Under the Hill

The tide of commuters was going out,
Rushing fast towards the sluices
Of the great stations, trapped in the bottlenecks
Of the turnstiles, spinning away into eddies,
Carried on the current.
Against it swam one, eyes downcast,
Muttering to himself, trying to find the words,
Solid with mana, the heft in their power,
Trying to remember where he’d left the runes.
They swept along quacking like waterfowl into their phones,
One blocked his way for a moment,
And stepped quickly back, caught unawares,
At the intensity of the stare that speared him.

An ice-bound path frozen fast,
Leading up a slope in Muscovy
Which ended in Novodevichy.
A cold metallic clank of bells
And an ominous murmur of liturgy
In the sharp air, tombs softened by snow,
And a man bent double on the hill,
Coughing hard, red of face as his wounds
Tore at him inside. Was it there?
That he hacked up some part of himself
That fell out and scuttled away?
A pair of horn-rimmed spectacles
Perched under a grey ushanka
Gazed incuriously and turned away.
A mind raked by doubt like a pockmarked wall
Wept its bulletholes for years.

The army came out of the west,
And lined the top of the green hill:
The Spear-Carriers, the black clan.
They were tall and slim men, with
Fair skin and auburn hair,
But they could run all day and throw
In a mighty arc. They bury their dead
Under the hill, facing east,
That they may face the rising sun.
The citadel was alarmed;
They had built their walls
High, but the king was dying, and lay abed
Playing chess against himself,
His jewelled fingers moving softly over the ornate pieces.
Panic ensued. The generals bickered,
And one of the Spear-Carriers
Talked his way into the gate by means
Of a subterfuge, let down the bridge,
And the city was won with minimal losses.

In the king’s bedchamber musty drapes hung on the walls,
A gilt ceiling bedecked in threads, a dusty chess set
With all the figures toppled, swept aside in impotent rage.
In the corner, past the bedpost, stood a small and golden cage.
Inside they found a she-hawk, sadly neglected. She beat
Her wings against the bars at sight of them and set up
A high, plaintive keening. One warrior,
A bashful, mumbling giant, mocked
For his inarticulacy but valued as a doughty fighter,
Beamed in pleasure, strode forward and gently took her
In his huge hands. Her breast was raw from where
She had plucked at her own feathers, cursing her confinement
But he lifted her, light as coin, and she quieted
And allowed him to stroke her head with a finger.
He took her down to the orchard, where
The fruit hung hugely from the trees in orbs
And flew her on a tight leash between the heaving boughs.
He laughed in delight when she sank her talons into his arm,
Caressing her, but kept a firm grasp on the jesses.
Later he flew her low over the hill after a hare,
Whispering words of praise under his breath
And cried in joy when she struck home:
She always returned to him, and soon
Was persuaded to enter her own cage
With a little hop, from where she muttered
And looked cruelly at others who dared approach.

Nothing here but rock, grey sky, green hills
And more rock: no food nor shelter for an outcast;
No bards, nor drapes, nor chessmen,
Only a chill pool and a rough mouthful of leaves.
The armies sweep back and forth across the land,
Oaths uttered and as swiftly broken,
Thick-muttered couplets, amber liquid in goblets,
The flash of a knife and the arc of a sword.

By our history shall ye know us,
We of character inclement. Clouds
Grey as bruises swoop in and unleash
Their torrents of memory from swollen bellies
Upon soggy green fields in a land
Saturated with history. The wind tears
Our words away out of our mouths
And leaves them scattered,
Our eyes gimlet in raw-boned faces.
Darkness comes at half-past thirteen
Prefaced by a red sash that cinches the sky
Tight beneath the bulging hills.
We huddle closer round the fire,
Each gazing inwards on his own lands:
His private fiefdom which he has toiled for
And won hard rights to.
Win-ter is Icumen in,
What are we to do.

The past
Rotates unspooling round and round
Until it hits a scratch, and jumps
Over and over, replaying a thrown word,
An aside, a circumstance, which had
Lodged upon the surface of the mind
And caused it to stick.

Nudge the gramophone, fetch it a kick
Take it outside and beat it with a stick
Dig in your heels or run for the hills
A shot of amnesia cures the world’s ills.

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Little Stripey Cat

One night when I was small,
Perhaps four or five years old,
A cat got into my bedroom somehow,
From outside, climbed up on top
Of the old dark wood wardrobe,
And sat up, shut its eyes, folded back its ears
And yowled at the top of its voice,
Causing me to dive under the covers in fear.
It was an unearthly howl of pure animal,
And sounded like a demon, a terrible foe
(I was 1000 miles behind enemy lines),
But these days, as I have come to know
The ways of cats and their habits,
I think it was singing to me.

I am still visited by cats at night –
One, at least. She is small and stripy
And first crept into my room when I left the
Door ajar somehow, although I was sure
I had bolted it fast. “Hello?” I said. “Who are you?”
And she paced out the corners of the room,
Approved, and curled up under the chair.
I smiled, then slept. In the night, about
0300, I felt a small thump, as she had pounced
Onto the bed, and I lay not breathing
And she padded lightly across the mattress
And up over the pillow and then, still not
Breathing, she pushed her tiny pink nose
Against mine and purred, a cat kiss,
Then turned around, tickled my face with her tail,
And curled up on my chest. I smiled
Into the darkness, indescribably moved.

By daybreak she was gone, and I checked
In all the rooms in the house just to make sure
She wasn’t there, and then sighed, and started to dress,
Feeling a kind of loss. I can’t keep a cat anyway,
I told myself – I go away for weeks, months,
Who would look after her? Perhaps she has
Other people she visits, not owners but
Friends with benefits of food and stroking,
And then, when she has had enough, she
Stalks off and goes her mysterious ways.
And so I consoled myself that she would be
Alright, she was independent and loveable,
And was always welcome to drop by.

Then one day she did again, a cold day
In November, with a low sun and raw wind
Off the fields. I went out to the car to get
Something and then looked up to see her
Sitting watching me in the lane. “Hello again”
I smiled. “How are you?” And she mewled
Hoarsely, and then I saw how matted her fur
Was and how a patch of it was missing from mange
And her front leg was injured – she sat with paw dangling
And her eyes had a milky cloudiness to them. I gently
Approached and stroked her soft head with my finger
And she bowed it and looked down in shame, and mewled again,
Eyes shut, and I thought, if cats could cry,
You would be crying now. You are crying now.
What happened to you? Well, I will look after you.
“Come on,” I told her, and walked down the
Path to the front door, looking over my shoulder.

Slowly she followed, stopping twice, then in through
The door and looked around uncertainly, sniffing
Here and there, as if to say, “Have you had another
Cat in here?” No, I laughed, just a lost rabbit one day
Who hopped in, and the bird that came down the chimney.
But what can I give you? I found a saucer of water
And gave her that, on the living room rug. My phone
Rang and she jumped. It was work. “We need you to be here at 1pm.”
I can’t, I said. Something’s happened. A friend… a sudden illness.
And hung up. Back into the kitchen and she followed me
As I went through cupboards looking for food. Bread? Milk?
And then an idea – a four-pack tin of tuna. Quizzically
She watched as I hacked away at it with my penknife
And then the scent reached her and she almost climbed
Up my trouser leg to get at it. Into the bowl a whole tin
Of pole-caught Skipjack in spring water – only the best for you,
I told her. And she wound herself round my feet as I walked back
Into the living room and I picked up a chunk, in the palm
Of my hand and sat with my back to her and dangled my hand
And then felt her whiskers on my palm as she pushed her face
Into my hand and ate with that slight air of distaste that cats have,
Like watching a lion crunching bones, ung, ack, click click click.

And when she had finished it she walked around the room a bit more,
Then jumped up on the sofa, and with the familiarity
Of old lovers, climbed into my lap, curled up and went to sleep.
My phone trilled, an ear twitched, I saw the office number
On the screen, and I just sat there, with it slightly out of reach,
Then leant back my head on the sofa, smiled, and went to sleep myself.

I still think about that cat. I think we loved each other.

Learning to Fly

I am in a hard city of grey stone and blue glass, a damp chill to the air and a swirl of exhaust fumes. There is a permanent background rumble of activity. Every 30 seconds an aeroplane flies past from left to right, in the opposite direction to the scudding clouds, their tailfins emblazoned with national logos: Varig, Qantas, British Airways, Air New Zealand, Singapore, Finnair. A cargo of hundreds of people, each one a world in themselves, with colleagues and husbands and wives and kids, lovers and brothers and distant friends. And you are not among them.

I picture our last flight together. A snowbound Europe unfurling beneath us, so close we can see the tracks of the roads, and along them nose twin yellow beams of light as cars feel their way through a sodium powder. The towns that glittered like strands of flung jewellery, fallen at random on a dark velvet cushion. The blackness of the sea, the blackness of the desert. Are those fires beneath us? A nomadic encampment? Gas platforms whose solitary flares pinprick the night? Turkmenistan. Now Iran. I never knew it was so large. Snow has dusted the mountains behind Tehran, and behind us the world falls into shadow. We are heading for the darkness creeping across the face of the earth, a small fluorescent bubble of light held in suspension above everything, hanging motionless just below an icy firmament of stars. I feel your small hand reach for me under the blanket. Down there is Kabul: I can see the neighbourhoods, some brightly lit, then the lights petering out as the houses climb into the hills. I press my nose to the scratched plexiglass and remember the white hot track of a Sam 7 a lifetime ago against a dun backdrop of bushland, rising, rising, veering, falling away, and how we jinked left and almost turned upside down to avoid it, and the low monotonous swearing of the Ukrainian pilot who had been doing this for far too long and ended up on the route nobody wanted. When we finally landed no-one could get up from their seats and the laughter was bright and forced and slightly hysterical. I watched the rhythmic thrumming tremor in my hand the next day and forced it to stop. Then it started again. I won’t tell you that one, but you feel my grip tighten and look at me. I smile thinly and am rewarded with a faceful of vanilla-scented hair as you rest your head on my shoulder. I want to protect you. I want to weep with tenderness for you.

The antiseptic chill of an air-conditioned shopping mall populated by Oriental soldiers with machine guns. I do not look at them. We are separated by our nationalities and I feel a flush of anger. Who are they to decree you, stand this side, you, over there? To try and take you away from me because of a quirk of fate, history, geography. I see your small form swallowed up in a chaotic crowd and you shoot me a brave smile as we go through. My turn. He barely looks up. Flicks through my passport. It’s a sorry catalogue of misadventure. That smudged stamp that looks like a meteorite heading towards you on the page? That cost me $200 and aged me 10 years. The children with guns at a roadblock who looked at it upside down and walked off with it, and only gave it back in exchange for my sunglasses. 5.75 prescription; hope you get one hell of a headache, kidogo. Stop thinking like this. He’s watching you. Holiday. Yes. By car. Marketing consultant. Ah, many companies – I am freelance. No, my first time here, very much looking forward to seeing your country. He’s a sceptical sod and I don’t blame him. Sighs deeply, then picks up the stamp and whacks it down between Angkor Wat and a Hammer and Sickle. There’s irony.

I sit on my battered backpack in a cloud of synthetic scent from a duty free shop, beneath a poster of an English footballer in his underwear. Giggling women in abayas walk past. Where are you? I have a clear view 180 degrees, there is a pillar wide enough for two about three metres away, over there a soldier, those shiny glass windows on the second floor are one-way only. We are all stars in this reality TV show. That African woman on her own with three suitcases is going to get taken apart. Passing backpacker in brand new sandals shoots me a dirty look. Yeah, alright sunshine. You should’ve been there when tanks rolled up and they shelled the old town. What was it called? Dadadaab? Dabaabat? Something like that. Until you have, don’t fucking look at me. What’s this? Old couple standing in front of me. Yes I speak French. Changing money? Over there: the guy with the stall. Yes he’s legit. I’m English. Well merci, you are too kind. Have a great holiday. You too.

I see you and I get that funny tightening in my throat. You are cross. You’ve been delayed, interrogated, pawed, discriminated against, and you need a cigarette. Me too hun. Let’s get out of here. Then, although I can see you are tired, you smile at me and say: “Come on soldier, on your feet.” You got that from me, and it breaks my heart.

Golden sunlight split into bars across the floor, the sigh of the sea, the cry of the birds. There’s a man singing outside, an exotic refrain which is all quartertones and minor notes, and it’s magical. You lie with an arm across me, a cascade of black hair spilling over the pillow, softly respiring. I watch you sleeping, my eyes moving over your body slowly, pausing here, backtracking there. There are parts of my life that flash before me uninvited, like a snapshot I didn’t want to take, fixed forever in an image branded before my eyes. Well now I am imprinting every part of you on my memory, so that I know in years to come I will be able to conjure this moment again, drowsy with longing, basking in warmth, your scent on my hands and my face and my heart. I can’t believe we made it.

Agarbatti

Agarbatti

Agarbatti, अगरबत्ती in Hindi, is Indian incense. It is the joss stick that smoulders in a student bedsit, a hint of exoticism in drab surroundings, the fragrant clouds that waft out of a shrine or wat and coil lazily upwards into the sunlight. The scent of it drifts along the waterfront of an eastern riverport on a sultry night, overlaying the more pungent smells of the harbour. Smells conjure memories like no other sensation, catapulting you back in time. I remember going into the wardrobe in a relative’s house after they had died and inhaling a mixture of mothballs and tweed and wood polish, and feeling their presence again. I remember a waterfront on a river at night with the moonlight so bright it felt feverish, silhouetting the palm trees and turning the ripples on the water silver, the boats nodding their heads slowly as they pirouetted on their moorings, and the scent of agarbatti drifting along, washing over the scene.

I am not a religious person. I fill out forms for bureaucrats and when it says Religion I write ‘none’. And it’s true, I have no codified or orthodox system of belief. But I have faith, of a sort, not in something external, some higher order (although I acknowledge the limits of my own rationality), but in people, and in something in people. I acknowledge the importance of ritual; of how a gesture can be laden with meaning because of its intent. There is something comforting in the symbolism, in acting out a ritual which has no apparent or immediate tangible effect – putting time and effort and belief into something which does not materially benefit us, does not provide any clear gain. A poor farmer from the mountains spends a few carefully husbanded coins on a garland of flowers to place round the neck of a statue; a poor grandmother buys a few sticks of incense to light at a shrine knowing that it means she cannot eat again that day. It is the importance of belief, a gesture towards depth of feeling which takes precedence.

I went to the Killing Fields in Cambodia once. It was an awful, harrowing place. It appeared deceptively tranquil – a summer scene, a field covered in butterflies, golden in the evening sun. And at the centre stood a tall pagoda, with ornate Khmer layered roofs and glass sides. In the glass was reflected the blueness of the sky and the drifting clouds overhead. And as you drew closer you saw beyond the reflection, and into focus came empty eye sockets that stared at the sky, a tower of skulls, thousands upon thousands, piled on each other, taken out of the fields that I was standing on. I could not take it in, the enormity of what happened here, reconcile it with the sound of children laughing as they played in the village nearby, or the lowing cattle that were going home, throwing up clouds of red dust that caught the rays of the sun and turned golden. Before the pagoda knelt a local woman, selling incense, and as I watched a Khmer family with two young children approached her, bought some incense, lit it at the foot of the pagoda and pressed their hands together in a sompeah, bowing their heads in prayer. I felt inadequate, helpless, unable to process it all – I am not worthy of these dimensions. I felt a hypocrite, intruding on someone’s grief.

I walked to the car park and smoked, trying to get a hold on myself. The family came back, and nodded to me. I took a deep breath, and greeted them. I asked them, forgive me, I am a tourist here, and I want to understand. Why do you light the incense here? The man was youngish, smartly dressed, his small wife beautiful and cradling one child. His English was poor, but softly he said: “We burn to wishing peace. For coming closer. Carrying thinking, and for remembering good, pushing away bad.”
“I understand,” I told him. “And I find it very touching. But would it be correct for me, a barang, foreigner, to do the same?”
“Yes, you can do,” he said, and smiled. “It would be a good thing.”
I thanked them, and watched them leave. Then I went over to the incense seller, feeling embarrassed. She proffered three sticks. “How much?”
“What you like.”
I dug out a fistful of Khmer reals. About $4 worth, and handed them to her. A fortune. Wordlessly she took them, folded them away in her apron, handed me a small plastic lighter and watched as I walked up the steps to the rack, the stubs of the sticks jutting out like ribs, and I saw four of them freshly burning from the man and his family, one for each of them. I placed the incense clumsily in the holder and lit them, then shut my eyes, in front of a tower of skulls, and wished for calmness, tranquility, peace, for anyone who was in torment. Then I turned and walked slowly away.

And that is why I burn agarbatti.

The slowly plodding cows lowing and booming

The American writer and humourist P. J. O’Rourke once said of France that it was a place where you couldn’t tear the toilet paper but the money fell apart in your hands. I’m not sure whether Mr O’Rourke ever visited India, but he’d find it confirmed his hypothesis perfectly. The toilet paper, which seems to be branded ‘Albania’ (make of that what you will), is the sort of stuff that NASA might well consider examining for its super high tensile indestructible properties. I am indifferent to it, however, being Asiatic enough to prefer a tap or jug. There are also a range of high pressure hoses as wall attachments, with which I once managed to drench my trousers in a busy restaurant in Cambodia. So navigating your way round an unfamiliar tropical bathroom for the first time, what will usually happen is that you will enter a small and malodorous darkened room, steamy as a sauna, and immediately fall over one of two large plastic buckets. While you curse and stumble around a long broom-like implement will casually topple over and smartly strike you amidships. This is the squeegee, with which you wipe the floor having flooded it with the contents of the bucket. As you blunder about looking for a light switch, a tap, cleverly positioned at groin height, makes its presence felt. As you double over your forehead encounters a battery of switches on the wall – half a dozen or so. None appear to operate a light switch, but by hitting them all you may find a small red light is activated on the geyser. By its faint glow you can just about make out the resident spider, who eyes you with all the friendliness of a nightclub bouncer. Making a mental note to avoid that entire side of the room you navigate your way past bare wires dangling from the wall, passing through a puddle of water that somehow escaped the squeegee, and locate one of two things. Either a hole in the floor, marked ‘direct route to Hades’, which may be accompanied by a pair of glowing eyes from within – rat, frog, roach, take your pick – or you are in luck and with a heavenly chorus in your ears you make out a magnificent pedestal emblazoned with logos. You have reached your destination: the toilet. I’m a Yamaha – ride me.

Speaking of Yamahas, if you should ever need to fill your motorcycle with petrol while in India, and you are fortunate enough to encounter an actual petrol station, as opposed to a small boy crouching on the roadside with old water bottles refilled with yellowish liquid, you join the motorbike queue. There are in fact two, or even three queues, but only one pump. The other pump lies tilted on its side, and a large hole exposes a network of severed pipes. There is a strong whiff of fuel in the air. Around half the people in the queue are ringing all their mates with their mobile phones to discuss where to meet for dinner, or something. I once saw a harassed woman in the UK trying to calm two unruly children in the back seat while filling the tank. Her phone rang and she absent mindedly answered it. Immediately there was an alarm siren and the voice of the attendant boomed out: “You at pump number four! Put down the mobile phone!” Terrified, she dropped it. Well anyway, they don’t bother with that nonsense here. Call who you like. Switch off your bike and open the tank while still yards away, then shuffle forward. Even while being pushed a scooter will try to undertake you, and here your extra cubic engine capacity is an advantage too: 350cc of ironmongery running over the sandalled foot of scooter rider will ensure he gives way to you as befits the larger vehicle. “Fill please”. The attendant tops it up until petrol slops over the brim, running down your tank and soaking your trousers again which have just about dried off since your bathroom visit. “380 rupees.” You give him 500. Make sure you loudly announce “500” for the benefit of any witnesses. He gives you 20 change. You hold out your hand for the rest. “How much you give?” he asks. 500. It is in your hand. He stares at his hand as if belonging to a stranger and turns side on to hide the 500 note from view. “Listen,” I say. “380 rupees petrol. I give 500. You give 20. Now you give 100.” “How much you give,” he repeats again, while trying to find a way out of the corner he has backed into. Now this is where you use your Perry Mason skills. Turn to the witnesses who are all queuing behind and say: “you saw me give 500, na?” Haan. Ok then. Turn to attendant who is being harangued by half a dozen scooter riders, and repeat: “you give me 100 now.” A man who knows when he is beaten, he salvages the remnants of his pride by ignoring the bundle of hundreds in his hand and instead counts you out change in grubby tens. Nine of them. “Come on, don’t try with me sunshine.” Grumpily he slams down the final ten and the last shreds of his dignity. “Thank you” I smile. “Have a nice day.” He grunts in reply.

Vagator beach, 10pm. We are at Fishtails, a restaurant shack which has become a favourite – although to call it a shack is a little misleading. It is open fronted and looks out onto the beach, but has comfy chairs in recumbent positions and low glass tables. The staff are all nice guys – one has taken to shaking my hand every time he sees me. I always have the prawn vindaloo here, hot, spicy, and with a vinegary tang. This is washed down with a coke float – a glass of coke with a scoop of ice cream in it. At 11pm they bring a candle for our table and roll out mattresses on the floor and go to bed. This is quite normal here: many people sleep at their workplace. We smoke and talk in low voices, watching the sea. The breakers come in three at a time, marching in unison, keeping parallel with each other. The wave begins to break on the far right, a white horse curl of sea which rolls smoothly leftward, unspooling steadily as it goes. Then one large wave, the middle in the set of three, breaks from both ends, left and right white horses rippling over and curling toward each other to meet in the centre. Velvet dark sand in undulations is smoothed over by the wash of the wave as it spills up the beach with a hiss which lingers and then draws back on itself. Another builds, bulges and then topples at the corner, a frill of spume untearing leftwards along the crest of the wave. Overhead the stars are thrown across the sky; they seem to visibly creep clockwise in ascendance, not steadily, but in slow incremental pulses that match my heartbeat. I pick my way in the darkness round the furniture, crossing the restaurant floor toward the bathroom, stealthy as a giant cat. My pupils grow larger in the dark. I pass within two feet of the dog, and only when I am in front of it does it realise my presence and give a startled yip. We leave and walk up the beach, two small figures ahead and two behind, languidly gliding along under the stars in the tropical night, the sea murmuring and spilling up across the sand around us. And I think to myself: this is just magical.

Sunset at Chapora Fort. An orange band across the sky is shining in the glimmering waves. The wind is warm. I imagine a British warship cruising along out there, sausage and chips for dinner, tea in tin mugs, and out there in the darkness the looming coast of India, with the smell of the land and the dim glow of lights. What do they imagine here? Small, dimly lit villages, the scent of incense, the slowly plodding cows lowing and booming to each other along the lanes? Do they see the fingers of light whirl about the sky from the hilltop laser? Do they pick out the faint boom of trance above the seethe of the sea and the whoompf of the waves on the rocks? The Malabar Coast, the smell of spices carried on the warm night air. The golden lights spill round the headland and along into the distance, shimmering faintly in the dark. We walk through the fort in the blackness, picking our way round the rocks. Through the fort doorway we see ponds of pale light gleaming down in the valley beneath the canopy of trees like dewdrops on a spider’s web. We make our way down the scree covered hillside behind three drunk Indian lads who yell and slip and complain, by the light of a mobile phone. Then one shines his phone on the ground before us to show us the way. We descend together. They collapse exhausted on the Tarmac at the road head. I kick the Enfield once, twice, it roars into life and we thunk away into the hot black night, along lanes lined with jungle plants and lush, verdant foliage.

Dogs lie curled up together on the dusty verges. Sometimes they lie in the road, and raise their heads as you pass within a few feet. A group of cows walk along. Others lie under a tree. Two boys in vests, shorts and bare feet are pushing a cart down a pitch dark road. Where are they going? What do they talk about? We stop half a dozen times to get directions. Two middle aged ‘uncles’ tottering along unsteadily, one with his arm round the other’s shoulders. A food cart – a young guy in a white shirt leaning at one end and scooping food into his mouth even as he points us down the road and says ‘second left’. A woman in a sari. Two more men outside a phone shop, pot bellies and big moustaches. In front of them a small dog barks continuously. We pass over a bridge, the river wide in the darkness beneath us, the lights on the hills into the distance. Into a town again and turn right down a lane. A van in the turn wants to go left. We all hoot. I go to the right of the van, another bike goes to its left, and we descend a switchback hill with taillights aglow. Then an unmarked junction – our road has seamlessly forked into another. We slow but do not stop: the guy ahead zooms across and I follow 5 yards behind. As I am halfway across, a bus sweeps round the bend from my right. It fills my vision. If I brake it will go straight over us. I accelerate hard and swerve to my left, to within a few inches of the road edge, which has a deep ditch running alongside. The bus is going fast round a blind bend. We squeak through by a couple of feet. Not ten seconds later I have to brake hard for an unmarked speed bump. As I change down into second and accelerate, a scooter with no lights pulls out of a side entrance and I hoot, brake, swerve, and accelerate past him. Ten seconds, three near misses. Standard for here.

We find the restaurant we have spent three quarters of an hour riding round in the dark trying to locate. It is open, just, but we are the only customers. It overlooks the water and periodically a great wave hits the sea wall with a slap, sending a curtain of spray cascading along it. The shimmer of golden lights on the far shore, a neon lit ferry blaring out a techno beat across the water as it goes back and forth, and then a golden palm tree blooms and cascades down in perfect silence: fireworks, too far away to hear. The menu has one entire side of A4 dedicated to alcohol – a shot of vodka is 90rs, about a pound, and the measure is roughly a triple. I order a nimbu pani, lime water, which you specify sweet, salty or both. One last week was decidedly brackish, like drinking seawater, but this one is just right. Kingfish balchao – a spicy curry. Or there is cafreal, a kind of green curry, or chacuti, or xacuti, or shacuti, which is yet another curry variant, or reichado, more curry. All are slightly different and all are spicy hot.

Heading back through Calangute I am tucked in behind a van. An Enfield overtakes to my right and hoots thrice (as they say here with archaic charm). I turn to look at him, look forward again and see a khaki uniform to my left raise his swagger stick a couple of feet, as if indicating me to stop. But it is a halfhearted gesture with no real hope of success, a try on, and I am already level with him. I keep going and he bangs the stick down on the ground but does not shout or whistle. I can do without a police stop, explaining that the bike belongs to a friend whose full name I don’t know, who has the insurance (which is expired), that we have no helmets because nobody does, that the left taillight may hang loose but still works, and so on and so on. A few minutes later we hit a traffic jam. It is one o’clock in the morning, and this is the queue for the night market.

Combine Camden, Brick Lane and a dash of Glastonbury and you get the idea. It is huge, lighted stalls spilling down the hillside. Dreadlocks and tattoos, the assorted freaks of the west who operate in a parallel universe. Rasta t-shirts, crystals, bongs and chillums, fetishwear. The place is heaving with Russians – blonde girls in POCCNR hoodies – tie dye skirts, assorted ethnic garb and jewellery. A football match on a big screen, UK premier league. A neon lit dance floor thumping out trance. A live band doing a cover of Led Zeppelin. A group of guys with brass instruments blast out a jaunty Central European sort of thing, vaguely gipsy. The occasional slightly ragged local wandering through, wealthy Indians with families, the Boom Shankar white kids with dreads brigade. Many wear a curious type of calf length boot with a flat sole, the foot of which is split into twin toes. This puts me in mind of the Vadomo tribe of Zimbabwe who have this same two-toed effect naturally, with the top of the foot split almost up to the shin. The Vadomo got that way through inbreeding. I hope the boots are very comfortable. They look hideous, and there’s something rather disconcerting about a bunch of two toed Russians looming out of the darkness towards you. Although admittedly not as disconcerting as those weird shoes with five toes. “Fuck, man… What happened to your feet? Oh I see – they are shoes. I do apologise. I’m really, really stoned.”

Dinner with Indians. The waiter is summoned. This here – seafood curry. Is it dry? Well, says the waiter, it is quite dry. Is it with gravy? Ambiguous head waggle from waiter. Some gravy, perhaps. Has the gravy got onions in it? No, no onions. Damn, I feel like onions tonight in my gravy. What about these prawns – are they large? Not exactly, says the waiter. Probably around medium. Show me. The waiter makes a vague shape in the air. Ok, let’s get the prawns. But wait – have they got tails on? Tails not have, says the waiter. Ok. But are they crispy? Fairly. Can you make them crispier but not too much? I can’t eat prawns, says someone, placing a hand on their stomach and giving a slight wince. Oh right, lets just have the biryani then.

A beach shack restaurant, Anjuna. At the precise moment the sun disappears into the greyness of the horizon, a bell chimes. Five men emerge in single file from a shack, the one in front carrying some kind of flame horizontally outstretched in front of him. Behind him one carries a small handbell, another a kind of drum with a rising, interrogative note, as in Chinese opera: it makes a sort of metallic ‘boing?’ sound. Then another handbell, and bringing up the rear a little guy with a conch shell, blowing a low whoop periodically. This small band make their way down to the water’s edge clanging and chiming and honking, gesture with the flame, then march back up to the shack having extinguished it. They continue to play until they are back inside, and then each chimes the bell that hangs inside, the last note lingering in the evening air. Conversation resumes, people turn back to their drinks. Three girls emerge from the trees, the oldest perhaps twelve. Dark skinned, with hair tied in a plait, They wear local clothes – long skirts and scarves in faded yet pretty patterned cloth, bangles of coloured thread on their slim arms. They carry large plastic sacks on their backs, and when they spot a discarded water bottle one swoops on it and puts it in the sack. Rubbish pickers – they will sell the empties. I see two white women strolling down the beach in neon coloured thong bikinis. The three girls trudge on, their sacks growing larger every few metres, so that one shifts it onto her head. They pass within a yard of the women and neither seem to see the other, as if both groups are invisible, occupying parallel worlds. But at our shack, tourists in recliners sipping 100 rupee drinks, the first girl, the oldest, turns sideways and looks at us all, taking in the scene, lips slightly apart in a grimace of incomprehension. I meet her eyes, and for a long moment we stare at each other across a vast gulf, wider by far than ten yards of sand, and one that neither of us can bridge. Then she turns and walks away up the beach followed by her two smaller companions, into the gathering dusk, and doesn’t look back.

A Colourful, Joyful Cacophony

A tropical hangover, non-alcoholic. Too many mosquito bites. Despite being coated in 50% Deet they dined lavishly. Lying in a dark room beneath the slowly circling Punkah fan, listening to the sounds outside. The squeak of the gate. The thunk of an Enfield passing by. The boom of bass from the cafe next door. The wind is up today, swaying the fronds of the palm trees, which click and rustle incessantly. In the distance, from the lagoon, I can hear the cry of waterfowl – something very familiar. With the sigh of the wind and their plaintive high watery call it sounds like Suffolk.

Each morning a small Toyota hiace van comes rattling down the lane and pulls into the compound. I watch from the balcony. He parks facing the wall, then decides he is not quite straight, so he reverses and pulls closer to the wall. There is a bang and the van rocks. He has crashed into the wall. He repeats this performance, every morning, without fail, bumping down the lane, reversing till he is straight on, then crashing nose first into the wall. I’ve been here three weeks. I think it is some kind of ritual.

Anyway, my head feels like the bumper of that van. Brains slopping around inside skull and periodically colliding with it with a bang. It’ll pass. Too hot. Too bright. Too many mosquito bites. Too much India. I shuffle out into the glare, squinting despite my shades, and seek solace in a giant bowl of cafe au lait in babas. Dinner last night was at an Italian place called Lambrettas, decorated with strategically placed scooters. It was excellent. Calamari followed by seafood linguine and then something I have never seen before but couldn’t resist: chocolate lasagne. White and dark chocolate layers. Magnifico. The linguine was perfectly al dente, the seafood abundant and assorted. An excellent place for dinner, if you are in the area – Lambrettas in Anjuna, just before the HDFC bank on the other side of the road.

Given how nothing ever quite goes according to plan here, and schedules are at best works of fiction if not outright farce, yesterday was a surprisingly productive day. I had got the number of a local travel agent in Calangute called Libra Worldwide and rang to see if they could arrange a train ticket for me on the overnight train to Kochi, 1000km south of here in Kerala. They asked if I could come into the office. This involved a half hour ride south, hiding behind a van on the bridge to avoid the police check the other side. I am fairly legit, but it’s a flexible interpretation here. My best disguise is that of long term resident, who has been shaken down for bribes so often that he’s wise to it and knows the form. This is backed up by the fact that unlike most tourists I ride a big old Enfield, not a scooter, and wear a shirt. After the usual minor confusion from my pillion (“turn left here… No, I mean right”, which gets tricky when you are being overtaken, undertaken, and have bikes coming at you on the wrong side of the road while hooting furiously), we made it to the office, which was next to Little Acorns Project to Rehabilitate Street Children. I loved the name. Two local girls sat in the office clicking rather aimlessly at computers with an air of extreme disinterest, but one detached herself and wrote down my details in laborious longhand. Then more clicking. The Internet connection was appallingly slow as usual, but after half an hour or so I was presented with a print out which was my e-ticket for the Manglam Express to Kerala, second class AC. This took about 18 hours to reach Ernakulam, Kochi’s nearest station, and coincidentally cost £18. Deciding to strike while the iron was hot I asked the girls to call a hotel I had found in the Rough Guide, as well as on the Hostelworld app, and reserve a room for three nights. This they did, for no charge, in a fraction of the time it would have taken me to do so.

When I came back from Africa I couldn’t get used to many things about the UK. The unfamiliar silence at night, with no perpetual chorus of insects. On my last night in Harare I went out onto the patio with my stereo, inserted a fresh C90 cassette, hit record and just left it. Back in the UK one night, missing what had become home, I put the tape on my Walkman. A vague background hiss. Then the chirp of cicadas. A low, descending “hoop hoop hoop hoop” call of some African bird. The bark of a dog, taken up by another, and then another, until they are barking right across the suburb of Chisipite, as my friend Edison described it, “here I am, here I am, here I am”. A car went by down Enterprise road with a broken exhaust, past the shopping centre, with the video store and Bon Marche, the hairdresser and the butchery, past the tall pines which shielded the place that looked like an Italian monastery, past the Shell station selling ‘blend’ made of sugar cane alcohol for your tank, and the wasteground where they brewed kachasu sugar cane alcohol for yourself, and which smelled the same and was probably just as good for you, and on over the junction with the traffic lights called robots which stopped working at random hours, causing chaos, and on into the jacaranda lined streets of Harare. Gone. It is all gone. My younger self on a cold night in England in the unfamiliar silence of northern nights, with hands jammed over my earphones, pressing the sounds closer into my ears, with tears streaming down my face at what had been lost when my African life ended. Well all those sounds are here again. I found them all again in India. It is not the same, but it is close enough.

Another night, another motorbike accident. We are having dinner in a nice restaurant out at Vagator and suddenly two police walk in (called ‘cops’ here, with a vaguely American pronunciation, as in “here come the cups”). They stand round a table which seems to be covered in a blanket. The blanket raises an arm. It is a tourist who has been injured. A few minutes earlier we had heard a bang and a surprised moo outside, but thought nothing of it. It turns out that the tourist had been riding a bike and had gone straight into a cow standing in the road. The cow is not in a good way, and nor is the rider, from the look of it. The ‘cups’ make notes, stand around the cow, talk to people. Someone calls the animal rescue, who say they are only open during business hours. Nothing to be done. We leave – three Indian girls on a rickety scooter followed by self and pillion on an Enfield. I take it slow heading home, watching for cows, speeding tourists, drunk 4×4 drivers, buses with only one headlight that look like motorbikes, and everything else.

In the newspaper an announcement from the staff of the Asha Widget Company Ltd. ‘condoling’ the widow of Mr J T G Fernandao, former sales executive, on the third anniversary of his untimely passing. People here condole each other as an active verb. Last night I heard a new one: to ‘wish’ someone, as in “did you wish them yet?” Wishing happy birthday, happy anniversary, congratulations on promotion etc. To wish and to condole – the gamut of human emotion economically reductio ad absurdum.

The elephant is back in the layby this morning, with a female tourist perched uncertainly upon its back as it shambles about while her companion takes photos. She doesn’t look entirely comfortable having her legs spread quite that far apart – an elephant’s back is awfully wide. “Aww, poor th’hing,” says K, with that characteristically aspirated Hindi haitch that I am completely unable to master. She means the helephant, which is reputed to be drugged, although given that most life forms around Goa are drugged this is no great surprise. The helephant’s howner, a horanged-robed hancient, has trouble telling one tourist from another, so half approaches me heach mohorning hasking for mohoney. Naheeee, I reply. I ride an Henfield. And he wahanders hoff.

A fairly typical lunch in Goa: I arrive at K’s office just before 2pm, as arranged. I then wait anything between 15 and 45 minutes while she finishes what she is doing, and fends off assorted people who have just thought that minute of something which absolutely must be done right now, immediately; important stuff like updating a blog that a handful of people visit each week, or sending out a petition which would take months to reach critical mass, if it ever manages to galvanise anyone into the vital NGO pastime of ‘clicktivism’. Quite what happens after that nobody seems to know. Perhaps the chief minister of random state has created the post of filing clerk specially to archive the outraged letters from the general public that are pouring in about assorted human rights abuses. Perhaps the secretary to the relevant department has an ulcer, a nag for a wife, five teenage daughters to educate / protect 24/7 from local boys / marry off (delete as applicable) and a boss he hates with a venomous loathing, combined with a 1.6kb Internet connection, 1024 unread emails in an account he never checks, and only five more years to go till retirement. Or perhaps it makes a difference somehow. How many people read the blog, follow the links? Nobody knows. They are running on blind faith and that most heady of charitable brews, “making a difference”, confronting a monolithic bureaucracy famous even by Asian standards for the glacial speed with which its wheels rotate, often in reverse; a regional superpower technically at war with its immediate neighbour which is one of the most dangerous and anarchic places on earth, possessed of largely ungovernable regions, which produced a phenomenon that at the turn of the new millennium, as the world was patting itself on the back for the new world order that turned out to be yet another case of wishful thinking, reached out and struck at the heart of America and nothing would ever be the same again. This vast republic – forget the ‘sub’: this is a continent unto itself – with half a dozen separatist movements, a leftist intellectual tradition, a feudal underclass of unprecedented size and a turgid legal system that is selectively applied, has opened up to big business, bought into the neocon dream, marketed trendy buzzwords: incredible India for the tourists and credible India for the business investors – although too often the terms are the other way round – and is dealing with the all too predictable consequences of corporations playing fast and loose with people’s rights because they haven’t got the same obligations of accountability that they would in the west or elsewhere. Oh sure, the corporations broadcast their credentials, their corporate social responsibility strategy, and then they have a discreet word: minister, we need to open up this area for investment, but there are a bunch of peasant farmers living there who don’t want to work for slave wages for us, but instead inexplicably prefer their traditional and sustainable livelihood of farming. These people are a barrier to progress, an obstacle to development. Some may have antisocial tendencies; they may even be terrorists. The Naxalites, India’s Maoist movement, are never far away when it comes to encouraging peasants to follow them. So in go the forces of law and order under their various acronyms, beat up some people, arrest some more, or worse, and the mainstream local news channels fail to cover it. In steps the new media phenomenon of the citizen journalist on dial up speeds. But who is the target audience? Villagers? Indian middle classes? The rest of the world? Each require a separate pitch, a different framing. One size does not fit all, in the world of journalism.

Such things are discussed under a tin roof, over plates of spicy food, as a squadron of flies endlessly circulates and traffic roars past a few feet away, hooting continuously. Service takes forever, one hour turns into two, nothing is solved, everything is hopeless, and yet the dedication of the staff is undiminished – India’s problems defy the imagination in their scale, and yet they plod on anyway. What else is there to do but give up?

I may have said this before, but my standard third world policy, which I suppose I should now call a developing world policy, or perhaps a global south one (Australasia aside), is to only give to the first beggar I see that day. It saves having to make a moral judgement call on who is the more deserving. And yet, compared to Delhi or Rajasthan, I’ve seen very few beggars in Goa. The exception was the Saturday night market, where along the main road every few yards a woman squatted in tattered yet originally colourful clothing, usually with a child. Today I went to recharge my phone credit, unsuccessfully for the fifth time in a row, and where I pulled up there crouched another, under a tree. She outstretched an arm beseechingly. A tiny girl, perhaps 2 years old, stood half naked, filthy and grizzling next to her. I hardened my heart and went into the phone shop. You have to. You can’t help them all, feel for them all. In the shop I found I had two notes loose in my pocket. 1000 rupees – about £12, and 10 rupees – about 12p. Twelve pence. When I went back out to the bike the little girl was still grizzling, the woman trying to comfort her. What an abysmally fucking rotten life that kid has been sentenced to. I gave the woman the 10 rupee note and she touched both hands together and smiled. The little girl was so taken aback she even stopped crying and gawped at me. Then I went and had a cup of tea at a restaurant. 60 rupees. I know about begging rings, about kids getting mutilated to get more income, the perpetuation arguments. But maybe I made someone happy for a short while, for the sake of 12p.

I ride along endless twisting lanes in the sunshine, lined with coconut palms. Small yellow striped squirrels scamper up and down the slender trunks. I am thunking along in fourth gear, which feels like being gently kicked in the pants once a second. The sun is hot, but the breeze keeps me cool. Last night, after a windy day, it was refreshing. For once my shirt was not soaking wet. In tropical terms, if you are not actually sweating, you start to think it is growing cold. I pass open ground to the right – what in southern Africa we would call a vlei. The setting sun turns the grass golden. A dog snoozes on the parapet of a bridge. Amplified Indian music, a male female duet, fills the air, and from across the lake I hear another sound system playing the same sort of thing, different tune. They compete, drown each other out. There is no synchronisation, no coordination. The end result is a colourful, joyful cacophony. What a country.

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