Arriving at work on Friday, I overheard my colleagues at work discussing the latest piece of news on the horrible weather. As I had missed the morning's paper, I went online to see what they were all talking about and found a report on the incident in the Irish Independent. "Tragic" was my first reaction, then "freakish once-off" but then it dawned on me and my colleagues (at pretty much the same time), that the woman could have easily been any one of us.
A female colleague actually lives on the street where the woman was killed. The route she takes home would've been the same. Another, drives on the road on a regular basis. I live on the other side out of town but my journey home on the Vespa takes me through tree-lined Phoenix Park which in this weather, was akin to playing Russian Roulette except that the bullet was being replaced with humungous oak trees.
Of course, it's not like I've never been through this type of situation before but this time, it just seemed a bit more real. That Friday evening, gale warning still in effect, I started up my Vespa and joined the mad rush home. It was more than a bit shaky for most of the way but it got worse when I reached Phoenix Park. The wind was howling and the rain pelted my face every time I opened up my helmet's visor to avoid it from fogging up.
It must've been the fact that it seemed darker than usual that evening as the lights in the park weren't lit up or it could've been the howling 100kmh winds but whatever the reason, my thoughts that Friday evening kept drifting away from the road ahead of me to conversations with my brother-in-law and friends who found themselves in a position not too dissimilar to the one I faced that evening.
My brother-in-law, who is as enthusiastic about Vespa and all other metal-bodied classic scooters as I am, often recounts tales of his solo night journeys between Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur on his own classic ride. The one that I just happened to remember that evening was the one where he could sense a pillion passenger behind him on his Vespa when he had started the journey alone. Jangan Pandang Belakang type of thing.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up but gathered enough courage to look in my Vespa's side mirror...
Two lights. That was all. The car that was previously right up my rear, was now keeping a more safe distance behind me. The car's driver must've realised that my Vespa and I were struggling to keep on the straight and narrow with the wind blowing so strongly and eventually did the sensible thing. Another gust of wind appeared. I could feel it sweep my back, unimpeded. No phantom pillion tonight anyway.
But just as my heart rate was returning to normal, I recalled my friend's story. This one was about the Hantu Penanggal which he had encountered on an equally stormy night back home (yes, we Malaysians are superstitious bunch). The Hantu Penanggal is basically a vampiric flying head (normally female) with entrails intact (presumably to help with its flight?) and like most hantu-hantu, its favourite victims are virgins, pregnant women and young children. Falling into none of those categories (as far as I know), I felt a bit safer, until something up ahead caught my attention. Being the good rider that I was, my eyes were glued on the road ahead of me but that evening, I kept one eye on the tree branches on both sides of road.
The idea was simple. Should one of those branches snap off, I should be able to see it as soon as it happened and (theoretically) be more prepared to avoid the danger. Unfortunately, it wasn't branches and twigs that I saw that Friday evening.
Coming out of the park and into Castleknock, I thought I saw a flash of white amongst the branches. I wrote that one off as a figment of my imagination. Then, as I turned into a downhill corner, my Vespa's headlamp shone on something else. I couldn't figure out what it was but as far as I knew, it was the colour of skin. Pale human skin. Up in the trees.
This time, I knew it wasn't just my mind playing tricks on me. I had actually seen something lurking in the trees. Still travelling at speed on my Vespa, I took a quick look around me. The roads were empty. I was alone to face whatever horror that was coming my way...
I was less than five minutes away from the safety of home where I could slam the door shut and hide under the blankets. So, without thinking twice, I gave the throttle an added twist. As soon as my Vespa picked up speed, right there in front of me was the abomination flying at speed towards me, only a few yards away.
Instinctively, I pulled/stepped on the brakes and swerved to the left and managed to stop the scooter safely at the side of the road. Still shivering and barely holding back the pee, I scanned the tree branches and noticed this stuck on a lamp post...
Yes, my Hantu Penanggal was nothing more than an election poster gone astray in the wind.