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Night Tour
Originally for the NAC cyberwriting project, this short story's ending hasn't been determined yet!

By Toh Hsien Min

She had barely gone four steps when she crunched to a stop on the gravel and turned abruptly, as though a real anxiety had seized her.

‘Before we go in,’ she said, in firm, almost hard tones, ‘I must warn you again. If you don’t feel you can take it, best to remain outside. It’s okay, nobody will laugh at you, and the bus-driver will keep you company. I don’t know what we’ll see inside, sometimes I bring people here and we see nothing at all, but sometimes…’ Kelly broke off.

The young Chinese couple were whispering agitatedly to each other. ‘Anyway, better to be safe, if you’re not sure.’

Tanya tugged at Kee Long’s sleeve. ‘So fake,’ she said in an undertone, having regained enough of her composure. ‘Why did she start then stop? She should have memorised her script by now.’

‘Why’re you trying to explain it all away?’ hissed Kee Long in reply. ‘Can’t you just enjoy it if you’re so sure it’s all a bluff?’

‘It’s like David Copperfield,’ murmured Tanya, remembering their last memorable family event. ‘You want to know how he did it. Whether he used a blue screen for his teleportation act. Or how he moved those people from one side to the other. These things, sure got explanation, and part of the fun is finding it out.’

‘I’d feel better with David Copperfield here,’ said Kee Long. ‘At least your daughter probably thinks like you.’

‘Yes,’ said Tanya, looking at Lay Lin pacing impatiently beside Kelly. She looked at her watch. It was 12.25am. ‘At least one of us will be able to sleep tonight.’

The Chinese couple reached a decision: the ponytailed girl skipped lithely up the steps to the bus, while the pale man shrugged and dug his hands into his pockets.

‘Ok, stay close to me and don’t wander off on your own,’ said Kelly.

They scuffed the gravel under their feet as the group went along the dimly-lit driveway, brushed aside the slender outgrowth of a hibiscus bush and slipped into the house through a doorless doorway. An array of light beams came on, cutting through the darkness.

‘We’re now in the hall of the house. As I’d mentioned, the family used to be very wealthy, and eyewitnesses from that time tell us that this used to be very elaborately decorated with Chinese soft-stone carvings and Ming pottery. It is said that…’

A hoarse scream erupted behind them, and then a couple of shriller, panicked ones. Tanya jumped. Her hand shot to the cross she was wearing even as she spun around. The Chinese women were giggling. She didn’t understand at first, but then saw the plump Chinese man grinning and flicking his torch on and off with his thumb. Tanya glanced across to Kelly, who was frowning, and to Lay Lin and Kee Long.

‘As I was saying,’ Kelly went on, in the same taut voice she had used previously, ‘it is said that the patriarch paid off the young clerk in this hall. I’ve never seen anything here, but our contractors tell us that the door leading to the kitchen opens and shuts on its own. The family made the clerk come and go by the back entrance, you see.’

A shiver ran through Tanya, rippling from the side of her waist to the roots of her hair like wind on still water. She looked round at the others. They were all silent now, but their torch beams were sweeping from one side of the room to the other.

‘What happened to the family?’ asked Tanya, as much to calm herself as to inquire.

‘Nobody knows. One old man said the ghost got revenge on them, but most of our sources agree that they couldn’t stand living in the house where their daughter died and moved back to Ipoh, where they owned a tin mine. We couldn’t trace their descendants though.’

Kelly paused for other questions, but the dusty darkness of the house had subdued them all, even the Americans, who had been asking questions all evening. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Let’s make our way up to the bedroom. Stay close.’

She turned to the curving bannistered stairway, and the group quickly followed behind her. At the first step, Tanya reached out for the bannister, but withdrew her hand self-consciously as she watched Kelly balancing her way to the top.

Kelly stopped them as they all crowded onto the narrow landing. ‘Here we are. The most clearly haunted spot in Singapore. It’s just down this corridor, over there. Please be careful and don’t touch anything. When we found this property everything downstairs had apparently been stolen, but this room was just as it was. I don’t know if anybody tried to move anything, but our contractors certainly didn’t. None of them dared to move a thing.’ Then she turned and led the way down the dark corridor, to the door that had been propped open.

‘Leave the door open like that, won’t the ghost escape?’ Tanya heard the Indian man asking his companions quietly.

‘You siao ah! Ghosts no need door to escape,’ one of the girls giggled nervously.

Tanya turned to look at her husband, now keeping very quiet, and at Lay Lin. In the arc of a torch beam, she saw that her daughter’s face was slightly flushed with perspiration, but a smile still broadly flitted across her face.

All of them squeezed into the centre of the room. It was quite large, about the size of the living room in their condominium apartment, thought Tanya, but everyone evidently wanted to keep as far away from anything in the room that could contain malevolence.

Kelly shushed their murmurs, and pointed her torch towards the ceiling. There was a series of cross-beams holding the roof in place. ‘That one,’ she whispered.

‘Aarrkh,’ one of the girls cried out, involuntarily. A knot of dirty rope hung about two inches off the second-last beam, cut off and frayed.

‘Was that the rope?’ asked one of the Americans.

Kelly nodded.

‘In a moment we’ll turn off our torches for about five minutes. It’s almost the full moon, so we may just see something. But first, I want to show you something really beautiful even in all this gloom.’ Kelly swung her torch around, to the chest of drawers about five yards to their right. She moved halfway towards it, and the group followed. In the light of Kelly’s torch, they all saw it: a baby-faced doll, with fresh pink cheeks and large round eyes, clothed in an elaborate evening dress of red velvet. There were three or four other tattered dolls on either side of it, but no one had eyes for them.

‘Isn’t it just beautiful?’ asked Kelly. ‘Our research indicates that it’s a bisque doll, probably made in the Thuringia region of Germany. It’s now considered antique, and could be very valuable to the right collector. So well preserved too. But this was Madeleine’s favourite doll, and a few people think it shelters her spirit.’

A small hand clutched Tanya’s. She started. It was Lay Lin. ‘Isn’t it…’ Lay Lin searched for the words. ‘It’s just the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all year. Pity it’s…’

‘Huh,’ said Tanya. She could hold it in no longer. ‘How come everything else is stolen except for this room? How can the doll be so well preserved when all the other dolls are falling apart? Must be the tour agents put it there so they’ll have a better story.’

‘I think so too,’ said Lay Lin, and in a flash her hand was gone, and she was darting towards the chest of drawers…

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This interview was originally published in the National Arts Council. Click here to access the contest page (deadline 31 Aug 2001, page will run till end-Sep 2001).

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