“There you go, Peter, today’s pay. Don’t waste it.”
“Thank you, Mr Boss; I can now buy some paint for my cupboard. Have a good night, Mr Boss, I’m going home now.”
“Okay, Peter, see you tomorrow … same time?”
“Yes, Mr Boss, same time, same time: fifty-five past 8 o’clock in the morning.”
It usually took Peter an hour to get home as he navigated the bustling alleys and back streets of Kolkata, passing fruit vendors, beggars, monks, sewerage drains, smoking meats, motorbikes, street kids, temples, magicians, orphaned dogs-cats-and-rats; not to mention the myriad friendly faces ‘who just had to be smiled at’. Really, it was a journey of 1,000 “hellos”, with each greeting accompanied by a gentle, respectful bowing of the head. Peter was always conscious of being polite, which wasn’t at all difficult thanks to an innate fondness he had for his fellow man; a true philanthropist, you might say – if a very poor one. This gentleness flowed from the nurturing and modelling of his beloved grandmother – more on her later.
Generally, it was spot on 8pm when Peter strolled into his tenement building. He was a stickler for punctuality: “Eight-hours-after-12-o’clock-midday is my always homecoming time,” he’d insist with a twinkle in his eye.
The building was a similar age to Peter, thirty-plus years, but not in nearly as good a shape. It stood like a tired old man carrying a heavy yoke. Perhaps if someone blew hard enough it too would tumble over. Socks, towels, t-shirts, electrical cables, TV antennas, and assorted sneakers hung messily from balcony rails and windows betraying the reality within: unforgiving, overcrowded chaos – two-hundred rooms worth.
Usually it was three minutes past ‘eight-hours-after-12-o’clock-midday’ when Peter entered the first floor corridor to commence his settling-down-for-the-night routine. It was all very simple: he’d roll out a Hessian mat, say a quick prayer of thanks, then lie down very quietly next to his cupboard: “The most cleanliest and tidiest cupboard in all Kolkata,” he’d rejoice with anyone who was interested – not many were.
The cupboard, like his gran, was a significant presence in his life, and he dutifully attended to it as if it were the Taj Mahal. Probably his most important duty was its annual Christmas painting: this year, bright yellow; last year, bright green, and the year before that, bright red.
It didn’t make much sense to his neighbours, this attentiveness to an unremarkable cupboard in an even less remarkable building. “I bet,” some passers-by would scoff dismissively, “I bet that’s where he keeps the proceeds from his pick-pocketing and thieving … or maybe he’s got some pet rats!”
Peter hadn’t chosen a good place to sleep either: a busy corridor with lots of people traffic. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to nudge him with a discreet kick, while others would bark, “Why don’t you pay for a room like the rest of us; and who gave you permission to paint that cupboard, anyway?”
“Sorry, sir, sorry, sir,” Peter would reply patiently, respectfully, which tended to disarm his plaintiffs.
“Arrgh, never mind, never mind; but make sure you clean-up your mess.”
Sure, to outsiders it was just a cupboard, but Peter knew otherwise. Indeed, he knew everything there was to know about it including its dimensions – and to the nearest millimetre, thank you very much: “Five foot 3.2 inches long, two point zero feet exactly high, and four foot plus 6.6 inches deep.”
Despite these modest proportions, Peter’s Christmas painting rituals were long, drawn-out affairs; usually around six hours. Each brush stroke was akin to patting a much loved pet: gentle, slow, and tender. This wasn’t just another chore, rather it was a sacred action: comparable to a sacristan polishing a tabernacle or decorating an altar.
What was also compelling about the cupboard was how immaculately clean Peter kept it; it was literally spotless inside and out. This was in stark contrast to the rest of the building which had been meekly surrendered to the powers of dust and grime and cockroaches and rats and ablutions.
While Peter’s annual working-bees were not to everyone’s taste, especially this year’s yellow, the cupboard certainly offered some respite from the colourless apathy and neglect that abounded.
Peter’s attention to detail was another virtue that could be traced back to the guidance of his grandmother: “If a job’s worth doing, Peter, it’s worth doing well.” He’d first heard that gem when he was about seven.
Indeed, much of his memory was infused with his grandmother’s wisdom and teachings. He adored her: “My bestest and favouritest person in the whole world.”
She was also the one who made sure, unlike the busy, distracted people around him, that Peter knew he was truly loved and truly valued. “The world needs more like you, dear grandson; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
This was a difficult truth for Peter to grasp because every day he was reminded in someway that he was a ‘bit slow’, and very poor.
No wonder, then, the care and attention he afforded his cupboard. After all, that was where his beloved grandmother slept, and it was his duty to keep her safe in a nice, bright place:
“The cleanliest and tidiest cupboard in all Kolkata; Merry Christmas, grandma.”
This is a fictional tribute to Peter de Cruz who did indeed keep his grandmother safe as she slept in a cupboard next to him in the corridor of a tenement building in Kolkata, India.