My next door neighbours are back! They went overseas in January 2020 and could not return due to the ravages of the pandemic that hit the world a month later. Stranded there for such a long time meant their beautiful house here has been vacant all the while. We did not have the heart to let the garden languish without the love that any garden deserves. Did I say their house was vacant for two and a bit years? Sorry, my mistake. Of course, it wasn’t. It was not difficult to discover other residents had taken over the house. In the first year, the exoskeletons of dead cockroaches littered their floor, a result of the black Cockroach baits that they left around the place. There were other residents too, some only left their faeces for me to clean up and others built their homes in the house. Yeah, spiders. I never minded these little critters; to me they are extraordinary architects and engineers and they do us the favour of killing flies and other annoying insects such as mozzies. “Why, we should love spiders!” I said. But, I also know that cobwebs are a necessary item in horror movies. Every Hollywood movie about a haunted house must have cobwebs to stir our fear. Every script will have the eventual victims in a dark dungeon or cave or an unused attic peeling cobwebs off their faces. We equate creaky floor boards, dusty bookshelves and cobwebs with an abandoned house. In an alien world, humans are trapped in webs and then wrapped and cocooned for later consumption. Spiders are scary if you think about how they eat their prey alive. Yes, by biting with their fangs to paralyse them and then sucking them dry. The horror of being sucked dry with nothing left of us bar a shrivelled up shell is a recurring nightmare for some.
The Mrs and I have been looking after their house here in their absence. I was curious to see if time had aged them as it has aged their garden. The plants are no longer baby ones fresh from the nursery. The Granny Smith tree, although only slightly taller than me, has produced well over five hundred green apples this year. The dwarfed Persimmon tree is similarly productive. Lemons, plums, nectarines and Red Delicious, cherries and oranges add colour and variety to our harvest. Oops, ‘our’? My mistake. Theirs but they were not here to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Their standard roses are no longer scrawny and thin, their vigorous growth and stunning blooms this year have been the pride of our neighbourhood so much so that others from surrounding suburbs have been known to stop by to admire.
They arrived when the sun was setting and the cool breeze brushing the treetops of the grand old gum trees in the park across the road swayed a Hawaiian welcome as they stepped out of the taxi. The kookaburras broke into a joyous chorus and the magpies chimed in promptly. The growing shadows were kind to the couple. They both looked svelte with their visceral fat playing hide and seek with my eyes as the shadows loomed larger by the second. Wow, they look younger and slimmer! I thought to myself. In the two years they were away, over six million people have died from the pandemic and millions more are long Covid sufferers. The Bloke actually looked younger and moved with ease as he effortlessly transferred the mountain of luggage from the taxi to his garage. With a taut body and bulging biceps, his movements belied his years. I have seen him in a supine position on his white leather sofa many times – that is when he is most alluring to his wife, The Lady, who unfailingly goes to him with water or fruits or whatever he fancied.
The Lady, still lithe and effervescent, broke into a sweet smile. She swayed her body joyously but not in synchronisation with the Hawaiian sway of the breeze. Observing Covid protocols, I refrained from giving her a welcome hug. No handshakes, no hugs, and no pecks on her cheeks. Usually forcing grumpy smiles on my neighbours, I uncharacteristically gave her one of my rare honest smiles. The Mrs could not contain herself and broke the social distancing rule. Fair enough, after all, The Lady is her sister. Younger by a few years, The Lady was the most sensible. She said they won’t be mingling with us for at least four days, even if the PCR tests showed negative. She would break her own rule the very next day and before the week was out, they would have invited us over for breakfasts and dinners on several occasions. On the third morning of their arrival, we had breakfast at The Pavilion. Our first sumptuous meal there in over two years was a far cry from the mundane regime of breaking my daily fasts after sixteen hours. Having a daily bowl of oats made interesting with the addition of honey, home-dried apples and sultanas, assorted nuts, seeds and yoghurt had been my proudest act of discipline. That got chucked away that morning. I broke my Intermittent Fasting routine an hour early and ordered a Spanish breakfast of chorizo and eggs.
It was on the following morning that The Bloke and The Lady told me about their ghost stories. The Bloke was excited about the recipe he had recently discovered. A true Sarawakian, he loves Kolo mee for breakfast. For a Penangite, I did not find Kolo mee to be anything super special. In Penang, the street food mecca of the world, there are so many noodle dishes that are simply divine. Kolo mee, for me, was similar to our dry version of wonton mee. The Mrs, of course, very quickly changed my mind when I first said it. She has that art of persuasion that I have never learned. Ok, ok. Kolo mee is so much better! The ingredients are pretty much identical except the wonton noodles are made to taste ‘Q Q’ (Taiwanese for springy) by adding lye water to them. The Mrs knew best as she lectured me about the health hazards of consuming lye water over a long period. “It’s corrosive! It’s poison,” she said, frightening me.
The Bloke has a scientific mind. An engineer, no less. To him, everything in the world can be explained by science. “Eventually,” he hastened to add. That made me less disagreeable, as I was about to take TCM, traditional Chinese medicines, as a subject to dispel his notion that science explains everything. Even today, as China uses TCM to treat Covid cases, there is much hysteria in Western media decrying its use. Animal cruelty, a threat to animal extinction, herbal remedies that harm rather than heal due to negative side effects, toxicity, heavy metals, microbial organisms, etc, etc are repeatedly argued against the use of TCM. It’s untested, it’s folklore, it’s risky, so they keep saying even though the Chinese have been using them for thousands of years. Western medicines may be superior, but they are patented by the drug labs and therefore are unaffordable for the majority of folks in developing countries. Similarly, Western vaccines cost a lot more too than ‘untested’ Chinese vaccines. Everything has become geo-political these days. Have the Western media ever stopped and consider what would happen if China was forced to conform to their ways and standards and coerced to use Western vaccines and treatment drugs instead? Then, the world would have very quickly run out of vaccines and other drugs during the height of the pandemic. Would they then have argued that China had been hoarding all available vaccines and drugs at the expense of the West? Today, the Chinese share their affordable medicines with many poor countries, making them much more accessible for people. Western media, of course, have been arguing that China is using soft diplomacy to win over or bribe the poorer countries.
The Bloke was quick to disregard my hint that their house is home to a cheeky ghost. He may have forgotten about the early episodes when they first moved in. Episodes that I do not conveniently forget.
“Remember how your slippers moved from your bedroom to the dining table one night? I asked. “Or how the tap suddenly gushed out a raging torrent of water?” I continued. “And the time when the dining chairs moved a few inches away from the dining table, by themselves?”
Silence. The Bloke would not concede the remote possibility that his scientific mind would fail to provide proper logic or reasons. He only gave me silence. He raised his head as if to speak but no words came out of his mouth.
“So, what is it this time?” he asked with a tinge of exasperation and impatience.
“Well..” I started defensively. I began to explain how a water pump in a pond should progressively over time become clogged with mud and debris, and therefore will become less efficient in pumping a body of water from A to B. “It would be visible to the eyes,” I said. “The flow of water will slow dramatically and the waterfalls will lose their effect,” I explained scientifically. But, this was not what had been my experience of late. Rather than weakening, the waterfalls had been raging, creating white water, frothing the stream white. The filter box had overflowed on numerous occasions and even the outlet hose had come off despite the tight clamp that was screwed to the maximum. “This is the opposite of what science will predict!” I concluded triumphantly. After we finished our Kolo mee and permanently tarnished our teeth with the extra black Malaysian coffee, we stepped outside to the pond for The Bloke to get a better appreciation of the problem. It is a problem alright, as each time the hose freed itself from its clamp, I had to wade into the water to refit it. The water was becoming colder by the day as the sun prepared its journey from autumn to winter. No word of a lie, but The Bloke fixed this prank by the ghost in a matter of a few minutes. He put his hand into a place where no one was prepared to put. Being knowledgeable of the dangerous critters that lurk in an Aussie garden, no sane person would shove their hands under a rock blindly. That was indeed what The Bloke did. He pushed his hand into a deep crevice between two rocks that formed the highest of four mini waterfalls along the stream. With a fecund imagination, I saw a snake lunged at his hand. I also saw a grotesque thing with the sharpest saw teeth bite into it. The Bloke actually bled, but from cutting his finger against the clamp. He pulled out a large clump of vegetation from underneath the rock where the waterfall sprung into the first pond. “What the?” I uttered in disbelief. Why would grass grow in water without sunlight?” “And such a thick growth too!” I added.
I concluded that it was the work of the ghost. Science could not explain why there would be such thick vegetation in the darkness of the crevice. Anyway, it turned out that was how the ghost blocked the flow of water, and as the pump continued to move water into the filter box, the blockage inevitably caused it to overflow. But, it still did not explain why by having channelled the bulk of the water via a tee-valve back into the pond to prevent the filter box from overflowing, it would eventually still overflow after a week or so. The Bloke was happy with himself as he walked away, singing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, made famous by Elvis Presley.
“Wise men say, only fools rush in…”Elvis Presley