Mr Penton sat back in his leatherback black chair. His calm, scrutinising eyes were trained on his team of agents who were all busily punching away at their complicated keyboards, their faces lit up by the twitching graffiti of ghostly lights emanating from their screens in front. Mr Penton was present, and yet was not present in the room, for his mind, a vast cave-like realm as secret as the museum itself, toiled and twisted in thoughts that he had not spoken of to anyone. So lost was he in a wisp of memories that it took him away from the room, to somewhere else, a place peacefully absent from the raging kaleidoscope of blinking lights and clattering twirls of recording reels of tape.
A part of him must have somehow latched back onto the present, and he realised again where he was. Closing his eyes shut so that he may open them again and renew his focus on the task that lay before him, Mr Penton slowly, but deeply, rubbed his neck down with his hand, a discreet effort to keep haunting worries buried beneath him where no one would find them. Then he opened his eyes again with a sigh that sounded as if it were a breeze that had escaped from the centre of the earth. He tried to conceal his surprise at finding that he was not alone in his space. The assistant was stood facing him, expressionless, his hands behind his back. Mr Penton sat himself up straighter.
“I am deeply sorry to disturb you, Sir.”
Mr Penton found it highly amusing that his assistant should say that. “And what do you think you had disturbed?”
The assistant did not bargain on having such an awkward question thrown at him and he stammered for an answer. “Erm, well, I th-thought, erm, you were, you….. ”
Mr Penton shook his head in feigned exhaustion and smiled. “At ease, for goodness sake, man!” To that the assistant jolted his back straight and he became as straight as a ruler. “At ease does not mean tensing yourself up more than you were before.” Mr Penton gave up and leaned back on his chair again. The assistant loosened up, but only slightly. “So, what of the mission so far?”
“Agent King Kong – “
“Ah, yes, always was a fan of his work!” Suddenly Mr Penton remembered the time he trained the little monkey how to securely operate headset technology whilst swinging through trees of extraordinary height.
“Yes, well, erm, Agent King Kong has been successful in diverting The Froggies away from the girl, however, based on the latest satellite imagery it appears that the enemy quartet has not only encountered a violent fall down a vertical terrain of significant gradient, but that they are now closer to two branches of the Krishna Gandaki River. This does not look good, Sir.”
Mr Penton did not seem to be irritated or unnerved by the news. Instead, a slight curl rose at the end of his lips, an embryonic smile tinged with joy that was as elusive and untouchable as the floating mesh of fresh dawn fog. “At least the girl is safe”.
“But, Sir – and I do beg your pardon if I seem to be talking out of turns here – but our priority is The Shaligram Ammonite!” Although the assistant had plenty more to add to his bubbling protest, he was stopped short by Mr Penton’s immediate change of expression, the old man’s eyes now chiselled into a piercing and questioning stare. The assistant frowned and briskly backed off. He was not sure what he had said and something told him that he would not be receiving a straightforward answer either. “I am, erm, I am sor-sorry, Sir.”
Remembering where he was again, Mr Penton relaxed his eyes and face, and flexing his hands and fingers before interlocking them, the two index fingers like pillars pointing into his chin, he spoke with a measured authority that was spectacularly effective. “Let me be the one to worry about our priorities. You may return to your workstation, and keep me informed.”
The assistant could not tell whether the old man was cross with him, or was he being reassuring. Either way, no words would come to him and he simply nodded before turning around and quietly gliding back to his seat.
For the next few minutes Mr Penton watched his crew attentively. He had to get up from his seat and wished not to distract anyone or arouse unhelpful interest in his movements. Relieved that all eyes were glued to the screens, Mr Penton carefully slid away from his seat and stood up. Once again he scanned around. No one was onto him. He crept towards the back of the room where the towering columns of mainframe computers whirred away, the huge rotating wheels gaped at him as if they were the eyes of mechanical spies, and a faint quiver shuddered across his shoulders. Undeterred, he remained to walk over to the back corner of the room. A mundane intersection of two walls, the heat of the machines had accumulated here to form an eerie micro-climate, an ignored and muggy and shadowy spot haired by thick, snaky wires trailing around, keen to trip anyone over. Peering out from behind the mainframe tower, taking care not to topple the ominous structure, he checked to see if everyone was working. All was well. He turned away and stepped backwards until his back was against the wall. He sighed, and then put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small, white envelope. He turned it in his fingers, over and over again. He debated with himself whether he should open it here or not. At last his indecisiveness came to a stop, not out of will, but out of the tiredness from overthinking. The envelope hung expectantly in the charged air, its sides firmly clipped between the fingers of each hand, and in his head he read the typed words on the front, his silent voice as crisp as when walking on thick snow. It read “The Shaligram Ammonite”. Mr Penton flipped the envelope over, opened the unsealed flap and gently pulled out a glossy, monochrome photograph. The cool surface reminded him of hopeful mornings. He could not tell how many times he had looked at her, and of how many times she had smiled back at him.
Under the photograph was a caption strung in tiny, neat typewritten letters.
Her name in full read, ‘Arundhati Mehta Penton’.
As if she were hidden in between the letters, Mr Penton smiled down tenderly. A grandfather’s smile.
Leaving the dense, forested worlds of the hills behind her, Arundhati trudged down the slope towards the village. The roar of the great rivers growing louder with her every step it was, however, when she was about half-way down the slope that she realised that the sound of the waters churning and lapping and breaking against the banks rang out not from the world outside. Power beyond power, more earthly than earth itself, the watery drum was beating against her own flesh, it came from inside her, from deep within the spiral canals of her ears. ♥♥♥
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Hampshire | UK 2016