Historical Fiction by Yasmin Khan Murgai
The light shines stronger and stronger in the sky, rising so it can still be seen above the city’s gray skyline. “Turn now,” whispers Maria as she walks left out of Liverpool Street Station onto Bishopsgate. She feels the softening edges of the photograph in her pocket and traces them with her fingertips. Two giant gray horses pull a cart loaded with barrels marked: Truman Brewery, London. The animals’ breath makes a glittering steam in November’s morning chill as they clatter past on the cobbles. She is almost there.
It’s 1919, and the sounds of postwar building ring out — hard metal and stone after weeks at sea. Maria begins to feel warmer as she walks. The heat of her homeland had faded with the coastline of India, and when The Victoria docked at Tilbury, she understood her Scottish mother’s meaning of winter as it cut through her cotton coat.
She makes another left turn where the road forks in two, and she recites the directions in her head. The prow of Curtain Road and Great Eastern Street is now on her right, and the curved sweep of the ‘Old Blue Last’ advertises ‘Beers, Luncheons, Teas’ across its arched windows. A trio of waistcoated men direct thundering beer barrels along the pavement opposite, stopping as one and raising their caps to her — barely pausing before they continue their roll and ramp into the basement stores.
Feeling the tingle and spark of the picture in her pocket, Maria knows it is shining. Her fingertips feel the outline of the portrait. She sees it without looking.
The night Rafiq was blinded, Ernie had stayed by his side in the wet, stinking trench. Until the dawn rose on Rafiq’s sightless eyes, they repeated the route to the Electric Light Station. From Liverpool Street Railway to Coronet Street, door to door. It’s the route Maria is walking now. A tram rattles past, passengers on the open upper deck swaying in a blur of black and hats. She always knew she’d walk these steps, never even thought of buying a tram ticket at Liverpool Street Station as she made a sharp and purposeful turn left.
Maria reaches Old Street. It’s wide and busy, and she repeats her directions like a prayer. “Cross over the road to Pitfield Street.” She hears the sounds of a brass band playing. The tone is warm against the cold morning air, but the notes hang half-heartedly on the tune.
A dark-suited troupe of musicians appears, massing on the opposite pavement, one by one letting the music fall away as they wait to cross. The richly embroidered banner waving above them reads ‘Salvation Army,’ stitched in red, gold, and black. Turning her head, Maria checks the light in the sky. It gives the impression now not of shining, but beating.
On the day the picture was taken, it was too rough to sail to France. Rafiq and his unit had camped a short distance from the port. Rafiq had felt lost until Ernie told the other men to move up on their own bench table at dinner the previous night. Despite not understanding the rules of the trench game “Crown and Anchor,” Rafiq had a knack with dice. He and Ernie partnered up and won most games, along with a pile of paper money. The next morning, they would march shoulder to shoulder and heed the order to “Step short,” to lessen their strides so as not to lose their balance on the slope that led to the waiting troop ships and to the trenches.
The soldiers were given an hour to spend in the town before setting sail. A shop front with a large gold and navy sign reading: J. R. DENNY, PHOTOGRAPHER faced the docks. Images were on display of holidaying families playing with buckets and spades on the stone beach and studio portraits of proud fathers standing over sad mothers and shocked-looking children. Rafiq had the sensation of walking into a living, beating heart so red, cushioned and dark as the studio was. A frail man had appeared without warning, said little, and twice seemed to disappear from view as the flash bulb bounced Rafiq’s and Ernie’s images into eternity.
Agreeing not to leave their portraits for collection (as so many other stacked, forlorn faces seemed to be warning them not to) nor to have them sent to their families, the forwarding address Ernie and Rafiq gave was that of their unit, the “Honourable Artillery Company, c/o the Western Front.”
The day the pictures were delivered to their mud-walled underground Mess room, they toasted their mercurial images in amazement with their regimental toast: “Zay!”
Rafiq spent 71 days in the trenches. In spare moments, Ernie and he memorized descriptions of each other’s families, homes, and places of work. They did this as a way of making order in the mud, smoke, and shatter of their days and nights. They did this during the hours that Rafiq’s hazel-flinted eyes melted and drained, as his sight sank into the field after they were gassed in Flanders.
Their favorite repetition was reciting the directions from Liverpool Street to the power station where Ernie worked. Shoreditch Electric Light Station, Ernie said, was like a vision of heaven. There, they made light. ‘E pulvere, lux et vis’ was the entrance inscription in Latin. Its meaning: ‘Out of the dust, light and power.’ Electricity was produced there with energy captured from the city’s burning rubbish.
“It’s the future,” said Ernie. “The furnaces aren’t the end of it, Raf; they’re the beginning.”
Rafiq was trying not to listen to the rumble of German guns, nor to see the flashes of enemy explosions lighting up their trench.
Ernie kept on talking. “When you visit after the war, you’ll see for yourself.”
Although they wanted more than anything for the story they told themselves to become true, Rafiq and Ernie knew things wouldn’t take place quite as they imagined.
When the tiny, blond female ambulance driver arrived to take Rafiq to the field hospital, Ernie had written the directions from Liverpool Street to the power station on the back of his photograph. Then, placing Rafiq’s picture inside his Bible, he said a quick prayer out of his friend’s earshot.
“I’m counting on you,” he whispered to his own portrait, as he unwrapped Rafiq’s Koran from the square of clean, white cloth it was kept in, tucking his image between the material and the book’s cover. “Keep him safe.”
The papery magic of the images was being called on to work again. New orders, an onward journey after having found their way from the photographer’s lair in Folkestone to their owners in the trench.
Maria had been drinking tea under the shade of heavy palms with her Scottish mother, Kate, when their bearer came with a letter dictated by Rafiq from his hospital bed in Brighton Pavilion, the Military Hospital for Indian soldiers injured in France. A nurse had inscribed the story of Rafiq’s blinding, how Ernie — his friend and fellow soldier — had saved his life, silencing his screams, and pulling Rafiq back into the safety of the trench, out of sight of the enemy’s machine guns and snipers that he could no longer see.
Kate read those sentences during that airless teatime as vultures circled high above her dry lawn. She slid down from her chair and sat, shrinking on the brown grass, weeping for her son’s lost sight. She wept for the war. The letter told how the same gas hadn’t blinded Ernie as he, a British soldier, had a gas mask as standard trench issue. Rafiq, a Commonwealth soldier, did not. She wept for her lost belief in the balance of things, which had held her world together until now.
Over the red domes of Lahore’s old fort in the distance, a tiny, unblinking golden shine was sitting in the sky to the west. The afternoon prayer was being sung from a nearby minaret, but the beauty of the sound was muted as Maria felt herself, at the news of her brother, already drawn away from that life. Rafiq’s letter outlined little of the blinding horror of the trenches, but it was easy to guess at the hideous crucible from which he had emerged. It was clear from the words that Ernie had saved him, and this, along with the tiny glitter in the distance, convinced Maria that good, as well as evil, can be made.
As the end of the afternoon prayer echoed against the walls of the old city, Kate had noticed how her daughter had paled, without ever seeing the glittering light Maria was drawn to. Sometimes, she understood, there are feelings that conquer even the highest barriers.
Kate had stepped off an Edinburgh pavement 21 years before and neglected to look right. Her collarbone had cracked as she was knocked to the ground by Maria’s Father, Hari (known in Edinburgh as Harry), the most beguiling cyclist she’d ever seen. Harry had picked her up, hailed a cab, and taken her to the hospital where he was a trainee. They were married three months later. Harry’s doctor friends and two heartbroken nurses made up the wedding party. The couple set sail for India once Harry qualified. Kate settled happily into life in the ever-flowering, scorched-earth city of Lahore.
She later said she was happy until this very day when both of her children began to slip away from her.
On his two-week leave in April 1917, Ernie had traveled from London to visit Rafiq in Brighton. Stripes of fine, white cloud and bright blue circled the town. Rafiq sat with bandaged eyes inside the dark and echoing space, empty except for an endless circle of immaculate beds in the old ballroom. The chandeliers were wrapped in sheets, the few patients silent and still. Built as a celebration of life and pleasure, the Pavilion now whispered “death.”
“We’ll go for a pint,” Ernie suggested, partly wanting to believe that this blindfolded shadow was not really Rafiq, that the real Rafiq would be heard coming down the empty corridor, laughing and challenging all newcomers to another game as he had done on the first night they had met.
“Let’s walk in the gardens,” answered Rafiq, pushing lightness into his voice. The injured Commonwealth soldiers, these guests of royalty treated in this palace folly, were not patients, but prisoners who weren’t allowed into the town.
Ernie walked, pushing Rafiq’s frail frame on a lopsided and uncushioned wheelchair. Outside the Pavilion’s white domes, the friends lit cigarettes and sat in a haze of silver smoke with the smell of the sea mixing with spring’s freshly growing grass. The perimeter wire was visible, the sentries standing at attention.
Rafiq refused Ernie’s offer to switch back the portraits on that April day. “Keep it,” said Rafiq. “They’ve worked their magic twice — once by rescuers finding us in the trenches, and again, by bringing you here to visit me.” He paused before finishing his thought, his ribcage heaving with the gas that would never leave his lungs. He mouthed the final words, “Let’s see what else they can do.”
Ernie smiled, trying not to show his shock at the severity of the coughing fit, and placed Rafiq’s picture back inside his own breast pocket. He brought out his hip-flask and they toasted each other, slowly and quietly, “Zay!”
Rafiq died that night, breathing out a last prayer under the dark cover of the dome and willing his soul home across the seas, deserts, and mountains.
Several days later, the black-edged telegram arrived at the house in Lahore as Maria’s father was kneeling to make his midnight prayers. Kate’s sobbing could be heard across the corridors, through the concrete walls, and out across the lawn until it disappeared at the gate.
Rafiq’s belongings were sent back to Lahore. Maria’s world shifted in the instant she saw Ernie’s silver eyes staring out of the gray print tucked inside the Koran. When she looked down, the metallic eyes glinted at her, and she felt what she thought must be love, and it was calling her to London. Having seen Ernest Kent’s electric image, her journey in that instant had begun.
‘E pulvere, lux et vis,’ the Latin inscription on the back of the photo was easy to translate. The meaning as clear to her as the name written beneath it in looped, solemn ink: Ernest Kent, Folkestone, 1916. Underneath the name, directions were written in a different, more urgent hand — a sequence of ‘turn L,’ ‘turn R,’ and as-yet-unknown street names.
Maria had registered for work as an Ayah — a traveling governess — as soon as the war was over and women were again allowed to travel by sea. She knew this would secure her a free passage to London, and she was hired immediately: “Honestly, you’d never know she was Anglo-Indian!” The return fare wasn’t included in the deal. That didn’t matter to Maria.
On the deserted deck one evening, she watched the light in the sky shift position over London as The Victoria crossed the equator and switched hemispheres.
She feels homesick for the first time as a sheer wall of London bricks rises up at her side, blocking her view of the light in the sky. The walk has warmed her, but she is still shivering in clothes cut for the heat of India. Forcing herself back to Lahore, she thinks of the first time she saw Ernie’s face, in order to feel the certainty that what she is doing is right.
The sun was rising at Tilbury when The Victoria had docked earlier that morning. Maria bought her ticket to Liverpool Street, shyness preventing her from buying the cup of steaming tea she so dearly wanted from a pavement stall.
In Bethnal Green, Ernie’s sister is cleaning the windows. She’s rubbing at the dust on the outside of the pane when a glow catches her eye. Looking around, she sees a Bible on the shelf with a photograph tucked inside. She tells herself the light must have been a reflection from the road.
Maria follows the route ‘right onto Coronet Street.’ She sees the tall brick building where ‘E pulvere, lux et vis’ is carved above the mahogany double doors. She’s going in to call Ernest from his work to the front desk, to say she has come. Looking up, still standing on the pavement in that pale morning blankness, she sees the glowing, floating, flexing light beginning to fade.
The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical
We are pleased to announce this piece as a Notable Mention for The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on themes of historical people, places, events, objects, or ideas. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
YASMIN KHAN MURGAI is an English writer of Irish and Pakistani heritage. Her writing is inspired by her work as a BBC journalist, her travels, and family history. Her stories have been published in collections from Kind of Hurricane Press, Dirty Chai Magazine, and National Flash Fiction Day. You can find her on Twitter at @msyasminkhan.