Tiger haunting

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Short story published in The Hindu “Blink” fiction supplement (24 January 2015)

A phantom began to murmur to visitors in a London museum. One woman in the Central Asian galleries heard an inexplicable whistling while staring at pre-Islamic coins. The sound was at once in her ear and not, as if she was remembering it rather than hearing it, as if it came not from somewhere but from some other time. She fled, overwhelmed by a vision of the multitudinous past: how many coins were kept in the display, how many more lay buried still, how many fingers rubbed them, picked them, hoarded them, all those uncountable human traces distilled to skeletal fact.

A man, this time in the China galleries, heard the noises so clearly that he was reminded of when he first endured the torture of the song flute as a seven-year-old. Hooo, hooo. He stared at an unfurled painting of a Chinese landscape, mountains quivering like water. His eyes brimmed with unexpected tears.

London tabloids began to run interviews with spooked visitors. On the television news, a bemused correspondent drifted about the steps of the entrance, thrusting his microphone towards the rolling chins of tourists. Most disavowed hearing anything ghostly, but one woman babbled at the camera. It was at first a kind of whistling, she said, like the wind against a window, then it became a piping sound — she puckered her mouth and said hooo, hooo — and then at last it sounded like a growl. A growl? the reporter asked. Yes, she said, a growl.

When the museum’s director met the ghost, she was walking by a 15th-century tapestry of the Trojan War. Hooo, hooo, said the queen of the Amazons, kneeling before the king of Troy. Hooo, hooo, said her female soldiers, bristling with weapons, long blonde hair bound tightly beneath steel caps. The son of Achilles donned his late father’s armour. Looking through the cloth with his leaden centuries-old gaze, he growled. The entire tapestry trembled, all the soldiers bending against each other in their eternal war. The director gulped. There it was, indisputably, a stirring in the cabinets of the dead.

Not me too, she thought. She looked at her reflection in a glass display case, half-expecting a further shiver, another apparition, but the image was just hers. The past should only haunt museums as a metaphor, the director thought, save me from metaphors turned real.

At a later reception for donors, flutes of champagne bobbed by Mughal caftans, the swords of long-vanquished sultans, holy books encumbered with jewels. Various worthies bothered the director with talk of the ghost. Are the rumours true? Have you seen this poltergeist? I read in the papers that it howled from a Greek statue. Maybe we could summon the ghost now, if we’re all quiet and turn the lights down. Wouldn’t that be fun!

The director smiled grimly over the rim of her prosecco. I’m glad that the museum inspires such great imagination, she said, but I’m afraid that it’s all just a lovely fantasy run wild… these reported noises are quirks of the ventilation… please forgive an old building its curious winds.

The breath of another world interrupted her denials. Hooo, hooo. At first, the donors thought that the sounds came from a public address system. But the blanched face of the director suggested otherwise. Hooo, hooo. Drinks dropped and shattered. It’s the ghost, the donors said, it’s the ghost, what does it look like? Don’t be ridiculous, others yelled, ghosts are invisible. The sounds grew louder, swelling with new rhythm and tone. Bartenders ducked under tables, servers trembled with their trays. A donor pondered the ghostly tune. Is that… God Save the Queen?

The director followed a hunch. She slipped to the back of the gallery, where the growls were loudest. There was the tiger, a pipe organ sculpted in the shape of a beast mauling a red-coated British soldier, that famous contraption taken from the defeated Tipu Sultan.

It’s you, the director thought, but it isn’t you. To work, the pipe organ needed someone to turn the handle that pumped air into the brass lungs, someone to raise and lower the soldier’s arm to modulate the notes, someone to play the keyboard in the tiger’s flank. But the tiger sat in lacquered solitude. The handle was untouched, the soldier’s hand lay over his mouth as if he were stifling a yawn, and the keyboard remained locked beneath the tiger’s wooden skin. Sound still lifted from the tiger, no longer chaotic but ordered, the spritely insistence of God Save the Queen.

Why is it playing God Save the Queen? the donors asked. How should I know, do you want me to ask it? the director snapped. Sure, why not? The donors said. The director sighed and searched the tiger’s painted eyes. Please, she begged, you don’t have to do this… this is your home, be at peace in your home. She pressed her nose against the glass, astonished that an assemblage of wood and metal could summon from her rational self the spirit of prayer.

But Tipu’s tiger would not be propitiated. Its voice chased the donors and the director through the London night. It hooted behind them near Royal Albert Hall. It sung from the black of the Serpentine. It whistled over the bridges, hummed in the veins of the Tube, over the slow creep of the Thames, issued from the mouths of passing tourists. Locals slumped into the modest certainty of their homes, ears ringing.

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