Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts On a Mattress

I have just fallen into bed.

It is the end of the very first day of the India trip. I have said my good nights, closed the door of the guest room in Premi and Bijoy’s apartment in Delhi, and staggered through darkness to the bed. I am sure it will be mere seconds before I am asleep. This is the moment for which I have been yearning for the last thousand or so hours.

It has been the most extraordinary day. Eventful, fascinating, alarming, and long. Almost all those thousand hours have occurred just since this morning, when Premi collected us at the airport. Since then I've been doing my impression of a toddler—veering back and forth between super-charged excitement and head-lolling sleepiness.

I don’t know how many hours’ worth of jet-lag I have (I think it may actually be incalculable), but it isn’t just the jet lag; it’s the being vertical for too long. The whole last day in Leeds, the trip to Heathrow, the sitting at Heathrow, the flight to Delhi, the thousand hours since then, all of it has been spent upright.

Oh, the longing to be horizontal! At lunch I imagined sweeping all the plates aside and lying down on the table. From a sight-seeing walk around the neighborhood, the only sight I remember is a bench that looked just about my length. I could feel the earth’s gravitational pull, and it was focused on my head. But “Don’t nap!” I kept telling myself, quoting travelers’ lore. “Napping makes it worse; sleep when the locals sleep."

It is dark now, and the street outside my window is quiet. Premi said that a night watchman patrols this street; she said I may hear him whistling and tapping his stick. I find this image reassuring, even charming, but I know will hear nothing. The locals are asleep, so I'm allowed to sleep too, at last.

Falling asleep...

One nice thing is that I will do so on a brand new mattress. If I were the sort of person who worries about bedbugs (which I haven’t been but now that I’ve thought of it I might be), I could rest easy because this mattress is definitely not infested. The other thing it's not is soft. At all. I said earlier that I fell into bed; onto bed would be more accurate. Still, a firm mattress is good for the back, and I won’t even notice how hard it is, since any second now I will be sound asleep.

Here I go, drifting...drifting…

I know the mattress is brand new, because Premi bought it on the way home from the airport. I was surprised that she chose that moment for mattress-shopping, especially since we were in a taxi, but what do I know about the customs of Indian mattress shopping?

The taxi was a splendid old Hindustani Ambassador, as was almost every car on the road. I didn’t know about the others, but this one was falling gently to bits: the window on my side appeared to have fallen into its socket for the last time, and stuffing was emerging by the handful from several gaps in the upholstery, giving the back seat the look and feel of a nest. After the rigid contours of my British Airways seat, it was rather nice. I could do with some of that stuffing now, to be honest.

Premi gave the driver—a grizzled man in a turban who never said a word—some instruction in Hindi, and then explained her mattress-buying plan to Mum and me (Dad had gone straight from the airport to a meeting). Soon after, we pulled off the road at a row of roadside stalls and Premi got out. She went to a vegetable stand and bought something vegetably, after which I expected her to get back into the car so we could go to the mattress store. Instead she walked to the next little shop in the line, and began talking to three men who were standing there.

That’s when I realized we were already at the mattress store! In the shadows of the little building behind the men were neat stacks of what were undeniably mattresses. But Premi was apparently not interested in any of those. She was looking upwards, out of my field of vision, and pointing. I leaned over to peer out of Mum’s window, and saw perhaps twenty more mattresses on the shop’s roof, rising improbably in a tall, teetering, colorful stack up to the lower branches of a nearby tree. It looked like an illustration for a very peculiar, dusty version of the Princess and the Pea.

I thought about getting out of the car to observe the proceedings; this was exactly the sort of local color that I had come on this trip to see. On the other hand I was busy being really very comfortable in my stuffing-nest, and I could see just fine out the window. Two of the three men now clambered up onto the roof. They had poles in their hands, and they pointed at mattresses up and down the stack, looking to Premi for an indication of her preference. Then, with a flip of their poles, they raised the upper third of the stack and whisked Premi’s choice out. It was like a big, soft, card trick.

While Premi paid, I watched a woman in a turquoise sari walk past the car, carrying a tall, teetering stack of round flat things on her head. Two tall, teetering stacks of things glimpsed in as many minutes. Mum explained that the round flat things were dried cow-dung, to be burned as fuel, but she could not have carried them with more elegance had they been crystal.

The taxi driver got out and opened the car’s trunk. A bit optimistic, I thought, to imagine the mattress would fit in there. Still, having been surprised on all matters mattress thus far, I was open to being surprised again. Then the trunk slammed shut and I saw the driver had just been fetching a coil of rope.

The next second, one end of the rope flew past my nose. The driver and a mattress-shop guy had set about tying the mattress to the taxi’s roof. In my window and out Mum’s the rope flew: over the mattress, back through the windows, all done and dusted in about thirty seconds. Premi and the driver got back in the front, and we were off! I was impressed. Less impressed when I realized that Mum and I were now effectively tied into the car. If we crashed, our doors would be impossible to open, so it was just as well that my window was missing, giving us an escape route. And if the car rolled, I thought, at least the mattress would cushion the impact.

Not so much, I am thinking now, still awake. “Cushioning” is not this mattress' primary quality.

I don’t know what time it is. The power in the whole apartment building is out, so my lamp won’t work. Can’t see my watch. Can’t read. Still, mustn’t complain. Partly because that would be rude, but also because the power outage was technically my fault (another story). Still, who needs to read? I will just lie here and enjoy the deep peace of the Indian nigh—

Suddenly a shrill scream tears through the darkness. I leap up, gasping. Was it a scream? It sounds again, and this time I realize it is actually a whistle. The night watchman has arrived.

When Premi told me about him, I imagined a reassuring, burly chap, strolling down the alley and whistling the Indian equivalent of “Goodnight Sweetheart.” Instead, he’s blowing a police whistle, at full volume. The sound must be audible ten blocks away. I wonder who can possibly benefit by this, other than the burglars working unhurriedly ten blocks away, regularly alerted to his exact location.

“Thunk! Drag, drag, drag…THUNK!”

This is the watchman’s stick. Again, in my imagination, the burly, whistling chap was going to be tap-tap-tapping a walking stick. Whatever is hitting the pavement now sounds more like a battering ram. It drops with a heavy, hollow sound, then gets dragged a few paces before being lifted and dropped again. The effect, to my admittedly Western, jumpy, jet-lagged ears, is indescribably creepy. I would not like to meet this watchman. In fact, if I were those ten-block-away burglars, I’d run away now.

The watchman moves on, and my adrenaline level subsides. The whistles grow faint; the thunk-and-drag sounds like distant thunder. And it is now, as the silence washes back into the room, that I finally feel the beginnings of sleep. What do you know? I think to myself. Maybe the watchman serves a purpose after all.

It is my last waking thought. This is the one that gives a gentle push to the tall, teetering, colorful, stacks of things that have been piling up in my mind for a thousand hours. Finally I feel the sensation I've been longing for, of everything beginning to tilt, to slip, and at last to topple altogether, into the bliss of horizontality.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Honest Scraps

Well, I am thrilled to announce that Lori Walker, over at her wonderful blog, has awarded me an Honest Scrap blog award! Recipients of this award are supposed to post a list of ten honest scraps of information about themselves. I realize that a list is not really in keeping with the storytelling format of this blog. However, a few of the following honest scraps are almost little stories unto themselves, some of which I may tell properly one day, so I hope you will all bear with me and not ask for your money back.

So, ten things:

1) Something I wish I were brilliant at, but in fact do quite badly: playing the guitar.

2) Something I had no interest in, but turned out to be brilliant at: breaking a concrete breeze block in half with my bare hand. At least, I was brilliant on the one occasion I attempted it, in a college karate class. The trick, I was told, is to aim at a point just beyond the target, rather than at the target itself—a zen-type bit of instruction whose wider applicability is uncertain. I’d like to say that no one was more amazed than I by my success, but I think that the 40 or so men in the class—who had not managed to break their blocks—were more amazed. Oh, if only more moments in life were as thoroughly satisfying.

3) During that same phase in my life, I was stood up on a date by fellow student David Iglesias. He went on to become United States Attorney for New Mexico, and was then fired by the Bush administration in a move that was later ruled to be politically motivated. David had asked me to an ice hockey game but then apparently forgot he had, and went without me. I’m not saying he deserved to get fired. I’m just saying: um…David? Ever heard of karma?

4) A sight I love: when the sun catches and illuminates some single feature of the landscape, against a background of dark, stormy skies.

5) A sight I hate: well, I'm not going to say, specifically. This is a fairly common sight, one that most people are entirely comfortable with. I won't elaborate because (a) I am so horrified by this particular thing that I don't want to discuss it and (b) I don't want such sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.

6) In 1984 I spent a few minutes crawling around on the floor with Cyndi Lauper, while the Top of the Pops director Michael Hurll shouted into my headphones: “Where is she? Where is she?” Cyndi and I were in the hallway outside the studio where the show was about to be recorded, but the immediate concern was that she had lost her Barbie doll earring. I’d love to say that I found it, but no; for all I know that earring is still there, having lain under some radiator in the dark and dust all these years. Cyndi went on stage with only a dozen or so other earrings, and blew us away with Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

7) I once took second place in the North Wales German verse-speaking competition. Maybe I could have come back to win it the following year, but we shall never know. A fire at my boarding school necessitated a move to a new school building in Bedfordshire, where there was no German verse-speaking competition! Upon request, I can still recite the first stanza of “O wunderbares, tiefes Schweigen” by Joseph von Eichendorff, in a prize-winning manner.

8) I have sailed from India to England (twice!) on a ship. The first time as an infant, the second time old enough to have a costume (Jill, of Jack and Jill fame) for the ship's fancy dress parade. I've sailed through the Suez Canal, pausing to ride camels in the desert. I only wish I could remember it all. Perhaps it was all that sailing that prompted this...

9) In my early twenties I blagged my way onto the crew of a sailing trip across the Channel to France, by implying that I actually knew how to sail. I then rushed out and bought a book called “Start Sailing!” so as to not make a gigantic idiot of myself. It turned out I was the only member of the crew who never got seasick, with the result that I ended up being asked to take the helm...on my own...before I had finished reading the book! I did not sink the boat even once, though the skipper never invited me back. He thought that, for a woman, I was entirely too uppity.

10) In a quiet moment on that trip, I shared with a friend my dream of becoming a writer. I told her of a particular writer who inspired me, and said I hoped one day to write the kind of books he did. As kindly as possible, but quite sincerely, she said I could probably learn to write as well as him, but the difference was he actually had something to say. That conversation still haunts me.

In next week's story, perhaps I will have something to say.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Happy Birthday!

I wake up, not sure what has woken me.

I’m in the guest bungalow at Karigiri. I squint my eyes open. There is a gentle light coming in at the window. Reflected from ten thousand shining leaves, it penetrates the deep shade of the verandah and turns my room’s white walls a pale green. They match the pale green lizard flicking its tiny way across the floor.

The room is simple and square, a fan centered in the high ceiling. The fan is not turning, and the air feels heavy and warm. I have a dim memory of being hot in the night. Dim, because after the flight from Delhi and the long drive from Chennai, I was nearly comatose when we got here. That was at 3:30 this morning, long after I’d stopped thinking clearly enough to turn on ceiling fans. Or, apparently, to find my pajamas.

My suitcase lies open on the other bed, its contents clawed through and scattered, as if by bears. I appear to be wearing the top of a salwar chemise, inside out, as a kind of nightie. It’s quite comfy, actually.

I sit up, propping myself on my pillow, so I can see outside. There’s nothing to see but trees, which makes me happy. I have heard about these trees. Apparently when this property was first acquired for the hospital, there was nothing here; it was considered waste land. As the buildings went up, trees were planted, largely thanks to the vision of Ernest Fritschi, a Swiss colleague of my parents. Now it is an oasis for the whole area. Trees tower over the buildings, providing a canopy of shade and a home to thousands of birds.

Then I realize: that’s what woke me. The birds! And then I remember: it’s my birthday! And then I think: I need a cup of tea. Or coffee. Right now. Not fussy about what, just fussy about when.

At home in Leeds, Mark would have brought me a cup of tea in bed, and the girls would have piled on, with home-made cards. I am stabbed with homesickness. I need to be around people.

I look at my watch: almost eight! My parents have probably been up for ages! I throw back the bedcover and lurch to my feet. Picking through the stuff that the bears left behind, I find a T-shirt and loose cotton long pants. Then I splash a little cool water on my face and head out in search of liquid of a much hotter variety, and some company.

What I would love is another cup of the tea I had at 2 AM, at a roadside stand on the way here from Chennai. Dad suggested the stop, partly so the driver could have a break, partly so I could watch how the chai is made, but mainly so we could all have a few minutes of not being in fear of our lives.

I thought being driven around in Delhi was scary. Pah! That was nothing! Well, no, actually, that was really scary, but this was really scarier.

The highway had two lanes, prompting the novice to assume that one lane was for traffic moving in one direction, the other for traffic going the other way. To be fair, I think that was the original plan. The reality was more a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” plan, and by “fittest” I mean “least likely to give way to oncoming traffic.”

How it played out was that we would be driving along in the darkness as fast as the potholes would allow, and then we’d see two pairs of headlights coming towards us, solidly side by side, jostling for position. Long after a hideous crash looked inevitable, they would still keep coming. It was one game of Chicken after another, after another.

Lucky for me, I’d used up my whole day’s supply of adrenaline getting our plane safely landed at Chennai. I was still relieved just to be on the ground, and too exhausted to do more than hunker down in the back seat with my eyes squinched shut. By contrast, Dad had slept the whole flight and now had his eye on the road every single second. He flinched and gasped on behalf of all of us, and every few minutes stamped on his invisible, auxiliary brake, which made our driver chuckle.

For the most part, our guy held his ground against the oncoming vehicles, and most of them did—at the last possible nanosecond—swerve back into their own lane. Only once (“Only once!”) were we actually forced off the road, careening to a stop on the earthen shoulder. I tried not to think about the places where there had been no shoulder—just a ditch, or rocks.

After that, we stopped for tea. The stall was in the sort of roadside structure you see all over India—exactly like a row of small garages with metal up-and-over doors. Even at this hour, in this remote spot, two doors were open. In one, a man waited behind a stainless steel counter. In the other, two men sat watching television, intent on a screen filled with white static.

The chai-seller poured a milky brew from a saucepan into a metal cup, then poured that into a second cup, smoothly pulling the two cups apart as he poured, to expose the steaming arc of liquid to the night air. Back and forth he poured, working fast, and each time there was a split second when the ribbon of tea seemed entirely free of both containers, flying under its own steam (as it were) and with a clear sense of direction.

When he handed my cup to me, I found I could drink it straight down. The air had brought it to a perfect temperature and frothiness. In the fluorescent light from the stall we stood and sipped and sighed with pleasure, while the man waited in silence, to get his cups back.

On the verandah in Karigiri, I want nothing more than to be handed another cup of that chai. But that whole event feels like a dream now, and my present reality is that I’m by myself without a clue where to go. My parents’ door is closed, as is the blind on their window. Apparently I’ve chosen this occasion to get up before them, for the first time in my life. Should I strike out alone in search of tea? Is there some sort of cafeteria at the hospital? Where is the rest of the hospital? All I can see are trees.

And then I notice, at the end of the line of guest rooms, a door with a little sign saying: “Dining Room.” Bingo!

Possibly. The room is empty, but a buffet counter appears to be set up for the breakfast crowd. More importantly, at one end of the buffet is a cluster of cups and a hot water urn.

I let the screen door slap shut behind me, and head for the urn. It’s not clear what the policy is regarding self-service but there’s no one here to ask. Above the door to the kitchen, a sign says, flatly: No permission.”

I could use a sign like that at my house: “Mum, can I (insert questionable activity here)?” “What does the sign say?” “Oh, right. Sorry. Never mind.” Brilliant!

A young woman steps out from the kitchen. She is very small. At 5’3” I’m not in the habit of towering over anyone, but I tower over her. She is also pretty, very dark, and has a dazzling smile, which she demonstrates now as she tells me her name is Daphne.

I tell Daphne I desperately need a cup of tea or coffee, I don’t care which, and she picks up a cup and pours. As she does, I have a childish impulse to tell her it’s my birthday. But then I know she would say “Happy Birthday!” in that automatic way people do, like saying “Bless you” after a sneeze, and somehow that would feel lonelier than her saying nothing at all. Instead I could let her find out on her own, and then she would say, “It was your birthday and you didn’t say anything!” I choose this plan as a better demonstration of my maturity.

Then she hands me my cup. On the side of which, I am not kidding, it says: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

I gasp. “This is amazing!” I say, ditching my more mature plan in an instant. “It IS my birthday! And you just gave me this cup!” I point to the cup, and wait for her to adopt the same look of goggle-eyed astonishment I know I’m wearing. Instead, her dazzling smile falters, and she looks down at the counter. I follow her gaze, and she gestures almost apologetically at the other cups in their neat rows.

Which all say, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

We both sort of laugh and shrug, as if the fact that all the cups say the same thing undoes the magic of the moment. I take my cup outside, to sit on the verandah steps in the sunshine. I sip my tea/coffee, which tastes pretty bad whichever it is, and I listen to the birds in the splendid trees, and I look at my happy birthday cup and feel absolutely happy.

Because the magic of the moment is not diminished at all by the fact that Daphne has fifty identical cups. So what if everybody who stays here gets handed one every day, no matter when their birthday is? The way I see it, whoever is in charge of tiny little miracles in my life knew that it would be tough to arrange getting one particular cup into my hand at exactly the right moment. Clearly, the only way to make it happen was to blanket the area with Happy Birthday mugs, and then sit back and wait for me to arrive.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fright in Flight

The plane smells of mothballs.

It is dark, maybe 10 p.m. We are flying south to Chennai, from where we will drive to Vellore, and the plane we’re in smells of mothballs.

Perhaps the fumes wafted on board with us at Delhi airport, where there are mothballs in the drains of all the sinks in all the restrooms. Apparently that’s to discourage cockroaches from coming up out of the plumbing to investigate the greater delights of the airport. Cor blimey, I’d be discouraged; just standing in front of those sinks made my eyes water. Here in the plane it is less noticeable—the merest hint of camphor—as if someone a few rows behind me is rummaging through a trunk full of their grandmother’s clothes. Nevertheless, I feel uneasy.

Of course, “uneasy” is my baseline state during any flight. I’ve already taken note of the worn-looking cabin interior, and the tendency of the lights to flicker every time the engines rev. Now the smell of mothballs has focused my skittering thoughts firmly on the question of just how old this plane might be.

I can picture it clearly: long-forgotten in the shadows of the airport hangar, this old clunker has been hauled out of the mothballs—literally—and pressed into service. A couple of mechanics look her over. “Reckon she can make it after all this time, Joe?” “Sure, Buddy, she may be missin’ a wheel, and that wing there needs a-fixin’, but the old gal’s got a big heart.” (Apparently Joe and Buddy have recently moved to India from Texas.)

I would love this story in a picture book. As a reader, I would root for the plane: “Of course the Old Gal can make it! Her big heart will save the day!” As a passenger, however, I can see that the mechanics’ conversation foreshadows disaster, and I’m appalled by their cavalier manner.

Wow, I really need to think about something else.

I look at my watch. In a couple of hours it will be midnight, and officially my birthday—the last birthday I will celebrate in the 20th century. But the atmosphere here in row 15 feels decidedly under-festive. My mother has nodded off to sleep over the Bible lying open on her tray table. Her face hovers just a few inches above the pages, as if she had just leaned forward to examine the finer points of some text when sleep struck. Whenever the plane dips and lurches—which is more often than some of us would like—her nose bobs down almost to the point of contact and then bobs away again. My father, in the next seat, has fallen asleep with his head back and his mouth open. This is the crowd I’m partying with tonight.

Then again, I am actually flying across India for the first time in my life, so that’s special. Thousands of feet below me in the dark lies the country of my birth, and I am heading for the exact location of my arrival, on the very eve of its anniversary. My immediate surroundings may be drab, but my position relative to planet Earth feels eerily perfect.

I look out of the window. I can see a scattering of lights down there, faint and very few, separated by great oceans of blackness. I think of towns and cities back in England, ablaze with light even in the dead of night, and then I wonder: wait, am I already 42 back home? Which way do the clocks go? Which way does the world turn?

I once saw a film clip showing the movement of nightfall across the face of the planet, as seen from outer space. It was amazing, but somehow the line of darkness looked unreal—too abrupt and sharp, lacking all the shades of twilight. I recall now that it resembled old newsreel images of Communism advancing across Europe, east to west. East to West. Which means that where Mark and the girls are, the sun is still shining and I am still a solid 41. But 42 is coming, rolling inexorably across the time zones. (Is 42 old? Is it old in plane years?)

The thing is, I don’t feel 42 in the slightest, or even 41. From the moment we landed in Delhi I have felt somewhere around 17. Being on holiday with my parents instead of my children, I’m not a wife and mother; I’m a daughter. Woohoo! No responsibilities! No need to organize anyone’s day, or clothes, or meals. Quite the opposite: I am the focus of our hosts’ organizational enthusiasm—eat this, go there, wear that—and I surrender to it happily. To complete the effect, people keep introducing me as Pauline Brand (not Nelson), which is shocking and deeply familiar all at once.

There’s just one problem.

While I have been enjoying my second childhood, my parents have been attending conference meetings, making public appearances, struggling with jet lag and a stomach bug. I look at them now, crumpled in exhaustion, their color poor in this dingy light; they look every one of their 80-plus years.

I feel a pang of guilt at the thought that my presence may actually have added to the stress of their week, even though my coming was their idea. “We want to show you India again,” Dad said back in August, with real excitement. And I was sold. Yes, I knew how old they were technically, but they were as joyful and energetic as ever. They do this trip all the time; I’ll just tag along!

But that was then. Now, in Row 15, things look quite different, and I know what needs to happen. I’ve had my fun. Now I need to be the grownup, and look after my parents.

I look out of the window again. It’s not that I like seeing how high up we are. It’s just that, now we’re up here I want to be sure we’re staying up here, that the ground hasn’t suddenly got closer. Also, I hope I might be able to identify what I am seeing, to know which dim smudge of light might be Vellore, and the hospital where I was born. Could it be that, with a Salman Rushdie-style ironic twist, we will fly over it at the exact hour of my birth?

Just as I think that, the plane takes a sudden stomach-flipping dip, and the engines rev furiously for a few moments. My heart dips and revs as well.

Actually, what would be really ironic is if we crashed into the hospital I was born in, at the exact hour of my birth.

Think about something else…breathe deeply…remember you were born at 7 a.m….we’ll have landed way before then...

Suddenly, everything gets much worse. The plane starts shuddering, dropping, rattling, climbing a little and then falling again, first one wing and then the other pointing at the ground. I grip the armrests, listening hard to the furious racing of the engines, working to interpret every sound for good or ill. (This is one of the ways I help the pilots of planes I am in. It has worked so far.)

Perhaps I wasn’t born at 7 a.m.! My mother was always hazy about the details of my infancy—sixth out of six kids and all that. She probably just chose some random time, to satisfy my curiosity. Perhaps we will crash into the hospital at the exact anniversary of my birth.

The plane sounds as though it is literally rattling apart. I am practically climbing out of my seat with terror, on the verge of tears, mentally bidding farewell to my children. My mother continues to nod over her Bible. We are like a pair of illustrations in a How-to guide for handling stress. My approach would be the one with a red X through it.

Ten minutes after I resolved to look after my parents, I am shaking my mother awake to tell her I am scared.

She looks up at me and blinks, blinks, blinks the blur of sleep away. By the third blink, she knows where she is and who I am, and she smiles the most tender, radiant smile I have ever seen. I don’t know how it is possible in that dim chaos, but her eyes are literally twinkling.

“Hello, precious girl,” she says, and I realize she hasn’t noticed that we are practically definitely about to fall out of the sky. So I explain that.

She takes my hand, and holds it between both of hers, patting and stroking it. Her skin feels cool and papery smooth. She keeps twinkling and smiling, and then she starts to pray.

My mother prays about everything, and for everyone. If she were getting mugged I guarantee she would ask the mugger if she could just take a minute to pray for him. I often joke that God has a red phone on his desk, for my mother’s private line. Right now I’m sort of hoping it isn’t a joke.

Of course, I’ve been sending up my own little “Help! Help!” prayers for the last ten minutes, but it’s hard to pray and monitor engine noises at the same time.

She tells God how thankful we are for our lives, and I agree completely. She says if the plane crashes that’s fine too, because we know our future is in God’s hands. (I offer a private dissenting vote on that one, stating my personal preference for a not-crashing future.) And then she tells God what a joy it is for her to be travelling with me, and my throat aches with the effort of not bursting into tears.

By the time she’s finished praying, I feel better. In fact, the panic started ebbing right about the time she took my hand and called me her precious girl. I think I will wait to start being the grownup until tomorrow.

Mum goes back to sleep, and the rest of the flight is fine—apart from the smell of mothballs —and that decrepit old plane from the back of the hangar with the missing wheel and the broken wing lands smoothly in Chennai around midnight.

Buddy and Joe were right, after all. The old girl might be showing her age, but she's got a big heart.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Wake me up, Mr. George!

Yesterday was pumpkin-carving day. To jolly things along, Lydia put on a little background music. It was a YouTube clip someone had sent her, of Wham! playing “Wake me up before you go-go.” Ah, yes, the traditional pumpkin-carving melody from the Old Country.

There they were: George Michael and Andrew what’s-his-name, in their fake tan and big white T-shirts, snapping their fingers and bouncing about. It seemed so far away in time and space from where I was standing, up to my elbows in pumpkin innards, that it took me a few seconds to remember that I had been in the Top of the Pops studio on the day that Wham! first came on the show to perform that number. It was in my former life, as a young, single, oh-so-cool studio assistant at the BBC.

Never one to miss an opportunity to impress my children, I made some sort of off-hand remark to Lydia (pointing my pumpkiny knife at the screen and yelling, “I was there! I was there in the studio!”). I did not add that my main memory of the day was of arguing with George Michael about how long it was taking him to fix his hair, when we needed him on set now. My position of icy authority had been undermined, I realized later, by the fact that I kept calling him “Mr. George.” His fault, for having two first names.

Back at the pumpkin, I had that strange feeling you get when two different phases of your life briefly fold in on each other, as if the rigid structure of chronology has momentarily collapsed. It’s like those double-exposure photographs that would sometimes turn up in a package of prints, in pre-digital days. Semi-transparent images from completely different events would crowd together in one hazy print, like strangers jammed together on a rush hour train.

It’s crazy, how music does that—lays the past right over the present, blurring one memory with another.

All of which made me realize that I have to tell the following little story. It is another one from India, and the connection won’t be obvious at first, but bear with me on this.

This happened during the four-day trip to the hills where Dad was born. Mum was busy lecturing, so it was Dad, my niece Stephanie (see Pondicherry rat story), our driver Jaiharaj and me, in a beat-up, white 4WD van. We drove from Vellore to a hotel in Salem, and the next morning set off, up into the Kolli hills.

The day felt hugely significant to me. This was where, in 1913, my grandparents had begun their work among the hill people, and this was where they were buried. The area used to be called the Mountains of Death, because of the prevalence of malaria, and it was in fact tertiary malaria which killed my grandfather when he was just 44. Granny continued on her own for another fifty years, on this and other mountain ranges. She died at 95, and was carried back to be buried next to her beloved Jesse.

I have only the faintest memory of Granny, from a Christmas visit to her hills when I was small, but I had heard the stories and seen the sepia photos of my grandparents in their early days—and in their Topi hats—and the thing that always astonished me was that we were separated by a single generation. Their lives and mine seemed more profoundly disconnected than that.

I thought about Granny now, as we began the steep ascent. She climbed these hills for the first time on her wedding day. Still in her best dress, she was carried much of the way in a dholi—a canvas hammock strung between two poles—but after torrential rain had turned that into a bathtub, she got out and walked. It was hard to imagine. Our van’s engine groaned up the steep inclines and around seventy hairpin bends. Often the road was a single lane, so the (thankfully rare) appearance of another vehicle required us to reverse downhill to a passing point, and hope that the clutch would hold when we started uphill again.

By the time we reached the top, my stomach muscles were exhausted from the effort of willing the car up that entire distance. At the crest of the final rise Jaiharaj paused. From that spot we could see the hills all around. In front of us, the road ran downhill for a hundred yards or so, then back uphill to a village. In a grassy area in the middle, a crowd of perhaps seventy people were waiting. Above their heads, a white cloth WELCOME banner drooped. It looked like they had been waiting for some time.

I was astonished. I knew we were expected; I did not know we would be celebrities. When they spotted us, the crowd grew animated and the banner snapped into position. By the time we reached them and got out of the car, they were cheering, and crowded around us. Garlands of marigolds were draped around our necks--as many as we could carry. At the sight of Dad, some villagers, still smiling broadly, began to weep. The whole thing was extraordinary, and part of me felt embarrassed. It was as if these decent, misguided people had mistaken me for someone else, and I was playing along. At the same time, I was moved to realize that—even so many years after their deaths—it was for my grandparents’ sake that I was being welcomed. Maybe our lives were not so disconnected after all.

Initial greetings accomplished, the crowd turned to usher us to the village, and they began to sing. Many of them carried what looked like small hymnbooks, and despite the festive atmosphere, they sang with great seriousness. The song was in Tamil, and it was not a tune I knew, but it had the cadence and feel of a hymn. Stephanie and I walked side by side, Dad a little behind us. Surrounded on all sides by this sea of people, we were borne uphill on the gentle wave of their goodwill.

At the top, we came out into a clearing among tall trees. There was an area of grass, and there was the plain white house that my grandfather had built, the one where Dad had lived as a boy. I felt my heart squeeze at the sight of it, the shape familiar from a hundred photographs.

“Do you hear that music?” asked Stephanie suddenly. An odd question, since she practically had to shout to be heard above the singing of our companions.

“Well, yes,” I said. “Lots of people, singing.”

“No, not that music,” she said. “Listen!”

And when I did, I could hear what she meant. Behind the singing, there was another layer of melody. It seemed to be coming from somewhere above us. I looked up and saw several old fashioned speakers—the sturdy, gray, trumpet-shaped sort—strapped to the tree branches twenty feet over our heads.

For a while the hymn and the background music continued as an eerie blend, but soon the last verse of the hymn was sung, and the books were closed. After that, the air of that historic spot, on that remote Indian mountain top, rang with one tune alone. It was “Wake me up, before you Go-Go.”

I had been in India long enough by then to take surreal moments in my stride, but this one really threw me. I even tried to think of an explanation. Perhaps this was for Stephanie’s benefit? The young American woman might like a pop song? It seemed unlikely. Perhaps they knew that I had worked on Top of the Pops, and had been in the studio the day that Wham! first performed that number? OK, now I was just talking crazy.

Then a couple of weeks later, I was sitting in the early evening darkness of a small chapel in Vellore, waiting for an Advent Vesper service to begin. I was half-listening to a selection of recorded pre-service Christmas music, and enjoying the sights and smells of the blossom outside the chapel windows, when a familiar tune began to play. It was “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart.” By Wham!

I guess those guys were just really big in India.

And now here they were again, in my kitchen in Santa Barbara as I carved my pumpkin. Old George Michael—or “Mr. George” as I like to call him—might have looked ridiculous and driven me nuts that day in the studio, but even his music can perform the strange, wonderful, double-exposure, time-folding magic that I sometimes need, to remind me of my whole life.