The street below is a canyon, carved from the grimy concrete that rises in every direction. Cracks radiate like spider-webs across the sidewalk, which rises and falls as it yields to tree roots. Every so often, the paving falls away completely at the edge. Without warning it morphs into downward sloping ramps, leading to airless basement parking-lots. Pedestrians are forced onto the road.
Buildings are stacked like egg-cartons along the lane, in all sizes, slapped with tiled facades and fancy balustrades. Illegal air-conditioning units jut from almost every window frame, clinging to their casually installed brackets as they hang over the street. Every surface wears a wash of the weather and smog; nothing stays clean or bright for long.
An old lady is muttering and tossing wads of ghost money into a brazier on the curb, and the orange flames leap and burst towards the sky. Deep trenches cleave her face into neat sections, with smaller fault-lines running parallel before splintering off in all directions. Her eyes are buried in the gaps between her brow and cheekbones, peering out brightly through lash-less rims. But her hair is so shiny – so lusciously black, pulled into a bun that probably unfurled to her hips.
I couldn’t possibly guess her age.
As her mouth opens and closes she offers a flash of her ruby-stained teeth. I know it comes from chewing betel nuts, yet every time I see those teeth – on anyone – an irrational but unshakeable dread takes root, and all I can think of is blood.
She could be a murderous witch conjuring demons out of the smoke from her cauldron, but her house-slippers give her away – I know she is just someone’s superstitious mother.
Bai-bai. But to foreign ears it just sounds like ‘bye-bye.
She does this every week. How many vengeful ancestors could she be indebted to?
Smoke swells up towards the fourth floor: growing, vine-like, with tendrils weaving through the iron railing and up towards my face. Incense smoke is usually so gorgeous – hanging from the ceilings of temples and convenience stores with the lightness of a floating veil. But this smoke is different. The silky scent of burnt jasmine is fleeting, and swiftly overtaken by something blacker. It catches in your throat and suddenly your tongue is a lump of charred wood. The hack-cough-spit routine of moped riders at red lights makes more sense to me now.
I have heard the garbage truck in a neighbouring suburb for hours now, steadily moving closer. It is equipped with loudspeakers, blasting the same simplified classical piano tune at all hours of the day and night. I can’t know for sure whether it is their recording, or just the particular acoustic qualities of the city – the song is flat.
Unbearably flat. Like a children’s toy, running out of batteries. I cringe and hum the correct pitch – side by side, the combination is even more painful.
The old lady leaves her fire and disappears into one of the buildings. And then she returns, accompanied by an army of clones, emerging from the many stairwells with their shining hair and house-slippers, bearing rubbish bins for the musical truck.