THE OPAL STORIES
East is West and West is East
by Crystal Jones © 2012
Dedicated to my cousin Valerie
Ross was covered in black grease. “Will you look after my stall while I go and clean myself up a bit?” he asked Opal. Opal’s van wasn’t starting up and Ross had had to clean the carburetor for her.
“Of course - and thanks a million!” she replied.
When Ross got back Opal had a proposition for him. “Look, I’ve had an idea. There’s a corner shop near my home where you can put an ad in the window. Would you like me to put one in saying we are looking for second-hand books and records?”
Just at that moment Ed, Opal’s favourite antique dealer, phoned her. “Look Opal, I’ve got a house clearance in the countryside on Thursday morning. The chap who usually helps me has gone on holiday and I was wondering about your friend Ross, you introduced me to, who was looking for extra work. Do you think he might want to help me loading and unloading?”
“I’m sure he would, just a moment and I’ll put him on to you.”
Opal gave Ross her mobile. “Yes, that’d be fine - so seven o’clock Thursday - yes, I’ll put you back on to Opal. Bye!” replied a smiling Ross.
“Opal, you might like to come along too, because I think there may be quite a few books for you there!” Ed declared. “As you know, I’ve got a three seater - so we can all go together!”
Thursday morning Opal and Ross arrived at Ed’s at seven o’clock. All three got into Ed‘s van and set off under a darkened sky.
“It’s a beautiful day for a trip into the country!” joked Ed as he set his windscreen wipers in motion.
“They said it was going to be sunny today!” remarked Opal. “It shouldn’t rain for much longer anyway.”
Soon the sun came out and they began to shed jackets and warm clothing.
“I haven’t seen the countryside for ages - what with Brendan breaking his leg and one thing and another,” said Opal.
“I love seeing the newly-born lambs - oh, there they are - over on the right. What magnificent fields there are around this part of England! Oh look! cows and their calves!”
“It’s an absolutely spectacular part of the country here,” confirmed Ed. “Now, there’s a small problem. To get to the cottage, we have to go along a very narrow lane. If another vehicle comes from the opposite direction we’ll probably just have to reverse backwards into the nearest gap in a hedge.”
“So, whose cottage are we going to, Ed?” asked Ross.
“Well, we’re going to meet a solicitor there, Mr. Raven, who’s acting on behalf of the previous owner, a Mr. Begley, who passed away recently.”
“Oh look - a rabbit!” exclaimed Opal as she saw one scuttling across the narrow path right in front of them.
Ed braked quickly, “I suppose there isn’t much traffic along here and the wildlife are used to having it all to themselves,” he joked. Just as he started his van up again, a car seemed to appear from nowhere. “This is where I reverse until we find a space to pull in to,” said Ed philosophically.
“There was a gateway a little way back. Perhaps we can stop there!” suggested Ross.
As the car passed them, the driver put up his hand to signal thanks to Ed. The same thing happened with a tractor a little later on. “It’s getting a bit adventurous, isn’t it, but I don’t mind, do you?” Ed quipped.
Finally they arrived at an open gate with The Solace written on it. There was a car parked just inside, but there was space enough for Ed’s van as well.
”Oh, my! it’s Elizabethan! It’s wonderful,” said Opal under her breath on seeing the old cottage. It was surrounded by a large, unkempt garden.
“Hello Mr. Hundersford,” said Mr. Raven, the solicitor coming out of the cottage. “So you managed to get here! I’ve only just arrived myself. Shall we go inside?”
Once inside the cottage, introductions were made and Mr. Raven showed Ed and his friends around the six-roomed property. “Mr. Begley named me as his executor. Mr. Clarke Blesson, his grandson, who is his main beneficiary, came here a couple of weeks ago to collect just a few things and then instructed me to get rid of as much stuff as possible because he’ll be coming over here again to sell the cottage in the summer. He lives in Canada.”
“So you want me to take the furniture away and - everything else?” asked Ed.
“Absolutely everything,” replied Mr. Raven. “Apparently Mr. Begley had been living alone for a long time. As far as I can see there’s only old stuff here now, and I don’t think there’s anything of any value at all.”
Ed went on to explain his plan, “I’ll try and get rid of a lot of things today but I’ll have to come back again tomorrow with my other van for the bulkier furniture.”
“Fine, so here are the keys,” said Mr. Raven. “You can bring them back to me when you’ve finished.”
“Let’s get started,” said Ed nodding at Opal and Ross. “I’ve brought along quite a number of old launderette-type bags which are in the van. Ross, will you give me a hand?”
Mr. Raven’s mobile rang and while he answered it Ed and Ross soon started to pile a large number of ornaments which were displayed on shelves and furniture into some bags.
“I want to write what’s in the bags on these luggage labels so things don’t get mixed up,” said Ed.
“Good idea!” Opal remarked.
“Mr. Raven, there are quite a number of books here. Shall I take them away too?” she called out from the next room.
“Yes, yes,” replied Mr. Raven between telephone calls.
“And the DVD’s and videocassettes?” Opal queried. “Take away anything you like,” replied Mr. Raven who was now completely immersed in his telephone call.
Ed was already busy picking up all the small objects lying about in the cottage, wrapping them in newspaper and putting them carefully into the bags while Opal continued exploring the cottage. She noticed that it was pretty clean and that there was not much dust.
She now went upstairs to the bedroom and opened Mr. Begley’s wardrobe. Inside she found, amongst other things, a couple of beautifully knitted Alpaca scarves and a number of Indian kurta shirts. “How lovely, I like cotton very much, it’s so healthy,” she thought as she went downstairs.
The walls in the front room were covered with mostly black and white photos of Indian towns and villages and people working in fields on the dried-up land. On one there was an elephant with a young European man stroking its trunk. 1972 was written on the bottom of it.
A large poster dominated the left hand wall. It was an extremely colourful poster of an Indian film. A handsome man wearing a pink turban was holding out his hand to a woman who seemed to be in a sort of prison uniform. It was entitled Reform 1947. Opal read the name of the actor, Karan Sen. “Mm... what an interesting face!”
On the opposite wall to the window in the sitting room there was a photograph of Gandhi at his spinning wheel. Underneath was something hidden by a white cloth, which, when she lifted it up, revealed to be a spinning wheel rather similar to the one in the photograph! “Ed,” she called out. “Have a look at this!”
Ed came over and stood entranced in front of the spinning wheel. He breathed, “Opal, that’s a seriously beautiful object!” He made a gesture to her not to say any more for the present, and put on his poker face.
Opal thought, “Typical Ed, when he finds something really worth while!” She then showed him the alpaca scarves she had brought down and remarked softly, “Maybe Mr. Begley spun the wool himself.”
“Yes, there are alpaca farms near here, you know,” replied Ed.
“Now I really must get back,” called out Mr. Raven. “See you in a few days’ time, Mr. Hundersford. Goodbye for now.”
As the three friends left the cottage, Ed asked Ross, “Would you mind driving, Ross? I want to look something up.”
Ross sat in the driver’s seat whilst Ed pulled out his mobile and started consulting it. Opal seemed to be lost in thought for a while until she remembered Ed’s mysterious silence about the spinning wheel and asked him about it.
Ed replied, “Well, you never know what you are going to find. I’d never come across a spinning wheel before in a house clearance and my guess is...” he paused for effect, “that the spinning wheel you uncovered, Opal, is an original Charka built in the thirteenth century! Probably worth a lot.” After this surprising revelation, Ed said no more and went back to consulting internet on his mobile.
After a while he smiled to himself and murmured, “I knew it!”
Luckily there weren’t any cars coming in the opposite direction along the narrow road and they arrived relatively quickly at Ed’s shop. It was one o’clock already when they had unloaded everything from the van. “Now who’s for a pizza?” Ed asked.
As they sat around, hungrily eating their slices of pizza, the three friends commented on their visit to The Solace. peace in India and brought it back to his home in the country. By the way, Ross, I’d like to have a look at some of those DVD’s before you sell them. I’ve seen a few Indian films - you know, the black and white ones mainly - some of them were very dramatic.”
“There was a pretty strange mixture of LPs from the sixties and loads of Bollywood films and songs on videocassette and DVD.” said Ross. “What about you, Opal, did you find anything interesting?” he asked.
“Yes, I did. I found photographs and books on yoga, meditation and vegetarianism. You can feel that Mr. Begley must have loved India very much. But I think he must have been a rather unusual sort of chap,” she remarked. “And I’d like to know more about him.”
Ed smiled, “Well, I already have! Mr. Begley, or rather Cyril Begley, had another name!”
Opal and Ross looked puzzled. “Another name? Was he hiding from the police or something?” asked Opal.
“No, no, no. Nothing like that. At the back of my mind I seemed to remember the name Begley and seeing that he had a strong interest in music I made the connection and looked his name up on the internet while I was in the van, and there it was: in the sixties he was known as Matt Meddington, the frontman of The Manchester Moodies!”
Ross smiled, “The Manchester Moodies? My father’s favourite band! He used to play Misfits Abroad over and over when I was quite small. It sold over a million copies here and in the USA! Didn’t Matt Meddington do a disappearing act soon after he recorded it?”
“He did indeed,” confirmed Ed. “He’d been involved in a car accident and was arrested for drug and alcohol use, and then... nothing. People thought he had finished up in Canada where his daughter lived with her mother, his ex-wife. Instead he went to India. After that, no more news of him - until the other day!”
Opal observed, “It seems that Mr. Begley, aka Matt Meddington, must have found some sort of
“Shall we have an Indian evening, Bren?” suggested Opal. “Come on, let’s watch one of Mr. Begley’s DVDs!”
It was the same Bollywood film that Opal had seen advertised on the poster in the cottage, Reform 1947.
“Aah, I really liked that,” commented Brendan. “The women in the film seem to be very lively and feisty.”
“I liked Karan Sen,” replied Opal. “Phew, what an actor! What intensity and energy!”
“Those poor farmers who strive all day long only to have their land stolen from them by the local Thakur! It’s terrible!” continued Brendan.
“I found the music was magical,” Opal remarked, “and the choreography wonderful, especially the scene of the mountain lake where the farmers are dancing and chanting primitive ancient songs under a waterfall - a wonderful choral effect, most inspiring.”
The next evening Opal and Brendan watched another Indian film with Karan Sen. “Look,” said Opal, “he’s getting out of a car and there’s a close up of his shoes in slow motion. I read that that was his trademark and that later on whenever he played the part of a rich man he always wore Savile Row suits.”
“Mum, what on earth are you painting?” asked Josh who had come up to the attic to tell his mother that Ed had arrived with a heavy cardboard box for her.
Opal thought for a moment, “Well love, I suppose it’s about what you see in it, dear. Please ask Ed to come upstairs for a moment.”
When Ed observed the painting he looked clearly bowled over. “That’s absolutely amazing, Opal. I haven’t worked out exactly what you want to express but I can see that there’s a strange sort of silvery spiral staircase going right through from left to right in the middle of the picture. I love the orange, yellow ochre and vermillion in the upper half. I can feel the heat of it. The space above is in curry powder colours, and the space below is all light blues and greys and some grass-coloured green with a dividing line which goes all along the painting and creates two parallel spaces like a sort of diptych. And inside each space, mm... let me see...”
Ed got up and moved closer to the painting, “Ah, there’s much more to it than I thought. There are two paths represented by a double helix. A lot of strange things are going on along the upper path. I can see bells hanging from a temple ceiling and followers pulling on them. I can see a church called St. Thomas and other religious buildings. Then there’s a crowd of people in a sort of village square and a man touting tickets - I think it’s for a film because there’s a poster on a wall and there’s a showy type of car which has just pulled up and someone is getting out of it, probably a film star. But you can only see his feet.”
Ed continued. “How fascinating! In the top half there is a man - he seems to be a European - who’s travelling towards the right and underneath there’s a man who is dressed like an Indian, who’s travelling in the opposite direction, towards the left. They have just passed the halfway mark and are turning back to look at each other. Mm, the European man will end his journey in a land full of mosques and temples, probably in Banaras. The Indian man is going towards an unknown future in a land which despite being full of modern buildings and glass towers has a vital countryside full of sheep, wildlife and flora and centuries-old churches and buildings. It must be England. Am I explaining it well, Opal?”
“Well, I don’t know, I haven‘t finished it yet!” said Opal. “Anyway, it’s called East is West and West is East!”
A week later Opal pinned up a photo of her latest painting on her market stall. As usual when people noticed photographs of her paintings, they shook their heads or walked away laughing but when Akshay, a fellow stall-holder who sold Indian spices and Greek olives, paused for a moment to look at her latest work, he smiled broadly.
“I know who that actor is getting out of the car! I’ve seen every film he made, Karan Sen. He was an action hero. Unfortunately he stopped making films some years ago!”
This was just the first of the Asian community to see Opal’s photograph. The word seemed to get around and other Asian-looking people came to see it.
“He had an accident and couldn’t make those action films any more. Great pity!” remarked an Indian lady who sold sarees.
“He was considered a god by many!” she added.
The weather had changed and was unusually warm for the time of year. “Why don’t you try one of these Scandinavian authors?” Opal asked one of her usual clients who was a nurse and had little time to search for interesting books to read in her breaks when she had to do nights.
“All right, but I hope it doesn’t give me nightmares,” joked Becky, the nurse. “I’ve only got this. Have you got any change?” she said handing Opal a twenty-pound banknote.
It was then that Opal noticed a bearded and bespectacled man who seemed to be in his late fifties staring up at the photographs of her paintings she had attached to her stall. Opal went about her business and started chatting to Ludmilla who had come to tell her that she had some shoes on her stall which were going quite cheaply and might be suitable for Jane, Opal’s daughter.
“See you later, Opal,” said Ludmilla rushing away as she noticed that a couple of customers were waiting for her at her stall.
“Can I help you?” asked Opal noticing that the bearded man appeared to be looking for something.
“Er... have you got any books in Sanskrit?” he asked, seeming slightly embarrassed.
Opal was a little taken aback by this unusual request. ”Not at the moment, I‘m sorry!” she replied.
The man hesitated. “I’m a professor of Sanskrit, you see.”
“Well, if you leave me your telephone number I’ll get in touch if I should find any,” offered Opal.
“Yes, thank you – er – I just noticed this photograph here,” he pointed to the photo of East is West and West is East.
“It’s a photo of my most recent painting,” Opal explained.
“Your most recent painting!” he repeated. “You mean you painted it?” he asked in astonishment. “That’s very interesting.”
He seemed to reflect a moment, then he added, “Might I just ask you where you got the idea of painting a man’s feet while he’s getting out of a car? It’s quite strange for a European.”
“I’ve been seeing quite a few Bollywood films recently,” Opal replied, “and people‘s feet are considered very important in India.”
“Yes, indeed,” the professor confirmed looking puzzled and a little nervous.
“Might I ask where I could possibly see the actual painting?”
“Well, yes, of course,” replied Opal. “It’s in the attic - my studio, that is - at my home. Are you an artist yourself?”
The man smiled, “Oh no, I can’t draw or paint but I’m very curious to see your painting.”
“I see. Look, I’ll be going home soon. If you like, you could come and see my painting this afternoon.”
“This afternoon would be fine as I have to get back to my university for a lecture this evening. Er... this is my card. I’m from Goa originally but I’ve been living here for the last fifteen years,” the professor explained.
At three o‘clock, punctually, the professor rang Opal’s doorbell.
“Bren, this is Professor De Souza. Professor - this is my husband Brendan! He had an accident and injured his leg so he still has difficulty in getting around.”
A cloud came over the Professor’s face. “I know what that can feel like.”
“I’m sorry I can’t accompany you upstairs,” Brendan explained, “but I just started work again this week - actually only mornings for now - and my leg is feeling the strain!”
While Professor De Souza was studying Opal’s painting she noticed the way he moved his hands. They seemed to express exactly what he was feeling.
“I like the idea of the double helix embracing the paths of the two travellers, one European and one Indian. It expresses our common roots both in a genetic and cultural sense,” the professor declared. “It’s a beautiful concept - er - Ms Opal...”
“Thank you - just Opal - everybody calls me Opal,” she replied.
“We keep forgetting how much we have in common,” continued Professor De Souza, “and this painting is a reminder that at the beginning we were one and the same people.”
Professor De Souza, Brendan and Opal were now enjoying a piece of Opal’s mother sponge cake with a cup of tea.
Opal opened up the conversation. “We’ve got two kids, Jane, who’s going to study law and Josh who hasn’t the least idea what he wants to do when he grows up!”
Professor De Souza laughed. “Know what you mean. My wife, Penelope, she’s English you know, and I were quite desperate when our daughter was growing up. All she seemed to like was travelling and enjoying herself, then one day she was invited to go to some opening of a centre for disadvantaged children and suddenly found her vocation. Now she’s a geneticist studying stem cells to try and find ways of solving mobility problems in children. Our son is an engineer specialising in alternative fuel resources.”
“Professor, do have some more sponge,” Opal urged.
“No thank you, it's absolutely delicious but I really must be going otherwise I’ll be late for my lecture. Opal, thank you for letting me see your painting, I want to speak to someone about it. May I have your phone number?”
Opal was preparing breakfast when her mobile rang. “Is that Ms Opal? My name is Jamie Shukla. I’m organising a festival of Indian films at Edinburgh. Professor De Souza told me about your painting and I was wondering if I could come along and see it.”
Jamie Shukla, a very young-looking man, walked up and down staring at Opal’s painting for quite a while before speaking.
“It’s been very tastefully done - wow, I like it immensely and especially its title as you’ve expressed the relationship between India and the UK very creatively.”
Opal wondered what was coming next.
“The thing is,” he continued, “I’d like to use it for the poster which represents the Anglo-Indian Film Fest. If you agree, a photographer can pop in and take a photo of the painting. How does that sound to you?”
“You want to use it for a poster?” replied Opal incredulous. “I don’t know, I really don’t know...”
“Look, we are trying to boost cultural relations between India and the UK, and the way I know best is through films. I’ve been given a budget by the Cultural Activities Council on behalf of the Indian government so...” Jamie hesitated.
Opal wasn‘t very used to business transactions concerning her paintings, also because she hadn’t sold many up to now, and she felt a bit uneasy about it.
“I’d certainly like my painting to help promote good relationships between the two countries but... I wouldn’t want anything written on it,” she said with conviction.
”That‘s fine, I‘ll have that put into the contract and once you’ve signed it I‘ll send a photographer to you. So, whatever we write on the poster will be either above or below the photo of your painting but not directly on it. As for the amount...”
“I really have no idea, Jamie. I’d never thought a painting of mine could be used for a poster!”
“Oh, I see. You’re still not sure about it.” Jamie looked dejected.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t like you to feel that I’m too proud to let my painting become a poster. You know, if it was good enough for Toulouse Lautrec - I guess it’s good enough for me!” she smiled indulgently.
At the opening ceremony of the Anglo-Indian Film Fest Opal was welcomed by Jamie who introduced her to some of the other organisers. Everybody complimented Opal on her work asking where she got her inspiration whilst they all had some refreshments which were laid out for the occasion. ”
“Ms Opal, can I interrupt you a moment?” asked Jamie with a mischievous grin on his face, “I’d like to introduce you to one of the greatest film icons of Indian cinema who also happens to be a relation of mine and is standing right behind you!
Opal turned round, “Oh lovely to see you again, Professor De Souza,” she exclaimed, “also known as Karan Sen, the wonderful Indian actor! You brought me luck, you know! I’m very grateful for all of this,” indicating the gigantic East is West and West is East poster in front of them.
Professor De Souza, surprised by the fact Opal had recognised him, pulled her aside.
“No madam, you brought me luck. So you knew who I really was! You had already realised that I was the actor getting out of the car in your painting, even though my appearance had changed quite a bit!”
“Yes, I had!” smiled Opal.
“You know,” continued the professor, “ever since I gave up acting I’ve always worn glasses and had a beard as I wanted to get away from the image of an action hero. Then I decided to take up Sanskrit again and come here to teach at university.”
Opal ventured, “I imagine that changing your name was part of the same strategy...”
“Not at all,” explained Professor De Souza. “Karan Sen was just my professional name. My real name is De Souza, which is of Portuguese origin. My father was a descendant of a Portuguese family which had been in Goa for centuries, although my mother was from a Brahmin family and her name was Shukla. You know, nobody ever recognised me as Karan Sen before. But of course, you have a painter’s eye and notice everything!”
“That’s my job!” said Opal.
The professor continued, “But surely there must have been something in particular which gave me away...”
“Well, there was!” replied Opal. “I recognised who you were when you were looking at my painting in the attic and I noticed your beautifully expressive hands capable of reflecting your every emotion, which were very like Karan Sen’s in his films.”
The professor looked moved by her words.
“I know you had an accident and couldn’t do action films any more, but why didn’t you make other kinds of films? You were an extremely gifted actor!” Opal stated.
Professor De Souza paused a moment before answering. “I did, in fact, make a few films after that, but they were considered too sophisticated. They didn’t make money and producers weren’t interested in investing in these films.”
“Do you mean films like Reform 1947, about prison reform? You were marvellous in that!”
“Thank you, Opal. Yes, Reform 1947 failed at the box office, so - no more investments in me!”
Professor De Souza smiled, “But as I told you before, you brought me luck. I had seen the signs! You know that in India we are very sensitive to ghosts and spirits and strange happenings, we think that fate has designed our destinies. When I heard you had painted what was once a sort of signature tune of mine - my feet in a pair of expensive shoes getting out of a car - I knew it was a sign that I had to investigate further. When my friends told me they wanted to organise this festival I felt immediately that it was a link I had to follow up. Now I’ve been talking to young directors and producers who have seen your poster and have been hinting at their desire to see me involved in some way in a new film project, something that would help to build bridges between our two cultures and distinct ways of making films.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Opal feeling very happy and proud that her painting had set all this in motion.
“So, what did you reply?” she asked.
“I told them I would be pleased to. In fact, an idea came to me for a new project I intend to put forward to them, which I would like to call, if you will allow me to, “East is West and West is East!”
Finished on the auspicious day of 12 December 2012.