Alice opened the big bottle of water we'd brought with us from the restaurant and Danielle went to get the glasses from the bathroom. There were only two, so we had to share.
I took a mouthful, and almost spat it out. "What's happened to the water?"
"What do you mean?" asked Alice.
"It tastes weird. Like... strong."
Bob and Alice were smirking. "It's the same water we were drinking in the restaurant, from the same bottles," said Alice.
This was obviously not true. It tasted like a drink. Water does not taste like that.
My body is two-thirds water. Now isn't that a strange thing? It's probably all Swindon water by now. And when I come back from India some of my water will be Indian. I won't be the same as other people. A bit of my body will be Indian. Will anybody notice? But I didn't want it to be this water. This water was too strong.
We'd also brought back some bottles of Coke from the restaurant, so I opened one, awkwardly, with Bob's excellent penknife, all the time watching my hands work like two five-legged aliens investigating a strange glass pillar with a cap. The old-style Coke bottle, a work of art. I put the bottle to my mouth, and... Jesus! An amazing mouthful of sweet brown froth. Double-strength. They don't make Coke like this in England, believe me. I held it in my mouth, for a very long time. Savouring it.
"Roger!" I tapped him on the knee and he swallowed. Then he put on his childlike face, the cute one that I can't criticise. It wasn't so much that I minded him playing the fool, it was just that he was sloping off into some private world somewhere, which he does, and here we were in the middle of India, or the southern tip of it anyway, and doing strange things and I wanted him to be... well... to keep me company. I also wanted to make conversation, but I couldn't think of what to say, so I asked Bob and Alice, "Are you married?"
This question surprised everybody, including me.
"No," replied Alice. "We've talked about it. But we don't think we need to be."
Yet I knew they lived together, and had done for a long time. And then I wondered how I knew that, and decided it was something to do with the way they behaved with each other, the hidden understandings, unspoken words, the way their bodies shared any physical space - the beachfront table where we'd eaten our fantastically spiced evening meal, the dark sandy alley leading back to our hotel, this quiet balcony a mile from the nearest road.
"We've been married five years," I said, answering the unspoken question. Normally I would follow this up with some explanation of why we didn't have children yet - that we wanted to but were saving all that fun until we were a little older, and hopefully richer. Yet for a change I didn't feel I needed to bother. Here we were, on a warm evening at an Indian hotel, four people relaxing and forgetting our cares.
"Shall I light the candle?" asked Bob. He'd ignored the plastic chair that Roger had brought out from our room for him to sit on. Instead he sat astride the stone wall of the balcony, and looked perfectly comfortable and secure there. Our room was on the second floor and there were no taller buildings around. Beyond the balcony were palm trees, lit mildly from beneath by stray light from the ramshackle Indian houses between them
I hadn't noticed there was a candle, but I saw it now. It too was on the balcony wall, a cheap grey-white stump close to the pillar. "Yes," I said.
Bob lit the candle with his Zippo. Alice leaned back in her chair and switched off the electric light. It hadn't been much brighter than the candle, but now it was off I could see how unbalanced its colours had been. The light from the candle was a beautiful yellow, a flickering gold. It cast deeper shadows on faces and made them more characterful.
"That's more like it," said Bob. "Now, this reminds me of a place I rented in Goa, in the days when hippies like me were still allowed there. A friend of mine rented it from a fisherman, and in the evenings..."
But I wasn't listening to him. I was watching an ant crawl along the balcony wall. No, it wasn't crawling, it was too fast for that, it was scuttling, as fast as its tiny legs would carry it. And they were very very tiny, so small I could barely see them. It was dark red, and it was on its own. Every so often it stopped, to check a speck of ash or the ring where a water cup had been. It was on its own, I guessed, because it was a scout, and if it found anything interesting it would go back to its nest and come back with reinforcements. If I'd found it at home I would have killed it. But here it was at home and I was the guest. It was at home and it had lots of friends, which was very nice but I hoped I didn't get to meet too many of them.
Then I started thinking about the way it lived, about everybody in the nest being related, all having the same mother. Queen Ant. And I looked a little way beyond the ant and saw the first of the palm trees, and realised that many of those would be related to each other too. They would be born from each other's coconuts. That line there, that first line, that tall palm could be the mother and all the other trees her daughters and sons. Would they know it? Would they know they were related to the tree next door? They say trees talk to each other. If they do, and maybe it's true, do they say "hello mother", "hello son, how are you today? Still got an aching bough?" And do they have friends? Do trees have friends?
I was about to ask everybody this important question, but when I looked round and saw their faces I realised exactly how ludicrous it was. Instead I giggled.
"What's up," asked Roger, smiling.
"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking about trees, that's all."
I turned back towards the palms, and the view nearly took my breath away. How could I not have seen it before? No. Forget that. It doesn't matter. All that mattered was that it was gorgeous. Scattered amongst the trees were little dots of light, the single light-bulbs of Indian homes, some behind windows, some on porches, all prettily dim and yellowing, a carpet of dots spreading as far as the trees allowed until too many fronds obscured them. There were people out there too, moving slowly or leaning quite still in doorways or sitting down, doing absolutely nothing. It was so much an Indian village, so... so exactly how I would imagine a village to be at night, that it barely seemed real. All the ugly bits that I'd seen in daylight I couldn't see any more, the old palm tree boles and leaves, rotting rattan chairs, discarded bricks, plain rubbish left were it had fallen. That was all hidden. There was no light there. All the lights were in the pretty places, placed there by a chattering troop of interior designers, so obsessed by their work that they'd carried on doing it on holiday, making art from the ramshackle houses and slim dark-skinned models strategically lounging around. And here I was looking out on their creation. It was truly... truly magnificent.
What really amazed me was that I could see it all so clearly. My night vision had become superb. It wasn't night-time at all, it was daylight with cloud. I could see the detail of a window frame, the pattern on a woman's wrap, the separate slats of a wall fifty yards away. All clear yet through a mist, a mist of firmament, of unreality. When I moved my head my vision didn't follow straight away. There was a delay, like my eyes were a camera but it took a second or so for the screen to catch up. A slow screen. A slow view. A slow timeless world in view. So slow.
My head was throbbing, especially my brows and the back of my neck, but oddly it didn't feel unpleasant, just strange. I turned back to look at the other human beings on the balcony, to see if I could sense them having strange sensations too. When the screen caught up with my eyes, I found them all staring out over the same designer view; intense, eyes narrowed and bloodshot, stony-faced creatures entranced by a beautiful world.
Bob turned to me and grinned, his eyes almost glowing in their slits. Yet they didn't make me afraid. I was just happy to know he was cruising at altitude too, that I wasn't alone.
"'You got there, yet?" he asked, quietly.
"Yes," I murmured. And I didn't have to ask what he meant.
She looked so funny, Danielle, with her mischievous smile and high laughing cheeks, her eyes like fresh-lit charcoal beneath Eskimo lids. Bob and Alice looked pretty wacky too. I could only imagine I looked the same. Four little children, we were, presented with big tin fire-engines. I wanted to say something about it, but didn't want to break the spell of the music.
Out there in the spectacle of the village - that 3D painting with so much depth into the distant houses, even into the blackness of the sea - I could just make out one of the tourist bars. It was on a back street away from the beach. Between two palms I caught glimpses of its fairy lights and the people sat at the tables outside. There was only one string of lights, which wasn't enough. They looked lost and slightly pathetic, like a single strand of tinsel on a Christmas tree. But by its wide open doors were two giant speakers, and they more than made up for any faults in the decor.
I had to assume the music came from those speakers. If I looked at them, no matter how hard, they looked silent. Monolithic - now there's a good word. Inactive. Like me. And the sound itself seemed to come out the warm night air. It was all around me, the best surround-sound I'd ever heard. Like somebody had started off putting speakers on our balcony, and then moved them away just far enough so they could be heard perfectly but not seen. So the sound came into my ears and reformed itself in the centre of my head, which it did, like heat forms in the centre of a microwave.
They were playing Bowie now. "Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do..." A Space Odyssey. And I was up there with Major Tom in his tin can, floating around the Earth in orbit, admiring its beauty. Unsafe yet untroubled.
But beyond that, I was realising what a genius Bowie was - is. Though I've heard people say that before, now it struck so true. In the music I could hear the soul of the singer, of the band. I could sense Bowie, high as a kite but adult, and next to him a child called Modern Music, and he had the child by the hand and was pulling it along, not cruelly but insistently, and saying, very gently, "C'mon, keep moving. I'm going as slow as I can."
I listened to every word, to every word of the entire song. And they were real. And then there was silence, which I listened to as well, and then Van Morrison came on. "It's a marvellous night for a moondance..." It is, Van. It is. And here was the poetic champion to tell me. A conduit. A man with too many feelings for a single mind to control. A kaleidoscope of love and beauty and sadness. A man living waking dreams.
Can India be real? I suppose it must be for the people who live here. To me it exists only as a holiday backdrop, the background of a moving painting. In two weeks I shall get on a plane and go back to reality. Will the people here still move around while I am gone? Or will they freeze, or simply disappear? And if I put myself inside their heads, look at things from their point of view, when I get on my plane do I simply fly away into a void, and not exist for them again unless I come back, except the teeny-weeny bit of me they carry round with them in their heads, in their memories.
They could be written by me, these people in their tin-roofed houses. They could be written as the extras for my holiday scene. All their actions choreographed for an authentic holiday. Or I could be written for them. I could be the work of somebody's pen. I could, for them, be a fictional character. Except for that, I might not exist at all.
What a curious thought.
I shook my head and snorted. Too far, too far. Time to get a grip on things.
Bob took my sharp breath as a sign that I'd come in for landing, and he joined me there under the strong lights on the puddle-strewn blacktop apron of reality.
"How's it going?" he asked.
"This is..." I looked at him intently for quite some time, trying to find the words to express what was happening to me, "...quite amazing."
Danielle came in for landing too. I could sense it. And finally Alice. It wasn't that we were coming back to normal. Far from it. Everything was still unreal. But we'd all been flying on our separate airlines, all over the place in different directions, and now we'd met up at a node.
I looked across at Danielle to see how she was coping with it, and got a surprise little jump in my heartbeat. My God, how much I loved that woman. She could be so... so busy-busy sometimes, so much the little hausfrau. But here she was, a wonderful, adventurous human-being, all relaxed and full of thoughts, and rather good-looking too. And I was married to her. Me, out of all the men in the world.
I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and say Thank You. I wanted to say - sorry we've been living our life like two robots for a while. I haven't been giving you enough attention. What can I do for you?
Our eyes met for an instant, and unbelievably that message went across. She was receptive. There was something similar going through her mind.
We broke off. It would have been too intense.
Alice reached for a glass of water. "Isn't the music excellent?" she said.
"Isn't it?" I agreed. "It's like, I'm not just listening to it. I can really feel it."
"I know what you mean," said Bob. "You can feel the emotions of the singer."
"That's it! That's it!" I couldn't have agreed more.
"Which is nice when the emotions are good," continued Bob. "But I remember once I was listening to a song by Ah-ha - some pop song, I can't remember which - and it was supposed to be a happy song, but I got this terrible feeling that somebody had died while it was being made. I still believe it now."
That was a bit of a mood damper, though we got over it pretty soon. Actually it made me think more about Bob than about what he'd said. And though he hadn't said something totally tedious, what it made me think was that Bob, despite his happiness and his travels, was actually a bit of a bore.
The butt-ends of our smoking session were still on the floor. Bob covered them with the sole of his boot and dragged his foot backwards, like the hoof of an impatient horse. The butts passed through the open fretwork of the balcony wall and out into the night. Cleared away.
Danielle leaned across and looked over the balcony edge. For a second I thought she was reverting to fusspot again, but that wasn't entirely true.
"They've landed on the table," she said.
"Eh? What table?" said Bob. He looked over the edge too, then held his hand over his mouth and chortled. "Oh my god."
"What is it?" asked Alice.
"There's a table down there by the wall," said Bob. "It's their offering table, the people who run the hotel. They're Hindus and that's where they put their offerings to their gods - flowers and fruit and things like that."
"Well I hope their gods like cigarette-butts," said Alice, dryly.
We found ourselves laughing. I caught Danielle's eye again. We both knew we shouldn't have laughed. Collectively we'd just made a cultural faux pas and we should have been ashamed. But we did laugh. We were youths behind the bicycle sheds again. And this time we weren't having an illicit cigarette, we were having a screw.
How could we say so much without talking?
I didn't want to talk much, but I didn't have to. When Roger looked at me I knew we were communicating, probably better than we did with words. Hello lover, I said. And thank you, too.
The business with Bob and the cigarette-ends had plugged us all back into the real world for a minute. But a gentle, amusing real world. Not that I stayed there for long
I began to watch an Indian woman in her late twenties. She was standing by the door of her home, almost blending in with the wall. She didn't move much, barely at all. It was a strange position for her to take a rest, but I knew that was what she was doing. Perhaps there were too many responsibilities indoors, too many children wanting attention, too many clothes to be cleaned. And outdoors too many eyes that would expect her to be active, fetching this or that, sweeping leaves from the hard-baked earth, ever the industrious wife. But there by the doorway, on the cusp, she was neither inside nor truly outside and could be ignored. And I wondered about her husband, because by now she would surely be married. I wondered whether he was good to her, or mean and demanding. And I wondered, more than anything else, if he was good to her in bed.
And that made me think about Roger again.
I turned my eyes slowly away from the Indian woman and watched Roger on the magic screen, rapt as he was in some inner ecstasy. I admired his chin, now shadowing after a long day, and his beautiful nose. I thought of his hands running smoothly up and down my body and I wanted to say something to him. Something sexy, something rude.
We were all quiet for a while, then Alice said dreamily, "So many stars."
Bob pointed. "Look, that's The Plough, but much lower down than it is in the northern sky."
What a strange man he was. I'd become a different person. He'd barely changed. When he was straight he'd seemed half out of it. And now the rest of us were flying with the fairies he seemed far too rational and sober.
I didn't think about it for long. I looked up at the sky, and that was me, gone, entirely goodbyed, back wandering through the musty lost-luggage department of the brain. I have never in my life seen so many stars. There wasn't a space left in the sky. The sky is very big. If it's full of stars, how many of them are there? Through the middle of the sky was a white band where the stars were thicker than elsewhere. That would be the bit you wouldn't want to go through in a spaceship. You'd almost certainly hit one of them. If you were going up in a spaceship, you'd want to point it at one of the darker areas, so you could get a good clear run.
There would be beings up there too, with aerials on their heads and a dozen arms. Or looking just like us, looking so much like us that we can't tell the difference. Except that all the women have mutated and they all have five-inch clitorises - long bright red fingers pointing out and down. They can't even wear skirts any more. They have to wear trousers with a padded pouch at the front. Despite their breasts and beautiful hair, it makes them look like men. They sit on trains or behind desks and stroke themselves there if they're feeling down.
Shit. This is getting serious.
I shuffled in my chair and coughed the way I do when I want Roger's attention.
Even though he's out of it, it still works. He looks at me.
This time my message is in a stare.
It says - lover, it's bedtime.
All I can think about is sex. I see sex in the trees, pollen on bees' knees, sex in the sky. I hear sex in the music. Isn't music written for sex? Even in Bob and Alice I see sex - two people who have sex. Isn't life that simple?
And I'm trying not to get an erection. And then Danielle coughs and looks over at me and I know that look from when we were engaged, and even every few months now, though she tries to hide it, unless she's drunk, and then I'm usually drunk too and not much use in that department. But there it is, that look, and I'm sober, in a way, and hornier than hell. The only thing I can think of now is how to get rid of Bob and Alice. Why didn't we go to their room? We could have left if we'd done that. We can't leave our own room, can we? Can we? I have to think about it. No, we can't.
"Listen. Bob, Alice, it's been a long day. I think Danielle and I could probably do with some..." It sounds like such an artificial speech. But Bob saves me the embarrassment of finishing it.
"Yes. I know what you mean." He's up in an instant, and grabs Alice by the arm, almost roughly, if you ask me. But she's grinning like a Cheshire cat that's about to get the cream, and I get this feeling that both of them know exactly what's going through the minds of Danielle and I.
"See you," says Bob, who's already off the balcony and half way through our bedroom on his way out. Then he stops and turns, right beneath the tangled haemorrhoids of the paltry bedroom light fitting. "I don't suppose you've got any chocolate, have you?"
The dirty blades of the ceiling fan turn but don't seem to move the air. Despite the urgency of my sexual need I am able to think about chocolate. The bitter-sweet taste. That creamy feeling on the upper palate. What a good idea. But I glance at Danielle and I get that heart-falling feeling of erotic desire so strongly that my stomach doesn't exist any more. There isn't room.
"No," I say. It's a shame, but we have no chocolate.
Bob looks at me and then at Danielle. But she and I only have eyes for each other. We're working out grips on each other's clothes. Bob knows he has to get out fast because we're about to explode into each other in a frenzy of cloth and limbs. He could easily be maimed by a flying zip tooth or a stray button.
"Oh well," he says.
"Oh well," I agree.
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Copyright Andrew Starling 2003, www.foxglove.co.uk.