by Marc de Faoite
Madam Tan predicted I would be hit by lightning. She was right, but that came later. When I first arrived in Malaysia I lived in a low-rise low-cost block of flats in an area wedged between the Old Klang Road and the polluted Klang River. It was a joyless mould-stained concrete place, infested with rats and cockroaches, a place where crows stole clothes hangers to build plastic nests in blackened smog-stained trees, and open drains held dark foul-smelling oily water flecked with decomposing rice.
Drug dealers owned the stairwell, beefy dark-skinned men who spoke in Tamil and had a steady flow of stumbling agitated customers every night. The only white person I ever saw was in the mirror and though the dealers never hassled me, they eyed me with suspicion.
It was a dengue neighbourhood. The dreaded breakbone fever was my welcoming gift, transmitted by the quivering kiss of an infected mosquito. I tried to sweat it out at home, but was eventually hospitalized. Not knowing if I could trust a government hospital I gave almost half my savings to pay for a barrage of pointless tests and air-conditioned luxury at Petaling Jaya’s landmark hospital.
I came home after a few days, depressed and significantly poorer. The night of my return I woke from a fitful sleep to the sounds of shouts and screams just outside my window. Keeping the light off, I peeked down through the slats of the louvered window. The dealers stood over a skinny man who lay curled up in a ball, his arms protecting his head as kicks and swung motorcycle helmets rained down.
I wanted to call the police. My wife advised against it. The last time someone in the neighbourhood had called the police all the cars were splashed with paint and the windscreens and headlights smashed. One man, the suspected caller, was beaten to within an inch of his life. He and his family moved out and were never seen again. After that no one dared call the police.
A week later a big blue sports-bag was found at the staircase near a book distributor’s premises in a block of shop-lots a couple of hundred metres from where I lived. Later CCTV footage showed a motorcyclist leaving the bag there. Inside was a child’s body, a little girl. She was identified as Nurin Jazlin. She was eight years old and had been missing for almost a month. The lurid details of her autopsy were stomach churning. Nurin had been brutally tortured and sexually abused. The police even sought help from the FBI to enhance CCTV images, which led to the arrest of five people, but they were all later released due to lack of evidence.
These were strong first impressions of Malaysia-Truly-Asia. Apparently the modern Asian Tiger I had read and heard so much about was a violent blood-thirsty beast. I seriously contemplated giving up and leaving. Instead, after much debate, my wife and I decided to change neighbourhood.
We didn’t go very far, just a few hundred metres away, but crossed the invisible border between the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur into Petaling Jaya, more commonly known as PJ.
Malaysia has its Muthus, Ah Hengs, and Pak Dins, my native Ireland has its Paddy-Joes. The name is often shortened to PJ, so for me, and probably most Irish people, the initials PJ conjure up the image of a salt-of-the-earth man of rural and agricultural inclinations. The image of that stereotypical PJ made me smirk every time the place was mentioned. But that was then. Now when I think of PJ I feel queasy and unwell.
Though it was close to our previous abode, our new home was quite different. Instead of drug dealers there was an air-conditioned gatehouse with Nepali security guards in neat uniforms, and our apartment looked over a shining blue swimming pool bordered with coconut palms and frangipanis. Aunties practised Tai Chi and Qi Gong in the mornings and the evenings were punctuated with the pock of tennis balls from the tennis court. In short what would be considered the lap of luxury in Europe, but in Malaysia relatively affordable.
I settled more comfortably into my new life in Malaysia in these surroundings. I swam almost every day and learned the joys of air-conditioning, while hammering away at my laptop, transcribing the previous three years’ worth of journals written between travels in India and summers spent in a remote hut at the foot of a glacier in the French Pyrenees National Park. I dreamed of being a writer – or more to the point – a published writer. The resulting 180,000 word manuscript still gathers dust in the dark recesses of my hard-drive.
But it wasn’t all love and light in PJ. The neighbours got hot and bothered, their disputes occasionally further fuelled by the beer and whiskey that flowed freely in the little restaurant downstairs by the poolside. In the evenings I could stand on my balcony and see half a dozen domestic disputes going on at any given time: husbands shouting at their wives, wives screaming at their maids, maids shouting at the children when the parents weren’t around, and the children taking it out on each other as they fought amongst themselves. I lost count of the number of times I saw parents cane their children, bringing back sour memories of my school days in Ireland. Somehow over time, like the distant traffic or the crows, the shouting and arguing just became background noise.
At first I was friendly with the residents and chatted with the elderly Chinese aunties, rectangular women who whiled away their hours gossiping by the pool or engaged in raucous noisy games of Mah Jong (is there any other kind?). They wore their grey hair short and had a dress code of floral-print polyester trouser-suits. The gang leader was a stern woman – let’s call her Madam Tan. All the other women deferred to her alpha-female status and constantly sought her much withheld approval.
These aunties told me of the apartments filled with ‘China Dolls’- young women from mainland China, referred to as ‘China-Chinese’, who may or may not have been kept against their will for the nightly pleasure of their male visitors. Others apparently were simply mistresses and were free to come and go as they pleased. It was clear the Auntie Gang didn’t hold these young ladies in high esteem. They gloated as they told me how one woman was badly injured when she fell after trying to climb down from a balcony. The ambulance was called, and when her illegal status was discovered the police were called as well. There was some disagreement among the aunties as to whether the fallen woman had been a China Doll. One auntie insisted that the girl was ‘just’ an Indonesian maid.
There were seven eight-storey buildings in the compound. According to the aunties a cloud of ‘dark energy’ hung over one of them – of course, the building where I lived. For proof they offered the anecdote of one of my upstairs neighbours moving out because she had heard ‘a voice’ telling her to jump from the sixth-floor balcony.
Though I lived on the fourth floor the label in the elevator assured me that I lived on 3A. The number 4 in Chinese sounds similar to the word for ‘die’ or ‘death’ and to say there is a lot of superstition around the number is probably an understatement. The fact that my apartment was also number 4 made it difficult to rent and it had been empty for some time before we moved in. A sign over the doorway repeated the deadly digit: Apartment 4-4. Apartment Die-Die. Apartment Double-Death.
In an attempt to neutralise the maleficent effects of the numbers our landlady had added the Chinese character for Fatt, meaning good luck and prosperity, which sounds similar to the word for 8.
I didn’t give any credence to these homonymous and numerological superstitions, but the aunties insisted I was doomed. I didn’t care to get involved in any discussions on the matter and told them so. This led to a certain falling out between the aunties and myself, further compounded by my refusal to sign their petition to have some African football players evicted from the next building for having the temerity to be black. I no longer stopped at the benches for chats on my way to and from the pool, but still nodded and smiled in a neighbourly way. Our strained relations further deteriorated when they stopped me to ask me pointed questions about my wife. Though my wife had lived within a kilometre of our apartment her entire life none of the aunties were willing to accept that she was Malaysian, preferring a saucier story featuring my wife as a China Doll. This sort of nonsense did little to develop any sense of neighbourly goodwill.
And so life went on. I swam, I wrote, I sweated in the ever-present humid heat, hammering away at my work-in-progress in apartment Double-Death.
It was an evening like any other evening, until it wasn’t, until it became an evening unlike anything I have ever known before or since. My wife was out and I kept writing through the evening, so engrossed in my transcriptions that I barely registered the blaring call for prayer at sunset from the nearby mosque. At some stage I became aware of a man wailing and moaning in one of the apartments nearby. I assumed he was drunk and cursed him for distracting me from my writing.
A while later my flow of thoughts and words was interrupted by the hum of chattering conversation. I guessed the residents were having one of their regular poolside parties, celebrating a birth, or marriage, or a perhaps a birthday.
These events were quite regular. Plastic awnings were erected poolside and buffet tables laden down with exotic dishes that filled the air with the aromas of lemongrass and lime leaves, curries and fermented fish, and sometimes, depending on the party, bottles of hard liquor and cooler boxes of iced beer. I was occasionally invited to these gatherings, but generally declined, not always relishing the role of being the token white-guy, using the excuse that I was vegetarian, which was true, and that I didn’t drink, which was mostly true. No one had invited me to a poolside party that evening, but there was nothing unusual in that, though the distracting thoughts of those fragrant dishes brought water to my mouth.
Hunger dragged me away from my manuscript. I went to the kitchen to fix myself something to eat.
In contrast to anywhere I ever lived in Europe every door and window in every apartment in the block was equipped with bars and grilles. Despite the relative luxury I sometimes felt like I was caged in an upscale prison, or a sort of human zoo. There was no glass in the kitchen window, just a metal grille. The chattering of conversation was louder there, which was unusual because the kitchen faced the opposite side of the building from the swimming pool. The unseen man was still howling. His roars were inconsolable. He was clearly a good deal more distressed than the average drunk.
I heard the crackle of a walkie-talkie. Through the bars I saw five or six policemen on the landing in front of the elevator, each side of which were four apartments. The police were focused on the apartment that mirrored mine on the other side of the landing. They talked in hushed tones into handheld radios and amongst themselves.
I was curious, but didn’t want to talk to them, since I suffer from a chronic condition that involves a deeply ingrained antipathy towards men in uniforms, particularly men in uniforms who carry guns. In any case the armed men didn’t notice me looking out the window. Or if they did, they just ignored me.
Given the abject anguish apparent in his voice I thought perhaps the wailing man was suicidal. A jump from the fourth floor would probably have been enough to do the job. Maybe the police were debating how to rescue him. I finished stir-frying my improvised dish of oyster mushrooms, tofu and fresh baby sweet corn and went out to the balcony at the other end of the apartment to eat in the relative cool of the night air.
The chattering was louder there. I leaned over the railings and saw a crowd gathered below. This added fuel to my imagined scenario of a suicide. From their angle they might have been able to see him. Some people pointed up at me, chattering excitedly, and I quickly withdrew my head. This made me think that they couldn’t see my distressed neighbour after all. Something was up, that much was certain, but I didn’t want to ask the policemen outside my door, nor go downstairs and join the rubbernecking crowd. Meanwhile the man kept wailing.
I called my wife to let her know what was going on. She was driving home. When she got back she told me that yellow plastic crime-scene tape was strung across the front of our building. There were more policemen downstairs too. She had just ignored the tape, walked past the policemen, and came up in the elevator. No one stopped her and she didn’t ask what was going on.
Sometime later the man stopped wailing. It was late. The crowd of disappointed spectators slowly drifted away.
The next morning the doorbell rang. Two young ladies with clipboards introduced themselves as journalists from a major English language daily. I never suspected at the time that I would one day become an occasional contributor to that same stellar newspaper. The journalists asked me if I could tell them anything about the murders. This was the first I heard about the double death.
Afterwards I wondered why the police never knocked on my door. Surely it was standard crime scene investigation procedure to ask the neighbours if they had seen anything suspicious. Not that it mattered. I couldn’t have told them anything useful.
The details came out in the local press over the next few days, and from the gossiping petitioning aunties, who were suddenly eager to talk to the white man who lived in apartment Double-Death.
The wailing man had come home from work around nine-thirty to find the security gate of his apartment unlocked. Inside his wife and three-year-old son lay dead. There was blood splattered everywhere. The mother’s face had been lacerated. The boy had lost an ear. They had both been repeatedly stabbed.
At first the police couldn’t find the murder weapon, or rather they just found part of it, the handle. Later they found the rest of the knife buried deep in the woman’s ribcage.
There was no sign of forced entry, and no valuables or cash had been taken, which led the police to surmise that the woman must have known her killer. Apart from the broken knife and a few bloody footprints there were no other leads – no fingerprints, no witnesses, and no clues, other than the fact that the killer had apparently taken the time to shower, and presumably change clothes.
The broken knife suggested a frenzied violence in the repeated stabbing of the mother, and also led me to the uneasy conclusion that the boy was murdered first. Their final moments must have been utterly terrifying.
I knew them both to see. We often shared the elevator. The boy was of an age where he would look at my white skin with curiosity, but elevators are awkward spaces and silence is often the unspoken rule. There’s an incident in my head, that may be real or not, where I say hello to the little boy, and I see his mother telling her son to “Say hello to Uncle.” To the best of my knowledge, beyond that we never had any other contact. Like my wife and I, our neighbours kept to themselves.
I found it hard to accept, and still find it hard to accept, that all this happened while I was sitting only twenty metres away. I searched my memory for details. Had I heard the woman scream. Had I heard the little boy cry out? Perhaps, but if I did it didn’t register in any meaningful way, such sounds being not uncommon.
The man moved out of course. The police quickly cleared him of any suspicion. He had strong alibis, no motive, and the authenticity of his grief was unmistakable. Some neighbours installed new security gates and cameras, while others came to burn incense, pray, and leave offerings outside the victims’ apartment. For a long time the yellow and black crime-scene tape stayed fastened to the metal grille, and even when it was eventually removed the apartment remained unoccupied.
To the best of my knowledge the killer was never found. If so, it was never reported in the press, and the gossiping aunties would have been only too pleased to share the news with me if the perpetrator had been caught, though they did tell me that one of my neighbours – a ‘foreigner’ – had run away the same day.
Things returned to normal. The African footballers had been safely evicted and Madam Tan, who was talking to me again, eagerly repeated her ominous warnings about the curse on the building where I lived. She advised me to move out. Now that the dark energy of death had come it would never leave.
I told her I didn’t believe in such things. Then our immediate next door neighbour, a man in his sixties, who spent hot days sweating over a boiling cauldron of soup in the hawker centre across the road, and was said to make the best won-ton noodles in the area, dropped dead, apparently of a heart attack.
Madam Tan sternly waggled her forefinger at me every time I passed, as if to say ‘watch out, you’ll be next.’ She even forecast that I would be struck by lightning while swimming in the condominium’s pool.
Incredible though it might seem she wasn’t far wrong. Shortly thereafter I did get hit by lightning, though not in the swimming pool, but at a waterfall near Rawang. I was standing in a puddle of water when the lightning struck. Thankfully it wasn’t a direct hit, but it still took almost a year for me to fully recover the feeling in my feet, and ever since I can walk on sharp-stoned reflexology footpaths without the slightest discomfort.
Our landlady, a serious young woman in her thirties, accepted our decision to move out, though confessed that she was worried if she would ever find new tenants, given the gruesome murders next door, the wonton uncle’s death, and the unlucky double number 4 over the doorway.
She didn’t have to worry long. Just a few weeks later she was dead.
Witnesses said the accident was a mystery. She had been driving to work and inexplicably swerved, crashing into the metal divider in the middle of the highway. It went straight through the windscreen and her forehead, killing her instantly, leaving behind a widower and three small children.
Though this reads like an exaggerated litany of death, unfortunately everything you’ve just read is true. I really wish it wasn’t, but these are the things I think of when I remember the time I spent living in PJ, and apartment Double-Death.