The brown, dull looking squatters huddled miserably together along the river bank. Just looking at them would make one feel nauseous and claustrophobic. There was barely enough space to move around and oxygen was scarce; given the amount of people per square metre. The area smelled of sweat, dirty socks and cat droppings. Each day only comes alive before sunrise when men would stream out of their grimy one room apartments, dressed in durable, practical black plastic boots and hop onto their small, elongated boats which bobbed leisurely on the murky river waters. Those boats had girly, round eyes drawn on the pointed ends accompanied with life-like eyelashes that pretty much fixed the boats’ genders. Legend has it that the Goddess of the River was a lesbian who would not cause trouble for any females. Hence, fishermen dressed their boats, making them look as feminine as possible to ensure a safe and fruitful trip. If not for the chauvinistic culture, men would be at home doing household chores, feeding and chasing after hyperactive, screaming children while women would be out in the rough, glistening river hauling in schools of fish under the blazing sun that scorched the land.
There was a new childless couple in town. He was the average Joe and she, a plain Jane, a perfect description of their names. They had recently shifted into one of the squatters, adorned with broken lightbulbs, cobwebs, rusty pipes, scurrying cockroaches and a shattered glass window where a miserable ray of light would shine in. The ray of light seemed to symbolise their glimmer of hope for their pathetic lives in a new living environment. At least this dilapidated room was much better than sleeping on the cold, bare streets and fighting with stray dogs for food. Maybe they could be like normal couples; get a decent job and adopt a child.
Four seasons turned into eight and eight into sixteen. The squatters were bought over by a filthy rich man and demolished. Standing proud and tall in its place were apartments painted in bright, warm orange that seemed to exude a cheerful ambience in this once gloomy area. Smells of grime, dirty socks and cats dropping were replaced with the fragrance of prosperity. Smiles, both straight and crooked, were plastered on people’s faces. The children that used to scamper around barefooted and clothed in rags had transformed into young adults, donned in suits and western dresses. Each day never seemed to die, the hustle and bustle never ceased, the day was flooded with office workers, businessmen, fishermen, market people, so on and so forth. The night was, however, intoxicated with drugs, booze, smoke and sex. Many described this place as a heaven in hell. Wildest desires could be fulfilled within a night as long as you could pay. Some lost their fortunes here, others lost their family and others lost sanity. The fortune overflowing from Squatter Town had a story behind it. Up hidden in one of the apartments, the biggest and most well-adorned one, was a man who never stepped out of his room. He had an assistant who would run daily errands for him. Speculations over his identity were rife, especially in the marketplace. There were rumours that he was a young, charming man with a face that made women stop in their tracks, a voice that could send birds falling off branches mesmerised, who inherited his father’s fortune and made an excellent but risky decision of acquiring the whole plot of worthless, desolated, run-down squatters. Some attributed his withdrawal from society to his quirky nature while others imagined him to be a lovelorn man who suffered from a serious depression and hence became detached from the world.
A storyteller at the end of Port Avenue claimed that he knew the real man. Honestly, he earned quite a sum from his claim. Adults and children alike would sit around him during their breaks to listen to him spin tales as he stroked his long, wispy beard with his big, coarse hands. Maybe, fantasy was better than reality. The billowing clouds of colourful imagination kept the people of Squatter Town interested and entertained. “Whatever would happen if they realised that reality was like a dull speck of dust; mundane, unwanted and common?” More tales, more building of castles in the air and definitely more spinning was Mr. Long Wispy Beard’s answer. After all, most people aren’t critical thinkers, taking in whatever he said about that mysterious man as the ultimate truth. “These fools!”, he mused, curling his lips into a sly smile before falling into deep slumber. In the corner of the room was a lone, dark shadow. The shadow seemed to exude even more darkness that it could engulf any ray of light that attempted to reach it. The room was stone cold, silent and gloom lived in it. There was a mysterious heartache in the air, so palpable that even a clown would fall into a deep emotional pit and shed tears the minute he entered the room. The shadow lay there, like a corpse in a coffin, staring into the darkness through its deep, empty sockets. His breath was heavy and subtle at different intervals but they were short and hinted breathlessness. This man was a man of riches, a man of solitude and a man of holes. The holes in his life could never be covered up any amount of bills and gold coins. His solitude could never be hidden by the cacophony in the streets of Squatter Town. A mournful sigh dashed the dead silence in the room. The long, thick velvet curtains weren’t as heavy as his heart. He had lost his beautiful, lovely wife to gambling and flings, gained his fortune through traids and his big, coarse hands were stained with crimson red blood screaming for justice. The treacherous road of hell he had embarked on was a never returning one. Along the way, he lost pieces of himself; his morals, his love, his emotions, his life. The ancient rosewood rocking chair swayed to and fro, just as how his life went back and forth in memories. Tick tock, tick tock, the grandfather clocked ticked mercilessly, keeping closely to its motto of ‘Time and tide waits for no man’. The world, including Squatter Town, ticked by, leaving him behind, drowned in his own desolation. The night had passed, overtaken by the warm golden ball that hung in the vast endless sky, sending vices of the night scurrying for shelter. That mysterious dark shadow forced his feeble frame out of bed, slipped on a plain shirt and summoned his assistant.
“Sir, the children are already waiting.”
He swallowed his breakfast with newfound strength and off he went, stroking his long and wispy beard, spreading the mystery of the man in colourful castles built in air.