I looked around with dismay at my accommodation for the next week. Not quite what I’d expected when I booked the holiday house exchange online. In an effort to ward off the sombre corners of the room I switched on a lamp, but succeeded only to highlight the sad neglect of my surroundings.
It was stifling in the small house and sweat trickled down my back, dampening my t-shirt which I’d worn throughout my long journey to China. And what an awful trip. After a delayed flight, my taxi driver had seemed determined to beat the setting sun, as it melted the bright colours of the day, into dusk.
“July Fifteenth.” He explained, after I’d begged him to slow down. “Inauspicious Day. Stay inside after dark.”
“Why?” I’d asked.
“Ghost Day. Spirits visit the living. If out after dark, they follow you home. Very bad.”
The hairs on my arms had stood up at his words, defying the humidity.
Now standing in the dim light of an unfamiliar dwelling, in a strange country, my rational mind battled against invoked uncertainty. It failed dismally as I heard scratching noises from the hall, which had to mean rats.
I tried to open a window to rid the room of its overwhelming heat but it wouldn’t budge. I noticed that it was nailed down amongst a graveyard of flies. Sickened, and feeling claustrophobic, I peered through the grimy glass to the desolate street outside.
As I watched, an old woman crept from the building opposite, and squatted to leave a basket of food by her door step. Waving a lighted joss stick, she glanced in my direction, meeting my gaze with eyes that widened in surprise. Turning away, she scurried back inside and closed the door.
I couldn’t help but feel spooked. The air was thick with the smell of incense and something sweet like rotting fruit came through underneath its facade. And there was that scrabbling noise again, like nails against wood.
Swallowing down my rising fear, I headed into the narrow corridor which displayed a small kitchenette to the right, and a closed door at its far end. Pushing sweaty hair out of my eyes, I inched forward into the ever more oppressive air, and quickly became swallowed up in shadows.
It was hard to hear above the hammering of my heart, but I was convinced the scratching came from behind the door. I held my breath as my clammy fingers reached for the handle, moist palm slippery against the metal.
The banging at the front entryway jolted my hand back, and I quickly retraced my steps, relishing my reprieve. Opening the door I found the old lady from across the road.
“Ghost Day!” she shouted at me “Come!” She took my wrist firmly with her work worn hand.
“It’s ok” I told her. “I was home before dark.”
“Not understand.” She sighed, jabbing her finger past me into the house. “Family all dead. Died inside. Ghosts already at home.”