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Allauddin...Chapter 2

Captain Mackay returns to the house of the enigmatic Mr Allauddin Khan.



II.

There was a door to which I found no key:
There was a veil past which I could not see:
Some little talk awhile of me and thee
There seemed and then no more of thee and me. 

- Omar Khayyam

Two days later Mackay wound his way slowly through the same narrow street;
glancing around from time to time and occasionally pausing to look behind. As he did so he cursed under his breath in a vain attempt to calm himself. He wondered why he was so nervous and kept reminding himself that today was his day off and that he was just out for a stroll. He passed countless tiny shops, each seemingly older, smaller and more overflowing with stock and people than its predecessor. Some of these sold cloth of every conceivable colour, texture and quality. Others were the ancient lairs of silversmiths and gold merchants armed with huge, dark oily pebbles that they expertly used as touch stones. Still other establishments sold beaten brass utensils and cast bronze images of the Hindu pantheon. He paused at one of these to check his watch and noticed a small, dark boy looking up at him. The boy wore a ridiculous English public school tie, a beautiful toothy grin and little else. Clasping his hands together, bowing and grinning even more broadly, the boy said,

“Good afternoon sahib, you want buy?” and gestured elaborately at his wares.

Fascinated, Mackay looked at the statuettes for a moment. Among them he recognised the god of good beginnings, Ganesh, with his elephant’s head, Shiva performing the cosmic dance surrounded by a halo of fire and Vishnu, asleep on the celestial ocean. Next to him was Parvati, Shiva’s consort, the dread goddess Durga astride her tiger, Sarasvati the goddess of the arts and many more besides, whose names and attributes he was unsure of.

“Sahib, you buy. Make present, send London. Cheep, gwartarranna each one!”

Mackay looked at the boy. His deep, dark eyes shone in the afternoon sun. He recalled hearing a crotchety old headmaster of his once say that you could always gauge a child’s intelligence by looking into his eyes. If that was so, then here was a bright boy indeed. He fished in his pocket and drew out a handful of change. Choosing a bright new quarter anna coin, he briefly inspected the serene coppery countenance of the King Emperor, Edward VII upon it and without a word, gave it to the boy.

“Thank you sahib,” said the boy loudly and turned towards the orderly ranks of bronze deities. “You take one.”

But Mackay had walked away and the boy swung round only to see him disappear into the crowd. He stretched the tie he wore and slipped the coin into a hole at the back of it. With satisfaction he felt it slide down to join the rest of the day’s takings. On up the street Mackay went, now passing vendors selling huge dusty potatoes and eventually reaching a shop that was larger than most in the vicinity. From this establishment there emanated a thousand floral and musky scents. The Fragrant Lotus sold perfumes and its wares were advertised with an almost overpowering and ever changing cloud of aromas the like of which Mackay thought, he could not have encountered were he to spend years in the company of a whole host of society women in London, Paris and New York. He turned from the Lotus and his gaze fell upon a dark blue door several yards further up the street. He hesitated for a moment then, inhaling deeply, he walked up to it, grasped the heavy iron knocker and struck three times. Almost immediately, to his surprise, the door opened. There stood Ali Khan, his large dark eyes alight with curiosity, eating a mango and doing his best to catch the juices in his left hand. The yellow stains on his white shirt however clearly indicated his failure. Mackay smiled,

“Good afternoon young man.”

“Good afternoon Captain”, replied Ali confidently, whilst bowing.

“Ah, I wonder if I might have a word with your father?”

“My father is away Captain, I am sorry, but I will inform my mother that you are here. Please come in.”

With that, the boy disappeared into the cool twilight of the house. Mackay stepped through the doorway and vaguely noted that the boy’s attitude towards him had changed.

He was after all still a virtual stranger against all of whom the boy had been warned by his father. He took a few steps forward and thought he could smell the aroma of cardamom and braised lamb coming from within. He pulled his watch out, clicked open the lid and saw that it was two thirty. He had just pocketed the watch again when Ali returned leading his mother. With a mixture of relief and disappointment, Mackay noted that Mrs Khan was a short plump woman, a little taller possibly than her husband and, he estimated, about the same age. She had lustrous black hair, tied in a tight bun underneath a fine pale green headscarf. Her face was round, pleasant and dignified with long eyebrows and a prominent aquiline nose. She could have been the very picture of a Roman matrona of the eastern provinces with her light skin and unostentatious sari. He bowed,

“Mrs Khan, good afternoon.”

In a warm sonorous voice she replied, “Good afternoon Captain Mackay. My husband told me of your previous visit. His Excellency the Viceroy does us a great honour. I must apologise to you though Captain, my husband is away on family business outside of Calcutta. I regret that he shall not return for two days.”

“Do not worry, Mrs Khan. I did not come to see your husband specifically.” With that, the woman’s eyes widened in response to which Mackay clumsily offered,

“I fear that I might have lost a button from my tunic when I was here last, two days ago.”

He then indicated the bottom of his uniform tunic where a jagged white thread hung. Both Ali and his mother peered at the remaining buttons. Unnecessarily he added,

“It’s like these, brass.”

At last Mrs Khan said, “Oh, my dear Captain, I regret that I have found no buttons of brass in the house. Have you seen the Captain’s button Ali?”

“No mamma.”

“I shall ask my daughter Captain, please excuse me.”

As Mrs Khan exited, Mackay looked at Ali. The boy was now holding the large, white oval stone from his mango tightly in one hand, the other having inexplicably lost its reservoir of juice. He smiled up at Mackay mischievously.

“How old are you Ali?”

“Twelve Captain.”

“Do you play the sarod like your father?”

“Yes indeed sir.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

The boy’s expression now changed and Mackay had the momentary impression that he was looking at a younger incarnation of Khan.

“Playing the sarod is an act of love. It is a pathway towards understanding nature.”

Then, with an earnestness, which surprised Mackay, coming from one so young, he added,

“It is a vehicle with which to reach God. One does not simply play the sarod for enjoyment Captain.”

Mackay nodded; impressed by the boy’s intelligence; for it was obvious that he was not merely repeating what his father had taught him. Feeling foolish at having asked such a question he said,

“I play the violin and I was not much older than you when I started back in London, where I’m from. I like to play when I’m off duty.”

Ali’s smile returned. Sweetly he said,

“You will have to come to our house again sir and play your violin in the garden.”

Just then a small girl of seven or eight entered followed by a concerned looking Mrs Khan. Mackay sighed audibly upon seeing her.

“My daughter informs me that she knows nothing of your lost button Captain.”

“I’m sorry to trouble you like this Mrs Khan. I would not have come at all only you see, regimental brass buttons are in short supply in Calcutta at the moment and I was unable to obtain a replacement.”

“I understand.” She replied indulgently.

“I wonder if I might have a look in the room where your husband and I took tea. Please, it will only take a moment.”

There followed a second of awkward silence.

“But of course Captain. Please step this way.”

She then muttered something in Bengali to the children who hurried away and led him out into the courtyard, down the corridor and up the stone steps as before, and at last to the threshold of the pleasantly cool room that overlooked the garden.

“You have a beautiful house Mrs Khan.”

“Thank you Captain.”

She then added enigmatically, “It has brought many unexpected blessings upon us over the years.”

There was another awkward silence until Mrs Khan bowed her head saying,

“Please fell free to look around Captain. I’m afraid I must attend to my kitchen where

I have left the children unsupervised. May I offer you some refreshment?”

“Yes, thank you. A glass of water if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all Captain.”

Nodding briefly, she departed. Mackay at once strode over to the balcony and looked down at the garden. There the marble fountain played its watery music softly, flower petals of many hues had recently been scattered around it and at that instant a warbler alighted upon its rim, scattered the innumerable tiny fish, took a drink and flew off. Mackay followed it and his eye came to rest on the grove of trees where he had seen the tall veiled woman. He now noticed that at its centre there was a large flat stone. Smooth and dark, it rose uniformly from the ground about four or five inches and it was on this that the veiled woman had stood. He saw that flowers had been placed upon the stone in the manner of a grave, along with an earthenware bowl from which protruded several unlit incense sticks. He turned to check that he was alone and noted that the room was as before. From his portrait the venerable old man stared down at him, he again noticed the mother of pearl box and the water pipe and lingering faintly in the air was the same sweet floral fragrance.

He looked once more out onto the garden. Today it looked even more serene and beautiful than when he had first seen it. Nowhere was there a fallen leaf, a weed or a withered bloom or indeed anything to mar its harmony. The trees moved only slightly in the breeze and even so with a seeming languor. A strange, tangible hush pervaded the whole scene before him, as if he were in a dream. The sound of the fountain was like a lullaby, soft and soothing, the branches of the trees were like open arms, stretching to offer him welcome, the shade was like a balm, curing him of the heat and dust and the colours of the flowers seemed at that moment like the tints of a summer sun, setting amidst broken cloud.

He felt warm and safe and strangely euphoric, as if he was about to slide into a deep and restful sleep. His head felt heavy and his eyes began to ache mildly. He steadied himself on the wooden railing of the balcony and for the first time began to half-heartedly resist the gentle assault on his senses. He felt his face begin to tingle as if he were in the vicinity of a warm fire after having been out in a cold wind. Out of the corner of his eye he now thought he could see a face looking at him. It was a long, narrow, pale visage framed in black, like a distorted full moon against a starless sky, a face with dark eye brows and black, unblinking eyes. He thought that it had a mouth too, with full, red lips and possibly the hint of a smile, it was difficult to tell. He tried his best to turn his head and look back at the face but found that this was a nearly impossible task, for he had neither control of his neck muscles nor the energy with which to perform so simple a task. It was likewise impossible to judge whether the face was close to his own or a few feet away, for at that moment he could not remember how to estimate distance, or time for that matter.

Vaguely he wondered how long he had been out on the balcony and for how long the face had been present but the words for the standard units of time and space were simply not at hand. He tried remembering his name and although this did not come immediately his mind slowly found the resources to bring together the correct syllables. His eyes now gradually began to clear and he found that his gaze was directed once again at the garden. He took a deep breath and yawned, the rush of oxygen slowly acting to revive his senses. The face was gone, if it had actually been there at all.

He now turned his head and focussed on the far edges of the garden and on the shaded spaces between the trees. There was no movement at all to be seen and hardly

a sound to be heard.

“Captain.”

Startled, Mackay whirled around to be confronted by a wide-eyed Ali carrying a tray upon which was a jug of water and a drinking glass. He immediately felt foolish, for the boy had spoken quietly, and so now did his best to conceal his embarrassment. Ali put the tray down and silently proceeded to pour Mackay a glass of water. He was obviously a very discreet and restrained child Mackay noted, facts for which he was presently grateful. The boy now turned, beaming and offered him the glass,

“Water for the Captain!”

He accepted it and drank. The water was cool and sweet. He poured another glass and after having drained it asked,

“Ali, apart from yourself, your sister and your parents does anyone else live here, do you have any servants for instance?”

The boy regarded him quizzically but said nothing. He tried again,

“Do you live with any other people?”

Ali smiled, as if it was a question designed to somehow catch him out. At length he said,

“No sir, no other people live here.”

Mackay drank the remainder of the water. He was unaccountably thirsty he noted, again, as if he had just woken from a deep sleep. Ali watched him put the glass down and quietly asked,

“Have you found it?”

“Found what?”

“Why your button sir”, replied the boy slyly.

“Oh, no, hm, I must have lost it in the street. Well, never mind.”

Mrs Khan then appeared at the door, having overheard.

“Your search has been fruitless I fear Captain. Having come all this way too.”

“Yes, I’m sorry to have been a burden to you my dear Mrs Khan.”

“Not at all Captain,” she replied sweetly.

“I will return with specific instructions for your husband regarding the concert. When did you say he should be home?”

“In two days time, late on Saturday, God willing.”

“Splendid, I shall return on Sunday if I may.”

“But of course Captain. You are most considerate.”

Mrs Khan then silently led him to the front door with Ali following,

“Good day to you Mrs Khan. Please give your husband my regards upon his return. Good day Ali.”

“We shall Captain. Good day to you.”

With that she smiled sweetly, bending her head slightly to one side, giving Mackay the impression that his simple courtesies had pleased her and that she genuinely did not mind the intrusion. The blue door then shut and with it, for the moment, vanished any hope of understanding the mystery of the people that lived behind it and their strange serene garden. Mackay once again found himself amidst the noise and chaos of the narrow street but now he strode away with a new feeling of confidence, almost a sense of purpose that he did not possess before. This must have been evident for several of the people that he passed stepped politely aside or bowed at him, offering greetings in Bengali and other dialects that he did not recognise. He nodded in response to many of these until he turned the corner. He then reached into his pocket and drew out a small warm object that immediately caught the sun’s rays. Turning it over he noticed for the first time, since having pulled it off his tunic earlier in the day, that it had writing on the reverse side,

“Firmin and Sons, Birmingham,” he muttered. “Doubtless proud button makers to his majesty, King Edward.”

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