An Unwelcome Visitor
Like most writers, GEOFFREY S. WALKER dislikes being disturbed when he’s working, but some interruptions are more disturbing than others ...
IN BEGINNING THIS STORY, I must make a confession. I am prejudiced—deeply so—against a certain class of human beings. I don’t like dead people. Corpses are creepy. They give me the willies.
That said, I’m not afraid of the late lamented, at least in the sense that I fear they might make themselves actively unpleasant ...
Meaning, I don’t believe in ghosts.
Here in Sabah, that relegates me to a tiny minority. Malaysians tend to sense spectral presences everywhere. An abandoned house, a ramshackle hut, a bus stop on a lonely road, a dead tree, a scabrous boulder ... even a cracked flowerpot full of weeds—any and all such derelict landmarks might house an unquiet spirit.
My wife June is particularly attuned to such phenomena. According to her, Kota Kinabalu is a virtual necropolis. We’ve had many lively debates on the subject which invariably end in my guaranteeing her that there are no such things as ghosts, and her offering ironclad proof to the contrary, citing such authorities as Pesona, Mastika, Bicara et al. The result: a deadlock.
A few years ago, June and I rented a semi-detached house in the Likas area of Kota Kinabalu. It was a nice place: spacious, comfortably furnished, a yard in which to barbecue, closest neighbours also close friends. And perhaps best of all from a writer’s perspective, quiet and secluded.
June, by contrast, is of a gregarious nature. In addition to her large extended family, she has hundreds of friends. She enjoys spending time with them and frequently invites them over for dinner.
Far be it from me to object to her entertaining company, but I do like to be told ahead of time when she’s expecting guests, as unannounced visitors can play hob with my routine. Sometimes, however, the early-warning system fails. I try to be gracious on such occasions, but it can be irksome, particularly if I’m struggling with what I’m writing.
June owns and manages a boutique. Typically, she gets home from the shop at sunset. One such evening, I was plotting a chapter of a novel that was giving me trouble. I heard her enter the house and returned her greeting, but didn’t get up, as I didn’t want to lose my train of thought. She knows how I am and is very accommodating of my need for privacy when I’m working. So she simply waved and smiled as she walked past the door of my office. Just before I lowered my eyes to the keyboard again, I saw another young woman trailing a few steps behind her. She too waved and smiled as she disappeared into the kitchen.
It doesn’t take much to throw off my concentration at times, particularly when I’m feeling I may have written myself into a corner. And now, the thought of having to deal with an unknown visitor annoyed me. Not wanting to make a big deal out of it, I opted to send June a text message, chiding her for not letting me know she was bringing someone home. I was still frowning self-righteously when she walked into my room holding her cell phone. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” I hissed. “Who is she, anyway?”
June gave me a puzzled look. “Who is who?” she asked.
“That blonde girl who came in with you. Is she still in the kitchen or what?”
June’s look of puzzlement slowly morphed. “There’s no one with me,” she said, turning pale. “I’m alone.” Suddenly, I could feel the blood draining from my own face—but for a different reason.
Oh, my God, I thought to myself. That’s putting your foot in it.
“Hantu!” June said in a strangled voice. “You saw a hantu!”
“No, no, no,” I groaned, wishing I were flexible enough to kick myself in the head. “It was just a, a—synaptic thing. My eyes are tired. It was dark. All I saw was you—you know, like an afterimage or something.”
“You said she was blonde,” June reminded me. “Do I look blonde?”
“Like I said, it was dark,” I squirmed.
“And black-haired women look blonde in the dark, is that what you’re telling me?”
“Listen, dear, I’ve been staring at this monitor so long I’m cross-eyed. Just forget about what I—”
June wasn’t buying it. “We’re moving out of here,” she scowled. “I’m not living with a hantu. Living with you is crazy enough.”
“Come on, honey!” I wheedled. “I keep telling you: there’s no such thing as ghosts. And even if that, that girl was a ghost—which she wasn’t, of course—she seemed perfectly friendly. I mean, she waved and smiled, and—”
June started punching numbers into her cell phone. “I’m calling my uncle. He’s a bomoh. I’m going to ask him to come here tomorrow.”
For the sake of my pride, I wish I could say that this debate also ended in a deadlock. But in fact, I didn’t stand a chance of holding my own. Not a ghost of one.
June’s bomoh uncle is an affable gent. He listened attentively to my story, and nodded in sympathy when I explained that I was tired and cross-eyed and distressed by the fact that I’d written myself into a corner and therefore couldn’t be held to account for the hallucination. He then made a tour of my office and the kitchen and the minor space of hallway that divided them, before giving his opinion. Yes, the house was haunted. The hantu inhabited the doorjamb of the kitchen. Yes, she was blonde, and yes, she was benign. Bloodthirsty ghosts don’t smile and wave. So, no, there was no need to vacate the premises. We had a beer together and I used the opportunity to ask him some questions about the book I was working on, which centres on Malaysian magic. Then he left. June felt better and was willing to stay in the house. I felt better because June felt better. Plus, we didn’t have to move.
But I must say that the experience did nothing to eradicate or even ameliorate my prejudice towards dead people.
They’re enough of a nuisance when they’re inert. When they act up, they’re a real pain in the ass.
Reproduced from the January-March 2012 issue of Quill magazine