House On The Hill
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
That night, after the
last of the dishes had been cleared away and the rain had begun falling hard
outside, the Storyteller finally began to talk.
He was an old man, one of those people who seem, somehow,
always to have been old. He was fairly big, with a square face and a grizzled
moustache, and if one thought about it one would have guessed that he must have
been quite good-looking in his youth. But it was almost impossible to imagine
that he had ever been young. Even the oldest of the others of our little
gathering, who had known him the longest, said he had never looked any
different than he did now.
Nobody knew for sure what he did for a living. He deflected
all questions on that point with such casual ease that speculation ranged from
him being a secret agent to a ganglord on the run, and from a porn film
producer to an ex-dictator down on his luck. The truth was probably something
so prosaic that it would have disappointed us bitterly had we known it, and he
enjoyed the mask of mystery as much as we did.
What we did know about him, though, was that he was a
master storyteller. More than anything it was these stories which gave him the
aura of mystery that surrounded him like a visible aura. Not only were his
tales entertaining in themselves, he had that rare and captivating gift of the
true raconteur, of immersing his listeners in the story until they forgot that
it was one. That is why we called him the Storyteller. He always
insisted, though, that they weren’t stories – that they had all happened
to him or to people whom he knew and could vouch for.
He came to our club only relatively infrequently, once or
twice a month in the summers, and rarely if at all when the weather turned
cold. He would sit in the corner, drinking a succession of cups of unsweetened
black coffee, until dinnertime. And it was then that we had to look sharp,
because unless we could provoke him into beginning a story by the time the meal
was over, he’d go quietly away and we’d be left high and dry.
That night we’d almost despaired of his beginning a story. We
had tried all the tricks, starting from carefully staged acrimonious arguments
over the latest upsurge in international tensions, and when that had failed to
evoke even an amused smile from him, had gone on to discuss in awed tones the
narrative skills of a newly famous author of horror fiction, someone whose
writing we’d been convinced he’d dislike. Even that had failed to provoke him
into anything more than gazing meditatively into his awful coffee. Finally,
with the food congealing on the plates before us, we’d fired our last shot, and
begun telling stories ourselves, of things that we had allegedly seen. The
effort was so pathetic that when my turn came around I didn’t even try.
It was probably because the rain began coming down hard just
as we finished the meal that the Storyteller decided to stay back for a while.
He always came to the club on foot – we had no idea where he lived, and whether
he walked all the way here and back or took some kind of public transport, or
perhaps had a car (or some more exotic vehicle) parked discreetly away in some
alley nearby. But the rain was coming down in torrents and the thunder cracking
overhead, and he probably had as much distaste as anyone else at the prospect
of being caught out in that downpour.
"Bring me a brandy," he said to the steward, "a brandy with
hot water." We let out a collective sigh of relief. A brandy was the cardinal
sign that he’d begin a story; he’d nurse it till the end and then toss off what
In reverent silence we watched as he rotated the glass
between his palms, sniffed at the steam rising from it appreciatively, and sat
back in his corner chair.
"Nasty weather," he said.
We agreed. "Very nasty."
As though in agreement, a terrific clap of thunder made the
windows rattle. The Storyteller cocked his head as if listening to the language
of the storm.
"Mind you," he said, "it isn’t the nastiest weather you
could have. Not by a long chalk."
"No," I agreed. "There are typhoons and such, and..."
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