Carel Weight The Silence  1965

Carel Weight
The Silence  1965
© the artist

The Silence

An extract from the short story by Adam Thorpe inspired by Carel Weight’s The Silence  1965

The robbery went badly. At least, it went badly for us. This was in 1959, in Calcutta. The thieves took my mum’s engagement ring along with the rest of her jewellery which was in a box on a shelf above her bed. She was fast asleep. They took it without disturbing her. That’s what she said.

She woke up in the morning and found the rest of the bed empty. She called out for my father because she thought he was in the loo. Then she went in search of my father in the big living-room and noticed the door to the spare bedroom was open. It was too early for the servants: even the sweeper, who had a long white beard and was an untouchable, hadn’t yet turned up. She thought my father was in the spare bedroom having a smoke because she didn’t like him smoking in bed. She pushed the door open, but it stopped halfway, blocked by something which turned out to be my father’s legs.

What I remember is waking up to my mother’s screams over the rumble of my air-conditioner.

Westinghouse, it said.

My next memory is of my ayah, with very red eyes, taking me out into the garden. Our garden was one huge lawn with thick shrubs growing all round it, and the grass was almost soft. You couldn’t sit on the grass without getting bitten. I wanted to sit on the steps; they were as wide as the house and that’s the way you went in. I would sit on the steps for hours playing with my Dinky toys, the stone cool on my bottom.

My ayah said I couldn’t sit on the steps today. I noticed there were men coming in and out of the house. They had white trousers and white helmets like the policemen who waved at the traffic with sticks.

‘You stay here, Andrew,’ she said. ‘With me, please. At the bottom of the garden.’

She threw a shuttlecock at me and I tried to hit it back with my plastic tennis racquet, over and over. She had never played with me like this before and so it was a special day. The heat made me sweat more than usual because I was concentrating and running about. The grass made my feet sting a bit through my rubber sandals, but I didn’t care. My ayah had shiny black hair and a missing tooth at the side which you could only see when she smiled. Her sari smelt of perfume and of her underarms. She sat on her heels with her sari tucked between her knees and chucked the shuttlecock with a little twist of her wrist, again and again, putting a fold of her sari over her face sometimes so I’d have to wait. Ramji the untouchable sweeper came out and watched us, leaning on his broom and not laughing. He was my favourite and would ruffle my hair and I’d have to guess where he was hiding behind the bamboo curtain in the living-room. No one else was allowed to be touched by him but he was always laughing.

Then I was walking on my own into the huge empty living-room with the fans turning round and round. The shutters were closed but the sun had found its way in through the slats, making stripes. The big grandfather clock ticked and ticked and ticked and I thought: This is death.

This seems a ridiculous thought for a boy of five, but my father had died and I knew that by now, although I didn’t yet know he had been killed in the spare bedroom.
At some point later, in England, I learned how it must have happened: my father was crossing the living-room and saw the spare-bedroom door wide open and went to close it. The robber was waiting behind the door with a long curved sword in his hands. We had bought it on a trip to Katmandu and it was used to slice heads off special cows in one go. It was called a kukri. My father had hung our kukri on the living-room wall. ‘Our kukri, who art in heaven,’ he joked. I remember that. Our kukri was very sharp and the robber showed no mercy.

These robbers never did, my mother reported the police as saying. Our kukri had disappeared, so that must have been the weapon. They had cut through the wire netting on the verhanda with bolt shears.

We arrived in England a few weeks later and lived with Gran and Gramp in Whitstable. I went to school in a blazer that made my neck itch. Gramp was retired and had a big white moustache and spent his whole time gardening with a cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. He put chicken-wire like tubes around the plants to stop the rabbits, though I never saw any rabbits. The house was in the middle of a lot of other houses and there were no rabbits, but Gramp was sure there were rabbits and that they nibbled everything unless you took precautions. I kept the borders neat with a clipper that was too tall for me, so I had to hold it halfway down the shafts. Gramp always said I did a better job than anyone else, ruffling my hair, and I wondered whether I should offer to clip the edges in the neighbours’ gardens for money - but not for Bob-a-Job and charity. I never had the courage, though.

One day Mr Majhi turned up from Calcutta.