The Cold Ghost of Niue

by Angela Ambroz

The chickens could always see him.

And the cats. They knew. The chickens and the cats and the roosters and the dogs and the occasional pig. All of them, with their animal intuition, saw past his invisibility and came to his porch, rooted through his bushes, meowed and clucked for food. They were always there. They followed him on his lonely excursions down the sea tracks to the limestone caves. They sat with him when he perched himself carefully on a clean, smooth rock surface and watched the ocean. The water was always turbulent in Niue. But it was sky-blue and clear and it cleansed him of his worries. That was why he had come here.

He had been six years old when he had first turned invisible. He had been growing up in Delhi, a typical middle class upbringing, full of argumentative rickshaw-wallahs and gated suburbs and Indira Gandhi on channel Doordarshan and smog. He had watched Amitabh Bachchan’s films and fallen in love: his galaxy-sized hero, whose superstardom was an asteroid crushing onto the screen from space. Dishoom, Amitabh Bachchan’s fist said as it smacked into the cheek of injustice. Dishoom, dishoom!

When he was six years old, he had turned invisible. His parents, walking with him through a crowded alley near the Jama Masjid, had been attacked. Dishoom! They had been stabbed, their wallets had been stolen. Lights had flickered, the muezzin had called, it had all been shoes and shins and then silent death. The day they died was the day he vanished, an orphan in the crowd.

Where could an invisible boy go? He flickered like stolen electricity. He found himself fleshy, alive, one moment, and transparent, the next. He couldn’t control it. If he held his breath and scrunched his face, he would go – pop – and fall away from the world of the seen. It was a terrifying freedom. But he could never bring himself back so easily. It just happened.

As a teenager, he traveled the world. He squeezed past lines of people in the airport, he crawled under security desks and took planes to everywhere. He had to hide himself however; even though he couldn’t be seen, he could still be felt. Once he fell asleep in the airplane’s toilet and a woman sat on him, screaming.  He went invisible naked, he could not make his clothes disappear, and so he favored traveling to warm, soft destinations.  Rio de Janeiro. The Cotswolds in July. Rome in September. Fiji. Singapore. His English improved, and he grew lonelier and lonelier.

What does an invisible boy do? He didn’t go to school, he never got any education apart from that which the world taught him. He learned to pickpocket, to let his invisibility carry him into homes and cars. When he was twenty-four, he called himself The Great Moochini. He still watched Amitabh Bachchan films then – a reminder of his former life – but even the Big B’s superstar was twinkling into dim descent. No one could ever forget the dismal Ajooba, which was like watching the masala genre in its death throes.

When he was twenty-nine, he saw a beautiful girl in Perth, Australia. She was second-generation Desi, growing up with a west Australian twang to two bewildered Gujarati parents. She cut her hair short and wore tapered trousers and listened to Crowded House. She was seductive in her freedoms, and he made himself visible for her. He invented an alma mater, a degree, a life, and they tumbled through the grasses of Kings Park together. But when he failed to identify basic algebra (he was pretending to be an engineer), it ended, and he switched himself off, a sad light bulb saying goodbye.

Still he followed her around, invisible. He watched her shower and dozed on her bedroom floor, holding his breath and trying to relive what joy they had had together. But his only superpower was that – invisibility – and he couldn’t have a second chance.

#

When he was thirty, having failed at several attempts at a normal life, he decided to retire. In London Heathrow’s Terminal 4, he took off his clothes and disappeared. He boarded a plane to the Pacific.

He had already marked his retirement home in the library books: a place that was warm all year round. A safe place – no predators, human or animal, no disease. A comfortable place – no poverty, no water shortages, no riots. A place that was underpopulated and emptying fast: Niue.

Niue was a dot in the Pacific Ocean. A single island country, remote and untouched. He took the direct flight from New Zealand and landed at three in the morning – pitch black – in a hidden land. It was rocky, vast, silent and buzzing. It was alive, humming on a raised coral atoll while blue-blue waves sloshed and foamed at its base. A stone mushroom with a wild garden on top. Niueans called it the Rock of Polynesia.

When he lived seen, the people were kind to him. They waved as they drove past on their neat, swept roads. They invited him to church. When he lived unseen, cats, chickens and pigs hovered by his porch, waiting for the scraps of his leftovers. He fed chicken to the chickens.

He lived in one of the many abandoned houses, the home of a family that had emigrated long ago to New Zealand. It was high up on the northwestern side, past Toi Village, nestled deep in wild, fragrant bushes. Vines crawled over its rotting wooden posts. The floorboards were damp, mossy. He could see the clear sky through the ancient window frames, and motes danced in the shafts of sunlight.

Niue was quiet. He lived there, alone, a peripheral presence in the lives of his neighbors. To him they were everything, but to them he was invisible. He followed them into their homes, leapt into their pick-up trucks, wandered around their offices. He fell in love with them, needed them, his extended Niuean family. He grew old with them, lived their lives with them. He watched as Mela, who worked in the government offices, dreamt up schemes of renewable energy plants, of solar water heaters and wind power electricity, and he stifled a joyful cheer when Mela received his grant. He watched the Tuvaluans arrive, family by family, immigrating to Vaiea village on the southern coast. He watched Sufane and Maria grow, and he wept when they left to study in overseas universities.

The tourists were his entertainment. With his thick, calloused feet, he would jump into their rented cars, naked, sitting in the back, listening to their conversations.

“…but Rosie doesn’t know her ass from her elbow, so she may as well sell.”

“Azzurro, il pomeriggio è troppo azzurro e lungo per me!”

“When’s dinner? Is any place on this island open on Saturday?”

“Love you too, darling. Pothole!”

“Trop forte! C’est juste comme Jurassic Park!

The tourists were his marks for food, too. He followed the families home, the large groups, and sucked in their social energy.

He once slipped into a guesthouse shared by six Italian backpackers. They bought the expensive imported Parmesan cheese and jars of pesto in Alofi Town’s tiny grocery store, and then they complained about its quality. They cooked an enormous pot of pasta, uncorked a bottle of white wine, and lazed about on the porch while he, the invisible man, finished off what was left.

Tourists always left condiments – half-empty cans of tomato sauce, a few eggs, aging bread – in the guesthouse kitchens. For several months, he haunted these spots, a parasite.

Keeping fed, sheltered and warm were his main concerns, and he lived his tramp’s life among the relative ease of Niue and its tourist trade. Near Toi Village, in his abandoned home, he buried himself in banana leaves and palm fronds at night. Still, sometimes he shivered, the winters were hard.

He was starting to forget his name, his birthday, Amitabh Bachchan, everything.

#

Lani’s family thought she was lonely, and they begged her to move to Auckland.

“There ain’t nothing for you on the Rock, Ma,” Lani’s sons and daughters said over the phone. “It’s all going to rubbish, eh. Auckland has so much for you, for people your age. You’d be so much more comfortable here.”

But she brushed aside these promises of comfort. Wasn’t she comfortable here? And she wasn’t lonely, despite what they thought. There was her church group in Toi Village – other women her age with whom she would weave and gossip. They would sit in the community center or the church, and they would tuck the strands of ancient palm fronds into each other, cackling over their ridiculous acquaintances. Then there were the children who rode up and down her road on their bicycles, like streams of giggles rattling by.

And then there was her invisible neighbor in the abandoned house.

She noticed a presence in the house a year after Husband died, on a day when she went there to hang up her washing. As she was drawing the line through the skeletal frame of what had been the sitting room, she sensed someone watching her. She turned. No one was there. But she could smell them; the scent of a body, the exhalations of a human being. Her suspicions were confirmed when items started disappearing from her laundry line. A pair of too-large sweat pants. A Niue “Rock Solid” t-shirt.

At first, she thought it was a ghost of the Talagi family. They had left that house long ago, before Cyclone Heta, before Cyclone Ofa even. It had remained empty and overgrown for over fifteen years. Perhaps they were annoyed that she was using their sitting room for drying her laundry? Well. She had no patience for people who abandoned the Rock and then remained territorial and possessive over it.

“If you don’t want my laundry in your house,” she said one day, addressing the presence she could feel in her goose bumps. “Then you shouldn’t have let this hole open up in your roof. With all this sunlight coming in. Hmm! You’ll just have to come right back from Wellington if you want me to stop, Mr. and Mrs. Talagi.”

A day passed. A month; a year. The Talagis never returned, one or two items kept disappearing from the laundry, and Lani conceded by roping a new laundry line to hang between the two houses – her living one and this dead one. The ghost was always there: squelching in the grass, rustling the bushes, hanging around.

Once she came into the abandoned home and it reeked of coconut toddy.

“Ghost, you’ve been drinking in here?” she exclaimed. There was only embarrassed silence. The motes swirled, disturbed by two presences. “Shee! It stinks. I didn’t know ghosts drank toddy.”

The ghost became her confidant, and she spoke to it in Niuean and sometimes English. Sometimes she thought she heard a hesitation, like the inhalation of a speaker. But there was always silence.

One evening, she sat with Ema and told her about the ghost.

“Oh, I’ve got one too!” Ema said. “Down at the motel. We always find drops of water in the shower, yeah, like someone was using it, yeah, but there was no one there. Sometimes we find the food disappearing too.”

“It must be the same one, I reckon,” Lani said.

“Well, if he’s living in the Talagi’s old house, you better tell him that he ain’t welcome at the motel. He’s scaring the guests!”

And tourism was important for Niue. As the islanders left, the palagi – white people – visited. An economy that buoyed and bobbed.

“I’ll tell it,” Lani promised.

But mostly she sat in her chair on the porch and worked on her weaving, finding new patterns on the traditional village designs. On Sunday mornings, the church bells rang. She invited the ghost to accompany her, but she never felt its presence walking with her. She wondered if the ghost was Christian, or some vestige of an ancient, pre-Christian islander past. She began to wonder if this ghost was one of Captain Cook’s men, someone who had finally landed on Niue after being terrorized away.

“Well, we’re still working off that name you gave us – Savage Island, huh!” Lani said as she hobbled to church one day. “Not a very nice name, no, no.”

Finally, the day came when the ghost spoke.

It was a day when thunderclouds hung low in the sky, pregnant and dark. A chilled breeze swung through the trees, rustling their leaves, and a mist of rain fell. The palm trees, like green fireworks caught mid-burst, dipped with weight. It was a cold day.

Lani was outside between the two houses, quickly packing away her laundry before the heavy rain fell, telling the ghost about the upcoming dance in the village hall. She had been tasked with making the traditional costumes, but if they all became wet with this rain, well –

“Excuse me.”

Lani screamed. It was a man’s voice. A foreigner’s accent.

“Sorry – sorry – it’s me!”

“You?” Lani swung around, frantic. “Who’s ‘you’? Oh my goodness, where are you?”

“It’s me – your – the ghost.”

“The ghost?!”

“Yes – I’m not really a ghost.”

“Where are you?”

“Here.” There was a knock on the ancient doorframe. Lani turned to it, terrified, holding a bathrobe forward in defense.

“Who are you?” Lani’s voice trembled.

“I’m – I’m a man. I’m not a ghost, I’m not dead.”

“What do you want?”

“I – uh, I’m cold. Towel?”

Without thinking, Lani threw the bathrobe in the direction of the doorframe. Something caught it in mid-flight, and it hung, suspended in the air.

“I didn’t know ghosts got cold,” Lani said.

“I’m not a ghost,” the ghost said. “I’m not dead.”

“Why can’t I see you?”

“I can’t – I, uh. Sometimes I can be… unseen.”

“What!”

“Don’t worry! I can be seen too, sometimes.”

“Well – do it! Show me!”

“No.”

“What?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Mister, you had better be-seen yourself right now or I will alert the police.”

“No! Okay, okay.”

She heard him inhale sharply and then hold it. She waited. Nothing happened.

“Nothing’s happening,” she said.

“Huh – oh. Let me try again. Sometimes it doesn’t… it has been a while…”

Again – an intake of breath and then tense silence.

“All right, all right,” Lani said, “Don’t pop a blood vessel.” She paused, considering, and then turned towards the door. “You’d better come inside and have some tea, Ghost.”

“Look!” The bathrobe wrapped itself around something and then hung on an invisible man’s frame. The bathrobe had daisies on it. “I can wear this.”

“Right. Thanks. Come on.”

Inside, Lani poured the daisy bathrobe a cup of expensive tea – hiding her cheaper stuff – and took the seat opposite. The kitchen became fragrant with Earl Grey. They sat in silence. Lani looked around the room. A bunch of small bananas leaned against the sink, yellow and brown, like fat fingers splayed. A postcard of Auckland was pinned against the refrigerator.

“Now, Ghost – ”

“I’m not a ghost.”

“What should I call you?”

“Uh…”

“Now, Ghost, how long have you been living in that house?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I remember when we first met, you and I. It’s been almost ten years, Mister.”

“Oh?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little rude to be hanging around people’s homes like a tramp?”

“I was not really counting on being found out.”

“Well, you’ve been found out. And now what?”

“Uh?” Ghost’s voice was raspy.

“And where are you from? Your accent’s not from here.”

“No, I’m not from the Pacific region. I’m from India.”

“India! Oh. So what’s a ghost man from India doing so far from home? I didn’t know you people could do that.”

“No, no, I’m the only one. I think. I’m here because… It’s nice. Just so.”

The teacup was, meanwhile, raising itself into the air.

“Try that trick again. I want to get a good look at you.”

The sounds of a struggle, and then giving up.

“I can’t – ”

“Try again, go on! I think I saw some hair then.”

“Okay.”

He gave up several times, but they tried and tried again, and, after an hour, Lani found herself staring at a grizzled, skinny man. He had an unkempt beard and wild hair, an explosion of grays and browns. His skin was weather-beaten and scarred. And his eyes were innocent and hesitant. Like an elderly boy, or a tousled, mangy bunny.

“There you are…” Lani breathed. “A miracle!”

Ghost blushed, darkening. “It’s not a miracle…”

“Can you turn yourself off?”

With a soap bubble pop, he was out. Lani laughed.

“Now come back on again.”

He struggled with it, making sounds as if he was lifting a weight, and then reappeared.

“That is so difficult,” he admitted.

“Looks so! Tired?”

Ghost nodded.

“Well, have some tea and I’ll start making some food. You can go root through Husband’s drawers and see if anything fits you, if you haven’t already. Hmm, he was much fatter than you. Dinner’s at seven. Tonight you sleep in the house of the living!”

“Aren’t you worried, I’m, thank you, but I – ”

“After ten years, Ghost, you would have tried something already.”

“Well, yes, true.”

#

For a long time, Ghost existed only for Lani. At the slightest sound of a bicycle or a car or a bird, he would blink out. She urged him to shave and to shower and to eat, and he filled out, gaining substance, but he never left the house as a visible member of society.

On the night of the dancing in the village hall, Lani brought Ghost along and introduced him to her friends. He was just a timid shimmer, the memory of a shadow.

“Girls, this is Ghost. Say hello. You’ll have to excuse him, he’s shy.”

The girls acknowledged him with gentle Fakalofa lahi atus. He sat on their mat and watched them fan themselves while mosquitoes whined nearby. The children had put on a Christmas dance, and they twirled their wrists and ankles and hips, swirling like water across the floor. They had decorated their hair in flowers, their bodies in palm fronds. Ghost, starved for human company and culture, watched them, transfixed. Sometimes he thought he caught Lani’s eye, watching him from the side, but then he would turn and see that she was winking at someone else, someone sitting on his other side. She was looking through him.

On Sundays, Ghost accompanied Lani to church. He sat in the last pew and listened idly to ministers who spoke in Niuean, promising cosmic justice. Maybe Jesus had just disappeared? But when the singing began, he could almost be swayed. The beautiful harmonics of the church music was something beyond this world. It transported Ghost out of himself, tugging at his cardiovascular system and threatening to drag him up into heaven. Once, he found himself slowly turning visible, fingernails first. He was carving a place out for himself, reflecting light again, but, when he caught himself, he switched off in an instant.

Ghost and Lani watched M*A*S*H on the couch.

“Ghost, if you’re still living, what’s your name, then?”

“I don’t know. Can’t remember.”

The voice of Alan Alda, tinny, from the television.

“Can’t remember at all?”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it. Or said it.”

“Oh, hmm,” Lani stretched her toes, arching her flip-flops away. “Well, it took you some time to turn yourself back on. It’ll take some time to remember your name. Keep trying.”

“It’s Ah-something.”

“Good! Maybe tomorrow we’ll get another letter.”

Canned laughter.

Lani urged Ghost to cook her some Indian food, a curry or something, but Ghost found himself confused by the kitchen. He had always stolen food; he had never made it. Lani watched him from the kitchen table, eyes sympathetic.

“Hmm. Well, didn’t your mother ever cook you food? And you just watched her?”

There was a glimmer of a memory. Ghost went pop – turning invisible again.

“What?” Lani exclaimed. “Was it something I said?”

Sometimes they took walks through the Huvalu Conservation Park, a forest thick and green, dappled in sunlight. Some parts of the Park were dark as night. They explored the caves, touching the stalactites in the cool, damp air.

“You’ve never been married? You’re a handsome man, when you let yourself be seen.”

Ghost blushed again. “I have a long face. And I’m a tramp.”

“Oh,” Lani made a sympathetic noise. “Well, you’ve cleaned yourself up now. You should be catching them like flies to honey.”

“I don’t want to. I want to stay with you. I love you, Lani,” Ghost said. “You’re like my mother.”

“That is nice of you to say, Ghost, but not very healthy.”

#

Lani had a plan: get Ghost a girlfriend.

They pored over women’s magazines and Australian TV chat shows. They studied the fashions and went shopping in Alofi Town for new sandals, new aftershave. Ghost examined himself in the mirror, made kissing faces.

“Now, Ghost, you are a very good listener, and women appreciate that. Remember what it said in Cosmo? What you need to work on now are speaking skills. You’ve got to know how to make conversation with a lady.”

“What do I talk about?”

“Gosh, I don’t know, you’re the one who’s seen the world. Tell me something about it!”

Ghost practiced remaining seen. He sat in the up-market hotel’s outside restaurant, watching the whales at sunset, and he listened to people having normal people conversations. Tentatively, he began to say hello and fakalofa lahi atu to passing strangers. Every snubbed greeting was a hole in his heart.

The months passed, and he began the terrifying ritual of Courtship.

“How’d it go, G?” Lani was sitting in her favorite chair, reading under a single lamp. The night-bugs buzzed in the bushes outside. A rooster was crowing, confused.

Ghost rubbed his eyes. “She said something I didn’t understand. She talked about her high school reunion, and I didn’t know what that meant.”

“Oh, dear. Well, you’ve got a peculiar background. What name did you use?”

Ghost shrugged. “Ghost.”

“Good. Remember, that is the first rule of meeting new people: You do not lie.”

One day, Lani came home smiling. She found Ghost napping on the porch and shook him awake.

“Ghost, I have found you a nice Indian girl!”

Not a girl, a woman. And not Indian, Indo-Fijian. She had come from Suva, Fiji, for a research project investigating Niue’s energy supply. She had flowing hair and a ready smile and the sparkle of a successful mid-career do-gooder. Her name was Kareena, and she was recently divorced.

Lani made Ghost put on his Sunday tie. She dragged him to the car and drove them down to Alofi Town, where the Kareena woman was supposedly staying. All along the way, Ghost fretted, “Lani, I’ve been to Fiji. They speak a strange Hindi there; I can barely understand it. What will I talk to her about? I don’t feel ready!”

But Lani just shushed him, “If you don’t meet this woman, Ghost, so help me Jesus, I will kick you out of the house and back into the Talagi abode!”

“Tomorrow! Can’t we go tomorrow?”

It was too late. They found Kareena coming out of one of the cafes. It was a sunny, clear day. The cliffs of Niue’s coast could be seen on into the horizon. Kareena was juggling a laptop case, a smoothie and a pack of documents. She was pretty in an approachable way, oozing maternal sympathy and elegant sexiness. Ghost felt himself grow hot. Lani parked the car across from the cafe and pushed Ghost out, pinching his thigh as he clumsily got out of the car.

Ghost walked to Kareena, straightening his tie, feeling the sweat crawling down his back. His hands shook, his knees felt weak. The Kareena woman was too busy balancing her smoothie to notice his arrival.

Finally, he was in front of her. He coughed, clearing his throat. Lani’s Second Rule of Dating: Always make sure the first thing out of your mouth is a compliment.

“That’s a very nice,” Ghost said loudly, causing Kareena to raise her head, “drink.”

Kareena arched an eyebrow. “Thanks.”

“My friends call me Ghost. Though I’m not dead or anything. I’m alive.”

Kareena said nothing. She was watching him warily. Ghost turned back to look at the car, Lani nodded with a smile. Go on, she mouthed. He looked back at Kareena. Lani’s Second Rule of Dating: Smile. Tell them your name. Don’t lie.

Ghost inhaled. His given name had just come back during his afternoon nap, where he had dreamt of Delhi and the cheek of injustice. Dishoom! Now this little pearl of knowledge was sitting, sheltered and protected, ready for the light. If this woman was really as perfect as Lina promised, Ghost knew that she should be the first person to hear it.

“My real name, though,” Ghost smiled, “is Amitabh Bachchan.”

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