Saturday, 14 February 2015
Friday, 13 February 2015
One of the things that absolutely everyone knew was that Nistha had a ghost of her very own, which lived in a box.
Nobody was sure how they knew it. They just knew it, with a certainty so complete that nobody even thought of mentioning it. It was like saying the air existed to say that Nistha had a ghost in a box. In fact it was so well known that most people who knew it didn’t really believe it.
It was perfectly true, though. Nistha had a ghost in a box.
This box was of rough grey wood, only about big enough to cover the palm of a hand, but with a lid that fit so tightly that one could only with great difficulty make out the crack between it and the body of the box. Everyone knew, too, what the box looked like, though very few of them had actually ever seen it.
Nistha kept the box on the bottom shelf of the cupboard in her bedroom, hidden way behind a pile of old books and several stuffed toys which she had long since outgrown yet couldn’t bear to throw away. This cupboard was always locked, and only Nistha had the key. Not even her parents had one.
Nobody knew how Nistha had come by the ghost in the box. Some said she’d been left it by an old relative who’d been a witch or something like that. Others said she’d been born clutching it in one tiny fist, and that this was a gift from an evil spirit. There were other explanations, each more fanciful than the last. But nobody thought to ask Nistha how she’d actually come across the ghost. Not even her parents did.
This was how it happened. One school vacation, years ago, Nistha had been taken by her parents to visit what they called their “native”, the small town the family had originally come from and where a couple of grandparents still lived. The grandfather, who really didn’t understand children very well, had given Nistha some money and told her to buy herself some sweets. It wasn’t much money, but it was far more than Nistha had ever had at any time in her life, and she didn’t much like sweets anyway.
There was a market in the town, where people from all the villages around came once a week to buy and sell, trade and barter, bicker and have their ailments healed. It was market day, so Nistha pedalled off on her grandfather’s old black bicycle to visit the market and spend some of her money.
It was a nice market. Nistha, who had never seen anything like it before, was fascinated. All kinds of things which she’d never seen in the city seemed to be there, from fans made of reeds to clothes in colours so gaudy her mother would have blenched to look at them. And the people were even more interesting, tall men in turbans with long moustaches, women with silver rings in their noses and tiny glittering stones set in their front teeth.
She’d gone through most of the market, not even considering buying anything – it was all too fascinating anyway, and far too expensive – when she saw a man standing to one side. She couldn’t really see him very well, because he was in the shadow of a tree, and the dappled light seemed to hide his face, but he was quite tall and dressed differently from the others, as though he, too, was from the city. And he wasn’t buying or selling anything.
Nistha had wheeled her bicycle past him when he called to her. “I have something for you, Nistha,” he said.
She’d turned, slowly, astonished. “How do you know my name?”
“Let’s just say I know.” The man had held out his hand. On the palm was a small wooden box. “I think you should buy this,” he said.
Nistha had looked at the object with surprise. “Why? It’s just a box.”
“It’s not just a box.” The man’s voice had changed a little, and she could almost see his face. Somehow, he looked familiar, sounded familiar, as though she’d known him a very long time, though she was certain she’d never seen him before. “There is something inside it that will change your life. But I can’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to find out for yourself if you buy it.”
Nistha looked at the box. Though it was of plain rough wood, there was something that drew her to it, just as the man looked familiar. “How much is it?” she asked reluctantly, sure that it would be too expensive anyway.
“How much do you have?”
“Twenty rupees,” Nistha confessed, expecting him to laugh derisively.
The man had not laughed. He’d merely held out his hand for the crumpled orange note. “Very well. Twenty rupees is the price.”
When Nistha took the box from him, she felt a shiver in her hand, a moment’s tingling that spread up her arm. It lasted only a moment, and then disappeared. “How do I open it?” she asked.
The man seemed to be looking at her, though she couldn’t really tell, since she couldn’t see his face. “Take this,” he said, and put a little key on top of the box. It was a strange-looking key, very much like a tiny axe. “You can open the box with that key,” he said. “But remember that you can only open it once.”
Nistha had frowned. “What does that mean – I can only open it once?”
“Don’t open it until you really want to,” the man said. His voice seemed to be fading, and Nistha had the queerest feeling that he was disappearing slowly from view. “That’s all I can tell you – for now.”
And then he was gone.
Nistha blinked and looked around. On all sides, the market ebbed and flowed, as if nobody had noticed what had just happened. A man carrying a bundle almost bumped into her, blinked in confusion as though she’d appeared out of nowhere, and pushed past. Someone else pushing a cart angrily motioned her out of the way.
Suddenly she didn’t like the market much anymore, and it was getting late. So she went home.
She’d been planning to open the box as soon as she could, but her parents were waiting for her impatiently to go visit relatives, and by the time they got back it was late in the evening, too late to do anything much but brush her teeth – with aching cold well water – and drop into bed. She’d put the box under her pillow, but fell asleep before she could even think of opening it.
She woke sometime in the small hours of the morning, feeling sure that there was something in the room with her. For a while she lay with her eyes closed tight, trying to convince herself that it was a dream, but she knew it was useless. And the thing, whatever it was, knew that she was awake and pretending to be asleep, and she knew that too.
So she opened her eyes, slowly, and for the first time she saw the ghost.
It was a pale glimmer by her head, barely visible in the darkness, an oval of whitish light that hung in the air. And yet it seemed familiar, as though she’d seen it before, and she was reminded of the man whom she’d seen in the market, who had sold her the box. It was the same sense of familiarity, as though she was meeting someone she had always known.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
There was no direct reply. Instead, the darkness was wiped away, and she saw a burning desert, lying flat and immense to the horizon. In the middle distance, there was a city, of pink sandstone spires and tall walls, high-arched gates from which camel caravans came forth, laden with goods and led by black-eyed men with curved daggers at their belts and veiled women riding on horses, their feet in jewelled slippers with upturned toes. And things happened to the men and women, strange adventures that she had never read or imagined. Giants and jinni, wizards and caliphs, slave girls and princesses, met and fought and loved, quarrelled and made up, and little by little the night wheeled towards dawn.
And when she woke up, she couldn’t decide if she’d dreamt it all.
The next night the oval; of light was there again, and this time she was on a mountain side deep in snow, on which young soldiers fought each other and cried with homesickness and longing for the warm embraces of their girls. And the next night it was something else – a ship floating in the voids between stars, where strange tentacled beings led their own, complex lives.
The nights fled by, and each time it was there, to tell her tales of magic and mystery, of joy and sorrow, and all things in between.
And many times she fingered the little axe-like key, but she never used it, because she knew she could only open it once.
Many, many years passed. Nistha grew up and went to college, and the little box went with her in her suitcase, and told her stories while she lay awake in her new bed in the students’ hostel. And though she grew older and wiser in the ways of the world, the box kept her young in the mind, feeding her wonder and pushing the desolation of loneliness away.
One night she could not resist the temptation to ask it, finally, “Who are you?”
For a long time nothing happened. And then the scene changed abruptly, and she glimpsed distant ice cliffs across a frozen sea, under an eggshell-blue sky. There was a tiny speck on a far cliff, waving, waving, and she knew it was waving to her.
“How can I come to you?” she asked. “There is all this distance between us.”
But the speck in the distance waved, and as she watched, it faded further and further, and no matter how she cried out for it not to go, it disappeared, and the icy sea vanished with it. And there was only the darkness.
She woke with tears on her pillow, and nearly used the key. Then she nearly threw the box away, but at the last moment, holding it in her hand, she thought again and put it away in her drawer. And the next night there was another story, as though the icy sea had never been.
And so Nistha grew older, and she married a man whom she did not love and who did not love her, and they had a daughter. And there was less and less time to think of stories, though the box would try and tell them every night. One night she took it in her hand and spoke into it.
“No more stories,” she said. “I don’t want any more stories.”
There was a vast, hurt silence.
“I mean it,” she said, and put the box away.
Then Nistha’s daughter grew up and moved away, and her husband grew more abusive by the day. And one night he struck her, and struck her again. Then he got ready to hit her a third time.
“You won’t touch me again,” Nistha said.
“Oh?” he sneered. “And who’s going to stop me? That boxed ghost of yours?” He threw back his head and yelled laughter. “Hey, ghost...come and stop me.”
Nistha never saw all of what happened next. A shadow came into the room. It oozed out of the cupboard where she had kept the box, and it grew between her and the man who was about to hit her for a third time. The shadow grew and grew until it filled the room, blocked out the light, and her husband screamed with terror and rushed away, slamming out through the door.
She never saw him, or heard from him, again.
So Nistha was all alone, with only the box. But she never let it tell her stories again.
And so many more years went past, slow years which ran into decades, and then one night Nistha woke and stared up into the darkness, and she knew what she had to do. The time had come.
Rising slowly from her bed, she took the box out from the place it lay inside her cupboard and held it in her hands for the first time in many, many years. It seemed even smaller, more worn out, than she remembered. And her fingers shook when she brought out the axe-key.
“Ghost,” she said, “I am going to open the box now.”
There was no reply, but something grew in the room, a tenseness, a feeling.
“I’m going to open the box, ghost,” she said. “I’m going to set you free.”
And the axe-head found the key-hole, and turned in the lock.
It opened easily, as though grateful for the release.
The next evening, Nistha’s neighbour, surprised at not having seen her all day, entered her house with the spare key she had. To her astonishment, the house was empty. On the crumpled bedspread, she found a little wooden box, lying open. Idly, she picked it up.
Just for an instant, she seemed to see far distant ice cliffs, on which two figures were walking away, hand in hand.
Then it was gone, and she was looking down into an ordinary little box, in an ordinary little house, both of them empty but for the dust of the days and the years.
Empty, that is, but for one thing. In one corner of the box, she found an old, crumpled-up twenty-rupee note.
Empty, that is, but for one thing. In one corner of the box, she found an old, crumpled-up twenty-rupee note.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
I wish I were a stone
Uncaring if the stream
Of time wore me away
Or broke me
I wish I could learn not to feel
Instead of feeling too much
Caring too much.
A stone does not care
If it's beautiful or ugly.
A stone does not cry
A stone does not grieve
For pasts that were
Presents that are
Or futures that will not be.
Life’s too much a burden
For someone who is not a stone
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Monday, 9 February 2015
“Dedushka,” his granddaughter says over her shoulder, as she turns in towards the parking lot. “We’re here, dedushka.”
Alyosha says nothing. He’s looking through the window at the object on the concrete plinth, the sun glinting off the metal. He’s been looking at it ever since it came into view, when they’d turned in to this street.
“Papa?” His daughter Zhenya gets out, comes round the back of the car, and opens the door on his side, and holds out his walking stick. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Alyosha struggles to get out of the enclosed space of the back seat. Once upon a time, he would have twisted like an eel inside the far more restrictive confines of the interior of the object on the plinth. But those days are over. Hopefully, he thinks, days like that will never come again.
“Those days –“ he begins to say, and stops, embarrassed, though he doesn’t know what he has to be embarrassed for. “Nothing,” he temporises, turning away stiffly from his daughter. “Forget it.”
“Papa,” Zhenya repeats, taking his arm. She’s a big woman, taller than Alyosha ever was, and strong to go with it. “If you’re not feeling all right...”
“I’m fine, dammit.” Alyosha shakes his head, irritated with himself for swearing. He straightens, brushes his white hair back from his forehead. “Right,” he says. “Let’s do this.”
“Dedushka.” His granddaughter, Masha, twenty, tall, slim, heartbreakingly pretty despite the pierced eyebrow, the hair that hardly reaches her collar, and her knee-length boots, comes round the car, the bouquet in her hands. “There are some people here.”
“Huh?” For the first time Alyosha notices the other cars, the small crowd around the base of the plinth. Some of them are already pointing cameras in his direction. “Who are they?”
“Media people, mostly,” Masha says, grinning. “You’re famous.”
“Hah,” Alyosha snorts. It sets him to coughing. “They just want a story.”
“Well, you are a story.” Zhenya and Masha exchange smiles, as they walk side by side towards the plinth. “A big part of the story.”
“Mr Safonov?” It’s a young man with a round face, hair carefully arranged to hang over one eyebrow. He’s got a small microphone in his hand. “I’m Konstantin Fedorov.” He names the TV channel he’s from, and steals a quick, appreciative glance at Masha. “Rad znakomitsya. It’s good to meet you.”
Alyosha nods, hardly noticing him. He’s staring up at the thing on the plinth. The new olive-green paint looks incongruous on the metal. The last time he’d seen it, it had been covered with brown dirt and black oil, and splashed with grey concrete dust. He’s sure it’ll smell different, too, like a new car perhaps. Back then it had smelt of hot metal, burned cordite, diesel exhaust and the coppery tang of Tereshchenko’s blood, seeping down from the turret. He can still smell that medley of odours. He dreams of it sometimes.
“Mr Safonov?” the journalist persists. “How does it feel to see your old tank again? The one you went to war in?”
“How does it feel?” Alyosha looks at him, at his fleshy features and soft hands. It’s impossible to imagine he’s ever even touched a gun or felt the scratch of uniform cloth on his skin. Hardly any of them do now, preferring to buy their way out of military service. “What sort of question is that?”
“Um...” The young man, Fedorov, blinks. “You know. You’re a hero, and this is a historic occasion, after all.”
Alyosha smiles, with no humour in the smile at all. “What makes you imagine I’m a hero? All I did was sit in a seat, press pedals and pull at levers. What’s heroic about that?”
“You helped take Berlin,” the journalist persists, desperately. “How many can say they did?”
“I and a few hundred thousand others,” Alyosha replies. “Why don’t you ask them? Those of them who are left,” he amends. “Can’t be that many, I suppose.”
“Papa,” Zhenya says warningly. She smiles at the journalist. “You’ll have to give my father a little time,” she tells him. “He’s a bit excited – you understand.”
“I’m not excited,” Alyosha says. He looks at the cameras, then up at the green metal object on the plinth. Masha takes his arm, the one not holding the cane. “Help me up there, Koshka,” he tells her.
“Just a couple of photos,” someone calls.
“Later,” Masha smiles. She’s fiercely protective of him, has been since she was a child. “Let my grandfather do what he’s come here to do, please. What you’ve all come here to watch him do.”
They walk up towards the plinth. There’s a plaque on it, with today’s date under the heading GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR MEMORIAL, and below that – Alyosha has to squint to read it – a couple of lines saying that this vehicle had fought from Ukraine to Berlin as part of Marshal Konev’s army. Someone’s put a wreath under the plaque for some reason. It looks ridiculous.
“Koshka,” he says to Masha, holding out his arm. “Koshka.”
She takes hold of him again, her small hand with their long fingers on his elbow, her high-heeled boots firm on the concrete. “Here, dedushka,” she says. “There’s a step for you.”
Someone’s put a flight of wooden stairs next to the plinth for him, broad enough so that he can climb to the top without trouble. He looks down at his feet as he walks up, and once on top turns round for a moment, looking down at the crowd. Zhenya is down there, beside the reporter, everyone staring up at him and Masha, up on the plinth. He can feel the sun-warmed metal at his back.
“Dedushka,” Masha says, but he barely hears, because he can hear a different now, an older voice, wordless, made up of grinding gears, roaring engine and clattering caterpillar tracks. An old and familiar voice, dear as a lover’s. And he turns, he turns at last.
And, yes, now he can think of it as the tank, not as a thing, an object, now he’s beside it and it’s the tank again. He reaches out, touches the edge of the track, and walks slowly around the hull towards the front. Masha follows, hesitantly, unwilling to intrude and yet unwilling to leave him alone.
Now he’s standing by the glacis plate, and he bends slowly and runs his hand along the lower slope of the armour, feeling the rough metal where it had been repaired, and now at last he knows her, knows she’s the same tank, that it’s her despite the paint and the new smell. And the tears come to his eyes, remembering.
“Dedushka,” Masha says urgently. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” he says, shaking his head, and it is nothing, just a tear or two. “A Panzerfaust hit right here, do you know? A Hitler Youth boy fired it. I was sitting just inside, there.”
Alyosha shrugs. “We survived, of course. If the boy had taken a moment to aim better, we probably wouldn’t have.” He leans over the glacis to peer at the forward hatch. It’s open for the occasion, and he can see the driver’s seat inside, still the same old seat, with the familiar nick on the backrest. A sniper bullet had done that, before he’d joined the crew, the same bullet which had killed Misha, the previous driver. “I used to be able to climb inside through this hatch,” he says.
Masha laughs, looks at him and at the hatch. “I can’t imagine a...cat going in through that.”
“I did, though. Each time.” He looks up at the turret, and debates trying to climb up there to look in through the hatches. But he’s afraid that if he does, even supposing he can still get up there at all, what he’ll see is what he saw the last time, Tereshchenko’s blood, dry but still splashed over the commander’s cupola and seat. It’s absurd, but he can’t get rid of the feeling.
“The Starshina was killed there,” he says, pointing. “It was just a few days before the end of the war.”
“How?” Masha asks, though she surely knows, he’s certainly told her all this before. “What happened to him, dedushka?”
“A German sniper got him.” He can still remember the moment, the shot lost in the noise of the tank engine, but he heard Tereshchenko gasp suddenly over the intercom, and Sasha the gunner cried out that the sergeant had been hit. And there was the coppery smell of the blood. “He didn’t suffer.”
Then the entire section had poured in fire into the building from which the shot had come, machine gun bullets and shells crashing into the walls, and the German had fallen limply out of a top floor window, dropping like a rag doll down to the street, and when they’d gone to look at the blasted corpse they’d found it was a teenage girl with flaxen braids hanging out from under her helmet. He squeezes his eyes to get rid of the memory. “We never did get the blood out.” He doesn’t know whose blood he means.
“It’s all right, dedushka.”
He wishes he could stay with the tank, crawl inside her and curl up in his old seat, but his legs are growing tired. “Help me, Koshka,” he says.
She knows what he means, and takes his arm and helps him around the tank to the stairs. He takes the bouquet from her, kneels, puts it down next to the track. He remains like that a while. The cameras are busy. Then she helps him down.
“Let’s get to the car,” he says.
The journalist, Fedorov, is back, though. “Can you tell us about at least one battle you were in?” he asks.
Alyosha looks at him, and has a sudden memory, the damaged Panther tank backed into a wrecked building, firing at them from inside, Sasha pumping shell after shell back at the poor doomed German crew. That had been a good tank crew, even though they had been Germans, brave fighters, who’d not given up, even at the end. He suddenly feels much closer kinship to that long dead Nazi tank crew than to the fresh-faced boy holding the microphone and the others behind him, faces behind cameras, people who have never seen any kind of combat and hopefully never will, who think war is what they see on movie screens. “There’s nothing to tell.”
“No.” He holds up a hand. “There’s nothing to tell, I said. We did nothing heroic at all.” He turns away, to his daughter. “Let’s go home, Zhenya.”
They make their way towards the parking lot. Masha has walked away a little distance, speaking into her mobile phone, and she returns now, holding it out, smiling. “Dedushka, someone wants to talk to you.”
“Who?” Frowning, Alyosha takes the rectangle of plastic, and holds it awkwardly to his ear. “Hello?”
“Fishling?” The voice is so familiar, despite the old man’s quaver, and so unexpected that he almost drops the cell. “Hey, fishling.”
“Nurik?” Alyosha’s mouth falls open in astonishment. “Eto ti? Nurik, you old drunkard.”
“Not a drunkard any more.” Akhmetov’s voice, from far Almaty, echoes in Alyosha’s ear as though he’d heard it only yesterday. “Gave up drinking, these three years now.”
“Why on earth?” Alyosha laughs. “I can’t imagine you not drinking. Don’t tell me you got religion in your old age.”
“No, what I got was liver cancer. Thought, fine, I’ll just die and get it over with. After all, I’m over ninety, what do I want to live longer for? But the bloody doctor, a Russian just like you, he cut most of my liver out. And now he says I’m good for years more, and I can’t even drink any longer. You Russians,” Akhmetov adds gloomily. “I always knew you’d do for me in the end.”
“I’m at the old tank, Nurik,” Alyosha says. “It’s a war memorial now, can you imagine?”
“I know, your granddaughter told me. She tracked me down online, she said. I don’t know how these young ones do it, Facebook and things. You’re coming to see me this year, aren’t you?”
“Of course you are. Ask your granddaughter if you don’t believe me.” Alyosha can imagine Akhmetov’s expression, the narrow Kazakh eyes almost disappearing in glee. “It’s all arranged, old fish, so you might as well just sit back and let it happen.”
“And you won’t stop me from drinking?”
“Shut up about drinking, will you. Or I’m going to make you get drunk, in front of your granddaughter, too. And I’m going to tell her about the time you...”
They laugh together, until Akhmetov begins coughing, and has to end the conversation. They’re at the car now, and someone’s waiting for them, a woman, small and stout, with grey hair. She steps forward, diffidently.
“I think you knew my father. He was Fyodor Novikov.” The woman looks shyly at Zhenya and Masha. “He always talked about you.”
“Well...” Alyosha smiles at the woman. She’s got tired eyes, and her dumpy body is covered in clothes that look a little threadbare. “What’s your name?”
“Anastasia,” she says, embarrassed by the name itself, a name too grand for most people these days. But so is Fyodor. “My father told me many times, you were the best tank driver he’d ever met. He said –“ she pauses, blushing.
“He said that if it hadn’t been for you, none of the crew would ever have got back alive from the war. And he said, if ever I had a chance to meet you, I should. So when I heard about this memorial, and that you’d been invited as a guest, I thought I’d just see if you could spare a moment.”
“I’m so glad you came,” Alyosha says, and means it. “I’d love to get to know you better.”
“Come to a cafe with us for tea,” Zhenya offers.
“I’d like to,” the woman replies, “but I don’t have the time.” She looks hurriedly at her watch. “Oh, I have to go. I’ve got to be getting back to work.”
“Come and see us.” Alyosha scrabbles in his pocket, finds a card, and hands it to her. “Come and see us, please.”
She nods, her head moving in abrupt jerks like a bird’s, takes the card and walks quickly away. They watch her go.
Alyosha sighs. For some reason, he feels very tired. “Let’s go home, Koshka,” he says.
As they drive away, he looks back one last time at the tank on the plinth. And suddenly, he sees five men standing in front of it, dressed in tankers’ uniforms and helmets, waving and smiling. Young faces, so very young, and so long ago.
He blinks, and they are gone. It must have been a trick of the light anyway.
Then the car turns the corner, and the tank is lost to view.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
|[The Old Vet And His Tank]|