Saturday, September 19, 2009

Children of the Lie: Chapter One

Having failed to find a publisher for my books so far, and having not had the time, or perhaps money and inclination to have them self-published, I have decided to publish them myself on my Blog for whoever, whenever, mayever choose to read, some, part or all of it. I begin with book one, chapter one. There are five novels and one work of non-fiction to get through so I am sure it will take time. But, in this modern age, if not on the shelf they can be on the net.

Children of the Lie


Endings And Beginnings

Truth tends to arrive unannounced, and the dirtier its clothes, the more easily it takes us by surprise. It matters not at all if the suspicion has been lingering for years; there’s a lifetime between suspecting and knowing.

That’s how it happened for Jo Baker and that’s why the letter lay in her lap. She had been trying to write to her mother when suspicion shrugged itself into surer shape. The words would not come before, when she had not known and now there seemed little place for them.
Whatever gives birth to the beast, the worst kind of hating is that of a child for its mother. Some would say the child is born knowing how to hate and others would claim it must be learned. Whatever the source, the child is always innocent, but a day will come that demands the loss of that innocence.
Why it should have happened at that moment, on a flight between Singapore and Bombay, Jo had no idea. But it had, and there was an end to it ... or perhaps a beginning.
In another hour she would be in Bombay. She had been unable to sleep, and now, as they neared the end of the journey Jo felt tired. She stretched her neck back against the headrest. The crushed paper in her lap fell to the floor. She kicked it to one side.
The letter was yet one more effort to please. It had never worked before and, as her father had often said, ‘only a fool keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different result.’
That was why she was going to India. Anne had said India would change her and that was what she wanted.
Jo closed her eyes and tried to picture her sister. It had been years since she had seen her. But it was the dew-lipped face of the newborn child that pushed past the blurred image of the woman.
She had been entranced with the first sight of that small, perfect face and had held out fresh-washed hands. For the ten year old the gift had been beyond imagining. So too had been the curse that lay hidden within.
The migraines began when the baby was barely a week old. It would happen suddenly, as if some evil spirit came to rest upon her mother’s frequently furrowed brow and drew it into deeper creases with small, crabbed hands.
And none could offer comfort, not even the priest, who had once timidly peeped around the bedroom door, offering a weak smile and high hopes, only to be dismissed before a word could pass his practised lips. Her mother had no time for men of the cloth, as she called them, with a hard curl of the lips. If her husband wanted to profess to such popery, then that was his business, but she would have none of it in the house. "None of it!" she had re-iterated, with shrill force.
The priest had been so startled that his faded blue eyes had watered even more and he had gathered his stringy body together and scuttled from the house as fast as his dusty shoes would take him… out into the light of the drawn and wasted summer's day.
The headaches transformed not only Jo’s mother, but her father too. She had watched in fascination at this new creature that came creeping forth from her father’s frame when her mother took to her bed. For reasons far beyond the understanding of the child, it soon became clear that the headaches had the power to tame him, to render him obedient, even attentive. On those days when sickness ruled supreme, there was wrought in the normally irritable and impatient man, a gentleness and patience which was precious, as much for its rarity, as for its own intrinsic joy.
Her mother’s illness also stretched out fine-drawn fingers to tap upon Jo’s small shoulders. The child became handmaiden, ready to answer every call that slid from the darkened room.
Jo sighed at the memory. How she had hated her. How she had feared her. How the cold, dry chains of expectation still dragged at her heels.
It had been different with David. That had been about power as well, and yet she had been able to leave him behind. It was strange to think of David again. It was strange to think of him gone, when she had believed they would be together forever.
They had met at the theatre. The French mime had grown laboured and so she had lingered over her champagne as the bells rang. The tall, curly-haired man at a nearby table had also been in no hurry to leave. He had smiled at her and raised his glass. They were still talking an hour later when the theatre began to empty.
She had gone home with him that night and within six months they were married. David had kept the programme from the mime and insisted that it be placed on the first page of their wedding album.
It was, she reflected later, an ironically appropriate symbol to mark the start of their life together... the clown-like face of a man who would not speak. In time, the ashen face, seeking to communicate through sharp-drawn eyes and widened mouth, would be hers.
In that first year she cried often, although she did not know why, retreating to small, silent places where she would not be found. In the second year, their first child Michael was born and then, eighteen months later, Sophie arrived. The marriage would last for another twelve years, linger a further five, for the sake of the children, and finally end with a whimper.
Her mother had loathed David from the very start and he had continued to believe that he would be able to win her over. The last argument between them had been awful. Her mother’s face twisted in bitterness, and David, flushed and ranting, the spittle flecked against his stretched lips. Her own recent farewell had been almost as bad. She had been tense with the guilt of leaving and the fear of being forced to stay. Her mother, crimp-lipped and cold had refused to say goodbye.
And after all that, even divorcing David had been wrong in her mother’s eyes. Although it had been David’s decision to end the marriage. She would never have found the courage to do it, she knew that. And yet, it was only there, in that cruelly splintered place, that she had been able to find what truly belonged to her.
In a shivering of reflection she had seen herself as victim. It had come as no surprise in the hospital to find that she was not alone. So many mad women, plucked and tossed, in tangled sod.
“Women blame themselves when things go wrong,” one of the nurses said to Jo. “That makes them go crazy. When life gets too difficult for a man , he blames his wife and has an affair .”
Jo had thought about what the nurse said for a long time. And then she had laughed. Sex or a sedative? Was it really that simple? If life wasn’t a joke, then it should be.
They had all laughed the day Veronica tried to escape. Bleached hair straggling behind, she had run in heavy, lace-up shoes, across the hospital lawns as the inmates crowded to the side of the verandah to cheer her on.
Veronica had worn her best dress for the occasion. Pale blue, fine cotton, and belted at the waist, it was buttoned at the front and finished with a white Peter Pan collar. It was the dress that she wore on Sundays and her choice for the annual Christmas party. It was in fact the only dress that she possessed.
Veronica ran, not to any real possibility of freedom, but toward its illusion. And the male nurses chased her with enthusiasm, because, if nothing else, it broke the monotony. On that day, even some of the staff were cheering.
Veronica did not escape, of course, for such things only happen in fairy tales, and even in fairy tales, such things only happen to people who are beautiful and Veronica was most definitely not beautiful, although Jo had seen a faint whisper around the wasteland of her face which suggested that she may once have been.
Veronica was tired and frayed and really quite mad. She had married briefly in her early twenties, deciding quickly that men were good for one thing, and one thing only, and that since she enjoyed it and they were prepared to pay for it, her destiny lay in her own hands … or at least between her milk-fleshed thighs.
But destiny tweaks at our plans and Veronica had other tastes which served to both complicate her life and keep her poor … drinking and gambling. And so Veronica had sold herself to men, and the gambling had drained all her money away as quickly as she made it , and the alcohol drained all her beauty away at the same time, until one day there was nothing left to sell.
With no income to be gained from the arms of men and most sadly, no small, forgotten monies which had survived her gambling, Veronica found herself faced with few choices. Madness was one of them and given her particularly low state on the day she decided that she was too old and too ugly to remain in the business, and far too poor to do anything else, she had embraced her dark and faithful friend with resignation.
She was, after all, Jo decided, a girl of very simple tastes. With a warm bed and regular meals, even madness began to feel comfortable. And there were occasional moments of forgetting in the garden with one or other of the men who shared her ordered world of chaos. Her needs in the main having been met, she was, on the whole, quite well behaved.
No one really knew what made her make that brave, but doomed dash for freedom. None of the staff understood and few of the inmates cared. It was possibly no more than boredom. Everyone was bored in that place. But what she ran from, or to, was in essence, irrelevant, and she was quite soon returned to her old self, the process encouraged by a week or so of careful medication.
Jo had pitied Veronica when she first met her, but then had begun to suspect that she was somehow content, and therefore in little need of sympathy. Insanity, like everything else, served a purpose. It was one way of dealing with the unbearable, of surviving the unendurable, but it was advisable to be completely mad. Being half mad... mad enough not to be sane, but sane enough to know you are mad, was the greatest horror.
Running from the world didn’t work. She had tried that. Neither did running from herself. The demons had run with her, their shrill voices muffled only by a suffocating blanket of drugs. The battle had to be fought sometime and it was better to choose the ground on which to fight.
On the day she came to that decision she stopped swallowing her pills, holding them under her tongue until the nurse had gone and then, spitting them out and later burying them in the rose garden. She had felt herself bloom ever more beautifully by the day. The roses on the other hand seemed to droop ever so slightly but she told herself it was probably only her imagination.
They had been pretty those roses, even in their tranquilised state; soft, seductive petals nestled, lipstick bright, in a bed of hard, green leaf and irritable thorn.
Her grandmother had always liked pink. Her father's mother, that large, severe woman who only ever wore black but always bought pink dresses for her grand-daughters.
‘That woman,’ as her mother always called her, the one who had made her life a misery. ‘That woman,’ who painted her kitchen the colour of blood while she was recovering from Anne's birth. ‘That woman,’ who had come into her house unbidden and set herself the task of sorting it out and re-packing it because she did not consider her daughter-in-law equal to the task. The same woman who told her to have an abortion when she became pregnant for the second time because she did not consider her equal to that task either.
Jo had always rather liked the red kitchen although she had not dared to tell her mother so. And so had her father, although he had done no more than sigh heavily, as he wielded the paintbrush and slowly covered the last traces of life and passion with the sickly green of decay.
When the announcement came that they were about to arrive in Bombay, Jo grabbed her bag and headed for the toilet. She was determined to look her best.
The mirror was brightly lit, garishly so and she looked awful. Her eyes were puffed and red, as if she had been crying. It was a look she recognised but this time it was about tiredness and lack of sleep.
Anyway, she comforted herself, as she rubbed at her sallow skin with a wet flannel, most of those sitting around her looked the same. It was thirteen hours since she had left Adelaide and even longer since she had had a good sleep.
She searched for her lipstick. It was force of habit. She could still hear the shrill but kind voice of the nurse saying: "Come along dear, let's just have a little lippy on. It will brighten you up no end."
The determined nurse would work her way along an assembled line of pale and slack-jowled faces, transforming in a garish instant, each set of waiting lips.
Gladys had prided herself on being able to bring a little joy to her miserable charges. Large of breast and huge of hip, she was one of the stronger nurses, often called on to help with troublesome patients. There were few who dared to turn away when she revealed with a twist whatever red was deemed to suit.
And when Gladys had finished and was able to proudly survey her work , they were all told to smile; to lift the heavy edges of saddened mouths .
Jo grimaced in disgust at the memory. It was enough to put anyone off lipstick. She peered more closely into the mirror. It was not such a bad face really, she told herself, given the years and the recent ravages. It was broad and square, with a definite chin, large brown eyes and a distinctive nose, broken too many times in childhood to even remember what it might have been.
Her eyebrows were light, and, if not pencilled in, gave her the look of a startled mouse, especially first thing in the morning when her thin, brown hair would spread rudely around her face. Her mouth was broad and generous, but the lips were thin, and turned down slightly at the corners.
‘Plain,’ her mother had called it.
It would be strange to see her sister again after so many years., thought Jo. She wasn’t sure how long it had been. At least five years or perhaps more. There had been a few letters, but not many.
There would be time for them to talk, to get to know each other again. Jo gave her lips one final touch of scarlet. She smiled at herself in the mirror. ‘Yes, a lot of things would be different,’ she murmured.
Just as she had done when they were children, she would wipe away her sister’s tears and gather her into her arms, singing to comfort the angel-faced child and consoling herself for her sins.

Anne walked across the broken footpath with barely a glance at the starving dog panting pitifully in the gutter. She saw the savage gash in its heaving chest, but was able to find a place for it in some distant part of memory, crowded in with all the other horrors. She was sorry for the dying dog, but there was little she could do and any action raised the eternal question: 'If you stop to help this creature, then how can you turn a blind eye to the beggars?’
If help were to be given, then surely a human being must be held as more deserving and there were quite a few of those directly in front of her, sleeping against the airport wall, each one wrapped in a flimsy cocoon of dirty rags. She walked on a little faster, pushing her way through the noisy, writhing crowd that was always to be found at the entrance to Sahar International Airport.
Anne walked into the terminal and along the hall to the arrivals board. With any luck, it would actually be working. On this particular day someone had clearly done the puja well, and with the help of prayers and scattered marigolds ...the lights flickered brightly, announcing the expected arrival of the flight from Singapore, a mere twenty minutes delayed.
She picked her way across the dusty, crowded floor toward the rows of grimy, plastic chairs and sat down to wait for Richard, who had gone to park the car. They spent more time than anyone could wish at Sahar, with all the comings and goings with children, family and friends. Someone was always flying in or out, although most had a preference for the latter.
“Our second home,” Richard would joke, every time he walked in.
It was not, however a particularly comfortable home, Anne reflected, as she looked around at the grubby marble walls, the littered grey-green terrazzo floor and the wide expanse of smeary window. But there was a busy-ness about it, a sense of greater purpose, as the boys in bright orange overalls pushed rows of ancient trolleys, their brown paint chipped and worn through years of use and lack of care.
The cleaning women worked their way around the moving, milling mass of legs. These old, skinny women with their worn and grubby cotton saris tied up between their legs, flicked away at the dirt and litter with straw brooms, moving the mess into various corners where it would remain until an unexpected breeze blew it back into the middle of the room.
The airport workers wandered aimlessly about, with an air of vague expectation. On the backs of their faded overalls could be seen the embroidered words: 'Tips Please,' and preceding this, the faded outline of a ‘No’. It was a word which remained but a shadow of its former self, the embroidery having been carefully unpicked at the first opportunity. The unfulfilled word represented a brave attempt by management to do away with the iniquities of tipping and an equally brave attempt by the poorly-paid employees to re-instate this one possibility for miraculous gain.
The Americans and Japanese had done the greatest damage in this respect, by handing out what were relatively insignificant sums of money in their terms, but which constituted huge windfalls to the Indians. Any foreign face was consequently seen as fair game and eager helpers pushed and shoved to be first at the feet of any new arrival.
For those who attempted to avoid the giving of such bounty, there was a practised routine of pestering which tried patience sorely at the best of times, but even more so in the dark, small hours of the morning, which seemed to be the only time at which international aircraft departed and arrived in Bombay.
Guilt gifts, mused Anne irritably, that's all they were. Something in which only the tourists could afford to indulge as they hurriedly left the harrowing images of India behind them. It was not so easy to silence conscience, when one lived here, she said to herself, with just a touch of self-righteousness.
If it were simply a matter of handing out rupees to everyone who asked for it, one would do nothing else. There were outstretched hands aplenty in India, from the top to the very bottom. No matter how rich people became, they still held out their hands for that extra baksheesh, the tip, the bribe, the black money which fuelled India and destroyed it at the same time.
The ‘black economy’ constituted some eighteen to twenty-one percent of India's Gross Domestic Product, sometimes equalling as much as forty-thousand crore of rupees per year - more than $15 billion US! She had been horrified when Richard told her that, and then, when he casually added, that the world's largest concentration of gold in private hands was in India, she had become angry.
Anne had found it painful to live with the crushing poverty when she first arrived, but reasoned that one could expect little else in a poor country. To learn that the appalling filth and degradation had more to do with corruption and the cruelties of caste than anything else, served only to break down the foundations of her reason which had previously made India bearable.
The chai-seller ambled past with his rack of dirty glasses and his thermos of tea. He was little more than a boy, and from the look of his trousers, one who had grown unexpectedly in recent months.
Well, his trousers may be too short, thought Anne, but it also meant that he got enough to eat, although it was possible that he lived on the slops left by his customers. Still, there had to be nourishment in that sweet, milky concoction of boiled tea, as more than one Indian baby survived on it, even though it was believed that feeding a baby tea made its skin turn black.
Mary, her maid, had told her that and Anne had been amused. Mary however did not find it funny, for it was her baby daughter who was being fed the tea and the blacker her skin, the harder it would be to find her a husband. Poor Mary was very upset. Not only had she failed by giving birth to a daughter, but she now had one whose skin would never be described as ‘fair’ or ‘wheatish’ in the marriage columns of the Times of India newspaper. Not that Mary was likely to be able to afford such an advertisement, but she would have to see her daughter married off all the same and now the father was feeding the baby tea and her skin would be even darker.
She had been so proud when she brought the child in for Anne to see, some months after her birth. "See Madam," she said," look how white she is. She has skin like you." The child had been fair, as many Indian babies are when born, but with time and sunshine and, who knows, perhaps even tea, her skin had already darkened considerably.
At that moment, Richard, who had been parking the car, walked up and sat down. "I was just wondering where you were," Anne said. "I was also wondering if I should risk a cup of tea from the snack bar over there. It looks half-way clean."
"I suppose it depends how desperate you are," Richard replied. "For my part, I haven't forgotten the last bout of dysentery. I don't need a cup of tea that badly."
"I suppose you are right," Anne said. "It really is the worst thing about this country, the fact that the water can kill you and the food can make you sicker than you have ever been in your life. If only they could do something about it," she finished, with an irritable sigh.
"Well, we all live in hope." It was, thought Richard, an endlessly repeated conversation and an intensely boring one at that. As far as he was concerned it didn't seem such a difficult thing to provide potable water, if that was what people wanted. Especially given that the Government managed to find billions of dollars for the military each year.
No, it was really quite simple, the people did not want clean water and so it did not exist. End of subject and hardly worth talking about. It annoyed him that Anne remained somewhat obsessive about the difficulties of living in India. He hoped she had no more to say on the subject and closed his eyes with faint thoughts of sleep.
Anne felt her own eyes closing on the scene around her, the faces blurred by tiredness, the crowd alive, almost a living thing, moving, breathing, ungainly beast, all changing, never still. The clatter of voices retreated to a distant hum and for a moment she forgot where she was and drifted in that dulled place halfway between waking and sleeping.
She was jarred back to reality by the crash and bang of falling cases and the sounds of heated argument. One of the old, and invariably overloaded, trolleys had lost a wheel. Suitcases tumbled to the floor with an impressive crash. All that remained was to find someone to blame and that accounted for the loud voices. A crowd had gathered, as was to be expected in such situations.
Someone was always to blame in India... someone else, of course. In this instance, there were a number of possibilities: the ' ...Tip Please' man who had been pushing the trolley; the '...Tip Please' assistants who had been hovering nearby, each with a proprietorial hand on a suitcase; the porters who had packed the trolley in the first place; or the officials in charge of Sahar International Airport, who supplied the trolley and were therefore responsible for the rebellious wheel.
Anne took one look at the enthusiastically gesticulating crowd next to her and decided it was a good time to check the arrivals board once again. They would all have lots of fun debating the issue, making a contribution to this, unexpected crisis of the moment, and probably doing nothing as practical as collecting the scattered bags.
She stood up and pushed her way through the growing line of blocked trolleys. Really, they were like children, they were so busy enjoying themselves having an argument that they couldn't care less about the chaos they were causing
"Please, please, let the plane be here. I have to get out of this place," she murmured softly to herself. And for once, her prayers were answered. The flight had arrived and, if there were no problems coming through Customs, Jo should be out within half an hour.
Anne sighed with relief and looked across the heaving mass of humanity to Richard's sleep-slumped shape in the distance. The trolley line seemed to be moving slowly, snaking its way around the still bickering crowd, although the numbers had diminished somewhat and the suitcases were gone. So too were the porters who had given up the delights of argument to follow both suitcases and possible benefactor through the exit doors
Another half hour's wait though would necessitate a visit to the toilet. Anne grimaced at the thought. Never a pleasant experience in India, although she had to admit that those at Sahar were less evil-smelling than most. Not that she touched anything when she went inside, even using one finger to push open the door.
The bodies of the cleaning women were strung out across the floor, each bony shape draped in a dirty, ragged sari. They were all fast asleep, obviously exhausted from the day's efforts, mused Anne, although since cleaning in India rarely constituted more than a bucket of water thrown through the toilet door, it was hard to see why. She hated herself for the thought and quickly replaced it with another: Since the women were no doubt malnourished, it was not surprising they should be tired.
After rinsing her hands quickly under the tap and hurriedly drying them on the insides of her skirt pockets, she returned to the relative normality of the terminal waiting area. She would never get used to stepping over the bodies of human beings, as if it were a natural thing to do. She would never get used to India; she would never believe that people had to live this way.
The sweeper women in the toilet were the lowest of the low, the untouchables, those whose very shadow could pollute an upper caste Hindu. They were so far beyond the pale that they were beyond caste. They were those whom Gandhi had named Harijans, Children of God.
And yet, for these Children of God, living, eating, sleeping on the floor of a public toilet was better than life in the gutter. No-one thought it strange that they should lie stretched out in their filthy saris, peacefully sleeping amidst the litter of their straw brooms, battered metal food dishes and the odd roll of toilet paper. No-one thought it strange except foreigners, who held their noses against the creeping stench of filthy drains and marvelled that the women could smile so brightly.
Richard was lucky, Anne thought, as she returned to her seat and looked at his apparently sleeping face. He managed to rise above it all. If it did make him angry, then he certainly didn't waste energy by showing it.
Or perhaps he was just better at lying to himself, which would account for why he seemed perfectly at home in India, she thought with a bitter sadness. She looked at her watch. Jo would be out soon. It would be good to see her. It was a long time since they had seen each other.
Anne felt a stab of remorse at the thought of her sister's nervous breakdown. She had meant to get down to Adelaide to see her, but there had never been the time. Her days were kept busy running the house, the evenings with business socialising and, four times a year, the children came up on holidays. Somehow, the past few years had flown. And anyway, she comforted herself, Jo had recovered and was well on her way to making a new life for herself. They would have much to talk about.
Anne ran her fingers through her short brown hair in an instinctive effort to tidy herself. Not that it was necessary, for Anne was one of those lucky people who managed to remain tidy, no matter the circumstances, even in a hot, sticky, dusty place like Bombay. She nudged Richard's arm to wake him and then stood up, brushing the expected creases from her slim-fitting skirt. Her white linen shirt was looking a little limp at the end of a long, hot day, but buttoned to the neck and adorned with a small, gold bar-brooch, it gave her navy linen skirt a fresh look and created an overall impression of casual elegance. It was a look which Anne liked very much and one which she knew suited her neat, regular features, cropped hair and finely shaped, grey eyes.
Anne was a woman who was very comfortable with her femininity and the fresh, understated beauty which comes from well-behaved hair, lightly tanned and yet unlined skin, elegant cheekbones, a shapely, disciplined nose, clear eyes, long, dark eyelashes and, most importantly, well-shaped, dark eyebrows. She was not the sort to look like a startled mouse in the morning.
Richard stood up with a yawn and stretched himself out to his full height, which was somewhere just above six feet, impressive at the best of times, but even more so in India, where malnutrition and, no doubt, vegetarianism contrived to produce men of more meagre, if not flimsy, stature. It was Richard, a full head taller than Anne, who at this moment spotted Jo.
"There she is," he said, pointing over the crowd in the direction of the crushed mass of humanity pushing and shoving at the exit door. They plunged into the mass and muddle of the arriving and welcoming crowd and rescued Jo who was beginning to look both confused and horrified.
"I'm so glad you're here," she said, hugging Anne and relinquishing the trolley to Richard, who had managed to cow the hovering '…..Tip Please,' assistants with both his height and a well-practised glare. "Not that I didn't think you would be," she continued, with quick, nervous breaths. “ It’s like, well, stepping into another world.”
"It is certainly that," Richard said, with a small laugh. "Especially the first time around. But you’ll soon get used to it. Most people do," he said, with a quick look at Anne.
Richard strode purposefully ahead, wielding the trolley like a weapon as he moved through the jumble of people and possessions. Anne and Jo followed close behind, trying to fend off the gaggle of scrappy little boys who were still clutching at bags and dreams of baksheesh.
Jo and Anne scrambled into the car as Richard and the driver argued about how best to fit the bags into the boot. Jo leaned back against the seat and gave Anne's hand a squeeze. All of a sudden she felt very tired.
The air was hot and moist, heavy with a tang which she would later come to identify as mould and dust. It had enveloped her as she walked out of the plane, and for a moment, she had felt panic.
“Was this where she wanted to be?’ It was like a living thing, this sense of the alien that swallowed her into the night. She had taken a deep breath and walked firmly across the tarmac. She was, however, greatly relieved to catch sight of Richard's shock of thick, greying hair.
It was only once they got into the car that she began to feel truly safe, as familiarity offered itself up in a world of black weariness and creeping strangeness.
They drove along the road which wound out from the airport terminal and were soon bumping briskly toward home with the air-conditioner set to high and pumping out as much chilled air as it could muster. Jo was too tired to talk and Anne, after a few pleasantries, fell silent and turned toward the window, to see again, what she had seen so many times before and which still troubled her.
For Jo, it was a confusing jumble of images, thrown in faded relief against the dimly lit streets. The road, half shadowed in yellowed light, offered a cram and crumble of buildings, and a glimpse of huddled shapes strung out along the footpath, as people slept upon their piece of borrowed earth, wrapped in no more than scraps and shreds of cloth.
It was a lifetime away from the wide, clean, and barely peopled streets of home. All of a sudden, Jo felt old... as old and worn and beaten as this world around her. She hoped the drive would not be too long.
"It's only half an hour from the airport to home at this time of night," murmured Anne, as if reading her thoughts.
Jo nodded and leaned back against the seat, surrendering for a moment to the numbness of exhaustion.
Richard slept, propped up against the door frame, his large head shaking from time to time with a succession of small but dignified snores.
Dignified was a word Richard used often. He was a banker and he had chosen his profession in the same way in which he made most of his choices, with great thought and considerable care. He believed money to be a vital component in maintaining the quality of life and reasoned that, the more he knew about handling it, the better off he would be.
He was not greedy, he merely liked to feel safe. Not for one moment did he believe that money necessarily brought happiness, but it most certainly brought material security and, armed with such, a person was far better prepared to face the many unexpected onslaughts of life.
He was a good banker, not simply because he had an excellent head for figures and was cautious, but also because he loved his work. He sensed a beauty in number that was beyond explanation, beyond understanding for many, but which satisfied him enormously.
He was fascinated with the thought that the world revolved on numbers and was awed by their power. They were a private language and one that he, among few, could translate. That they were dynamic energies, he had no doubt. That his skill with them gave him a sense of power was something which he did not readily acknowledge. He had been brilliant at school in mathematics and mediocre in his attempt to master English. Numbers had saved him from total humiliation and he thankfully found refuge among them.
It suited him, this private refuge in which words became subordinate to number. His language skills improved with intensive tutoring, but numbers remained his greatest love. They had been with him from the first and he would remain loyal. Not only that, he never lost his wonder at the ineffable power which they possessed. In a way, he gave to them what most men give to religion.
In believing that numbers were close to the root of reality, the substance of the order and purpose of nature and a measure of the worth and value of things, he gained a sense of his own worth and purpose. If he had been asked to explain such things, he would not have been able. But such questions are rarely asked and so his secret remained safe. Richard also liked to help people and, because he believed that banking was as much about people as it was about money, he made a very good banker indeed.
"We're here." Jo woke with a start. Anne was shaking her.
The car turned in through high, wrought-iron gates, long rusted and now incapable of closing. The chowkidar sat on a wooden stool with one arm wrapped carefully through the bars of the gate to hold himself in place. He was fast asleep and clearly guarding other realms.
Anne clicked her tongue irritably. "Utterly useless," she muttered. "I wish he would fall off his damn stool... it would do him good."
"What's that?" said Richard, slowly scratching his head and yawning.
"Just the watchman," said Anne. "Fast asleep again. I really don't know why we bother to keep him. He wouldn't know if a herd of elephants went through the gate."
"Well, elephants aren't very likely," said Richard, with a wry grin, "but people are, and the fact of the matter is that a watchman, even a sleeping one, is better than nobody at all. It may be symbolic, but it seems to work in India that, awake or asleep, you are better off with someone sitting at the front door. Anyway, I'm sure I read somewhere in the Chowkidar's Rules that sleeping on the job is compulsory.”
He yawned again and then eased himself gracefully out of the car. "Come on, Lawrence, let's get these bags inside, so everyone can get to bed."
Jo opened her door and the hot, humid night surged in to do battle with the last feeble remnants of air choked out by the exhausted air conditioner. She was too tired to think, let alone look around her and had only a sense of a narrow driveway and a small porch with an arched roof which had been set at the side of what appeared to be an enormous, three-storied house. She grabbed as many bags as she could sensibly carry and followed almost blindly in Anne’s determined footsteps.


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