FOR GENERATIONS, THE Ghost languished in the garden of my nenek’s house. If you’ve ever been to Sungai Rokam, you might have seen it. It’s the white wooden house, just a short distance up the road from the school.
The Ghost had been there since long before I was born. People came and went, but it remained, the one constant occupant. As I stand here in that very same garden, looking at the rusting, rotten carcass of the Ghost, I am taken back to an earlier time – to when I was just a young boy, barely in my twelfth year. I remember the smell of beef rendang in the air, and each and every one of my cousins was gathered in the living room of our nenek’s house. It was something that happened annually back then, the whole family gathering together for at least a week for the Raya celebrations. Things have changed. We’re all grown up now, and we interact through the occasional comment on each other’s Facebook statuses, but not much more.
So we, the little children, gathered round our beloved ageing uncle on that one Hari Raya years and years ago. We called him Cik Dada. Cik Dada looked old even back then. He had long, wavy, grey hair, tied back in a small ponytail. Around his mouth and on his chin grew the same wavy, grey hair, but this at least he kept neat and short, probably at the insistence of his four wives. The most prominent feature of his face was a huge, bulbous nose – a result, I suspect, of our family’s north Indian ancestry, and something I felt fortunate not to have inherited. He was wearing one of his favourite white pagoda T-shirts and a sarong, his typical attire when resting at home.
We sat around Cik Dada in a circle on the carpet, asking him to tell us about that ‘thing’ outside. With a stinky pipe stuffed with cheap tobacco in his hand, he leaned back dramatically, making the old wooden chair he was sitting on creak and groan under his weight. He puffed out several wisps of smoke from his lips and placed his foul pipe aside. Then he began his act.
‘What’s that?’ he asked, feigning deafness. He cupped his hand on his ear for extra effect. ‘You want Cik Dada to tell you about what?’
‘Tell us, Cik Dada, tell us about that,’ we said, and collectively pointed outside towards the Ghost in the garden.
‘What is it? What are you children pointing at?’ Cik Dada said. He placed his hand as if to shade his eyes and squinted to look, but in the opposite direction from where we were pointing.
We screamed with laughter, enjoying the act of japery from this seemingly daft old man. ‘No, not there, Cik Dada...there,’ we said in between bouts of laughter.
But eventually Cik Dada would look in the right direction, and on his face would appear a sly, crafty smile. A smile that told you he had a secret, a secret he was wondering whether or not to reveal to us young ’uns.
‘Oh, so you want to know about the...Ghost?’ he asked, barely above a whisper.
We gasped at the mention of ‘Ghost’ as if it was something truly frightening.
‘A ghost? Is it dangerous?’ one of us asked.
‘Well, it depends,’ Cik Dada said. ‘When you’ve been naughty, it would know. And when a naughty child gets too near to the Ghost...’
We leaned forward, waiting for the reveal.
‘It will snatch you and eat you, bones and all!’ Cik Dada said with his arms raised, hands in a clawing motion. His eyes bulged and his bulbous nose trembled.
We screamed in fright, but Cik Dada would just laugh his jolly, hearty laugh.
Aunt Mimi appeared in the living room, clutching her hips and looking particularly irate. She had been sleeping in the bedroom at the back of the house, nursing a migraine. Nenek’s house had thin, wooden walls and sound easily carried through the rooms, even all the way to the back.
‘Dada, stop scaring the children,’ Aunt Mimi said after she was sure she had sufficiently gained the attention of the room. ‘All this screaming is making my migraine worse.’ After Aunt Mimi was satisfied with the reception of her message, she marched back to her bedroom.
‘My apologies, dear sister,’ Cik Dada said, even though Aunt Mimi had left. He turned back to us, and continued his story. ‘There, outside in your grandmother’s garden, covered in overgrown weeds, is a Rolls Royce Phantom Two. That is why we call it the “Ghost”.’
‘Four-point-three-litre, thirty-horsepower, six-cylinder engine with Stromberg downdraft carburettor. Can go from zero to one-hundred kilometres an hour in twelve-and-a-half seconds. And I used to like the colour before it faded away into its present grey.’
‘Cik Dada, you’re pulling our leg again,’ I said. ‘That’s not a Rolls Royce Phantom and you’re just quoting Indiana Jones.’ I took pride in being a movie buff. Still do. Cik Dada called me an insufferable know-it-all.
‘It isn’t?’ Cik Dada said, absentmindedly scratching his ear and frowning. ‘Are you sure?’ And then Cik Dada broke out into another hearty laugh.
‘You’re much too clever, and you watch much too many movies,’ Cik Dada said. ‘But you’re right. It’s actually a 1962 series IIIA Sunbeam Rapier convertible, but I call it the Ghost anyway.’
‘Why is it abandoned though?’ one of my cousins asked. ‘Seems like a shame to just leave it there rotting away.’
Cik Dada nodded sagely. ‘Sometimes these things happen and who’s to say why such things happen in the way they happened?’ He took a puff from his pipe and looked wistfully out the window towards the Ghost.
‘But whose was it? Who bought it? Did you get to drive it, Cik Dada?’ another cousin asked.
‘Oh yes, I did get to drive it, of course. But that was many, many years ago.’
‘Where did you drive it, Cik Dada? Where did you go? And with who?’
‘Oh, we drove the Ghost to many places! We went to Coronation Park, we went to Kuala Kangsar for laksa by the river; some weekends we drove to Taiping to picnic in the lake gardens. The sun would be shining and the breeze would kiss our faces as we ate mee goreng and nasi lemak and fresh, crunchy karipap. Your mothers were much younger than they are now, and with the Ghost’s top down they would stand on the back seat and make faces at the drivers of the cars behind us. Good thing they were cute little girls, so the other drivers didn’t mind as much. It was a simpler time back then. But can you imagine? Your mothers would pull a face like this…’ Cik Dada stuck his tongue out and pulled his eyelids up so his eyeballs bulged out like ping pong balls.
We burst into uproarious laughter once again, prompting Aunt Mimi to come screaming at all of us – Cik Dada included – to stop it. Her migraine was getting worse and worse by the minute because of our racket, and if we wouldn’t stop, she’d take out the rotan and beat us all sore. So Cik Dada ended his story there and told us to go outside and play instead.
MY STORY OF the Ghost would have stopped there if not for the fact that, years later, the topic of the Ghost came up in conversation with my mother. By then I was a stupidly confident young adult who thought he knew everything there was to know about the world, and during one of my college breaks I made the rare decision to come home and visit her. Even though Mak was disappointed I didn’t come home as often as she wanted me to, somehow the conversation veered towards the topic of the Ghost. I asked her how the car came to be in the possession of our family.
Until then I had always assumed it was Cik Dada who owned the car, since the many stories I had heard about the Ghost were usually about him driving it to some exciting locale and generally having a whole lot of fun. But of course, like many of Cik Dada’s whims of fancy, his story of the Ghost was baked together with generous doses of half-truths and white lies, and whatever he blabbered forth was meant to be taken with equally generous doses of salt.
‘I was a little girl back then,’ Mak said, ‘and Aunt Mimi happened to be friends with an Englishwoman. Aunt Mimi was a teacher at the Methodist Girls School back then, and that’s how she met this minah salleh. There were still a lot of mat salleh and minah salleh working in the country in the ’60s, and Aunt Mimi became very good friends with this particular lady who we came to know as Mrs Benson.
‘Aunt Mimi didn’t call her that of course. She was much too close to her to be formal. I don’t remember what it was she called Mrs Benson. It’s been so long.’
I kept silent so my mother could continue her story.
‘I think it was in ’65, or was it ’66? Sometime in the mid-’60s,’ Mak said. ‘Mrs Benson had to return to England, and as a parting gift she gave your Aunt Mimi her car, which she couldn’t take back with her. It wasn’t practical to ship it back to England from Malaya, you see.’
‘What? She gave Aunt Mimi the car? For free?’
‘Like I told you, they were really good friends. They kept in touch with each other right up until Mrs Benson passed away several years ago.’
‘How did Aunt Mimi know she died?’
‘Mrs Benson’s son eventually wrote to Aunt Mimi after he had found their letters of correspondence while cleaning her house. He read the letters and realised they had been very good friends, and felt obliged to write Aunt Mimi and tell her that his mother had passed away.’
Mak stopped her story here; it’s funny how death inspires silence in conversations. But I wasn’t about to let her quit just yet.
‘Aunt Mimi must’ve been really exhilarated to get that car. After all, it is a convertible and sort of like a sports car even. And from what Cik Dada told us in his stories, everyone must had had lot of fun, going for joyrides, picnics at the Taiping Lake Gardens, that sort of thing.’
My mother nodded and smiled, and her eyes had a faraway look. ‘Yes, those were fun times. I used to sit in the back and make faces at the other drivers, even the people on bicycles. There were a lot more people using bicycles to get around back then.’
‘I bet Aunt Mimi must have been really proud to have driven that car to school,’ I said.
‘Oh no,’ Mak said. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Because Aunt Mimi didn’t know how to drive at the time.’
‘Oh. So she let Cik Dada drive it in the meantime then?’
Mak didn’t answer and because she looked tired from the conversation, I left it at that.
In those days I had seen Aunt Mimi less and less, and her visits to Sungai Rokam became rarer and rarer still. I didn’t know it at the time, but her marriage was on the rocks and she hadn’t dared to tell anybody about it. She couldn’t leave her home in Johor Bahru because her husband had refused to allow her the freedom of being in public unaccompanied.
ONE DAY, FEELING bored during a college break and not wanting to go home and visit my mother, I decided to make a trip to visit Aunt Mimi in Johor Bahru. She was delighted to see me. I was probably the first nephew to have visited her house since she had moved several years before. Her husband wasn’t at home; he was almost always not at home and often travelled to Australia on what he claimed were business trips, leaving Aunt Mimi at home all by herself. Aunt Mimi didn’t have any children, so she lived alone.
Aunt Mimi’s hair was stringy and thin but she tried to make it look presentable. It didn’t really work. She wasn’t as old as Cik Dada, but she was close enough. And whereas Cik Dada was fit and strong for his age, Aunt Mimi was frail and hard of hearing. She had the same large bulbous nose that I’m fortunate not to have inherited.
Having always been curious about the Ghost, and armed with the new information that I had received from my mother, I found the confidence to ask Aunt Mimi about it.
Aunt Mimi scratched her nose absentmindedly and her eyes glazed over, her mind recalling a distant past. She remained silent for several moments and eventually I leaned over and touched her shoulder.
‘Aunt Mimi?’ I asked. ‘Are you all right?’
Aunt Mimi did not stir and kept looking at something beyond my sight. ‘I loved that car,’ she said, eventually. ‘It actually had a name, did you know that?’
‘Apart from ‘Ghost’, you mean?’
She sneered. ‘That’s a stupid name Dada came up with, and only because he wished the car was a Rolls Royce instead of a ‘silly’ Sunbeam. That’s typical of your useless, layabout uncle. Always wishing for something he doesn’t have, and never being grateful for what he already has. Never being able to see what’s in front of him and appreciating it for what it is.’
‘What was the name of the car, Aunt Mimi?’
‘The car? Oh, oh yes. Margaret had called it “Lilly”.’
‘Lilly?’ I said, frowning. ‘That’s a strange name to give a car.’
‘Well, I assure you it wasn’t so strange back then, but I wouldn’t expect you youngsters to appreciate or understand it. And how much stranger is it than ‘Ghost’, hmm?’
‘Sorry, Aunt Mimi. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.’
Aunt Mimi slowly turned her head and looked at me. She smiled.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘Nothing to be sorry about.’
‘Did you ever get to drive the Gho– I mean, Lilly?’ I asked.
‘No, I never did get a chance. By the time I got my driving licence, Cik Dada had driven it with such reckless abandon that it was in a state of serious disrepair. The engine probably needed an overhaul, and goodness knows how long the car went without servicing.’
‘Cik Dada didn’t even bother sending it in for servicing?’
‘You have to remember, our’s was a poor family back then.’
‘So in the end, the car was just left to rot in Nenek’s garden?’
‘I didn’t have the money to repair it. And Cik Dada, well, he didn’t assume any responsibility for the car. Telling him off would have been out of the question. He is my big brother after all.’
‘The car must have been a beauty to look at in those days,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ Aunt Mimi said. ‘It was.’
Now, decades later, my aunt and uncle are long gone and their stories with them. It’s funny how a rotting, rusty old car can evoke so many memories, and how it shaped the people who had come in contact with it throughout the years.
I am sun-baked standing in the garden on this smouldering afternoon, but that doesn’t stop my eyes from getting a bit damp as the man from the scrap metal yard arrives with a snarling monster of a lorry. With mechanical efficiency, the man hauls the car up to the flatbed. When he is done, he looks at me and says, ‘My friend will come tomorrow to demolish the house.’ I nod and thank him for his service.
The man climbs back into his lorry and drives up the road, past the school and to the junction at the end that leads to Jalan Gopeng. I can’t pull myself away from the rusting remains of the Ghost – or Lilly – being slowly driven away. Finally she disappears, taking with her the memories of times long past.
Ted Mahsun writes technical manuals for a software company by day and writes fiction by night. His book reviews have been published in The Star, Malaysia’s daily newspaper, and his fiction has been included in several anthologies published by Malaysian publisher Fixi. He lives in Kuala Lumpur with his wife and daughters, and occasionally blogs at tedmahsun.com.