By Peter Condron
This is where my ghost always takes me. This same 12-storey block just off Boon Lay Avenue. Stumbling across the car park I glance up at the huge digits painted on the side of the building. White numbers vivid against the garish green walls of the HDB. Like bones. Like teeth.
I can't take the elevator. The enclosed space is just too cloyingly oppressive in the evening humidity. I take the stairs, bare concrete step after bare concrete step, back and forth along the end of the tower block until I stand sweating and out of breath at the end of the narrow corridor leading to the flats. There is no one else here tonight, the corridor empty apart from an old cat lying watchfully under a planter. Slowly I walk along the line of doors and windows, my hands gradually tightening into sweaty fists inside pockets as I approach my destination. Inside my ghost senses my approach, demands me to hurry, to run, demands to be fed. Only when it is satiated will it grant me some small measure of peace.
Glancing down into the car park I spot a police cruiser moving slowly among the rows of parked cars. Maybe the sight should give me pause, make me turn and run. But it is far too late for that now and my pulse barely quickens as I continue my inexorable walk along the corridor. We all know the score – the fate ordained for drug abuse in Singapore. But I won't be caught. The police drive their shiny white cars around the estates and attend to their regular diet of noisy neighbours and family fights and leave me to my own lonely routine. In a sense we both want the same thing the police and I: peace and quiet, an easy life with no reports and no awkward questions. So they don't worry about us, human shells for hungry ghosts, shadows walking through deserted estates. Leave these things to immigration, to the illiterate smugglers from Indonesia or Malaysia, to Changi prison and the death penalty.
My steps deliver me to the familiar metal grille in front of the door to the flat, black paint peeling off the old ironwork. And I pause. Fifty dollars for food, a movie, cigarettes. Or peace for a few moments – an all-too-brief respite. But this is a fake ritual, there is no real contest, the itching, worming need of my ghost always wins.
Further down the hallway a flat door swings open and an elderly couple emerge into the corridor. Grey emancipated skeletons clad in ill-fitting clothes. Both move slowly and unsteadily on their feet, carefully stepping down from their door into the corridor. The man looks up in my direction, old eyes meeting mine for a moment before looking away. Those eyes hold nothing for me, no accusation nor contempt, just old eyes that have seen many things. The couple walk away in the opposite direction, down towards the other end of the building, hand in hand.
Hand in hand. Unthinking I pull my own hands from my pockets. My skin is pale and clammy, fingernails gnawed down to the quick with specks of blood delineating their ragged edges. I stand there in the corridor, frozen, an idiot mesmerised by the sight of his own hands. Captivated by bones, muscles, tendons, nerves; a physical body still not yet completely consumed. And, for a moment, I wonder when the last time was that I felt the touch of another's hand in mine.
I glance up just in time to catch the old couple disappear into the lift at the other end of the corridor. Alone again I raise my hand to knock on the door. A knock, a furtive conversation and I could be free.
But, just this once, just for tonight, my hand pauses in front of the door. And before my ghost overwhelms me I turn and stumble back towards the stairs, moving as fast as I dare, shoving my shaking hands back into my pockets. Inside, the screams of my ghost rattle in my ears – demanding, needing. It always wins in the end. It knows that.
But not today. Today I'll join the couple, while I still can, in this solid world of blood and bone. And just for today, I'll stay hungry.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012