Beam Me Up
Thurston MacKenzie knew that something was eating away at his vitals – he could feel it if he palpated his stomach, a bit away on the left side – like a tangerine in there – slowly growing – . He did not tell anyone. He sensed that no intervention would check it; and he did not want his young wife to fret over him, and worry, and be sad. What good would it do?
He was in awe of her – how he’d managed at the age of fifty-six, to woo and wed a dark-haired beauty with a heart-shaped face and slender little frame. His two young daughters amazed him likewise; little Cerulea, blonde and fluffy, and Georgina, with her effervescent dance, always on the move.
Too, he was embarrassed – to be ill, to be old, to be weakening. He was afraid his wife would regret her choice.
He thought long, while he tamped down his pipe and lit it, gazing into the fire of an evening – or while he tramped his fields, sniffing the damp autumn air. And he decided that he had something left undone in his long life – one thing was needed to complete it all; to go full circle. He needed to go back to India.
Her had been born of a Scottish father and English mother in a hill station in the lee of the great Himalaya; one of the most beautiful places on earth, he now knew. Thick green lawns – the cricket pitch – the pavilion – the big stone mansion-school where his father taught – the woods behind it. Chuckling streams, and twittering, brilliantly-coloured birds; and cold-eyed monkeys looking for handouts. So many creatures to investigate – leopards to hear stories about at night, and to fear with a frisson of excitement.
He needed to go back – plug his long-vanished umbilicus back into the wall of that exotic, beloved womb – his natal home.
Jalwan Das Prasad – known in childhood as Jay-Jay, though those days were sadly long gone – did not need to consult a doctor – but he feared he might be dying. For months now he had been so exhausted – could barely drag himself to work each day at the shipping firm – where he sat scratching in a ledger, keeping track of which ships had gone where, and what they were carrying, and for whom. Which had run into bad luck out on the dangerous seas; which were lying in ship-hospital, being caulked and de-barnacled and sanded and painted, refitted for further service.
He knew that he must care about these ships – they represented human life afloat, and great investment by any number of people – dreams sailed with them, and people’s sons, husbands, fathers – but he was increasingly too exhausted to care. His skin had gone somehow grey; his movements were mechanical.
It had been a long monsoon, just past – a particularly rainy one, with floods in the pot-holed roads and into the hovels in the hutments; mould on walls, on shoes, on the wooden furniture. Usually he loved the rain – the full peace it brought, the sense of isolation, of well-being, away from the world – as if nobody could reach you to demand something (although of course they could.) What he could not finish of the lunches his ayah packed in his tiffin, he gave away to the beggars, who looked at him askance, insulted by any offering save money – though they would take the chapatti wrapped around spicy bhaji just the same.
Young Mr Prasad had a dream – had always had it; and now he thought on it a very great deal. He loved railroad trains – not ships – and wished he had gone to work as a train driver. He wanted to go to England and see where trains were designed and made. He wanted, for a little while, to sit in the cab of a great gleaming monster, spitting steam from tis coal-fired engine, and feel the incredible power of the beast.
He knew that he could quite possibly find a way to have this experience in his homeland – his India – some dirty, massive, grey-shouldered beast might open its door to him, if he employed the right bribes in the right places. He did not, he told himself, actually need to drive it, for that was obviously impossible, he had no training – but he wanted to sit up there, in the cab, and feel the throb. It seemed to him that if you drove life even once – instead of being driven by it – you might feel a different sort of circle come round into completion.
But he knew that the world of trains was forbidden him in a truly ironclad way, so to speak: Trains and all their works were the province of the half-castes, the love-children or even legal offspring of British men with Indian women. The British regarded these people as less socially desirable than themselves, and so they lived in certain areas, and were given certain jobs, that were thought quite all right, but not great. Jalwan too would be stooping if he would aim in that direction; for he was a pure Brahmin, brought low by his orphanhood so that he had to work for his living, and had ended up employed in a firm with complicated ownership that somehow involved a distant relation. He was expected to rise through the ranks, he knew; but his heart was not in it.
Thurston MacKenzie told his wife he was going to India on business. He knew there was every possibility he would never see her again; and h felt like he was leaving one kind of homeland, – his wife Chrysantha’s beauty and her good and constant heart – to go to another. There seemed no way to avoid this. And so he picked her up, and kissed her, and kissed the children, one at a time, then hugged them both together – picked up his valise, for his trunk had gone on ahead – put his hat on, and he was off, with tears in his eyes for the last glance at his little wife. “Should you prefer to be at the town house, dear Chryssie, I would concur with your decision,” he told her. “Here at Lilac Mount it is lonely for you, is it not? Those nearby villages – Thistle Bottom and Vinegar Bottom – can scarce entertain you; with not even a haberdashery between them. We will close up the country house, – though I love it well – until next Spring.”
She stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
Two weeks later Mrs Chrysantha MacKenzie met, as she thought then, the love of her life. She was in a crowded department store when someone trod on her foot. She looked up to meet his apology, and it was he – someone she’d waited for always. She saw it in his eyes, suddenly widening with surprise – then there was the perfect height of him, so that her head had to tilt back at just such an angle – the cut of his coat there before her; the smell of good wool and manliness and some citrusy, spicy fragrance he’d applied to his shaven jaw. There was a little giddy feeling in her middle, and her usual composure might almost have fled, save that she somehow rescued it – simply incorporating this new fact of him, into her life.
They took tea in the restaurant at the top of the store, and she learned that he was Freddie Simmons, age 28, 3rd violin in a well-known orchestra.
“May I come to call?” asked Frederick Simmons eagerly, over the last sips of Earl Grey and the crumbs of cream bun and buttered toast.
“But I am a married woman!” confessed Chrysantha. “And a mother!”
“I will behave impeccably,” Frederick reassured her. “I am just a friend.”
“No, no, insisted the shocked matron, “you do me a dishonour with this suggestion. Rethink yourself!”
“I have an idea…” mused Mr Simmons – “which might serve to make three people happy, not only two. I have a dear friend in the music world, Lady Tilden; she oversees a charity which arranges music tuition for poor students who show promise; and helps to procure instruments for them too. She is an enchanting lady, and I feel that you might get along famously. Would you like to meet with us regarding these musical matters; and we can go about together also, and none may complain?”
“I will think upon it,” conceded Mrs MacKenzie. “But perhaps it is best if we meet in the town – the servants will surely find it strange if I begin cavorting, and dear Mr Mackenzie not a week away from home!”
But in truth she was flattered – and was the more so when she’d met the excellent lady Marguerite Tilden, an effervescent blonde in her thirties with hair straight and shiny as the wing of a blonde bird, a bosom that fought with its buttoned-up confines as she flang herself about composedly, bubbling with plans and charm and little episodes of a kind of cut-glass compassion for whatever plight was put before her, small or large. She wore a feathered, beaded, and be-veiled fascinator perched over one eye, and hr bustle looked both expert and askew. Mrs MacKenzie loved her, and soon felt that she had made a friend – indeed, she discovered that she quite deeply believed in the importance of music being taught to the disadvantaged, and she began to go with Lady Tilden on ‘musical visits’ to the most awful slums – where she saw sights that made her retire to her chamber sometimes after, feeling quite unwell.
Soon enough meetings in tearooms advanced to threesome dinners in dining establishments and visits to the houses of both Mr Simmons and Lady Tilden; during which Mrs MacKenzie was constantly aware of young Mr Simmons’ proximity – the warmth of his body through his clothes; th manly, yet crisp and refreshing scent of him, which quite made her want to swoon – which brought a certain moistness to her cheek, her hand. At times their glances caught like silken threads borne on a breeze, and tangled there; unable to let go. Mrs MacKenzie would swallow a lump in her throat, and look down to pick at her food. Freddie would harrumph like a grampus and shift about in his chair.
Soon she was “Chryssie” and he was “Freddie,” and she was spending a bit more than she ought at the dressmaker, to keep her costumery sensible, and yet festive and in vogue.
Mr MacKenzie lay out on a reclining chair on the wide verandah of a huge stone-built hotel, in the hills near Dharmsala. Behind the hotel the mountains rose and swooped and spread and reached out their arms, from east to west as far as the one could see, and much farther still…the air was transparent and cold and sweet, and he wore his overcoat and his legs were covered with a woollen blanket. There was tea on a table beside him, in a fine china pot with a cozy over it; a plate of toast sat beside it, half-devoured. He’d stopped mid-bit, almost, to revel in the beauty of his surroundings – to feel the great joy and peace and sparkle of his good fortune.
He missed his wife – of course he did – she would love the ease and beauty of this place, with its huge bedchambers and vast dining room all hewed of stone and panelled partway up the walls with wood; great beams held up the peaked roof overhead. She would love walking out on the little pathways through the grounds, down to the stream and away among the trees. But he had come here to confront his mortality – and still, so far, he felt that he needed to do this alone.
And he had just begun.
Jalwan Das Prasad was dining at his Auntie’s house. His Auntie’s cook was marvellous – the best bindi masala, the lightst rotis, the most succulent paneer kofta curry, and many other dishes, seasonal and subtly, almost miraculously, spiced – the roti flour ground here in the kitchens, he had been told, from grain fresh from the farm – it seemed to nearly leap off the plate, that brownish, round, slightly puffy, slightly floury, chewy yet tender, perfectly fresh-tasting roti, dripping with the delicious sauces of the food, as he used it to swab the plate, wrap around a morsel of rice and vegetable.
“You are looking so pulled down!” Auntie remonstrated, leaning forward and patting his face. “Are you not keeping well, Bhateeja-ji? Jay-Jay, oh my brother’s son, I cannot let you take ill like this! You are needing a wife! I will start searching – I have neglected my duty! Your parents died too young! I will help you, my dear one. But first – we must get some meat to you! You will scare the girls away, so like a ghost you are looking! But – I am having an idea!” and she waggled her head from side to side, her brilliant green sari catching the glints in her emerald earrings, her gold-green eyes. “It is time for you to visit our Guru-ji,” she continued. “He who has been divine guidance for our family for too long! How long since you have seen him? Fifteen years? No, Bhateeja-ji, it is too long! I am fixing it up for you – No, no, don’t argue! Tell the boss you are taking one week’s holiday. I am writing tonight, to Walking Rainbows Lodge, in Dharmsala. I will ask them to keep a room for you, from one week hence. You will have good rest, good fresh air – this air in this city, it will kill us all! – and you will take the guidance of Guru-ji. Of course, we are all knowing that he does not speak – not a word, since forty years, yaaar? But he only looks at you, and you are getting the point! He is communicating without words. It will set you up again. And when you come home, we will start looking for a wife.”
Jalwan’s head was whirling from this barrage; his other senses levitated from the delicious food and the stately interior of his aunt’s house with its marble floors and curtain-draped arched doorways, the velvet furnishings. His aunt was well-connected. He wondered if there was some trail of acquaintance whereby he would have more chance of fulfilling his dream – the dream of driving a great train in the coveted land of the feringhi…
He sat in front of Ananda Pujari Purushottamawallah, the Silent Sage of the Mountains…fondly known to his followers as Punky-Baba. The little man was nearly bald – just a few white ghairs stood out around his head like a patchy halo. The hut was built into the mountain’s side, so that it backed into a shallow cave; the front had been fashioned quite deftly into a superior sort of hut, with window openings and a covered porch.
Jalwan, sitting cross-legged, feeling miserable and full of alarm, looked at Ananda Pujari Purushotomawallah. He, Jalwan, did not feel himself! But who was himself? All he could find in himself this moment was a collection of lusts and cravings: he kept seeing a picture of a certain girl who worked in an office nearby him – it was unusual for woman to work, but sometimes it occurred, a college-educated girl, before she married, just for a lark, to get some worldly experience before she settled down forever. She was quiet and cool ad patrician, and her sari wrapped her like a Grecian figure on an urn. He had not dared to speak to her. Thinking about her, her remote composure, her slender form – mad embarrassing twitches in his loins – oh, how could eh think of such things, sitting in front of Guru-ji? The pictures that came into his head!
He was sweating too – it had been a stiff climb up here – and felt generally unwell. He was hoping Guru-ji would find a way to cure him, though that was not considered to be Guru-ji’s particular area of expertise. Still. And then, he kept thinking of locomotives. How embarrassing this was! What an unholy thing to think about! A stupid great engine, puffing steam; what had that to do with the mysteries of the godhead? He would not ask Guru-ji about a thing like that! And so he kept still, and sort of croaked a bit when the white eyebrows raised, as if to invite him to speak.
“I – I – I-” he croaked, and fell silent…”I – want to be a train driver!” he heard himself say all in a rush. “I want women! I want – I want – to feel well again! That is all! Begging your mercy! Oh, thank you, Guru-ji!” And he bent low and touched the bare brown feet. Then he sat back in confusion, feeling as if in him worlds collided – he, the biggest idiot in India – sitting with a sort of gap in his head, and a sense of emergency in his middle somewhere.
His eyes met Punky-Baba’s. There was a long silence while the state of emergency rose to his eyes and hopped about there. He was unable to receive Guru-ji’s blessings, he knew it! Look at him! He was not worthy! But then…he stayed like that…and something began to soften in him. The something turned to liquid….very soft…and turned over in his tummy, like a yawning child – and his chest seemed to open – his heart smiled – then grinned – and, unable to help himself, he began to laugh.
Guru-ji slowly and in a large, deliberate way, dropped one eyelid in a great big wink – opened it again – smiling – and nodded that it was time for Jalwan to leave.
Jalwan staggered about on the lawn of the hotel. He’d come down the long path in near-darkness, chillier than he wanted to be; hugging himself with his own arms. His head was largely empty, his heart both buoyant and bewildered. His feet were light. He still did not know anything; but it did not matter. He was beaming – his mind had not reasserted itself yet. Perhaps it never would, he thought.
Darkness fell quickly. He had gone off down another path, towards the stream; there was a little bridge over it, and this he stepped upon, hearing his sandals strike the wood, the flat and then resounding resonance, as if for the first time.
He was now in a big meadow…it was quite dark….the soft lights of the hotel vanished from his sight. Something drew him on…he wanted to go further into darkness, the good darkness, before he went back to eat in the dining room, and then go to his chamber. A wall of pines called him, far across the meadow. He knew there could be leopards; but right now he did not care.
Very suddenly, a light shot up from behind the bank of trees. Very suddenly, it zigged, and then zagged; hurled itself skywards, then floated back down again, over the trees, nearly touching thir tops…came over the meadow – and settled down towards the ground. It was a craft, he saw now, dazed and in shock – a blue-lit flying machine. Was this the sort of thing the gods flew?
Urfur stroked his own long lovely striped tail with absent fingers. He was watching the young Earthling just outside the craft. What sort of idiot, or gentle soul, was this? The pale-faced earthlings often defecated in their trousers when confronted with the fact of this craft and its occupants; the natives here – and this appeared to be one of those, as his skin was bronze and his brow dark, his eyes long and liquid – did not, since they believed it was from their own panoply of gods. (Luckily, there were robots to clean things up if there was such an accident. These robots lived in a cupboard, and came out only when needed. The effluvia was then fed to plants in whatever place they were then landed. So that was all right.)
Urfur’s tail wrapped around his legs, caressing him. It was a beautiful tail, his pride and joy – not everyone was blessed with a striped one. They were much in vogue – some Druderites tried a sort of dye to create stripes, but it did not look natural really, and grew out, leaving tell-tale roots. Urfur was trying to think of a way to make use of the striped cats he often caught at night, plucked from the lawn of a sleeping house, or the waste land behind a housing development….for Urfur and his partner, Prant, could, in this vehicle, bounce among decades, centuries, or epochs at will, and a suburb of Phoenix in 1976 was as familiar to them as Big Ben in 2015, or a freezing steppe in 906, or a Grecian medical school in minus 1500.
Back to the cats…Surely there was some way the design of their tails could be imprinted in the genetic code of the Druderites? It must be possible. Urfur’s tail crept up and stroked the back of his head. It was a very pleasant feeling.
This idiot /gentle soul out there. Should they let him in? He turned to Prant. “What, should we just scare him a great deal, or let him in and see what happens?” he asked, in Druderite of course. “Let him in,” said Prant immediately. “He’s ready for a change. Good moment.”
Meanwhile the shocked young man stood frozen in the glare of the lights. Prant turned and pointed a mauve digit at a console.
And so the gangplank lowered from the glowing door.
“I am not knowing this was even possible!” Jalwan was gibbering, as he sat with the two Druderites at a round table in the lounge area, drinking their special tea. (In the garden wing of the craft, selected plants throve under lights which duplicated their sun. A few of these plants yielded excellent medicinal teas, which also tasted marvellous. This one would relax their guest and help him open up and share what was really going on inside him; at least to a certain depth. The technology was still in development for creating a way to unlock the uber-cosmic in a person, and thus shortcut all the meanderings. Many failed experiments were behind them – Urfur didn’t like to think about the results of those, left staggering the cities and deserts of several worlds. Though Prant was quick to remind him, when Prant was feeling piqued. So, lately they had stuck to the tried-and-true, the old-fashioned plants their grandparents had used.)
Jalwan Das stared in amazement at his hosts. They were a lovely soft mauve, with, he noticed, a changing glow of colours at the edges, of their bodies, like the half-seen chatoyancy of an opal. Their tails were lush and long – one striped, one solid smoky grey – very elegant with the mauve, thought Jalwan, who was not without aesthetic appreciation, even, apparently, in such a peculiar situation. Their features were mobile, expressive; a myriad of subtle yet open miens passed over them. Their hearts could be seen through the wall of the chest – a pale green emanation coming from them – and the faces seemed to change at the same time as that green deepening, fading, intensifying again – as if with their thoughts; or something more than their thoughts – an evident opening and closing of feelings there, always on the move, like breathing. They wore kilts, in something like velvet, and had high-arched feet with long, prehensile toes. Their hands were graceful and had long tapered fingers; their faces were elfin and whimsical, and they had long, friendly, mobile mouths. They spoke through little boxes they wore crosswise over their bodies – stroking a button to translate their own sounds into his language; whereupon the box spoke.
“What I am doing here?” demanded Jalwan. “What you are going to do with me? Oh, if you are gods, then tell me your names! And, oh excellent gods, then please to heal me of my miseries, and help me to flower into my life! Oh, thank you!”
“Don’t be worried,” soothed the box. “Nothing bad will happen to you. Only we are going to help you, yes. We are enjoying your Earth and your people – sometimes we like to have visit, yaaar? Only visiting. No problem. Don’t be worried.”
“This is too much!” protested Jalwan. “Only I have never been knowing…have you come from the gods? Shiva, Hanuman, Ganesh, Vishnu? Flying about like this?”
“Don’t be worried,” soothed Prant’s box again. “We are only helping. Take more tea! You are tooo much pulled down! Looking poorly. We will give you medicine.”
“What medicine?” demanded Jalwan suspiciously.
“Don’t worry, Jalwan-ji!” the box replied – for names had been exchanged. “Very great Ayurvedic healing treatment, our specialty. You are too much suspicious! This tea is good tea – soon you will be feeling relaxed. Then we can start treatment.”
“Aaarrr, then,” allowed Jalwan, relinquishing his hold on his alarm and beginning to relax back in his comfortable, padded chair. A nice lightness began to take hold of him. He smiled. These fellows were not so bad.
Over in the great dining hall of Walking Rainbows Lodge, some diners had noticed a strange brightness in the sky. Was it some sort of lightning? It did not seem to be a fire; the rains had just passed and all was green; no smell of smoke was perceived. So people shrugged and went back to their brinjal masala or their mutton or their coffee and pudding.
But then something peculiar happened…and this peculiar thing stole over people so gradually, so invisibly, that it was only later when they looked back on that evening that they realized how extraordinary had been the sense of accord with their companions; how a certain truthfulness arose, making it possible, nay, very attractive, to share the secrets of their hearts – things they’d kept close to their chests for years. A married lady informed her husband that really she did not like a certain one of his male friends, who she felt took far too much interest in their small daughter, and said that if this man ever tried to get in the door again she would snatch up an umbrella and lay about his head with it. A young wife whispered to her husband, leaning forward over the table towards him, that really she did not like that thing he did, when they were alone in bed; and would much prefer if he did this other thing. An older, grizzled man told his twin brother that he did not like their tailor, had never liked their tailor, and intended to find another. An elder statesman from a faraway land confessed to his female companion that once, twenty years ago, he had very nearly started a terrible war; but had thought better of it at the last moment. A little boy told his mother that he had imprisoned twenty snails inside her spare boots that day and placed a cleaning-bucket up-ended over them, to see what would happen. And so on.
And Mr MacKenzie, dining with a handsome woman just a trifle older than himself, whom he had met whilst promenading about the garden, found that he was describing to her his woes with his stomach and the troublesome, dangerous mass that it contained. Usually he would not have wanted to bother anyone else about such a thing; he couldn’t imagine what had got into him! But her eyes glowed compassionately, and her skin was fine, and her knot of hair was glossy and abundant on her head; if thoroughly grey. Her pretty mauve gown shimmered as she readjusted her position in the big easy chair where she sat after dinner, hard by the crackling fire in its deep fireplace; and he in a chair opposite her.
“I may know something that could help you,” ventured the lady at length, “if I may be so bold.”
“And what might that be?” asked Mr MacKenzie. “I am convinced of the hopelessness of the thing. It is terminal. I must prepare myself for what is to come; make sure there is provision for my wife and daughters -” he found to his horror that tears filled his eyes, his nose was thickening; a lump was in his throat.
“Well, this man comes highly recommended,” said the woman, Mrs Fairberry. “He has travelled the world, you see, and learnt some wondrous things; and he has a gift – a natural gift of healing. He learnt from special wizards of a sort, in the southern islands…you might try it. You’ve nothing to lose, then, have you?” she finished diffidently.
“No, no…” agreed Mr MacKenzie. “I’ve nothing to lose.”
Chrysantha is in Freddie’s house, in his bedroom; in his bed. Her head is thrown back, arms above her splayed-out skeins of hair. A look of focus, concentration, and surprise is in her face. Her eyes are closed. We cannot see Freddie – just a hump under the duvet, and the top of his blond head. “What, there?” Chryssie is gasping. “There, like that? Ohhhh! People do that? It is…done? Oh! There!” she sighs, and settles down, her focus growing more pointed. We see her round, soft breasts reaching up – . Now she is cold, wants to pull the duvet up, but does not want to suffocate her lover. It is distracting,. His hands snake up, grasp her breasts warmly. “Ah?” she cries, then sighs again…
Later, back at home…”Mama? When is Papa coming home?” asks Cerulea worriedly. “He has been gone ever so long!”
“We don’t know, darling, we are waiting to hear. A letter could arrive anytime,” her mother soothes her, stroking her hair.
The healer practised out of an old shed that sat beside a little field, two hours’ journey in the direction of Manali, but up a winding track into a remote little enclave, where a small farm perched. There were apricot trees, and a barley field, and a cow or two; some little brown children, dressed in rough brown oversized shirts and nothing else, peered delightedly out at them from behind the wood-built farmhouse, at a little distance from the shed, screaming, “apple doh! Apple doh!” which meant, he remembered, “Give me an apple!”
The shed did not look promising, but when Thurston drew closer and dismounted from his hired horse, he saw that the grass had been scythed around the place, and a wooden armchair sat outside with a little rug in it. There was a rain barrel, and washing was spread over some large rocks behind the shed to dry.
The door opened at his approach, and a man stepped out. He was of medium height, thin, with strong-looking hands and bare, strong feet. He wore short trousers tied round his waist with a rope, and a loose shirt, unbuttoned – for the day was warm. He dipped his head in MacKenzie’s direction, then stood waiting. He did not smile, but when Thurston was close to him he felt an enigmatic sort of beam coming off him – something businesslike and yet profound; and around his hands there seemed to hover a readiness, a presence. Thurston was learning again that in the mountains, one meets surprising people. He had forgotten…and he was humbled, thinking of the years of his exile in England, where men pursue the ordinary as if it were a holy grail.
The healer indicated that they would now go into the hut. And Thurston nearly gasped – for it was, somehow, a beautiful place. It had an earthen floor, beaten into hardness so that it was almost like fired clay, and swept clean. This floor was raised, as if it had been built up and then tamped down. A woollen rug was on it, and on this rug stood a long table, with another rug laid on that. A pile of lunghis, such as labourers wear, or a man about his house, stood on a chair nearby, evidently to serve as sheets and covers. That, realized Thurston, was the source of some of the laundry he had seen drying outside. There were two windows, one looking back towards the mountains; the other towards the farmhouse. The place was tidy and had a good feeling in it – as if the mountain breezes played in and out, and kept things fresh. There was a smell of cedar and spices – perhaps incense was burnt here sometimes.
Thurston’s body had been aching more than usual today. He was tired; he really did want to lie down.
The healer seemed to be of indeterminate race and nationality. His eyes seemed somehow both Oriental and South Asian; his mouth was of medium fulness and seemed to hover in a kind of alert, unspoken compassion. He might have been sixty, but his body seemed agile and fit, if quite solid in its grounding. Deep grooves were in his face, but this seemed just to add to his attractiveness – for he was, somehow, beautiful. Some grace flowed in his limbs, touched his black hair, his eyes. His name was Fletcher Song.
He indicated the table, leaning to the chair and picking up a fresh lunghi, which he unfolded and laid upon it. Thurston lay down on his back gratefully.
Jalwan settled in his comfortable chair – a sort of chair he’d never seen before; made of some strange wood, he thought, that was giving if you pressed it, and had a velvety finish. Yet it was wood; it had woodiness to it, somehow. He gazed about him at the spacious chamber, with clever little shelves and cupboards and fitments, and large windows where he could look out into the night forest, over there across the meadow.
He was really feeling most at ease now; a happiness bubbled up in him, and he began to chortle. It was all so funny! To be in this…thing, with these…creatures! Him, plain Jalwan Das Prasad from Calcutta! Wait till he told his friends about this! Hahahahahaha!! he laughed.
Yet he did not feel intoxicated – far from it – the tea seemed to have settled him, made him clearer, sharper. It was just that things were so bloody marvellous. Excellent chappies, these.
Now Urfur fixed him with his lambent eye, saying in Jalwan’s own language as the instant translation device he wore went into play:“Now, Jalwan-ji – what is it you are wanting most in all the world? What is your great dream? What you are hankering after, day after day? Because it is our amusement to give it to you, if we can. Not everything can be given – but what is possible, we will do. We are enjoying too much to be this kindness, you see. It is our diversion,” explained Urfur.
“Ahhhhh…” said Jalwan Das, leaning back further in his chair, which leaned with him most winningly.
“Ahhhh….” – and he thought.
“Only one thing, is it?” he asked after a moment.
“One thing only,” replied Urfur – “but you might be surprised. One thing is taking many things with it. Also, Jalwan-ji, we can see that you are feeling poorly – so in order to prepare you for the gift you most desire, we will give you healing first. Then you will get your desire – if we can manage it. Not all things are possible, yaaar?”
“Well then,” said Jalwan, after a bit, “I do know what I want most awfully. It is difficult to decide – because, you see, I am a young man – I am longing for a wife! And perhaps a mistress too – and, you must be knowing – do you? I am very much desirous of women.
“But,” he went on, “there is one desire that is greater. I know that I should desire God – if I were more worthy, I would desire him – but before I meet him, something is there I must do.”
“Yes?” said both Urfur and Prant, waiting patiently.
“I must sit in a great steam locomotive, as if I were driver – in fact I want to be driver, but if this is not possible, I want to sit in locomotive as if I am driving. That is all. But it must be very clean locomotive – new style – and it must be in England, because there it will be the best sort, and I will show everybody that an Indian is good enough to drive your best machines, and in their home country!” he went on, rapturously.
“Is it possible, truly?” he asked, wide-eyed as a child. “My auntie says it is a rough profession – not noble but brutal – but what she is knowing? She is only a lady. It is my dream. But I am only a shipping-clerk, waiting someday for promotion. So boring it is, and me with all my life bristling about me, waiting to be lived! To become train-driver is long training – much competition also – and to become train-driver in England! Oh, no! I must be getting passage on ship…going there to live…it is too much costly, too much difficult.” And he shook his oiled locks back and forth, woebegone.
Urfur and Prant looked at each other. Then they commenced muttering together in their own language. They seemed to be arguing, then agreeing. There were swirling little centres up and down the middles of their bodies which glowed with fluctuating, subtle colours. Yellow when they argued – then blue-green again, at the heart – violet at the forehead – but many shades seemed to live in each centre, as if it was talking to itself with colour. These put on quite a show as they conversed.
Finally Urfur seemed to triumph. Prant shook his head as if in irritated defeat; little red and orange sparks came out of the front of him. He said, now with his translator box switched on accidentally: “How you can think of this? This is a stupid idea – stupid like anything! You are crazy, Urfur – with your weird ideas. Why we don’t just take him to the train yard and let him sit in an engine? Hell, we could fly him to England, yaaar, let him sit in a quiet train-cab. Not such a big thing. But this – it is not certain it will work! Too much complicated!”
But Urfur had that look on his face, of a chemist who wants to mix two substances together and see what happens; and won’t be put off the chase.
“Are you ready, my good man?” asked Urfur of Jalwan. “It is time for your healing.”
Chrysantha MacKenzie told her friends she was taking the girls to the seaside for a week or two. She did not tell him they were going to Cornwall, where Freddie’s family had a house. The sun shone as often as it ought, and the girls played with pails and sand, and wore loose little dresses so they could run freely. They were bought lemonades, and grew cranky with tiredness and sunburn, after which they had to be put in cool baths in a dim room. They had a wonderful time.
“Where is Papa?” one or the other of them was apt to query, insistently or desultorily. Then the other would take it up – “Papa! Papa! We want Papa!”
“Coming home soon, darlings,” their mama would say. “now hush, and eat your raspberries and cream.”
At first, the healer just held Thurston MacKenzie’s feet. This felt reassuring – soothing, yet alert-making, as if he was being both grounded, and seen. Seen inside of. MacKenzie felt, there with his eyes closed, as if something were trying to get into him – something benign but powerful, something bigger than he was able to allow. He felt the chagrin of being unable to part himself further; absorb more – and he wondered if that was how a woman might feel, under a man. The thought was a little shocking.
Mr Song lifted his hands from MacKenzie’s feet and went to stand at the side of the table.
Now…there was a hand – two hands – diving into MacKenzie’s middle! His body began to shudder and wave all over as if in earthquake. His mouth opened and sound came out – “…A g h –”
The hands took hold of the mass in his stomach wall. He felt a scalpel slice it free – then it was being lifted – like a grapefruit being plucked from a table.
Energy rushed all over him. Hoots came out of his mouth, like an owl, or a man who has burnt his hand and is shaking it and blowing. There was heat – everywhere heat. He opened his mouth again. A pail was held up beside the table. He turned and vomited into it.
He lay back down. The healer went on digging about in him, and what he brought out he cast into the pail. He worked quickly, silently, his feet planted firmly, moving like a boxer or a chef. Perhaps for ten minutes he worked – though it seemed much longer to his patient. He yanked out all sorts of things – like giblets from fowl, or kidneys, or other offal; sometimes in the quick flash between body and pail there might be seen a voodoo effigy, or the bright-and-shadowed image of a person – the size of a doll. Plop into the mire they all went.
Mr MacKenzie saw a parade of people from his life – his mother – especially her; in a fine long trailing dress – his father – with his mustaches – schoolmasters, young ladies he had loved, companions in games when he was young. Enemies – men who had not liked him, who had wanted what he had. Women who’d wanted him but he’d not wanted them. His brother, dead now these thirty years. Each was felt, helplessly, as he or she went by on their way to the pail. With each expulsion, he felt lighter – though at times he wanted to cling to someone: “No! Not Yet!” He saw the tons of mutton he must have eaten in his life. It cried baaa naaaaa as it flew by. He saw the iced puddings, the suet puddings, the trifles. The pipe and tobacco, the port, the whiskey. His body wrenched open, and each heavy food or intoxicant was expelled with vigour and relief.
He saw places he’d been ssad in – a meadow he’d walked in when a young woman had rejected him. A room he’d stood in after his mother ahd died.
And as these things lifted and shifted and were tossed away, space was revealed beneath them. And as the space broadened and deepened, like a cellar opened to the light of day, a strange joy began to fuill it. The joy lifted up and pushed on the cellar’s ceiling where it still remained, and budged it up so that the joy sought the sky, and rushed upwards.
He perceived that his life ahd suffered inexcusably from Duty; and that the one duty he truly had was to this sacred chance of being alive – as his own self – and he had nearly missed it. Was about to bow out without finding what he had been here for at all.
Chryssie and Freddie lay side by side in the big bed. It was evening; a particular gloom had settled in the room, and with it a chill. It was nearly dark, but Chrysantha could still see him in the light from the window . She gazed at his profile – her sunny Freddie, with his blond hair and straight nose and clean-cut chin. She felt a glow at how handsome he was. Their naked bodies were touching; their hands touched. She thought he had never looked more beautiful.
“Freddie – darling,” she began – for it is so tempting for a woman to want to share her heart after making love; and so unusual for a man to have space for it then – this is one of the great tragedies of romantic life; one of Nature’s diabolical carelessnesses – or is it part of some cold and purposeful Design, to throw us back on ourselves? Do for ourselves what nobody else can do for us?
Never mind – there they are – and Chryssie said, “Darling – suppose I should get with child? Then what might we do?” And she felt warm all through her tummy, her breasts, her mouth, her toes – as she looked at her nice warm young man. How she loved him! She had not known that she could feel so…wanton. She knew that it was wrong of her – though some married women did take lovers, she had heard stories…(one was just supposed to be very, very discreet.) Freddie, oh, Freddie! What a darling he was. So courtly.
“Whu – with child? Get with child? Chryssie, what are you saying? Is this a possibility?” He was not looking at her as he spoke.
“Well, it does happen,” she gurgled, thinking, You silly oaf!
“Ummmm – well – I’m sure that would not be a satisfactory situation,” he said. “Can’t you do something?”
“A sponge soaked in vinegar? Yes – I’ve been doing that – sometimes. But it doesn’t always work. A very common girl taught it me – who worked for us, at home – and it has limited things – indeed – I have only the two, you see – and they are treasured, dear little girls…But it doesn’t always work.”
“Mmmmph,” said Freddie. “Must get up – want to play some cards tonight, with some chaps. Mr Brindle next door said he’d get up a party.”
“But if it didn’t work,” continued Chrysantha determinedly, “he will know. The timing would show it – . And I do not want to hurt him for anything – he has never done me any wrong – dear Mr MacKenzie!” she said, and was suddenly full of tears – which then soon stopped again.
“Mmmmm -” said Freddie. “Time to get up, dearest, and dress for dinner – or people will know you are not just a family friend, coincidentally here at this hotel at the same time I am -.”
“I wonder,” said Chrysantha, “I wonder if it has worked every time -.”
Jalwan felt a vague unease at being argued over, but the tea was relaxing him so well that he soon subsided into acquiesence for whatever might come. “Don’t be worried,” Urfur went on; “I am having such a good idea for you! Prant does not like it – he is very conservative.” He nodded in the direction of his companion, who shifted from archy foot to foot, snortling a bit through his elegant nose. “But I am thinking it is the answer to your prayers. And I myself will enjoy the spectacle! Prant is forgetting more and more that we are looking here for creative joy and entertainment – no, Prant? For our world is more…streamlined, shall we say; and the complexity of yours astounds and educates us. It is far more complex than you know! In this way, by, shall we say, meddling, we can participate in the fun.
“Now, are you willing,” he continued, “to undergo a very great adventure? Truly stupendous? Different than all in your experience? It will be very strange for you – but we can, I think, make your dream come true. We understand your dream; do you not imagine what we ourselves experience in flying this boat we command? It is a pleasure beyond the poor words of any language!”
Here Prant joggled a little on his lovely feet, and almost a smile came to him.
“If you, a brown-skinned man, were to go now to England,” went on Urfur, “and try to drive a train…they will laugh at you, sneer at you in the way they are so good at. We were discussing how to arrange it. Always this prejudice would be a problem.
“But I have had an idea – a very interesting idea, I think. I think it will work. Are you willing to take a …great leap into the unknown?”
“Certainly,” Jalwan heard himself say. “If it means I will be allowed to drive a train…or even just to sit up in the cab!” he added, bathetically.
“All right, then!” said Urfur. “Now…the healing. Lie down please,” and he waved his hand towards the console and a long table rose slowly on a pedestal into the room. Jalwan obediently lay down upon it and closed his eyes. He was aware of Urfur and Prant standing one on each side of him; and now they were raising up their hands…
…He seemed to be asleep in a forest. He could feel the benevolent shadow of the trees, their breath of oxygen. He felt the health-giving tree-energy fill his body. He was buoyed in it, as if floating…In deep forest, now he was floating between the trees. Sometimes fairy-beings flitted by on some errand of their own.
By and by he coasted gently down onto a grassy hillock in a clearing. It was as if Calcutta was washed away from him, and his health was being returned to him by the trees…Ahhhhh, he sighed. Ahhhh…. Pink fairy-beings observed him, breathed on him, felt his pulse. He lay on his back upon the mound.
A great relaxation and peacefulness came over him. That whole mad, crowded, disagreeable city – the city he took so much for granted – was gone. How wonderful that was! His very cells were being cleansed, and then inhabited, by blissful tree-life.
He lay long in this delicious state, savouring the little messages of Nature that twinkled about him: fireflies, tree-exhalations, pond-fragrance, deep-earth-resonance, chlorophyll joy. He floated gently. Frustrations seemed to have left him; fantasies too.
As he lay with his eyes closed, something seemed to intrude on his space, over there at the side, some distance from him. He grew alert – what was it? He did not want to open his eyes, but just to feel…The presence came nearer. He heard a little cackle, a little compression of the grass – as if from light footfall. A warmth seemed to pass over his right side. Closer…He opened his eyes.
A maiden stood near him. She had long hair past her waist, flowing down over her body, front and back. Her rounded hips were clothed in a long skirt, and a loose blouse was on her upper body, with three-quarter sleeves; in some sheer, soft cotton fabric. She wore no jewelry. She smiled at him a little, just with her curved lips, her eyes.
We will just say here that she had come to teach Jalwan Das many things: patience, centring, contemplation in the midst of great excitement. Coolness, duration, service, humility, and a clear, sword-like observation of phenomena. In short, she had come to teach him to meditate in the midst of love – for that is the greatest art, and the most transformative and demanding, that a man can learn – or a woman too, come to that.
Time, as we have said, is plastic – a kernel of it in one place becomes a week of stretched-out experiences in another – so Urfur and Prant did not have to wait tapping their prehensile feet and twitching their tails for Jalwan Das to have his tutelage. In the world where he now found himself, he spent several years with the maiden, and astonishing and wonderful years they were. All his frustrations were washed away as he truly lived for the first time since he’d been a child. And such great keys he learned! …Never to be forgotten.
Urfur and Prant themselves took a break and made a snack – in their travels through time they’d been much taken by a thing called ‘pizza,’ but they created their own version using plants they grew aboard, and grains they’d brought from home, and various other foods that they layered on the ground-grain base and then roasted in their special oven. The result was very much to their taste, and they sat at the little table crunching and chomping and sipping another earth-food that they liked: a fermented berry drink cultured with special bacteria which made a body feel sparkly and refreshed. Urfur liked experimenting with the fermenting of various foods. The vision of Druderites was so sharp that they could actually see the bacteria; and this increased their appetite for the beverage.
At length it was time to bring Jalwan back. Jalwan bade goodbye to the maiden, knowing they’d meet again, and, at the hovering drift of a long mauve hand, Jalwan appeared again, looking radically different, in the lounge.
“So – how you were finding it?” Urfur asked.
Jalwan beamed and beamed. He had filled out, his hair was thick and glossy and rather long. He looked like a big fine specimen of a young man now – a few characterful grooves had appeared in his face, his dimples had deepened, his voice too. He laughed often and his limbs seemed loose and relaxed. Leaning back on the settee, one leg crossed over the other, arms spread out along the velvety furnishing’s top.
“So wonderful,” he said, “I am thanking you chaps too much. That was…wonderful. I have learned everything. I did not know. It was beautiful. Everybody should know these things.”
“True, true,” acknowledged Urfur. “Now..are you ready to sit in steam engine?” (He pronounced it en-gyne, with a long ‘i’.)
“Ha ha ha ha ha,” laughed Jalwan Das. “I had almost forgotten! Salila put it out of my head! I am learning the inner train driver! Who does not drive the train, but only watches! Ha ha ha!”
“Does that mean you are not caring any more?” asked Urfur. He sounded disappointed.
“Oh, no – I am interested,” nodded Jalwan. “Assuredly I am. A man must have his own enthusiasms too. Making women ecstatic is just half of the story. Or a little more…hah ha ha ha ha!” His rich laughter rang out, as if he’d made a great and worthy joke.
“Are you ready? We will take you, don’t be worried. But I am warning you – a great shock of the cultures awaits you. It will take you some time to adjust, though we will do our best to bring you in gently. Once you are adjusting, it will be happening soon – your train driving career. You will see! Are you having courage for this?”
“Oh yes,” nodded Jalwan. “Why not – it is sounding like lot of fun!”
“Okay…now, this experience you are entering in different way. We have special dancing room here – you will go into it and we will close door, put on music. You are only to dance, without any certain steps, without partner – just dance in freedom. And, out of that something will be happening..”
Mr MacKenzie did not really need to rest so much any more – but he had got in the habit of stretching out here on the chaise and just being – feeling the freshness of the air, the healing quality of the nearby forest; enjoying the sight of the flowers blooming on potted bushes and in the beds surrounding the hotel. And yes, after a shower the rainbows sometimes did come out, one after the other – as if they could walk, were walking off down the valley, or over the meadows. It was so blissful just to sit and watch them.
He felt at his stomach again with his hand, still scarce able to believe that the mass had gone. That which had been consuming him was simply vanished! His stomach was as it had always been. His energy had returned, and with it new thoughts…of a different life.
For the first three days, as instructed, Jalwan Das stayed in the room, in the new place, the place he’d been sent to. At first he was grateful to be quiet, and to lie still. After what he’d experienced…that dancing! Like nothing he’d ever even imagined. A room full of coloured lights flashing, and amazing fragrances moving through too, as fast as the lights – and scenery, somehow, in the room with him, so that he was in a flowery meadow, then on a city street, then in a beautiful temple, surrounded by wild dancers – each moving in her or his own private ecstasy, or with glowing glance interacting with him for a minute or two, then going on. The music was also incredible to him – the beat pulsing with the lights – the instruments used in ways he’d never heard before – sometimes sassy, sometimes lascivious, sometimes slow and sensuous; sometimes rising up so that his heart flew open and his hands raised and he swayed in some ecstatic communion with life, with the sky.
Then…when he was a mass of vibrating, perspiring, wild flesh which had forgotten it ever had a name – when the dancer had become the dance, and disappeared as a separate being – a door in the wall opened, and Jalwan Das looked through it to see another room in which was a tree, with its trunk disappearing through a hole in the floor. A voice said, “Now, it is time to go down the hole of the rabbit!”
So he stepped over to the edge of the hole…saw that the tree had steps attached to it…and he lowered himself down onto them, and descended…it became dark…the next step he was expecting was not there – and he fell….
And fell, and fell…and somehow he knew he was supposed to simply let go.
Everything pulsed – as if his whole body was a drumskin, and the air around him too. He gave in…passed in and out of dimensions; he could feel this, he did not know how.
Until finally…he was high above the earth, looking down – and he saw a huge spread-out light – and he knew that this was where he had to go.
He fell again…and as he approached Earth he realized he was coming to a vast city. It grew and grew as he approached, until he was hurtling down towards incredibly tall buildings. Strange metal beetles crawled in the streets – there was a terrible rumble and blatt and screech and drone – unearthly lights blazed everywhere. He fell…and then felt himself pass through the wall of a building – a large house on the outskirts of the city, near the great black stretch of the sea.
After three days, in which food and water mysteriously appeared in his room while he slept – a knock came on his door. He tied about him the robe that had been left for him, and went to open it. A young woman stood there with a tray of food. He bowed – and stepped back for her to enter.
They ate together. Jalwan was ravenous! The food was good – South Indian – and he enjoyed it. He watched his companion curiously. She had not yet said a word. She was perhaps twenty, her hair cut in some short, jaggedy, piecey way, like a street urchin’s but much cleaner. She wore an extraordinary costume – he could not stop staring at it: tight, dark blue canvas trousers with double-stitched seams – he could not imagine the labour of sewing it took to do that in the heavy cloth. Those trousers were so tight they clung to her curves and angles and he wondered how she could bend; yet the fabric seemed to give happily, unlike any canvas he had ever seen. She wore a tight sort of singlet, knitted, without sleeves; orange, with large black lettering on it saying GROOVEPUNK. Her long feet were bare.
He could not understand the writing on the shirt. Did this have something to do with Punky Baba? Or? – He could not imagine this girl climbing up to Punky Baba’s dwelling, but then, why not?
And why would there be writing on a shirt? People did not write on clothing. It was a strange idea, too strange.
Mohini was his guide in this new world. He could not yet see any inkling of how this big, fancy house was going to help him drive a steam train – but he was not impatient – not at all. He was having a great time.
She spoke now, but a little oddly – the inflections, and many words not used as he was accustomed. But the two were now having long talks. She told him that his agent knew he was on a retreat but that he would have to go back to work soon. “What work? “ wondered Jalwan Das, thinking with distaste of the boring routines, the endless scratching with inky nibs that splattered and ran, in the office where he worked in Calcutta. That office which must have long ago written him off as a malingerer; and of which he never thought. (Urfur, with some reluctance, had agreed to get a message to his Aunty – he did not say in what form the message would be couched – that he was all right and would be in touch at a later date.)
Mohini giggled. “You will see. It has all been arranged. You have stepped into a groove where everything is ready for you. The house, the audience, the history – all of it! What a lucky young man you are!”
Next time they went out – for she was showing him the alarming city, with its crowds and smells – familiar, these, but add traffic, and sheer size, and weird, brightly-coloured litter, and the terrible, choking air – she gave him a pair of glasses to wear, with big black lenses. They filtered the daylight and made him feel protected, aloof. He liked the feeling. Very, very much.
She was his chauffeur – in a bizarre vehicle, which hummed, and went without horses. He did not see how it was possible, as it did not run on steam either. But Mohini explained the way the engine worked, and he began to feel just a bit more comfortable in this strange, strange world. And this car went fast! It was sturdy and shiny and had big fat wheels. Amazing. And it was all closed up; and cool inside. That coolness – certainly miracles existed!
“My dearest husband,” began the letter. “I hope that this finds you well, and your business affairs going well too. You have not, in the only letter which has reached me, said when you expect to return – I can only suppose the business is taking longer than expected. As you might imagine, I think of you most every hour of every day…and I pray you are keeping hale and not too inconvenienced with the extremes of climate there. We are having a mild onset to winter – it has rained drearily, but not yet frozen; and there have been one or two brilliant days, when I took the girls to the park, and they rolled their hoops and swung and fell down and got grass-stains on their dresses (I did not berate them – remembering their papa’s rule that children should be children, and not be punished for the natural explorings of that blessed time.) I took them myself, so that they will know their mama as much as their nanny.
“Dearest Thurston – there is one matter much concerning me, and I am very much loathe to broach it; for it will change everything between us, and I scarce have courage for that.
“But we have been honest with each other – we have been friends, have we not, Thurston dear? – Despite, or perhaps because of, the difference in ages, which perhaps leaves us a little freer than couples closer in age can be…I know not why that should be so, but somehow it does seem like that.
“But I shall tell you, for I must – and you may banish me, divorce me, do what you must do – and I can only hope in my heart that you will not be cruel – though I do not deserve to expect that.
“I am with child – there, I have said it – those dread words – for as you certainly realize, the child cannot be yours – or I should have discovered it, and told you, long before.
“I had met a man I believed I loved – and I believed he loved me – and it was impossible to keep apart. I had told you of Lady Tilden, and our charitable pursuits – she has gone off to France now, and I know not if she truly cares for those charities or is only playing, for if she can desert them, those poor children – and desert her new friend too – all on a whim, I cannot think that she is a faithful character really. She seems quite full of her own grandeur sometimes, and now, when I could have welcomed her solicitous advice – but I digress, unforgivably, dear Thurston – for I must come back to the painful truth: the young man, a friend of Lady Tilden, has also decamped – gone to France on a lark, “to hear some music,” he said, and I have not seen him for weeks – and I am quite sure I never shall. For he is a gay blade, I ween, and an irresponsible one – and at the first whiff of news at my condition – even the thought that it might happen, even before I knew that it had happened – he grew cold and separate and turned his back on me. The young man’s disease…sow well the seed, but eschew the harvest. How wasteful! How profligate! How foolish! For an old man needs his children…
“In any case, dear Thurston, my wretched heart was quite broken – or so I thought – but as the weeks have gone by and my condition became obvious to me, I feel no love for him – but just a contempt – for he is not a man as you are – not a real man, a grown man, a man of discernment, substance, and dignity. I chose well when I chose you – and now I have ruined it all.
“The child will be born in June, by my calculation. Please tell me what you wish me to do. If I must quit your house, I can go to my mother; she will be shocked, but she will receive me – or so I believe. I have not put it to her yet.
“Would that it were your child, Thurston dear – I should then be rejoicing. As it is, I can only tremble, and worry, and I am concerned lest this harm the poor wee mite somehow…for it is not its fault.
“I await your reply in humble chagrin – with apology, and tender concern for you,
He put the letter down beside him and leant back on the chaise longue. The cool mountain air touched his face. There might have been a tear in his eye, on his cheek, after a little while.
Jalwan Das was back in his mansion. He had spread out into the other rooms now, marvelling at what fate and his alien friends had done – for it was marble and glass and embroidery and teak, and had enough space for a man to move about in, on his own terms. Mohini seemed not exactly to live here – she came and went; again he had a young lady for a teacher – but she was teaching him about the world.
He was wearing his dark glasses – for he had seen other men wear theirs indoors and he wanted to know what it was like; custom seemed to demand it. He could not really make out objects very well. But he was exhilarated – his whole body alive – for he’d just been dancing again – but an altogether different kind of dance! He still marvelled that he just seemed to know the steps – and they were quite complicated! Leaps, shakes, shimmies of the shoulders, thrusts of the pelvis – that was amazing, that it was allowed! – Then more great leaps, twirls, dipping onto one knee, springing up again – all in a very catchy rhythm, with drums and pipes and wailing girls keeping time – and he in a row of other dancers – all men at first; then women, as brightly dressed as a flock of varied parrots, leaping and twirling along with them. Flirting and escaping and pursuing – rolling their eyes, waggling their hands, their heads – and everybody beaming and grinning like golliwogs, and flying like Peter Pan! He had never seen colours in clothing like those – the magenta of mountain azalea or rhododendron, but twice as bright, and enough to bring an odd taste to your mouth as you looked at it! But the girls looked lovely, the contrast with their dark hair and white teeth and brown-satin or gold-satin skin was wonderful.
So – he knew how to Bollywood. What a miracle, to drop in here like this, and know what to do!
The director, an older man with a paunch straining his high-necked shirt and wattles of jowl overhanging the collar, seemed pleased with hum. The man had an aura of power about him, and several thick gold rings on his fingers. His ears and those fingers sprouted little thickets of black hairs.
There was to be a meeting with his agent at lunch to discuss his next project. So soon Mohini would reappear and they’d go out again.
He emerged from the meeting with his agent, Mr Attabhoy, somewhat startled. It seemed that he was a well-known heartthrob (Me? He thought, glancing in a mirror – and indeed he looked suave, with the shades and his new T-shirt and tight dungarees. He stood up straighter and swaggered a bit.) And it seemed that he could invest his money anywhere he pleased…including for his own next film. So that they could use locations abroad if needed; if the backers had balked at that. Which backers sometimes did.
“My dearest wife,” wrote Thurston. He was on the verandah again, with the lovely cool air on his face, in his hair. “Come to India. There is no need to efface yourself. I understand. You are young, and I should have realized that Nature would have her way, and not kept you in the confinement of a traditional arrangement. I long to see Cerulea and Georgina, and yourself too. We will bring the new child up together; and out here there will be a loving atmosphere for all of us. I am quite determined to make my home here. Will you join me?
”I have had my own adventure, of a different sort; and will be joyful to take up our friendship again and tell you of it when we meet.”
– For he had indeed been touched by a healing few men ever get to know.
Jalwan Das Prasad flew over the same ocean that Chrysantha Mackenzie was travelling on – as she blew with the winds towards India – but in a different century. The centuries layer on each other like pages in a book; separate, yet with a strange simultaneity, if you look at them a-right. For things are mysterious, and come round to themselves, and chime their own bells with their own tails, so to speak. Or so I have been told; and it must be so, for it feels pleasing to the soul to write it.
He was now at the well-preserved Camforth railway station, in Lancashire, hard by the River Keer; and he was sitting high, high up in the locomotive of a restored steam train. It was marvellous up here – like surveying the world from a very tall horse, or even better. (Nor had he to fear; for an experienced driver sat out of sight in the vestibule, should he be needed.) And the huge mass of power Jalwan was to control hummed and steamed and warmed all round him, and the great wheels rode the rails in perfect accord, waiting to take off and gallop. He had never felt such a thing – it was as wonderful as all his dreams, and more – and he thought of the scene that was to unfold, with the love-interest fainting in a car – a beautiful blonde girl in a drifty mauve dress – and he was going to have to do some skilful driving, as well as some unlikely acrobatics (for which he had a stunt double) to save the day. And he would of course save it. But the real thing was the power – to simply feel it pulsing under him, as big as a thousand motorcycles (for he’d ridden one of these by now) as if the very universe was his to steer, to guide, to listen to. For it was a symbiosis, of course – he had to receive the power as well as indicate to it what the director was telling him to do. A great thrill went through his body, the thrill that little boys have, even when they are men.
And then they were away – the train chugging up hill and down dale, blowing its horn most satisfactorily – T O O O O O OT T O O O O OT
just by his pulling on a stout cord near his right hand. Over rivers on bridges, and the beautiful patchwork countryside laid out around him, and the sheep staring, and the tracking a-curving and a-winding – and all his training for this moment well worth the time it had taken –
And the camera crew filming it all -.
Did Jalwan Das Prasad want to stay in the new century? Was this even allowed?
Well. I think that what happened was this: full of the joy of his satisfied ambition, and a lot freed and a little empty, he went back to Calcutta and his Aunty…but not the shipping office. I think that he became himself, in the fulness of time, a jokey sort of wise man, full of merriment, because he had seen…perhaps not everything, but a very great deal; more, certainly, than his fellows – and so he could entertain dinner parties, and annoy other men – at which point he would describe the alien craft, and all would be in thrall, and the men would nearly forgive him. But certainly the ladies liked him – and that was the main thing. He often returned to Walking Rainbows Lodge, and visited Punky-Baba – though he never saw Urfur and Prant again.
Sometimes he passed a gentleman of mature years, walking with a slim woman and three children – two bouncing girls and a solemn little boy with hair like sunshine – taking a stroll round the grounds or walking through the village. And they would nod to each other as they passed by.
November ‘17, Hebden Bridge