“Rashid knows all these intimately, their contours, markings and curves,” Fatima said through the smoky haze of patchouli. I hadn’t expected to be meeting Rashid’s sister on my first visit to his home, although he’d mentioned her quite a lot over the few months we’d known each other.
“It started with these, which I inherited from my father,” Rashid said, going over to the mantelpiece. He picked up a statue. “You know Cleo; everybody does, and her brother, Ptolemy, over there. She’s crafted in clay, and moulded in poly-stone, and he’s made of the finest porcelain. They’re both hand painted with real, gold paint.” He cradled the object in his arms and caressed its belly. “Cleo’s very special.”
“Yes, she is,” Fatima said, rubbing her abdomen. “Please make yourself at home Simran.” When I’d shook her hand a few minutes earlier, her palms and fingers had caught my attention; they were like those of a child, petite with baby-soft skin. Her hand was limp and she’d withdrawn it from mine in an instant.
“It’s like a museum here,” I said, looking around. The cream blinds at the windows at opposite ends of the room were drawn, and aside from the busts and figurines on the stools scattered around the room and on shelves running along the wall, the lounge was furnished with just a couch and an arm chair.
“Yes, wonderful isn’t it?” Fatima said, smiling. Her teeth were tiny and evenly spaced.
“But what do you do with them?” I stayed standing, not knowing where to sit. “They’re so many.”
“We play with them,” she replied. “Rashid puts every new piece on the stool beside his favourite arm chair and in the evenings, he polishes them for hours.” She went over to the windows and opened the blinds; her skin was startlingly pale, accentuated by her bright red lipstick.
“May I?” I asked, and after she nodded, I picked up a pink object. It had the head of an elephant, the body of a female, and its four arms extended in different directions. I touched its spiky eyelashes, arched eyebrows and slanted eyes. Its tusks were pointed and sharp and under its curved trunk, its lips were curled in a grimace.
“Don’t dare drop Vinayaki,” Rashid said. “She’s our Indian goddess of wisdom.” I put down the idol and touched a green bust.
“And she’s Yemoja,” Fatima said. “West African goddess of power and destruction, made from malachite. She weighs a tonne; I wouldn’t try and lift her if I were you.” She laughed. How like a miniature she was, with regular features, soft, smooth skin, a small nose and bulging eyes. Her lips looked like they’d been carved and her eyebrows as if they’d been painted on. I dropped my hand. “They keep us busy,” she said. “You wouldn’t think it, but they need constant looking after.” She pointed to an oriental figure of a half-naked woman sitting cross legged holding a flute to her lips. “Look at her, our female Buddha. She’s hand carved from ivory. Notice the intricate calligraphy and jewelry on her skirt and headdress.”
“Where did you find them?” I asked.
“In different places,” replied Rashid. “But we know instantly when we see them if they’re one of us.” He smoothed Cleopatra’s head. “Aren’t they intriguing? Each one is exceptional.”
“With a special meaning for us,” Fatima said. Using both hands she lifted a figure from the stool. “See Pannie, our satyress made of cement.” Holding it in one hand, with her other, she rotated its head making a terrible grinding sound. She turned it upside down and blew inside the hollow cavity. A cloud of dust flew out. “Sorry, honey Pannie.” She tweaked its jagged horns, and ran her fore finger lightly over its open, sneering mouth where its tongue curled back convulsively. I looked away, but she drew me back when she said, “Rashid tells me the two of you are thinking of moving in together.”
“We haven’t discussed it yet,” I said, looking at Rashid. I couldn’t believe he’d talked to her about it when we hadn’t had a chance to discuss it between ourselves.
“Would you like to hold Pannie?” she asked, offering me the object.
“Well, you’re more than welcome to live here, with us.” She withdrew her hand and fixed the head back onto its body rotating it, making the oppressive crunching noise. She replaced it on a stool.
“No, I couldn’t possibly do that,” I said, feeling panic. I turned to Rashid who was still caressing the curves on Cleopatra’s face.
“Why not?” Fatima said. “There’s plenty of room and I’d stay out of your way.” Rashid put Cleopatra on the stool and grinned at his sister.
“Are you sure Sis?”
“Of course Rashidoo, it could be the perfect arrangement.”
He stretched out his arm and caught his sister. She allowed herself to be drawn to him as he encircled her waist, swinging her gently on her feet. He towered over her slight build; she couldn’t have been taller than five feet.
“I’ve heard so much about you Simran, and now I can see why Rashid adores you.” She flicked her brother’s chin affectionately. “She’ll fit right in Rashidoo, she’ll be one of us.”
The brother and sister smiled at each other. Their looks were strikingly different. He, tall and bulky with straight hair combed to one side and she, petite and slim, with long curly hair.
The picture of them embracing made me recoil and I became more uncomfortable when I noticed the way Rashid was gazing at Fatima’s bulging eyes and creamy, unblemished cheeks. Then Fatima said, “Good. It’s been decided then, you’re one of us. Shall I get us some tea?”
Breaking out of her brother’s embrace, she left the room.
When I thought she was out of ear shot, I said to him, “I can’t do it, we hardly know each other and I really couldn’t cope living with her.”
Rashid sat down on the arm chair. He reached for Cleopatra, only at arm’s distance on the stool and stroked its head. “Well, what are our options? This place or your flat.”
“Or we could get a new place together?”
“But what about these?” He waved a hand at the shelves and stools. “I can’t be without them.”
“You could bring one or two your favourites.”
“But if you lived here with us, I could get to live with all of them.”
I picked up Ptolemy from the shelf. “Don’t you think it’s strange you and me and her, and all of these things living together?”
“Not at all, in fact I’m convinced in time you’ll grow to love them the way we do. They’ll grow on you.” He observed me for a moment. “I saw you looking at Fatima earlier. I know she seems a bit different to you.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude by staring, sorry.”
“She has a rare skin condition which means she has no hair on her body.” He crossed over to the shelves along the length of the room and picked up a black object of several naked female bodies entwined with one male. “I know it’s a little awkward for you,” he said holding the object up to the light, “but once you get to know Fati, you’ll see she’s alright.”
“Don’t you see that she’s quite possessive of you?”
“See this, it’s makonde art from Kenya, carved from one single piece of ebony. No joints, no cracks, no glue or nails. Just naturally, seamlessly together.” He smoothed his fingers over it.
“But what if she doesn’t like me, when she does get to know me better?”
“She will. You’ll see in a few days you’ll be best friends. It’ll be fun.”
He replaced the figurine carefully on the shelf.
“Fun?” I was still holding Ptolemy, and its hollow eyes glowered at me strangely.
“I can see you like him,” Rashid said, coming to stand next to me. “He’s very special you know, the only male amongst the many female goddesses.” He reached out, touched my face and tucked a stray hair behind my ear.
“It’s very awkward for the three of us to live together, Rashid,” I said taking a step backwards.
“Well, you’re worrying for nothing.” I put down Ptolemy.
“Two women can’t share a kitchen.”
“Who said anything about a kitchen?” he whispered, and before I could resist, he’d put his arms around me and pulled me towards him. I tried to break free, but he held me tighter and brought his face closer. “I’ve just had a brilliant idea,” he said, his breath warm in my ear. “Why don’t you stay here with us tonight?”
“Please stop,” I said, pushing away his hands, and feeling hot and cold. “Let go of me.”
“Why?” he said teasingly. “I’ve finally got you where I want you.”
“No Rashid, please don’t.” I struggled but he wouldn’t let go. Fatima was back carrying a tray.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said, with a short laugh. Rashid’s arms dropped from my waist and I moved away. He turned to his sister. “What do you think Sis, if Simran stays with us tonight?”
Fatima stared at me without blinking. “What a good idea. Please do, Simran, it’ll be such fun.” She raised both hands and adjusted her black curls. As I’d guessed, she was wearing a wig.
“Fun?” I said weakly. My knees felt wobbly as I sat down on the couch. I gripped the armrest. “No, really, I couldn’t.”
“Why not?” Her tone was silky.
“Is your family expecting you?”
“Simran has no siblings,” Rashid said. “She lives on her own.”
“All the more reason then. We’d love to have your company tonight.” She passed me a cup of tea and placed a plate of biscuits on the coffee table. Moving over to the other side of the couch, she served Rashid. “We’re not taking no for an answer,” she said. “I really want to get to know you better, and we could tell you the particular history of each piece in our collection.You’d be getting familiar with all of us.”
“But I don’t have any of my things.” “You don’t have to worry about anything, we’ll share what we have. Both Rashid and I and even all of them,” she said, waving her hand at the shelves, “want you to stay.”
“Yes, we all do, and we’re not letting you leave,” Rashid said. He raised his cup in a mock toast. “To your first night here with us! Cheers, drink up Simran, while it’s hot.”
I took a sip of tea and burnt my lips. On the stool near Rashid was the blue and gold bust of Cleopatra, and as I fumbled with my tea it mocked me with its oily, almond shaped eyes. With the cup still in my hand, I reached forward to help myself to a biscuit. My hand jerked, I spilt the tea, and while trying to regain my balance, my elbow knocked against Cleopatra.
“Watch out,” shouted Rashid as the sculpture toppled and fell onto the floor. Fatima was on her knees in an instant.
“Oh no.” She held up a piece of broken porcelain to Rashid. “You know what this means?”
Rashid took the shard from her, and then was on his knees too.
Apologising, I cleared up the biscuits and tea while Fatima tried to puzzle the pieces together, sobbing as she did. Rashid brought a broom and pan and swept up the fragments. “I’ll get some glue and stick it back together, please don’t cry.”
“It’ll never be the same,” Fatima wept. “Everything’s spoilt.”
Rashid dropped the broom and went to where his sister was kneeling and stroked her nape. “Hush darling, I’ll fix it, I promise.”
Fatima got up and wiped her tears. “We should never have trusted a complete stranger.” Rashid put his arm around her shoulder. She looked at me for a long moment, then a bright stare came into her eyes and she held her neck stiff. “Do you really expect us to think this was an accident, Simran?”
The room had become much darker, there was no more light coming through the blinds, and even though it was only after six, it seemed much later. “I’m sorry you feel I’m capable of doing such a thing intentionally.” He exchanged a look with his sister. Fatima picked up the dustpan with all the pieces. “Goodbye Simran,” she said, walking to the door.
Rashid slumped into a chair. I turned to him. “Surely you don’t think that too?”
“I don’t know what to think anymore. You should never have come here.”
“But you kept urging me to, Rashid, you know that.”
“I thought you were one of us.” His face crumpled as he got up with an effort. “I’ll get your coat.” He switched on a light by the door, and the dim lamp cast a shadow on the shelves. I stood up and trod on something; a shard of Cleo. I kicked it under the couch. From the mantelpiece, Ptolemy glared at me with vacant eyes, its thick lips parted in an anguished smile. I reached across and lifted it off the shelf, just as Rashid returned with my coat.
“Oh no you don’t.” He snatched Ptolemy from me. “You’ve caused enough damage already. Leave us alone.” He cradled the sculpture in his arms and rocked it. “You destroyed Cleo. What’s poor Ptolemy going to do now?”
“Maybe Fatima will know,” I mumbled. Once on the street, I turned to look back. The blinds were up in one of the rooms and the light was on. Fatima was standing in the window staring down at me.