” If he wasn’t then I must make a missing person report.
“Purab, I promise you I would be a good wife, I won’t gamble, I would make dinner for you every night, I would ....” a barrage of promises came out, and Dinah started to grab hold of me.
OMG! This woman is insane! She really couldn’t decide if I were Purab or not. She must be sent to the hospital right away.
“Hold it, madam,” I became formal, in order to draw a distance, “I think you should see a doctor,”
“Yes,” she said, “I have seen the doctor today, and he told me that you are coming home today,” “see, you are here now.”
This was enough for me! Without further delay, I pushed her aside and rushed out of the house, out of the estate, again without the horse.
As though someone had planned this. A car was waiting for me at the drive-in. Automatically I hopped onto the car, I looked up. It was the same driver who dropped me off yesterday. He smiled at me, and he said,
“Oh, you didn’t take anything? I told you there was no one in the house right?”
“I ..... I ...... please drive off as quickly as you can .....” my face was as pale as ever.
“To the airport?” he asked.
“Err .... anywhere, just drive! Please!!!” I began to panic.
The man was unusually calm, and then he opened his mouth and said,
“I think I know. You met her.”
“How did you know?” I looked up at him, surprised.
“This house is well known to be haunted, Ma’am,” he explained.
“When you came here, I already knew that you would get into trouble, so therefore I waited, hahaha, true enough!” he looked so triumphant.
“You mean that Dinah is also from beyond???” I could have fainted.
“So you met the late wife,” he said.
“And the husband?” I pursued.
“Both are, but it depends on when you go in, they appear alternately,” he elaborated.
“Give me .... give me .... some water,” I said.
“There you go,” the kind man handed me a water bottle.
But then experience told me not to drink from strangers. I hesitated, and then I returned him the water.
“It’s ok,” I said, “I just want to go home,”
“I don’t know where you live, you boarded from Marble House the shopping centre,”
“Oh ok, I live at Petticoat Lane, it’s block 34, unit 02-05,” I said. I didn’t know why I gave the exact address, I just became careless as I had a scare.
The man was cruising at 50 kph and the speed was annoying me. I wanted to go home. I wanted to wash my hands and my entire body as well as disinfect all of my belongings, and this time it was not the Covid virus that I am trying to exterminate.
At the same time I would also like to tell you that the entire scene was done without any masks.
Things are beginning to disappear from my house.
It is not unusual to lose one's things, occasionally, every now and then. But to lose things regularly, and subsequently finding them in bizarre places, is weird.
Also, if only one item is missing, then perhaps there is no cause for alarm, I might have just forgotten it and left it elsewhere. But many things have been disappearing from where they ought to be found.
Alas! I must find the items, apart from the man in my house.
But fact is that no one has come into my house, I lock the door the moment I return, and no one has my spare keys. So, who could have come in to take my things, apart from him, whom I suspect is living here with me?
Why would he want to take my things and then subsequently put them somewhere else?
Unless he wants me to think that I got dementia. I know that I am not demented. I can remember what I had for dinner last night, I can recall who my childhood friends are, I know the names of not only my cousins but also my second cousins. But oops! I forgot the name of the colleague who sat at the reception at Bull Bank this morning. But nonetheless, I consider myself logical and sound. No one has taken my brains away from me, yet.
Ok, I am going to note the items that have constantly been disappearing, moving about, as though they have legs. First it was the gold charm bracelet, then the pearl earrings, after that, it was the jade pendant .... I am really at wits end ....
Action does not speak louder than words. I mean, sometimes you mean more on what you say, rather than what you do.
After I told Dinah that she was ill, I felt obligated to go back there again to help her, despite the allegation that she was from beyond. How could a ghost appear under broad day light? As far as I know, ghosts only roam about at night, and they usually wear white. The Dinah I saw the other day was in a bright green coat. Moreover, we hugged each other, so she could not have been a ghost.
I walked in after dismissing the driver. I carried an umbrella with me in case I needed to use it to protect myself, I also brought with me some mosquito spray. If she attacked me, I could spray some of those repellent into her eyes to blind her.
This time I couldn’t find her in the garden.
“She must be in the house,” I told myself.
True enough I found her cooking in the kitchen.
“Dinah,” I called her, “What are you doing here?”
“You like soy sauce noodles, right?” she replied.
How did she know?
And then I remembered that I left a note on the kitchen counter the other time when I was here:
“Ma, please cook my favourite soy sauce noodles for me.”
I had wanted to recall my late mother’s spirit.
But Dinah was the last candidate to be my mother. Who was Dinah? How could she be my mother?!
Quickly I said, “No, it’s ok, I am not hungry now,” and then I asked her point blank, even though I knew that she might not tell me the truth,
“Are you a ghost?”
“Of course not,” she replied firmly, “touch me,” she said.
I had already encountered that the other day, so I backed off a little, and then I saw my gold charm bracelet on her wrist. The same trinkets stared at me boldly. I was shocked for a few seconds, but then I recovered,
“Where did you get this bracelet from?” I asked.
“From Purab of course,” she challenged me, “you think I stole it?”
“No, no, of course not,” I had no evidence that the item belonged to me. The bracelet was a gift from my grandfather.
“See, one of the trinkets is a butterfly,” she admired it proudly.
Suddenly it hit me! I lost control and I moved forward, grabbing her hand I tried to take the bracelet out from her wrist. It was tightly worn, I looked for the clasp, and I tried to unfasten it. Dinah had more brute strength then me, she pulled her arm away, and in the mist, she used the other hand to push me away. I fell backwards, and onto the floor without support.
No one was there to witness this dramatic event. And of course, there was no CCTV either. This was a very old house.
By now I had forgotten that my purpose here was to recall my late mother’s spirit. Now I wanted nothing more than to claim my lost jewelry. If this wretched woman has my charm bracelet, she must be in possession of all my other missing items, namely the pearl earrings, the jade pendant, and all the other pieces that I have yet to name.
This woman is not a ghost! She is a thief! Thieves must be dealt with separately from ghosts. For ghosts you get an exorcist, for thieves you call the police.
I wanted to use my handphone to ring for the police right away, but it was lost in the scuffle. The mosquito spray was also gone. I panicked, and my brains almost disintegrated.
“Are you ok?” I heard a man’s voice.
Looking up, I saw a man, he was thin, but quite well built, and somewhat dashing. It was my old gardener!
“Purab!” I yelled.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
At the same time, “Purab, you know her?” Dinah spoke.
“Of course, she lives here,” Purab said.
“Is she your late wife?” I asked, “I mean, is she your wife?” pointing to Dinah.
“Of course, she is!” Purab said. “But I am not married to her,”
“Not married and yet she is your wife? This doesn’t make sense!”
Purab pulled me aside.
“Listen, my wife is sick, if you want to know anything, talk to me instead,” he said.
At this time, a lady came out from my room, no, my old room. I have not seen her before. She was in a bikini slim enough for the pool, except that there was no swimming pool at this estate.
“Dear, what’s happening?” she asked.
“Oh no, just a new guest,” Purab said. And then he turned to me,
“Suzanne, meet my assistant Poly,” whilst looking at the lady he uttered,
“Poly, my old landlord Suzanne,”
This seemed clear enough, that the two were well acquainted, and obviously living together in this house. Immediately I walked towards my old bedroom to survey the situation.
The furniture was still the same, except that a large painting of a woman in red holding a mirror looking sideways was hanging right on top of the bed. I was quite mesmerized by the ambience it created. The room was certainly occupied. So, Poly took over my room!
And then, were Dinah and Purab living here as well?
I looked at Purab for an answer. But he looked at me with a kind of expression, dark and distant, I knew not what he was thinking. Perhaps he knew something more than what it appeared here on the surface.
“Suzanne, I know you, so I am telling you the truth: Poly and I are married, and Dinah is my common law wife,” he declared.
“Why are you telling me this?” I became upset, it was not something that I needed to know, and also not something that I was in a position to give assent to. It was entirely none of my business.
“You keep coming back here, so I thought that you are from the lawyers,” Purab said.
“I have tried filing for divorce, but they told me that since Dinah and I were never legally married, there isn’t anything wrong with my relationship with Poly.” he gave me his story.
Poly was a bright and chirpy Chinese girl.
Without another word, I grabbed my bag and walked out of the room, and out of the estate out of St. Teresa Walk.
The same private hire. I thought I had sent him away. There was no other car around, I hopped in. But this time I was cleverer, and calmer too. I told the driver before he could ask me if I wanted to go to the airport,
“I am going home, Petticoat Lane, just drive,”
The man obliged, but as he drove on, he couldn’t help to talk,
“Miss, may I know .... this time how many?”
“How many what?” I was getting impatient.
“Err, how many of them inside?” he questioned.
“You mean how many ghosts?” I responded, half joking. I spoke to Purab my old gardener. I knew him. And he identified Dinah and the other girl. So how could the people in the house be ghosts?!
Surprisingly he answered, “I think there are four of them, they sometimes come out for food, but usually after six p.m. ....”
“Enough!” I said, I wanted to put an end to this speculation. I was not interested in the people in the house. Fact that they had been here prevented me from recalling memorizes of the past, which was highly inconvenient.
Immediately I asked the driver, “How long have they been there?”
“By the way, my name is Steven,” the man now became more familiar, “I don’t know, I come here quite regularly, I receive calls to fetch passengers here almost on a weekly basis,” he confessed.
“You mean there are people coming to this house?!” I couldn’t believe my ears, “What are they here for?”
“I .... err .... there is also the Chinese girl, I think you haven’t met her yet .... she is very young ....”
It began to sink in.
Purab was operating a brothel at the estate – my grandparents’ estate.
There was only one thing to be done now.
“Shall I call the police?” Steven asked, “I have been waiting for you to take action,” he made himself my ally.
“No, no, .... I couldn’t do this to St. Teresa Walk! I couldn’t do this to my grandparents’ estate!
I wanted everything here to be as it used to be, I wanted the inhabitants not to be disturbed. This was my home, and no matter what had become of it, there was still part of me in it, my mother’s notes, and my old furniture was still inside, apart from the piano, the rug .... Omg!
I started to get hysterical.
“Let me speak to the man,” Steven was remarkably calm.
“NO!” I shouted at him.
“Let’s go back in there together,” I requested.
“You .... you sure you want to do that?” Steven the driver asked.
“Yes, I want the horse!” I exclaimed.
“Ok, if that’s what you want, I am all willing to do you the favour, I have been wanting to see the inside for a long time,” the driver said.
He pulled his car near the entrance, and he got out of the car with me. We walked in with a calling in mind – to cart away the horse and to address this immoral activity, since this was my grandparent’s estate.
We found not a soul inside.
Things continued to disappear from my house.
Now my favourite sunglasses were gone, apart from a pair of brand-new Ferragamo shoes. I had no proof that they belonged to me in the first place, and I continued to be vexed.
Ok, now I know what to do. I must find Alfred. Alfred was my buddy, and although he has since married, he was bound to help me. I needed someone who could endorse the fact that the gold charm bracelet belonged to me, since I have worn it on several occasions to his art studio.
Alfred is a kind man, and he obliged.
If I tell you that Steven drove us to St. Teresa Walk, you are bound to disbelieve me. No, this time it was another driver. And he hesitated somewhat when I gave him the drop of point.
At the same time, I was pleased that the weather was good, and we arrived promptly at 5:00 p.m., before the sky got dark.
Dinah was not there to complicate the drama. But we found the swing moved away. It looked as though some alteration was made every time when I had visited the estate.
Yes, the ironing board was gone, together with the lamp at the corner. But Purab was inside. I was not sure if Poly was there in the bedroom.
“Welcome!” Purab said, the moment he saw Alfred and me.
“So, what brings you here?” he opened conversation.
Alfred and I looked at each other, unable to comprehend why this man were so friendly.
“We are here to make certain claims,” Alfred spoke on my behalf.
“There is nothing here for you. End of story.” Purab said.
“I want my things back,” I wished I had been firmer.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Purab said.
At this juncture, Alfred came in, “Why are you still here? This house has been vacant for a long time,”
“As far as I know, lady,” Purab decided to assert himself, “your grandparents have not discharged me,” “so that therefore I am entitled to live here.”
Something inside me clicked for a second. I remembered that I used to find Purab sweeping the garden when I came home from school, and the way he always greeted me when I was reading on the swing, apart from the fact that he connived with me by not telling my parents that I was coming home in my boyfriend’s car. Purab was my confidant!
“Ok sir,” Alfred began to change his tone, “would you be kind enough to give us a fraction of your earnings, perhaps a percentage of what you earn here on the two girls Poly and the other one?”
“No such thing!” Purab was a quick man, he knew what was coming.
At this time Poly came out. She seemed to know when to appear.
“I am Suzanne, Purab’s wife, we live here, and we own this place,” she looked stern and authoritative. At the time she spoke, she waved her hand showing off a gold charm bracelet – “this was a gift from my father, you can ask any of your cousins.”
As I told you earlier on, I was no longer in touch with my cousins. So that now I had nobody to verify the fact that I was the real Suzanne.
Alfred looked at me, and he quickly added, “Darling, let’s come back another day. I think we were supposed to meet Peter Chan for dinner,” he concocted a random name on the spot.
And then Alfred grabbed me by the arm, his strong hand pulled me away from the gardener, out of the estate.
We drove. In the car Alfred warned me, “I think it best that you don’t go back there again,”
“So, who had been stealing my jewelry?” I asked, “Was it Purab? He couldn’t have known where I lived,”
“I think more like Steven the driver who sent you home, you gave him your address, right?”
“Out of carelessness, I guess,” I pulled a grimace.
“But how come he has my keys?” I murmured.
And then Alfred said, “By the way, I dropped by a week ago, you were not in. I met with your neighbour downstairs. He said he knew you, so I gave him your set of keys, for him to return it to you. Did he return them to you?” and he continued,
“Since we are no longer dating, I didn’t think that I should hold on to your keys.”
I was a complete wreck by now. So, it was Dominic who came in to disturb my house all this while. And all along I thought that he was just a friendly neighbour.
Before Alfred could step on his brakes, I pushed open the car door and rushed out, inflamed.
The door to unit 01-05 was ajar, as though the occupant was expecting me to arrive.
The lights were on, and it was bright inside. A man was seated at the balcony, with several large plants covering his body. But I could see that it was Dominic.
“You finally took the initiative to come in,” he said.
Without any opening remarks, I blurted out, “Why did you come into my house and disturb me?”
“I was just concerned, you live alone, and I was wondering if you needed any help,” he replied.
“You spoilt my heater, and also stole my jewelry,” I confronted him.
“And spoilt the lift as well?” he began to laugh.
“Look! This poor lady just had a scare,” Alfred had parked his car and he came in as well.
“Calm down, Suzanne,” Alfred said.
“I think it best that you change your lock,” Dominic advised.
An excellent idea! I thanked the both of them and I left unit 01-05.
The alarm rang at 7:15 a.m. and I jumped out of bed. I will be late for Bull Bank if I didn’t get ready by now.
I slept late last night, as I was watching “Squid Game”. The serial was gripping. I saw the entire serial to its end before I logged off.
As I was hurrying to leave the house for breakfast, I saw Dominic’s lovely Persian cat outside my front door.
Why is she here?
I followed her trail, and I found myself outside Dominic’s front door again. The door was ajar of course, else his cat won’t have come out. But I felt obliged to knock.
“Come on in,” Dominic’s voice.
“Good morning, Dominic! I found your cat!” I said, cheerfully, I was in a better mood this morning, after watching a good serial.
“Don’t you have to go to work?” he asked.
“Oh yes, I had better go back and fetch my things,” I answered him.
And only then did I realize that the door had slammed on me upstairs. I wished I had given Dominic my new set of spare keys.
My heater spoilt today.
My pearl earrings were found in the kitchen fruit bowl, and my jade pendant was in the soap dish of my bathtub.
No, I do not have dementia. I am simply forgetful.
He is not beneath the opera house, neither is he a phantom. He is merely a fragment of my imagination. He is not in my house; I am in my house.
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