It Happened at Mount Pleasant
By Melissa De Silva
His eyes linger over her once more.
Her pencil poised a half-inch above her notebook and her lips taut, the nine-year-old is a prim receptionist.
As the taxi zooms through the night, they are in a private cocoon of PVC and citrus air freshener. He cannot tear his eyes from her tiny wrist as she marks three columns down the page. She is more resplendent than a thousand Botticelli goddesses. But it is when she begins labelling the top row across the columns that his heart trembles. No little receptionist is this delight; she is a cataloguer, just like him. What are the odds of that?
He never had the opportunity before. By day he was buried in the bowels of the museum, classifying, labelling and archiving. In rare moments he'd catch drifts of children's shrieks piercing the calm, the thunder of little feet across the timber floorboards above. Sometimes, he would be so exhilarated he would come up for air, his eyes blinking in the midday sun, on the pretext of taking his lunch break at the bench under the angsana tree by the river. Then he would scurry past those compact bodies, damp with terror that his one surreptitious glance would unleash an arrow from the teacher-in-charge.
But here she is, and he has fate to thank for bringing them together.
He'd been flagging a cab along that godforsaken street outside the museum after working late when she'd popped up in her school pinafore. Struck dumb, he took in the halo of fuzz around her hairline, the backpack like a slab of pink cement strapped to her torso.
"Excuse me Uncle, can I share your taxi?"
He could only nod.
The air-conditioning in the taxi is freezing. Sweat is beading on his upper lip, drenching his mid-section, making his shirt stick to the mound of his belly. He hastily pulls the damp fabric away from himself and snuck a look to see if she'd noticed. Her head of lustrous waves, gathered in a ponytail and fastened with a furry purple scrunchie, is bent over the notebook.
He checks the rear-view mirror. The driver is so short, he could only see the top of the man's bald head which glints in the ripples of tungsten streetlamp. The girl is absorbed in scribbling. With a feint of a casual stretch, his arm reaches across the back of the seat and rests there, thrillingly close to the back of her head, but without actual contact. Perhaps it is more thrilling because contact seems inevitable yet impossible. He yearns for them to talk, but has no idea how to break the silence. He blames it on his damned work; he's been too isolated from other people. Making conversation, which comes naturally to others, is wracked with anxiety for him. Sometimes when he was down there working alone, his thoughts would wander to the days of World War II, to the eruptions of bloodshed that splattered the colonial building which is now so prettily restored. He imagined the B-negatives and A-positives intermingling with abandon, the sticky ABs and the easy-going Os, a tango of proteins seeping from broken receptacles of Japanese or Allied flesh.
The next move in his romantic siege is worrisome. What if she screams before he has the chance to win her over? The driver will be on the phone with the police in a heartbeat. If only he has cake. That chemical bomb rainbow one. She'd be eating out of his hand. At that instant, the unwelcome thought of the Italian serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli, who had murdered three women and drained their blood to make teacakes, flits into his mind. How could that woman have believed human sacrifice would save her son from getting drafted into the war? She'd even given them to her son to eat, these blood-curdled teacakes. Monster. And surely the boy would have tasted something strange? If you put enough chocolate in a cake, could it actually disguise the taste of blood? It probably wouldn't work with vanilla. Maybe it was because they were poor, World War II was looming, and any cake you got you were grateful for. He shudders.
With a shake of his head, he brings himself back to the present. Perspiration spreads across his back now. He tries to generate casual banter: "Why were you in town? No schools there." He glances out the window in feigned nonchalance and realises where they are.
He tries his best not to sound alarmed. "Uncle, which route did you take? Why are we going this way?"
But the driver does not respond. He cannot catch the man's eye in the rear-view mirror.
The girl finally speaks and asks: "What's your type?"
He whips back his hand as if the upholstery has singed him. "What? What do you mean?" Goddammit, he hasn't even the chance to initiate anything and she'd called him on it.
Her exhalation is impatient. "Your type? You know? Every human has one? A? B?"
A nervous laugh escapes before he can catch it. "Um, it doesn't matter to me about grades."
He fixes his gaze out the window and pretends to be absorbed in the view. Then horror strikes. The road sign 'Mount Pleasant Road' flashes into sight in the taxi's beam. As the vehicle swerves around one curve of the narrow road then another, the saga trees' gnarled fingers appear to press close, as if eager to crush the vehicle.
"Uncle, I never told you to take this route!" He hears the hysteria in his voice and hates it. Damn those stories of Pontianak roaming this stretch of jungle. They would appear in front of your car, sending you swerving into a waiting bush; or, more terrifyingly, they'd morph from alluring women into demented white creatures with glowing eyes and ragged manes. Even the human presence of black-and-white colonial houses nestled among the trees does not deter the revenants.
The car zips past Burmese banyan trees with aerial roots. They are going to encounter a Pontianak, he knew it. His shirt is plastered to the entire front of his body now, outlining his belly to the girl, but he no longer cares.
"Uncle? Uncle!" His hand is about to tap the man on the shoulder then pulls back. A crazy idea pops into his mind. What if—what if the driver is actually a pontianak? What if they could now somehow take on the male form too? Aiyah, if only he and the girl had gone somewhere to have a meal, like ice-cream, this night would have turned out so sweetly different.
The car drives past a cluster of palm trees. There, between two lissome trunks, a phosphorescent glow against the dark. He yelps.
Something tugs his left shirt sleeve. He yelps again.
It's the girl.
"Did you see that?" he stammers.
Her eyes look innocent. "See what?"
He cranes his neck back but the creature has either vanished or is hiding in the dense forest.
The girl tugs his sleeve again. "What's your type?"
She picks up the pencil, poised for notation.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
His eyes wander to the clump of trees growing tinier behind them. His throat is dry. What if the pontianak is flying right above their car?
Another tug on the sleeve. Her eyes are an earnest glisten.
"Your type. Uncle, what's your blood type?"QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016