My sister calls me from Birmingham. Suddenly. Out of the blue. We haven’t spoken for months and here she is at the end of the phone.
“Pikku, I am coming to London to stay with you. I have problems at home.”
Her voice quivers as though she’s speaking under water.
She pauses before continuing. “Are you able to look after me?”
I know what she’s asking. Can I support her? What could I say? She’s my younger sister and she needs me.
“Of course, Bubbly,” I reply. “Come and stay for as long as you want. I have a good job and I make enough.”
She lets out a long sigh of relief. “Thank God for that. I know London is a costly city and I was worried that you wouldn’t have a proper job.”
I knew what she meant by “proper”. A job like my father’s, sitting in a big office with important files on the desk and a secretary busy taking notes.
“I have a proper job,” I said, warily.
“I knew you would land on your feet one day. I am so proud of you,” she said, as though I am a bird that has finally laid a golden egg.
Bubbly has been here for several days. I’m trying to distract her from her constant requests to visit me at work. It’s a game that’s becoming tedious and worrying.
“I would love to look around your office,” she says again, like a child clamouring to visit a toyshop. She calls it that even though I’ve explained that I work in a museum and although I have responsibilities, my duties aren’t strictly professional. One day, someday soon, I will have to tell her the truth about my modest job that can barely pay the bills but for now I’m enjoying basking in the glow of her admiration.
On Sunday she declares it’s the perfect day for a visit. It is summer and it isn’t raining. We would get off the tube at Waterloo, cross the metal bridge that bows beneath the weight of hurrying feet and begin our walk, strolling along the pavement that runs beside the river, not talking, but enjoying the sunshine warming our faces. Peace in our souls.
Wear something colourful for a change, I almost say to Bubbly, not your usual uniform of black sweatshirt and leggings but I don’t want to disrespect her sorrow, the sorrow of a woman who has lost her husband. Bubbly is the baby of the family. When I look at her, I don’t see a woman with greying hair and sloping shoulders who sucks in her cheeks when she is thinking hard, I see a plump-faced child in a lacy frock doing somersaults in our parents’ garden in Kampala. The servants, Igbo, Homer, even old Mwamba the gardener are in a circle around her. They clap their hands and sway their heads, singing out her name as she flips over and over and rolls down the hill. The wind stirs the trees so that the white and pink flowers of the Coral tree fall over her head like a blessing.
Much has changed. Kampala is now just a name on a map. Today, Bubbly is a widow who has left her family home in Birmingham because she’s fallen out with her son and his wife. It happens. One minute she is happily settled, the next minute she is on my doorstep, suitcase in hand. She has enrolled for an accountancy course through the Open University.
Bubbly is the clever one of the family. Me, I’m just a simple man. “A dunce who will never amount to much. A simpleton,” my father snarled when I didn’t get the grades to get into college in England.
Even on his deathbed, he’d turned his head to Bubbly, gripped her fingers and promised her she would fly high. Bless your son too, my mother cried, pushing me towards his slowly dying face, but the light in his eyes dimmed and the doctor hushed us into silence.
Our Sunday afternoon walk soon brings us to the museum. There it stands, a concrete block that hugs the curve of the river’s lip like a mole. The swollen white clouds floating above are mirrored in its shiny glass panes. Bubbly can’t make up her mind whether it’s beautiful or ugly.
“Maybe it’s ugly in a beautiful way, bhaiya,” she says, eyes narrowed, her fingers drumming her chin.
I told you she is the smart one.
“It used to be a power station,” I explain. “They want it to reflect its heritage, that’s why it’s so brutal looking.” I had stolen these lines from the visitors’ pamphlets that lay in a pile at the museum entrance.
Bubbly nods her head, impressed. “Now, let’s see your room. I bet you have a big desk and an Apple computer.” Her voice rises in excitement.
“You think I have such a computer. And a big office?” I touch her hand and my eyes almost well up.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t you, Pikku? Never underestimate yourself.” There she goes, wagging her finger like a schoolteacher. I say it’s too complicated to get us into the museum. She will have to get a pass, sign forms. “Let’s leave it for another day.” She nods and pats my hand understandingly.
“Whenever you are ready,” she says, as we head back.
I am so lucky to have her as my sister. But the truth is I am ashamed. Ashamed to tell her I am just a humble guard who patrols the large rooms.
I was lucky to get the job without any qualifications. Unlike other men of my age, I don’t possess much but I am satisfied. I call myself the guardian angel of these paintings. Every day from nine to five, I stand at the door, watching the crowds shuffle past paintings, pause, shift, clear their throats, take furtive photos on their mobile phones until I walk across to them and warn them in a whisper loud enough for the room to hear, “No flash photography please.” I press my index finger against my mouth and shake my head but always with a smile. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
I am too busy to notice the paintings, much like a harassed mother with her brood of children, too busy head counting to notice the odd snivelling or tummy cramp. Instead, I stare at the visitors. They arrive, heads strapped to their audio guides, hands gripping phones, brochures, notebooks.
On Monday mornings, we get a briefing from the boss. “Watch out for the rucksacks and the prams,” he shouts.
Single young men who linger too long before a particular painting, or whose hands dive into their pockets and spring out a camera are dangerous. I must walk over to them, my navy blue uniform announcing its authority, the walkie-talkie itching in my hand ready to leap into action. The boss comes close and jabs my shoulder with his thumb. “You, you straw head. Are you listening? Don’t start daydreaming about your Banglaland or wherever you come from, OK? Keep your eyes open.” His breath stinks of bacon. The other guards giggle and I laugh along with them. He means well. These paintings cost millions and I am their caretaker. My chest swells with pride.
Four years of service and I have seen them all. Rich, poor, the down at heel who use the museum to shelter from the cold and the lonely playing mating games within these walls. There are regulars who are almost friends. We exchange smiles and a wave. There’s the mother who comes every Friday afternoon with her teenage daughter, apple cheeked and strong limbed. Arm in arm they stride from picture to picture, talking in excited whispers. It must be nice to have such a close mother daughter bond.
Then there is the Japanese gentleman who comes in a suit and tie, probably works in a bank. He carries a briefcase and a camera and pauses before each painting, looks in my direction, gives a slight bow of the head and takes the shot. I can’t really shout at him because he’s so gentle so I choose that moment to bend down and tie my shoelace or whisper a quick greeting to my colleague, Reginald, who is patrolling the next room.
“How is it going, bro?” I ask.
“I feel like a Pope in a brothel,” he replies, laughing. Reginald is from Guyana but has Indian blood swimming somewhere deep inside him. For years, he’s been pestering me to invite him home. “Man, I want your curries, your roti meat,” he says, his voice wheedling with want. Maybe one of these days, I will bring him some of Bubbly’s samosas but no way am I bringing him home to meet her. He has dirty eyes.
I wonder why people visit a museum. What do they want to see as they shuffle timidly past and stand respectfully in front of the paintings, eyes devouring the colour, squinting at the labels, looking for meaning.
Is it something they can’t find inside the arms of their loved ones or outside in the parks or in the temples and churches?
Bubbly has cooked my favourite childhood dish, luwombo with smoked chicken and plantain leaf. She shakes her head when I tell her how the people stand with open mouths in front of paintings of dead, pink and white kings and queens.
“Why should they rule us even after they are gone?” I ask her.
She says people are always looking for leaders to hold their hand, even if they end up with their hands chopped off. “Just like Big Daddy Idi Amin.”
We say the name together and start grinning even though what he did to us was not very funny.
‘I bet you’re a good boss. A good leader to your team. I wish father was alive and he could see you,’ she says, squeezing my arm. I fall silent.
Sometimes the museum turns into a party place for the rich and the important. A quiet hush descends on the museum on such nights, the lights dim and smartly dressed young women arrive, their arms filled with white roses and trays of tea lights. There is the rustle of stiff white table cloths swung over the trestle tables that are wheeled in for the occasion. I offer to help but the young Polish men say they’ve got it under control. Then the speeches begin. It’s a pleasant drone that I don’t even attempt to follow but some words stick out – abstract is one and sensory impact another. I will look them up in Bubbly’s dictionary. My eyelids turn heavy as the voices carry on and to keep myself awake I try to spot the Indians. The men fiddle with their mobile phones and the women give me a glance and then look away, ashamed that one of their own is doing such a menial job. Once, an Indian lady had carelessly dropped her shawl. I scooped it up and gave it to her.
“Yeh lijiye...” I used my politest Hindi as I offered it to her but she was having none of it. Chin tilted in defiance and without so much as a thank you, she snatched it from me.
Reginald and I always volunteer to do double duty on such nights. It’s an easy way to earn overtime, watch the rich as they eat and drink.
“Like bloody monkeys in a zoo,” Reginald whispers as he walks past me to take up his spot.
The girls glide around, holding titbits in decorative papier-mâché bowls. My stomach rumbles. How is it that the rich are never hungry?
These gatherings bring back the old days in Kampala when the autumn breeze had shooed away the last of the summer heat and the red dust on the roads had settled down. Father threw dinner parties for the Very Important Parasites or VIPs. That’s what he called them. The house hummed with the sound of running feet and moving hands, and mother shouting out orders to the servants in her thin reedy voice.
“Make sure you grate the ginger, not cut it in such thick slices. Is the mutton already cooked? Where is the lace table cloth?”
Her voice travels across the lost years to find me on such evenings and I am grateful for the memory.
I would watch the ministers pull up in their long, sleek, white cars with flashing lights on the roof. Just as I was about to run to the gate to greet them, father’s strong arms swooped me up.
“Where do you think you’re going? Stay quiet in your room. Don’t you dare come out and embarrass me, you dunce.” Bubbly welcomed the guests instead of me, reciting her nursery rhymes without forgetting a single word. The ministers patted her head and said she was a clever child.
“There is a new exhibition opening in your office,” Bubbly says one day. “They’re having a major exhibition of an Indian painter. I read about it in the newspaper. He is called Atul Ghose.”
I feel my muscles tense when she says this. I’m supposed to know such things.
“Oh yes...of course.” Like a parrot, I repeat what I’ve heard the curator say. I may have a slow mind, but I also have quick ears.
Bubbly gives me a hug, her head with its thin, sparse hair pressed against my chest. “My clever, clever brother. I am so proud of you,” she whispers, her quiet eyes beaming through her steel framed spectacles.
When I come back after the weekend, the walls of the museum are plastered with bold new posters. They show an Indian man with a goatee beard and sallow, aubergine-coloured smoker’s lips. Atul Ghose, the Enigma of Parting. Portraits of an Age. That’s what the posters say. I take out my little notebook and jot down, enigma. One more word to add to my vocabulary. Seeing that Indian face with its brown sunken cheeks and the inky shadows under the eyes makes me happy. I don’t know why. It just does. My chest puffs out in pride when Reginald and I sit together in the canteen for lunch.
“Say Reginald, can you name me some painters from Guyana?” I ask him innocently.
He shakes his head. “Nope cannot. This art business is a white man’s game. Empty bellies have no time to paint.” His face looks momentarily sad and then clears up. “It’s all bullshit anyway, man.”
“We have painters in India,” I correct him. “In fact if you care to look at the walls rather than scratching your balls, you will see one. Atul Ghose is his name.”
“Is that so?” Reginald says. Eyes round like the moon. “There are so many billions of you shits anyway, one of them was bound to end up with a paint brush.” He shrugs dismissively and turns to his egg-mayo sandwich.
The morning of the opening, I make sure my uniform jacket is finely pressed. The room is already buzzing by the time I arrive for my shift and take up my position. Clever types in black walk backwards and forwards, eyes narrowed into slits, punching furiously into their iPads and mobiles. The crowds finally thin in the late afternoon. It’s been a bright day and sunlight steals through the protective blinds of the museum windows and brightens the room. I leave my post by the door and walk closer to the paintings. Let’s see what this Atul Ghose is about.
The beauty. It stabs me right in the heart. Men and women crowd the canvas, colourful like a peacock’s plumage, deep in embrace. The night above them is sprinkled with a dusting of stars. Cows mew at their reflection in a pond flooded with lotus flowers. I read the title underneath the painting, Krishna’s love tryst with his gopis. Tryst, I jot in my book. I move to the next painting of a naked couple, arms entwined, sitting on a swing made of woven flowers. A dog prowls nearby, nibbling their toes. My face grows hot in embarrassment. Has the painter no shame? I look around, furtive. No one is watching, so I extend my finger and lightly brush it against the woman’s exposed breast.
I find it difficult to sleep that night.
“It’s that green tea you gave me,” I shout to Bubbly through my open door. “Rubbish,” she snorts. “It must be the beer you have been drinking with your colleagues.”
She means Reginald of course. Her bedroom is opposite mine, and we sleep, our single beds positioned so we can see each other’s faces as we lie in bed, chatting until our eyelids grow heavy with sleep. I dream of elephants that night and of young bare-breasted girls dancing under a canopy of stars. When I wake up next day, the day is flat and grey like a dead fish.
Atul Ghose is a success. I turn up for work and there is already a queue snaking past the museum shop, right up to the cafeteria. The crowds can’t get enough of his blue-skinned Krishna and dancing ladies.
“Well done on getting him,” Bubbly says one evening. She has been reading up on the exhibition. I wish she would focus on her accountancy papers, but no, she has to ask me a thousand questions about Atul Ghose. I tell her how he lives all alone on a farm in France and walks barefoot everywhere.
“I would like to see his paintings,” Bubbly says.
“That’s not possible. All the tickets are sold out.” I don’t want her to see me in my guard’s uniform.
Her mouth turns down in disappointment and then reshapes into a smile.
“Don’t worry about it, Pikku,” she says, tenderly. “Maybe you can get me the catalogue.”
I look at her closely, trying to read her face like a map. How much does she know? This would be the perfect time to tell her about my job. Tell her that I don’t sit behind a big desk shouting orders. But, a voice inside me whispers, Don’t tell her, she will be disappointed. I decide to bring Atul Ghose home to her. I will borrow the painting of Krishna and Gopis show it to her and replace it. Simple. No more pestering, only pride in her brother.
I tell no one at work about my genius plan. The hours seem to drag slowly that day and I can hear the drumbeat of my heart. At a certain point in the evening, the lights dim and the PA system coughs into life, urging the visitors to gather their belongings and leave because the museum is about to shut. Footsteps start retreating like waves leaving the shore. And then there is silence. I walk up to the painting, pull out a pair of scissors from my pocket. Snip. It is done. The painting falls into my arms. I tuck it under my armpit and begin the walk to the exit.
There is noise, a wailing whistle and flashing lights.
“What the fuck are you doing, man?” Reginald shouts as he spots me.
I begin running.
Excerpted with permission from ‘A Single Man’ by Reshma Ruia from May We Borrow Your Country, The Whole Kahani, Linen Press.