All participating departments and their respective team of consultants were meant to be housed under the one office roof. But as most civil servants who had been assigned to the project had also to take care of their usual duties in their department, most of them preferred to stay in their accustomed place and only visit when needed. This also enabled them to remain in touch with departmental proceedings and keep a finger on the pulse of office polity.
A Paramount Project Officer—the primus inter pares as each department had its own Project Officer—with whom I would work had luckily decided that the project was important and needed his full attention. The two of us were thus left to get the project operational. That meant furniture, support staff, allocation of space to participating agencies, project cars, and all the rest. We managed to have the office running within the allotted time and budget, and settled down to the project routines of reporting, coordination meetings and more reporting.
And then one morning I arrived to find an agitated gathering in the parking area.
What’s happening, I asked.
The AC compressors on the side of the building have all been stolen, was the answer. And it’s the fault of that stupid night watchman.
Which one, I wanted to know.
The old one.
I had always wondered who had provided him with a Satpam uniform. He was not only old but also small, not more than 1.55 m, and as far as I could tell not able to stand up to intruders with bad intentions. When asked by the paramount PO what happened and why it could have happened—I was there in his room but had to do with a translation of the discussion as the watchman, still very emotional and upset, giving his side of the story in a mixture of Indonesian and Javanese. He asserted that the backyard, once the pride of the owner, was haunted. Regularly he had been disturbed by a voice and he had also seen a ghost, an old man, who complained that nobody took care of him anymore.
Last night had been worse than ever and he had been so scared that he had gone to drink coffee, not in his usual place around the corner, but two streets down.
What a convenient coincidence, the PO said. I’ll take it up with the security firm.
And the police, I suggested.
Better not, he replied, anyway it will not get us our compressors back.
Leaving the room I saw the watchman and on an impulse asked him to come to my room. And hoping to calm him down sufficiently with a coffee I asked for more details about the voice and the ghost. It was much the same as what he had said previously, only one bit of additional information. The impressive ficus with aerial roots in the back of the garden was, according to the watchman, the dwelling place of the voice and the figure that sometimes appeared.
And what does the voice complain about? What does he want? I finally asked.
Cigarettes, was the answer.
I decided to dig deeper into the matter and a few evenings later I went back to the office and stationed myself in the back garden. I had brought along a thermos of coffee and a few bananas, and of course cigarettes—in those days I still smoked. It was a long wait, I got stiff and annoyed at my own stupidity to fall for ghost stories and decided to go home when… there was a voice but I couldn’t make out whether the words were supposed to mean something, or was it just distant mumbling. And then I got goose pimples on my arms, my neck, my hair stuck out from my scalp and I wanted to scream…!
There he was. A man-like figure, contours a bit washed out, but definitely, a man and he looked at me.
Tuan, did you bring cigarettes, he asked. His voice was high and a bit stilted, but clear enough.
Yes, I answered and only after several moments remembered to offer him one.
At the tree, he whispered and disappeared.
When my heart rate was almost back to normal I placed a few cigarettes at the foot of the tree.
The next morning I went to check whether they were still there. Gone, but that could, of course, be because of the rain, or a rodent, or ants, or whatever… But for the two years I stayed in that office I regularly put cigarettes under the tree before going home.
The night watchman, by the way, was recalled by the security firm. His successor never complained about disturbing voices or apparitions. And, now, writing it all down, I hardly can believe that it ever happened. But it did.