A Rose is Rose
By Georgina Bruce
21 December 2009
In all of her components a rose
is rose, in every petal she is complete
as this continent's outline is always
the whole of its coast in each inch
and the slightest wisp of mist
the biggest skyfilling cloud, so
a rose right down to the tiniest
outline of every single petal
and the space suffused with molecules of scent
between these petals is that rose
and does not know it.
—Esther Jansma, from What It Is: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, Tarset 2008, English translations by Francis R. Jones)
Sashi is painting the soles of the King's feet when the two Indian elephants are led up Cape Hill. She hears the soft calls of the mahouts, speaking the old language that only they and the beasts understand, and she runs to the window of the King's attic flat.
"Don't stand up," she warns. She has been painting the royal soles for the last two hours.
"Is it them?" asks the King.
They are coming slowly along the high street, under the yellow streetlights and the festive coloured bulbs, their big feet slapping quietly on the tarmac. Their sheer, unbelievable size fills Sashi with a feeling of awe. It was smart of the King to claim the zoo, and kind, too: animals always suffer in a war.
Sashi has a childhood memory of the zoo, and of her mother's hands, stained orange from henna, brushing hair out of her face, and a shabby blue pool where listless penguins waited for fish. Sashi's mother held her against her hip and stood on the edge of the elephant enclosure, calling out to the animals, saying "sorry, sorry." Sashi doesn't even remember what language her mother spoke in that day. It could have been Urdu or Punjabi or English or perhaps it was in the elephant tongue itself, or even just in Sashi's mind.
That is her only memory of her mother, and it was a long time ago. The wars came, people died, cities were destroyed or abandoned. All that was left were the places nobody had ever cared about, like the higgledy-piggledy streets where Sashi had grown up, houses where English was never spoken, where the only whites were from Poland or Lithuania.
Sashi knows that elephants have long memories. She wonders if they remember her mother, calling out to them, waving her hennaed hands. The elephants are so big that the chief mahout, Badhri, sitting on the shoulders of one, could almost touch Sashi's outstretched hand as they pass the attic window. If she wasn't in the King's bedroom, Sashi would grin and wave at the mahout. Instead, she gives him a tight little smile and he acknowledges her with a barely perceptible nod.
"Here they come," says Sashi.
"Good," says the King. "You know, I really wanted elephants."
"And you always get what you want." Sashi turns back towards the bed. The King is lying on his stomach, waving his painted feet in the air.
"Are you going to paint them for me?" asks the King.
Sashi is already seeing them: bright and bejewelled, their ears criss-crossed with intricate patterns. There are the symbols for a wedding, and the signs from the old countries and the motifs of the ancestors. There are coral-like fractals, whorls and flowers. There are galaxies and supernova.
"You're already painting them, in your mind," observes the King.
Sashi doesn't answer. She draws her brush precisely along his Achilles tendon, making a green shoot, a vivid leaf darting up from his heel. Quickly, she strokes the soft warm skin at the back of his knee and he, turning on his hip, picks up her left hand and presses it to his chest.
It is possible that the King is looking at Sashi's eyes, but she is staring at the back of her hand. On her nails are painted miniature reproductions of old postcards. On her thumbnail is the Aya Sofia, and on the little finger, the blue and orange pyramids at Giza. The index finger has Brighton Pier, complete with a microscopic flock of seagulls; the middle finger, white sands and a palm tree; the ring fingernail has a higgledy-piggledy Amsterdam street at twilight. The other hand's fingernails are blank: Sashi is right handed.
"What about my bride's elephant?" asks the King.
Sashi shuts her eyes. "Rajanigandha. It means a flower that blossoms at night. She will ride on the most beautiful beast," she whispers.
"Good, Sashi. And you will paint my bride in flowers."
"Honeysuckle and sweet pea and rose."
"I want to kiss you, Sashi. Come here."
Sashi shakes her head. In her mind she sees the riotous garden she will paint on his bride, and the questing bees and butterflies she will paint on the King. She sees how the bee will dart to the honeysuckle, and the sweet pea open and the rose encircle, and how the butterfly will flit to the bright petals and suck the nectar.
It is Sashi's job to think of these things, and not to mind. Kissing the King only makes her job more difficult, and Sashi is a professional. She smiles, puts on her jacket and boots, stuffs her hands deep into her pockets. But later, at home, Sashi paints her mouth with the King's kisses. She paints her body with his caresses; the cool blue finger trails along her thighs, and the bursting hot pink bites on her stomach, and the crimson blush of his tongue between her legs. Afterwards she picks herself up from the floor, showers, and sits down clean at her drawing table.
When the telephone rings, I am in the kitchen watching coffee dripping into the pot. I'm not sure how long I've been doing this, it could be seconds or hours, but anyway, the ringing phone brings me back.
Ravi is calling about the illustrations for the book. They aren't ready, and I think he must know this, but still he's calling. I cradle the phone against my shoulder, leaving my hands free to draw invisible shapes on the countertop, which is what I do when I'm nervous.
Speaking to Ravi makes me nervous. The book makes me nervous. Ravi tells me I paint the pictures he sees in his mind when he writes, and that, too, makes me nervous. I don't think he knows how much it troubles me. It is a terrible responsibility, a burden even, and with this new story I feel it more than ever. Whenever I sit down to paint it, I feel a great gnawing pain in my stomach.
"This story's making me hungry," I say. "Were you hungry when you wrote it?"
Ravi laughs. "Let's see what you've done," he says. "The sketches. Anything."
"I don't think so," I say. "I'm really not ready."
He says, "Come on, Sarah." Then he says, "Have dinner with me."
I know I should say yes. I should have dinner with him. He's supposed to be my friend, after all. But he isn't, not really, because we had sex once. It was in his office, drunk on champagne after we sold our first book. We were supposed to be celebrating, but it was angry sex, drawing blood and curses. What were we were so angry about? I remember how Ravi's fingers left bruises all over me that stayed for weeks; I kept pressing them to make them hurt again.
"I can't," I say. "I have to get on with the work."
"I thought you were hungry."
I don't trust myself to say anything. Ravi has long, very long, black hair that he keeps wound up in a red turban. He has a black beard, so black it is almost blue, and hair everywhere on his body. And plum coloured nipples I bruised with my teeth. I am not supposed to remember this.
Eventually I say, "Are you at home? Where's Gurinder?"
"She's away," says Ravi. "Lawyer conference in Belfast."
"Well," I say.
"Ravi? I've got a lot to do. I better get on with it."
He doesn't even say goodbye, just hangs up.
Face of Glory stands still to be painted, while Badhri feeds her sweet buns, and strokes her trunk, and whispers to her in the old language, for comfort. But the truth is that Face of Glory likes the feel of the paintbrush sweeping against and pushing on her skin. It feels very pleasant to be touched so comprehensively, and she sways ever so slightly from side to side.
The elephant is to carry the princess through the streets at the head of the wedding procession. The universe unfolds across Face of Glory's back, in silver waves up her legs, bursting into vivid life upon her head. Scenes of love tapestry over her gentle flanks. She shivers when Sashi picks up her grey ears and brushes the paint onto them, into the silky creases and over the sensitive ridges at the edge, where they are slightly crenellated and dry.
Moon on Water waits at the side of the pen. Pink and orange flowers weave down his trunk. His skin is patchworked with stories: intricate and overlapping, like scenes from a picture book. Moon on Water is to carry the King.
Sashi is absorbed by the meeting of paint and skin, the edges of colours and the precision of the shapes. She never speaks when she paints, but Badhri watches closely and knows when to move, when to bring water, which way to step when she looks up from her work. Sashi does not notice this attentive support: it would irritate her. She prefers to work alone.
Do you remember my mother? Sashi silently asks the questions as she paints. Do you remember her orange hands? She waved to you and called out. Can you remember? Sashi paints a tall, broad, smiling woman holding a child against her hip, one hand raised in the air. On the hand, Sashi paints a tiny henna-coloured elephant being painted by an even smaller woman. She would remember you, thinks Sashi.
Later, when Sashi's eyes start to hurt, they take a break, sitting outside on the grass. Badhri offers Sashi some rice and pickles, but she shakes her head. She cannot eat.
"Not hungry?" says Badhri.
"Tired," says Sashi, plucking the grass from the soil. "After the wedding, I can rest. Maybe I'll come and help you with the elephants."
Badhri scoops up the rice in his fingers and loads it into his mouth, so that he cannot speak.
"What?" asks Sashi.
Badhri shakes his head. There has been news. The mahouts have been whispering, talking, even openly expressing their anger. But Badhri pretends not to know.
"This good painting," he says. "Very beautiful."
"Come on," says Sashi, "everyone's talking. I'm not stupid. Tell me."
Badhri shakes his head, "Every wedding very busy. Every person work."
"Right. Well. Fuck you, Badhri," says Sashi, turning her back to him, then a moment later turning back. "And learn to speak Urdu, will you? Or English at least. All you can speak is elephant and it's fucking pathetic."
She turns her face up to the weak afternoon sun, closes her eyes. Badhri watches, his eyes lingering on her pink lips, which are slightly open. She is blushing.
He doesn't know how to tell her that after the wedding procession, the elephants are to be shot and eaten. It can't be helped. Times are hard and the King cannot afford to keep feeding these two massive beasts. It is a waste, and they cannot afford to waste a thing.
I've met Gurinder, Ravi's wife, a few times. We've sat together in restaurants. After I slept with Ravi, I painted her over and over again, filled sketchbooks with her image. It gave me the illusion that I was, in some way, a part of their relationship. I wanted to think that it meant something, I suppose.
Now I'm painting her again.
It is a hotel bar: modern, expensive, anonymous. Gurinder sits on a high bar stool, tapping her fingers on the counter top. She drinks red wine and her long hair swishes across her back as she turns to the barman and asks for a refill.
I draw thought clouds bubbling up from her head: I won't sleep tonight. I never can sleep in a strange bed.
I paint this, and then I put the sketchbook away, slamming the drawer shut so hard that it flies back open again. I'm angry with myself. This isn't the work I'm paid to do. This isn't what I should be thinking about.
Ravi's words are written on thin white paper, in a stack above my drawing table. I grab the paper and turn back to the storyboards, ignoring the pain in my stomach. After I've worked, then I can eat.
Sashi paints Rajanigandha a jungle across her slim back. Over her high brown breasts she draws cerise and orange hothouse flowers, and on her stomach she weaves a trail of gardenia, honeysuckle, iris, and roses, all the way down to her cunt, which Sashi paints with her fingertips.
Rajanigandha cries, her head held forward over her body, her arms held out stiffly from her sides as the paint dries on her skin.
"Don't be scared," says Sashi.
"I'm not scared," says Rajanigandha. "I'm hungry."
"Didn't you eat today?" asks Sashi, knowing that she had.
"I'm hungry," insists the girl.
Sashi drags over her large bag with all her paints in, and opens it. Inside there are two sweet buns for the elephants. She tears off small pieces and holds them to Rajanigandha's mouth so that she can eat. Only when she has eaten both buns does she stop crying and looks up at Sashi with a sly smile.
"Paint me again," says Rajanigandha.
"No," says Sashi. "Once is enough. Stand still or you'll spoil it."
"Do you think the King is handsome?" asks Rajanigandha.
Sashi daren't look at the girl. She squeezes paint from the bristles of a brush.
"I suppose," she says.
"But you're too old for him," says Rajanigandha.
Sashi laughs. "Thirty isn't old."
"Poor Sashi. I shall give you a present," says Rajanigandha. "What would you like?"
Sashi shakes her head, smiles. She would like an elephant. She would like Face of Glory and Moon on Water, and she would like to keep them and learn their language and paint the history of the universe on their flanks. But she is old enough to know not to ask for things she cannot have.
It's three o'clock in the morning when I finish painting. I can't even look at the canvases. I am starving. I don't think I've ever been this hungry before. When was the last time I ate? I can't remember. I put on boots and a big jumper over my pyjamas and go into the street.
Everywhere is open, lights on, music jangling out from tinny speakers over doors. I head to The Rajah, my stomach clenching like a fist. I sit down at a table near the window and the waiter brings me plates of spiced bread and hot lime pickle, bright red chicken and rice, muddy spinach. He sits down next to me, watching me eat. I didn't invite him, but I cannot stop him. All my attention is on getting the food inside me.
"You like to eat," he says.
I scowl. The waiter waves at the cook. He brings more food. Spiced lamb, kebabs, chilli pickle, melted aubergine. I eat and eat, stuffing the food into my mouth, wiping the dishes with bread, licking my plate, while the waiter and the cook watch me. The waiter laughs and laughs.
"Hungry girl!" he says. "I like this!"
The more he giggles, the angrier I get, and I want to punch his laughing face, but all I can do is keep eating.
At last I stop, but even with all that food inside me, I still feel like I'm going to float away. Images from the book drift past my eyes, and Ravi's long hair floats up around him in the bath, and my fingernails are painted in miniature postcard scenes. Did I paint that? Then the waiter touches my shoulder and I open my eyes and realise that my face is resting on the table.
"Sleeping," says the waiter.
"They eat the elephants," I say.
He laughs. "Even hungry girls like you can't eat elephants."
"No, you don't understand," I say.
The waiter walks me back to my flat, his arm through mine. I try to tell him about the story, but he doesn't listen.
"They eat the elephants," I say, again. I can hear myself slurring the words, like a drunk.
He pushes me back against the door, pressing his thin body over mine. He is light and fine, like a ghost. His skin is very soft and smells of sweated garlic. I push him away and run into the building, up the stairs and into my flat. In the bathroom I am sick repeatedly, until there is nothing left inside me.
Then I pick up the phone and call Ravi.
From the King's window, Sashi and Badhri can see the entire procession from Cape Hill to the temple. The elephants are spectacular. People stand on the kerbside in their best saris and shalwar kameez, waving paper flags. There are boys selling roasted corn and chickpeas in hot twists of paper. Children wave hands that are sticky with sugar, their mothers wiping at their faces with spit and the ends of their scarves, and the old people with serious faces sit at the kerbside and silently judge.
The King smiles at everyone he passes. Why shouldn't he smile on his wedding day? He looks like he was born to ride an elephant, to sit above the crowds with jewels glittering in his turban. Sashi thinks about his body underneath the loose pyjamas, how the muscles in his stomach tensed as she brushed the bright paint around his navel.
Rajanigandha, the bride, is stiff and nervous. She is scared of sitting on Face of Glory, so high up. She holds tight to the harness, and the crowd throw flowers at her, and she tries to smile but she cannot.
"She don't like elephant," says Badhri.
Sashi nods, not wanting to take her eyes away from the scene outside, as the King and his bride approach the gates of the temple, which are decorated with a hundred paper flowers.
"Work finished," says Badhri. "Everything finished. You and me too."
Face of Glory halts at the temple gate. From the window, Sashi can't make out the pictures on her flanks, but the crowds below shuffle as close as they dare to see what is painted there. Sashi has a tight knot of fear in her stomach that cannot be soothed by touching or talking. She has not eaten in days.
In my painting, Gurinder is graceful and elegant. She sits naked on the edge of her hotel bed, opposite the mirror, watching herself. Her legs are open and she is masturbating.
With her other hand, she holds a mobile phone to her ear.
But the phone rings and rings into empty space.
The King walks around and around Face of Glory. Her paintings are smudged now, but he can still make out the images: a couple fucking on the floor, his long hair floating out like seaweed; a lonely woman in an empty room; a table piled high with food. The King is so intrigued by the pictures that he forgets his bride waiting for him in the flat.
Badhri brings Moon on Water to the enclosure. He has been washed and scrubbed with brooms, and fed sweet buns and praised. When Moon on Water approaches Face of Glory, she reaches toward him with her painted trunk, and twists it around his own. They stand with their heads together, flat skull resting against flat skull.
"Sashi did a good job," says the King. "She's clever. I like that."
Badhri nods, "Yes, sir."
"My wife is prettier though. What do you think, Badhri?" says the King. "It was a good wedding. And tomorrow we will feast! What do you think of that?"
Badhri smiles and nods, showing no sign of comprehension. This is the best way to avoid hearing one of the King's speeches, he has found.
"Ah. Fucking elephant-speaker," says the King, slapping Badhri hard on the shoulder. "I think I'll go fuck my wife. Bet you understand that, don't you?"
When the King has gone, Badhri rests his head against Face of Glory's flank. His tears melt her pictures and the paint runs over his skin and drops in oily iridescent puddles at his feet.
Ravi always has inky fingers, from writing, and I always have paint on mine. I notice our hands side by side as he leafs through the paintings on the drawing table.
"It's good," he says. "It's exactly right. Just how I saw it."
"It's not finished," I say. "I don't know if I can finish it."
While Ravi looks at the paintings, I look at him. The shapes of his face seem to change from one moment to the next, from ugly to beautiful, as I watch. I want to paint all his faces, all his moments, and I suddenly feel anxious, as if he can read my thoughts.
"How do you do it?" asks Ravi. "How can you see what's in my mind?"
"You write it."
"But you paint it so exactly. I don't think anyone understands me as well as you. It's like you see exactly what there is to see. Like a superpower." He grins, shakes his head, flips through the drawings again, and then stops.
At the bottom of the pile is the painting of Gurinder in her hotel room. Ravi looks at me, then back to the painting, then at me again. I can't speak. Words are very far away.
We both jump when his mobile phone rings.
"Don't answer it," I say.
The King lies back, watching the flowers bloom over Rajanigandha's stomach and breasts. He puts his hands on her hips, digging his fingers in hard enough to make bruises, and feels her coming in waves that roll down over him. Why didn't he see before that Sashi has painted her own face all over his bride? There she is, her dark eyes watching from a lonely room, her own smell rising up from the garden.
Rajanigandha does not wonder what the King is thinking. She feels like she is swimming underwater in the dark. When she falls forward to embrace the King, she grabs handfuls of his long black hair, wrapping it around her slender wrists.
They don't hear the rumble of voices in the distance, the soft thunder of feet and echoing shouts. All they hear is their own breath and their own thoughts, reverberating in the thick warmth of the bed.
In her room, just a few hundred yards along the road, Sashi is asleep and dreaming about her mother's hands. There are pictures painted in henna on her palms. Sashi runs her fingers over the lines of dye, and her mother's warm dry skin.
Sorry, sorry, says her mother.
Sashi wakes up in the dark to the sound of drums.
I am sitting at my drawing table. It is like waking up into another world. The place is a mess, pictures strewn over the floor, paint splashed on the wall.
My clothes are on the floor, and I grab them and put them on because I'm shivering. As I'm dressing I feel dampness between my legs, and on my left breast are teethmarks, actual teethmarks where I've been bitten. Bitten? It hurts.
Something has happened here. Or I am mad. I am experiencing something that is either total clarity or absolute alienation, or both. It makes me feel sick.
I turn towards the door, and there on the floor in the doorway is a red puddle of cloth, like a pool of fresh blood. Now I remember.
He is in the kitchen, at the table, his head resting in his arms, his long black hair falling over his naked back, sticking to the bloody scratches. I touch his shoulder and he flinches, and looks up.
"Hey," I say, "I can finish it now."
He lets me take his hand, and I lead him into the bedroom. He curls up in the bed like a child, pulling the duvet around himself. I watch for a while, then I go back to my drawing table and paint the ending.
Some of the mahouts have painted their own faces in red and white, with geometric shapes and violent slashes. This is war paint.
They have been drinking, shouting, and stamping on the ground, drumming up the old songs and the old names for things; names that they should have left behind in the old country. They beat out a rhythm with big sticks.
"This is bad!" Badhri shouts. "You are starting a war!"
Sashi runs through the streets in her pyjamas, her big jumper pulled over the top. She can hear the wild commotion coming closer as she runs towards the park, towards Badhri. He meets her at the entrance to the park, holds out his hands to her, clutches her elbows.
"Stop it!" cries Sashi. "Stop them, please Badhri! You have to do something."
Badhri shakes his head. "I can't," he says. "Come on, Sashi. Very dangerous, please."
He pulls Sashi's arms, dragging her through the park gates, but Sashi resists. He is so light and thin, it is easy to push him away. The mahouts are charging the elephant enclosure. Sashi joins them, pulling at the heavy gates and calling out to the elephants, but they cannot hear her over the noise of their own fearful bellows and the mahouts' war cries.
Sashi climbs up the wooden gate, pulling herself up to the iron bolt. If she can just get a grip on it. . . but she feels a hand grabbing her ankle. She falls down, landing on Badhri, and is about to push him away again, to hit him if she has to, but he holds her firmly by the ear and says, "Soldiers are coming. Go to the King."
She scrambles up and runs back along the high street, towards the Rajah restaurant. At the door, she looks back and sees the enclosure gates wrenched open. The terrified elephants rear up and fall forwards, struggling to get out of the pen, thundering towards the street. Badhri is standing in front of them, calling something in their language that they are too scared and enraged to hear. Sashi sees Face of Glory, still in her colours, rise up on her hind legs, and she hides her face as the elephant's giant feet smash down on the skinny mahout.
Soldiers with guns run out from the restaurant door, knocking her aside, and Sashi races up the stairs, bursting into the King's attic flat, tears already falling onto her face.
"Sashi?" says the King. He is sprawled naked across the bed, his body blurred with sweat and paint. Rajanigandha sits at the window, looking down onto the street below.
"Call them off!" says Sashi. "You're the King. Make it stop."
"It's too late," says the King. "I can't stop it now."
Rajanigandha turns and smiles at Sashi, her long hair swinging across her back as she moves.
"It's alright. Sashi understands, don't you Sashi?" says the Queen.
Sashi shakes her head, no. She falls to her knees by the King's side, grabs his hand.
"Please," she begs him, "oh, please."
"We can't afford elephants, Sashi!" says the Queen. "Time to grow up."
The King lets out a short, barking laugh. The sound of gunfire breaks across the attic room, making the air shimmer and the lights flicker.
With the velvety-black acrylic I paint Ravi's hair floating all around him as he lies back in the bath. The hot water laps against his scratches and cuts, the big tender bruise on his hip: injuries that probably hurt Gurinder more than they do him. She is watching him from the chair in the corner.
I love you. It was just sex. It didn't mean anything. Sorry, sorry.
That's what people say, isn't it? It didn't mean anything. I write these words carefully in the bathwater with purple pen.
Gurinder stares at his body under the water. I think you should cut your hair. Why do you even wear that stupid turban?
In the next frame, Gurinder is standing by the door, her manicured hand pressing on the wood. She is wearing a dark, close-fitting trouser suit, and her posture is relaxed, but her eyes flash with anger.
I'm going to get the scissors. I think we should cut it very short.
I close the sketchbook softly and slide it under my bed. I don't want to paint this anymore.
Sashi puts her paints and brushes into a wooden crate, and covers it with a cloth. Her sketchbook is full of sad pictures: the lonely room scrubbed clean, the broken girl alone in the frozen light, the abandoned red turban. Sashi closes the book, ties it with string, and hides it beneath the cloth. She thinks she won't paint again.
In the evening, soldiers come to Sashi's door. Two of them are carrying a large packet between them, wrapped up in stiff paper and string. Blood drips from the edges of the paper onto the tiled floor of her hallway and the soldiers say, sorry, sorry. It is meat, giant slabs of meat, a present from the King.
Everyone is hungry.