The Fruit Lady
Ram was late. We waited, Milkha and I, patiently at Newton circus food center in Singapore. We talked excitedly about our planned trip and the things we were going to do, and how much fun we would have doing them. We had planned to travel to Thailand via Malaysia. We would stop at a few places in Malaysia, then leave the jeep at the Thai-Malaysia border and take the train up to Hatyai, Thailand. The anticipation was electrifying!
He arrived; 20 minutes late. Wished we could have kicked his butt, but his wife was there with him. Saved by his wife, that Ram devil!
After some food and drinks, we got ourselves in the jeep. It was cramped but still comfortable. Ram took the wheel and was about to inaugurated the journey when we heard someone calling, Ram! Ram!
It was his wife. She was running after us with a blue pail in her hand.
What the hell is that for? I asked laughingly.
Well, we found out what the pail was for but ah ah, we wont say—for Rams sake.
It was almost 2am, and we were traveling through Palm Country(Malaysia). The only illumination on the road was the jeeps headlights; everywhere else was pitch-black. Up ahead in the distance was a fluorescent lit wooden hut slowly increasing in size.
Wow, thats what I call happening, I said.
It made Ram and Milkha laugh because they knew me well enough to know that only places like a club or a busy nite-spot would normally garner an expression like, "happening", from me.
Upon closing in, we realized that the wooden hut was a 'shacktaurant'. A lonely 'shacktaurant' by the side of the lonely dark road that stretched across states, miles away from civilisation. The 'shacktaurant' had a mystical feel about it that we just couldnt let pass; theres nothing like it in Singapore. Curious, tired, and hungry, we pull over and walked towards the shack. We were greeted by flying insects that were attracted by the fluorescent lights hanging from the zinc ceiling. They were whirling all over the place and around us.
We sat at a crudely crafted wooden table by a small window. Outside, darkness stretched forever, and engulfing us were chirping of crickets and the buzzing of cicadas. The ambience gave us a sense of mystery, mystic and suspense. And, as the night progressed, the temperature began to fall.
The proprietor of the 'shacktaurant', a young man, came to take our order. We ordered Roti prata [flat, fluffy, crispy Indian bread served with curry or dhall] and tea.
We were the only customers there and didn't expect to wait long. As we waited, we engage ourselves in some corny jokes. In the midst of one, we were startled by a figure suddenly appearing at the window. In the dim light of the shops escaping fluorescent light, was an old woman standing perfectly still. Slowly, she stretched a hand in through the window and held it just inside with her palm facing up; as if begging. She brought her other hand up too, and in it, she held a small papaya.
We presumed she was selling the papaya. We didnt want the papaya but I reached inside my pants pocket and took out a ringgit[Malaysian dollar] coin, and as I wanted to place it in her hand, she moved her hand towards herself, out of the window. I followed with my hand out the window and placed the coin in her palm. She offered the papaya to me but I shook my head to it. She clasped the coin and brought her hand to her heart as a gesture of thanks. She then tipped her head low and beckoned away disappearing into the shadows.
Just then, the proprietor appeared and asked why I dropped the ringgit coin outside. We were all perplexed by his question. Dropped the coin? Didnt he see the woman? I thought. Nevertheless, we explained it to him. He smiled, for he was wiser than us, and asked me to come outside with him. I went, frowning. Ram and Milkha came out too. He took us to the spot where the old woman had stood. He pointed to the ground and I looked. There it was—the bronze ringgit coin right there on the ground. We were bewildered. Did she drop it? But, I put it in her hand and she walked away with it, didnt she? These thoughts rushed through my mind desperately seeking answers. He also showed us a small stone protruding from the ground just steps away from the coin. I looked at him, and felt a chill rush through my body all of a sudden.
"This is the grave of the woman you must have seen earlier. She used to own this shack. She used to sell fruits here. Her customers were often travellers like you. She was very proud; she would never accept money for nothing." He looked at me in all seriousness. "She was not a beggar," he said.
I wondered why he looked straight into my eyes and said that. Perhaps I had offended her by not taking the papaya, I thought.
The experience left us feeling uneasy. We ate quickly and left the 'shacktaurant'.
There was a strange silence in the jeep as we drove away from the lonely shack. We didn't feel like talking, nor joking, nor listening to the radio, nor doing anything at all for that matter. The mood in the jeep was somber. I did feel though that there was a presence of a forth person in the jeep with us, but I didn't bring it up.
After some hours of drive, we came to a rumah tumpangan [motel]. We grabbed our backpacks from the jeep and made our way into the motel. We were given a nice big room with three big beds and a small 14" TV at the corner.
In the room, away from the jeep, I didn't feel the presence of the forth anymore. I broke the silence and asked, Did you guys feel it—the strange feeling of someone superior eyeing our every gesture?
Milkha and Ram exchange glances. They shuddered, took a long deep breath, and let out a sigh.Foooh! Ya man, f__king scary, man! Milkha said as he shuddered.
After showers, we sat for a drink of suku,[quarter bottle of hard liquor] as Ram called it. We talked again about the strange incident. It just wouldnt leave our minds, especially mine. We could have talked all the way till sunrise but we stopped a little after 4 am. We wanted to have some rest before driving off again in the next daylight.
Only like an hour or so into our sleep, Milkhas jeep alarm went off, waking almost everyone in the hotel. He jumped out of bed, grabbed his keys and scurried out hurling, What the F__K!
Must be a freaking cat? Ram said aloud as he quickly wrapped a towel around his waist and rushed behind Milkha.
F__K! The remote doesnt work! Milkha yelled as he pushed on the remote controller button multiples of times. The furrow on his forehead deepened every time he pushed the button.
Open the door and slam it back! Ram shouted over the loud alarm.
By that time, we had not only awoken the hotel guests, but the duty manager as well. He was wide eyed and enquiring.
Milkha was closest to the back-seat door, so he slipped the key in and opened the door. The alarm stopped. The only sounds we heard were murmurs from the small crowd.
Milkha was shaken by what he saw lying on the floorboard of his jeep—THE PAPAYA!