There was a Turtle

‘I live a charmed life,’ Anil said with a little self-deprecating laugh. It was his stock response to any comment on the pendant that hung around his neck. Although in the beginning he had only half meant it, it was a good line, and it was true, because his life seemed to glide over ruts on the path, his wheels never got bogged down, and like all things half-truth and half-superstition, the sentence had turned into belief.  He had lived with his charms for thirty years.

He was saying this now, modestly, to his new neighbour, who had recently moved in to the house next door. She came round to deliver a parcel she had taken for him from the postman that morning, when he was out doing his twenty-five lengths of the pool.  She remarked on the turtle charm at his neck, its sea sheen contrasting vividly with his dark skin. He could tell she was longing to ask him why he didn’t go to work every morning, why he seemed so much at ease with time. He had noticed her husband leave at seven thirty in the morning and return at seven thirty in the evening. It made him appreciate his freedom even more. How good it was to have made your money and taken the decision to sit back and enjoy your life. Anil spent the afternoons in his study making his money work for him, but he wasn’t going to tell her that.

He carried in the small parcel, checking that it really was for him. It seemed to have been professionally gift-wrapped in glossy paper the colour of cornflowers. He noticed that the address label was blue-grey, coordinating with the paper. The distinctive black handwriting was Scarlett’s. This was unexpected. It had been a long time since she had sent him anything. Anil had begun to believe that finally, Scarlett didn’t remember him much anymore. He counted the years.  The last parcel was twelve years ago. And what a domestic drama that had created.

Scarlett was his first long-term girlfriend. He was just nudging twenty on that first day of his art course when he was introduced to her. He didn’t even properly register his other classmates the whole first week. He recalled looking into Scarlett’s eyes as they shook hands. A chemical reaction kicking into their fingers. It was difficult to release his grasp and he didn’t want to shake hands with anyone else for fear of losing that mad dislocated feeling.

It was Scarlett who had carved the mother-of-pearl turtle, strung it on to brown leather and garlanded him with it. ‘For wisdom,’ she said, ‘or longevity. For the beginning of the world. Depends which culture you pick your meaning from. But I’m giving it to you for good luck. Keep it here’ – she patted the skin at the top of his chest – ‘and you’ll have my luck-wish always with you.’  A new light was shining in her eyes as if she had just discovered something magical.  Back then, they were each deciding what kind of artist they wanted to be.  Anil wondered if big sculptural works were his thing, although that involved a steep learning curve and the idea didn’t thrill him as it should. He was inspired by a visit to his aunt’s home in Belsize Park; she had collected cow-pats on her trip to India and encased them in a Perspex box. He could do a big display on a theme like that. It was more conceptual, a statement of old worlds embraced by the new, much more suited to his mind.

On carving that first turtle, Scarlett had found her metier. ‘Small is beautiful,’ she would croon, adding disturbingly, ‘Small is powerful.’  She seemed to have discovered an intense pleasure in carving small animal charms, each with a personality, an emotion she had embedded in it.  She took a long time creating them, painstakingly learning the techniques, spending birthday money from her grandmother on micro carving tools ordered from Germany and setting up a studio time-share with a sculptor of busts.  She spent hours sourcing the right materials – chunks of marble, alabaster, turquoise or onyx – and kept them under her pillow while she decided which animal it was to be and how much spirit she would give it.

Anil had laughingly called it her fetish phase, for this is where her sudden inspiration had come from, the Native American traditions, but he had stopped winking and laughing soon enough, the night he had gone late to her shared flat for a promised visit and found her engrossed in viewing the video The Complete Guide to Sharpening Your Tools.

At first she crafted three pieces, which she gave away as gifts, having sworn the recipients, the first being Anil, to wearing them constantly.  The finely engraved amulets were widely admired in the college and soon Scarlett was making and selling charms on commission, first for her peers and then for friends of friends of friends.   Her obsessive fetish phase was turning into a livelihood – albeit a meagre one.

Anil didn’t know if the other recipients of the first three charms had kept their promise to wear the pendants constantly, or if they had removed them after a suitably loyal period.  He himself had not intended to wear the turtle forever, but her luck-wish for him seemed to work so well, bringing him jolts of good fortune and better health, with his asthma almost disappearing, that he felt his life was now tied to it.  The turtle had become something of a signature piece.

Anil wore a carved wolf, too, in taut-muscled onyx, which lived round his wrist on a slender plait of leather. Scarlett had given it to him on what would have been their third anniversary together, had they not broken up a couple of months before. It had been left in a small box with a card in her neat hand spelling out its meaning. The wolf had a curiously faraway expression, which at first unsettled Anil. But then he read the card: Pathfinder. Teacher.  He put on the bracelet and immediately felt its power synchronising with his skin, working for him. He warmed to the wolf; a pathfinder was just what he needed. He had not taken it off since then, except to replace the frayed leather.

From Anil’s perspective their break up had been amicable, or as amicable as a splintering of lovers can be. He told their friends that for their age they had done well to sustain such an intense relationship for almost three years. He instigated their parting; he and Scarlett seemed to be aiming for different things, disparate lives.  Anil wanted a sense of grandeur in everything and his take on life was to say: ‘I’ll dive into the melee and emerge with gems.’  Living on the fringes was losing its appeal, however intense or enfolding the company may be. Scarlett had agreed that they were now different people from when they first met. ‘At least one of us has changed,’ she said drily.

On his traverse through life, Anil had left Art and Scarlett behind, but occasionally he caught glimpses of her existence on the edges of the gallery world.  He had seen a review of a show in ‘The Independent’; his eye had been drawn to the colourful photograph and he had been surprised to see her name in the caption, credited as the artist.  It was a show of paintings, large canvases, so big that they were made to take up one wall of a room, entirely; to fit a dining room, possibly, or a client reception area.  He wasn’t surprised that they weren’t particularly saleable, she wasn’t giving you a choice of letting your eye rest on splashy pink and peach peonies in three feet by two feet; no, she was compelling you to look at – or look away from – a wall covered with them, waving at you, shouting out their none-too-subliminal messages. Such a contrast to the exquisite charms, weighty with intent. A release from them?

Anil often wondered what he would paint, if he tried again. Would anything inspire him to pick up a brush? He never did, although he hoarded his old work, his notebooks, his materials. ‘I’m a sentimental fool,’ he chided himself, when he came across letters, lists, even budgets, in the recesses of his drawer, at the back of his cupboards, in shoeboxes.

Scarlett had not told him that she would be sending him occasional gifts when they had gone their separate ways.  A package had arrived the day before his twenty-sixth birthday. It was an alabaster dog on a long leather cord. Under the magnifying glass Anil looked for her nuanced touches. He decided from the sleek ears hanging down and the long snout that it was a German pointer or similar breed. The dog’s mouth was part open in a smile. Scarlett had enclosed a note: ‘For loyalty and friendship. Wear it to give you whatever you want at the moment.’  Wealth. Unable to resist he had slung it on. It lay above his navel, hidden for the most part. It had provoked a rush of confidence and ideas and he could swear the charm worked, for he was making headway and money was being earned and earned.

He didn’t list his expenses anymore. As a fund manager, he had turned out to have an appetite for risk.  The bigger the risk, the bigger the gain.  Anil figured he had nothing to lose and no responsibilities; he didn’t worry about staking his name, or losing his game.  This innate confidence in his decisions led to early successes, which multiplied into successes in the big stakes. Anil worked hard, he had to, but knowing his market was one thing. Combining this with an impeccable sense of timing, and further combining it with favourable luck, was another.

Some months later he wrote to thank Scarlett for the alabaster dog, and told her that he genuinely thought of his charms as his stairway to the moon.  He wrote he was doing well, asked after her and signed off with ‘Keep in touch.’ That last was a sentence he didn’t mean. He knew she would realize that from the sign-off itself – she knew him well enough.

It was just as well she hadn’t called ‘to chat’ or wanted to meet to meet for a ‘catch up’. He didn’t have the stomach for that sort of thing. It would be an awkward and graceless meeting, he knew. What’s past is past. Even if the powerful resonance of the past, her crafted good-will tokens, lived with him as talismans on his body, a part of his persona.

Scarlett herself seemed remote to him now, he didn’t think of her often. If he saw someone wearing an animal pendant, or he heard the Peter Frampton song, I’m In You, which she used to play in her studio, he would see a vision of Scarlett. Her head bent over the table, hair falling forward, her long hands cupping the small shapes, her fingers with knobbly knuckles jutting out as she worked. Her pile of books on ancient wisdoms. She drew from several cultures; this was one reason why the physical act of sculpting these animals so appealed to her: she imbued them with the spirit of their attributes and her own wishes for the wearer.

He remembered teasing her about being animistic in her beliefs. When asked to make Celtic symbols or a laughing Buddha, she had refused, and dismissed those commissions.  She would carve just animals. She maintained there was a long enough list to choose from. ‘Oh, carve a Buddha,’ Anil had urged once, eyeing her as she chiselled and whittled away at a miniature red-brown rooster. ‘What’s it to you?’

Her reply had been grandiose. In what Anil termed College Language.  ‘An artist who compromises her integrity is doomed.’

Once, at his firm’s annual drinks party, he bumped into Estelle, a classmate from art college, who told him she had just commissioned a pendant from Scarlett. A lizard. Anil had smiled. So, Scarlett was still carving animals. He didn’t know what else was going on in her life, but sometimes he thought she was standing rooted in the same spot. His life was a lightning streak climb from the point where he had started to where he was now.

‘Scarlett lives in Wales, in an artists’ community. Did you know?’ asked Estelle.

‘Yes, she sent me her address.’

‘You don’t see her at all?’

‘No, not really.’

Estelle was going out with a colleague of Anil’s.  He guessed she must have heard that he was doing well. But he was careful not to show off to his ex-classmates, especially those who were artists. It was almost embarrassing how much he earned.

‘I hear you’ve bought a house in Highgate.’  Yes, Estelle was up with the gossip.

‘Uh huh.’

‘Are you living there now?’

‘No, it’s being refurbished… it’ll take a few months. You know how these things drag on… ‘

Anil shrugged and fiddled with the wolf at his wrist. Then he excused himself to drift off to another knot of people. If Scarlett saw his new house, he knew she would refer to it as a ‘mansion’, just as she would tell him that he had become ‘another faceless suit.’  What she would say about the Porsche, he didn’t want to know; he was sure the word ‘typical’ would be used.

He smiled to himself again.  He had never been so happy. He had everything a man could want.  Almost. Because just when he thought he had everything, he’d think of something else which would add to his life, make it perfect.

A fragile package from Wales found its way to him in his Highgate home a few years later. Anil was about to get married. He opened the little box and found a green lump inside. Scarlett’s note said it was a caterpillar, not that he could discern that. It lacked her usual fine etching. He couldn’t tell which ancient culture it derived from, if any; possibly because loneliness was a feature of modern culture. She had written that she was lonely, the past year or two had been difficult; sending a charm to him had dispelled some of her isolation, some of the meaninglessness. ‘I know when you receive this I’ll begin to feel better, I know your wishes will be with me.’

This intent, the alleviation of her loneliness, came attached to the caterpillar, making it feel heavier than it was. He couldn’t bear to put it around his neck.  He clipped off the attached cord and for Scarlett’s sake he carried the charm in his pocket. He wrote back that it was different and interesting, and he hoped that the caterpillar being with him would nudge the lonely spaces around her to be filled with friendship and love. Anil could talk the talk when needed. He suspected this was the right response, even if Scarlett guessed it was slightly false. After three months or so of being dutifully carried around, the green lump had gone into a small walnut box where he kept disused cufflinks, and there it had stayed.

He had not mentioned the caterpillar to Maya, his wife. He didn’t want to add to the displeasure which he imagined existed about his charms. Because it would be natural, normal, although Maya denied any resentment. She had not known him without them and in her serene way, she seemed generally accepting of their place in his history.

On their honeymoon she asked, just once, if he had to constantly wear all three talismans together. ‘It’s not really you,’ she said. Anil knew what she meant, but he bristled all the same. ‘They are a part of me,’ he replied. ‘Look at everything these charms have brought me.’ He gestured expansively at the azure ocean, the pink horizon, the tasteful white hotel. He turned a serious gaze on Maya. ‘My luck has brought me you,’ he said, ‘and you are the most precious thing in my life.’

It was true. Anil believed himself fortunate, in every respect. Even marriage had not let him down. ‘Somewhere, inside, I must be clever or wise,’ he would say. ‘How did I know to choose Maya?’ Though truth be told, he thought of Maya as the wise one. The one with the calm personality and deep reserves of affection, which he had slowly uncovered when they first met.

Together they had abandoned their old lifestyles, side stepped into the slow-lane and embraced a life of family and leisure. They had the house, the garden (indeed, it had been featured in House and Garden after the last re-vamp) and they had the brilliant child.

Anil was satisfied with how it had all turned out. When he had needed to disentangle himself from the notion of Art and make a success of himself in other ways,  he had managed to do that, working hard but being rewarded for it, always, and not demanding too much of life, not demanding everything all at one time.  He had achieved the most difficult thing of all: contentment.

When he did think of Scarlett, he wished the same for her. But he was beginning to wonder. Scarlett had surprised him by sending another charm five years after the caterpillar. It was the month of his fifth wedding anniversary and the third birthday of his daughter. Resting in white tissue lay a light brown bird in profile.  He laid the carving on his palm, feeling its weight, its spirit. Skills he had learnt from Scarlett.  The bird, innocent as it was, made him uneasy. His stomach tightened. He set the little thing down. He emptied the small carton it came in, separating the packaging. There was no note. He would have to investigate the meaning himself to becalm his superstition. He was looking up relevant Web pages when Maya came into the study. He showed her the charm.

‘I think it’s a humming bird,’ he said. ‘Look at the beak.’

Maya’s reaction stunned him. ‘She can’t send you a charm!’ was her first exclamation. Then, angrily, ‘What is the woman thinking?’

‘This might be antler bone,’ Anil mused, ignoring her outburst. ‘Antler bone is expensive.’

He couldn’t deflect Maya’s glare at the carved bird.  She picked it up.  ‘What does it mean?’

Anil knew his symbolism fairly well, but the humming bird was proving difficult to divine. He prevaricated. ‘Usually, birds are messengers in some form. It could mean a change in consciousness.’

‘Hmmn… ‘ Maya glanced over him at the monitor. ‘Stopper of time,’ she read out.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

‘Nothing sounds quite right’, said Anil. He shrugged. ‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just put it away’.

Maya dangled the bird from its cord. ‘She wants you to wear this.  Like the others you wear. After all this time. How many years? What is she playing at?’

Anil regretted not mentioning the caterpillar to Maya, but now was not the moment.

‘Send it back,’ said Maya. ‘At once. Tell Scarlett not to send you any more charms. Ever.’

‘I can’t do that,’ he protested. He watched Maya’s darkening brow. ‘She’ll feel really bad. After all the fantastic luck I’ve had.’

‘Have you seen her lately, been in touch?’

‘No. No. It’s just… I think she sends me things when she’s going through a bad patch.  If it helps her to send me something, I don’t mind.’

‘Anil, are you sending this back right now?’

‘No.’

‘Then I will.’ And Maya had picked up the box and was reading the address on the back.

‘You will not.’

‘I will.’

They struggled with the box. Anil wrested the squeezed cardboard from Maya.

‘Please,’ he cajoled. ‘There’s no need to be hasty. Nothing really for you to get worked up about. It’s just a bird. Nothing at all.’

‘I’m not getting worked up.’ Her face had flushed. She’d stomped away and been sullen for days.

Anil had not written to Scarlett. He couldn’t find the words to tell her not to send him any more charms. But there was no need for the letter. They had both forgotten. He stuck the bird out of sight at the back of his desk drawer. But when he came across it as he hunted for an old pen or a lost note, his fingers felt singed, as if a current was passing through them, and he would withdraw his hand. Gingerly he would take the bird out, lay it on the skin of his forearm, testing it again. It sent tingles down the length of his arm, and after a few minutes, if he left it there, it would clutch like a hot hand inside his stomach.  Eventually, he had wrapped it up in an old tie and shoved it to the very back of the drawer.

Now, twelve years later, he was holding this most recent present from Scarlett, fancily wrapped in cornflower blue. Anil went up the stairs to his study and shut the door.  He placed the parcel on his desk, studying it again before he tore off the wrapping paper.

Inside was a white cardboard box stuffed with tissue which he pulled out and unrolled. A small figurine fell onto the amber leather of his desk. His brow furrowed. This didn’t look like Scarlett’s work at all.  He looked inside the box for a note. Once again, nothing.

Pensively, he picked up the carving. It was unwearable, charmless, unexplainable to Maya. ‘Power,’ he imagined Scarlett crooning.

He gazed at the trees outside his window, leaves peeling off in the wind. He would be fifty in two months. Young by modern standards and old by the standards of the young.  Scarlett’s new talisman was bringing on an unnatural sensation. He felt both too young and too old. Too young.

He sighed and laid the new arrival on his palm. It wasn’t an animal. It looked like a representation of the human figure. A rectangular narrow block. Wooden or resin? A mixture of both, perhaps. Male?  There was a black snake coiled around the brown block. He set it on the table to examine it under a magnifying glass. The snake coiled from an indentation near the bottom of the rectangle, which could be ankle height, to an indentation near the top, which could be the neck.

Him, Anil. He knew about snakes and humans. Powerful mythology – life, death, creation, transmutation.  So, she was sending him on his way to enjoy a rebirth?  He laughed out loud. Then he found himself standing up, humour draining away.  Why had she sent a human figure? She’d broken her own rules. Why?

He sat back down. He would write to Scarlett. He would ask, ‘Lettie, is it really what it seems?  Have you turned me into a choking doll?’ Ridiculous. His thoughts were running away with him, running so fast they were making him physically sick. He realised he was sweating and blinking. The charms he was wearing were beginning to make his skin itch. On his jugular, on his pulse, on the solar plexus. His skin was chafing against them. He removed them: the now clammy turtle which nestled in the hollow of his neck; the faraway wolf which had hugged his wrist; the companionable dog on the long cord.

With trembling fingers Anil brought out the humming bird from the recesses of his desk and unshrouded it. His stomach lurched. He took down the box of old cufflinks from the shelf and brought out the caterpillar, into the light after all these years. The shapeless green crackled against the skin of his palm.

Anil wiped the sweat off his face, but he wouldn’t stop what he was doing now. He could feel his blood surging, in strange places inside him: in his joints, at the back of his skull, in his toenails and fingernails. His stomach clasping itself over and over. Methodically, he lined up the carvings on his desk. Made from stones and bones. In the case of the turtle, made from the distress-juices of tortured oysters. Love them, loathe them, burn them.  

Trying to take a deep breath, he brought out writing paper. He could calm his mind if he tried. He could write her a reasonable letter. He could find a way to ask if she was unconsoled. Spleenful. Deep breath, he said to himself, to the blood spurting inside, hot and heavy. He too, could exercise his will.

‘Scarlett,’ he wrote on the blue paper. His ankles, feverish and painful, pulled to the floor. His elbows weighed him down. His pen hovered above the paper while he formed the first question carefully. He ignored the pain, to think it through, but his wrists were flushed and swollen, and, tiring, his right hand came down to rest on the desk.

His forehead followed, shoulders rounded, and he turned his face so his left cheek was pressed to the paper. He lay quietly.

 

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