The bus rattles to a stop in a dusty square, spilling bags of rice, sari fabric, two crates of furious chickens and one conspicuous backpack into the dirt.
The rickshaw drivers are queued near the road. I walk toward a young man with quiet eyes, and tell him the name of the place. I’m amazed when he recognises it.
I heave the backpack in, trying to ignore the group of women who are staring at me, the younger ones giggling. Just as the rickshaw engine erases every sound in the square, I spot a conspicuous, skinny white guy talking to a food vendor. I lean into the back seat before he sees me.
We’ve been grinding through empty fields for so long, I’m jarred when the autorickshaw stops with a death rattle, spraying red dust against the side of the building. There was a hint of a village along the way, a few parked rickshaws and wooden barrows near another, slimmer road. A pack of well-fed feral dogs strolling near the shops.
It makes no sense at all, this building, out here. I’ve seen nothing but dry earth and crackling trees for four or five kilometres. I’m surprised I found it at all. At a distance it’s like a golf club, the sort of place that’s rented for weddings. Close up, less like a golf club, more like a crumbling colonial relic.
Three cows stand in the field, chewing and blinking apathetically. The white one has horns, and I wonder if this means it’s a male cow, and in this case should I be calling it a cow? The two brown ones wander about a meter away, then resume the business of standing and chewing.
‘Madame, here.’ says the driver. He swivels his head and nods at me through the pink lace curtains he’s hung between his section and mine. I thank him in Malayalam, even though I suspect he’s Tamil, and hand him twice the agreed price, because I want him to wait while I attempt to negotiate with the irritated-looking man who is stomping out of the building, scattering a gang of feral kittens and upsetting a stupid-looking calf who has wandered toward the crumbling porch.
I leave my backpack on the back seat of the rickshaw and approach the man, who ignores me completely while asking the driver something furious-sounding. The driver answers in an even tone. I don’t understand a word, but I’m pretty sure the driver’s on my side.
The man speaks to me in a stream of what might be English, or maybe German. I have no idea what he’s saying. He stares at me with his mouth open, then turns to blow his nose into the stagnant air. He wipes his hand on his lunghi, staring at me again. I stare back, doing my best to look unrattled.
’Do you have a room?’, I ask.
‘Where is your husband being?’
‘I need a single room. Do you have one?’ He stares a bit more, eyebrows quivering, then he lunges in my direction. I’m certain he’s going to hit me. I brace myself, but he stomps past and lifts my backpack from the rickshaw, muttering something to the driver.
‘You are paying 150 rupees to me nightly, food we make here, very nice, tasty,’ he tells me, stomping past with my backpack. ‘Come, I am showing the room to you, upstairs.’ I peer back at the driver, who looks me directly in the eye with his sweet gaze. I nod and thank him, patting my pocket to show I still have the business card he gave me with his mobile number and a lurid picture of Kali and baby Jesus.
The man leads me through a wide, colonial corridor, through a wooden hallway and up a steep staircase. The centre of the circular building seems to be one huge room on each of the two floors. I have a vague impression of wood, emptiness, large paintings on the wall. At the top of the stairs there is a balcony identical to the downstairs area. The tiles are cracked and missing in places. There’s a hole in the floor which seems impassable, as though someone attempted to destroy the balcony with a mallet and gave up after a while.
‘Rabin,’ says the man, whacking himself on the chest, fiddling with a giant metal key in what looks like a medieval church door.
‘Rachel,’ I say, since we’re introducing ourselves. My own name sounds whiny coming from my mouth, flat and pale. Then the giant church door is open, and all I want is to sleep.
In the kitchen, Priya tips dry dahl onto the Hindu Times. Notes that her fingers haven’t withered completely, and resemble her sisters’ rather than her mother’s. The silence of her wrists without bangles snips apart the quiet. Even this is disturbed by that idiot Rabin, she thinks, singing his shitty Tamil songs in the Prince George room. Priya twitches as the kittens crowd her ankles, kicks them away softly. They curl up and close their eyes, all at once. Let them sleep, she thinks, like the rich white woman upstairs. Let them do anything they like.
When I wake up, I’m staring at the curved shape of the roof. Apart from the bed, a very old wooden dressing table is the only furniture in the room, looking like it should’ve dissolved in the weather. The wooden shutters on the two huge windows are closed to the dust. One is cracked, a shatter-shape that lets a thick wind through.
I wash in the bathroom, watch red mud cover the tiled floor and slip down the drain. I pour two buckets over my head, hoping that’s not more than my share.
Leaving wet footprints on the wood, I cross the room, dress quickly and walk downstairs, following the faint kitchen sounds. The wooden stairs creak under my feet, and I spot a full view of one of the paintings in the upper room. A white man on a horse, wearing a British Army uniform.
In a room near the front door, a woman stands, chopping vegetables. Young to be wearing a white sari; a shining black braid hangs over her shoulder, limp with mustard oil.
‘What would you like?’ she says without pausing or looking at me. Standard Indian English pronunciation, the sound of a good school in the city. Thick afternoon light, colour and texture of honey, lingers on her cheekbones. I feel grubby and haggard.
‘Can I get some water? Um, is there…is there drinking water?’ She pauses, expressionless, nods without looking toward the fridge which I didn’t notice.
‘Help yourself.’ Her fingers guide the wooden handled knife across the necks of three okra. I hear the subtle crack of their skin. At her feet, feral kittens blink at me with small blue eyes.
Sanitary bottles of water are queued in the fridge. I remember that government bureaucrats and the Indian army use this place for meetings and training weekends, now that it no longer belongs to the Raj. The water crashes in my mouth, and decide I must look outside again before the sun goes down.
From the porch, I see the red field and the cows, and beyond them a glimpse of the water. I notice for the first time that several autorickshaws are parked in the field, drivers napping inside, heads covered in towels and newspapers, feet and legs sticking through the windows like tree branches.
I follow the circular porch around the building, avoiding huge cracks in the tiles and the gaping hole in the upstairs balcony. There’s a stone wall overgrown with strange-looking plants, like shrivelled ivy, and the sound of what I take to be a gardener. An elbow appears from behind the wall, then the rest of the person. It’s Jarvis Cocker.
Of course it isn’t, but the white guy from the bus stop looks just like Jarvis Cocker. They could be twins. He squints at me, waves a motionless wave. No smile.
Priya listens to the woman walk away, with the self-conscious trot she notices in them all. Not that many Western women come here, thinks Priya, it’s mostly the army boys she cooks for, and the bureaucrats with their waxy moustaches and photographs of their sons at school in Cochin. She cooks for Norman as well, but he fits into the house like an old ghost nowadays. The dahl is simmering. She closes her eyes against the steam, lets it soften her skin, the smell of cloves loosening her nostrils.
Me and Jarvis Cocker, whose real name is Norman, are sitting in the central room surrounded by paintings of British kings or captains or whatever they are. The table is huge, probably so heavy it can’t be moved. There’s food in front of us, made by the woman in the white sari, brought in by another man, also wearing white. Norman is telling me about his job.
‘Well it’s about a bloke who gets kidnapped by a woman who tortures and eventually castrates him.’ Norman explains.
‘Right. Torture porn.’
‘Yes, torture porn. It’s a dreadful genre. I wrote the first screenplay at uni. I saw that horrific film about the couple who are killed in Australia, and couldn’t think of a way to get over the thing than to invent one of my own.’
”Well…I did something like that once.’
‘A girl from my school died, on a bus that was blown up.’
‘Sorry, where did you go to school?’
‘I went to uni in London, but this was my primary school, in Tel Aviv. Well, so, Aviva died and…look, it’s not a story I tell much, but this place is so…’
‘Yes, I know. Go ahead, please.’ The doors are open to sheer blackness, not even the shape of the trees is visible. The electricity is off all over the building, and we sit with three candles between us, held upright in jars of dirt.
‘Well at the time, I didn’t feel much of anything. I was a kid, you know…this sounds brutal, but I was glad to get a day off school. And we missed the test we were meant to have.’
‘The girl, Aviva, I only spoke to her once. In the school toilets. I called her a fat bitch.’ Norman smiles a grim smile behind the candles. In this light his face looks less pale but more skeletal, like someone who has been ill.
‘Well, so years later, I started writing her letters.’ I pause, comprehending the strangeness of telling this story. My mouth is dry, my tongue curls and hunts for moisture. Norman hands me his bottle of water. ‘I wrote about, you know, everything. I had this idea that maybe she was alive but locked away, as though she’d been kidnapped instead of blown up, and it would be like I was her friend, if she was able to have a real life and not…this is insane.’
‘No. Do you want to carry on?’
‘Tell me why you’re in India, then. Why here, specifically? Fucking weird choice, you know. The Israelis are all in Goa.’
‘Yes. I’m just travelling. My company made me redundant…’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m in finance. So I took the settlement and… just, you know…’
‘Hit the road.’
‘Yes. How long will you stay? Until the screenplay is finished?’
‘I was meant to leave two months ago, actually, but I’ve been unwell. I was in an Indian hospital…’
‘God, what was that like?’
‘Eh, ok. Strange. The nurses were rather over-attentive. Nice, though.’ Norman wipes his glasses delicately on his cotton sleeve. In the candle light, his wrists look feminine, almost breakable. The door crashes open and Rabin is there, in the room, wearing a lunghi and holding a baseball bat.
‘Bed!’ he bellows. He gestures toward the corner and I see he’s not ordering us to bed so much as ordering us away from his. He yanks a roll of white bedding from a cupboard and unfurls it on the huge table, under the painting of the king on a horse.
We stand up, suddenly ragged and sleepy, and say goodnight to Rabin. He ignores us.
It’s my bed we choose, perhaps because it’s upstairs. While we grab at one another, I wonder what sort of disease sent him to an Indian hospital. I wonder if it’s okay to ask, then he says
‘It’s not contagious’. I’ve never slept with such a fragile man before. The single candle we brought with us lights and shadows the deep hollows of his neck. My breasts look huge and ugly in his hands, like overripe fruit. I think of the one torture porn film I’ve seen, about a woman who is seduced and then dismembered in a hotel. The jagged edge of his fingernail catches against my thigh, and I clench hard, then slip into the quiet of the place. A feral cat crows on the balcony.
Priya sits with the kittens, listening to the foreigners fuck upstairs. They sound like cats, she thinks, they sound, they sound. How can they make so much sound? She thinks of the low rumbling of her dead husband, his mouth pressed into her breast to keep the sound from the neighbours, from his aunties and grannies. How can they make such a sound? Priya smiles at the kitten, who yawns a needle-toothed yawn.
It sounds like a drill or maybe a distant rickshaw, but then I realise it’s Rabin, snoring on the table downstairs. I unwind Norman’s arm from my waist, carefully. The breeze coming through the broken shutters smells like dust and ground spices, stale spice, trodden cloves, water poured and poured again. I crouch over the toilet, vaguely hoping he can’t hear me, then not caring. I wash with water from the bucket, hear it slide down the drain.
He’s still asleep, impossibly pale in the dark. I take the candle, unbolt the huge door. Not easy, but I do it without waking him. My shadow is elongated against the walls, jagged where it falls on the crumbing, cracked tiles. I watch my shadow pour through the hole in the balcony.
Downstairs, the inner room is bolted, Rabin snoring inside with his baseball bat. I briefly wonder why he needs to sleep with a bat, but dismiss it. The feral kittens assemble, sit around my feet, one batting at the sarong I wrapped around myself. As I crouch to stroke it, she says
‘Don’t be stupid, girl. They’re rabid.’ I stare at her, straight-backed in her white sari, reflecting candlelight. She stares back, not angry. I wonder for a moment if she remembers me, but she must. I notice her fingers, coiled around the ends of her hair, which is now loose. She rubs at her wrist.