Children have always been a common sight at the Cairnhill house.
As a child, I loved the house which had belonged to my paternal grandmother during the 1950s to 1970s. It was like this beautiful lady with a mysterious past; a stately, three-storey colonial with white-washed walls and a gently sloping terracotta roof. A stone staircase graced the front of the house, which in turn led to the foyer tiled in a geometric pattern of russet, tan and dark brown.
Dark gleaming teak lined the floors throughout the house, while the sturdy, central staircase drew the eye as it climbed through each storey. The wooden floors and stairs creaked as they settled down, when the humidity of the day gave way to the cool of twilight. On hot and sticky days, the cream wooden shutters at the tall windows would be opened wide to catch the slightest hint of a passing breeze.
The house had its dark history, having been used as an interrogation centre by the Japanese army during the Occupation from 1942-1945. The family always believed that some of the troubled memories lingered on after the Second World War.
My cousins, Tim and Perry (all names mentioned have been changed), my elder sister, Lily and I used to run wild in the jungle garden, which was an overgrown wonderland of verdant foliage and colourful flowering shrubs. One of our favourite games was "heroes and bandits" among the lush bamboo groves, near the gated entrance to the half-acre property. Under the whispering canopy of the bamboos, Tim the heroic swordsman rescued Princess Lily and her faithful handmaid (me) from Perry the villainous bandit on many glorious occasions.
Until we were summarily chased off by the adults from the bamboo groves, that is. On my recent visit to Singapore, my mother told me the reason why: Grandma had believed there was an unfortunate soul (maybe more) buried at the front of the garden near the white metal gates. She did not want any of her grandchildren wandering too close to the area.
When they were first married, my parents had lived at the Cairnhill house along with Grandma, Dad's three sisters and four brothers. It was home to them until my sister Lily was about two (the year before I was born). My mother always felt perfectly at ease there; she neither saw nor felt anything out of the ordinary in the years that she lived there.
But the family was aware that the weird and inexplicable happened there at times. It was mainly to people not related to the family; in particular, those who quarrelled with Grandma or upset her in some way.
When I pressed Mum for more details on this matter, she shrugged her shoulders said vaguely it was only "little things". Apparently, those hapless individuals had a tendency to suffer small accidents. It was peculiar how they would always "dǐt dóu" [Cantonese: 跌倒 - fall down].
Tenants who argued with Grandma would complain that they felt uncomfortable in their rooms and couldn't sleep. All would leave the house soon afterwards.
The family was certain that the property at Cairnhill had its own guardian spirits. They often wondered (but never dared to ask) if Grandma had some tacit agreement with the spirits to leave everyone in peace. But that didn't prevent the more sensitive among the family from having the occasional experience.
The wooden staircase that adorned the centre of the house was wonderfully irresistible to all children. My parents' room was located at the top of the stairs on the third floor. Throughout the morning, afternoon and evening, they would hear a stampede of children's hoof beats thundering up and down the stairs.
The great horde would comprise my many cousins, elder sister and I, accompanied with much raucous laughter and squeals of delight. No amount of scolding or smacks on little rumps could stop us - it was far too much fun!
Third Uncle Adrian told his wife and Mum that he was at the foot of the staircase on the second floor one day, when he heard what sounded like a herd of buffalo pelting headlong up and down the stairs. Looking up with a frown, he saw this small group of Malay children merrily scampering about the staircase. He didn't recognise any of them.
Taking them to be children belonging to some neighbours or friends visiting for the day, he was unimpressed by their boisterous behaviour. It was no way to behave, especially if they were just guests in the house. They would just have to stop making such a ruckus.
'Diam-diam!' he addressed them sternly in Malay to be quiet.
At his reprimand, the children all stopped in their tracks. As one, they turned and looked at him in a strangely considering way.
Then they smiled...