DIAMONDS AND PEARLS

Seriously, who still leaves finding a place to stay on the other side of the world to chance? With his phone half dead from spinning over the request ‘things to do in Vijayanagara’, Amir had to accept he was lost in the jungle, the sun going down hard and fast on the bleeding horizon.

That a rest house should be out here, if not in the middle of nowhere then pretty far from the edge of it, blew his mind. The Durr-i-Durran – which Amir would later learn meant ‘Pearl of Pearls’, but for now made him sing ‘the Reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark’ – would either be a hovel crawling with things that bite, or so exclusive it’d cost something like two and a half day’s worth of the entire world’s food.

Inside, it looked like what an airbnb reviewer might call ‘old-world charm’. Musty books no one wanted to read, rugs more bare than thread, a cat past caring. After exhausting his hellos into the air, Amir settled on gazing at a portrait of a woman, stark naked yet covered in intricately inked-in ornaments. She looked so much like Gemma it was eerie, even if a combination of excessive weeping and madness meant Amir now saw Gemma in everything from the stars to the froth in his coffee. Gemma, who ripped his dreams out of his head and threw them back in his face.

He unconsciously fingered the ring he still kept in his breast pocket, why only the Gods may know, seeing as how it’d brought him nothing but misery since he tried and failed to put it on her finger. There’s a Cursed Gem gag there somewhere, but much like the way home and the point in carrying on, Amir couldn’t quite find it yet.

‘Each night, elephants bearing wealthy suitors would block the narrow lanes outside her house,’ came a voice so well spoken it could only belong to an Indian. Amir turned to find an elderly gent dressed in garments made for another century stood beside him as though he’d been there all along. ‘Her name is Nur Bai. She refused half the wealth of the Persian Empire because to sleep with her invader, she said, “would feel as if the flower of my cunt had been complicit with his massacres”.’

‘Right,’ Amir said after what felt like long enough. ‘Do you have any spare rooms?’

‘Muslim?’ Wondered the man. Amir knew how to react to this most irritating of queries when it came from a white stranger, but could never work out how to feel when it was a brown person asking. He shrugged to convey he supposed so. Bowing, the man said, ‘Then the gates to my humble mahal are open to you. An old man such as I cannot possibly stand in the way of your cannons and horse-mounted swivel guns.’

‘Okay,’ said Amir, swiftly getting to a different point. ‘How much are the rooms?’

‘Riches I am in no need of,’ the man roared. ‘It is stories that I am starved of and would gladly trade you a night’s sojourn in the Imperial Chamber in exchange for a tale of conquest.’

After taking a peak at the room, which looked entirely exquisite with its ornate four-post bed and walls dripping in glittering art, Amir realised he’d be a fool not to humour this bizarre but likeable old fart. All he had to do here to get free board in the most luxurious suite he’d ever set eyes on was share a life story.

So he spoke of the tale all heartbroken men tell.

‘Ah, a man who believes love is the master plan,’ the man reflected after Amir poured his heart out over Gemma. ‘You must feel like Count Orlov presenting the Great Mughal Diamond to Catherine The Great, only to find himself spurned, doomed to spend his final days raving in an asylum.’

Amir shrugged. He certainly felt like some sort of count.

‘I take it that is the token of love you keep absent-mindedly plucking at in your pocket? May I?’

Amir took out the ring and handed it to him, then, after being sure the muffled sound coming from the man wasn’t simply a very long cough, asked, ‘Are you… laughing?’

‘Forgive me, perhaps the blasts of autumn have withered my sight, but never have I gazed upon a jewel so miniscule, so insignificant, so utterly without…’

‘Okay, I get the picture,’ Amir snapped, trying to push away the new thought that Gemma might have turned him down because he couldn’t afford a fancier rock. ‘A man is measured by his worth, right?’

‘I wonder if you have learned your lesson,’ said the man, his eyes sparkling with mischief or menace Amir couldn’t tell. Then, after commanding, ‘take a look inside’, the man took his clothes off.

‘The fuck are you…’ Amir yelled out, until he saw it, shining with a light so bright it left him colour blind. A stone the size of a fist, so dazzling it looked like a drop fallen from the sun, beating inside the man’s chest. Dumbstruck, he placed his hand on the man’s bare breast. It was most definitely inside.

‘The Syamantaka,’ the man announced proudly. ‘The greatest treasure known to the Gods, lost to mankind. Your people did not quite take all that was ours it would seem.’

‘My people?’

‘Muslims. The British. Both equal in the extent of blood they shed in the name of art appreciation, wouldn’t you say? I wonder. Did any of it truly make anyone a happy boy or a girl?’

‘Only love makes you happy,’ Amir said, it seemed apt to resort to poetry, and the man took it as the right response.

Then, as if no more had happened than his houseguest being shown how the air con worked, the man jovially bid Amir goodnight, promising to tell him how he wrestled the rock away from the bear king Jambavan over breakfast, how does masala dosa and chai sound?

Amir sat with eyes wide as eggs until he remembered to blink. His head the scene of a raging battle between disbelief and faith, with questions digging into him like daggers, he ran into the man’s chambers, hungry for knowledge.

Upon a throne plucked of all its feathers, lay the man, motionless but for the pulsating ruby heart, dreaming of worlds Amir would never understand. He could wake him, beg him to reveal where to find what legend says is lost forever, what it takes for a man to be like God.

Instead, Amir thrust his hand into the man’s chest and ripped out the blood-kissed stone. On his way out he caught a reflection of his eyes and rejected the judgement. He was only doing what history had taught him to do.

All he had to offer would no longer just be love.

Inspired by Koh-i-Noor: History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple & Anita Anand
By Shihab S Joi
Hat-doff: Prince, New Power Generation, William Dalrymple

EXPECTING TO FLY

Brilliant. Trust my obituary to be left in the hands of a guy who likes to write stories told from the viewpoint of an animal. Spoiler alert: I’m a fucking penguin.

Epitaphs aren’t written for the dead, of course – the number of people who sue from the afterlife remains a zero – so wheel out the harp and sing my praises for the ones left behind, jostling to show how deep goes the me shaped hole in their hearts.

I suppose it’s right they spare loved ones the truth. Mother need never know about the dearly departed’s autozoophilia fetishes. The widow won’t want a word spoken of the one, from so long ago, that he’ll be most nervous about bumping into hell.

They say this isn’t a time to be sad. We should celebrate a life. Share fond memories. Actually, if it’s not too needy to make it all about me at my own funeral, I’d say this is a perfect time to be miserable. To regret every single thing I did wrong and question what exactly I did right. To cry over those years we’d spent with feeling, howl my apologies and damn the eyes of all who dared smite me.

I always suspected I wouldn’t get to wave goodbye. The story doesn’t ends where you hope it might. After the perfect last words, there’s the long, awkward sigh, and a so, anyway…

My song will never be mine to sing. I am, after all, a penguin.

I could always fly, you know. It’s just that no one ever expected me to.

Now you know I tried.

By Shihab S Joi
Hat-doff: Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield 

SONG TO THE SIREN

‘Imagine you are far away from all your troubles and drifting away in an ocean of calm,’ the hypnotist says and I freak because I can’t swim. But I go with it because I’m paying her to cure me of my fear of heights – I can always write a damning review if this makes the one about drowning weirder in the process.

‘You are in a bubble that nothing can penetrate…’

Getting hard to breathe here, ma’am.

‘Rolling along gently afloat on a shipless ocean…’

I do my best to smile. It’s the face to go with a body recoiling from a rifle shot.

‘You now come to the edge of the water, safe in your bubble, gently bobbing, feeling light as a ray. Now I want you to slowly look down…’

What? Roll back! Roll back!

‘To behold the most wondrous thing you have ever seen.’

I see blackness. Wrapped in white fear. The only wonder here is why I’m paying someone to push me into the abyss.

And then, beyond the clamour of the savage waves lashing against the rocks and the wind shrieking in anguish, I hear the call.

Sail to me, sail to me.

I am not so deep in trance that I imagine I am Poseidon, or that I have wings and nymphs to guide me, but with this one breath I pierce the bubble, let the sea enfold me, and fall.

Here I am. Knowing you’ll be there.

Waiting to hold me.

For Priya Joi. By Shihab S Joi
Hat-doff: Tim Buckley, Larry Beckett, This Mortal Coil

LITTLE WONDER

Dreams can only be assessed afterwards, of course. It’s the morning mind, if it can be arsed, that indulges them with perception, or files away in nevermind land marked with a giant question.

The old man knows this, but how to convey it to a little girl who can accept reality without needing to judge it first? It’s not that she asked a big question. It’s the size of the answer that matters, and he wanted his to help her be someone who won’t waste a good dream by pinching herself.

His harshest critic, who revels in dismissing ideas that get above their station, scoffs all too heartily. There really isn’t one older in the book than ‘it was all a dream’.

Goaded, the old man cracks.

‘The gnome is grumpy because it isn’t laughing anymore,’ he snaps. He doesn’t want to go with the Snow White allegory. Putting it down to drugs is the second cheapest excuse going. ‘The hope is that after they find life on Mars it will be one big happy nation. The hands are fat because he’s no longer thin.’

Everything makes sense if you’re willing to take it apart and reshape it. Interpretation is an act of faith. Wars are waged on nonsense.

‘Hm,’ muses the harshest critic, not entirely unconvinced. ‘And Sneezing Bhutan?’

‘I don’t know!’ The old man is screeching now. Heaven knows why he keeps the ignominious little runt in his pay. ‘The silly boy blue snorting his way though religion?’

‘Ha!’ The smile slices the harshest critic’s face in two. He made the old man go there.

The little girl, meanwhile, has lost interest, wandered off somewhere far, far away. But who’s to say she didn’t get it?

Let her wonder how she pleases, old man. And please, try not to belittle it with a point.

For Leela Joi. By Shihab S Joi
Hat-doff:
David Bowie, Mark Plati, Reeves Gabrels

THE MERCY SEAT

This was not a meal to die for.

Here he was, in the land of haute cuisine, and all Mo could afford was a plat du fucking jour. Always the same wherever you went. An undercooked hunk of chicken in a pasty tomato sauce with veg the texture of chewed up gum. A ragged cup of coffee, tasting of wood and wire. Strawberry ice cream with a crumb of chocolate like a blackened tooth in a scarlet fog. Who’d miss these sinister dinner deals?

Café owner must’ve felt pity on him or something, because he laid down a complimentary bowl of soup. There’s a swirl in it, looks like Jesus or Allahu, depending on your mood.

He was never going to work them out, the French. Done trying to interpret their signs. Did you know the first thing that happens to a French baby after it’s born is to have a finger shoved up its anus? The first shit they ever take is black. Bottom kind. The sick breath at its hind.

How twisted do you have to be feeling to stick around for dessert? Mo knew the ever after, and there was no brûlée after Quran.

Mo paid up, waited for change. There’s no tip worth leaving that’d be of any use to these lost causes. His chariot awaits. It was far from gold but this would not be the last seat he ever sat on, of that Mo was nearly wholly sure. His filthy five clenched on the wheel, neither challenging nor resisting, the tan line round his wedding finger starved of what was once good.

Funny, thought Mo, out here when they say ‘mercy’, they mean thanks.

By God, they’d thank him for this.

An eye that can’t see or a tooth that chews on the lie? A foolish life without burdens or one of truths and consequences? Hated on earth or hailed in heaven? He was done with all this measuring of truth.

It’s a beautiful night on the Promenade des Anglais. The key turns, the engine roars, the wicked wheels spin. Deliver us thy blood of atonement.

Let history unfold.

By Shihab S Joi
Hat-doff: Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Johnny Cash

SOMETIMES IT SNOWS IN APRIL

Still haven’t wiped away your last tear, I see.

You see right, Tracy, The moon is as full and cherry-red as my heart once more, and here I am, rolling out paisley tears for another friend, like all I do is cry for friends.

You only see me when you hear the door slam. They don’t always leave me, my friends, you know. But they have to sometimes.

Shut up already, damn, Tracy sneers. Making out you feel as much pain for this one as you did for the last love you lost. Snivelling like he was your only friend.

And I think maybe you’re right Tracy. I can’t remember the last time I held his hand in the rain. But the thought of it did keep me warm inside. Like the man said. It isn’t love until it’s past.

Wipe away your foolish tears. He’s a whole lot better off than the fools he left here, says Tracy. I know he’s looking at me.

You don’t need to remind me good things never last, Tracy. That you always cry for love, never for pain.

But what is always without sometimes, Tracy? Haven’t you seen how the sun can be buried, even when it’s his time to shine?

Sometimes I feel. Sometimes I don’t.

Sometimes I wish it never snowed at all.

By Shihab S Joi
Hat-doff: Prince/ Wendy Melvoin/ Lisa Coleman

SUEDEHEAD

Max woke from a night of uneasy dreams to find his head had metamorphosed into a giant root vegetable.

He’d really gone and done it this time.

‘Why do you comb hair?’ He thought he heard himself ask.

The face in the mirror would look bemused, if it weren’t a turnip.

He couldn’t think who might know, so he rang himself. Check the voice inside his head was still him. It was not.

Max started to spin, the chord of the telephone tying him up in silly knots.

‘You’re making this lard for me,’ complained the voice inside the rutabaga.

‘Sorry,’ Max tore himself away from the mirror and sneaked into his room. A cow slept noisily in the corner, cartons and cartons of milk and milk products all around her. Nothing to see here but dairy.

He sat down and began to draw. A handsome man, happy, looking fresh and ever so slick, not a trace of sickness. Next to the picture Max drew an arrow and scrawled: ‘Me. In my dream!’

‘Dear Me,’ he wrote, forcing a cough into a laugh. ‘Just one letter away from the truth.’

It was a good lie.

By Shihab S Joi
Hat-doff: Steven Morrissey/Stephen Street