Thursday, January 21, 2010

Children of the Lie - Chapter Four


The Old Man By The Sea.

The road rose, as if forever, climbing the back of the hill. The light bit hard into the heart of the day. A flimsy shape, reflected in the wild brightness of the chalk-white road, moved slowly ever upwards, her shadow locked to a steady tread until both she and shadow vanished into the deep shade thrown by the walls of the church. Through the open door came a drift of earthy dampness the smell of ancient stone and, with it, the throbbing of soft-throated song. The chant reached back into the crepuscular deep; back into the throats of the white-robed nuns who knelt, heads bowed, behind the bars which kept them from the world; incarcerated in holy isolation.

There was a shape, hunched in the distance, shoulders heaving in ponderous rhythm. It was a young man. He looked so small, like a child, crushed as he was in the grip of grief. He raised his head toward the altar and then slowly rose to his feet. His head dropped forward for one brief moment as if humbled by its tear-shimmering purity and then he turned and began to walk, on slow and silent feet, down the aisle. It was her father.

Jo moved forward, ready to embrace both him and his pain. Then she stopped ... realising, with horror, that it was not her father, but the leper she had seen at the corner and this black, corroded man was standing now in front of her, smiling; his weeping, scabrous stump raised in salute. The chant rose in sonorous cadence and she fell into the darkness and found herself in the light, her chest still pounding.

She sat up, pressing both hands to her racing heart. Through the window she could see the sky lighten; the matt, grey blue of dawn. She got out of bed and walked to the window, leaning her forehead on the cool of the glass. The first tentative bird cries came in the stillness, and, as the pink dust of daylight shook itself out over the trees, they broke into a raucous chorus of welcome. The dream had come before, but she had not known the weeping man to be her father. The dream would end with her closing the door of the church and leaving the man to his lonely grief.

And yet she always knew it to be more than a dream. It had happened. One day long ago, she walked the long white street, on a day held tight in the burning hands of summer, shading her eyes in the blinding light as she made her way up the hill to the neat, brown shape of the Catholic Church. The door was open, just a little; it beckoned blackly through the blurred bright and when she pushed against the dry, warm wood, it had opened still further with no breath of a sound.

She had crept in and seen the figure of her father, hunched near the altar, his shoulders shuddering convulsively. There were no nuns, of course, for it was a church, not a convent, but he had not been alone. On either side stood saints of stone in silent watch. It was shortly after his mother's death and he remained in the church long into the night, fallen at the feet of his God, on the cold, unforgiving stone; begging forgiveness, praying to this God, made in his own image. He had not dared to turn his head and ask for mercy from his Holy Mother, who smiled in patient absolution from a side alcove. How could he, when he had failed his own mother so terribly? He had allowed her to die, sure in the knowledge that the souls of her son and grand-daughters were forever lost to her ,doomed to the oblivion of damnation.

Jo had crept from the church unseen, closing the door silently behind her. She did not tell her mother what she had seen and, when her father finally came home, his face a swollen redness, his eyes glazed, empty, her mother had dismissed it as yet another long night at the bottle. Her father said nothing. He sat for awhile, deep in the shabby comforts of his favourite armchair, until his wife's nagging, high-pitched and constant, through the open door of her bedroom, roused him and he walked, sluggish, mute, through the whine of the front screen door, out to his room.

He had been in the sleep-out for as long as she could remember. That shoe-box of a room, made by enclosing one half of the verandah. It was more convenient for Jo's mother that way, given her delicate health. The sleep-out was tiny and tattered, but a bright, white room all the same as the walls from halfway down were fitted with louvre windows and Jo's father refused to have them covered with curtains. She had always liked the room, probably because of the light; the rest of the house, her mother's bedroom especially, being kept in a state of virtual darkness because of the constant threat of migraine. In summer especially, this place of bold, brave light when the louvres offered no protection from the full force of a blazing sun was still a place in which she could hide. She would lie under the bed, propped on pillows, reading the comics which her father brought home for her every pay day.

Even in the full-blown belly of the burning day, the cement floor remained cool, shaded as it was by the canopy of bed. It had been another of her safe places; a secret cave, with its sagging roof of woven wire. She also felt safe from the tarantulas, those great, tumescent-bodied, crisp-legged spiders which sought out the tops of cupboards in which to make their home. There had been three or four of them living in the sleep-out, nestled into the dusty, untouched corners on top of her father's wardrobe. They appeared from time to time, high up on the walls near the ceiling, moving in a slow, feathered gait from one side of the room to the other.

Jo's father always refused to kill them. He considered them useful creatures, ridding the world of flies and bugs and generally minding their own business. "They won't hurt you, if you don't hurt them," he said. "And anyway," he whispered once to Jo," there are worse things to share a room with." They had both laughed but Jo often felt the hot flush of fear as she lay in her bed, far from sleep, at the thought that somewhere out in the night the fat-bellied spiders were creeping over her father's face as he slept.

A knock at the door brought her back and she looked across to see Anne walk into the room. "Hope I didn't wake you, but we are just off to mass and I thought I should let you know. We'll be about an hour or so. Richard will organise some breakfast when we get back. Sunday is his day. How did you sleep?"

"Oh fine. How about you?"

"Good. I think the cognac helped me along. I was out like a light from the moment my head hit the pillow. Must go. See you when we get back."

Anne disappeared through the door and Jo fell back onto her pillows. Anne looked fresh-faced and elegant as usual. It was almost as if the woman of the previous night had been packed safely away ... as if her fear and anger had never existed. For a moment, she wondered if it too had been a dream but the memory was real. There was no doubt that it had happened. It was unusual, and that bothered her more than anything. Perhaps she did not remember what had happened. Perhaps she did remember and chose to forget it.

Jo felt the breath push up from her chest in something close to a sigh. She seemed to sigh far too much these days. That she loved her sister was not in doubt. Her little sister, her pretty sister, her clever sister. Always confident, always competent, always in control. Sometimes though, just sometimes, she did not know if she liked her. It had probably always been that way; something of a battle between them. The worst time had been some years ago when things were already difficult with David and she had begun to feel old, so terribly, terribly old. Anne came to stay with them for one weekend while Richard was away on a business trip. She was so bright, so fresh, so wonderfully young., despite the fact that she had been married for a few years by then and was the mother of two demanding children. But Anne had still been flushed with the fullness of new love. That in itself had been enough to raise the green demons, for it was also at about that time Jo began to suspect David was being unfaithful. Perhaps it was the way David hovered over his sister-in-law; attentive, charming, and Anne, so sure in her body -- slim, tanned and with a fresh-washed beauty. How she had envied, even hated, that lithe, brown, shining loveliness.

Anne had been so comfortable in the caressing sheath of her short skirt, so at ease in the loose lines of her light, uncreased shirt. She had always had it so easy. Not for her the bloated ugliness of puberty. Jo had watched Anne traverse that ungainly age with a svelte faith in her own self, which saw endless numbers of adoring suitors dance attendance at the altar of her grace. Jo sighed again, at the painful memory of her own distended pubescence. It seemed to be in an instant that her nippled flatness had hardened and then blown, udder-like, into an unwanted vastness across her childish chest. She had stopped going to the community swimming pool because the boys had ogled and then laughed at her ballooned blossoming. It had been her father though who called her slut and whore whenever she forgot and thought herself yet a child, sitting on the floor, legs wide apart, lost in her books or her thoughts; or when he thought her clothes were too tight, revealing a womanliness which he rejected.

She had fled in her fatness to sit in the park, watching the wandering peacocks, mourning once more at the grave of the child. It was then that she began to fight with her father. Long, bitter ragings, which ended with the fearful smashing of his hand against her head, over and over, driving her first to the floor and then to her room; bruised, banished but not broken. She had sobbed to the very shudderings of her soul and then sat by the window and, in the fading light, scrawled her litany of loathing onto scraps of old paper. She kept her writings in a cardboard box until one day, fearful that they would be found and her wickedness revealed, she burned them. It was not an act of forgiveness, but rather an attempt at forgetting, for she feared, not only that her evil would become known to the world, but that she would be forced to remember it herself.

She left home the day she turned eighteen - as soon as she was able. Eighteen was the legal age and her father threatened to send the police after her if she left before that. Her father did not speak to her for a year after the leaving, but then, without words, some silent agreement was reached and they formed a relationship which, if not close, was at least harmonious. When she sat beside him and told him she was getting married, he broke down and cried. Jo had not questioned his tears and he offered no explanation. Yet in some dim, dulled way she sensed that he had created her as a woman and that she had made herself in the shape which he desired. By the time Anne reached the altar of womanhood, he was an older and more mellow man. He was also a sick man. The years of drinking had begun to take their toll. He had watched quietly, perhaps with some pride, this second daughter lightly walk the way of all women.

It was so long ago, thought Jo, why did the memories still hurt? Her father had been dead for seven years and Anne, well, she was now in her mid-thirties and, while she was still beautiful, she was no longer flushed with the fullness of new love. She ran her fingers through her hair, as if to bring order to the confusion of her thoughts. When it came to Anne, she wasn't really sure what she felt.

The room had become heavy with the forceful stirrings of another hot day. As Jo moved under the crumpled cover of sheets, she could smell the fresh, earthy essence of herself;that morning scent of soil and sea; the self as woman. She liked the smell: the sharp, fecund pungence and yet, in the doing ... in the act of sex itself, she found it so hard to give.

It had not been that way with David in the beginning ... then she had been free for a time, if only for a few brief, shining moments. But that was a gift which came with youth’s blessing and could not last. As the years passed there was less and less passion to push aside the fear and the darkness claimed its birthright to quell the stirrings of the woman.

They had come together less and less ... not surprising perhaps that, in the search for succour of the self, David looked elsewhere. There had been a coming together again for awhile, after the day of truth and death, in a passion of reaching, of clinging, of trying to forget, but it was doomed. What was wrong was not made right , but simply placed to one side, buried in the already over-flowing drawers of non-remembering.

Jo ran her hands down the length of her body, feeling its smooth, strong fullness. Sometimes she still missed David, although she told herself she simply missed the sense of being with someone, the holding, the time of dissolution into one-ness? The memories still lived within her of the soft nestling of his sleeping phallus, her hand reaching... the slow awakening in a miracle of becoming. There was a wonder to it when it was wonderful, when the person was right; but when the person was wrong, then it was no more than motion, perhaps with pleasure but without joy. She threw back her sheet and got out of bed. She needed a shower to wash away more than the stickiness of the day.

"I think after breakfast we might go for a drive and see what Hetherington has to offer," said Richard.

"I'm not sure I want to drive anywhere again," said Jo, with a grimace.

"Blindfolds will be provided for the squeamish," Richard replied, grinning. "Anyway, once we get past the worst of the city slums it is really quite pretty. Wouldn't you like to see something green?"

"Well, when you put it like that ... who is this Hetherington anyway and what does he offer?"

"Virgil Hetherington! He's a fellow who restores old furniture. He's a Brit. Born in China I think, but grew up in England and came here twenty years ago. Some sort of family connection I gather. Some talk about his great-grandmother being a Bengali. He restores a lot of the pieces himself and he's quite a fit chap for his age, and the fact that he has a bad leg."

"What's wrong with his leg?" asked Jo.

“Not too sure. One leg seems to be much shorter than the other. He has a very bad limp. I did hear he was involved in a motorcycle accident in his youth. Anyway, he makes the most of it. He always walks with a cane and, I might add, he has a very nice collection of them too. There's one I particularly covet. It's made of carved ivory, with the head of a snake worked in silver as the handle. Beautiful thing!"

"And what would you do with a cane?" laughed Anne.

"I don't know," Richard said with a wink. "I think it would rather suit me. I'm sure I could hobble a bit to make it all look authentic."

"You shouldn't make fun of people's handicaps," said Anne, her voice now becoming prim.

"This Hetherington," interjected Jo, "does he live here all the time?"

"Pretty much," replied Richard. "He does dash off for visits to England from time to time ... and to America ... I gather he also lived there for quite a few years. But in the main, I guess he calls this home. He makes quite a nice living out of antiques and seems content with his life."

"And his boyfriends," said Anne disapprovingly.

"Come on now, no-one knows for sure what his sexual preference is and who cares anyway. It's probably all just rumour among the expats because he keeps pretty much to himself."

"How far do we have to drive?" asked Jo, ignoring the slight edge of tension which had crept into Richard’s voice.

"He lives out of town a bit, by the sea. It takes about an hour and a half to get there, at least it does on a Sunday morning. He's an interesting fellow, that is when you can get him to talk. Bit of a loner."

"Well, we should show you as much as we can while you're here," added Anne, although the expression on her face spoke more of resignation than it did of enthusiasm.

“More pancakes anyone?" asked Richard. Both Jo and Anne shook their heads. "Well, I'll just finish off these," he said, reaching for the plate.

"They were wonderful," said Jo, "but I am so full."

Richard beamed. His Sunday morning offering had been pancakes, liberally spread with butter, topped with long, orange slices of papaya and drizzled with warm honey. Along with it came cups of weak, milky coffee. He did not have a large repertoire, but he was happy to cook when Anne gave him the chance. Richard liked to think of himself as a reasonable sort of man and reasonable men prepared breakfast on Sunday mornings.

The drive out of the city was not, at first, as bad as Jo expected it would be. Perhaps she was getting used to it, she told herself. Somehow the clutter and jumble of dilapidated buildings looked almost picturesque, crammed as they were along the seedy streets. It was only when they reached the main highway which ran through the scrap and straggle of flimsy hutments which made up this endless slum, that she felt once more the rising tide of revulsion at the utter awfulness of the world as it spread before her; life at its most brutal.

On either side of the road, among the putrescent piles of rubbish, crouched defecating men and children. The women were not to be seen. For them such release could only be had under cover of night. Their bowels, by necessity, were better behaved. Jo stared, both fascinated and repulsed, at the sight of human beings intent upon an act which in most parts of the world was considered to be a private, even hidden thing.

"Why are some of these men facing the road ... with, with everything on display," asked Jo.

"My theory,” replied Anne,” is that only the ones with the big dicks face the road, not that I am in a position to prove my theory."

"Crude, my dear, very crude," laughed Richard.

"What I don't understand," continued Anne, "is why they don't dig a hole and bury it. But even out in the towns, where they have room, they simply shit and walk away. It's incredible. I am sure if we had to live under two pieces of tin the first thing we would do is get together and organise ourselves to dig a latrine."

“You have just answered yourself," interjected Richard. "The crucial word is ‘organise’. Such things are not possible in India. Organisation requires people to have first a community conscience; second, the ability to discuss things in a reasonable manner and third, the capacity to reach consensus. None of these things are part of the national psyche. End result... people shit where they like and happily walk around other people's piles to find a space where they can make their own contribution. Half the time, it's a chance to chat. I guess if you are going to squat around shitting with a bunch of people, it goes without saying that you will all get to know each other intimately, so to speak. Even Gandhi said the greatest gift to India would be a few hundred million little spades!"

"I think I feel ill," said Jo, with a shudder. "This is a bit much for me so early in the day."

"It's a bit much for me at any time of the day," said Anne. "Another twenty minutes and we should be past the worst of it."

And pass it they finally did, through the high, black cutting of the hill, with its drapery of rotting refuse, its garland of slops and sweepings: thrown without thought - out of sight, out of mind - by those who lived on top of the hill. When the littered edge of the last suburb was reached, they came at last upon the healing green, the stretch of life beyond the city, as yet untrammelled by too many feet. In the tangle of tree and grass, there was a chance to forget the murderous clamour which lurked behind them. Each relaxed and leaned just a little more back into their seat, content to be silent, still, as if in homage to this other place, this vision which rested gently on the eye. It was Jo who spoke first. "How well do you know this Virgil Hetherington?"

"Probably as well as anyone," replied Richard. "Which isn't very well, at all. He doesn't mix much and he doesn't talk much when he does mix, so no-one knows that much about him. I think he was born in China, but don't quote me on that."

Virgil Hetherington had been born in China.-- in Shanghai, to be precise, some seventy-three years earlier. His mother died at his birth and therefore he came into the world a freer man than he might otherwise have been. His father named him Virgil, in honour of the classics which he read voraciously throughout his long sea voyages. He was a ship's captain, away for months at a time, and the young Virgil was as a result, raised in the main by the six female servants. It was his poor command of English, rather than any sense that it should be done, which prompted his father to send him, at the age of eight, to boarding school in England.

Virgil had been an orphan in many respects, but a child of the gods nonetheless, because, when parents are not physically in our lives, they join the ranks of the glorious on Mount Olympus. He was a lonely child and read a lot, not so much to learn as to pass the time. But he did learn. It was in his nature to reflect on the meaning of the things which he both read about and experienced and, as a result, he developed at an early age a deep inner wisdom which made his lot much easier to bear. It was not so much that he grew to be a wise man, but he did have wisdom.

As a grown man, he was not lonely, but he was a man alone and he preferred it that way. He was a distant man, not kind or unkind, simply within himself and detached from the world and people to a degree. It was in the distancing that he saw more clearly and that his sharp eye and acute mind could be put to better use. And he was homosexual, but perhaps he loved men because in seeking one-ness with his own kind, he kept more easily the holy garment of mother, pure and free from mortal stain. Or was it that dim child-memories came crowding in a shrill chattering and woman was too greatly feared to risk embrace and possible suffocation? Whatever the reason, he had fled from the Goddess and her demand for spiritual and sexual homage.

He knew not that her word was law and that man's love was properly directed towards women, for when two men come together the act is not sacred; it cannot be because it is the coming together of the same thing. There is no divine mix in the crucible: it is more an adoration of the self, an embracing of one's own being. It is not complete, because it avoids the risk of confronting the other; that which is woman, both without and within.

He had chosen and his was the cult of the divine phallus. Yet, in denying her power, he became enslaved. The chains weighed heavy on the male intellect seeking to steal for himself the spiritual crown and the moon ruled his moods, flinging him through a never-ending cycle of darkness and light. It was fortuitous that, on the day he was destined to receive his trinity of guests, his mind was illuminated with a full, bright shining.

Richard turned into the narrow lane and Jo and Anne were thrown against each other as the car bumped and slid on the uneven surface. "You two okay back there?"

"Yes," they replied in unison, laughing as they were jolted yet again into each others arms. They rattled down the dusty lane, with its sentinels of trees on either side; the leaves modestly attired in summers’ dusty dress of powdered brown.

"It must look pretty when it is green," said Jo.

"Soon," said Anne. "The monsoon is on its way and with the first rains all this dirt is washed away. It's my favourite season actually. Somehow I feel more hopeful in the green.”

At the end of the lane they stopped, or rather were stopped by the looming hulk of a ramshackle shed. From within came the sound of sawing and of hammering; a rhythmic hymn to accompany the ceremony of dismemberment and resurrection. Outside the shed the skeletons waited, stacked in faded disarray, remnants that would eventually be reborn as the magnificent pieces of Indo-Victorian furniture which God had always meant them to be. A small gate led from the front of the workshop onto a piece of deep green lawn. At the side of the gate stood two chairs, each in mahogany with a teak trim and delicate leaves carved into the arms. By the time Jo and Anne were out of the car, Richard was already standing by the chairs, sliding one hand over the warm glow of the wood. “These are nice," he said. "Look at that decorative work. Brilliant."

"Yes, but I am not sure we have a desperate need for yet more chairs," Anne said. "They are nice, but we have nowhere to put them and I hate clutter." Having stated her position in no uncertain terms, she swept past Richard and walked on through the narrow portal. With one last disappointed look at the chairs, he followed. Jo stayed behind, lingering for a moment to take a closer look into the cavernous confusion of the workshop. It was difficult to see exactly what was happening and yet, within the shadows, she could see the moving shapes, busily hammering as if in some black forge which spewed forth from the furnace wood, instead of iron. As the hands of dripping heat and sweat-filled dust reached out from the abyss, she turned and hurried after the disappearing shape of her sister.

She reached them as they came to the end of the path, halting for a moment at the steps which led to the front entrance. On either side of the steps stood statues of proud-faced bulls, in milk-white marble. As they mounted the steps and walked from the glare of the day into the cool gloom of the house, a shape appeared, a man, greyer even than mist, who moved slowly into focus and then spoke: "Hello Richard, nice to see you. It's been awhile."

"Yes, I'm afraid we have been busy. You know Anne, of course, and this is my sister-in-law, Jo Baker. Jo, this is Virgil Hetherington."

Jo stepped forward and took the hand, which lay almost upon the air in front of her. She was surprised to find that his long, white fingers offered a very firm grip.

"I am very pleased to meet you. So kind to visit my little shop."

Jo smiled and nodded at the tall, thin man, with his high, white forehead and slow, narrow smile. His nose, however, was full and fleshy, with three large warts ranked along one side, nestled into the edge, close to the cheek..He was dressed in white shirt and white trousers, with a narrow, black belt of snakeskin at his waist. On his feet were the fast-disappearing remnants of well-worn leather sandals. His hair was fine and grey and firmly pulled into a pony-tail at the back. His left eye was bright, but the right drooped a little, as if some small explosion in the mind had condemned it to exist between the worlds of waking and sleeping.

"How is business?" asked Richard, as they walked across the watery green of the cement floor, following close behind the whispering drag of Virgil's left foot, and the gentle tapping of his cane. This was no stick of ivory and silver upon which he leaned with a strange lightness, but rather one of curled and polished wood, which wound, serpent-like, to the floor. There was no sign of the handle, hidden as it was within the grip of long, white fingers.

"Steady. Steady. No complaints," he replied. They came to a stop in front of a large, leather-topped desk where, from among the tumbling piles, two grubby sheets of paper were exhumed. "Here's the inventory. Have a wander, see if there's anything you like."

Anne and Richard went without further bidding in search of hidden treasures. Jo wandered around the entrance hall, idly inspecting the towers of sandalwood boxes which stood along one wall. She could smell their fresh, aromatic woodiness, mingled as it was with the rich oiliness of furniture polish, which drifted from the multitude of pieces which lay in rows behind her.

"Nothing you like?" Jo turned at the sound of the voice. Virgil Hetherington sat at the desk, his face toward her; a smile playing around his one bright eye.

"It's not that," said Jo. "There is a lot that I like, but there's not much here that I can pack into a suitcase."

"So, you are a visitor."

"Yes, a very new one. This is my second day."

"Come then, we will have some tea in the garden."

He put his pen down on the desk and raised the length of his long, white self, before walking to a side door, where he spoke into the seeming emptiness: "Ramesh. Chai, please. In the garden." He turned to Jo: "Come." There was a note of authority to his voice. It brooked no dissent. She followed, in a hurried shuffle, behind his long, unbalanced stride. Despite the handicap, he walked quickly and with purpose, as if having chosen he saw no need to linger. He was not a man who remained anywhere once the time had come to move on.

The garden comprised a small stretch of lawn with ragged edges, but banked on one side with waves of bright pink bougainvillea. Jo was directed to a high-backed cane chair, its fine fretwork flaked with the remains of blue paint. The tea arrived and was poured in silence. As Jo reached for her cup she saw from the corner of her eye, a shape, dark, large and unexpected. She jumped.

"Don't worry, he won't hurt you." In a slow lope from the side of the house came a Great Dane, an enormous, horse-like dog. The dog fell at the feet of its master, its tongue loose, hanging in a pink, wet panting. One long, pale, fine-fingered hand reached out to the bulbous brow of the huge-headed animal: "This is Hanuman."

The dog salivated in greeting, a steady drip onto the lawn.

"He's not what you would call small," said Jo, trying to sound relaxed.

Virgil laughed. "No, he's not what you would call small. But he's harmless, a real pussycat," he said, rubbing the glistening muzzle of the dog.

"What did you say he was called?"

"Hanuman. That's the name of the monkey God in Hindu myth. He is the faithful servant, the epitome of devoted service and loyalty. He changes form to save the heroine. Not that I need to be saved and I suppose I can’t call myself a heroine," he added, "but I certainly can use a faithful servant."

"Can't we all," said Jo, once again reaching for her tea.

"So," he said, giving the dog a final pat and then wiping his hand along the knee of his trousers, “How are you enjoying Bombay?"

"I've been told I should say I find it interesting, or different," Jo replied, with a quick, embarrassed laugh.

"'Enjoy, is rather demanding," he said with a sardonic smile.

"It's just so different to Australia," continued Jo. "I have never seen such filth and squalor."

"Ah yes, Australia Felix, the blessed land," he replied, with a drift of a smile. "You have come from a land of bright beginnings to one of endings; dark, dark endings. Yours is a new civilization, fresh in its hopefulness; this is an ancient one, stale in its hopelessness. You have come from life to death."

"But it doesn't automatically follow that just because something is old it must be in decay," said Jo.

"I'm afraid, my dear, it does. At least in this world. It is, however, a matter of degree. It is only in the first flush of our beginnings that we are not embarked upon a slow process of decay, for youth, by its very nature possesses the greatest power of the life force. It will push forward no matter what, for that is what it is, but when things pass into full maturity the energy slows and unless we guide it well it will serve, not to push us forward, steadily, but inexorably forward, but to turn us in circles, around and around on the same spot, until, in the depths of old age, we can do no more than sit and rot."

"And is that what India is doing?"

"To a large degree, yes. Oh, there have been improvements, of course. People do have telephones now, which as you may know already, do not work most of the time and this country has a large and vibrant middle class ... but on the whole there are many who pine more than a little for the old days." He finished speaking and raised the tea-cup to his lips. Like her own, it was cracked and chipped, but in this case it was also missing a handle.

"You mean for the Raj? Are you saying people wish the British hadn't left?"

Virgil gave a quiet chuckle: "Not so much the Raj, my dear, but for British order and efficiency. In those days, things actually worked. Given the situation now, the corruption and incompetence, I must admit I am impressed that anything works at all. Without the puja it probably wouldn’t. Prayers I’m talking about ... marigolds and coloured threads and wonderful little rituals. I'm sure it's the only thing which keeps their planes in the air - it's certainly not the servicing. Incompetent people with inferior equipment, who happily sign any form, for the right amount of baksheesh of course, to say that an aircraft is airworthy.

"Remind me never to fly in India," said Jo, with a note of alarm in her voice.

"Oh, you can't worry about things like that. When the great hand reaches out from the sky it will find you wherever you are. Anyway, I have great faith in puja. All those hundreds of millions of prayers must be a powerful force ... I just wish it had more effect on the telephones and water pipes. Oh well, can't have it all," he finished, with a smile which seemed to say that it was really of no matter.

"They do seem to have made a mess of it," said Jo, settling back into her chair with a little more ease as the snores of the dog grew louder.

"Yes, but at least it's their mess. That's important. There was no question of the British staying. They had to go. It's a pity that the Indians haven't made more of the legacy they were left ... the infrastructure, for instance, railways, that sort of thing ... but, it's their country and they have to make their own mistakes and find their own way out of it."

"Will they, will they find their way out?"

"That is the question, isn't it?” he said with a slow nod of his head. “Hard to say really, although I like to think of myself as an optimist. You have to understand a bit about the way these people think. Whatever we in the West like to tell ourselves, there is a big gap between the way people think in the Occident and the way that they think in the Orient. It's not so much that ‘east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet’, but rather that they don't know how to meet. The oriental does not understand the occidental mind at all, whereas, because in the West people are taught to question, the occident can have some understanding of the oriental, if they so choose."

"Do you...understand them?"

"A little, my dear. But then I should. I straddle both worlds and belong to neither. I am British, but spent my childhood in China. I was educated in England and worked for many years in Hong Kong and then, for a short time, in the United States. For the past twenty years I have called India home. My maternal great-grandmother was Indian, from Bengal. Her husband was a trader and very much older than her. He was an energetic Scotsman, according to family gossip, who came out from Glasgow ... spent forty years here and then took his Bengali wife and family back to retire in some quiet little village. She must have hated it. Perhaps that’s what brought me to India. I’m making up for her misery. I have always felt drawn to the country. But in truth, as you can see, I am made of many things, but I belong to no-one and to nowhere. Perhaps, because of that, I do understand a little better the differences in thinking between the two sides."

"Is it so very different?"

"I suppose that depends upon what sort of a person you are yourself, given that within any society, people are spread across a broad spectrum, but yes, in a general sense, there is a great difference. For one thing, Western society believes in the concept of the individual and encourages its development, while Indian society believes the individual should be sacrificed in the interests of the family and his community. This is not specifically an Indian concept, but rather an oriental one and is, of course, one which is shared by the Chinese and many other peoples. It is probably the Western belief in the dignity of the individual life which is unusual in the world," he said, tapping the ends of his bony fingers together. He spoke slowly, in measured tread, as if to hold her attention.

"This lack of appreciation of the individual was common to all in the primitive and archaic worlds. It was the occidental world which changed and, while such a concept was first mooted by Zoroaster, it was the Greeks who really brought it to full birth. They developed an appreciation for the individual form, for its beauty and its excellence. The Greeks gave the world a developing ethos with a kinder law, which brought with it, along with the striving for individual excellence, a sense that love, Eros, was the most powerful force. They believed that no-one achieves excellence in himself without love for himself; nor excellence in a task without love for the task. It was love which brought everything to blossom. As Plato recorded in his writings: ‘All serve him of their own free will and, where there is love as well as obedience, there is justice.’"

"From what I've heard so far," said Jo, stirring the remnants of tea leaves in the bottom of her cup, "There seems to be a shortage of justice around here... does that mean there's a shortage of love?"

"That depends of course, on what you call love," he replied. "If you think love is caring, then no, there is not a shortage of love. Indians are very caring people ... the only catch is that generally it is restricted to members of their family, and their community. If you think love is warm affection, strong emotional attachment, devotion, sexual passion, then once again, you would have to say, there is not a shortage in India. All of these things are a part of the people, like any other people. But, and once again there is a but, this kind of love is generally reserved for those of one's family, one's own community. If, however, you believe that love is caring and compassion for all human beings, no matter their colour, race or creed; that real love means accepting the right of all individuals to be uniquely themselves and worthy of love, simply because they exist and not because of who or what they are, then yes, there is a dire shortage of such 'love' in India. In fact, there are those who would say that it does not even exist here.”

“There are probably many people who would say it does not exist in a lot of places, west and east,” interjected Jo.

" You are quite right. To be fair, such love is not necessarily universal in the West, but it is something in which we believe, something which we have attained to a degree and something, at least, to which we continue to aspire. In essence, that came from the Greeks, for they were the ones who first brought an order of personal values to replace the impersonal values of the group. While in the rest of the world the particularities of the individual, his thoughts, his qualities, were being erased in the name of the group and still are, in the main, in countries like India, the Greeks set out, not only to respect the value of the individual, but to encourage the individual to believe that not only could he seek to change things, himself, his world, but that he should seek to change

“But don’t you think people change whether they want to or not?”

“Yes, they do, but the results tend to be more chaotic. Accepting change, not rejecting it, working with change, this gives us access to enormous power. It is this, I believe, which has taken the Western world, as we know it, so far beyond others. In other societies, one is taught to obey without question and so the natural ability of the human being to question and to grow is suffocated; the end result is a stagnant society, which slowly chokes itself to death. The hands of tradition are locked tight around the neck of India and in the main they suffocate, not just the individual, but the society, as well. It is not that they do not have the same potential as Western society, for they do, t is the fact that they live by rules which oppose change. They do not believe in the individual, in the right of each person to question ... to think ... to seek to be other. All is fixed and any change which does come, because of course, it must, or there would be no life at all ... any change is forced, pushed through from the unconscious. It makes for a violent birth and very often brings change which comes from no more than blind ignorance."

"Are you saying," said Jo slowly, "that people have forgotten how to think for themselves, if they ever knew how, and that even if they could remember, could think for themselves, then it would not be allowed because they do not believe that they have the right to change anything?"

"Yes, exactly, and the situation is so much worse in India because of their spiritual beliefs. This, my dear, is the land which believes in the never-ending cycle of sorrow. How can it be other than a place of suffering?"

"I don't know. Do you think it can?"

"Perhaps. Nothing is impossible, although many things are unlikely. Theirs is a religion which possesses great beauty, great wisdom, but which also teaches that the greatest goal in spiritual life is to seek to erase all: all self, all feeling, all thought. Not only is there no point in personality in this world, but there is no survival of personality into the next. Whereas in the West, with its stress on the dignity of the individual life, there is one soul, one destiny, one unique self from birth to death and beyond. In India, the spiritual quest leads only to oblivion."

"I suppose," said Jo quietly, "that, if you have no concept of yourself as an individual, then you cannot see others as unique, as worthy of love simply because of who they are as human beings ... because you are not you, but part of something, a family, a community. You can only love the something and love the other people who are a part of the same something, almost by default. Anyone else is irrelevant."

"They would not even be considered irrelevant,” he replied, “for that involves a judgement, they just are!" "Everyone just is; all part of the great unchanging. Do you know, remarkably, given the age, the wisdom and the strength of its religion, at no time in India has any attempt been made to bring into the religious field any principle of fundamental world reform. For them it has been absolute, the cosmic order of aeons turning forever, from eternity through eternity, never to be changed by any act of man. Just as the sun, the moon and the stars were set forever, so too were the orders of castes and the orthodox Indian social system.” He tapped his cane against the table leg as he spoke, like a teacher making a point to a student.

“They believe that all truth and true being lay in the doing of all, only as it had always been done before, without judgement, without protest, exactly as taught. For the individual, the choices are simple, either to play the part in the play, without fear, without hope, or, to turn from the world, to the forest: there to seek the spiritual flames of non-being, recognising at last, the futility of all things, melting into the arms of the lotus. While it sounds very pretty, a disappearing into nothingness can leave one with a sense of the meaninglessness of it all. Life can seem rather pointless."

"You can understand why so many lack motivation," said Jo. "I feel depressed just listening to you. It's a living death, never-ending sorrow, and then - poof - you're gone, only to come back for some more never-ending sorrow! It's like some big production line which makes things at one end, sends them along, crushes them at the other end and then makes them again. You would find it hard to believe in anything wouldn't you?"

"Ah yes", he agreed, "and then we come to the next problem. If nothing is worth believing in, except the endless cycle of sorrow, if all is illusion, nothing is honoured or condemned, nothing is good in itself, nor evil in itself, then what becomes of the social values on which civilization normally rests?

"But surely, not everyone adheres so strongly to such beliefs?"

"Perhaps not, but the greatest power lies not in those beliefs to which we consciously adhere, but to those which live, as our mythic inheritance, deep within the mind. Just as we all live the western myths and the Christian myths, atheist and believer alike, which are at the very core of our society, so each Indian lives his own cultural myths and his own religious myths. Even more so, because in Indian society, one is not allowed to seek within the self for anything other than oblivion ... this gives the myth even greater power, because it is almost totally unrecognised. The goal in India is to purge away individuality through insistence first upon the absolute laws of caste, or dharma, then upon the long-known, marked out stages of the way, which is called marga, toward indifference to all ... the ultimate, nirvana."

"What are the western myths ...the Christian myths.?" asked Jo, leaning forward in her seat, the better to hear his voice which had dropped to a low, soft ebb.

"In the main, although it has many masks, it is the quest within ...the quest , as some see it, for the holy grail , which is of course, the eternal human quest, the only quest, the search for God and salvation. We seek the guide that is inside of us and, in so doing, embark upon the first totally individualistic mythology in the history of the human race. The direction comes from within: there is no authorized way or guru to be followed or obeyed; it is for each to find his or her own way. What we seek can be found only by ourselves. We find the same thing in essence, but each finding is unique in itself and can be revealed only by and through ourselves. It is this seeking, this striving toward an unknown end which is so characteristic of western life and which is so alien to the oriental. We may not know whither it is that we go, but we seek to go there, all the same."

"But that is not what Christianity teaches!" exclaimed Jo.

"Quite right. But it could be and one day it will be, because, incorporated in the spiritual writing of the Christian Church is the knowledge that God is within. It is known already and is beginning to be remembered. It is man who has put God outside of himself, not God who has rejected man. One must be careful not to confuse God with the church and the spiritual with the religious. They should not be different things but, I am sorry to say, all too frequently they are very different things. Much evil has been done by the church in the name of God, but that does not make it God's doing. Neither does it mean that the church will not find its way to God. It is also important to remember that one may be spiritual,without being religious and vice-versa. India, for instance, is a religious country, very much so, but it is not a truly spiritual country. It was seen as such in the past, simply because so much of western religion had lost its mysticism, its ineffable beauty, but then neither should we confuse spirituality with mystic ritual. They can and should be one and the same but it is not necessarily the case."

"And you, what do you believe in?"

"I believe in all things, my dear. I suspect that some might call me a pantheistic animist, but names are often simply things we use to dismiss that which we fear to explore. I believe that whatever God there could be, must be all things. God could never be so small as to be a man but not a woman; a Catholic but not a Hindu; a human being but not a leaf.... it is in the quest that you find who and what your God is."

Jo nodded. For her, any concept of God was as yet unformed. She had reached for a God, any God, desperately, in the worst of the dark days, but her hands and heart had remained empty. She had learned through cruel experience that faith could not simply be purchased, not even with pain. That it had been denied to her did not mean there was no God, she knew that, but having travelled so far alone, she was not sure it was something which she needed. Virgil's voice, grown deeper now, interrupted her thoughts: "And you, do you know your God?"

"I'm afraid not," said Jo with a laugh. "We are not what you would call on intimate terms. I did try once, but got no answer. What does that mean?"

"Perhaps you were dialling the wrong number," Virgil said, with a smile. "Or perhaps it was an Indian connection," he added, with a rich chuckle.

"Yes, I could believe that," said Jo, ruefully. "I really was in total chaos at the time."

"You must feel very much at home here then," he teased.

"I'm not so sure about that ... it is not a period of my life which I particularly like to remember, although it does have a way of creeping into my head all the time."

"That is because you have not yet finished with it," he said. "The task is not yet done. You have embarked upon the quest, my dear, but you have a very long road to travel yet."

"I'm not sure I want to hear that," said Jo, feeling a sigh coming on. "Anyway, let's not talk about me. I'd rather concentrate on someone else's problems. What about India, what will happen to it?"

"Who knows? Perhaps this is the way it is meant to be. The greatest changes begin when we recognise ourselves and acknowledge our capacity... and our right to initiate change. To perceive of truth you must perceive of yourself as an individual; truth then becomes a matter of individual conscience: a matter of ethics, of morality. Without the individual and, more importantly, the individual conscience, truth becomes no more than a moveable feast to suit the impersonal interests of the community. It is the individual's quest for truth which is the true hope of the community. I hope they can learn that."

"And if not, will you stay?"

"Oh yes. I'm far too old to move and, anyway, it suits me," he replied quickly as if to brush any such further questions away.

"You love them, though ... despite everything, don't you?" she persisted.

"Love, my dear, is a word which is used rather too lightly these days," he replied carefully. ” But I do care, I will say that. How can I not? We always care for places with which we become familiar. For people too, even if we do not particularly like them. When we come to know them, they become a part of us and it is impossible not to care. As the mystics say, or so I have been told, we are all in a process of becoming and we are all at different points on the path. I may not like many things around me, but I am happy with my life and with those who share the path with me." With a sudden leap, he stood up. "I think I should hunt up the others for you." He took one quick step over the peacefully sleeping Hanuman and disappeared through the door.

Jo sat, listening to the slow snores of the dog stretched out at her feet and as she did, catching now and again the distant whisper of the waves on the nearby beach. Somehow, she felt both sad and content, each emotion twisted around the other. It was such a confusing country. She had been here hardly more than a day and here she was trying to understand how it worked. It was so easy to divide it all into right and wrong, good and evil and yet evil was no more than ignorance. At least, that was what she had come to believe. Whether ignorance and innocence walked hand in hand, she wasn’t sure.

It also seemed a dangerously small step from being an innocent to calling oneself a victim. She had seen the havoc wreaked by those who believed themselves to be victims. Perhaps that was what was wrong with India. From what Virgil said, India was living its myth instead of being guided by it. Did he mean that when we live the myth the Gods hold sway and madness must reign?

But madness could also serve a purpose. Perhaps there was method in India's madness, which they could perceive and others could not. When you know, without a doubt, that there never was a time when time was not, nor will there come a day when time will cease to be; this sorrowful world will go on, sorrowful, forever. Not only that, the sorrow which is seen by no means represents the magnitude, in breadth as well as depth, of the whole. The misery of man and all around him, the animals, the plants, the earth and its rocks, the waters, fire and wind, even space itself with all its stars, constitutes the smallest fraction of that ever-living, ever-deluded body and mass of misery which is the universe in its total being! It is not then so surprising that the actual sorrow and suffering of those around you, neighbours, those of lower caste, should merit not a thought. The Indian alienation from this life in death that would never end had created a world of eternal nightmare from which there was to be no hope of salvation.

Jo shuddered at her own thoughts. Such truths could only destroy. If one did not believe in the possibility of salvation, in hope for the self, then life was not only without purpose, it was without joy. The Indian belief in misery and hopelessness had such cosmic dimensions that the immediate world paled into insignificance by comparison.

We become what we think and we create our world out of what we have become and yet, when people are not allowed to think .... she began to feel confused, there was something deranged about it all and Jo suspected that, like all forms of lunacy, it was contagious. Perhaps those who chose to live here, like Virgil, in accepting the insanity of it in order to make life bearable, became a little crazy themselves. He seemed stable enough, but there was still something strange about him, as if he wasn't quite what he believed himself to be, or at least, what he said he believed himself to be. That was what Anne feared, being caught up in it all, not wanting to be a part of it and yet, having to be in order to survive. That was what she was fighting so desperately against. Somewhere, in the back of Jo's head, a dull ache was born. She had thought she was leaving confusion behind, but she had walked into a whole world of it.

The dog stirred, his ears quivering in response to phantom calls. It was easy being a dog, she reflected, watching as he commenced a vigorous scratching behind one large, limp ear. Dogs did not have to worry about the meaning of life, the rightness of such complex issues to resolve not beyond deciding which side of the bowl from which to eat. Sometimes, she thought, it would be so peaceful not to think. She could see why it appealed to people ... and yet, she stopped herself with memories of the drive out that morning ...if India is what you get ... she trembled a little...No, non-thinking wasn't the answer. Perhaps it was for them, because they knew nothing else and were possibly quite content with their lot, but it was not a good way to live; it was not what one would wish for the world.

"You can't run away," said Jo out loud, surprising herself as she did so, with the unexpected sound of her own voice. "Not from yourself, not from anything." The dog stretched and opened one eye. This was no phantom voice, but, having quickly ascertained that it was not expected to respond, it closed its eye and began once more to quietly snore. Jo leaned back in her chair and turned her face up toward the fresh blue of an open sky. Well, India was not her problem and, while it was all very interesting, she was not going to let it spoil her holiday.

She could feel the heat of the sun on her face, the light beating against her closed lids; she breathed deep of those golden rays which reach the earth a bare eight minutes from the moment they are born. The day was so hot, she could almost smell the sun and then, floating on the sweltering air, came a drift of something new: a sharp, pungent odour. Her nose wrinkled at the intrusion. She turned her head, seeking the source and there, in a far corner of the garden behind her she saw, crouched low, a large, white cat, its head bowed to one side as it chewed slowly through the carcase of a limp, grey fish. She watched it for a time, drawn by the ageless rhythm of its steady mastication. Such a terrible stink and yet the cat seemed not to mind at all. Still, the cat had a purpose and that was to eat and, anyway, one would expect a cat at least to like the smell of rotting fish.

It was a pity that people didn't. If they did then Verity would still be alive, the little fish girl. She was brought to the hospital because she had tried to kill herself. Not surprising really, given how badly she smelled. The poor girl suffered from a condition called fish odour syndrome.

Verity told Jo about herself one day when they were both sitting on the verandah. Verity spent most of her time alone, not so much because the inmates objected to her, given that most of them were not capable of noticing much at all, even someone who smelled like rotting fish, but more because it was easier to be alone. She hated it, she said to Jo, when people talked to her because they thought they should be polite. They couldn't help it, she knew that, the little gasps, the surreptitious steps backward, the hand rubbing the side of the nose, desperately wanting to pinch the nostrils and yet not being allowed to.

"It's easier to just stay by myself," she said. Her condition, she told Jo, was harmless, but it could be fatal, only because so many sufferers committed suicide, rather than go on enduring the social torment. No amount of washing could remove the foul odour in breath and sweat. ‘TMA’ it was called and everyone had it, but normal people break it down into non-smelly substances and excrete any residue in their urine. Verity had been born with the condition; she had inherited some metabolic fault. There was no permanent cure, although sometimes it helped if she avoided certain foods, like eggs, liver and soya beans.

"I never eat eggs anyway," she had said, "And how many people eat liver or soya beans ... I ask you?" But, since she could not smell herself, she had no way of knowing whether her diet rendered her ‘off’ or ‘on’, except by watching for the first small wrinkling of the nose. “I just got sick of it," she continued. "Wondering all the time if I was stinking the place out. So I stopped going out. Then, one day, I decided to do it, to end it all. They may as well throw me to the sharks for what I was worth. That's what I said to myself. Back to the fish where I belong. But it didn't work. I didn't take enough pills, or maybe they found me too soon.”

"It was nice being dead, you know. Well, almost dead anyway. I was flying on an owl over this big, green island and, down below, I could see all these people, waving spears and cheering. They weren't angry though and, when we flew down to the ground, they all bowed low and I could see that their spears were made of solid silver.They thought I was their queen and I thought ... I thought: I'm home, at last I'm home. And then I woke up and there was this big, fat face staring at me, like a pig's face, with a little, white starched cap. She was shaking me and saying: "Come on, dear. Wake up, wake up! I didn't want to wake up, but they made me. It isn't fair, I should be allowed to be dead, if I want to be."

Jo had simply nodded. Verity scratched her small white feet for a time and then said: "So, what's your problem? You look alright to me."

"I am my problem," Jo replied. "But it's all inside, just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there."

"Well, my problem is all on the outside and I can tell you that is worse," Verity countered. "To be accurate, my problem is on the inside, but it comes on the outside, so everyone can see it ... well, smell it. Let me tell you, in this world, it's much harder when people can see you for what you are ... I should say, smell you for what you are:rotten, rotten, rotten. Everyone is rotten, the whole world is rotten: It's just that they can all hide it and I can't."

"I don't think you are rotten," Jo had replied. "You are very beautiful, you know. They will find a cure. They always find a cure," she added, knowing deep down that, while there was sure to be a cure for the girl with the fishy smell, there could be no cure for her own festering self.

And Verity had been beautiful, certainly on the outside and no doubt as beautiful on the inside as most people are able to be. She had been a lovely, slender girl, with skin translucent, deathly pale, a nose which curved in noble silhouette, bright red lips and startling blue eyes. Her hair had been long and blonde, a mass of small, cascading curls, which shivered in the sunlight. She always wore white dresses of fine, soft cotton, fitted at the waist and falling in folds to her feet. She would lie for hours on the lawns, in languid recline, with her feet tucked up into the billows of her skirt, looking for all the world like a mermaid, washed up on some lonely, green beach. And yet, this ashen virgin, in all her sweetness, was doomed to ride the river of life, stinking to high heaven.

She did not ride it for very long. Jo heard some time later, that shortly following her release from the psychiatric ward, Verity once again made an attempt to depart for the yonder shore and this time she was successful. She had taken the shelves from her refrigerator and crept inside, firmly closing the door behind her. It was an old fridge, one which could not be opened from the inside once the door was closed, but one which still managed to keep things chilled, even on the hottest day. They found her a few days later, very cool and very stiff and smelling not at all of rotten fish, but of the sweetly-scented cologne which she had poured all over herself. The large, empty bottle was found clasped in her small, cold hand.

When Jo heard of her death, she grieved for the sad, little fish girl. But she remembered her words: "You look alright to me." And, as if in homage to mark a life not wasted, she frequently repeated them to herself. In time she began to believe them and then she began to heal.

Poor Verity. Perhaps if she had been born in the slums of Bombay, it would not have mattered as much ... just another smell among the many in the rich, putrefying stew. Not much of a consolation though, Jo told herself. Given the choice of life in an Indian slum and death in a cool, cologne-clouded fridge, the latter had definite appeal. But wasn't the way of the fridge the coward's way out? Of course it was and she had not chosen the easy way out, she said to herself, keeping up both sides of the conversation inside her head. Anyone can shut the door on life, but it takes courage to go on, to go out into the world; no matter how rotten you are; no matter how much other people are repelled by you; no matter how repelled you are by yourself.

Perhaps if Verity had waited, had kept trying, had not hidden herself away, she would eventually have been saved. We never know when someone or something will come to take us safely to the other side. But perhaps, just perhaps, there would have been no blessed saint to come to her rescue, no-one to confer upon the timid girl her greatest wish, that she be sweetly scented, and that she be chaste; uncorrupted, for all eternity.

The wind changed course and as is the way with life, the smell of fish was bundled up and carried off in another direction, leaving the way open for something new. In this case it was something even worse and Jo could only surmise that the slumbering Hanuman was having difficulty digesting his dinner. She pinched her nostrils until it passed, hoping that it would not prove to be the first of many.

It was nice in the garden all the same, so peaceful, just the melodic twitter of birds and the heart-felt snores of Hanuman. She sat back in her chair, letting her head fall as it would until she faced the sky. Plump pillows of cloud drifted across the greying blue, as she waited to be reclaimed, returned to the others and in the distance, the waves breathed heavy on the breast of the beach; washing the edge of the world with ancient sighs.


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