The Garden Spy: A Diptych
an excerpt from The Stained Glass Window by Aamer Hussein
The roses were running riot in June. Evenings fell late; the long hours of light made him restless. He waited for the comforting shadows of night. That evening he stepped out before sunset to buy something he didn’t need, walked past the delicatessen where he usually got his cigarettes, and stopped at the church where red roses were blooming among yellow and white flowers in a little walled and elevated garden. A poster in the middle of the flowers announced:
Coronavirus affects all of us
We are a church that prays
Can we pray for you, your situation, your family and friends at this time?
He stopped to think about the people he knew of, who were afflicted by the virus: his childhood playmate’s son in Karachi, and a dear friend of his youth in Islamabad. But he’d forgotten how to pray.
it produces masses of yellow flowers.
He took his phone out of his pocket to photograph the poster and the flowers. Just then, a gingery freckled man in shorts came out of a side door and removed the poster with both arms in one quick gesture without noticing Mehran, who said, “Do you mind if I take a photograph of that before you take it away?”
“Oh sure,” said the gingery man, replacing the poster and moving away from the camera’s eye. “I thought you wanted to photograph the flowers.”
“I often come here to do that,” Mehran said, “or I just look at the flowers…”
“See that tree?” The gingery man pointed upward. “In March it produces masses of yellow flowers. But I can’t remember what they’re called.”
They paused. Then both said in one breath: “Mimosa!”
But he couldn’t remember the mimosa flowering in March, neither this year when the lockdown was starting, nor last year when he was convalescing and homebound. He remembered, instead, filming the mimosa tree in a windstorm, three years ago, when the world seemed safer. And he remembered another film, another tree, rather a bush, a rose bush, flowering exactly a year ago. He’d seen the roses with his sister, and photographed her beside them on one of his first walks after his illness, not knowing that she wouldn’t live to see another season: she died before the year ended, of a cancer that took her away in three months. She was born at the end of March, and he in the second week of April. For a few days every year they’d been twins.
TheUrdu word for drawer, khana, came from the Persian word for home
“I saw a red-breasted robin in a box with a withered rose beside it. The robin was dead. The box had a glass lid and pattern of bare feet on its base. There was about an inch of water that didn’t quite cover either bird or flower, and a sign that said: Please protect the robins. They are a dying species. Then I woke up.”
Mehran was on a long call to Mimi, who had been self-isolating since before the official start of lockdown. London no longer felt like a city, but a huddle of settlements divided by invisible barriers.
“In our stories and folklore, robins make their homes in boxes,” Mimi said. “And drawers.”
He dreamed about the dead robin just after his encounter with the mimosa man. But he couldn’t find a connection between dream and encounter; only that the Urdu word for drawer, khana, came from the Persian word for home.
Aamer Hussein was born and brought up in Karachi. He studied in South India before moving to London, at 15, in 1970. He has published various short story collections, including Mirror to the Sun, This Other Salt; Turquoise, Insomnia, The Swan’s Wife, 37 Bridges, winner of the 2016 Karachi Literature Festival-French Embassy Award, Hermitage and Zindagi se Pehle (short stories in Urdu). Aamer’s novels include Another Gulmohar Tree, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and The Cloud Messenger. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies (University of London) and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004. He lives in London and travels and works frequently in Pakistan.