Grandma's house at Cairnhill had its share of secrets from the Occupation in 1942-1945. My family suspected that certain atrocities took place under its roof when it was a base of operations for Japanese army officers, but we were glad that the full history was never made known to us. Sometimes, it was best to let the past stay in the past.
I loved Grandma's house. It was a lovely three-storied colonial-style house, with its stately façade of white-washed walls and reddish-brown tiled roof, standing on a property that spanned a generous half-acre expanse. The garden was like the flowing skirts of a regal lady, a lush spread of green foliage, dotted by vibrantly red, pink, white and yellow flowering shrubs.
For a little girl, the house hid an exciting mystery behind every nook, corner and cranny. On days when I couldn't tag along after my older sister and cousins, I would spend hours exploring the house instead. I liked how the darkly gleaming, worn floorboards felt cool and smooth beneath my bare feet. The creaks and cracks of the settling wood were like the cosy prattle of a beloved friend. I would wander along the long, shadowy hallways until I made it right through to the back. There, a wooden staircase descended onto a square, stone-paved courtyard.
The courtyard divided the house from the huge kitchen, which was located in a separate building. The kitchen had only three walls, being wide open at the side that faced the main house. Over to the left of the kitchen were the servants' quarters, a room shared by the cook and the housemaid. I once curiously peeked inside their quarters and was shooed off by the adults for being cheeky.
My paternal grandmother was the supreme matriarch of the house. She was very particular on protocol and civilised manners, as befitting our status as a respectable family. As children, we were not allowed to "order" the servants around or be rude to them - it was not our place. Even my boisterous cousins, Tim and Perry, sons of First Uncle Ken, obeyed Grandma's directives. Well, most of the time anyway. (All names mentioned have been changed).
Tim and Perry were close in age to my older sister, Lily; we often played together as children and were known to the family as the "gang-of-four". Lily usually played the role of Princess-of-the-Hidden-Fortress, and I was her faithful handmaid. Perry was the reluctant "villain"; his older brother, Tim was our "hero" and the undisputed ringleader of all our childhood exploits.
One fine day, Tim thought it would be fun for our "gang-of-four" to explore the basement. This secret room comprised the entire first storey (or ground floor), with access from a small door concealed beneath the wooden staircase in the courtyard.
As fortune would have it, when we decided to embark on our little expedition, someone had left the door unlocked that day. We needed no further encouragement.
Quick as a flash, Tim, Perry, Lily and I slipped into this mysterious realm. Tim flicked the switch beside the door and we gaped at the contents within. Dimly lit by a single, dangling light bulb was the treasure chamber - the household storage area!
Everywhere we looked was a magical-seeming item. Funny-looking clothes from a different era, colourful mismatched crockery, old furniture pieces, odd-shaped little boxes and other fascinating trinkets we could not name. We touched or lifted each item to marvel at the unfamiliar shapes, textures and colours.
There was a resounding BANG!
The door slammed shut on us and we could hear a girl giggling. We thought at once it was Cousin Ava, First Aunt Elsie's second daughter. Ava was only a few years older than Tim, but she thought we were all "babies" and hence beneath her notice.
'Ava, we know it's you - AVA!' Tim hollered.
'Let us out!' yelled Perry.
'We'll tell A-má [ah-mah: grandmother]!' Lily threatened.
They banged on the door, but to no avail. It was shut tight. Ava had locked us in.
Panicked, I began to feel the walls closing in. I thought the light from the bulb was slowly fading, even as the shadows lengthened and seemed to gather around us expectantly.
I promptly burst into tears.
Lily tried to calm me, even as the boys continued to shout and thump on the door. It felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes later when the door opened.
Aunt Elsie's oldest daughter, Tia stood looking at us in the doorway, quite puzzled. 'What are you all doing inside?'
All of us were reprimanded of course. The basement was forever barred to our "gang", while Ava was scolded for locking us inside.
The curious thing was that Ava was adamant the door slipped out of her hands and slammed by itself. She had only meant to shut the door to give us a little scare. Even when we were all grown, she still maintained that story.
We didn't like Ava as much as we liked Ned, Tia or Sonia. The four of us thought she was lying through her teeth. But once in while, I also remember how weird the shadows looked and the way they had frightened me.
One of Grandma's rules for her grandchildren was that when the sun was shining and up high in the sky, we were allowed to run amok in the sprawling jungle that passed as a garden. But once the sun began to set, regardless of where we were on the property, we all had to return to the shelter of the house.
The reason for this probably goes back to the time when Tim and Perry were a bit tardy in heeding the call to head back indoors. They had been thoroughly engrossed in shooting marbles on the flagstones in the courtyard between main house and servants' quarters. The sun had started its slide over the horizon when something caught Tim's eye.
'See that?' He pointed up at the sky.
Perry craned his neck. 'See what?'
'That bird thing, you gorblock [gor-blok: fool, idiot] head,' said Tim with an older brother's withering scorn.
'I'm not a gorblock, you're the goondu [goon-doo: idiot, moron],' was the defiant reply.
Then they both saw the flying thing, a black silhouette against the gathering dusk. Like an ominous shadow, it hovered seemingly motionless in the sky for several moments. The napes of their necks prickled in warning; the boys had the distinct impression that it was gazing down at them with baleful intelligence.
My cousins instinctively backed away to the staircase, towards the protection of the house. They clambered up the wooden steps, too terrified to even call out for help.
The creature did not come any closer to the house. Instead, it circled three times over the roof of the neighbour's house, before flying away into the twilight.
Tim and Perry hurtled back into the house. Their account sparked a debate in the family as to what they had actually seen. There was some confusion as to the actual shape of the winged creature, since the brothers gave conflicting descriptions. Tim said it had the wings of a bat. Perry thought it looked like a peregrine falcon. This made one of my uncles suggest it could have been a rare sighting of a bat hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus). Dad had the opinion that it was probably a fruit bat, also known as a flying fox.
The boys were certain that it was not someone flying a kite either; they had played with enough kites themselves to know the difference. Furthermore, if they had seen the creature so clearly from that distance, it must have had the wingspan of an eagle. It was something a lot bigger in size than the various winged creatures that had been suggested.
One thing the brothers both agreed on: whatever it was, it didn't feel friendly.
Cousin Nick, Second Aunt Maggie's only son, had a number of experiences at the Cairnhill house as well. When Nick was about three, he had been playing near the kitchen when he suddenly pointed to a well-lit corner in the courtyard.
'Má, look - funny man!'
'What man?' Startled, his mother looked up from the pot on the stove she was minding in the kitchen, but saw just the usual shadows cast by the afternoon sun.
Nick gave her the exasperated look that only a three-year-old could manage. 'Funny man, crying red. Monkey, má, monkey.'
Aunt Maggie managed to piece together that he had seen the slight figure of a man in some sort of uniform. The "funny man" had wept red tears which trailed down his cheeks. A small monkey sat on his shoulder.
The whole area had been filled with people at the time. They were preparing for dinner and there was someone walking across the courtyard every few minutes on an errand to or from the main house. But not one person had seen what Nick was talking about.
Most people would put down that episode down to a child's vivid imagination. Except that the whole composition was quite bizarre. How could a three-year-old to put together an image like that out of the blue?
Then something else happened when my cousin was just a year older. It was bedtime and Nick was brushing his teeth at the sink when Aunt Maggie heard him scream. She came running up to find him trembling and pale.
'Th-the h-head, the head!' was all Nick could stammer out.
After some patient questioning, Aunt Maggie learnt that he had seen a face looking at him through the open window on the second storey. It had belonged to a disembodied head - just a head - hanging in the air. She asked him if it was a man, woman or child? What colour were the eyes, skin or hair?
Poor Nick had been too shocked to notice much detail from the fleeting glimpse. Aunt Maggie also thought it was unlikely any intruder could have climbed a tree to peer in at him. It was night and pitch dark outside. Also, there were no trees next to the house. Weird and inexplicable things happened all the time at Grandma's house.
Right up to the end.
It was the end of an era when the house was sold during the 1970s. As we were only children, our wishes didn't enter into the equation. The house was simply too big to maintain and my grandmother was getting older. Above all, Grandma was pragmatic, having kept her family intact before and after the ravages of war. She had bought a modern condominium in the Bukit Timah area and that was to be her new home.
Third Uncle Adrian was the very last to leave. Grandma and my aunts had all cautioned him not to dilly-dally. They were worried that the resident spirits would not welcome having him around when the family no longer owned the house.
My uncle only half-believed in the family legends; he was among the few staying at the house to be "untested" by the spirits. Preoccupied with university studies, Uncle Adrian was still sorting out his text books and study notes the day after the settlement had gone through. That afternoon, as my uncle was packing his books into boxes scattered about the gravelled driveway, he had the unnerving sensation of being surrounded by a host of angry eyes.
Being made of sterner stuff than the average man, Uncle Adrian continued with his packing. The taxi driver he had hired was on "standby", waiting to help stash the boxes away in the boot. But after a while, the driver began to look uneasy and kept asking my uncle if he was going to be much longer.
Uncle Adrian gritted his teeth and carried on until the feeling became overwhelming. Finally, he couldn't bear it any more.
Hastily picking up the nearest box, my uncle abandoned the rest of his books and boxes on the driveway and jumped into the waiting taxi. Without a backward glance, he urged the driver to leave the house at Cairnhill.
The property at Cairnhill was bought by developers who demolished the buildings and bulldozed over the garden. But soon after excavation work began, everything came to a screeching halt. There were claims that bones were discovered. The work was delayed for months. We heard mutterings and rumours of mysterious problems on site (tools going missing?) and money woes plaguing the developers.
But at length, construction was completed. The site where Grandma's house, courtyard and kitchen once stood had become part of the Cairnhill Hotel. That beautiful garden was now buried under the hotel's car park area.
About twenty years ago, I was talking about Grandma's house at Cairnhill with Lily, my older sister, when my younger sister, Cara chimed in. Although she had been too young to remember the house, she still heard about the family legends.
Cara had just graduated from the hotel catering college in Singapore and still kept in touch with her former classmates. They had told her that the chambermaids at Cairnhill Hotel would only work in two-person teams on certain floors.
Some of the hotel staff there believed that the place was haunted.