Excerpted from a short story that first appeared in The Aleph Review, Vol. 4 (2020).
The painting makes me want to go back to Pakistan. I imagine myself at Ramkot Fort, watching the moonlight on Mangla Lake and—
Someone walks in front of me, obscuring my view. I blink, aware of dissonant sounds around me. Voices, competing. Laughter, forced. I was one of the first to arrive, but now half of Manhattan seems to be at the opening of Kashmir Revisited.
I focus on the painting again. I can almost feel those stone ramparts weathered by centuries. The darkness of the water draws me, promising something. A way to forget. To drift back—
“Khalid has such amazing talent,” a man’s voice says close beside me. The accent is English, the words clipped.
I’m not in the mood for small talk. I go over to the painting’s wall label. Squint at it.
“It’s called Midnight of My Passing Years.” He’s standing behind me. Not too close, at least.
“You’re Inkie Black, aren’t you?”
I flinch. It sounds ridiculous, a name chosen in a drunken stupor. Which, of course, it was.
“Your Roomscapes exhibition last year was intriguing.”
I turn and look at a stranger in a charcoal, tailored suit. He is monochromatic like the painting: his shirt black, his hair streaked with grey.
“I purchased Bedroom in Lahore at your exhibition. On behalf of a client.”
It was my first piece. The one I’d promised myself never to sell.
“Who’s your client?” I ask, trying to keep my tone even.
“Excuse me,” he calls to a waitress carrying a tray. “Thank you so much,” he takes two flutes of champagne, offers me one.
I shake my head.
“My client liked Bedroom in Lahore’s simplicity compared to your more recent work.”
I remember painting that salvage window bright turquoise. Draping a sheer dupatta inside the glass panes like a curtain half-pulled. Developing that photograph, mounting it in the box I’d built. Most of all, I remember stepping back. Gazing through a window at a man sleeping in tussled sheets, his arm above his head.
“My client and I are keen to see what you’re working on now.” The Englishman takes a card from his jacket pocket, hands it to me.
“Nothing. I stopped after that show.”
“What a great pity.”
I finger a lime green splotch on my jeans. In my rush to paint the guest room wall earlier, I didn’t bother to mask the edges, so the colour lapped onto the two adjacent walls and cornice. Perhaps that neon wall is the start of a new mixed-media—
“Did you know Khalid named this painting after a line from Parveen Shakir’s poem, I’m Happy to Remain a Butterfly?”
It’s one of my favourites, but I’m not about to tell him that.
“You were mesmerised for a good forty minutes. Khalid will be—”
“Is he here?” I wish suddenly that I owned a pair of heels. That I hadn’t stopped wearing makeup. That I’d worn anything other than this washed-out t-shirt that’s one size too big. My short hair could probably use a brush, if not a wash. I cut it myself these days.
“No, he can’t abide these events—even in Lahore. He’s such a private person.” The Englishman raises his chin, his attention drawn to something over my shoulder. He nods, glances back at me and says quickly, “Well, it’s been a pleasure, Miss Black. Do give me a ring sometime.” Before I can answer, he disappears into the crowd.
I wonder for a moment if I’ve imagined the entire conversation. I’ve been known to do that. Then I feel the thick, white card in my palm. I run my thumb over the engraved script but I can’t make out the tiny letters without my reading glasses. I dig through my rucksack and find their case. It’s empty, as usual. I shake the bag hard in frustration. My fingers grope around inside until they close over one of the lenses. When I put my glasses on, there’s a cloudy imprint that I don’t wipe off. The front of the business card has two lines:
J. Hughes +92 (0)42 9558167
Ninety-two: the country code for Pakistan. I turn the card over, expecting a website and email. It’s blank.
The day has been hot for mid-April and the air smells of smog, the way it does in summer. I wander through Madison Square Park, trying not to think about the painting. I head north towards the lights of the Empire State. Over my left shoulder, the prow of the Flatiron Building looks set to overtake me in the growing dusk. The French call this time of day l’heure bleue. The blue hour. I love taking pictures in its magical light. I pause by the South Fountain and watch a teenager in a purple anorak toss a coin in.
She reminds me of myself in Pakistan, that summer before starting my BFA. How naive I was with my ponytail and rucksack. My guidebook and Nikon. My pale skin that fascinated everyone—except him. His eyes touched me, but not his hands. Not at first.
I met him at Lake Mangla, the artist with the soulful eyes. He seemed to belong to another time, his paintbrush turning every scene into something mystical. He loved the folklore of his homeland and added an ephemeral detail to each painting—a clue for the enlightened to discover. That’s what I was looking for at the exhibition. Only, this time, it eluded me.
He used to recite Parveen Shakir’s poetry to me, his voice mellifluous as I lay curled beside him.
Months later—alone and wrapped up against the New York winter—I studied the translations from Urdu, learnt her poems by heart.
Paula Robinson was an interiors columnist in London for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph and Move or Improve? magazine. Ebury Publishing (Penguin Random House) commissioned her to write The Room Planner: 100 Practical Plans for Your Home, which was translated into French and Russian. She is working on her second illustrated interiors book, The Intuitive Home. Paula is an alumna of Curtis Brown Creative's Three-Month Novel Writing Course and has been previously published in The Aleph Review (print and digital).
About the featured artist: Suleman Aqeel Khilji was born in Quetta and lives in Lahore. Suleman was one of the students selected for a student exchange program to the Ecole des Beaux Art, Paris, where he was awarded a medal for outstanding achievement. He also obtained a distinction in painting from the National College of the Arts, Lahore, in 2011. In 2016 Suleman was awarded the Vasl Single Artist Residency in collaboration with the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi. In 2016, he took part in Murree Museum Artist’s Residency. He has been displaying his work across Pakistan and internationally. His works are part of collections such as Como Museum of Art, Lahore, Developments in Literacy (DIL) Foundation, New York, and the Luciano Benetton Collection. Currently, he is member of the permanent faculty at NCA, Lahore.*
* The bio has been copied from the print volume (2020) and may be out of date. To follow the artist's current work, head to: https://www.instagram.com/suleman_khilji/