Last night's show was an unmitigated disaster.
David stood at the entrance of the 70-year old theatre. The bright sunlight from a window behind him threw his shadow against the first row of faded red leather seats.
Beyond that, the gloom masked the remnants of last night attendance - discarded kuaci and pistachio shells, sweet wrappers, empty mineral water bottles, small plastic bags with mysterious and probably rotting contents.
Shit that David will have to clean up that morning.
It wasn't really the amount of garbage, he thought gloomily. It was the distribution of garbage. The theatre was only half full for last night's ballet recital, but people scattered all over the house so they didn't have to sit near people they didn't know.
Armed with a large black garbage bag, David will still have to check every row and every aisle, scour wherever the audience went, and check the stage area to make sure everything was clean and in its place.
Not that it mattered much right now, David thought, his mood as gloomy as the lights from the cobwebby overhead fluorescent fixtures.
Things could have been in place last night, when it did matter.
On the one hand, thank your deity of choice because nobody died. On the other, the power mysteriously failed. For an hour.
Neither any checking of the lightbox nor calls to Sarawak Energy yielded any desirable results. While the rest of Bahagia Park Commercial Centre went on with business, the theatre stood dark until the event organiser, a very irate ballet school principal, told David's boss Li Ming that this was the last time she will bring her business there.
He didn't catch this part, but David was sure that Li Ming offered a full refund.
As soon as the last budding ballerina and her parents left, the power returned, leaving him, his boss, and a few linger sound system technicians nonplussed.
“This place is cursed,” one of them muttered to David.
“I can't say. This was my first show since I started work here,” David replied apologetically.
Something backstage fell over with a thump, jerking David back to the present. He held his breath, garbage bag in one hand, broom in the other. The sound did not repeat itself.
He began sweeping the floor. The methodical movements calmed his nerves. As soon as he made a tidy pile of nut shells and dirt, he became aware of a scratching sound.
It wasn't just a scratching sound. It was a scratching sound followed by a moist dragging sound. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
“Who's there?” David called.
The noise stopped. David resumed sweeping.
“Ooo oooooo ooooooo!”
The spooky ghost call was both cheesy and overly dramatic.
David rolled his eyes but didn't stop working.
“It's getting kinda old,” he commented.
There was a tinkle of laughter, a girl child's laughter, which first echoed and then faded like someone pushed the volume lever down.
“Cheeky ghosts,” David said, loud enough for the girl to hear him.
“Hello, David!” came the girl's voice.
David looked up at the stage, then at the open theatre door, but saw nobody.
“Hello,” he replied. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
When he received no answer, he turned back to this sweeping and caught sight of the girl sitting in the chair directly in front of his pile of sweeping. He jumped about two feet into the air, then clutched a hand over his heart.
“Don't DO that!”
As always, she responded with a giggle. To David's eye, she looked a little grey and washed out. Her hair was damp and one side stuck to her head. The bottom part of her dress was in shreds and her fingers tips were dark. He didn't know her name. All he knew was that she was the most cheerful little ghost he ever met.
“I can't help it, David! It's part of the job description.” She batted her eyelashes and he forgave her instantly.
“Where's your mother?”
“I dunno. Haven't you seen her?”
David scratched the back of his head. “I haven't done the toilets yet. But she doesn't always show herself. Say...” He eyed the girl ghost contemplatively. “Do you happen to know what happened to the power last night?”
“I dunno! It wasn't me!”
“C'mon... You must know who did it. A whole hour of unexplainable, unfixable blackout, us only? People were very upset, you know.”
The girl hopped out of her seat and stamped on the pile of nut shells. Her foot went right through it.
“It wasn't me! I can't touch things in your world yet!”
“Okay, okay...I believe you,” David raised his hands in surrender. “It's just that... well, I'm worried. If things keep happening, nobody wants to rent the theatre anymore. And if nobody rents it, we can't pay for it and we might lose it.”
She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean lose it?”
“The owner cannot pay for it and it will get closed forever and I will have no place to go,” said David, feeling slightly ridiculous when he realizing that he was spilling his guts to a ghost child.
She tilted her head the other way. David was reminded of a puppy trying its best to understand what its hairless monkey overlord wanted.
“Don't you have a home?” Came the inevitable question. “I had a home, but I can't remember where it is now.”
“I, ah, I used to have a home. But this is my home now.”
She smiled brightly. “It's my home now too! And I like having you around! You're more fun than the others.”
David told himself that he only imagined the icy fingers tapping at the base of his spine at the mention of the others. Sure he had met and even spoken to one or two of the other resident ghosts. But there were some who, quite frankly, gave him the heebie jeebies.
“You don't talk to the others?” He asked carefully.
“Grandpa Wong is nice. He makes sure we are all right and don't bother anyone. He said not to bother you if you didn't like it... What's so funny?”
The bark of laughter was out of his mouth before he could stop it. “Most people can't see you or the others, kiddo.”
“The others think its strange that you can see us. They don't know if it's a good thing or not.” She shrugged. “There's the two girls who go everywhere together but never talk. They are a little scary. Mummy can be scary too.”
“But she's your mummy. How can she be scary?”
“She's not my real mummy. She's just lonely and wanted here baby back. And I wanted a mummy because my real one isn't here. So we keep each other company, see?”
David nodded. The mummy in question was a familiar ghost story.
The girl continued, her expression and tone serious. “There are some living here whom I haven't met yet. I don't know if they are nice ghosts or mean ghosts.”
“I know what kind of ghost you are. You're the sweet one who talks a lot,” He smiled a little. “Except when you try to scare me with the scratchy-draggy noise.”
Her smile came back. “Was it too much?”
David shook his head. “If you're trying to scare someone, you stop making the noise as soon as you know they heard you. When they stop looking, you start up again.” He paused. “The oooooo was a bit much though.”
The girl ghost had her head tilted in concentration, a dirty fingertip tapping on her cheek.
“How come you know this better than I do?” She asked. “I mean, I'm the ghost here.”
David gave her a half smile, picking up his broom again. “Because I still remember how it works and what scares people. You? You don't even remember your name or how you got here.”
“Will I ever remember my name, David?”
“I don't know, kiddo. But I think I have to call you something other than that giggly little girl ghost who likes sneaking up on me in the morning. What does your mummy call you?”
“She calls me Baby. But she calls every small boy or girl Baby.”
David leaned against his broom, making it look as though he was giving it some serious consideration.
“How about I call you Lily?” He put forward. “Until you remember your real name, of course.”
His little ghostly friend mouthed the name to herself, as though getting a feel of it.
“It's a flower, isn't it?” She mused. “Lily. Lily. I like it!” She danced up to him and stuck out a hand. “Nice t'meet you I'm Lily!”
David carefully and solemnly grasped the air around Lily's hand with his own. He felt a brush of cool air.
“Pleasure is all mine, Lily.”
Behind him, the door knob rattled. David turned around to see the figure of a man silhouetted in the doorway.
“We're closed,” David called wearily.
The man walked in anyway, heading to the toilets. “Few minutes only. Emergency.” He disappeared through the door.
“But I haven't... Ah never mind.”
Suddenly remembering Lily, he turned back to her and was not entirely surprised to find that she was gone. Instantly, he felt lonely. He wasn't ready to admit it, but it had been very lonely since the accident.
Since his own life ended.
Two years ago, it seemed that David had everything - a beautiful wife, a young daughter who was all too much like Lily, a house in a nice neighbourhood, and a great job in a field he was passionate about. Essentially a white picket fence life.
Then, Darcy kept getting sick.
Many, many tests and hospital stays later, David and Emily received the kind of news no parent wanted to hear - Darcy was not going to get better.
The accident was what put an end to both Darcy's suffering and his family. While rushing to the hospital, David exited into the traffic junction the moment his light went green. The pick up driver plied the gas pedal instead of slowing down when his light turned red.
David woke up alone in an intensive care hospital bed two weeks later. He missed his wife and daughter's funerals.
It was another three months before he was able to walk out of there on his own. But there was nobody and nothing to come home to. He didn't go back to work; there didn't seem to be any point in pretending there was anything to live for.
He sold the house to pay for the endless bills waiting for him, and moved into a rented room in a shophouse. Even then, David couldn't stand the four walls, spending much of his time wandering the streets at night.
It was one of these aimless nights when he ran into a childhood friend. Or she ran into him.
It was just a tap really, but it didn't take much to send him sprawling over the curb. Li Ming rocketed out of the driver's seat of her dad's green Volvo. David was all right, a couple of scratches, nothing some sanitising gel and wet wipes couldn't fix.
But something in his eyes made Li Ming insist on putting him into her passenger seat and taking him to a late night kopitiam for some rejuvenating air mata kucing and lok lok.
Over supper, they swapped stories. She just returned to Kuching because her father had fallen ill. She lived and worked in New Zealand since going there for university. They had not been in touch in years. She had no idea about his personal tragedy. She was mortified that she nearly ran him over.
Li Ming dropped him back at this rented room but she didn't let it end there. A few days later, she dropped by and made a deal with him. She found herself in the possession of an old theatre belonging to her family. Her father was no longer in any shape to care for it. The work isn't much and the pay was minimal but she could use the help and she didn't think their meeting was any coincidence. Would David be able to help her out?
David said yes, only because he could never say no to Li Ming. There was an office he could use to keep track of shows and administrative matters in her absence, and a small room with a cot. Li Ming said he could move in if he liked, so he didn't have to worry about commuting. David agreed.
That was how he became the caretaker of Bahagia Park Theatre.