On the Beach


Next, we read about the cobalt bomb, which was worse than the hydrogen bomb and could smother the planet in an endless chain reaction.

I knew the colour cobalt from my great-aunt’s paintbox. She had lived on Capri at the time of Maxim Gorky and painted Capriot boys naked. Later her art became almost entirely religious. She did lots of St Sebastians, always against a cobalt-blue background, always the same beautiful young man, stuck through and through with arrows and still on his feet.

So I pictured the cobalt bomb as a dense blue cloudbank, spitting tongues of flame at the edges. And I saw myself, out alone on a green headland, scanning the horizon for the advance of the cloud.

Bruce Chatwin – In Patagonia

At half-past five in the afternoon the temperature was still over 30 degrees, but slowly the heat began to go out of the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. Dogs chased each other, had stand-offs, ran through the surf barking with what could only be joy. People made their way down to the water’s edge, some taking up positions on an outcrop of rocks that jutted into the waves. They stood around in small groups, some couples quietly holding hands, eyes turned seawards. Two Goan girls picked through a rockpool, foraging for crustaceans. A bearded man of indeterminate nationality did a headstand on a yoga mat. A Russian nearby turned his back to the sea and held his phone out in front of him; on the screen I made out a woman’s face, blue-lit from her computer. She was wearing a heavy jumper, watching this Indian Ocean sunset from a wintry Moscow. Children played, turning cartwheels along the damp sand. Next to me a man watched the advancing ripples of water with an expression of solemn appreciation, as if in a gallery. And I suddenly felt connected to every single person there somehow, as fellow members of a species – all of us part of humanity, drawn together by this elemental force of the sunset at the ending of the day.

In the green room at home in England, on the shelf at the foot of the narrow bed, lies a book. On the cover a Naval officer is pictured standing looking out to sea, the white top of his cap contrasting with a bilious green sky. Behind him, further along the beach, stands a woman in a red dress. She is barefoot, her arms folded about herself. Is she looking at the officer, or past him, out to sea? It is not clear. To the left, below the arc of the horizon looms the ominous black outline of a submarine, hull half-visible in the molten white waves. Above it is a curious shape in the sky, a thin pale stalk swelling outward at its top. A mushroom cloud.

On The Beach was written in 1957 by Nevil Shute not long after he’d emigrated to Australia from England. The book details the lives of a small group of people in Melbourne who are awaiting the inevitable arrival of a cloud of deadly radioactive fallout. A nuclear war the previous year in the Northern Hemisphere has contaminated life on earth, leaving only parts of the far south habitable – southern Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia. But global air currents mean that soon these locations too will succumb to radiation poisoning.

Life in Melbourne continues with a veneer of normality, despite a few changes due to circumstances. There is no fuel, for example, so people travel once again by horse and cart. Others plant gardens knowing full well that they will not live long enough to see them bloom. A group of old buffers decide that they might as well drink their way through the club’s wine cellar, since there’s no point in keeping it, and there are campaigns to have the fishing season brought forward by a few months. The Australian government issues suicide pills. Everyone adapts to the new reality in their own way.

The book opens with a description of Peter Holmes waking on a golden, sunlit morning next to his wife Mary, trying to recall the mysterious sense of happiness that he feels. Is it because it is Christmas? No – that was last week. Slowly as he becomes conscious he recalls that he has to go into Melbourne that day, to a meeting at the Navy Department. He’s hoping for a new command – his own ship. At the foot of the bed their baby daughter Jennifer awakens in her cot with a series of small whimpering sounds.

Commander Dwight Towers is the captain of one of the last American nuclear submarines, temporarily assigned to the Royal Australian Navy. He becomes attached to a young Australian woman, Moira Davidson, wry, funny and cynical by turn, thinly hiding a terrible vulnerability, who is herself coping with circumstances by drinking heavily. Towers is already married; his wife and children were living in the United States when war broke out, and they are almost certainly dead. Despite knowing this, he buys birthday presents for his children and maintains a fiction that they may be alive. Once, in an unguarded moment, he admits to Moira that he knows they are dead, and asks if she thinks he is crazy to pretend they are still alive. She replies that she does not – she understands. He kisses her in gratitude.

Shute’s characters are, as always, decent and upright individuals who are not given to great displays of emotion even when inwardly reeling. They possess a stoicism that was a characteristic of the time amongst the generation that had come through the Second World War – a quiet fortitude to their suffering, which when it occasionally slips, is all the more shocking. Moira cycles through different emotions – tearfulness, determination, and inevitably the anger and bitterness of someone who feels cheated of her future. When Peter Holmes tentatively tries to broach the subject of suicide pills to his wife, she goes into complete denial, refusing to entertain the notion. He becomes exasperated, and shouts at her about the awful sickness that they will all succumb to. Her tears and childlike naivety in response prompt an enormous welling up of compassion within him. He knows he cannot ask her to administer the pills to their baby, but is determined that they will die together as a family.

Towers embarks on a mission to check for survivors in the northern hemisphere, sailing the submarine across the Pacific, as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. Returning down the coast of the United States, they halt briefly off San Francisco. Through the periscope they look out upon a deserted city. The Golden Gate Bridge has fallen. One crewmember jumps ship to spend his remaining days in his home town. Finding no trace of life the submarine returns to Australia. Towers goes on a trip with Moira, both aware of the feelings developing between them, and yet he cannot become involved with her without feeling disloyal to his wife. Nevertheless their platonic love for each other deepens, thrown into relief by the precariousness of the situation, of the fleeting sweetness of life. It is all the more moving for being necessarily chaste.

As the situation worsens and more people begin to show the first signs of radiation sickness, Towers decides that rather than commit suicide together with Moira, he will instead follow his duty to the end, take the submarine out into international waters and scuttle it, going down with his ship. In doing so he will, in his mind, be reunited with his wife and children. Moira drives up to a hilltop to watch the submarine heading out to sea for the last time. It is a testament to the humanity of the book, that even in this appalling, apocalyptic scenario, that some things still endure at the end of the world. As Moira looks out to sea, torn with emotion, she achieves a kind of peace: admiring and understanding Towers’ decision, filled with love. She imagines herself together with him as she opens the box containing the pill.

Sometimes I think of that young woman, standing on an Australian headland looking out to sea, waiting for the arrival of a cobalt-blue cloud, and it breaks my heart.

Elections in Goa. Small trucks – camionettes – drive around the neighbourhood blaring out music and speeches. Aam Admi have the best tunes, and the crew wear the white forage caps favoured by Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s leader and Chief Minister of Delhi. The BJP – Prime Minister Modi’s party – are the loudest, the volume so high that it distorts into static. It’s all quite friendly, with none of the sinister overtones that you sometimes get during elections in tropical countries, but there’s an underlying seriousness to it all. For the last two weeks, bars and restaurants have been rigorously enforcing last orders for alcohol at 10pm – these places which are so laid back for the rest of the year. The owners are all nervous, fearing a visit from the police, who normally turn a blind eye to such things. Now the shops and supermarkets have stopped selling alcohol too – there’s a ban from the 2nd to the 5th of February, although polling day is technically only on the 4th. Although it is illegal to smoke in restaurants, everyone still does, even beneath the hand-made No Smoking signs – but now all the ashtrays have been taken away. In one place the waiter mistakes our hand-rolled cigarette for a joint and tells us to be discrete as there’s a cop at the bar. It’s a temporary tightening up, an establishing of a pretence of rules more in line with the rest of the world. Democracy is a serious business, is the message.

Exactly what the rationale is for enforcing an earlier closing time for a fortnight before an election is unclear. It doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. One explanation is that voters are sometimes bribed to attend rallies with alcohol (undoubtedly true), and licensed premises have a readily available supply. But of course there would be countless ways around that, with alcohol smuggled across state borders, and the explanation is more akin to the recent, economically disastrous policy of demonetization, where the most common notes in circulation were withdrawn overnight. It served no practical purpose other than causing massive inconvenience – 90% of the money found its way back into the economy within a couple of months, making a nonsense of the claim that such a policy would wipe out black money. Psychologically, however, it was a shrewd move: it gave people a sense that they were all in it together, that the agreed menace of corruption needed addressing somehow, and this gave everyone the opportunity to do their bit, to feel that they were suffering for a greater good. It makes a population compliant.

One of the ironies of this, of course, is that the political parties regard their voters with such contempt that they can be bought by the promise of a few drinks. And yet it strikes me that this situation is not dissimilar to the one I am currently in. K’s bike developed a puncture the other night. We parked it at a small pizza place, and the next day I went to a puncture shop, who collected it and fixed the puncture. The problem I have is that the bike is at the puncture shop. K is in Pune. Given that I cannot ride two bikes at once, I shall have to ask a friend for a favour, to ride the thing back home – a favour that really only merits the offer of beer. To offer money would be insulting. To offer nothing at all would be crass. Beer is the perfect solution.

So I have visited a small shop where the owner discretely went out the back with my rucksack and illicitly filled it with Tuborg, for a suitable fee. In India there is always a way.

I have written before of my fellow foreigners here, how they are brought together in a temporary truce that transcends nationality. I’m thinking of the group of Germans who sat at the next table to me the other night – perhaps six or seven of them, most in their 50s or 60s. They were from Munich, and I eavesdropped as best I could, occasionally losing the frequency of their Bavarian accents, then tuning in again. Two ferries out on the estuary had a near miss, pirouetting silently upon the seashell-pink water, which prompted them to comment upon Indian driving generally. The ferries were “schwein teuer”, apparently – swinishly expensive. The Goan electorate might as well vote for “Koko nuss” – coconuts – or perhaps, as one sour-looking man opined, a banana. I thought, as I often do in these circumstances, of recent history, and how they had, within their lifetimes, been born into a wasteland of rubble, a nadir of barbarity, which had gone on to become the economic powerhouse of Europe, with a society almost at the zenith of what we call civilization. The paradox was heightened by the group behind me, who spoke Czech. Across the courtyard were a large Russian family. And I thought: right – so this lot here invaded that lot behind me, occupying the Sudetenland, which was part of Czechoslovakia. Then they invaded that lot over there, who repelled them, occupied half their country, then went on to later invade this lot behind me to crush the uprising in the Prague Spring. And how did all this come about? What delineates this group from that group? Language? They are not so dissimilar, and besides, it’s easy to learn another’s language – often to find that other people utter the same banalities to each other that we all do. Culture? These three groups here have a great deal more in common with each other culturally than they do with any of the Indians in whose village they are currently sitting. What an utter nonsense it all is.

Because it strikes me sometimes that to travel is to embrace strangeness, and there are times when India is deeply, inexplicably strange. Waiting for a bus in Mapusa the other day, sitting on a low wall on a steaming night with an endless stream of two-wheeled traffic snaking past, I looked around myself at all the Indians who calmly accepted me in their midst. There was a man wheeling a bicycle which had a 50kg sack of wood on the back. A group of small children came to beg, proffering little steel bowls – one spotted a couple embracing, saying goodbye to each other, and managed to insert the bowl between them before being rebuffed. Women in saris sat waiting for their bus with large bundles before them. Further along the wall upon which we sat, there was an invisible border; here, people lay stretched out asleep, curled on their sides – the inevitable accumulation of pavement dwellers of any Indian town. And I sat there among them, with 2500 rupees in my wallet – about twenty quid these days – which is several months’ salary for some of these people, and nobody did anything, hassled me, visibly resented me for it, anything. There was just a quiet acceptance that although they lived in their world and I in mine, we were sitting next to each other on the same wall, and we in fact had more in common, in our daily needs or desires, than differences between us.

There are times, though, when you know that you will never understand this country – it’s extraordinary beliefs, the pantheon of its gods, the vastness of it all. You can’t even read the simplest signs. Who are those two men in the small van waiting at the gate? Two pot-bellied uncles in white shirts who are holding mobile phones. They have been there an hour, waiting for something, watching the passing traffic. Are they police? They don’t have the worn leather jackets, moustaches, tired eyes and cigarettes of any Arab mukhabarat. They lack the safari suits, flares and Afro hair styles favoured by Zimbabwe’s CIO, who seemed to model themselves on the 70s film star Shaft. These are just two rather portly Indian men whose presence, like so much here, is inexplicable.

Riding back from Mapusa round the hairpin bends over the hill in the dark, I came down into the valley where we live. The air was cool on the hill but thickened into sultriness across the marshes. The Enfield thunked along in fourth gear like an outboard motor, the buckled concrete of the road causing the bike to pitch and yaw as if I were in a small boat at sea. The temple was glittering with lights – thousands of them in spiralling patterns, and I heard the yodelling squeeze-box notes of music, and a man singing. These songs often go on for hours, everyone packed in together in the sweltering darkness. Sounds of a small handbell being rung, then a series of explosions from firecrackers – chasing away the bad spirits. A kind of sermon began, the Konkani language utterly different to the nasal “aap” and “hai” sounds of Hindi; this was a more rounded and mellifluous tongue that might as well have been Yoruba. The man was becoming more voluble, and then the congregation began a strange kind of groaning and crying. I pulled over, switched off the bike and listened to the utter, barbaric strangeness of the sound – this mass of people wailing on a hot night, the distant hollow thunk of a man chopping coconuts with a machete, the howling dogs, the endless chirp of crickets. Goosebumps rose on my bare forearms even as sweat trickled down my chest, and I thought: you will never understand this place – the hopes and terrors of these tropical people, the things that they fear in the darkness, the lamentation of the gods. This is the world we inhabit.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

My Mother’s Hair

“Your hair is your aerials, man…”

– Danny, Withnail and I.

I’d always known I was adopted. My new parents told me even before I was old enough to understand. They’d refer rather euphemistically to “the lady who had you”, avoiding any more loaded words like “mother”, and then inevitably follow it up with a reassurance: “but we love you just as much as if you were our own.” In the pragmatic way of children I accepted this, understanding that there were things at play that I didn’t understand and didn’t really need to. Little was known of “the lady who had me”; we knew she was from Ireland, had been very young, and was said to have wanted what was best for me. It came as something of a shock to me at around the age of 12, talking to Dad one night, when he let slip that she had had blue eyes and long auburn hair. Had he met her? No, but it turned out he had all the reports of the social workers involved in the adoption, the psychologist’s assessment and the medical records. “You can see it all when you turn 18,” he said, and that, with an air of legal finality, a coming of age, was that.

But still I wondered. Because my hair was different. Mum had a kind of mousey brown bob which was gently greying – until one holiday, coming home from boarding school, I suddenly noticed that she’d gone silver with a startling abruptness. (She must have been in her early 30s.) Dad had dark brown hair, kept short-back-and-sides, and combed ruthlessly across his crown. In contrast I had a wild mane, the thickest hair anyone had ever seen, which formed giant curls of its own accord and shone with a glint of fire when the sun caught it. “It’s auburn”, they said. “Such lovely thick hair.” This being the late 70s the fashion was to have it long, and I clearly remember getting off a bus one day with Mum and my sister, and her bumping into some foreign lady she knew – one of the diplomatic wives. “What pretty little girls!” the lady pronounced. I scowled at the pavement. It’s a little ironic, looking back on it.

A local woman called Zetsa used to babysit us when Mum and Dad were out at some cocktail party. Cocktail parties were a theme of my childhood. I remember the diaphanous dresses Mum wore, how she’d kiss me goodnight carefully to avoid smearing her lipstick, and the lingering scent of some expensive perfume in the hall after they’d departed. Zetsa wore no perfume. She was a gypsy – an actual Roma, from a village high in the Rhodope Mountains – with a head of tight curls dyed a deep, unnatural black, face like a cracked walnut, a gold tooth, and hands like paddles. She was kindly, in a brusque sort of way, and lived somewhere out in one of the new socialist paradise housing projects on the outskirts of the town. She spoke only Bulgarian, I only English, but somehow we communicated, within the confines of the dynamic between six-year-old boy and forty-something gypsy woman. I remember one night in the bath she decided to wash my hair, and abruptly seized a bar of Imperial Leather soap and began scrubbing away with it. I remonstrated mildly. “Not with the soap! We have special soap in the bottle for hair. Shampoo.” I pointed to the bottle of Head and Shoulders on the side. She ignored my protests and muscularly worked up a fine crown of suds. My world disappeared spluttering in a cascade of water as she tipped a jug over my head.

The next morning at breakfast Dad began hooting with laughter. “What on earth have you done to your hair? Looks like you were dragged through a hedge backwards.” I inspected myself in the mirror. It was pretty wild. Great auburn tufts stuck out in all directions, and it felt as thick as wire wool. We slicked it down with water at the kitchen sink, and he tried to run his metal-toothed comb through it until I yowled in protest. My hair was uncontrollable. I told him Zetsa had used the soap instead of shampoo, and he said: “Of course. They don’t have shampoo.” Who they were I didn’t enquire. But he must have said something, because next time she washed it she reached for the Head and Shoulders with a wink. And I remember the softly plosive Bulgarian words that she murmured as she ran those huge hands over my head and worked in the shampoo with her fingers. “Stoi moyata, malka kotka, az sŭm izmivane na kosata.” Sit still, you little cat, and let me wash your hair.

On returning to England we found the fashion had changed. My headful of auburn curls was of a previous decade; this was the 80s now, in Thatcher’s Britain, and the hippyish licentiousness of the 70s was passé. This was the decade of the floppy-fringed, foppish tosser, and if you didn’t want to be seen as a Sloan, you kept it short. I remember a barber using clippers to give me a grade 3 buzz cut, and a slight sense of bereavement at the nest of chestnut locks that fell about my feet. For the next ten years or so I kept my hair short, and by the time of my teens it had become something of a ritual to visit the barber with my friends and demand a grade 3 flat-top, which was then coerced into a spiky mat with pots of gel. We’d smoke Marlboros on the top deck of the bus into town and if we had any change left over from the haircut would pool it and buy a can of lager from the newsagents next door, sharing it on a park bench as we self-consciously preened ourselves and eyed up the passing, unreachable girls.

But short hair didn’t suit me – my hair had other ideas, and would begin to sprout into a wild entanglement within a couple of weeks. You can try and coerce me, but I’ll always rebel. After leaving school, and a brief stint at an art college – that time-honoured tradition for the bright but unconventional – I decided to grow it. Then, one summer in Berlin, a festival that went on for days, and an old castle in the grounds, and dancing on the battlements in front of a sunset that looked like the desert; I could make out a camel train heading east, and those clouds were dunes lit umber and ochre, fading to a rolling purple in the distance. I felt the music through the soles of my feet and out through the top of my head in silvery brilliance, my hair as aerials, each follicle bristling in tune with the world.

I remember coming home from the festival on the U-bahn, wild-haired and wild-eyed, and two crew-cutted drunks smirking, then, on reaching their stop, when they were a safe distance away on the platform, one loudly saying to his friend: “Is that male or female?” I didn’t care any more. I have my mother’s hair.


Achaar – (A Short Story)

Where are you? What are you wearing? Why does the thought of you make my heart thump all of a sudden? What are you doing today? Who are you meeting? Who is lucky enough to see you? How do you smell today? Can I come close to you and just rest in that space between your ear and your neck and inhale you? Why do we love? Why does it hurt so much when we do?

Did I manufacture this by choice? Or did I have no choice at all? It wasn’t love at first sight – no, I thought you beautiful, but was shy, there were others present. It was after the conference, and we were all pretending to be grown-ups while wearing name tags like children on the first day of school. But second sight – yes, definitely. The second time we met, seeing you in that cafe in Sydney, I had already fallen. That’s how I recall it, anyway. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You had come from work, and were dressed smartly. I remember your shapely legs, the colour of your blouse, those high heels. I loved the fact we were the same age, and that we showed the signs of it, our respective experiences written upon us, in the deeper laughter lines at the corners of the eyes, or in the frosting at the temples; we both lightly wore the past, but there are other signs that are hidden, which can be discerned in a gesture or a glance. The colour of your eyes… I have never seen such a beautiful colour.

It’s six minutes past nine in the morning, nearly forty degrees already, and I feel exhausted. If I sleep again I know I will dream of you. The fan is slowly stirring the air. It slows, stops, and then shudders back into life as the power returns. Is it cold where you are now, in that world of offices and suits and ten page risk assessments to do anything? Winter in July. How do you do it? – I know you hate it. You’d love it here though – the heat, the birdsong, the colours. No computers, no power half the time. You’d be like one of those hippie girls doing yoga on the beach, searching for meaning. I am searching for meaning too. I appreciate the sentiment that this is the first day of the rest of our lives – I know all that. But it feels like there’s nothing left to be said. I’m in love with you. That’s all. I don’t know why. I just am.

We play at indifference, maintain a cordial politeness, a certain professional reserve. We have to; what unbridled passions might rise to the surface otherwise? Do you distract yourself? I distract myself – I do other things, go out with friends, see other people, or try to. But it doesn’t work. How long in the silence of message and response is too long? Where does the absence of reply become drawn out so tight that the tension in it sings like a fever in my ears? I know, you were busy. You are popular, and rightly so. But how long before the very thought of you doesn’t stab me like a knife?

Why you? Out of all the women in the world, why should it have fallen to you to be the object of my desire? I apologise. Yes, I do. I didn’t want this to be a burden. But I desire you. I try not to, I catch myself if I begin to think about you in other ways, more passionate ways… but I do. The sultry nights are a torment. All I can think of is lying together and holding you. I hope you never see this. But I know you know.

You know, I love my wife. She is a steadiness, a strength in my life, which I cannot conceive of losing. I am there for her as she is for me. And it has taken will – some strength of will on both our parts, to stay together, although sadly children are not there. (It is me, not her.) But we decided it was worth it. You know our custom here; a marriage is more like a business agreement. Certain criteria are met: family, education, etc., and then the transaction is agreed. It’s different in your society I know, but there’s a misnomer – you call our way an arranged marriage (which is true), but as opposed to a love marriage. Be assured, I am in a love marriage. But not in an ‘in love’ marriage. I didn’t marry my wife because I was in love with her; that came later. We grew to love each other, and although we were both in our twenties, it felt like the kind of partnership you might see with old people sometimes – two of us supporting each other. The other day she was startled by a lizard when she opened the kitchen cupboard, and she jumped, and cried out: “Heeee!” But she was smiling. And my heart turned over because I saw that young girl I married, and I was filled with love for her: this woman who can be startled, joyously, by a lizard in the cupboard.

You do not have a husband, I know – nor even a wife (I know how different your world is to ours – men marry men, women marry women. It is admirable). You have lovers, certainly – boyfriends, one night stands, friends with benefits… lovers. You love them as I’m sure they love you. Who could fail to be drawn to your radiance? But do they feel as I feel? Are they completely smitten? There’s something rather pathetic about being so helplessly in thrall to another. I struggle against it at times, and enjoy the delicious heat of anger, rebellion, the luxury of resenting you for it. How dare you take my heart like this? But you didn’t. You didn’t. It was all my doing. I fear hurting you psychically somehow. How could I ever hurt you? What have you done to me?

My wife is making parathas in the kitchen as I write this, and calls out to me. Do I want achaar? Mango pickle. She doesn’t like achaar, but buys it because I do. I get up, go into the kitchen where she is deftly flipping the parathas over the open flame. A strand of her hair has fallen over her eye and she brushes it aside with the back of her wrist, causing her bangles to slide up her arm with a soft clacking. She looks at me enquiringly. I embrace her from behind, lower my head onto her shoulder, and to my surprise as much as hers, tears form in my eyes and I give a single, harsh sob. Unspeaking, she switches off the gas, turns to face me, and hugs me tightly.