Celebrating East African Writing!
I am one of those regular writers for The Times who prefers to still write the old fashioned way, ‘using one of man’s oldest writing implement’, ‘the pen’. There is an enigma as well as nostalgia in using this implement compared to modern day implements such as a personal computer or even a dicta phone. Depending on which school of thought one follows, one may prefer a newer invention such as the ball point pen invented by that great man, ‘Biro’, or like myself, prefer the old fashioned nib based ink pen.
The ink pen, to me is like a friend. I know my pens angles and moods, and over the years it has become more and more comfortable, smoother, familiar, almost like a part of ones hand, able to almost magically produce swings and cuts like a well familiarized saber to a swords man, who rips and cuts at will, to make a nick on his opponent or slice him into two. Which is why when a freak accident occurred and my favorite tool slipped out of my folder and fell into the welcoming jaws of my Japanese spit, where my friend and companion of more than fifteen years ended his final minutes ‘being mistaken’ for a black bone, I broke down. This was what I would call, ‘the proverbial straw that broke the camels back’. It had taken years to smoothen that fourteen carat gold nib to a perfectly flawless expansion of ink onto paper in perfect symmetry. Now it was gone and I was in tears. That was no help but it exhausted me into early sleep and a fresh awakening. This helped me to think of how I was going to solve this most daunting problem, and how was I going to initiate my writing again. My pen had somehow managed to inspire and encourage me. In fact it was my partner. How would I manage? How could I begin? My pen, sometimes wrote other peoples destiny. This is why in desperation, I thought a visit to the all-prestigious ‘Litho Center’, one of the best pen stockists this side of the continent was in order.
A family friend and a pioneer in companion with my father, Mr. Sundha owned 20,000 square feet of prime shop space in three parts of the city, stocking some of the most prestigious and well known brand names in the world with some of the most exorbitant prices to match, but if you wanted a gift or a paper related product and could not find it anywhere else in the city, the Litho Center was the one place you were likely to.
Being a lazy kind of chap with a tendency to prefer my worn and comfortable armchair as the ideal position to attempt to achieve all objectives came to the conclusion that it is not always possible, and so desperate situations call for desperate measures, found me at the doors of the shop of my father’s friend. Mr. Sundha is an amiable man whose calm, smooth and quiet tones have sent many a satisfied customer out with more than he bargained for. I made my way to the pen section to be confronted by rows of paper mates, Mont Blancs, Parkers, and Shaffers from ebony black to solid gold, from white gold to ceramics. From simple ball points to the king nibs of 22 carat gold, enough to satisfy any bankers appetite of holding something solid between their fingers.
Mr. Sundha, a fair complexioned, sixty seven year old Asian ambled down behind the counter, ‘How is your father?’ he asked. I noted warily that he made no mention of what he could do for me this fine morning. Business to this man was a game, where each customer familiar or not was a challenge, a new adversary to be taken on and to be conquered. The glint in his eyes and humor on his face had a disarming way of putting one at ease. I relaxed and for the next fifteen minutes we talked about my family and news was exchanged about each of the members. We finally subtly approached the subject at hand regarding the pen. He sympathised with my predicament and asked me to describe the destroyed pen.
After I had finished he paused in silence for a good thirty seconds in deep thought, then without a single word went into the back of the shop, returning shortly with a plain case and laid it in front of me, and opened it. There in the case lay a perfect sibling of my lost companion, my heart leaped in joy for I never dreamed I would see another of the same again. Mr. Sundha smiled back at me in satisfaction at my joy that he had turned around from utter misery. I delicately picked up my newfound friend and the familiarity returned. I was hooked. Now all that remained was to decide on the price. The 14 carat gold nib glinted in the overhead spotlight at me. We haggled for a while and agreed on a price. Mr. Sundha ambled back to the cash register to pack and receive payment. As he approached the register his face turned from a smile to complete pleasure. For a moment I thought it was because of me but as I followed his gaze, I noted the entrance of a regal straight backed, middle aged man.
Mr. Sundha returned back to the pen counter to await the man who was now approaching the counter. I slowly returned back to the counter, while Mr. Sundha attended to the new customer, to look at other models. The mans bearing showed a seriousness to life, his suit was well used and perhaps not extremely expensive, yet portrayed serious thought to dress code. It was neat and well pressed and the man showed care of grooming and personal hygiene.
Mr. Sundha was removing a large leather case from the bottom of the counter. As he opened the case I saw twelve black pens sitting in their respective beds. The inside of the box was lined with red velvet. The pens were rather old fashioned and bulky, each was shiny lacquer black. The man pulled up his briefcase and carefully placed it flat on top of the counter alongside the case that Mr. Sundha had opened. He rolled the combination of the locks and clicked open the briefcase. Carefully with both hands he opened the lid. There were the usual pens, clips, sheaf of printed material, but what caught my attention was an identical leather box to the one that Mr. Sundha had placed just moments ago on the cabinet. Now the other box joined it. Mr. Sundha looked at the box and pushed forward the one he had removed earlier towards the gentleman.
‘There you go sir’, he said. ‘They are as immaculate as your previous ones.’
The man picked up the box and placed it in the briefcase, ‘How much is it Mr. Sundha?’ the man asked.
Mr. Sundha smiled, ‘The same as before six months, two thousand four hundred pounds sir’, he replied, ‘the prices haven’t gone up since last year’.
The man nodded and removed a leather wallet from an inside pocket of his jacket and began to count out the money.
‘Will the same instructions stand as per the last order?’ Mr. Sundha asked.
The man looked up from his counting and nodded, ‘Yes, all the names for each of the pens have been stuck on and the engraving as usual to be done in gold,’ he turned back to the counting.
Mr. Sundha opened up the remaining box and looked at the row of twelve pens that sat there, each with a typed sticker stuck to each pen. He closed the box and placed it carefully under the counter. The man finished counting out the money and passed it onto Mr. Sundha who walked back to the cash register and deposited the money, wrote out a cash sale and gave it to the man.
‘Thank you Mr. Sundha, I will return back within a week to collect the pens as usual.’
‘They will be ready, sir.’ replied Mr. Sundha.
The man walked stiffly out of the shop. It was only then that I realised how tense I had become during this intriguing exchange. My eyes followed the man as he got into the back seat of his car and was driven off.
I turned back to Mr. Sundha. He looked at me and held up his hands, opened, palm faced outwards at me, ‘Now James’, he said, ‘I have seen that look in your eyes before and I have come to know it well. My advice to you is something’s are better left unasked.’
I was to remember that phrase much later on with a great deal of regret, but at present I had an unsiatable curiosity, which would eat away at me until I fulfilled it. ‘Who was that man, Mr. Sundha?’ He simply shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know. My face said it all to him. It read “unbelievable”.
Mr. Sundha looked at me directly. For a moment I thought he was simply going to ‘clam up’, but I think in that moment all the years that he had known me passed in front of his eyes and he weighed the situation, knowing full well that I was like a bull dog with a story, once I got the whiff of one I never let go. His shoulder physically drooped and he waved his hand indicating to me to follow him. He bent down to retrieve the leather box of pens from under the counter as he walked to the back into his private office, indicating to his younger brother to take over the shop for a while.
The office was plush and old fashioned much like the ones you would expect in a bank. The wood paneling on the walls was dark hard wood and the floors were parquet with good quality rugs placed around the room. Mr. Sundha went around his large desk and sat down in his leather chair and indicated that I take a seat on the opposite side. He sat the box down carefully on the desk as I took my seat.
‘I met the gentleman you saw just leave some twenty years’; he started as he got comfortable in his armchair.
‘It was a day very much like this when he first walked into my shop and made this strange request of purchasing twelve Mont Blanc traditional fountain pens. I was surprised, as Mont Blanc pens are expensive, not the run of the mill pen. It is a one off pen made to last a life time’, he recalled, ‘at that time I thought that they must be presents for his close friends but his severity and somberness did nothing to indicate that. Still for me, it was only business, so I accepted the order. It was the largest order that I had ever had. Eight months later the gentleman returned with the case of pens. I was flabbergasted! At first I protested to the gentleman that we have a no refund policy but he calmed me down and explained that all he wanted was that each specific pen be engraved on with the names he had labeled to each of them. A little strange, but I thought nothing of it until I had to engrave the pen. I opened one of them only to see that the beautifully crafted gold and platinum nib was irreparably broken and bent, in fact, smashed almost double. My hands shook as I opened pen after pen and found all the pens in the same hopeless condition. Each nib had been brutally abused beyond repair. All the pens were useless. Yet the owner had asked them to be engraved. True to his word each pen was neatly labeled with a typed sticker. There were written instructions as to the type of font and size of letters to be used in the engraving, in this case italics. I completed my work, uncertain that the owner would return, but true to his word, he did.
He looked at me with those clear eyes and asked, “Did you see the nibs?’ I nodded, ‘and you are not curious?’, he continued, ‘I cannot deny that, but one must respect a clients privacy and I hold that above my curiosity.’
My reply seemed to lift a weight off his shoulders. He came close to smiling that day and has been a regular customer since then.’
Mr. Sundha paused long enough for me to interrupt the story, ‘And you asked him his name?’
‘No, never.’ he replied.
‘For twenty years,’ continued Mr. Sundha, ‘he has been one of my biggest clients, giving me business worth anything from five thousand pounds to fifteen thousand pounds every year.’
‘Every year?!’ My incredulous stare made him node and repeat, ‘Every year, James.’
I sat back in the chair. I earned a little over that sum every year in those days. I stared at Mr. Sundha for several minutes, neither one of us saying anything. I once more sat forward in the chair, my curiosity once more taking precedence over sense.
‘And the pens……, what about the pens …? Did he return the other ones like the ones before?’
‘Yes’, he replied, ‘Always broken beyond repair, always unblemished in any other way, in fact almost unused.’
‘…and he always takes them back?’
‘And you never asked him anything about this unusually expensive ritual, about these beautiful broken pens?’
‘Never!’ He replied.
‘They have always been the same pens?’
That was the end of that conversation with Mr. Sundha.
As I made my way out of the shop, Mr. Sundha accompanied me to the door, ‘Heed my advice James, some stories are better left unwritten and unread.’
But I couldn’t, could I? I was a reporter and this was the most curious and intriguing mystery that I had come across to date. I wasn’t about to let go.
A year went by as I pursued other stories and soon forgot about the pens until one afternoon while sitting in a popular café, the mysterious gentleman walked in with a companion. At first I did not recognize him, just another face among thousands, probably seen somewhere. As I sipped my coffee waiting for a friend to join me, I kept going back to where I had seen that face before. My friend, John Candeen, just then sat down at my table and after the usual protocol of ‘apologies for being delayed’, were over, our conversation turned to the current gossips and features of the day, who was where and doing what. The current trends of the dollar, sterling, mark and yen. Conversation rolled on and the coffee kept coming.
Out of the corner of my eye I observed the unknown gentleman began to get up to leave. Candeen at that time worked as a features editor for ‘The Mail’, a not too serious newspaper, but one to always have the juiciest stories around and once in a while wrote out breaking news beating the other news papers to it, and this made them a regular contender for serious news. I watched the man get into the back of a car and be driven off and that’s when I remembered the pens. I decided that this was one story that had sat too long on the sideline.
‘John’, I asked ‘Do you know anything about the man sitting at the next table?’ nodding towards the curious gentleman’s companion who still sat sipping the rest of his coffee.
‘Umm… not really except that he works with current affairs for the Guardian.’ he replied. Current affairs meant anything currently going on a long term basis, but it could also mean anything new as well. That was no help to me. However, it was even beneath my dignity as a writer to openly go and ask the reporter who his companion was.
I began to think how I was going to find out about this man, and what the solution to the mystery about the broken pens was. Perhaps he was a writer just like me and preferred to use fountain pens, but I had yet to come across a writer who could afford those many pens on a year-to-year basis. If so, he was a regular writer, then perhaps he wrote books and in sheer frustration of his mistakes crashed the pens in fits of anger. If that was the case there still remained the mystery of the labels on the pens and that did not sit right and could really not be connected in any way with the writer theory.
Perhaps the labels were the names of the various books he wrote but to my knowledge no such writer existed in my memory that could write out so many books in any given year except Barbara Cartland, and he was certainly not she. In frustration of not coming up with any viable solution to my problem I thought that I would visit the vault when I returned to the office.
The next morning I entered the vault. The vault is what I called it, but essentially it was a record room at the Times headquarters where every single page of the times was on record and referenced. You could pick up micro film of the paper even from seventy-five years ago referenced by subject, date, day, author and a number of other criteria. I had to go back only twenty-five years because of Mr. Sunday’s time frame and see if there was anything juicy on writers. I spent the entire morning going through day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, looking for the pen stranger.
There were no clues to the stranger and all I noticed during my research was that there had been a higher number of arrests for various serious crimes such as armed robbery and plain old murder in the last twenty-five years. What was the world coming to? It seemed that it was getting to be a meaner place year by year. After a wasted morning and a pointless observation I returned back to the office to complete my articles for my editor. Work had to be done. There were no two ways about it. Still as I completed the job at hand, my mind turned back to the mysterious penman. I also began to wonder at my obsession of the subject. Perhaps the connection was the fountain pen that I too used. Still I had to know. I was obsessed and obsession sooner or later turns to madness.
Call it fate or plain old fashioned luck, but the next day I found myself back at the same café waiting for another companion who was going to give me some material for another article that I was working on. While waiting, I began to scan the room looking for other friends and familiar faces, only to stop at the man with the pens sitting at the far end of the room drinking his coffee and reading one of the dailies.
I could not believe my luck. This time I was not going to let the opportunity pass. But what approach was I going to use? Experience in the past had shown that reporters or anyone connected to the press were seldom appreciated prying into other people’s lives.
Was it really right? That had been debated from parliament to the coffee tables with no conclusion. I thought perhaps the direct approach might gain me a little respect. I walked up to the table that the man was sitting at.
‘Excuse me, may I ask you something?’ sounded really corny so I thought a ‘Good Morning!’ might start off a conversation. So I did. What happened next caught me by surprise. ‘How do you do Mr. Coop?’ he replied, ‘Please take a seat, I have been expecting you for a year.’
My mouth opened and shut a few times.
‘You would like to talk to me, yes?’
‘I know what it’s about but I would like you to confirm it, if you please.’
‘The Pens,’ I blurted out.
He nodded. ‘You do realize that it is a breach of privacy that you are heading for.’
His eyes were clear and frank, but they also showed something else, but I could not read what.
‘Mr. Coop, would you not consider dropping this matter? You are not the first to ask, and everyone who has, came to regret talking about this subject. Each, Mr. Coop, has become a prisoner of his own conscience.’
I thought about this. What terrible secret could be so hideous about pens that everyone who knew about them regretted knowing about them?
‘Please tell me why so many pens?’ I asked.
He shrugged and asked, ‘So you do not want to drop the matter?’
‘No!’ I answered.
‘Very well. Please come to the following address this evening and all will be answered, but I warn you, you will regret this.’
‘Are you threatening me?’ I asked.
‘Hardly’, he replied, ‘I am simply giving advice as a father would to his son. You have until this evening to decide.’
He handed the card over and left.
I looked at the card. All it had was an address. That evening I located the man’s residence in a modest part of town. A rather large and imposing double story detached property in a corner on its own. I walked up to the door and it opened before I could ring the bell. A plump middle-aged lady stood before me.
‘We have been expecting you, Mr. Coop. Please come in.’
I walked into a reception area rather spartanly furnished.
‘Can I get you something to drink while you wait?’ she asked.
I declined the offer.
She opened another door on the right and showed me in. The dark green carpet lusciously covered the floor end to end. In the room stood a large wood desk, a good century older than I was, I thought. Behind it from wall to wall and ceiling to wall were row upon row of cabinets and stands filled with books. I walked towards the rows of books but was interrupted by a side door opening and the gentleman from the morning walked in. He was dressed, as earlier, in a suit. He indicated a seat next to the desk.
‘Please Mr. Coop, can I offer you a drink?’
I thought it impolite to decline a second time so I nodded.
We sat down with our ports.
‘Your name wasn’t on the card.’ I blurted out. ‘How should I address you?’
‘Call me William. My full name is not necessary at present, besides I am sure you will find it out if you really wish to.’
‘Can we talk about the pens?’ I opened the can of worms.
He stopped smiling. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
‘Yes I am.’ I replied.
He got up from his armchair and beckoned me to follow him. He opened the door from which he had earlier appeared from and went in. I followed.
As I opened my eyes a little wider to adjust to the dim lighting, I looked around.
On all four walls were row after row of beautifully crafted cabinets, each covered with little glass doors with handles. Through the glass I could see displays of the pens each one under the other. All in line, each one engraved with a name in gold. A lot of male names with the occasional female name. Each pen was held by a beautifully crafted leather ring.
‘This was what you wanted to see?’ I turned towards William.
‘I still don’t see your motive.’ I replied. ‘Who are these people?’ I asked.
There was silence, as I continued to look around the room. Each cabinet at some interlude had a change in year date. The cabinets spanned a period of fifty one years. All the pens were the same models. In the center of the room another desk took precedence. William now went to the desk opened a drawer and removed the leather case that held the pens. He opened it, turned it around and showed it to me. In the twelve seats two pens had names stuck to them. The third seat was empty; the rest remained filled with new pens.
I looked up at him. He placed his hand to his breast pocket and removed a pen and placed it in its seat in the case. He once more removed it from its seat unscrewed the top and showed me the nib which was intact. He opened the other two with the labels and showed them to me. They were exactly as Mr. Sundha had described them, bent and crushed with almost hatred and vengeance. He replaced the pens back into their seats carefully, closed the box and replaced it back into the drawer. He then replaced the unbroken pen back into his breast pocket. Then he sat down.
‘Now Mr. Coop, are you sure you want to know what the pens are used for?’
He clasped his hands together. ‘Mr. Coop, please get up and go to any one of the cabinets and carefully pull out one of the pens.’ I looked around and walked up to one of the cabinets, opened it and saw that each pen worked as a handle to a file or folder that was attached to it by the leather ring. I pulled at the pen and the leather folder came along with it. I read the name on the pen. ‘John Mayer Banks’ I returned with the folder back to the table and opened it.
My eyes opened wide, and wider still as I read, turning page after page recording the atrocities this man had caused, destroying a number of lives in the process. But the first page had hit me the most, shocked me, and made me understand why the man sitting opposite me carried the world on his shoulders.
Each man and woman whose name appeared on each of the pens was dead. Killed.
The man opposite me bore on his conscious the deaths of countless men and women. Yet thousands more probably thanked him. My head began to spin with the enormity of the situation.
William looked at me. ‘Was it worth it Mr. Coop? Are you satisfied?’
I looked down at my hands. I realized that my curiosity and obstinacy had brought this about. Here stood a man who did a job, a profession with the greatest responsibility.
The responsibility of life and death weighed on his shoulders each day as he fought with his conscious in order to continue the next day.
William got up from his chair, took a sheet of pure white paper, took out the pen from his pocket once more and wrote…….
“To be hanged till death. Sentenced to be carried out within…”
Then he crashed the nib against the paper until it broke. I looked on in shock as a lonely tear rolled down his tired cheeks to drop onto the yet wet ink.
Curiosity had got the better of me that day twenty years ago. I had asked the judge a number of philosophical and theosophical questions and had a great deal of insight into the man’s private world. I also learnt that ignorance is sometimes knowledge in itself and must be respected. That is the mark of a real intelligent man.
I now have written this story in light of the fact that my mentor and most learned friend, the honorable Judge William Ashten is dead. I am sure that there are other individuals like him in our world but none who could have loved, respected and passionately hated the work that they do all at the same time.
He taught me in my line of work there is a line that has to be drawn that we cannot cross, but the new generation of writers and reporters know no such bounds, perhaps neither would I have, had I not met the judge.
As for the pen, I respect its power a lot more because it is not only more powerful than the proverbial sword and controls the destiny of men and women, but also countries and sometimes even the world.
The pen that started these strange events has once more become a part of me, and I still use my friend every single day to draft articles and write stories. No dog is ever going to change my destiny again.
Mr. Sundha still sits at his shops but his sons and nephews have taken over the daily running of the stores. Mr. Sundha had informed the judge about my curiosity of him the same day that I saw the Judge for the first time. Indeed he had been expecting me but he was not ready to tempt fate but have fate tempt me instead.
So next time you pick up a pen, whether its Mr. Biro’s invention or any other kind, ‘think’ before you put it to paper, it might change another’s or perhaps, the world’s destiny.
©Jaimin S. Vyas 1998
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