A Slap in the Dark
The University of Guyana campus at Turkeyen on the East Coast was rather quiet that Friday night when Guldeep Prasad free-wheeled his Raleigh bicycle around the final corner leading up to the stairs of the Natural Sciences building. Apart from the sounds of creatures endemic to the tropical bushes it was eerily quiet everywhere.
A lone security guard paced the area in front of the Registrar's office and watched as Guldeep dismounted his bicycle and fastened it to the metal staircase with a three feet length of quarter inch thick chain. As was his habit he pulled at the padlock to test its effectiveness, then unhooked his book bag from the handle and tossed it over his shoulder as he made his way slowly up the stairs. He was not in a hurry as there was no class to attend that night. In fact there was no class being held in the building that night and he planned to take advantage of the solitude to cram in a few hours of studies for final exams. He often wished he was like his younger brother who could study with a boom box on his desk; but he was different in that respect. Even the rustling of leaves or the fluttering of butterfly wings was enough to break his concentration. He entered Room 104 on the second floor, unloaded his books on a large rectangular shaped table and pulled up a chair to the side of the table that faced the door. After all he was alone in the hindmost building on campus and wanted to be in a state of alacrity for any intruder.
But he was not alone for long.
Perhaps wondering what a lone student was doing on campus on a Friday night when young men his age were out partying,or drinking at the rum shop on University Road, or creating a racket in the pavilion at the Drive-In cinema, the guard strolled by nonchalantly up to the building, and climbed its stairs warily like a man much out of shape. Guldeep could hear him panting for breath even before his distended stomach preceded him to the half opened door.
The guard was of East Indian origin, about five feet nine inches tall, amorphous but spiffily dressed in a khaki uniform and sporting a navy blue beret with a brass shield affixed to the front. His boots were immaculately polished and so was the purpleheart baton that hung from his belt. Guldeep could tell he was a lance corporal from the solitary stripe on his sleeve. He stood in the doorway for a minute or so without saying anything, trying to catch his breath, and then finally he pushed the door fully open and stepped inside the room.
"Are you a student?" he asked, his arms akimbo and a thumb tapping lightly on his baton.
"Yes, sir, I am in the faculty of natural sciences... mechanical engineering. Just doing some last minute studies for exams."
You know you have to have permission to be here after 9 p.m. Do you have a permission slip?
Guldeep leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath to palliate the rising anger in his bosom. He had very little tolerance for those whom he considered ignorant. Since matriculating to the faculty of Natural Science at the University of Guyana he had become puffed up like a blowfish. With much pride and haughtiness his nostrils flared permanently like that of a baboon. Once a good Sunday school boy, now he was an antagonist against all things religious or spiritual and, when he heard that the Christians had started up an Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship and the Hindus followed with the Hindu Society, he rallied his buddies at Natural Sciences to found a science club. With his charisma, belligerence and acumen it did not take long for him to mobilize a decent following and secure enough power to be appointed president of the Club. As the club grew in membership and influence within the academic community he became increasingly arrogant to the point where he felt he could flout campus authority.
Dont you know me? I am the president of the Science Club! I am allowed to be here whenever I wish, he snapped at the guard. The lance corporal looked like he was in no mood for confrontation.
Look, friend! I am just telling you the procedure for your own good. Thats all!
What do you mean? My own good?
It is not safe to be here alone and we are not responsible if anything happens to you. If you are the Science Club president you would know that campus is officially closed to students for the night."
"Yes, I know. But I will be okay. I could take care of myself," he assured the guard.
"That is exactly what the last student said before..."
"Before he nearly run mad."
"What do you mean?"
"I think the boy name Rambihar or something like that. He was in this very same room, by himself, one Friday night, studying, just like you, when he said he see a Dutch man riding a horse and coming towards him from out of the bush. The boy left his books and bust out campus like Carl Lewis."
"Where is he now?"
"Oh! He been to see some shrink on Camp Street and now he back in UG. I see him up to yesterday. He was going to the IVCF meeting in the Cafeteria. He said he is all right but that he not coming back on campus at night time. So you better be careful, boy!"
The guard exited the room, his expression unchanged all the while he was in the room; and Guldeep followed his every movement until he disappeared behind the Registry.
"Dutch man! What foolishness!" he mumbled as he returned to his desk. He opened his physics text and rifled through the pages as if he was looking for something specific. Finally he settled at the chapter on Optics. The minutes passed and he kept staring at the caption, unable to move further because the words of the guard had taken a stranglehold on his mind. Suddenly the wind picked up. The howling sound of air trapped in the hollow of the winding staircase brought with it a spirit of fear that he had not known or experienced since he was eight when he had to walk home from a wake after hearing gruesome jumbie stories all night. He could sense the hair standing on his arms. He brushed his right arm soothingly over the left. A cold stream of sweat began to drip from his forehead and he shivered as its chilly current oozed down the nape of his neck and unto his collar. He got up and gazed through the window to the bushes at the back of the building. Somehow the bushes appeared darker than usual or so it had become since the guard came and left with his tale of fear. Even the sight of sugar canes waving rhythmically in the wind suddenly took the form of an approaching army of evil hosts, fearful enough to give even Stephen King a scare.
But what troubled him even more was the fact that he knew Rambihar! He was an intelligent chap from Ogle, a year ahead of him in the degree program, and a member of the Science Club. How could Rambihar, a scientist, believe in such foolishness as Dutch men and headless riders? There and then he resolved to confront the traitor of science when classes resumed on Monday.
An hour passed and he still had not progressed beyond the title page on Optics. All he could think about was the headless horseman and the advancing infantry of cane men. He stretched and yawned aloud, as if to scare away any invisible foe, then hurriedly repacked his books and left the building. He had convinced himself that an early departure was justified and that he was well prepared for the exam. But deep down he knew that fear was to be blamed for the aborted study plan. He scrambled down the stairs, unhooked his bicycle, and pedaled out of campus as though he was on the final stage of the Tour de France. From the shadow of the Registry the guard watched him zoom by and cracked a smile.
Bright and early Monday morning he searched out Rambihar and found him already seated in his civil engineering class.
Hey, Rambihar! Can I see you after class? he asked.
Sure, whats the problem? Rambihar replied.
No! No problem! Just need to talk to you about something important. Meet me downstairs by the bicycle rack.
After class they met at the bicycle rack. Guldeep wasted no time in getting to the heart of his concern.
What is this nonsense I hear you telling them boys about that you see Dutch man on campus? You know those things are just superstition and old wives tales, he charged.
But its true! I saw him riding a horse heading diagonally across campus. It was a white figure on a white horse, but I couldnt see his head, Rambihar replied in a matter of fact tone.
You really believe this stuff, eh?
Look! I was like you, I didn't believe when I heard about it either. So one day some of the boys decide we gon check out this story. I said to them that they crazy. But Balgrim, you know Balgrim, that sargeant boy from Success? Well, he said he see the Dutch man with he own eyes several times while he was on night shift and he believe that if we want to see the spirit we must come back Saturday night. So we agreed and Balgrim knocked off his shift at 11 p.m. and took us to the exact spot from where he claimed to have seen the spirit. We hide there behind some black sage bushes and na mek me tell you, red ants, grass louse and sandfly tear abie backside. But the suspense was too much; so we waited, maybe two, maybe three hours. And then it happened!
Out from behind them silk cotton trees aback of Industry we hear the sound of a galloping horse and we start fuh panic when this horse and rider appear out of the darkness, like whitish bluish cigarette smoke. When we saw them coming towards us we wanted to mek a dash for the guard house but Balgrim said if we move the Dutch man gon see us and chop off we head. So nobody moved, not even a hair, well except for Lalsingh who get belly wuk and mess he pants...."
"How you all know is a Dutch man and not just some mist that you see?"
"I couldnt see the man's head, but I know he had a whip and kept leaning over the horse and looked like he was beating imaginary things. Then just as sudden as he appeared he disappeared into the bushes, just back of the Natural Science building."
"You still na answer me question. How you know is a Dutch man?"
"Well, as soon as I reached home I tell me nani the story. At first I thought she would laff at me. But she get real serious and warn me to be careful. She said that many years ago an overseer died in the backdam at Turkeyen. You know dem used to grow cane before them build university. Well, nani said that story has it that the Dutch man who owned the property, a man they called Van Baggum, had a lot of slaves, and was of the belief that his slaves would follow him in the afterlife, and that he would have to share his treasures with them, something he didn't want to do, as he was a mean and stingy plantation owner. So when he found out that he was dying with malaria he decided to kill out all his slaves, and so, he mounted his horse and went through the fields, machete in hand, and decapitated the heads of his slaves. Nani said the horse rider wasn't beating anybody, he was chopping off their heads."
"So why was the Dutch man without a head?"
"Nani said the story is that the overseer was very much ashamed because his slaves loved him and he didn't want them to recognize it was him so he cover his head with a black pillow case. So it's not like he dont have a head. Is just that you can't see the head in the night because it cover up with a black pillow case."
"All that is just nancy story! Me surprise at you! he said condescendingly to Rambihar, "if you can't prove something to me I don't believe it exist! We are empiricists. We must be able to test and observe any hypothesis in a lab before we draw any conclusion about anything."
Here buddy, everyone is free to believe what they want. I believe in science but I also believe in my senses. I know what I saw. I can't see electricity and yet it would be foolish for me to say I don't believe it exist. After all I can see and feel the effect of it in everyday life."
"Yes, but that is different."
I am not sure how; but anyways you asked me for my story and I shared it with you. I have to head back to class.
Guldeep braced against the railing and watched angrily as Rambihar returned to his classroom.
These people only setting the world back instead of moving it forward. I have to do something about it, he pledged as he made his way back to his classroom.
He spent the rest of that day contemplating a plan to disprove the myth of the headless Dutch man. The plan was that he and two of his buddies would return to the Natural Science building that Saturday night and lie in wait in the bushes for a sight of this mysterious rider. If he did appear they would ambush the artificer and prove the story to be a hoax.
As planned, that Saturday, he, Ramsarran and Kamo, two of his lackeys, met in the Natural Science building to go over last minute preparations. They each carried a torch light, and armed themselves with wallaba cricket bats and a 22" cutlass just in case they needed to defend themselves. It was 11:50 p.m., exactly ten minutes before the ghost was scheduled to make his appearance. Just then they heard the voice of the guard call out, "Guldeep! Guldeep! Are you in there?"
Guldeep's heart skipped a few beats but he did not want to betray his inner fears and so, like a general marshalling his forces, he took a deep breath and ordered Ramsarran to see who was calling his name. Ramsarram peeked out of a window and said, "Guldeep, I think that guard chap calling you."
"What he want now?"
"Go and see and get rid of him fast. Soon it will be midnight!" urged Ramsarran.
"Alright! I will be back."
He hopped, skipped and jumped down the staircase and turned in the direction of the voice.
"Security! I am here. What do you want?"
"Guldeep?" answered the voice.
"Yes, where are you?"
The voice came from the mens washroom. His first thought was that the out of shape guard had a heart attack and had collapsed. So he raced into the room and hit the light switch. A lone low wattage fluorescent flickered, unable to come to life for want of a ballast and, its faint glow, while casting eerie shadows on the walls of the washroom, generated enough illumination for him to verify that there was no one but himself in the washroom. Then the sound of his name being called ceased and when he tried to call for his buddies nothing came out of his mouth. Fear gripped him and he began to sweat profusely. He wanted to run but his feet were disconnected from his brain and he buckled like one does in a dream when being pursued by a monster. It was a minute to midnight!
Suddenly the sound typical of a galloping horse was heard coming towards him and, summoning every ounce of strength, he arose on trembling legs and tried to make a dash out of the washroom. But before he knew it an invisible hand came across his face and slapped him so hard he fell backwards and struck his head on the south wall of the washroom. When he collapsed to the damp concrete floor like an empty rice bag, dazed and disoriented, the time on his Casio was exactly 12 midnight!
Meanwhile, upstairs Ramsarran and Kamo had heard the sound of the slap and of Guldeeps body as it slammed against the wall and, without hesitation, they scaled the staircase and charged downstairs in the direction of the sound.
Guldeep! Guldeep! Where are you? Ramsarran called out.
Eventually they found him in the washroom, still dazed, rubbing the back of his head and neck.
What happened, bai? Kamo asked.
Dont know. Hear somebody call me name and when I come in there was nobody. Then I hear a horse and next thing I know I am on the ground.
The guard appeared. What happened bai? he asked.
Remembering the caution he received from the guard and his reaction to the tale of the supernatural he quickly fabricated an explanation. Nothing! I come in to use the urinal but the light aint working and I walked into the wall.
You sure you okay? the guard asked, You gat a big bungi on the back of your head. Better soak it with some water.
The bungi is not hurting so much as my back and neck.
Let me see! Pull up your shirt, Kamo said as he pulled the shirt out of Guldeeps trousers, Oh me muma! Ram, come see this!
Bannas, you back bleeding. It got four stripes like if somebody lash you with a whip. And you neck got a brand, like if somebody chop you with a dull cutlass. Look! I dont know what is going on here but let we tass from this place.
Driven by fear for their safety they mounted their bicycles as if they were jockeys and raced out of campus like the wind, never once looking back or to the side. The guard watched them leave and snickered as he disappeared into the darkness behind the Registry.
Richard Rupnarain formerly from LBI, Guyana, lives in Toronto, Canada.
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