The Last of Meeting Places
By Ng Yuan Siang
Ryan’s alarm clock rang at 3am.
He could see the yellow watchtower ahead. The beach, in the early morning, was deserted - save for two or three unlit tents. It was dark, but the unseen sea made its presence known by the salty air blown to shore. The sound of the crashing waves: waves barely perceptible as black forms rushing in. In the distance, ships anchored in the Straits shimmered against the sea. The sky was moonless, starless and black.
As Ryan cycled toward the watchtower, he thought how strange it was he had not encountered a single soul on his journey here. The route had been lonely and quiet; not even cars passed him.
Reaching the watchtower, he propped his bike by the staircase and looked up. No point locking the bike, he thought: No one around to steal it. Up close, the tower looked different. He could make out the small yellow tiles; the poor condition they were in. He noticed the lingering smell of ammonia and alcohol at the base. He started up the spiral staircase to the viewing platform.
There were no lights up on the platform or, if there were, they were broken. He walked to the side facing the sea and grasped the rail with both hands, leaning against it. He was sweaty from cycling and as the breeze brushed him gently, he relaxed. From here, the beach and the sea were formless voids of grey and black. He checked his watch: 3.08am. Yes, he thought, he was here for a reason, but before he started on it, he decided it would be fine if he allowed himself a few moments for nostalgia.
He sat down and crossed his legs, feeling the cold tiled floor and then he leaned forward and his forehead was against the rail and now he was thinking of the last time he was there, a few years back, two, no was it three, he was here with someone he loved very, very much. He closed his eyes and imagined the cloudy late afternoon sky after a storm, a gusty wind, now he could hear the roar of a commercial jet as it streaked across the sea to nearby Changi International Airport he could smell grass after the rain could feel the weight of her head on his shoulder and his arm around her could feel a gentle vibration against his body as she hummed a song - what was it now what was it now it must have been Candy Says by the Velvet Underground or was it? Not that it mattered, not that he cared, and the day was cold, but he felt so warm, sitting there with her, and he was so happy, so happy and he had smiled until his cheeks ached.
Then he opened his eyes and it was night again. He was cold again.
Enough of that, he thought, all that is gone now. You had a heck of a time, but it is over now and all you have left are the memories. Look how far you have fallen, searching for ghosts at the witching hour, and what a shit hobby to have picked up.
He was aware that the wind had changed direction, coming from behind him now, carrying the smell of cigarette smoke. He turned and jolted in shock. Standing against the central pillar of the tower was a man. In his hand, there was the orange glow of a cigarette.
"Whoa,” Ryan said. "You scared the shit out of me."
The stranger laughed and stepped out of the dark. He looked toward the sea and dragged on his cigarette.
He paused and looked at Ryan. “Smoke?”
“So,” said the stranger. "What’s a young man like you doing here at this hour?”
Ryan paused. The stranger waited.
“I’m ghost hunting.”
“The fuck? Where’s your equipment?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Well I'm not like pro or anything. It’s just a pastime. When it’s late and I can’t sleep. This place used to mean a lot to me.”
“Something terrible happened here many years ago. A boy and a girl were up here in this tower, when they were cornered by a gang. They beat up the guy and raped the girl. When they were done, they flung her off the tower. She died on impact. The boy was lucky. After the gang left, he managed to drag himself to the nearest convenience store to get help. He survived. The gang was never caught."
The stranger was done with his cigarette and flung it over the rail. He took a deep breath. Then he took his pack of cigarettes out and started on another. He seemed to be listening intently.
“So, according to legend, her ghost has haunted this tower ever since. She stands at this rail, looks out to sea and cries. It’s apparently one of the most haunted places in Singapore. Some paranormal investigators did a video. I haven’t watched it but I’ve heard they actually managed to record her voice on tape.”
They both stared out to sea in silence. The stranger finished his cigarette. He cleared his throat.
“The girl didn’t die on impact," he said. "She died in the hospital four days later. I was knocked out at the stairwell. When I woke up in hospital a week later she was gone.”
The stranger’s voice was filled not with sadness but a deep anger: “I watched the video you spoke of. The fucking nerve. It sounded nothing like her. I would give so much to speak to her again."
He turned on Ryan: "And you hunt for ghosts, you say? Well, where has that gotten you? Ghost in a white dress? She wasn’t wearing fucking white that night. Or a dress. She hated dresses. All you fucking ghost hunters looking for thrills. These stories you speak of, they actually happened to real people. She was mine before all this.”
"I'm sorry," said Ryan.
“I take back what I said," said the man. "About ghost-hunters. Them being pathetic. If there's a way to know about the world, then ghost hunting would certainly be it.”
“Hmm. I never thought of it that way before.”
“And you’ve seen nothing? Truly?”
“No. There’s nothing out there as far as I’ve seen. And I’ve been to the darkest places.”
“Not even here?”
“Just you and me here.”
“I’m sorry. Again.”
“What do you do? Apart from stalking the paranormal."
“Nothing much. Just graduated from JC and waiting for results.”
“I must’ve been about your age. We came here all the time. I loved her so much. I'd never love anyone else like that.”
The man spoke of leaving Singapore for the United States, Michigan, of getting his degree. A good job. In the wake of tragedy, life went on. Ryan could feel a sense of calm and acceptance emanating from the stranger, this good man who had risen from the ashes of a terrible thing and created something for himself.
“I’m happy to hear your life got better after that.” Ryan held out his hand. “I’m Ryan.”
The man's grip was strong. Ryan felt cold metal. A ring. He let go.
“Yeah, I am. Got a kid, in fact.”
“Congrats. How old?”
“She’s five next month.”
Ryan thought of what the man said earlier, and could not help himself. "You said you'd never love anyone as much as you loved her," he said.
Then he realised how it sounded and regretted saying the words instantly.
"You soldier on," said the man. "You go on with your life, and you tell yourself that things will get better someday. You hope and hope for that day to come. But it never does. Then the day comes when you realise your best years are behind you now, and your life ahead is bleak and meaningless. Nothing will change. All you have left are memories of how it used to be, and even they start to fade. You've been cruel to yourself, hoping. But you’ve been dead for so long."
Thunder rumbled. A storm was coming.
"For a long time, I thought could love again. Then, one day, I realised I feel nothing for my wife and daughter. So I just left. Took a one-way flight back from Michigan."
Lightning forked and for a very short moment it was clear as day. Ryan saw that the man's face was streaked with tears. Ryan had been mistaken. It was not a sense of calm and acceptance he had felt but a vacuum of absolute hopelessness and sorrow. Suddenly, Ryan felt extremely uncomfortable up there next to him. It was like talking to a ghost.
"Going to rain," Ryan said. "I'd better cycle back now."
"You have a good life. Don't take what I said to heart. You have a lot to look forward to. Don’t let the crazy man bother you. You’re probably fucked up in any case. Coming here alone at this hour."
But Ryan was already clattering down the stairs and the raindrops were starting to fall.
He swung his bike out into the downpour. The rain stung him like pellets as he rode away.
When he was far enough from the tower he allowed himself to turn his head.
He could see the stranger still at the top, a dark silhouette standing, leaning against the rail, staring out to sea, he could see him now for the lost soul he was, haunting the place his life changed forever, so alone and so lonely and lost, lost, so lost, in the wind and in the rain and in the darkness of the night.