Fiction – “Idris on the Job” by Leow Hui Min Annabeth

i.

It was a warm evening, and Azmi had been in no mood to be disturbed. The entire afternoon had been spent in an argument with the bottle-spirits who moved into her kitchen some years back – they insisted on having a fresh supply of blood, and where was she supposed to get that, she wanted to know? She didn’t bleed, and she wasn’t letting them feed on anyone, for she would surely get into trouble.

Not that she could say that to the young man at her door; he was gahmen.

‘Makcik,’ he said, fidgeting with the collar of his batik shirt. ‘I am here because the housing board reported that there were hauntings in this estate. I am not here to pester or trouble you, makcik, I am here to help!’

Azmi laughed like the rasping screech of nails.

She knew what she must look like to Idris, though; he was so slight and dapper. She was a burly woman, brawny arms under her short-sleeved blouse, a ponderous brow showing from the edge of her fuchsia tudung. To think that once upon a time she had been called a siren.

‘Boy,’ she said, with asperity, ‘I don’ mind town council send ustaz, I don’ mind they send bomoh, but let me tell you, I never expect them send scholar.’

A worried little frown began tugging his lips.

‘What you know about haunting anyway?’ Azmi continued briskly. ‘Pro’ly I can beat ghost into hell better than you. Pro’ly I know more about ghost than you. You young people, never need to live with ghost like we last time must, so you think so much in black an’ white.’

From inside her apartment there came the sound of a plate crashing, and she grimaced.

‘Makcik?’ asked Idris nervously.

Azmi relented.

‘Okay lah,’ she said sweetly, and the slightest hint of her old nature shone in the dull gleam of her smile. ‘You better come in before I no more crockery. I have toyol in my kitchen – not the hantu you looking for, but I want them get out and they don’ listen me today.’

‘Of course, makcik,’ Idris murmured, hefting up his briefcase and stepping over her threshold. He bent over to remove his shoes, resting his palm against the doorframe for support.

‘Eh, careful your hand,’ Azmi said, so he stopped and straightened himself, his fingers prickling.

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ii.

‘You wear a uniform, not a goddamn costume,’ Jess Kaur had said, before sending him out. ‘Try not to look like you’re conscious of being a clown.’

Calleigh had clapped him on the shoulder helpfully. ‘It’s all right, sayang, it’s just grunt work, this sort of job. You only need to check an old estate for infestations. Wait till you get a proper exorcism, like I did for my first time in the field.’

Idris groaned.

He understood the rationale for his job. Really, he did. Built-up places, especially cities made over old cemeteries and reclaimed land, tended to accumulate… debris. And in a country where everything was nationalised, it made sense for the Ministry of Home Affairs to have a special division for extra-normal dealings.

Still, it would be nice to get some respect.

‘Those buggers in Supernatural?’ the other department staff would say in the canteen at lunch. ‘Well, I guess they’re necessary, but come on lah, when you get down to it, we’re fighting wars in outer space, and they’re civil-servant ghostbusters.’

‘Never mind that,’ Calleigh said comfortingly. ‘You’re going to go out and be brilliant on the job.’ She had been his trainer, after all.

So Idris had accepted her handshake, bowed respectfully to Inspector Kaur, and driven out to his first scene, blissfully without anticipation of meeting bottle-sprites.

***

Whereas his last attempt had required explaining himself in faltering-but-competent Malay, now Idris was sure that he was mangling the Teochew dialect horrifically. But even had his tongue been light enough to recite poetry and sing a classic opera, he doubted he would make any headway in persuading this old lady to let him in.

‘Excuse me,’ he had begun, as civilly as he could manage. ‘The town council has received reports of spirit sightings, madam, and I have been sent down by the Extranormal Affairs Division to investigate.’

Old Mrs Woo scrutinised him with narrowed eyes. Hastily, Idris tried to flatten his tousled hair, conscious of appearing dishevelled.

The toyol had been vicious, vicious creatures, going straight for his feet and bowling him over all at once. Right now they were corked away in airtight flasks in his briefcase, calligraphy from the scriptures scribbled in marker on the shatterproof glass. He offered up a brief prayer, again, thanking God that his shoes had been laced tight – toyol loved best to dine on the blood of the big toe.

From Mrs Woo’s expression, she clearly doubted his capacity for any investigation whatsoever.

‘I never see anything,’ snapped the old woman. ‘Never see anything, never hear anything. I mind my own business an’ so should you.’

‘Please, auntie! At least let me put a talisman on your door.’

Permission was important, especially in his line of work. Permission was everything. Spirits had to be invited into the home, although invitations could include anything from forgetting to unwind red thread from your finger after a funeral, to accidentally stepping on burnt offerings on the floor. Permission to enter must be requested, too.

Mrs Woo laughed, brittle.

‘Son,’ she said, ‘I think I better protected than anything you can do. I don’ believe your god, so what for I use your talisman?’

‘Standardised talismans,’ he answered, plaintively. ‘Department issue.’

Red print stamped on yellow paper by his colleague Calleigh, whose father had been a tang ki in his day. Yellow paper, smelling faintly of the smoke from joss sticks. Sandalwood, and incense, and smoke curling up to the sky while hungry ghosts watched longingly.

Idris didn’t believe in that sort of thing, but only in the same way that he did not believe in fossil fuels, or atomic weapons, or peace treaties with intergalactic warlords. On their own, in Calleigh’s hands especially, those talismans could hum with power. He believed in that.

This made Mrs Woo laugh all the more.

‘Gahmen talisman!’ she cackled. ‘Even less I believe. No, I got my own protection, boy. You go back, you tell your boss, this housing estate safe one. This housing estate under protection. I guarantee.’ And she stretched out the syllables of the last word, gah-run-tee.

She shook her head.

‘No,’ she said, ‘here no more old gods, no more belief. You go home lah, boy. I take care.’

The door swung shut, gently, in his face.

Idris stared at it, at the smoothness of its cream paint and the dimples in the varnish. Carefully, thoughtfully, he reached out to touch the pineapple thorns strung up on the lintel.

A scream broke his thoughts.

***

There were many ways of communicating with somebody who was not in the same room. Mrs Woo knew most of them. You could burn a note and send it into the underworld. You could change form to an animal and travel faster than human feet. Or you could pluck the plants which, when crushed, gave off fumes that sent visions.

Mrs Woo picked up her telephone instead.

‘Azmi? Is that you there?’ Gods, her Melayu Pasar was rusty. ‘Oh, the government man came to your place, too? Well, it can’t be helped. I’m not going to give up my patrolling, and it’s as good a way as any to spend one’s retirement.’

There came an annoyed squawk down the line.

‘He finally made the bottle-imps in your kitchen leave your flat? Ha! Ha! That is a good one. …Stay safe, sister.’

Nodding to herself, Mrs Woo set the receiver down. It was a gesture of habit, futile otherwise, because her phone was not connected to any landline. She walked over to the utility room, clambered hands and knees atop the top of the washing machine, and opened the window that had no bars on it.

Two storeys, she thought to herself, sighing. Such a trial, what with her poor bones not what they used to be.

She let herself shift as she fell, and landed on still-nimble paws.

***

Idris rushed to the parapet, and peered through the evening gloom at the estate below. His hand was at his communicator before he even realised it.

‘There’s been a gang attack,’ he said curtly. ‘Can I get an ambulance? We have one civilian down.’

***

Mrs Woo remembered a time when secret societies had been organised as triads, bound by blood oaths, sworn beyond safety to their leader and the earth-gods.

Now, of course, gangs were for youths who smoked and drank and occasionally robbed little old ladies like her.

***

The gangsters were scattering now, Idris saw, although it was too dark to make out why they had fled. Curious rubbernecks had yet to make their way to the scene, and he was still waiting for the civil defence responders that HQ had summoned.

But there was still the man sprawled and bleeding on the footpath below.

Idris clenched his fists and jumped two floors, falling instinctively into a crouch.

The impact of the landing jolted him, sending sparks of pain shooting into his knees. As soon as he had recovered his breath, he was running towards the victim on the pavement.

A web of power spread out from his outstretched hands, cocooning the downed man with protective magic – Idris hoped it would suffice, for as long as it took the paramedics to get there. Then he turned to give chase to the attackers.

And stopped.

There had been four, maybe five of them earlier – lean, hefty young men with parangs firmly in hand. Now they, too, lay in shuddering heaps on the ground, and a fox the size of a small horse was pacing around them.

Idris picked up his communicator again.

‘I want to report an unregistered paranormal,’ he began. ‘I think I’ve found what we were looking for.’

The fox turned to face him, eyes gleaming gold.

***

Upstart, she thought lazily. She knew she should feel fear, but it was harder to be afraid in the russet body that was all muscle, all strength.

He wouldn’t dare hurt her, she thought. She bared her teeth.

Idris’s fingers stung from the memory of thorns.

***

She heard him say, ‘Wait, no, it’s not a hostile.’ Heard the crackle of ‘Copy that’ come out of his speakers.

Satisfied, she slunk away, as the silly young scholar started cuffing the gangsters and directing the newly-arrived police officers.

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iii.

‘What’s this?’ asked Mrs Woo, peering cautiously at the box Idris proferred her.

‘Pineapple tarts,’ he responded, cheerful. ‘Also I got bring you bak kwa for the new year.’

‘Don’ usually get meat,’ said the fox-spirit, and returned his smile with her tiny pointed fangs.


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About the Author

Leow Hui Min Annabeth lives in her head. Every once in a while she emerges for a cup of hot tea, which she takes without milk or sugar, thank you very much! She may always be found in Singapore, a not-so-sunny island set in a rainy sea. Her work has appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.