The Old Poet (and Clare)

By Alba Arikha 0

Az held the black and white photograph between his fingers. It showed a young man, probably in his late twenties, sitting on a stool, reading a book. The young man wore round glasses, a shirt with cufflinks, corduroy trousers and bulky lace-up shoes.

On the back of it, someone had scribbled “Rabbke, Copenhagen”.

“Who is this?” he asked Niko, the ageing poet. He had turned 90 a few days before. His birthday had been mentioned in the news- paper.

The two of them were sitting in a café near the Kachvéti Church, in Tbilisi. Niko was hold- ing his coffee cup between his hands. His face was lined and craggy, and his receding eyes looked like two weathered buttons. When he smiled though, Niko’s whole face lit up.

“That was Theo Rabbke,” Niko answered, as Az showed him the photograph. “Where did you find this?”

“In the folder you gave me earlier. The one with the poems you wrote in the 1960s.”

Niko looked at him sternly. “You removed a photograph from one of my folders? Without asking?”

Az hesitated. “Yes… I was intrigued by it. I’m sorry. I should have asked you first. I thought that we could discuss it over coffee. That it would be easier to look at one photo- graph, rather than a whole folder.”

Niko looked at him and sniggered. “Your explanations last too long. And you lie.”

“No!”

“Yes, you lie. I know why you took it. Because you think that I am cuckoo. That I couldn’t possibly remember what folder is what, or where the damn photograph came from. Is that what you think?”

“No, no. Of course not,” Az said quickly.

He had to remember never to underesti- mate this man.

“The Rabbke photograph is from the 1962 folder. My brain is sane and my memories are as clear as crystal water.” Niko’s tone had hard- ened and it took Az by surprise. “Of course, I…”

“I nothing. People, especially you foreign- ers, assume that because I’m 90, because my body looks like a crumbly old cake, my mind is no longer reliable. It’s not like that, you see. We Georgians live long. We’re tough people. My father was a beekeeper in the Caucasus Mountains. He lived to be 108.”

“I’ve never doubted your memory, Niko. We’ve been looking at so many documents, I thought I would remind you. Maybe because I had to remind myself,” Az added, smiling.

Niko grunted, took a sip of his coffee and lit an unfiltered cigarette. The tips of his fingers were yellow.

“Rabbke was a Danish filmmaker,” he said, pointing towards the photograph and blowing out a puff of smoke. “A very talented man. He spoke several languages and owned a book- shop in Copenhagen. He made a documentary about me, in the early 1960s. I never saw it. He disappeared after making it. “

“Really? What was it about? I mean, was there a specific angle?”

“Angle!” Niko vituperated. “What are you talking about? What is it about television people, always trying to label a moment? A life has no labels. No angles. Unless you’re a businessman. Or an advertising executive.”

Az smiled, despite himself. “I wasn’t trying to label anything. I was just curious about the documentary in general. But please continue.”

Niko grumbled and coughed loudly. A trickle of yellow phlegm settled on his lips.

He wiped it off with the back of his hand and dried it perfunctorily on his pocket.

“Rabbke followed me around Tbilisi,” Niko continued. “He interviewed my friends and family. He even filmed my dog, an old Labrador. And then he disappeared. I gave up trying to find him.”

“How odd… I wonder what happened.”

Niko shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. No one knows.”

Az dug his hands inside his pockets and looked at Niko. “That’s a shame. It would have been very interesting for us. Very interesting. I would have liked to see it.”

“That’s exactly what would have made it fascinating.”

“I must go home. My bones feel tired,” Niko announced. He stood up, removed a bill from his pocket and left it on the table.

Az stood up as well. “I’ll make some enquiries. I’ll see if we can find this documentary. It’s got to be somewhere. The BBC might be able to help. Who knows?”

“You have enough material as it is. No need for more. I wouldn’t bother.”

“It’s a shame. I would have liked to see it,” Az repeated.

Niko was quiet for a short while.

“My son, Lado, was killed in the Tbilisi riots of 1956. He was 28 years old. The first line of Legends, as you know it in English, was writ- ten after his body was lowered into the grave.”

He paused again.

“That was the angle, if you want an angle. My son and the poems I wrote after his death. Nothing was ever the same after he died. The documentary was about how I struggled with a new life after my son left this old earth.”

That night, the crew went out to dinner. They drank several bottles of sweet wine. A waitress arrived carrying sausages and shashlik. She was striking, with large blue eyes and slender legs. Pete, the Mancunian cameraman, asked her to join them after supper. “You belong with me, beauty,” he repeated several times. He was drunk and spoke loudly. She looked uneasy and he asked again, this time grabbing her arm a bit too forcefully. Zurab, the assistant director, asked Pete to leave her alone.

“What the fuck are you butting in for?” Pete snarled.

“Because we’re in Georgia, not in England. Things are different here,” Zurab answered calmly.

“Oh yeah? Like what? People don’t get laid here? Is that what you’re saying? Men are not allowed to proposition women? Is it like Saudi fucking Arabia here? Is that it?”

“No, that’s not it,” Zurab replied tersely.

“Ask the waitress how she feels, if you need further explanation.”

There was something majestic about Zurab. He was tall and slender with dark hair and pale brown eyes. Az had made several documentaries with him. He liked Zurab and had no doubt that he would become a director in his own right. He was talented. A visionary. A bit like him, Az. He also shared his dislike of Pete. Though he hadn’t been quite so abrasive before. Perhaps Zurab’s presence jarred him. Az had to make sure he kept an eye on those two. After all, Pete was a good cameraman. No one could dispute that.

Pete looked at Zurab and pointed a finger at him. “You think you’re so fucking special, don’t you?” He turned towards his neighbour, a Georgian lighting designer. Her English was poor and she lowered her eyes when she was spoken to.

“Wouldn’t you say this guy thinks he needs special treatment?” Pete slurred.

The woman mumbled something indistinct. Pete shrugged his shoulders and took a few more sips of his wine. “All a bunch of fucking weirdos on this set. Even you, the Moroccan,” he said, pointing at Az.

“Take it easy Pete,” Az snapped. He wasn’t in the mood for the other man’s rantings.

“Yeah, yeah.”

He had never seen Pete act quite so aggressively.

A group of four men at the next table broke into a polyphonic song. It began as a drone and broke into a harmonic melody. Az was transfixed. He hadn’t heard anything so beautiful in a long time. The melody burst through his senses. He was so moved, he could have cried. Was it the alcohol?

Zurab leaned towards him. “What you’re hearing is called a “Naduri”. A typical Georgian song. We love singing in public places.”

Az was about to ask Zurab to elaborate when Pete suddenly stood up and began to sing loudly over the men’s voices.

Baby you can drive my car

Yes I’m gonna be a star

Baby you can drive my car

And maybe I’ll love you

Az felt as if someone had gashed the music with a knife.

The singers paused momentarily.

Zurab stood up, grabbed Pete by the col- lar and punched him in the jaw. The latter attempted to punch him back, but missed, hitting his fist against the table instead. He began to shout loudly. Az intervened and managed, with two other crew members, to separate the two.

The whole restaurant went quiet.

 


 

This issue of The Indian Quarterly is about Going Away, two words that encompass so many things, from middle-class fantasy to the great leave-taking that is death. Escape, whether from pollution, boredom, decrepit public utilities; freedom, from our past lives or the daily drudgery of our current ones; the shuffling off of our mortal coils – our contributors deal with all these questions. Contributors of this issue include Omair Ahmad, Stephen Alter, Rupika Chawla, Neelam Man Singh Chowdry, Rajesh Devra, Sudhir Kakar, Amit mehra, and many more.
This excerpt is from a short-story from the April-June 2016 issue. Subscribe to The Indian Quarterly here.


 

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