‘Will you take me to the rose garden the day after my birthday?’
Sara had rung up while Murad was struggling to finish a story about a pet pigeon that he’d been told by a friend, but the screen in front of him looked like a puzzle of disconnected words and phrases. The doctor at the fractures clinic had told him that he needed some sunlight; his bones were suffering from staying at home for so long.
‘Yes, mercifully I’m free of the crutch as of yesterday. Let’s meet at 5 on Saturday then,’ Murad replied.
The park was lushly green and festive with floral colours and lightly clad picnicking youngsters in June. Swans and all kinds of ducks and geese were solemnly making their way across the lake, or occasionally soliciting some passer-by for a bit of bread.
After forty minutes, Sara and Murad sat on a bench to catch up with their news of the last few weeks. Three laughing boys went by in a battered yellow canoe. Spotting a cigarette in Murad’s hand, one of them waded ashore to ask him for a light. Murad pulled out his lighter from a pocket. The lad lit up, cheerfully thanked him, and splashed off to join his friends in the yellow canoe.
After two months on his back with a broken leg and another month of hobbling around in a boot and with a crutch, Murad was lazily breathing in the flower scents and the sunshine.
‘I wish I could spend my entire life in parks and gardens,’ Sara was flushed in the evening sunlight.
‘But you have such a beautiful garden!’
‘We tire easily at this age! And then this leg of yours…’
They crossed over to the nearby restaurant and joined the queue to buy themselves coffee, which they took to a bench in a leafy corner of the café’s courtyard. When they rose, the first shadows of evening were falling on the grass.
‘Oh, I nearly forgot the cats! (Sara had two pet cats; once there were four.) ‘They must be famished. Time to go home.’
When Murad rose, his good right leg was stiffer than the left. Sara stretched out both hands; Murad took one of them lightly, and, resting the other firmly on the arm of the bench, heaved himself up.
‘Remember LM’s paintings are on show next month at the Serpentine,’ Sara said: ‘the first in twenty-five years! Everyone’s forgotten her. And my book about her is being reissued, too.’
Murad saw Sara onto her bus by Madame Tussaud’s and, humming a folk tune and dragging his bad leg a little, walked to Baker Street station. He put his hand in his trouser pocket to retrieve his pass and found his wallet was missing. He checked the other pocket and then both back pockets too.
But no, it was gone.
‘Let’s go to the opening of the LM show at the Serpentine,’ Sara had said last week.
Sara had once been a very talented painter, but had tired of the art world at the height of her career, and taken to growing flowers and planting trees instead. She still taught art twice a week, and reviewed exhibitions for a left wing weekly.
But this morning she called to say that she had broken her wrist and couldn’t make it. ‘What happened?’
‘Oh, I came home to find Cicero running around with a dead sparrow in his bloody teeth. I chased after him and after a few minutes’ struggle I managed to make him let go of the sparrow but he’d broken the poor bird’s neck’….
‘So you broke your arm…’
‘No, listen! I decided to bury the poor bird. If not my cats, some other animal would get at the poor thing. There’s a family of foxes just beyond the edge of my garden these days, and at night they make such a noise that the cats start caterwauling too and I lock the kitchen door so they won’t get out. I dug a grave under the apple tree and buried the sparrow, wrapped up in a silk scarf, but as I knelt down to put a stone on the grave so none of the animals would dig it up I slipped, I don’t know how, and I fell backwards and put out my right arm to break the fall. I fractured my wrist in several places… My daughter’s brought me to Oxford, I’m going to stay here and let her look after me for a few days.’
There’s a text from a friend in Cyprus, on Murad’s phone: Johnson’s our new PM! He’s going to chase out all the Europeans…. next, it’s going to be the turn of us Muslims. But when?’…
Murad’s homesickness becomes more acute; he’s been away from Karachi six months, and misses the sea and the sand and the bougainvillea and the camels, and most of all his friends. They complain about taxes and rising prices and camel bones and blood in the lanes after ritual sacrifices, and the flooding after unexpected rainfall… and yet they get on with their lives and relish whatever each day has to give them.
He puts on his shoes and steps out to take some photographs of trees and water on his phone. The water in the canal mirrors leaves which are different shades of gold in the sunny haze. But the rose on their bushes, in full bloom two days ago, have withered today. Their yellowed petals are scattered on piles of trash and withered leaves.
Hey BoJo, twin of Trump and Modi’s shadow brother, you’ve turned July into autumn, now even the summer roses rot in your reign….
Dust and pollen, like ash, makes his eyes itch. He makes his way home.
‘I went to the eye doctor yesterday,’ Murad told Sara. He said I needed surgery on both eyes. 14 hours on the right eye, under general anaesthesia.’
‘I woke up. Rubbing my eyes. Thinking I wouldn’t be able to see, and I really couldn’t. Maybe it was dark, or maybe the sky was still overcast after yesterday’s storm. I slept for a while, a restless sleep, and woke up to lightning and thunder and heavy rain…’
‘The after-effects of LM’s show!’ Sara laughed.
Murad had finally gone with Sara to the LM exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery yesterday. It was Friday, and their last chance to see the paintings together. The gallery was crowded, but Murad was so taken by the artworks on display that he was barely conscious of other presences around him.
Several of the canvases in the first room took up an entire wall: blurred images in powerful shades of purple, red, yellow, midnight blue. They had titles like ‘Exile’, ‘Anomie’, and ‘Devastation’.
‘These were painted during the Vietnam war, I think,’ Sara said. Her eyes were pensive; she was stroking her right arm in its sling with her left hand.
Murad had read in Sara’s brief monograph that LM was born in Kenya and had abandoned an art degree in England to go and live in the US with her husband. She’d become politicised there and taken part in anti-war demonstrations in the 60s. In 1970, she separated from her husband and went away to travel, teach and paint in south and southeast Asia. In the late 70s she lived in London, where her daughter worked, for three or four years, before moving to a remote seaside village in Sussex, where she stayed alone and was almost forgotten.
‘Lucilla came to London to take part in every political protest that mattered to her,’ Sara said. ‘She was nearly 83 when she told me she’d come to stay with me during the demonstration against the war in Afghanistan. She was walking on two crutches but was determined to march with us. I’d just started working on the book about her… but she died in her sleep two days before she was meant to get here. And then I went to her wake, where we sang and danced, as she would have wanted… nothing solemn or lugubrious.’
They stood in silence in front of an untitled painting which from a distance had appeared to be a river at high tide. But up close Murad saw that what he’d seen as a river was a panel of the piled-up bodies of eighteen or nineteen youths – writhing, jerking bodies with black streams spurting from their lips and from their eyes.
‘Painted after the massacres of Sabra and Shateela,’ Sara murmured.
That morning Murad had heard from three of his Kashmiri friends. Two of them had left Kashmir after spending the Ramadan holidays and Eid with their families; Asghar was in Qatar, Murtaza in Aligarh. Kamil was in London; he’d asked Murad for a story he’d sent a while ago for Murad to include in the Kashmir issue of a journal he was guest editing. Kamil wanted to read it at a protest gathering at the university where he taught, but he’d lost the file and his copy of the journal. None of them were able to reach their families; telephone lines had been cut off four or five days ago. And as they stood silently in front of the painting, Murad was beleaguered by images of Kashmiri youths with eyes wounded by pellets in the events of 2016.
‘Let’s go to the next room.’ Sara touched his elbow. ‘From the last decade of Lucilla’s life; what she saved from all paintings she did after the first gulf war. She had macular degeneration by then, but she was still working constantly.’
They seemed to have entered a wood or a wild garden. Trees, the dense green of leaves and ponds, birds on branches, fish in ponds, tropical flowers – patterns of life in the womb of abstraction. The smallest painting was of a very pale green, shrouded in a whitish mist that only appeared when you were so close that you might even take it for a trick of the light. It was titled ‘Eyes’.
The last picture in the room was half blue and half white, with a broad yellow ray dividing the blue and white spaces like a doorway to sky or sea. In the bottom left hand corner of the canvas the artist had painted, in lower case letters, the words: ‘before life, death.’
And there the exhibition ended. Sara sighed: Murad felt, along with her and all their absent companions, a lifetime’s gleanings of disappointments and despair, scattered shards of hope and gathered up fragments of happiness.
‘Let’s go’, Murad said. ‘My head’s reeling and my leg’s stiff from walking around and standing so much.’
It was 6 pm when they left the gallery. The rain had darkened the late summer sky to a November shade of greyish black. They stepped over puddles. Neither of them was carrying an umbrella.
‘No point in having a drink in this ghastly weather and it’s too early to eat,’ Sara said. ‘But the cats must be hungry. When do you plan to leave for Karachi?’
‘Oh, another three weeks’, Murad said. ‘Shall we meet before I go?’
They left the park. Sara turned left to catch her bus to East London. Murad crossed over to Exhibition Road and limped down the pavement that would take him straight down to the entrance of South Kensington Station.
Translated and abridged by the author from his original Urdu story, ‘Zindagi se pehle’
For Mary Flanagan