By Daniel Emlyn-Jones
"You have xiao fu," said Xavier Tan, swinging his Maserati out of the Sengkang multi-storey carpark. "That is Chinese for small luck."
Lionel smiled to himself. Despite the passing of over 20 years, Xavier was still an irredeemably superstitious Chinaman. An empty 'Oh?' was his only response. In their student years in London, Lionel would have challenged him, and the resulting argument would have burned long, but Xavier was hosting him in his marble-floored, crystal-chandeliered HDB apartment in Singapore which Xavier nicknamed Le Petit Versailles. He was at that moment chauffeuring him in perfumed air-conditioned splendour for a buffet dinner at Mercure Roxy's Feast@East buffet restaurant in Katong, so Lionel didn't feel like telling him that his superstitions were a load of nonsense.
"Some people have da fu or big luck. You have xiao fu," Xavier explained. "Xiao fu can lead to da fu but you have to be patient lah. So next time you get 4D numbers, tick 'ibet' lah."
"Oh OK," said Lionel, with absolutely no intention of ticking 'ibet' or 'hbet' or 'sbet' or any other 'bet'. As an Englishman, he enjoyed dabbling in local Singapore culture by spending a few dollars on ordinary 4D bets each week, but whenever he was tempted to get too involved in gambling, his Methodist grandmother would appear before him in black burlap, her face cringing in disappointment. Despite this, winning big was a fantasy he frequently indulged in. It would be nice to pay off the mortgage, secure his children's college fees and buy his wife the proper diamond engagement ring she had always wanted, instead of the pathetic dot of a gem which should have been set in a microscope slide rather than in a ring.
Xavier pointed at apartment block number 186 as they passed. At the void deck hung white drapes embossed with Chinese characters, and crowds of people sat at tables drinking coffee, playing mah-jong or reading the newspapers. To Lionel it looked like an improvised coffee shop. "It's the 17th funeral that block has had this year,' said Xavier. 'Can you believe that? The 17th!"
"Is that unusual?" asked Lionel.
"Of course!" cried Xavier. "Do you know how many we've had in our block this year?"
Lionel shook his head.
"Four. Can you believe that? Four only."
Lionel thought of all the reasons this could have occurred. Perhaps there were more old people living in Block 186, perhaps the void deck was used by other tower blocks, or perhaps 17 deaths fell within the range of normality taking into account the average death rate in Singapore.
"Why do you think there have been so many?' Lionel asked, a mischievous part of him wanting to hear the hocus pocus explanation he knew would be forthcoming.
"I was talking to the mah-jong kaki," said Xavier.
"Here we go," thought Lionel.
"Apparently, there was a funeral here a few years ago but it wasn't done properly. The coffin was taken out head first, and the lamps and white drapes marking where the wake was held were not taken down at the right time. Do you know what that means?"
Lionel shook his head, repressing the many sarcastic replies he would have used in the past.
Xavier's voice became a whisper. "It means the spirit can find its way back."
"And the spirit is a serial killer?" asked Lionel, unable to resist.
"No lah!" shouted Xavier, slapping his steering wheel. "You don't believe me ah?"
"Well if I'm honest, no," said Lionel.
Xavier shook his head and sighed. "I'll tell you another story,' he said. 'One of my mahjong kaki, this old woman of seventy plus, had a dream that her mother's funeral urn with all the ashes toppled over. Do you know what was underneath the urn? A four-digit number. That four-digit number was the first prize at the next 4D draw! Can you believe that? First prize! But she didn't buy! She forgot!"
"Shame," said Lionel.
"I tell you, there are more things in heaven and earth," said Xavier with a dramatic wave of his hand. "That's from Hamlet. William Shakespeare. An Englishman! You should believe you know! If you can't believe, at the very least you should respect lah."
"Why didn't you listen to me?" shouted Xavier that Wednesday evening. Lionel had bet the numbers 3487 on ordinary 4D, and the number 4783 had come up. If he'd ticked 'ibet', he'd have accessed all number combinations and could have been one thousand dollars richer. It wasn't the big prize, but at least he'd have had something. "All you had to do was to tick the 'ibet' box!" Xavier scolded him.
"Yes, I know!" shouted Lionel. He looked at Xavier's shocked face, swallowed his irritation and apologised. "I'm just a little disappointed, that's all." With one thousand dollars he could have bought his wife a nice gold necklace. He could have bought Xavier a meal. He could have been the one to flash some cash for a change.
He didn't tick the 'ibet' box on Saturday either, and Saturday evening his number came up again. This time Xavier was not annoyed, because he had placed an 'ibet' using Lionel's numbers, and secured a nice fat win.
"You see, if only you'd listened to me, you'd have won!" said Xavier on Sunday morning. He was sitting on a big Queen Anne chair embroidered in gold, beneath one of the more ostentatious of his chandeliers, and wore a big Cheshire cat grin on his face.
"Well I didn't, did I!" shouted Lionel.
Xavier frowned. "If you were more careful with your money, maybe you wouldn't struggle so much."
"How dare you!" yelled Lionel, unable now to suppress his anger. "I have a family to support! I have a wife and kids! I have a mortgage! It's not like Singapore where you get an HDB flat handed to you on a golden platter!"
Xavier jumped to his feet, his face beetroot. "I have worked for everything! Everything!" He gesticulated violently in the air, a drop of crystal from the chandelier gently tinkling. "When I was younger, if we didn't have money, we starved! My mother had to peel prawns for a pittance just to put food on the table. My father worked himself to exhaustion every day as a labourer. If they hadn't worked, we'd have all starved! Not like UK, where you get pampered the whole time by the welfare system. When I first arrived in Singapore from Malaysia do you know how much money I had? Two hundred dollars! Two hundred dollars to my name! With that I built a business, I sent myself to University in London, and all by my own blood and sweat, so don't you dare tell me I've had anything handed to me on a plate!"
"Do you think you can stop being so damned self-righteous for five seconds?" bellowed Lionel.
Xavier walked to his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.
Lionel left the flat and wandered in the direction of Rivervale Mall. Perhaps it had been a mistake trying to rekindle his friendship with Xavier. The past was the past and just because they got on well when they were in their 20s, it didn't follow they would get on well when they were in their forties; 20 years can change a lot. If it wasn't for Facebook, they'd have parted after graduation and never heard from each other again, like so many generations before them. The truth was he liked Xavier. The man had a very good heart. He had simply developed his capacity to be irritating into a virtuoso art form. There was also something cosmically unjust about Xavier's superstitions gaining any kind of empirical support. Science and mathematics were supposed to be triumphant on these occasions, not Chinese old-wives-tales. Lionel tried to calculate the odds of the double 'ibet' win happening. He came up with one in eight hundred and thirty thousand.
It was the seventh month and he passed offerings to the Hungry Ghosts at the side of the road. There were candles, little pyramids of oranges, and blackberry sweeties scattered on the grass. A pile of hell money was burning in the gutter, presumably so that if the spirits didn't happen to like citrus fruits or blackberry sweeties, they could go to some infernal NTUC supermarket and splurge on something they fancied. A gust of wind blew acrid smoke from the burning money into Lionel's face, and he suddenly felt disgusted by the whole spectacle. On impulse, he aimed a hefty kick at one of the offerings. A candle was flattened and extinguished and several oranges bounced like footballs across the grass.
"No!!!" came a hoarse voice, and Lionel turned to see an old man standing on the other side of the road. He was bent double, his hands gnarled with arthritis, and his face smudged with sun spots. Lionel was expecting to see an expression of anger in his face, but instead he saw one of undiluted terror.
"I'm sorry," shouted Lionel across the road, suddenly ashamed of his own petulance. He ran across the grass and retrieved the oranges, placed the candle upright, and reconstructed the offering as best he could.
The old man had crossed the road to join him. "Bow," he said. The old man bowed his head, his hands together in prayer, to demonstrate.
This was a step too far for Lionel. "I'm not bowing to oranges," he said.
The old man scowled.
"I'm from the UK and in the UK we don't bow to oranges," said Lionel, raising his voice and speaking slowly, as if to a simpleton.
"I understand what you are saying," said the old man in fluent English. "But you must now bow to show respect to the spirits."
Lionel shook his head. "I don't believe in spirits."
"You should. They will cause trouble for you."
"I have enough of that already," said Lionel with a grin.
The old man tut-ted. He took some matches from his shirt pocket and with considerable effort bent low to relight the candle. He then bowed before the offering.
Lionel shook his head and walked off. Instead of wandering to Rivervale Mall as he had planned, something made him wander to Block 186 instead. Despite Xavier's theories about the death rate in the block, there was no funeral wake taking place that morning, and the void deck was deserted, so Lionel sat on a concrete bench and watched some women doing tai chi on the grass. Music came through a loudspeaker as they moved like trees swaying in the breeze. His parents had been ultra-religious. He thought of all the time he'd wasted being made to learn the catechism and attend mass. He remembered the shame he felt the first time he got excited by the bra section of the Debenhams catalogue, and felt the sharp thwack of the ruler on his hand, delivered by a grim faced Benedictine nun named Sister Inviolata.
He took a deep breath and addressed the deserted void deck. "My friend Xavier tells me there are spirits here. Well, I'm afraid I'm not impressed by you at all. I challenge you here and now. If you exist and if you are here, show yourselves to me. Convince me that you are real!"
There was silence. Lionel chuckled to himself, laughing at his own foolishness, and at Xavier's craziness. As he was laughing, his eyes were drawn to some numbers scribbled on the concrete leg of the bench. They were four numbers written in black chalk: 4444.
"What the hell," thought Lionel, still sniggering. He went straight to Rivervale Mall and filled out an ordinary 4D bet on those numbers. He also bought a little laughing buddha for Xavier.
That Evening Xavier's screams of delight echoed around Le Petit Versailles. "You've won first prize! You see! You have da fu now. Yes!"
Lionel phoned his wife Jenny in London and her screams joined Xavier's. "That's your trip of a lifetime paid for! That's the next year of bills paid!' she laughed, her voice shaking with relief. 'Perhaps we can leave the kids with their grandparents and I can come to Singapore next time, and meet this famous Xavier?"
Lionel turned from the phone to Xavier. "My wife wants to visit Singapore!" he said.
"Tell her she is most cordially invited," said Xavier, with a broad grin.
Lionel's youngest Jack had won at football, and his daughter Clara had just won a junior piano competition at a local music festival. Lionel praised them over the phone. He had been in Singapore for two weeks, the longest he'd ever been parted from his family, and suddenly his heart burned for them.
"I love you," he said to his wife before the call ended, tears welling in his eyes.
"I love you too," she said. "And congratulations sweetheart."
Lionel returned to Block 186 the next day to find the numbers which had done so well. They had gone, but the numbers '0000' were written there in black chalk instead. He went straight to Rivervale Mall and placed his bet.
Xavier's screams echoed around Le Petit Versailles once again on Wednesday evening. "You definitely have da fu!" he cried. Lionel had increased his stake and won very, very big. It wasn't just a few bills or Singapore trips he could afford now. He could fix the leaking roof and do up the kitchen. And he could afford to buy his wife a nice stonking big diamond.
Lionel returned to Block 186 and the numbers 7777 were written on the bench leg. That Saturday night, Xavier didn't scream, but instead looked at Lionel with concern. "What is going on?' he said. 'How did you get those numbers?" Lionel had won again.
"I just thought them up," lied Lionel, laughing with joy. He and his wife could now pay off a good chunk of their mortgage, pay for both their children's educations and live comfortably for the rest of their lives. He didn't want to tell Xavier the truth, because he knew there would be no end of superstitious theories. Besides, he knew very well why he kept winning. Some member of staff from the Singapore Pools Association must be writing the numbers on that concrete bench and fixing the lottery. It was the only rational explanation. And if he could benefit from it, then why not?
Lionel returned to Block 186 the next day preparing for another big win, but instead of numbers, he found four Chinese characters written in black chalk on the concrete bench leg: 还 清 欠 债. He couldn't read them, so he took a photograph with his mobile and back at the flat showed them to Xavier.
Xavier's forehead furrowed as he examined the characters. "Huan Qing Qian Zhai. It says the debt must now be paid. Where did you see it?"
Lionel then decided to tell Xavier the whole story. The last thing he wanted was some deranged person from the Singapore Pools Association after his blood.
Xavier went white as a sheet. "We need a Taoist priest," he said, grabbing his phone with a shaking hand. He spoke to someone in Teochew, the words like machine gun fire, and scribbled something down. "That was a mahjong kaki," he said to Lionel. "She has given me the number of someone who can help us." Lionel tried to explain to Xavier that he didn't need any help, but Xavier waved him silent and made another phone call. His voice this time was slower and more reverential. When he hung up, he turned to Lionel, his face ashen. "That was a Taoist priest. He will be here in ten minutes."
"I don't need a priest," Lionel laughed. "It's obviously someone from the Singapore Pools Association playing games."
Xavier shook his head and groaned. "Something is playing games, but unfortunately it isn't from the Singapore Pools Association. You need to start taking this seriously now, for your own sake."
"I'm sorry but I can't," said Lionel, sniggering.
"OK then," said Xavier. "I don't want to talk to you anymore until the priest comes." He went to his bedroom and closed the door gently behind him.
Shortly thereafter, the Taoist priest strode into Le Petit Versailles, his intricately embroidered yellow robe with swirling dragons incongruous against the eighteenth-century décor. Lionel had decided to humour Xavier and meet the priest. He figured it might make a nice story to tell over a pint when he got back to the UK. He extended a hand to the sumptuously dressed man and introduced himself, but the priest folded his arms, straightened and backed away slightly from him. "What have you been doing?" he said, his voice cold, his face like stone.
Lionel told him the whole story, the priest nodding slightly as he listened.
"You are in big trouble," he said once Lionel had finished.
Lionel laughed. "I've won a lot of money. That's trouble?"
"Winning money is not a problem," said the priest. "The problem is you have won money by calling on spirits."
"It was a joke," said Lionel.
"Has it occurred to you that the spirits you have called upon do not share your sense of humour?"
"I don't believe in spirits," said Lionel.
"You don't believe in the spirits, but the spirits believe in you," said the priest. "Spirits are like people. There are good people and there are bad people. Some people are so good we call them holy. Some people are so bad we call them evil. We call them monsters." He peered at the air around Lionel's head. "I see a black form surrounding you. An entity feeding from you. It is not good and it is not bad. It is monstrously evil."
For the first time, Lionel felt a shiver go down his back, and despite the tropical warmth, he began to tremble. A look of pity flickered across the priest's face.
"You must believe him," pleaded Xavier.
Lionel shook his head and tried to laugh away his fear. "I'm sorry, but this is crazy. I'm a rational person so let's look at this rationally. If this spirit is 'monstrously evil', why did it give me a small fortune? It doesn't make sense."
"It is difficult to say," said the priest. "It is not easy to ascertain a spirit's motives, but a spirit can sometimes play with their victim as a cat plays with a mouse."
"Please believe him Lionel!" cried Xavier. Tears were welling in his eyes and running down his cheeks.
"With your permission, I will conduct an exorcism," said the priest to Lionel. "Don't worry. With the help of the Jade Emperor, we shall expel it." He flicked the horsetail fuchen whisk he brandished in his right hand.
Xavier frantically nodded.
"The Jade Emperor?" Lionel sniggered. "Exorcism?" When he heard words like 'exorcism', he automatically thought of the 1973 film The Exorcist, with swivelling heads, vomited pea soup and levitating beds, together with barked obscenities in Latin. He put his hands up as if stopping traffic. 'OK. This is beginning to get very, very weird, and I have to tell you I'm starting to feel really, really uncomfortable. I appreciate that you guys have your quaint little beliefs, but I'm going to go to my room now. Nice to meet you mister priest." He gave the priest a peremptory nod, went to his bedroom and shut the door gently but firmly behind him.
Once in his room, the first thing he did was pick up his mobile to ring his wife. A conversation with her about mundane matters would make things feel slightly less surreal. Perhaps they could chat about the diamond he was planning to buy for her. He dialled and waited. Instead of her phone ringing there was a droning tone. It was two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon in the UK, so she should have had her mobile switched on. He heard the sounds of chanting and the ringing of a bell and opened his bedroom door to see the priest standing before an altar. Incense rose from joss sticks in thin lines which blossomed into clouds which hung around the bright crystal tears of the chandeliers. The priest brandished the horsetail fuchen whisk in one hand and wielded a ritual sword in the other.
"I said I didn't want an exorcism," barked Lionel, angry that that they were continuing with the mumbo jumbo against his wishes.
The priest stopped chanting and bellowed at him. "This isn't for you! This is for Xavier, to protect him and his apartment from your foolishness!" Xavier was kneeling behind the priest, his hands together in prayer. He turned to Lionel with a look of abject sorrow.
Lionel retreated back to his bedroom and tried to phone his wife again. As before, all he got was the droning tone. He decided to try his sister Angela instead. This time the phone rang.
"Lionel?" she answered. Her voice sounded strangely hoarse.
"Hi, Angela. Yup it's me. What's up? Jenny wasn't answering."
Angela struggled to speak.
"What is it Angela?"
"We were going to ring you to tell you," said Angela, her voice shaking.
"Tell me what," said Lionel, his heart beginning to thump in his chest.
Angela paused for several moments. "There was a fire…At your house…A fire…"
"Jenny? Jack? Clara? They're OK, right? Tell me they're OK?" Lionel screamed.
"I'm sorry Lionel," said Angela, sobbing.
Lionel dropped the phone and his knees gave way under him. He lay semi-conscious on the floor of his bedroom. The priest and Xavier rushed in, and through the ornate gilded windows of Le Petit Versailles he saw a black figure floating on the night air. Its eyes burned red, its decayed and festering mouth was stretched into a leer, and Lionel knew in his heart that it had taken his wife and his children from him.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017