by C.G. Menon
Winner of the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2016
“Excited, Shalini?” Dilip shifts up a gear and all the ghosts crowded into the back seat rock together and nod their invisible heads. Not, of course, that they’re truly ghosts. Miss Working-Late, Miss Tennis-Partner, Miss She’s-Just-A-Friend-My-God-Shalini-Give-It-A-Rest — they’re all very much alive and fleshy, going home right now on the Ampang Line and crossing their legs at retired businessmen. But somehow, they’re here too. Long hair drips from their perfect skulls and they blow fanged kisses to me in the rear-view mirror. Not ghosts, then — not with those sharpened teeth — but pontianaks. I’ve conjured up a carful of women bent on revenge.
“Looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with the old place?” He leans back, spreading his thighs across the seat.
The old place, the old girl. Since he retired he’s taken to this bluff, beery way of talking, a sort of permanent slap on the back. He’s never even seen the house — after my father died Elsie sold out to a resort chain and came to our wedding in diamonds — but that doesn’t stop him oozing a genial boredom with it all. He doesn’t look twice at the landslips or the mining villages that trail by on umbilical cords of mud, but I suppose there’s no reason he should. New things don’t ask for much effort, after all. It’s the old ones that are tricky.
He spins the steering wheel with the heel of one hand, and we turn into a driveway that feels both familiar and strange at once. A noticeboard hangs at the front among a shorn clump of bougainvillea. Mountainside Hotel, it reads, in curlicued script fresh out of the tin.
The house is unrecognisable, angles and glass polished smooth as Miss Working-Late’s knees. I remember a thicket of hibiscus shoots and dizzying deep-water ponds where the mineshafts used to flood. That’s all gone now, replaced with a sterile birdbath in a lake of lawn and a lap pool scrubbed chemical blue. Dilip grunts with satisfaction as he glides the car into a painted parking space. It’s the sort of arrangement he likes; everything laid out with the crusts cut off.
Inside there’s a hygienic lobby, sliced from the garden by tinted windows. Behind all that smoked glass is a little simmer in the ground; a seepage where the ponds are trickling back. They used to overflow, juicy with weed and seething with the monstrous shoals of koi my father bred. Lucky fish, Elsie once said, when we were still on speaking terms. Before the diamonds, before her ring, before someone draped the mineshafts with grass and buried the fish under a birdbath with their luck gone for good and all.
“The room’s ready, Shalini.” Dilip calls. A beautiful girl sits behind the reception desk wearing a badge saying “Call me Adelia”, and he looks as though he might just do it. He doesn’t seem to quite belong, here in this chilly space where I remember jambu floorboards and striped curtains to hide all our secrets. For a moment I see my father kneeling with an opal ring and Elsie with Chinese pomade in her crisping hair and a smile that spreads like butter. Don’t get too attached to that ring, Elsie, it ends up at the bottom of the pond and you never quite forgive any of us. Poor Elsie, she’d have been better off with the pontianaks.
“Up the staircase, Madam.” The lacquered receptionist smiles with a flickering politeness, the kind that will run out any time soon. Behind her Dilip’s busy with our forms, his head bowed with such immaculate concentration that I almost send the ghosts packing and forgive him on the spot. But then Adelia leans over the mirrored desk and her lovely reflection swims up into his empty hands like a fish with luck knotted tight to its tail.
The bedroom’s flimsy and overcrowded, with pin-tucked cushions on chairs standing a careful inch away from the walls. There’s no room for ghosts here, no wooden shutters fastened open with spidery vines or thatched roof filled with impish toyol spirits. The jungle’s been cut back too, and the massy trunks left outside are snaked with strangler figs. Trees with stranglers on them die, given enough time. They rot away inside, crumble so quietly you never even know.
Dilip taps at the door. “Shalini, are you decent?” — as though I’ve ever been anything else — and hefts the bags in. “There,” he wheezes, and sinks into one of the chairs. He closes his eyes and for a second we sit together, listening to the vanilla hum of the air-conditioning.
“This’ll be good for us.” He keeps his eyes shut, as though he’s hoping to open them on brighter, better things than we’ve managed so far. “A fresh start, eh? A few days by ourselves.”
Without opening his eyes he reaches out and crumples my fingers into the hollow of his palm. He’s taken his ring and watch off and the strips of skin beneath are pale as breath on a window. Underneath everything, in all his soft, hidden places where the words run out, I can still feel the pulse of his heart.
Perhaps there are some toyols left to make mischief at the edges of things after all, though, because our evening doesn’t go as planned. The hotel dining room turns out to be the old kitchen, skinned over with eggshell paint and chandeliers. We all look lumpish and cream-fed in that glare, squeezed into mothball suits and satin dresses tight as someone else’s skin.
“Sir, Madam, what can I get you tonight?” It’s Adelia again, with a sealed-up smile you couldn’t get a fingernail under. There’s a warmth in Dilip after he sees her, a cindery concentration to the way he talks. For the rest of the evening we haul our conversation along, and I learn her shape by the way he looks away.
She brings us kueh lapis for dessert and at the first taste of the pandan syrup I can feel Elsie elbowing her way back into things. She used to grow pandan here by the kitchen, where the squawking orioles pecked through my mother’s dug-up flower-bed. Elsie knows all about what isn’t there, so it’s hardly a surprise that she’s peeking out now from the crook of Adelia’s elbow and the turn of her lovely heel.
The room’s noisy now and the air tastes used-up, but I order a brandy and watch the dampness on Dilip’s neck. Somewhere beneath the pandan and his hot, toasty savour, I can smell pomade in a birds-nest of hair.
In the bedroom he closes his eyes, lumbering into me with the heaves of someone giving it his best effort. He’s turned the light off too, as if to make doubly sure, and from somewhere out of this gigantic darkness Elsie shrugs. She looks at me, tinkers with the young tangles of her hair. You got yourself into this, she says.
Elsie always was practical, even before she became this smooth ghost with a know-it-all smile. She would sit on the verandah combing her hair, while I padded about the house cradling quarrels like a snake mouthing eggs. My father stretched and stretched between us, thin as chewed bubble-gum and just as appetising.
The ring he chose was a clot of opals that stuck tight below her knuckle. My mother’s had been a loose hoop of diamonds that she’d kept slipping off to wipe a dish or type a letter or spend a night with her own Mr-Working-Late. No wonder he sized Elsie’s a notch too small.
And as for Elsie, she only took hers off once. She left it on the dressing-table one morning while she bathed. Just an ordinary morning, muddled and grey and full of the din of jungle-fowl after rain. Nothing portentous about that, Elsie, about a sulking thirteen-year-old, about a sky the colour of blankets and your ring sitting there for all the world like you thought it belonged. Like pandan in a flower-bed? she asks me now, from under the lurching bed. Like a pontianak, Shalini, crossing her legs on the Ampang Line?
Someone once told me that opals don’t last, that their colour’s just a trick of the rock. If you drop them in water — if you fling them, for example, into a flooded mineshaft that never brought anyone any luck at all — then they fade. They dissolve till there’s nothing left at all but your own nodding reflection and your dripping strands of hair.
When Dilip finally beaches himself in the bed’s cotton shallows I sit up and look out of the window. The pontianaks outside are quiet now — what do they have to worry about, after all? — and the grass they’re hiding in is drenched, sodden and secret as a peach beneath its skin.
By morning the sky’s whipped with mares-tail clouds and the hills are slick with heat. Nothing moves in the gardens except for a clump of curling touch-me-nots and one of the kitchen-cats shaking dew off its scabby paws. Dilip takes us out for an early walk; he likes to get at the day before it’s ragged.
“Used to be mining country, up here.” He prods at a springing hedge of bougainvillea and stands with his legs apart, breathing great nosefuls of air.
“Yes,” I say politely. He’s brought us up to the edge of the garden at a parade-ground clip and the earth feels loose and wet beneath my shoes. “The mines flooded, though,” I tell him. “There were ponds left everywhere.”
“Ponds?” He gives a hearty laugh, so blunt it couldn’t possibly hurt. “The pits would’ve been blocked up, love, not turned into ponds.” He smacks a kiss on my cheekbone. Affectionate, the way you’d slap a horse.
“There were,” I insist and to my surprise there are tears at the back of it. Middle-aged, choky tears; the type to push in where they’re not wanted, to drizzle on tubs of Chinese pomade and empty dressing-tables.
“Don’t get upset, Shalini.” Dilip sounds exhausted, as though he’d like to snort through that fine nose and slip back into Miss Working-Late’s starfish arms. But he’s a decent sort of fellow, ready to make allowances for the time of the month or last night’s brandy. “Look, why don’t you have the morning to yourself, eh?” he suggests. “Bit of down-time.”
He gives my shoulder a friendly squeeze and strides away over the boggy grass. The wind’s dropped since we came out, and a brassy light slaps the leaves awake. A few raindrops begin to fall, wetting the bougainvillea flowers till they’re frail as Elsie’s nightgowns. We’re all in this together, me and the flowers and the waxy leaves, all of us wilting as my husband walks away.
We’d come right to the edge of the grounds, and it takes him a few minutes to reach the house. Halfway there he pauses and turns away, heading past the old kitchen. Rain comes down in heavy drops thick as honey, and Dilip’s treading through flower-beds he’ll never know were there. Past the orioles, long-dead and angry about it, past the teak trees pulled out like missing teeth, and then he’s almost out of sight.
The hotel’s slanting roof looks precarious from here, as though one day all that glass might coil a little tighter and swallow everything up. I can see two huge bins of laundry stacked under the wall where my bedroom used to be and Adelia stands next to them. She’s pulling sheets out and stuffing them into a plastic laundry sack.
Dilip stops when he sees her, standing there with the linen in her arms like strings of pondweed. She bobs her head at him in a long, slow nod and I close my eyes. I hear leaves pattering about, cartwheeling away like kisses blown to a mirror.
When I open my eyes again Dilip’s closing the door behind Adelia. She clips down the passage, her arms full of sleep-stained linen and her skirt switching about her polished knees. Miss Working-Early. I can feel the dried-up splinters fraying the tender tips of Dilip’s fingers, the flossy spider-webs under his nails. And then the door shuts and Dilip’s still there. He’s tiny from this distance, small and manageable and blameless as milk. Just like I thought I always wanted.
A rising wind begins to lick across the valley, bringing the raw-silk rip of tearing leaves. In between the gusts of rain, I can hear the pontianaks mutter and feel them press their cold, unloved sides against mine. I turn my back on the lot of them and walk a few steps away, where a spine of rock lifts under peppery tufts of grass. On the other side the lawn dwindles into a scrubby jungle scattered with trees. They’re all twisted, warped by strangler figs into great swollen coils. A slop of water glimmers beneath in the distance, skimmed with algae and greying leaves.
Elsie once told me the monsoon started early here, that she could hear the wind in the stopped-up sockets of the mines. She said the water tasted of tin and the wells were crammed with ghosts. She said there was a lot I didn’t see, hidden under the skin. She said a wife was always the last to know.
My hands are cold and I shove them deep into my pockets. It’s last year’s skirt, a hair too tight and my ring rips the waistband slightly. It’s the kind of tear I won’t get around to mending, the kind that will grow bigger and bigger over the next few years till it’s large enough to swallow Miss Working-Late and Miss Working-Early and Miss Never-Worked-At-All. And then one unremarkable afternoon the whole thing will tear in two and I’ll be sitting there on the Ampang Line, crossing and re-crossing my legs at businessmen going home.