The Messenger, the Girl and Mrs. Ghiwala

[A short story I wrote more than 20 years ago.]

lizard

The road danced in the last heat of the day. At the picnic place, the bin overflowed with rubbish. Hovering flies ignored the warm drift of air up the mountain slope. Swallows flecked the sky.

When his car stopped there, the sun seemed balanced on the far rim of the valley. His face was lined by weather and the wind. He was in his forties, about six foot tall with a dark moustache, heavy shoulders. He stood by the stone wall at the lookout point and watched the town, holding binoculars in his competent hands. It lay below and West-South-West, obliquely into the sun. He lowered the field-glasses and his eyes tightened against the light: a messenger, looking down at the destination of his message. Behind him the car made small clicking noises as hot metal cooled. The arrival of strangers wouldn’t be that rare here. He expected to be unnoticed and unremarked.

A lizard watched him from its space in the wall. He let the binoculars hang from their strap and leaned on the top of the wall. Pale brown stones, mottled with a grey; an old wall, anchorage for lichens and grasses, home of spiders; moss against the stone-flank, dust in the moss.

He wore khaki clothing of a nondescript type and light canvas hiking boots of the latest design. The rubber soles of the boots scrunched loudly over the gravel as he returned to his car. The car door slammed, the engine started. Dust choked the air.

Below in the valley, the buildings of the town squirmed in heat. Flies returned to their aerobatics over the bin. Swallows came in low and fast. The tyres scrunched as he steered the car back onto the road. Rear-view mirrors flashed with sunset and lit-up dust which settled on and around the wall. The lizard’s throat pulsed.

** ** **

A man ran from his house; behind him the door hung slack. It was night but the high floodlamps turned the sky orange. His face was strange with excitement.

“Hang on, man, I’ll be there now!” he shouted as he leapt the step, turned, and headed down the street. The doorway framed the yellow light of the kitchen lamp. Inside, the man he’d been talking to, the messenger, still sat at the table staring at the plastic tablecloth. His cup of coffee was becoming cold.

Some blocks away through the black and orange night, the other man knocked lightly at a door: “Comrade, comrade!” – an emphatic whisper. And the comrade came from the house, pulling a yellow candlewick dressing-gown over her nightie, sleep in her eyes. In her hand the yellowing beam of a dying torch pointed at her feet. Behind her a child whined “Mommy, mommy!”

He was laughing, doing the beginning of a jiggling dance. His big smile embraced her as he pushed past her into the room, rattling for matches in his pocket. He lit one, held her forearm, looked at her face. She grinned with him, sleepy and confused.

“Shhh. Mommy’s coming,” she told the child. The room went dark as the match died. He struck another, she pointed to a candle on the table.

“It’s true! The rumour, it’s fucken true. The guy just arrived. He’s still there, sitting in my kitchen. You must phone the rest,” and he dropped himself onto the couch, stretching the dust-cover into tight folds, jamming his hands into his pockets, grinning. Then he was up again, pacing and talking.

The child emerged, stared at them with big eyes, her thumb in her mouth. She ran her thumbnail along the groove between her front teeth, over and over.

“Mommy’s coming. Now leave us alone. Don’t come in here.” The girl retreated into the dark doorway. From where she lay in mommy’s warmth she could only hear whispering. In the other room, her mother lit a paraffin lamp, turned the wick down as low as possible. The man’s voice grew louder.

“How can you ask? Uh, I mean, ask me? It’s too early to tell, but it looks like a, how they say? A significant advance. It’s big, I can tell you that.”

“Let’s go and meet him. I mean, go to your place. Or why don’t you call him over here? I’ll make some coffee.”

“How many committee members have phones? Here, where’s the list? Is your phone safe?”

“Okay, relax,” she said. She went back into the bedroom and returned a moment later with a big brown handbag, sorted through it, pulled out a piece of paper.

She was a district nurse, so was one of the few with a phone. He started to make long calls, got responses including euphoria, disbelief and irritation at being pulled from sleep. He ignored them, kept talking.

“He waited till after dark.

“Yes, yes. He had the right documents and all.

“Of course I asked him. That’s what he says. Whose got the C.B.? Why’s it still there? Yes,” The conversations went on and on.

Runners had to be dispatched, a meeting organised. Cars sent into the night, to send other cars. Looking out of the window, the girl saw more headlights about than usual. In the street houses were still darkened and the wires on the fences swung in the wind. The next-door neighbour’s dog was barking again. Somewhere in the darkness she could hear the old people singing. After some time she heard her mother: “Hey! Is that poor man still there in your kitchen? You can’t leave him there all night.”

“Ja, God. Come.” He made for the door.

“Wait a moment,” she said, and again went back to her room. The girl lay still in the bed, her breathing even. She turned and followed him out into the street. Twice cars slowed down and people shouted. They heard the far wail of a siren.

Back at his house the kitchen was empty, the coffee-cup cold and half- finished. The lamp still burned, the door was still open. In the night the news moved through the town. Plans were being made.

** ** **

The highest point on Mrs. Ghiwala’s back was the tip of the spine between her shoulder blades. Her whole body described a U shape so that by holding her head back a little, she could stare down into her lap. To look forward she’d have to lean her whole body back, rolling her head sideways and up. It was painful for her to look forward, so she spent the whole day here, watching her old hands busy with needles and silks, resting or taking food from a plate to her mouth.

She was embroidering, still the same thing, though the cloth was getting full now and soon she’d have to add another piece of Mataji’s silk from the trunk with the camphor. Mataji’s silk was fine, hand-woven and very old. It had the colour of the clay of the village where she was born, a reddish ochre, slightly uneven, fading out to the dusty hue of old brick. Against this background Mrs. Ghiwala had built in fine stitches, a picture of her childhood in the village, where Mataji had kept the new silks in a dowry box that smelled of camphor. Embroidering brought the memory of water buffalos.

There were no disputes about Mrs. Ghiwala’s age. All that anyone knew or cared to know was that she was very old. Sitting there in the corner of the shop, she couldn’t communicate with anyone except in the simplest way: “good morning,” “thank you,” or the names of family members recognised by their voices or by straining and twisting round to peer over reading glasses at them. Her two daughters dead, her son somewhere in the city, she was stranded among grown-up grandchildren who had forgotten her language, or spoke it so halting as to make it incomprehensible. So they got by with signs and with making her life so simple that many words were not necessary. Every day she was fed and brought to her chair. Then they’d bring her sewing basket. Some of the women might kiss her, and the eldest grandchild would stand for up to an hour holding her hand, silent or talking to someone else. Customers from the area greeted her, “Hello Mataji,” and she’d nod and mumble, rubbing her gums together and taking up the cloth again.

The shop smelled of spice. It was called the Elite Tea Room. It did moderately well because many people passed it every day, and even though these people were poor, all of them needed to eat. Run by two of Mrs. Ghiwala’s granddaughters, the Elite provided a sit-down meal for workers. At lunchtime they’d come in from the factory, from the building lot. They’d buy a roti and curry, served from the stainless steel trays kept warm in their steamy bath. Two or three kinds of curry, and hot tea boiled with milk and sugar, and pepper. Or they might buy cartons of soured milk and oily Russian sausages, or Coca Cola, sweets, cigarettes, tobacco for rolling in newspaper, sold in an orange and vermillion plastic bag. They were big men with wool caps, even in the summer, lean gangsters from around the taxi rank, with tattoos. There were women in cleaners’ uniforms, women carrying shopping-bags….

The customers got their food and sat at an indoor bench, or at one of those put out on the pavement every morning. They squeezed in wherever they could find a gap, talking loudly. The radio played dance music. A conical loudspeaker attached on the corner of the building broadcast to the street.

** ** **

The dumping ground where all the dreams go after they have finished being dreamed is outside the town. To get there you must cross the railway lines. Take the path that was once a road before they built the other road. Walk until the public gardens stop, till there are no islands of flowers, no roadside lawns.

Then just keep going. Walk past the scrap-yard with its herds of rusting car bodies. Walk past the wrecking-yard where the old doors stand rotting in lines and the owner sits smoking endless cigarettes in his closed office. His office has pictures of naked women holding their breasts up so that their nipples point at the viewer. In the lavatory there is a picture of a woman baring her genitals, crouched on all fours and looking over her shoulder. Where her groin would have been, the paper has been charred by cigarettes. The ground outside grows nothing. It is encrusted with years of forgotten things: rusting steel and bits of plastic dark with cracks, flakes of paint and scraps of paper, oil soaked cardboard, wood splinters, bent nails…

You must go past the wrecking-yard to where the litter is collected by the wind and flattened out to rattle on fences of broken wire. Beyond here the gardens in the yards stop being gardens, the people farm stones and broken things, sand and old tyres. You will pass the huge tip of forgotten toys and the deep ditches where unused lives fester. The yards here have chickens and glass, and a dog on a wire leash, at the chafed bleeding end of his tether. There is a shard of yellow plastic sticking up from the earth; the dog scratches at it with one slow foot.

In the houses there are people. On the routes which cannot be called roads, people. It isn’t crowded, you are going in the wrong direction for that, but there are people.

Now go by the town’s rubbish dump, holding your breath and looking out for sharp things which might pierce your shoes. Gulls shriek and wheel, following the gleaners to see what tasty things may be turned up.

Follow what was the old road, past where the roads are broken to where they become ambiguous, turn into gulleys or grass and weeds. Pass the place where nothing works any more; machines, papers, books, appliances, plant, plants, children. There are the remains of things which once had some purpose, but whose purpose is no longer clear. Scraps encrusted with soil, rust and dirt.

You’ll come near the places where water and fuel is carried slowly all day long by singing women. Their song soothes backs and limbs that have walked miles in the heat. The town is far behind. You’ll see the dump in the distance ahead. It’s wide and vague, encompassing an area among the abandoned and neglected edges of the town.

Every night the town’s dreams settle here like drifting ashes, coagulate like clouds. They fall here from nowhere, drifting groundward, slow packets blowing in or spinning like broken insect wings, disconnected, still twisting in mindless feelings as they settle on the dump. The dreams are every colour, but sagging into the dump they take on its overall soggy grey. They have built up over years. Older dreams molder and rot into the soil, soggy with rain. Dust and moisture seep into them. Underneath the dump they form rich layers of the darkest loam. During the day, gulls shriek and circle the mound. Other scavengers, pigeons, rodents, roaches and woodlice, live in its spaces.

People sometimes come here to dig the compost out for fertiliser, but it happens less and less now. The workers didn’t like having to dig through rotting fantasias, much less the probability of having somebody’s still-fading anxiety nightmare float down and slide in under your collar while you’re not looking. Eventually the union had it stopped. Nowadays very few come to dig in the mound, but the scratchers are still there.

Each scratcher carries a stick about fifty centimeters long, with a wire hook attached to its end. It is used for raking through the dump, turning things over. They are looking for certain dreams and, having found one, they may eat it, rub it on their bodies or inhale its misty edges. A skillful dream hunter can make one last for hours, slowly savouring it, secreting it among clothing, digging down into the rubble of the dump to hide, and drawing out the dream’s re-activation, nibbling around the rotten bits, skirting the slide into nightmare. A dream can be consumed but never kept. Its nature is to disintegrate, return to the earth, blurring muddily into all other dreams.

Fights might break out over some particular dream of pleasure. But the life of the dump has made its citizens private, almost unable to notice each other. Some of the scratchers may have been dead for years. These stake out areas of the dump where dreams by people they knew seem most likely to arrive. At night the glow of their small lights can be see as they scrabble to find ones in which they are remembered. Over time these scratchers shrink, become distorted as they are forgotten, as the living continue their lives. Perhaps all that’s left over might be a small light or a wire hook, drifting by itself near the dump or even in some other part of the town. The dead are ubiquitous, though not always visible.

** ** **

The child wanders among legs. Everywhere people move, with the purpose of adults. She is not worried; these are mommy’s and daddys. She even glimpses some that she’s seen at home, some who are comrades. And her granny is always near. There are other children here too, and the old people that grown-ups can’t see are everywhere, chattering, whispering. Her granny sings a song without words with a tune which is flat and impossible to remember. She’s been dead almost a year now.

Her mother has been sewing banners all night. Some of the cloth came out of her big tin trunk, and some had to be fetched, bought. This meant phone-calls, women coming in with huge brown-paper parcels, trips to the shop. White cloth for the banners and colours for the flags; thick reeds from someone’s garden and broomsticks plundered from kitchens for poles. All night in the house the activity had continued. Cars had pulled up, bright headlights in the darkness, people, mostly women, had come and gone. Dawn had come with people still working, new parcels had arrived when the shops had opened.

Especially sensitive to its presence, the child had seen money; crumpled notes changing hands, from where she peeped through an open door or hid under the high table. After shouting a few times, her mother had stopped sending her back to her room. She’d slipped unnoticed among the events:

“Yes, and the message come through last night…”

“… the chairman says… ”

” … Ooh, what a lovely green. It’s the real colour, the real one.”

Now she wanders among the flags and people, down among the litter. The people are dancing, singing as the mass slowly moves forward. She sees a broken shoe, an open fly, hands that wave in the dance, hands in pockets, hands bobbing a stick up and down, hands holding carved wooden guns. She feels happy in the warmth of their evident happiness. The street is full of paper. There are pamphlets, tin cans, old newspapers, shit.

** ** **

At night they’d take Mrs. Ghiwala upstairs and put her by the heater with the radio on. The radio was a powerful short-wave receiver which had been tuned to an Indian music station, and talked in a language which she didn’t understand. The heater was only turned on when it got really cold. She disliked the heater. Sometimes it was too hot, or not hot enough, or they’d forget to turn it on.

As a child her grandmother and aunts had taught her to use needle and thread, shown her the stitches and the patterns, taught her the songs, the chants. Now a desert islander in a sea of language, her horizon was the embroidery. In tiny stitches the world of her girlhood village was threaded on the cloth. She had been a bathing gopi, and the dark god had come up from among the reeds, hungry for the plump breasts of girls. Cattle were driven home to milking, and an army passed through once with two elephants, which became twenty in the stitch-work, with sequins for armour. She invented new stitches, each finer and more perfect, devised methods of depiction to accommodate girls skipping, dogs chasing rats at a grain store, her cousins making love in the secret dark of the old well. But Mrs. Ghiwala’s thoughts were not filled with any story. As she stabbed the needle in, to continue a leaf in a border around the feet of the scene of the well, she was singing scripture to herself. Roughly translated her silent song went:

Ah, Mountain of Light,
the image of the cosmos is formed in You,
stays there a while, and dissolves.
This is the sublime Truth:
You are the inner Self
Who dances in the heart as “I”.
Your name is Heart, oh Lord…

and her hands carefully tugged the needle, pulling the fine thread tight and started the verse again for the next stitch.

** ** **

Among the dancers the child still sees the ghosts. Her granny stands near, holding a dishtowel and a cracked teacup, but doesn’t dance. The girl wonders why her granny looks so confused, She is waving her cup to the rhythm of the dance but her eyes are slack, looking nowhere. The girl tries to look nowhere too, but finds she can only see somewhere. She looks up at the sky, the buildings leaning over the street, a patch of leaves against blue. There are people on the balconies. Some of them have flags, too, like mommy. She dodges among the dancers and her granny follows without moving her legs. She sees a dead lizard in the gutter with a trail of ants going off towards a crack. The air is full of the women’s high ululation.

On a balcony a man stands with a camera. He focuses on the girl as she looks up at him. She starts to spin around, hands out, knees lifted high in the dance. The procession makes space around her and takes her into itself. The man takes a photograph and moves back inside.

** ** **

Lost, deep in night, the messenger switched off the torch and slid it into his pocket. Some houses in the distance were still lit. Far above and to his right the headlamps of two motor cars moved down the hill towards the town. From where he stood he couldn’t see street lights, but the orange glow from the town filled up half of the sky.

He took out a cigarette and tapped it on his thumbnail. The match flared in his cupped hands. His dark moustache was visible as he inhaled. He dropped the match, stepped on it.

Ahead of him the darkness seemed piled up to a great height. Tiny lights moved in that void. He walked towards them. He heard low voices and far-off excited chattering, but could separate out no words.

He moved forward carefully with the torch off, crunching on drought grass. His left hand could feel the money-belt with its folded documents through his coat pocket.

For a moment he thought that he saw something drifting out of the air, but focusing his eyes in that direction, he saw only darkness. Closer to the moving lights, his footing seemed to squirm or give. The surface was uneven, made of bits of torn somethings which faded into other things in the fine beam of the torch.

** ** **

The child moves with the people, washed among skirts and knees. The old people are still moving among and through them. One drives a herd of silent cattle into the walls of a building. Invisible dust roils among their hooves. A loudspeaker fills the street with dance music.

The smell of the shop makes her go in, and the pressure of the people. Besides, she sees her granny going in there, sweeping the floor ahead of her with the old broom, just like she’d used to do when she still lived with them. The shop is crowded. The television is on, people are watching, shouting comments. The child moves away from the set. She sees Mrs. Ghiwala’s back, and below it, the top of her head. Trying to make sense of what she sees, the girl tilts her head and looks between her fingers. The old woman twists sideways and looks back.

Slowly the girl moves towards the old woman. Mrs. Ghiwala. holds out a bit of coloured cloth and either smiles, or pulls her mouth in a funny way.

At the front of the shop, people still argue loudly. The cloth is covered in fine stitches. The girl moves a hesitant hand towards it. Mrs. Ghiwala takes the hand and pulls it down to touch the embroidery. Only a very small area is not covered. The colours glow with tigers and green parrots, bullock carts and the reeded blue of the Beas river. Behind her in the shop, her granny sweeps and mops, now almost invisible. The skin of Mrs. Ghiwala’s hand has the quality of crumpled brown paper. The child puts her chin on Mrs. Ghiwala’s knee. The old woman takes up her needle and her song again.

** ** **

A dream barbed on blade wire flapped and whirred in the wind. “Waah, wooaah! No, no!” a voice up ahead shouted. Then the voice turned over and settled into muttering.

A person wrapped in a torn blanket stepped into the torch beam. Others appeared at his sides, behind him. A stick, wire hooks. Eyes that stared from a lowered face, long greasy hair. A smile pulled by a scarred cheek, a smile with missing teeth. He moved the tube of light, picking out a scabbed knuckle, a torn sleeve. A hand pulling something from a pocket. A dirty face looking over shoulders. The shouting picked up again “Woooaa! No! Please, wa wa wa wa, orrrraa!” Hands touched his clothes.

“Relax,” he said, drawing on his cigarette and slowly walking backwards.

Hands came towards him. Little lights. Low mutters, sometimes a word: “…listens…”, “… signs of…”, “… nice one for…” along with the shouting.

His arms were held. A ragged dream torn from the decaying layers of the dump was pushed over his face: Darkness. In the unmapped space between the walls, going upwards to the next storey; perpetually invisible. It’s slow progress and something nears from behind, below. He looks through a grille at a huge room which he had not known was there. Everything is strange. Noises get louder. He thinks: “This isn’t my dream, I didn’t make this dream.” The grille gives way, fall into the arms of the air, of hair, hold her, head in her warm armpit, her scent. She says “The noises are coming closer.” She holds tight with her warmth and descent; he is scared. Fear makes it hard to breathe. He knows that it is someone else’s fear…

In the dark, hands plucked and searched through his clothing as he lay on the dump, his legs making the rhythmic movements of a runner. The scratchers turned the body over with wire hooks. The point of a wire hook punctured his skin and blood wet the khaki cotton drill of his shirt.

A pouch is opened. Fingers close on paper. Faint light glows on print. There is a sound of tearing. A low voice said: “Look, look! Fresh ones!” and held up documents from his money-belt. Desperate hands fought and pulled at the fresh dreams. Pulled, torn, eaten, scattered; the papers, the messages, the money…

** ** **

Couched in a crack of the stone wall above the town, a lizard’s throat rose and fell in soft sleep.

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