The Black Album by Ashwin Ahmad




The morning was normal for Jasper, as normal as a morning can be when you are on the wrong side of seventy. He felt the familiar ache in his legs, the violent thumping of his heart, the wheezing which he knew would soon turn into a hacking cough if he did not take his plethora of multi-coloured pills soon. Yes, morning was a cheerless time for Jasper to wake up to, precisely because he had nothing to wake up to. The only challenge in his life these days was to tame his fumbling, arthritic hands in order to grab his medicine box; fumble with his humungous brown spectacles; and then finally steel himself with his hands to lift his frail pinkish body out of bed. After this achievement was done, he would look to complete his second gargantuan task of the day - make his way to the bathroom where he would force himself to empty his bladder – an ordeal which these days took an hour or more. Morning was a tiring and even dangerous routine, one he tried to put off as much as possible these days. But sadly for him, his failing health always forced him into wakefulness.

Jasper lived in a house - located a small corner in the north of London - alone. He had two sons whom he rarely saw and on the rare occasions he did see them, he soon realised what a mistake he had made. With their saccharine-sweet optimism and inane winsome grins – his children and their families were an unwelcome nuisance, a fact that he had, had to declare last Christmas. As usual they did not take his words seriously, and it was only when he felt he was on the verge of having a stroke, after one specially heated outburst, did they leave him for good. Nick, his younger son – the one he was more fond of – called from time to time but they had nothing of consequence to say to one other. Mary, his wife, had been the one that had smoothed out Jasper’s rough edges; had been the one that everyone in the family had really and truly loved. With her gone they had all wriggled free of one another.

The two ordeals over, Jasper then completed his third task of the day carefully making his way down to the kitchen where he drank his black coffee, that his physician forbade, at the kitchen table. There were no newspapers; he had no need of them. Instead, a day of television beckoned back in his bedroom with nameless serials and films of men and women who were either topless, bottomless or both. Not like that in his day! He was a military man and to not be fully clothed by six in the morning had been an anathema to him. Mary loved him in uniform too and though she would often complain, the complaints were gentle and just a show as she knew how much her husband loved the army. She would gently tease him but both were proud, especially Jasper. He could never have conceived of doing anything else. He loved the military, loved the sense of comradeship, loved the thought of dying for one’s country. Today now with no military or Mary, life was simply a big nothing!

Trriiiiing….

The rude sound of the telephone broke into his thoughts and he looked out of the kitchen door into the drawing room where a pink phone, laden with cobwebs, was buzzing. It was an old fashioned phone, placed next to a gramophone which stood on the showpiece table in the sitting room, laden with heavy Victorian furniture which no one had or used any more. He stared at it and wondered if answering it was worth the bother. Jasper had successfully - through the help of the nice phone man – got himself an unlisted number but even then all those pesky men and women all wishing him a ‘nice day’ called up to offer him loans he didn’t want, cars he didn’t need, foreign travels he had no interest in.

One particularly enterprising young man had promised to cure his ‘sexual problems’ by offering him a month’s free supply of a drug with a funny name. What was it? Niagara, Attica, Simba? - no, no, it was Viagra - an offer he took, just to see the look on the delivery man’s face when he delivered it to him. Jasper was still, as one of his American friends had called him in the military, a funny guy.

Coming back to the ringing, Jasper’s first thought was to let it ring. But something, somewhere, deep within him craved the need for human contact. He wanted to hear a voice, a real voice, not the voices he heard in his dreams. Yes, those voices were no good for him; he needed something new, even if it was another Niagra agent.

Jasper lifted his inky-blue, varicose laden legs up from the chair and forced himself to stand. He felt the huge rasping in his chest but he was ready and walked like a crab towards the instrument, afraid it would stop by the time he reached there. It didn’t, in fact the ringing just seemed to get louder as if to emphasise the urgency of this phone call. Whoever it was, was not giving up.

Jasper picked up the instrument, switched on the talk button and experienced his first rush of disappointment. It wasn’t for him, it was a crossed line. He could not hear the voices distinctly but could faintly make out that one of them was a woman. A man was talking to her in a muffled voice in French, a language Jasper could still follow, thanks to a private school education.

Mon cherie…calm down ma petite…it will be done! It’s there - I know it is there, I will find it… Oui, house number 26, yes I’m sure…No there is no one…oui, oui, there is a man but c’est ca he is old, very old, il n’est pas une problemme…I will get it, I promise you… Eh, who’s that… 

Jasper replaced the phone as quickly and quietly as he could. His pulse raced and his heart started thumping, but in a good way this time. For the first time in a very long time he felt excitement. Who could they be? Why was the woman crying? Why his house? There was no doubt that it was his house that they were talking about. Jasper lived quite alone, and to get to his house one had to turn off the main road and enter a small dead end lane where his house stood right at the end in ghostly welcome. There were two other properties located on the side here but the global recession, the housing crisis, and more importantly - the lack of anything to do here - had caused his two much younger neighbours and their families to shut shop years ago. No, in this dead end land there was only one house operating and only one, resident - Jasper.

Jasper returned to the kitchen and tried to think, his ailments almost forgotten now. It was clear that this man and woman knew about him – possibly had been keeping watch on him. It was also obvious this rather decrepit dwelling of his contained some secret that was of so much importance that they were willing to break in to get it. Why hadn’t they done so till now? Were they not sure that it was his house that this ‘thing’ whatever it was, was? Was it of national importance? Would he be killed for it? Such strange, illogical thoughts ensured that adrenaline pumped powerfully through Jasper’s veins even as he tried to assure himself that he was being silly. There would be a perfectly logical explanation for it all, one he would come to know soon enough.

But even if there was, Jasper was seized with an insatiable need to find out the ‘thing’ they wanted wherever it was. Even if it turned out to be nothing, he reasoned, did he really have anything better to do? A quick answer to that question was ‘no.’ A search then was required but Jasper – knowing all too well his physical limitations – realised the obvious truth. He could not do this alone.

***** 

‘And where did you see them last, sir?’

The young policeman was not hiding his impatience well. He had joined the police force to sit in his cop-car with his blazing blue siren on, race up lonely streets to catch bad guys, possibly even a murderer, not to hunt down the lost keys of a senile old man. Jasper could understand his frustration but he didn’t care. The policeman would reach the shelves, the cupboards and other areas that he could not to find the ‘thing’- whatever it was. He wouldn’t find the keys - Jasper chuckled - as they were ensconced perfectly in his pant pockets and he would simply trail behind the man and ensure the ‘thing’ was discovered.

Adrenaline soon gave way to disappointment though. The small garden behind the house, the shed where Jasper never went – though he took care not to tell the policeman that – the kitchen, the drawing-cum dining room, his bedroom upstairs and the spare bedroom were rifled through. At first the policeman had been cautious and respectful, afraid of what he might find. ‘Is he more scared of finding my Playboys or my dentures?’, grinned Jasper as he watched the man go about his task. But two hours later, bitter realisation set in - there was no ‘thing’– the people had simply made a mistake.

‘Right sir, I’m afraid your keys are gone. Would you like me to phone the estate agent for you? He’ll come round with a new set… 

Jasper bit down on his disappointment and managed to reply.

‘Very kind of you young man but no, I still can pick up a phone.’

‘Yes, yes, of course sir,’ said the policeman embarrassed. ‘Well not to worry. Oh and sir,’

Jasper turned his good ear towards the man.

‘Yes?’

‘Sir, it’s not likely, with your….’ the man who then quickly realised that he was treading on dangerous ground and swiftly rephrased. ‘There is one place we haven’t checked and that’s the attic. I’m afraid, I can’t do it now sir, got to get back to my patrolling, but if you like I can…’

Jasper did not bother to hear the last few sentences, the adrenalin coming back almost as quickly as it had gone. The attic! Silly old fool that he was; he had forgotten all about the attic. It was understandable though. For years it had been hovering above the spare bedroom, a useless disused corner of space in the house, housing memories and artefacts that no one in the world had the time for any more.

Jasper hated the place, hated it because it reminded of what he once was and had been. It also reminded him of Mary, beautiful, beautiful Mary, with her kind smile, her soft hands caressing his face, the way she gently blew on his face each morning to wake him, the way they held each other in all enveloping bearhugs that he once thought were unbreakable - all of these memories were tightly housed in the attic…

‘Sir, are you all right? Do you…’

Jasper cursed himself. Look at him – a military man, all right an ex- military man, behaving like a woman! He squeezed out his thanks, waved the young officer away from the front door and then climbed slowly up the stairs towards the spare bedroom, his lips pursed in thought. Why hadn’t he told the man about these strange people? Why hadn’t he told him about the ‘thing’? Why was the ‘thing’ so important to him? Did it really matter if he found it? They – whoever they were would take it from him anyway. So why?

Jasper knew there were no logical answers to these questions all he knew was that there was a force driving him like in the old days. Finding the ‘thing’ was his mission. He reached the spare bedroom, opened the door that showcased a number of stairs to the room that led to his past. There was no turning back now. He gripped the handrail, rickety from disuse, and began his slow and arduous journey to the top.

*****

Jasper felt a sense of let down as he reached the attic as he sat in the solitary blue chair and surveyed his surroundings. A box containing his favourite books lay huddled in the right hand corner. To the left, lay a carton which he knew would contain his past and it was to this he turned and then wished he hadn’t. His military uniform, once the pride of his life lay ragged raved by termites; medals that he had all but forgotten about lay dusty and…

What?

Jasper’s eyes peered at the carton and saw upon something strange. He got up carefully from his chair, pulled it out and sat down surveying it. It was a small blackish object, a strip of film, something he was sure that he had never seen before. Despite the dust today, he was a meticulous man. Family portraits were regularly numbered and ordered, the children had been photographed once a year on their birthdays with the exact date, weight and height noted. No, this was camera film he had never shot and never seen before…

‘Allo….

The man had come up so silently that Jasper had been unaware of him till now. So this was the ‘thing’ – the thing they had been looking for. Jasper slowly turned and faced the stranger. The man was close to his age but unlike Jasper, age had been much kinder to him. He wore a ridiculous bowtie and an ill-fitting checked suit, but his twinkling eyes, ruddy cheeks and the fact that he was not short of breath - despite having climbed up the attic - showed as much. Those eyes were not twinkling now though and his face was grave.

‘So, you are my burglar? Couldn’t they have sent someone older?’

‘You are a funny man Monsieur Jaspeer. But my age brings wisdom. I got you to find the film for me and my prize suit remained immaculate.’

‘Good for you. So what now? Tie me up? Shoot me…

‘But why?’

‘For the film of course.’

The Frenchman laughed

‘Oh mon ami. You are a funny guy but not a very smart guy.’

‘What the hell do you mean?’

‘The idea was never to steal the film.’

‘But your client? The woman?’

The Frenchman bowed.

‘The woman is not my client. Our conversation was an enactment. That, and the well-arranged crossed phone line by moi, a touch of genius n’est ce pas, was to get you to hunt for and develop the film.’

Really? What makes you think, I’ll develop the film? I could just throw it away.

The Frenchman shook his head

No, mon ami you won’t, You are in the attic talking to a strange man about it. Now, au revoir and good luck. By the way monsieur, I would not advise popcorn while viewing.’

*****

The photos came three days later. In the world of digital cameras and instant photos - as the man in the shop had explained patiently to him over the phone - film simply wasn’t developed any more, at least not in the main shops around Jasper’s area. What’s more this film was ‘ancient’ clicked from a camera he had never seen before. However, he knew a friend, who knew a friend, who knew a friend, who could get it done but the cost…

Jasper barely listened. This was something that he had to see. He wrote a hastily scribbled cheque without registering a word the man had said and now finally here it was. The past, it seemed, was ready to be uncovered. He went to the kitchen where his favourite mug of coffee was lying there waiting for him in steamy anticipation. Jasper sat down and opened the album…

The pictures flew by in a flash. He saw a young skinny boy with dangling long arms and an ape-like grin on a bicycle; he saw the same boy huddled with a gaggle of friends giving a thumbs up to an unknown cameraman; he saw the boy - now a young man - with a stiff posture and short hair posing stiffly before the camera; he then saw the man in military uniform standing next to a woman in a blue summer dress. She had laughing pool-blue eyes which contained a hint of teasing mischief about them. Mary, his Mary...

The pictures changed. Framed yellowing photos of him emerged, playing and laughing with two young boys - grabbing them in his arms when young, thrusting them on his shoulders and later posing more formally as they grew up and learnt to be wary of him. The highlight of all these photos though was Mary. Caught candidly in the kitchen, her laughing blue eyes met the camera as golden sunlight steamed in through the window behind. It had been a perfect day, he reminisced, so perfect…

The venue changed. Jasper was noticeably older now, standing next to his wife. It was the same photo, the mandatory one he insisted on each year with the family. Jasper was still in his military uniform and Mary now in a white blouse and respectable black skirt, flanked by their two boys. The beautiful day was an absurd contrast to their expressions. Jasper could not hide the fact that he was angry and Mary was visibly tired. She was also clutching a heavily bandaged arm.

The photos flew on to a very formal party. Candid shots of men in tuxedos smoking cigars and women in long black dresses stood talking and laughing with one another. Jasper remembered. It had been a rare day out for the military men sans wives. The pictures moved on from the general and focussed on a woman, a tall brunette whispering something of great importance into Jasper’s ear and he was leaning over to her listening as if he was slightly deaf and every word of hers was of great consequence. Oh God! Who had clicked this? Why?

Jasper was suddenly afraid. He knew what would happen but could not stop himself from turning the pages. Candid pictures of him and the mystery woman appeared more and more frequently. They were in bars, smoky jazz clubs, loud parties, and finally cuddled in post-coital comfort, in a bed, smoking cigarettes.

Jasper hands shook as he sought to stop turning the pages but a voice ordered him to move on. And he did, his hands moving at unbelievable speed. The next few pictures were a blur until finally Jasper’s eyes rested on one of himself. He was in an absolute rage screaming something at Mary. She was screaming too and crying and her arm was bandaged again. Another photo closed up on him and he saw an ugly, bloated man engulfed by red lipstick stains on his cheek. It was then the cameraman - whoever he or she was - moved back to Mary. Gone was the Mary with the blue dresses and the laughing teasing eyes of old. She stared at Jasper with fear and then he took a step forward…

Another photo showed his sons coming between them, arguing and begging their mother to come with them. He saw Nick on his knees, Mary sitting on a chair in their drawing room, reasoning, arguing and pleading with her. It wouldn’t work. Jasper knew it wouldn’t. He now looked ahead and knew what would happen next. More angry and drunken scenes followed; more close-ups of his yelling face; more injuries to Mary - injuries that she could no longer hide from the world. Then came the night, the night when he had accidentally pushed her and she lost her footing on the thick red carpet and fell down the stairs - at least that’s what he had told the police - and then it was over.

‘We are not done yet funny man.

‘Who are you? How do you know this? Why are you torturing me?

The bow-tied man had quietly appeared in the kitchen and without asking pulled up a chair next to Jasper’s and sat down.

‘Do you study religion funny man? In the Hindu religion my friend, there is a God, Vishnu. The Hindus call him the Preserver which is a very important task, as he maintains the balance between good and evil. This task is so important that he takes birth many times over and returns to preserve the balance by eradicating evil.’

‘And you are…’

‘God? Oh non, non, funny man. You see, preservation of what is right, what is good, what is worth fighting for, does not come from God – if he indeed does exist. God is merely a highlighter; an illustration. The preservation, the fight for good comes from us and in your case Jasper – you failed. Miserably!’

Jasper lifted his old, tired eyes to the man and nodded.

‘Yes Jasper all of this, all that you saw came from you. Could anyone physically have taken those photos of you and the woman? Could anyone physically have captured those raw emotions? Non Jasper, it was all you.’

‘You mean I somehow created those images to torture myself? How? Why?’

The Frenchman reached forward and touched his arm.

‘Explain me something, funny man. Why do we have dreams? Why do they turn into nightmares? Why do we feel we see things that aren’t there? Why do we talk about second sense? It is an anchor my friend, handy guides if you like. If you ignore them, ‘side-effects’ follow - dreams, nightmares, medication. Each of them culminates in one common thing – an album of our lives.’

‘So what do I do with this now? Sit and wonder about things I wish I could have changed? Don’t you think I do that every night in my dreams? This album – what am I to do with this album? And you, whoever you are please – can you please help me? Do you have powers? Please, please, for the love of God, help me - give me peace!

Funny man, I wish I could help you, I really do. But as I already told you I am not God, or a prophet, or an angel, or anything you humans hold on to, to justify your actions. I am your inner voice; I am not even real. As for the album, it is a memento, an ugly memento no doubt. But it is necessary, it is necessary for you to reflect on the boy you were, the man you were and the man you can still be again.

“How? It’s too late! Look at me Frenchman, look at me…

The Frenchman sighed.

‘Humans! Always expecting answers to questions. Funny man, this is something you will have to work out yourself…

*****

It was late evening and raining heavily in the graveyard but the man did not seem to care. Sitting in silent contemplation gazing at the headstone where his wife was buried, he allowed – after a long time – to let the tears run freely. Mary! How much he loved her; how much he wanted to tell her that every single night he missed her; and how much he wished he had been a different, better man.

It was not enough, Jasper knew, but it was a start on the long road to atonement. Maybe now he could start forgiving himself and hope that Mary, wherever she was now, could start forgiving him too. And maybe now finally, he could set up photos of a new Jasper in his black album.
______________________

Quantum potes tantum ode

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Unedited-ArtoonsInn
Cover by: Mithru Rachamalla

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