Part 2 of ‘Round Things’ below (part 1 here).
“Are these yours?”
Val let out a chortle. “Good grief, no. Well, in a manner of speaking, I suppose. I knew the man who owned these,” she indicated the leftmost three medals; one was written in Farsi, the other two had Hindi script. “The rest I just picked up at flea markets and on the job, you know.”
I didn’t know, but Val was clearly the type who one might have called ‘rambunctious’ back in the day. Val put the tray down and moved back to her seat in the veranda.
“We were staying with a Maharajah at one time,” she sat and lit another cigarette with a shaky hand, and put the lighter on one of the Thali. “And I was the silly white child who liked to run about with the young wallas and play with them. Of course, they all spoke English, but I picked up a few words here and there.” She took a long drag, making the end of her cigarette burn orange for a while. “And while I was going around with them, I used to look out for junk that people used to drop. ‘That’s trash,’ my father used to say to me. But it wasn’t to me. Look.” Val rose and pivoted around the chair she was sitting on to get past me to the shelving in the kitchen.
She picked up a little toy train carriage, like the ones the walla in her stories would pull. It was beautiful: the main structure was made of tin, with copper and brass detailing to show the edges of its windows, the joins, emphasising its cleverly simple construction. Ends had been curled like paper scrolls for added interest, but perhaps also to hide the sharp edges. It had been through the mill a bit, too, but the hammering it had taken only made it look more precious. It was also missing a wheel. She handed it to me with such care that caused me anxiety, and I worried about dropping it. I could feel why. Even though its construction was solid, it felt like it would disintegrate at any moment. It wasn’t going to – it was made of metal, and its remaining wheels and spokes were beaten so much they probably couldn’t fall off anymore – but there was something fragile about it, like the atoms themselves could destabilise, or its very existence in reality was threatened.
“This tells a much better story with a missing wheel than if it was perfect, don’t you agree?”
I nodded, turning it carefully in my hands. The other side looked neater, but Val wanted to showcase the beaten, damaged side. The honest part. The humble part.
“My father and his friends would always try to buy me these shiny new toys and things. He would try to take my little treasures away from me a few times. Perhaps he thought they were broken and useless. He tried to repair them, too, but I didn’t want that either. He got really angry about it.” Val took another long drag on the cigarette that had been resting in the ashtray, which was now mostly a long grey pillar of ash. “So I had to hide my little stash. When we left India I had to pack them away carefully so he wouldn’t find them.”
She gave up on the withered cigarette and fired up a new one. It was never Val’s conservatory if there was no smoke in the air. She put the lighter down and the new cigarette was rested in the place of its fallen comrade. Absently, she turned to an easel with a painting of oranges in a bowl.
More round things.