Chapter 12 – Little Rubes
Reuben’s Bentley raced through the night. He drove along country lanes, a soft whooshing sound as the car’s wheels glided against wet tarmac. It was rare for him to drive alone, but he had an important task to complete tonight. He zoomed through a wood; the car’s lights illuminating bare, veiny trees and the occasional galloping deer, startled by the muted roar of the engine. Turning into a concealed side road, Reuben pulled up next to an old, run-down factory.
Before he left the comfort of the leather seats for the chilly night, temptation seized him. He opened the glove box, prized out a folded crepe garment and ran his fingers along the sheer, lightweight fabric. It was a beautiful red Georgette saree, with traditional bandhani and a blue border, made for a young girl of seven or eight for a wedding or festival. Reuben buried his face in the soft saree, filling his nostrils deeply and imagining for a moment he could smell the spices of India. But instead of the brightly coloured bazaars and street sellers of Bombay, his mind conjured up the stony expression of his mother. Vivid memories of that face and the shame and terror it provoked in him as a child seized him and he gripped the garment tightly, his fingers puncturing a hole. The desecration of the luxurious saree elicited a tingle in his crotch.
Reuben’s mother was a cold austere woman who commanded the servants and maids of the Fenwick estate with a shrill voice. As a young boy, he pretended she was a witch who’d tricked his father into marrying her and that his real mother was Nanny Zahra, an au pair with a wide smile and a clear voice. She sang beautiful songs and piqued his fertile imagination with folk stories from India.
All the staff at the various Fenwick estates and properties tiptoed around him, afraid that displeasing him could result in unemployment.
“Yes, Master Reuben, of course you can have more ice cream.”
“Yes, Master Reuben, of course you can jump on the bed in your muddy boots.”
His parents told the staff that they must allow him to do whatever he pleased. “You’re special, Reuben,” his father told him. “You’re not like other boys and girls. You’re part of a lineage. Do you know what that means?”
He shook his head.
“Your mother and father are very special people, they pass down their specialness to you.”
“Like a prince?”
“Yes, like a prince. But when you grow up, you’ll be more powerful than any king.”
“Can I live in a castle?”
His father rustled his hair. “You already own a castle, don’t you remember visiting Scotland last summer?”
“Yes, but I thought that was your castle, Daddy.”
“It’s yours, Reuben. All will be yours one day.”
Around his sixth birthday, his parents employed a new nanny, Zahra. He gazed at her brown skin and dazzling white smile with awe. She sang strange songs in a high-pitched voice. She never called him Master Reuben, unless his mother or father were present. Instead, she called him Little Rubes. She brought him a special religious book and offered to show him what she called her gods, as long as he didn’t breathe a word to his mother or father. He agreed at once and sat in Zahra’s lap. The brightly coloured illustrations bewitched him. One of the gods had an elephant’s head. Another had three sets of arms. His favourite was Shiva, who wore a crescent moon, a garland of skulls and a snake around his neck. Zahra described each god and what they represented.
One bright winter’s day, a couple of children visited the mansion and after playing in the garden, Zahra asked them all to draw a picture of the animals they’d seen. One girl painted a sparrow. It looked much better than the earthworm he’d painted, so he picked up the pot of dull brown paint-water and poured the lot over the girl’s creation. The girl burst into tears.
“Rubes!” shouted Zahra, jolting him upright. He’d never been shouted at before, especially not by a nanny. “Say sorry, right now.”
“No!” he fired back, folding his arms.
Zahra pulled him off the stool and into the vestibule. She towered over him, her eyes wide. “Why did you ruin that poor girl’s picture?”
He looked down at his feet.
“Are you not sorry?”
“No,” he said, honestly. “Daddy says I’m different to all the other boys and girls. I’m special.”
“You may be different,” said Zahra, “but you must treat others with respect.”
Later, she told him a story about a tribe boy named Ekalavya who wanted to be an archer, but because he belonged to a low caste, the guru refused to teach him. The guru shook his head and told the boy he only taught princes. So Ekalavya made a sculpture of the guru from mud and practised his archery skills in the forest. Years later, the guru stumbled upon Ekalavya in the forest glade. He tested the boy and discovered Ekalavya was more skilled than any of his royal pupils.
“You see, Little Rubes,” said Zahra, clutching him tightly in her arms, “the boy wasn’t a prince, but he became a master warrior.”
He thought about the story and smiled, wishing Zahra taught the story to his father.
“Hey,” said Zahra, smiling warmly. “I’ve got something to show you.” She fetched her bag from the servant’s quarters and showed him a colourful garment. “A saree. It’s for my daughter. For Diwali, the festival of light.”
He didn’t realise Zahra had a daughter. “Where is she?”
“She’s at home with her granny while I work.”
He ran his hand over the smooth fabric. “Can I wear it?”
“It’s for my daughter,” said Zahra. Then she smiled. “Ok, but just for a short while.”
She helped him put on the saree, taking care not to crease the silk. It draped over his shoulder and flowed over his body. He twirled around, the wonderful garment soft against his skin.
“What’s going on?” shouted a voice. He jumped out of his skin, his heart racing. His mother stormed into the room, her bulging eyes fixed on Zahra.
“What are you doing with my son?” she yelled. She marched over to him, grasped the saree in her wiry hands and tore it off him, the delicate fabric ripping. She kicked the remains aside. “Filling my son’s head with hocus pocus nonsense! Dressing him up in women’s clothes! You’ve got some nerve!”
Zahra bowed her head repentantly.
“Put your clothes on, Reuben,” she fumed, before leading the nanny away.
He quickly dressed and followed them to a nearby office where he eavesdropped at the top of the stairs, although his mother’s voice pierced through the mansion’s walls. His mother fired Zahra. Zahra asked for permission to say goodbye to him, but his mother refused. He never saw her again.
Throughout his childhood, he often wished he’d climbed out of a window and escaped with her. He’d live with Zahra and her daughter, who he imagined looked pretty.
Reuben shut the ripped saree away in the glove compartment and left his car. He never forgave his mother, and she went to the grave knowing he hated her. Years later, by chance, he discovered Zahra had not told him the full story of Ekalavya, the archer.
When the guru discovered the boy out-skilled all the royal pupils at archery, he demanded to know who taught him. ‘You did,’ said Ekalavya, pointing to the idol made of mud. ‘If that’s so,’ replied the guru, ‘you must pay me. I demand you cut off your right thumb.’ Out of respect for the guru, Ekalavya did so.
Reuben always thought the stupid boy should have fired an arrow between the guru’s eyes. Yet, as he entered the abandoned factory, Reuben fancied the boy glimpsed an ultimate truth in his sacrifice: nobody can change the natural order of the universe.
Inside, he found Chad, one of Venom Empire’s guards, waiting under an aura of yellow light from the bare bulb. Recognising him, the guard collapsed to his knees. “Downstairs, sir,” he said, handing him a small tin.
In the dark, dank cell underground, Reuben found the prisoner chained to the wall, head dipped down. Her clothes were torn and dirty, but the guards fed and watered her as he requested. He slammed the door behind him, startling her.
“You fucking psycho,” Isla seethed as he grew closer.
“I see you haven’t lost your way with words, young lady. I hoped you’d be more compliant this time.”
“Rot in hell, wank stain.”
“Charming,” said Reuben. “As much as I’d like to continue the pleasantries, I have a busy schedule.” He removed a syringe from the tin.
“Heroin. Enough to put down an elephant. I’m told it’s a wonderful high.”
She started to breakdown, her lip quivering and tears forming in her eyes. Not unexpected, thought Reuben. She was nineteen—a mere child.
“Oh, don’t cry,” he said, trying to suppress a smirk. “This is for your own good. Did you really think you could make fun of us without consequences? I kept you alive as part of Project Blue Butterfly, but now you’re no longer any use to us. We’ll dump your body in some squat or car park and you’ll be swiftly forgotten. Just another statistic—you’ll barely even make the news.”
“But my mum—”
He shrugged. “Maybe she’ll find out, maybe not. Who knows?”
He looked around the cell. Silvery moonlight pierced through gaps in the brickwork, illuminating her tear-stricken face. “I don’t see him rescuing you, my dear.” He delved into his coat pocket and pulled out his talisman—a wooden skull crafted by an indigenous tribe in India. Isla gasped in horror at the creepy-looking skull, with its long, sharp teeth. Reuben pricked the syringe into the vial and withdrew some liquid. “Troublemakers need to be dealt with. We can’t have the public getting ideas. Now hold still.”
Venom Empire could not permit a grassroots movement with a powerful leader to gain momentum, except for the ones they co-opted to pressurise governments. Venom Empire must corrupt or snuff out all resistance.
As he grabbed her arm and fastened the belt tight around her flesh, he noticed she’d calmed. She’s accepted her fate, he realised. He prepared to administer the lethal dose. As he depressed the plunger, she spat in his face.
“Eat a dick, fuck pig,” she whispered as he unbuckled the belt.
Reuben left the factory, telling the guard to do the necessary as he left. On the way home he decided his skin needed some sun; he vowed to take the jet to Palm Beach for the weekend, to soak up some rays on his private yacht.
PART TWO: 1999—2006