“Hey, you heard the news ah?” Rafidah, the senior features reporter for The Malaysian Tribune said as she walked casually over to Gayathri’s desk.
“What news?” Gayathri looked up from her computer and remarked sarcastically, “I get all kinds of news and write them too. Which news?”
Rafidah pulled a chair from one of the empty cubicles nearby and sat herself next to Gayathri. “Aiyoo, that one lah, the one about the cleaner lady.”
Gayathri swore in her mind but masked a smile as she asked, “I didn’t know the cleaner lady makes the news these days too. Circulations must have dropped miserably eh?” She smiled, as she continued tapping away a news story that was due in 30 minutes time. Gayathri couldn’t be bothered with Rafidah’s incessant gossiping.
The 33-year-old single mother had just returned from covering a press conference by the Public Works Department which had explained itself to the reporters on the excess fund expenditure as revealed by the recently tabled Auditor-General’s Report.
“Aiya Gayathri, stop being so sarcastic lah. Ini betul nih! She said she saw a figure at the pantry area two days ago in the night,” Rafidah, known to be the office’s gossip queen said.
The 54-year-old had been serving The Malaysian Tribune for dinosaur years starting off where Gayathri is, the newsdesk, as she slowly moved up the ranks to become the daily’s weekly columnist as well as the feature section reporter.
However, due to her habit of gossiping about everyone, she was never given the opportunity to be made a senior editor despite her 30-year experience.
“You sure or not?” Gayathri quizzed. She had stopped typing. She knew Rafidah was exaggerating but she couldn’t help herself from taking a break from her work and listening to the juicy story Rafidah had to tell. All said and done, Rafidah’s stories are the best to hear. She is known as the Gossip Queen in the office for a reason anyway.
“Betul! Maimun had just finished vacuuming the floor that evening and after her duties, she decided to make herself some coffee. So she walked to the pantry, and mind you, you know how our floor is after 8pm,”
“Almost empty,” Gayathri said.
“That day it was completely empty!” Rafidah exclaimed, slapping Gayathri’s left shoulder. Gayathri knew Rafidah was lying because she had been on night shifts before and had observed a few reporters in the cubicle.
But yes, the floor does get pretty silent especially past 10pm.
“Anyways, Maimun pun buat coffee for herself lah. The next moment, she heard the pantry door slowly opening and closing behind her. Thinking someone had entered, she didn’t bother to turn around,”
“Then? Then?” Gayathri found herself asking.
“Then, she felt something cold blowing behind her neck. Thinking it was the evening breeze, she didn’t mind it,” Rafidah said as she swallowed her saliva. Due to her fast paced speaking skills, the old woman had a habit of developing excessive saliva to the point she would dramatically swallow it, especially during the interesting parts of her tales, to give an added effect, much to Gayathri’s chagrin.
Gayathri listened intently. Her story on the Public Works Department incomplete, but she didn’t care. This is bound to be a good story which she would share with Jacob, the sports reporter during her smoking sessions by the office’s staircase later.
“Suddenly she heard her name being whispered,” Rafidah said as she began mimicking a raspy voice, “Maimun… Maimun..”
Gayathri tried to control her laughter, her body trembled as she masked it by coughing. She smiled slightly and apologised. “Sorry, continue Kak. Then what happened?”
“Then apa lagi? Maimun pun turn around lah and what do you know? She found herself staring at a pale looking woman, her hair jet black and thick, touching the ground, eyes bloodshot red,”
“Oh lord!” Gayathri gasped.
“I know! Maimun fainted there and then. Santosh the Nepali security guard on his night rounds found her there an hour or so later,”
“Is she okay now?” Gayathri asked, taking a note in her mind not to visit the pantry alone, especially in the nights.
“She is on medical leave the last I heard. Still belum jumpa her,”
Gayathri shook her head. “You know, your story is not the last one I heard about this office.”
“Ada banyak lah, Gaya,” Rafidah said as she slapped her shoulder again. Gayathri frowned slightly. She hated being called that. Her friends in school used to tease her by mimicking the Dunhill advertisement, “Gaya, Mutu, Keunggulan!”
“Do you know our office is built atop a Chinese cemetery?”
“Ofcourse! That’s why three years ago, they had a cleansing ceremony for all the five floors. The top management had to call the bomoh after several reporters from the Bahasa Malaysia section spotted certain,” she stopped and used both her index fingers to emphasise her point, “funny things,”
“I’m not surprised lah,” Jacob said as he took a puff of his cigarette. His hair combed back, he sat at the staircase in a relaxed position and appeared unfazed by Gayathri’s rendition of Rafidah’s account.
“You seem to be so relaxed about it,” Gayathri observed, finding Jacob’s reaction absolutely annoying. How can he not take something such as this as not serious.
“Hey, I have had my fair share of weird stuff too in the office kay?” He said. That brought Gayathri to her senses. Jacob had been in the crime desk prior to him being offered a position as a sports reporter five years ago.
“I had a good friend who used to work here, Kasturi. I’m sure you have heard his name before right?”
“You mean “the” Kasturi?”
“Yes, the one and only,”
“He died in a tragic accident while on the way to cover another accident late at night right?” Gayathri asked, trying to make sure.
“The very same.” Jacob took another drag of his cigarette. “A week after he passed on, I was working in the night shift when I decided to make myself a cup of coffee,”
“Go on,” Gayathri sat upright, ready to hear another round of a horror story surrounding the office.
“I walked to the pantry, it was about 10.30pm. I saw a figure standing by the coffee vending machine. Thinking it was another reporter on late night duty, I walked over casually, said hello and placed the coins in,”
“And what do you know? The figure says hello back, I turn around as the voice seemed familiar and there was Kasturi, standing by the coffee vending machine, a cup of coffee in his hands,”
Gayathri shuddered at the thought, “Fuck.”
“Exactly. Fuck.” Jacob took another drag. The smoke lingered in his nose for a little while before he blew it out completely.
“What did the thing, I mean, Kasturi say?”
Jacob laughed. “Nothing. I just poured my coffee, said take care and left. I was spooked okay!”
“Don’t fuck around lah! You sound like you were so cool about it!” Gayathri exclaimed, mimicking Jacob saying, “Take care” in a very Jacob-ly manner. Jacob is known in the office to be the relaxed reporter. The only one known to withstand stress and pressure.
“It keeps me going. I don’t smoke the whole thing, rather I mix it with tobacco. To get into that nice relaxed state, you just need to mix 70 per cent of tobacco and the remaining with weed, if the stuff is strong lah. Otherwise 60-40 would do,” He said once, when he smoked a spliff with Gayathri after their duty had ended.
“Could it have been the weed?”
“You can’t hallucinate with Marijuana, dei. That’s a misconception,”
“But what if-” Gayathri tried debating.
“I was sober. Ran dry that week.” He put an end to her argument.
Gayathri was back in the night shift again the next day. She clocked in to work at sharp 7pm, Rafidah and Jacob’s stories still lingering in her head like flies hovering over a steamy pile of cowdung.
Being in the night shift is one of the most relaxing part of being a reporter. Press conferences rarely take place at this hour and the only stories that the desk would be informed are related to crime and accidents.
But Gayathri’s not from the crime-desk and since Maria, the crime news reporter is around, the desk would not be sending her out to cover them.
She sat at her desk, turned on the computer and logged in on Facebook. Her cubicle faced the bosses’ cubicles, aptly named, “the fishbowl” by reporters.
The fishbowl, to be honest, does appear like a fishbowl, Gayathri thought to herself as she peered from her cubicle, to check if the bosses are around.
Only a handful were there, busy finalising the pages for tomorrow.
Since her cubicle faced the bosses’ table, she could Facebook as much as she wants.
And to be honest, if ever an editor catches her Facebooking, she would smiled, flutter her pretty eyes and say, “I’m finding for stories lah boss,”
Facebook has become a source for breaking news, Gayathri thought to herself. Majority of comments she had obtained easily from there whenever the bosses needed reaction or feedback from the public.
“Gone are the days of having to go down to the ground and conduct street-polls. These days just get comments from people through Facebook, ask them to send you a nice mugshot of themselves and there you have it, a story along with your by-line. You reporters in this generation are lazy buggers lah!” Mr Chan, the head of the newsdesk once remarked.
“Back in my time ahh..” He would drone on for the one-thousand-four-hundred-and-sixty-seventh time.
Aiya, fuck you lah Mr Chan, Gayathri smirked to herself.
Gayathri took a sip from her blue tumbler, courtesy from a government event she had covered. The words, “Ministry of Education” printed in bold white fonts sparkled slightly as light from the office bulb above cast a glow over it. She glanced at her watch; 8.47pm.
Time really flies when one does the night shift. Pradeep, her three-year-old kid should be watching the television with her mother now. Hopefully mother puts him to bed by nine, Gayathri prayed as she scrolled over to Youtube.
Her tummy growled.
She rubbed it gently and remembered she had light lunch earlier as she had to send her Kancil to the mechanic after sending Pradeep back home. Probably a mug of milo with some biscuit would fix it.
She stood up, stretched and looked around. The office was empty.
“Perfect,” Gayathri muttered. “How to go to the pantry and make milo now?” She wondered as she sat back on her chair, her feet fidgety. It was time for her smoke break as well but she hated smoking especially on an empty stomach.
“Not good for health lah,” Jacob once said. “You should eat first, wait for about fifteen minutes then have a smoke,”
The irony, when smokers speak about health especially when it concerns smoking.
“Fuck it lah,” Gayathri said, as she stood and walked to the pantry which was located some hundred metres from her cubicle.
She passed a row of empty, dark cubicles. There was no one around as everyone had left home after work.
As she reached the pantry, she placed her hands on its steel door handle, and double thought her decision.
“You know how Rafidah is, Gayathri. Full of crap lah that woman,” she reminded herself and decided to go in.
She poured herself a cup of warm milo and placed the biscuits into a bowl. The good thing about her floor was that a reporter can never go hungry.
Not even in government functions, she mused as she opened the door and walked out.
She passed the empty row of cubicles again when she heard something moving to her right. She turned and found a computer monitor turned on, its light flickering. It was located at the graphic’s department.
“Probably Adam the graphic artist left it on to go for a quick dinner. Should have asked him to tapow something for me had I known he was around,” she sighed and walked back to her cubicle.
All the lights on the floor had been turned off except for the newsdesk section.
Gayathri adjusted herself in her seat, took a sip of her milo and was about to log in Facebook when she heard a sound of a chair moving behind her.
She turned around and found no one except the chair, which was still turning slowly in its position.
The hair at the back of her neck stood up.
“Maybe it’s a rat,” she said to herself. Her office was known to have rats, leading a team of pest controls to clear the floor last month.
She turned back and removed her headphones from the computer’s central processing unit, logged in Youtube and played The Beatles loudly.
“Stay calm, Gayathri,” she said to herself. “It’s just a rat and Rafidah is full of bullshit.” She took a bite of her biscuit, but by then, she had lost the appetite to eat.
Gulping down the milo, she saw something dashing in the corner of her eyes. She did not bothered to look.
Then she heard papers being shredded from behind her. She turned and saw stock copies of The Malaysian Tribune lying torn on the floor. Some were crumpled into balls of paper.
“What the fuck is going on?” She said aloud. “Who the fuck is doing this, is not funny, okay!”
There was silence.
She heard footsteps running from across the room, behind her. She spun but saw no one.
“Stop it!” She screamed. “Not funny okay!”
Again, there was silence except for John Lennon who was singing away, “Don’t let me down”.
Remembering her mother’s account of horror stories, Gayathri did the only thing she knew she could do.
She typed, “Hindu devotional songs” on Youtube and turned the volume louder.
The singer’s soothing voice bellowed from the monitor’s tiny speaker. However, since the office was silent, it was only audible enough to be heard a few feet away from her.
Nothing happened for the next five minutes, as Gayathri sat, fixated at the computer screen. She had conducted a Google search for images of her favorite deity, Lord Ganesha.
Making it full size, she sat back, looking around while the chants continued in the background.
“Thank God for Amma’s advice,”
Something hit her hard at the back of her head. She looked down on the floor as a piece of crumpled paper rolled away from her feet.
Another one hit her on the right shoulder. Gayathri screamed, “Enough lah!”
Standing up to look around, she craned her neck to find the culprit but couldn’t see anyone in sight.
And then, just like that, a barrage of crumpled papers flew towards her from the stock copies section.
Screaming, Gayathri duck under her table as she saw the computer monitor at the row of cubicles being turned on simultaneously.
She closed her eyes and started chanting the prayers her mother had taught her.
And then, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She did not open her eyes.
She felt the cold fingers tapping her again. Trembling, she screamed, “Go away!”
It kept tapping leading her to open her eyes and there she saw a figure in long matted hair, faceless save only for the eyes which were bloodshot.
Gayathri screamed as she dashed out from the office, in the process jumping over several cubicles, sending the computer monitors crashing onto the floor.
She ran down the flight of stairs which thankfully were still lit, making her way to the security guard’s post, wailing at the same time.
She found the Nepali security guard seated, his back turned.
“Santosh! Santosh!” She called out as she neared him. His earphones were plugged in. Sobbing, she dashed up to the Nepali and shook him.
“Santosh! I nampak hantu!”
He turned slowly on his chair and asked her, “Betul kah? Dia tadak muka macam saya kah?”