Hot Desk Extract: Nenek

As part of the Wheeler Centre's Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Shannan Lim worked on Nenek – a horror-comedy written partly in the Malay and Minangkabau languages – which translates to ‘grandmother’ in English.

Based on the hauntings that he and his sister experienced growing up, and his mother’s matriarchal culture, it centres on two siblings who, over the course of one night with their grandmother, realise that there is more to her and the family than they know.

Nenek is part of a larger work, Salty, which reimagines Southeast Asian folktales in contemporary Australia.

The scene below occurs roughly one third into the story – right after Dara and Rafi notice their grandmother’s chilling behaviour for the first time.

Peony, Flowering Kale and Anthuriumby

Peony, Flowering Kale and Anthuriumby — Photo: Sara Lim and Shannan Lim

Lights flicker from one of the terraced houses on Royal Parade. Different from the others on the row. Painted coral, duck-egg trim, ornately tiled. Sultry Malacca grinding on buttoned-up Parkville. Its tropical palms would lure you in if you looked. But evening commuters on the Number 19 are half-asleep.

Inside Nenek’s house.

RAFI
No way in hell am I going back in there!

DARA
So you’re just going to leave her …

RAFI
I’ll send for an imam. 

DARA
No.

NENEK grunts. A deep, guttural sound like a water buffalo in distress. Her body rises, still in mid-air slumber.

RAFI ignores his sister and makes a dash for the kitchen door.

RAFI
There was a door here! Why is there no door? 

DARA
What are you talking about? There’s no door! 

RAFI is hyperventilating as he paws at an empty wall.

RAFI
But … I remember when we were kids and we’d go out into the garden. How did we go out into the garden if there’s no door? 

DARA holds RAFI firmly by the shoulders. 

DARA
Calm down, Rafi.

RAFI
No! You calm down! 

NENEK grunts again and this time it runs so low it sends vibrations throughout the house. Glass on the windows shake, dishware in the cupboards shake.

DARA
Fuck this. 

DARA pushes RAFI aside and stumbles up the stairs. She goes into the furthest room to hide. There, reclined on the bed, is MASON. Wearing her grandmother’s batik silk robe, undone. Too undone. He is running his fingers through his chest hair.

MASON
Where were we … 

DARA
Ugh. Mason! What are you doing here? 

MASON covers his pleasure. RAFI comes up the stairs.

RAFI
Oh, uh Mason. My sister’s room is next door.

MASON
Oh, right. Right! Sorry I was mistaken. 

NENEK floats up the staircase and through the hallway, turning her head slightly as she passes each room, searching. 

NENEK
Cucu! Mana cucu Nenek? 

RAFI lifts the rug that conceals his childhood crawl-space.

DARA, RAFI and MASON hide under the floorboards, bodies contorted against one another. Light falls between the gaps.

DARA
[whispering] Why are you here? 

MASON
To see you?

DARA
Really? 

MASON
Yes. 

DARA
Strange, because you haven’t answered my calls. I just want to collect my things. 

RAFI and MASON trade guilty looks. DARA glances suspiciously at MASON. Then at RAFI, then back at MASON. 

DARA
I see what’s happening. 

MASON
You do?

DARA
Uh huh. You two have been spending time with Nenek without me, haven’t you?

MASON
That is … actually what we’ve been doing. Part of what we’ve been doing. [smirk] She happens to like it when I read Alain de Botton to her. 

DARA
Why are you reading to my grandmother? That’s so odd. 

MASON
I’ll tell you what’s odd, Dara. That you only visit when it’s convenient for you. When you want something from her. 

DARA
That’s not true. 

MASON
Yeah, it is. 

A veiny, leathery hand reaches out of the darkness for RAFI.

MASON is visibly thinking to himself. 

DARA
I see what you’re doing, I see what you’re doing. You’re making a mental note of this argument, aren’t you? So you can deconstruct it and blame me in a bullet point email.

MASON
I don’t see how that’s a problem if it lets me articulate my grievances.

The hand strokes RAFI’s forehead. RAFI cannot deal.

DARA
Grievances? How many more do you have? Back off from my fucking family, Mason. You’re not satisfied until everybody’s in love with you.

RAFI
Umm … 

NENEK is right beside them.

DARA, RAFI, MASON
[gasp]

END.

Portrait of Shannan Lim

Shannan Lim is a writer and clown based on Kulin country. He has lectured in film and digital media at the University of Western Australia, and taught physical theatre to adults and children at RMIT University and ArtPlay. His work has been performed at Griffin Theatre, the State Theatre Centre of WA and Melbourne International Comedy Festival. He received the Multicultural Arts Victoria Award at Melbourne Fringe, the New Director Award at Nice International Film Festival, and was City of Melbourne Artist-in-Residence at Boyd Studio.

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