Malaysia, Georgetown – In the Paint

Liana had her face right up to the wall. The tip of her nose almost touched the art work. Her eyes were wide open and stung from not blinking. She focused all of her will toward the laughing girl depicted on the wall. Come on, do it again. I saw it. I’m sure of it. Seconds passed while Liana observed the painting as a scientist observes a unique specimen through a microscope. Liana tried to open her eyes even further. The bottom of her eyes were filling up with water and her vision started to blur.

“That’s enough young lady. All these people are waiting to take their pictures. Of the art work, not of your cute behind.”

Liana pretended not to have heard and continued her observation with utmost concentration. She also pretended not to have heard the coughs, shuffling, and general murmur of discontent made by the crowd standing in a circling around Georgetown’s most famous work of street art.

“Liana Maria McGrath,” her mom said, from very close by.

Just a few seconds more. Come on. Do it again. Now, please.

A firm hand grabbed Liana by the arm, pulled her up, and away from the wall.

Liana thought of struggling for a moment but decided to let herself be guided away from the painting of the petite Asian girl, mouth open in a big smile of delight, and her little brother snuggled against her back, holding her tight, both seemingly riding a real bicycle placed against the wall. She kept her eyes firmly on the artwork though.

Thirty-plus cameras and phones clicked in concert the moment Liana and her mother had moved three steps away from the bike.

There. There it was.

Liana saw the flash of movement she’d been waiting for. She wrestled out of her mother’s grip, ran back, and quickly snapped another picture of her own before being caught in an even firmer grip and hauled away down Armenian Street.

“Look here missy. I applaud your sudden interest in art, but mommy saw all the artworks yesterday already, and if you’re going to be a handful, this second tour of the town stops right here.”

Liana opened her mouth to argue, thought better of it before the first syllables left her lips, and instead put on her best pouty face.

Mom observed her in silence for a moment. “That only works on dad, dear.”

Liana stuck her lower lip out a bit more and added her best puppy dog eyes to her best pouty face.

“Also dad, dear.”

But Liana saw the features of her mother’s face soften. Pouty-puppy dog might work a little bit on mom after all.  She racked her brain for a few seconds. The answer came to her just as the sun moved out from behind the cloud cover and bathed her with its heat.

“Ice-cream!”

“Excellent idea, sweetheart. The surest, and quickest road to mommy’s heart. I assume I’m buying?”

Mother and daughter sat down at the nearest ice-cream parlor and ordered several scoops of chocolaty delight. Liana gobbled down the treat with barely enough attention to get the ice-cream laden spoon to the correct destination on her face. Several drops of melting ice-cream landed on her shorts, and on her chin. Liana didn’t notice. All her focus was on her camera; on the pictures she’d taken today, and yesterday. She selected the two best, zoomed in on the girl’s face in both pictures, and thrusted the camera at her mother.

“Look mom. See here. And here. They’re different. The girl, she moved. See.”

Her mom shot Liana The Look. “People in paintings doesn’t move, Linny.”

Liana held the camera out unperturbed, the screen turned towards her mom.

Mom shrugged and took a long, serious look at both pictures. Multiple times, as Liana kept switching the screen from one to the other.

“Maybe they are different, sweetie. Maybe the artist did some touchups yesterday, or something. But the pictures are grainy, too grainy to see anything really. How about you and me both give daddy the pouty face tonight, then he might buy you a better camera.

“Now please, let mommy enjoy her ice-cream before the sun turns it into goo.”

Liana stubbornly kept staring at the pictures on her camera. Mom was right, zoomed in the pictures weren’t good enough to see the difference. But she’d seen it with her own eyes, hadn’t she?

The last spoonful of her ice-cream landed on the pavement as Liana distractedly scratched an itch on her nose.

Ice-cream finished, they wandered around Georgetown from wall painting to wall painting. Liana lingered at each one, taking many pictures, getting as close as she could, gazing at the details of each one for as long as could get away with. The entire afternoon, she balanced expertly on mom’s tipping point of annoyance.

She saw, and investigated, all the street art Georgetown had to offer. Content with having given it her all, but not content with not seeing what she was looking for, Liana voiced no complaint when mom took her hand, called time for dinner and headed toward their hotel.

 

“…do today?”

“…art, …Linny…again…”

“tried…who artist…nobody knows….lifelike.”

“…conference call….forever. Justin…”

“Maybe tomorrow…”

“Liana…”

“Liana, will you please stop scratching your nose.”

Dad’s loud voice startled Liana out of her reverie. She’d quickly zoned out her parents’ boring dinner conversation and her mind had wandered back to the happy Asian girl on the bicycle. The image had haunted her all through the day. It had kept getting clearer and brighter in her mind, and now she felt as if she could reach out her hand and touch the girl’s face.

She scratched her nose again.

“Sweetie, are you alright?” mom asked, “you look a little pale.”

“I’m…I’m ok. Just not very hungry.”

“You didn’t give her ice-cream again, did you Cathy?” Dad’s annoyed voice broke in.

“Of course not, dear. Sweets only once a week, and only when you’re sweet, that’s the rule,” mom said with the tone of the angelically innocent. She stood up to walk to Liana and winked at her daughter who was too absorbed with scratching her nose to notice it.

Cathy placed a hand on Liana’s forehead. “Are you sure you’re ok, Linny? You look sick. Jack, look at her. Shouldn’t we take her to the doctor?”

“Does she feel warm? Does she have a fever?”

“I feel fine, mom. I’m just going to go to bed early.”

“Now I’m sure you’re sick. Jack, someone has replaced our daughter.”

And on they went. It took Liana fifteen minutes to convince her parents, who were going off in full panic mode, including talk of deadly tropical diseases, that all she needed was some sleep.

Which of course, she didn’t need at all. After being tucked in to the point of being barely able to move Liana lay wide awake, staring at the ceiling yet not seeing the ceiling at all. In her mind she saw a girl and boy on a bicycle, a girl and boy on a swing, an old, dark-skinned man – an Indian, according to mom – steering a small boat, a man lounging in a rickshaw bicycle, and all the others who lived on the walls of Georgetown.

Lived? Now where did that idea come from?

Liana heard a joyous laugh explode into the air, coming it seemed from nowhere, and she was sure it was the laugh of the girl on the bicycle.

Liana shook herself loose from the double layer of blankets constricting her and jumped out of bed. She hurried to the window and looked down at the street. Right across from her hotel room, on the wall, was the girl on the bicycle, the boy on the back clinging to her as if they were going fifty miles an hour.

Impossible, Armenian street, where the girl was supposed to be, was a fifteen-minute walk away. Liana blinked and rubbed her eyes. She looked again. The girl was gone. See, it was just her imagination.

The girl’s laughter reached her ears again. A crystal-clear sound, yet it seemed to be coming from a little further away. Liana looked down the street. There the girl was, on the wall, on her bicycle. Close to the next intersection, as if she was about to turn the corner. The next moment, the girl was gone.

Liana stood by the window transfixed, unable to take her gaze from the piece of wall where she’d just seen the girl on her bicycle.

A laugh echoed far off, down the street around the next corner.

Liana launched from her frozen position by the window sill and rushed to the door of her room. She opened it and threw it shut behind her as she ran for the staircase, bare feet landing softly on the thick hallway carpet. She’d almost reached the landing when a door opened behind her and mom’s angry voice stopped her in her tracks.

“Liana, were the hell do you think you’re going? Get back in bed this instant.”

She considered making a run for it for a second or two, but thought better of it and trudged back to her room. Mom followed her back in, and this time Liana was tucked in to the point of really not being able to move.

“I’m taking you to the doctor tomorrow morning,” Cathy said, looking down at her triple-blanket-cocooned daughter. “You look…pale, no…your skin looks…I don’t know baby, let’s just go to the doctor okay?”

Liana nodded agreeably and faked a yawn. She’d figure out a way to avoid the doctor in the morning. She counted to a hundred after mom left her room before starting her quest to escape the blanket prison. Her struggles became frantic as her nose started to itch like mad. Having first freed her right arm to take care of the itch, she rubbed furiously at her nose for a long time, but the itch would not go away. She struggled a while longer to release herself from the bed and went to the bathroom. She turned on the light, and gasped when she saw her reflection in the mirror.

Her face looked…weird. She’d lost her tan and her skin tone had turned to a brownish-greyish mix. Even stranger, the tip of her nose had turned black.

As she stared at the black spot it seemed to straighten and lengthen across her nose, and down around her mouth. As if…as if someone was drawing an outline around her face.

Liana heard laughter again, clearly recognizable. She rushed to the window. The girl was there again. On her bicycle, on the wall across from Liana’s hotel room. This time though, the bicycle was pointed in the other direction. And the girl was alone, the boy sitting on the back before was gone.

Liana had never wanted anything so badly in her life as to be outside this moment. There was no way though, Liana knew for certain that the slightest sound would bring her mother out of her room. The window maybe? No, she was excited to go out and play, not to go splat on the pavement.

The girl hadn’t moved. Liana felt sure she was waiting for her. But how to get out of the hotel? Her nose itched again. She looked at her hand as it came away from her nose after scratching, the edges of her fingers appeared to be traced by the same strange black lines. It was as if she was being sketched.

She sidled a few feet away from the window. She put her hands on the blank wall, and gasped for the second time that night as her hands flattened and looked like they were drawn upon the wall. It looked ridiculous, as if she was a girl without hands who held the stumps of her wrists against a picture of hands.

A bad joke, that’s what it looked like. But it wasn’t bad, it was magic! Liana closed her eyes and took a big step forward. Her foot should have bumped against the wall. Instead her whole body flattened, she felt like a balloon losing all the air inside it within a single moment.

Liana opened her eyes. The room looked completely different. The bed, the chairs, the ceiling lamp; everything seemed strangely distorted. It reminded her of watching 3D movies, with those stupid glasses, that made things look like they were coming toward you, but you could tell they really weren’t. Yeah, that’s sort of what the room looked like; as if looking through 3D glasses, and the screen was sort of like a fish bowl.

She cut off her analytical train of thought with a ‘who cares.’ This was awesome.  How to get outside though? The moment the question came to her mind she felt a sense of vertigo. Her vision blurred and when it returned she was looking out over Georgetown. She was on the outside of the hotel wall. The Asian girl was still waiting on her bicycle. She waved at Liana and beckoned her to come over.

Liana wasted no time. She imagined herself on the back of the bicycle. Her vision blurred again. Before it even returned she felt her ‘cute behind,’ as mom calls it, connect with the bike rack. Both girls laughed out loud as the bicycle sped off down the walls of the street.

Under the light of a moon like none Liana had ever seen before, the girls moved from wall to wall on the empty Georgetown streets. She must have gone down the same streets several times during her daily excursions with mom, but everything looked completely different now. Everything looked wonderful, as if she was sneaking a peek into a hidden, magical realm.

From time to time Liana would she a shape in the distance; a person on the street. The Asian girl – Ting was her name, Liana suddenly knew – would steer the bicycle down the closest side street if whoever was wandering the streets was coming toward them. If the person was moving away from them, Ting would slow down and sneak up on them, like a cat stalking its prey. Sometimes the man or woman they were stealthily pursuing would turn their heads to look behind them, or stop and turn around completely. Ting would zip the bicycle to another section of wall lightning fast, often choosing a spot on the other side of the person and zipping back again when turned back to the direction they were heading.

They followed an old lady who was particularly sensitive to their prowling halfway across town. The lady turned her head at least a dozen times, forcing Ting to bounce all over the street.

Liana couldn’t stop laughing. This was the best night of her life. And the night seemed to last forever. She’d lost count as to how many times they crisscrossed the town. She didn’t care, everything looked astonishing from her magical viewpoint on the wall. The night became even more miraculous when she started to notice the others.

She spotted the Indian boatman moving slowly down three different streets, as if the walls were gentle rivers. The brother and sister on the swing at Step By Step Lane during the day ran across her vision five times during the night. The kids playing basketball she saw only once, but she heard the echo of a bouncing ball numerous times during the night. The cats were moving around Georgetown as only cats do; as if they owned the place. One even jumped on Liana’s lap and rode with them down two streets.

The bicycle came to a sudden stop. Liana looked at Ting, wondering what was wrong. “bye bye,” Ting whispered, in thick, barely understandable English.

Vertigo hit Liana again. When she opened her eyes, she was standing alone on the wall. Liana looked around desperately, but saw no sign of Ting or the bicycle. She did notice that she was on the wall across from her hotel room, and that the sky had begun to lighten.

Liana thought of running the walls all the way to Armenian street, but immediately thought better of it. People would see her, and that felt wrong. Instead, she moved herself back to the outside, and then to the inside, of her hotel room. She hesitated for a long time, unwilling to leave this wonderful view of the world.

Sounds of movement coming from the next room told her that her parents were up. Mom would soon enter her room to check up on her.

Liana stepped out from the wall. The changed perspective and the regaining of form made her dizzy and nauseous. She fell to the floor and lay still for minutes. Tears fell from her eyes, she couldn’t tell if they were caused by the joy of the night or by the sadness of the night’s end – maybe both.

She dragged herself into bed moments before mom entered the room. Mom, all prepared to be all fussy, was overjoyed to see that Liana had regained her tan and looked healthy as ever. Liana took care not to show any signs of tiredness to make sure there would be no recollection of the earlier proposed doctor’s visit.

When the family went out for breakfast Liana asked if they could walk past Armenian street once more. Mom agreed, as long as it would only be a quick peek.

The famous art work was already being admired by a crowd of people, all patiently waiting to lean on the bike rack for a photograph. This made Liana giggle. After a few seconds she turned and walked away. Her parents followed.

“That was quick. Have you lost interest in art already?” mom asked.

“No, I just think art is something to experience instead of see.”

“Alright. Mommy thought you might want to be an artist, after the tour we took yesterday.”

“I don’t want to be an artist, mom. I want to be art. I think I have a nose for art.” Liana giggled again. Behind her she heard Ting’s laughter in reply.

The McGrath’s settled down for breakfast two streets down. In the afternoon they left Georgetown on the ferry to Langkawi. But every summer thereafter, even though it took Liana a bigger tantrum every year to make it happen, the family holidayed in Georgetown, and Liana rode a bicycle through a city that turned magical at night.

 

 

My own story of Georgetown

A city with town in it’s name, Georgetown was founded by the British during the colonial era. The city is dotted with well-preserved colonial buildings which attract a lot of tourists. Where Georgetown really gets its fame though, is from the street food and the street art. Beautiful murals can be found all around the historical city center. The most famous ones, including the incessantly photographed girl on the bicycle, were painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. The children in his mural are so full of joy and vibrancy, it’s easy to picture them coming alive after the boring human grownups have retired for the night.