In the dream, she walked through endless corridors of a school she had never been to yet seemed familiar.
The smell was the same; the feelings of shame and fear as well. It was as if that twelve-year-old gawky, bespectacled girl with the bad haircut and ill-fitting uniform had never grown up nor escaped the hallowed halls of a mission school in Ipoh where a gang of popular girls ruled.
The twelve-year-old girl kept walking down the corridors that led past classrooms filled with students sitting obediently, bent over books, or standing to greet their teachers as they entered. One little girl stood in the corner with her back facing the classroom, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed quietly. Su-Ann had been that little girl in her past life. Who hadn’t?
The dream carried her to the top floor of the mission school where she could see children in the playing field. On one half, a class of girls in dull PE shirts and shorts ran half-heartedly in a circle while the teacher stood in the shade in a flowery dress. On the other side of the field, a teacher in sweatpants and a t-shirt barked instructions at girls taking turns sprinting and trying the long jump.
She turned as we do in dreams, like in heavy water.
The little girl in the faded uniform hovered shyly at the turn of the corridor. It had been 15 years since they had last seen each other, but Lily was just the same. The same as the day the teachers found her in the students’ lavatory in the old wing that was being reconstructed. Her hair had been pulled out of its ponytail and was damp with the dirty toilet water that her head had been pushed into. The grey faded uniform had patches of water and dirt rubbed on it.
“No, Su-Ann. You’re asking the wrong question.”
In her dream, as dreams do, Lily turned and led Su-Ann to the furthest corner of the top floor. In the lavatory, they looked down at the Lily on the floor.
“That’s not me anymore, Su-Ann. You don’t have to be sad.”
“But why are you still here, Lily? Don’t you want to go somewhere else?”
“Oh, I usually am somewhere else, Su-Ann. In hills among forests I wanted to trek in, beaches where I can smell the sea breeze and feel the warm water touch my toes on the gentle sand. But it’s the seventh month, the hungry ghosts’ month. And I like to come back here to see what I was and what I left behind.”
“Are you a hungry ghost, Lily?”
“Hmm. What do you think, Su-Ann?”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is you’re happy. You are happy, aren’t you, Lily? Roaming everywhere that you want to?”
“What do you think, Su-Ann?”
The Lily that was older and wiser, the Hungry-Ghost Lily that Su-Ann would call her afterward, smiled. She waved, then turned away and faded as people do in dreams.
When she awoke, Su-Ann remembered the look on the face of the little girl on the lavatory floor and the look on the face of the Hungry-Ghost Lily who smiled at her from a beach with waves rushing to shore and touching her toes on the gentle sand.
Outside her window, Su-Ann could hear schoolchildren calling. Another school trip to the museum nearby. Su-Ann lifted the shutters and peeked out her window. Two teachers, one looking very harassed, with her hair ruffled and her shirt askew was hustling the last few children just off the bus. The other teacher shouted from the head of the line of children. Finally, she turned, and the children followed her lead.
Su-Ann sighed. She would never shake her memories of school, no matter how hard she tried. There would always be something to remind her of those days. If it wasn’t Hungry-Ghost Lily, it would be school children outside her flat. The next generation of bullies and victims were in the making.
They marched on in a ragged column.