When I was a child growing up in Singapore, the weird and inexplicable was something rarely discussed in my father's family. It was not that the family did not believe in such things, but whenever the subject came up, Grandma would firmly squash all "irresponsible" talk. No one was allowed to speak of ghosts or scary happenings to the younger grandchildren. Being a fierce, Dragon-born matriarch, her word was an imperial decree. We all obeyed Grandma.
I had originally intended that Grandma's house be the very first of my narratives. But for some reason, either the right words wouldn't come to me or I was constantly getting distracted. Finally, I silently asked Grandma for permission to write about the house, assuring her I would do my best to be honest, respectful and discreet.
That evening, I sat down at my laptop and the words began to flow. It may well be that the moment wasn't "right" - until now.
After Grandpa passed away in Penang (West Malaysia) around the late 1940s, my father and his three brothers moved to Singapore where they were reunited with their mother, three sisters and youngest brother. When Dad and my four uncles married and moved out of the Cairnhill house, they still returned regularly to pay their respects to Grandma and catch up with my First Aunt Elsie and her four children, and Second Aunt Maggie and her son. (All names mentioned have been changed).
The house at Cairnhill was a stately, three-storey colonial with white-washed walls and a sloping red-brown terracotta roof. The long, winding driveway snaked past the wide staircase that graced the front of the house. A dozen stone steps climbed straight up to the foyer with the floor tiled in geometric patterns of russet, tan and dark brown.
Stepping past the threshold of the foyer, you would see the gleam of wooden floors amid a plentiful scattering of white-cane furniture. The floors and stairs had a tendency to creak with startling suddenness when the warm day cooled with the coming of twilight. On very humid days, the cream-coloured wooden shutters at the tall, spacious windows were flung open to catch the evening breeze.
The family lived there for over thirty years. It was an accepted fact to us that odd things happened on the property at Cairnhill. The peculiar aspect of it was that the incidents mainly happened to visitors to the house. Members of the family were generally left in peace.
Tradesmen were a favourite target for mischief. Their tools would be mysteriously misplaced, only to turn up later in another room. Little annoyances like that. People tended to look over their shoulders as they worked, complaining that it felt as if many eyes were drilling into their backs, making sure that they did a good job. Most would depart as quickly as they could after finishing their work.
There was one time when an electrician was called in to fix the faulty wiring in the ceiling. The poor man became quite dizzy every time he climbed up the ladder to reach the ceiling cavity, retching horribly and had to stop for a while. He was quite embarrassed by his reaction.
'I'm a healthy man, Madam Lin,' he said to Grandma. 'I never had problems with heights before. Maybe the air is "bad" in the ceiling?'
Grandma cast a sharp glance at the ceiling before turning back to the electrician. 'You will be fine now,' was all she said. 'Just carry on with what you were doing.'
The man found he was now able to safely climb up the ladder to finish the electrical wiring. It was just another weird happening at Grandma's house.
Grandma sometimes took in tenants to supplement the household income. A number of them did not stay very long. They never really explained what was wrong, apart from commenting that their sleep was interrupted by odd sounds throughout the night.
Then there was Lang, the son of a family friend who wanted to stay for a few weeks while waiting for hostel accommodation at university to become available. My aunts did their best to convince him that the place might not be "suitable". However, he was all of twenty and very confident.
'I'm an educated man,' Lang declared, brushing aside their warnings. 'Modern men don't believe in ghosts. They dare not cause trouble for me!'
That was not a wise thing to say. Especially when he had no way of knowing who or what might be listening.
The very night that Lang moved in, the family heard a whole heap of shouting and banging from his room. When Aunt Elsie's son, Ned (the oldest among my paternal cousins) knocked on the door, everything fell silent. Alarmed, Ned persisted until the young man opened the door. A chorus of worried voices greeted him:
'Lang, what's wrong?'
'You ok, Lang?'
'Why all the noise?'
'Are you "hantam bola" (hitting ball) inside?'
In response to the family's queries, Lang claimed to have slept through the commotion. He insisted he had no idea what the fuss was all about.
But next morning, Lang packed all his bags and told Grandma he had found another place to stay. He wouldn't say anything about what had happened in the night. Nor did he breathe a word on the matter to his own folks either.
The family did not mention the incident with Lang again for many years after that. These family accounts only trickled out to us grandchildren (mainly from Aunt Maggie) after Grandma had passed away in 1981.
I just had a spooky thought. There may be another reason why I wasn't meant to start on this narrative any earlier.
It was the Hungry Ghost Month.