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The Seamstress published on Home Page. October 16/2014
Independence Day published on Home Page December 19/2014
I realize all my stories have a common theme. One that reflects my profound belief that life is full of possibilities no matter what befalls us. Expecting the unexpected leaves you open to new experiences, new adventures, voyages of discovery about life, truth and ones self. If we face our shortcomings are willing to learn from our mistakes and never give in to despair something, in the words of Mr Mcawber will always turn up!
Danielle stood gripping the door frame more to hold her up than to keep the door from closing. Inwardly trembling with a powerful mix of emotions she stared at the ring on her finger, a narrow silver band with a row of tiny diamonds that perfectly suited her slender hand. She stared at it because she could not look at Gary. She was surprised her hand was not shaking and tried to concentrate on what he was saying. He stood there awkwardly shifting from one foot to another.
‘You are not the girl I once knew’ he was saying, ‘Jo is, well, she is so spontaneous and full of life and fun.’
There was sudden warmth in his voice as he spoke of Jo, it cut her to the heart. Gary had not known her all these years for nothing and he stopped abruptly, realizing he was hurting her.
She slid the ring off her finger knowing he would insist that she keep it. It was too late now, she had already protested, pleaded, only making herself appear more pathetic than she already felt. She reached out, put the ring in his jacket pocket and closed the door before he could object. She stood listening holding her breath; he hesitated only a second before walking away.
Danny stared at her reflection in the mirror by the front door. At least she had held onto the last of her dignity, not let him see the tears that now welling up in her eyes, tears of both pain and anger. She rubbed the tears away with the back of her hand and pushed back a strand of her long honey colored hair. Suddenly eerily calm, she saw the predominant expression in her hazel eyes was one of fear.
‘Is it true, have I really changed so much?’ she whispered.
She had prepared for the evening with care. Gary had suggested coming round that evening, said he wanted to talk and like a fool she thought now, she had jumped to all the wrong conclusions. She had not seen him for two weeks, he had been on a seminar for his job he explained, one of those endurance fellowship affairs when they trekked around Scotland somewhere and gave up the use of phones; coped with the unexpected. Supposed to strengthen teamwork and bonding, he had joked and they had laughed.
At last, she had thought when he had finally called to say he was back, he said he did not want to go out, just come around to her place. Of course she had naturally imagined after two weeks he was missing her and she had decided on the romantic candle lit supper.
The remains of it, the untouched food, wine glasses barely sipped flickered in the candlelight across the cosy studio apartment. They would be married, she had thought, nervously preparing for his arrival with special care. Six years of her life, four being engaged, ‘Next year, when I can afford to put money down on a flat of our own’ he always said when the subject came up. Well he had his promotion two years ago, she could see now that he had simply been putting her off.
They had discussed it briefly before he left for Scotland. He did not want her to go to the airport to see him off but she had insisted. Now, thinking back she had been the one who brought the subject up and he had said ‘let’s talk when I get back’ looking over his shoulder in the crowded departure hall as if he wanted to get away but she had still not seen it, had been too blind to all the signs. Two weeks away she thought was enough for him to have made his decision and when he came back they would set a date at last.
She sank down on the sofa with her glass of wine and tried to analyze her feelings rationally. She had realized of course the moment he had arrived, anyway he blurted it out pushing her away when she had flung her arms around his neck expecting to be kissed.
‘I am sorry Gary, I hope you will be happy’ had she really said that?
That was after she had almost lost it, her initial shock turning to stupefaction and then anger when he mentioned Jo. Jo of all people, one of his colleagues at the office, she evidently had been on the course with him sharing, Danny clearly imagined, the bonding experience to the full.
‘I’m sorry?’ she thought now, that’s what Gary had said, I apologize too much, maybe he is right, I am not the girl he once knew.
‘Please understand it was not planned Danielle.’ He had begun.
Why had he started calling her Danielle instead of the usual Danny he and all their friends used? That was her first clue.
‘Jo and I are getting married. Soon, we do not want to wait. I see now, putting it off year after year has spoiled things for us.’
That was the point where she exploded, could he blame her? He was the one who had put it off. She was angry and indignant yet could it be true? If so how had she let it happen? Not the part about putting off the marriage she had dreamed about so long but the other part. The part where he had said she was not the girl he had fallen for? She had lost Gary but was it true she had lost herself? Finishing her wine Danny decided this was worse, she had become so submerged in his personality, pleasing him, so familiar, that she had lost herself. The problem was that the realization was so painful, it hurt so much, that she had let it happen made it worse.
Making a space to set down her glass she pushed aside the stack of papers and magazines on the coffee table. A brochure fluttered from the pile and spiraled to the floor. As Danny stooped to pick it up she saw the photograph on the cover, The Gateway to India, red sandstone against the pale sky and sea beyond Bombay harbor.
The city was called Mumbai now, the monument an architectural mistake, the builders could not read the plan from Paris and built it backwards, the front facing the city the back towards the sea. Ever afterwards Danny knew that it was really from that moment she had made up her mind. The symbolism struck her immediately.
By the time she finally went to bed it was way past midnight. Emotionally and physically drained she had made her plans. She had a thousand and one misgivings but she would go. She and Gary had planned it, over months and years they had discussed and saved for their great adventure. To explore India together. Like their marriage, it had remained only a plan. Very well, she thought, falling exhausted into bed, she would show Gary but more importantly, she needed to show herself. She would go on that trip to India alone and with a secret sense of satisfaction she somehow knew that Gary never would.
A man washed two white oxen in a lake choked with lily pads the tall stems of white lotus flowers mirrored in the water, women beat clothes on flat rocks beside shady streams. Danny leaned back enjoying the cooler breeze from the open window of the speeding bus relieved after the relentless heat of the plains, enchanted by the ever changing scenery.
She was already feeling more confident after her first two weeks in India. Was it really only two weeks? Time, she decided seemed to have its own perspective here. It felt to Danny as though she had been here forever.
Arriving in Mumbai she had managed, with her guide book, to negotiate those first indescribable days. Her bag wrenched from her hands by an over enthusiastic porter and tossed onto the roof of the bus before she had time to protest. She had mounted the bus, hoping it would take her to the Youth Hostel Hotel, a forgotten but still functioning establishment left over from the earlier days of tourism after the war years and still gloriously spacious, reasonably salubrious and ridiculously cheap.
In the dimly lit streets on the journey to the center of the city she had her first glimpse of the masses of India’s poor. Wood framed cots lined the streets, people sleeping in the open beside the road, dim alley ways of shanty towns and debatable food stalls open despite the lateness of the hour and the sleeping cows circumnavigated by the traffic. After the Gateway to India and a visit unchallenged to the Taj Mahal Hotel to gain respite in the air conditioned calm of its resplendent fin- de- siecle interior, she took tea in the formally sumptuous style of bygone days and made her plans. With a growing sense of satisfaction she had navigated the queues , a national pastime it seemed, where fortunately she was ushered to the front by the melee of man all shouting ‘ladies first’ and successfully booked her train ticket. From the chaotic Dardar Station, another edifice of Victorian splendor, crumbling into beetle nut stained decay she departed only four hours late on the overnight express to Madras.
Finding the now renamed Chennai horribly flooded by late monsoon rains she had departed on the overnight train to Bangalore the following night and spent a few days exploring that most civilized of Indian cities before leaving by bus for Mysore. She thought she would remember for the rest of her life that train journey overnight to Bangalore. It was full moon and staring from her lower bunk at the landscape of palms against the night sky and the distant indigo hills beyond she had felt an indescribable kinship with the unseen driver of that train speeding them safely through the Indian night and a deep love for the country surprising her by its poignancy.
After Mysore and exploring at leisure the marvels of the sandalwood carvings in its famous palace and enjoying a few days wandering the delightfully bustling market searching for treasures she was now on the move again.
Without her expecting it the bus entered a wildlife sanctuary, the extravagantly named Karnataka Deluxe Luxury bus had crossed the state line into Tamil Nadu. Danny lent forward, intent on the forest she could see rapidly approaching first in out crops of dense trees and then in granite strewn scrub land where goats leapt from hillocks and giant anthills like fantastic Disney castles outdid each other in size.
Suddenly, the forest had closed completely in around them, a sign flashed by, Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Danny wished the driver would slow down. A large bird flew down beside their path his wings stripped boldly black and white, its vivid orange hammer shaped headdress flashed against the dark green backdrop of the trees as he flew up startled and was gone. The bus bumped over the road, full of potholes from the recent rains Danny barely glimpsed a look -out hide in a clearing, a rough structure on stilts and beside it, mahouts washing down three elephants before the bus flew past without pausing taking the next bend at hair-raising speed.
The sun now low slanted through the trees the bus slowed at the crest of a hill and Danny leaped from her seat with an involuntary shriek of excitement. Two leopards were crossing a track running diagonally into the forest. In a fraction of an instant, caught on the mind’s eye forever one of them paused, looked directly at the passing bus and into Danny’s line of vision before plunging out of sight behind his companion to be lost in the cover of the forest.
Too late, too surprised to reach for her camera she turned hearing the click of a shutter as they jolted around the next bend. Losing her balance she half fell against someone standing in the aisle behind her.
‘Did you see that?’ she cried excitedly forgetting to apologize for standing on the foot of the young man with the camera at the ready.
‘Leopards! I could not believe it either, the sun was shining directly into the lens, and anyway I think I was too late, what a picture and we missed it!’ he said smiling at her broadly trying to keep his balance while checking his film.
Most of the passengers seemed to be locals travelling home or perhaps Indian families on holiday. Most seemed to nodding off to sleep, one or two looked up curiously at the two travelers but all seemed oblivious to what they were both convinced was a rare sighting.
Danny, all but thrown off balance a second time by the careening bus returned to her seat thrilled to have seen two such beautiful creatures in the wild. A sudden love of life and its richness, its unexpected joys raced through her whole being even as the deluxe luxury bus raced past chattering black faced monkeys into a beautiful valley spread out like a vision of paradise far below.
The grating of the bus’s gears fell away into the silence of the forest, broken only by the sounds of water rushing over stones as it halted soon after at Monkey Jump Tea House. Here a stone bridge spanned the river and steps cut into the bank led up to the covered tea stall, Danny, glad to stop at last decided against tea.
Stretching her limbs aching from the ride she strode leisurely to the far side of the bridge and leaned over the parapet. Huge red flower cups spiraled down from the African Tulip Trees and sailed along on the dark green waters. Catching sight of a reflection she looked up as monkeys came jumping from the trees breaking the peace with their screeches, racing from branch to branch and peering curiously at the strange animal on the bridge.
‘Yeow!’ she shouted, grabbing her sunglasses lain casually on the parapet as one swooped down, leaped onto the bridge and attempted to snatch them.
A short laugh behind her made her turn. It was the young man from the bus.
‘What a journey’ he said, following the monkeys antics with his eyes and coming to join her.
‘What a country’ Danny replied smiling.
‘Yes! what a country’ he turned to look at her.
The way he spoke with a certain rush of emotion made her hold his gaze. She noticed his eyes, so dark they appeared almost black, a tanned skin a shock of thick almost black hair, he pushed it back and lent on the bridge next to her his back to the river and looked up into the trees.
‘I always noticed, the way people are all affected, one way or another but always profoundly, by coming here. Now I think I begin to see why.’ he said.
The monkeys dispersed their shrill cries receding into the forest. The passengers were making their way to the waiting bus the driver leaving the tea stall.
‘It is so true’ agreed Danny as they made their way back across the bridge, ‘I am trying to decide exactly what makes it so captivating and bewildering all at the same time’.
The other passengers were settling themselves as they reached the bus.
‘My names Raj, I noticed an empty seat beside you, may I join you?’ he said in way of an answer.
The bus set off again in a rattle of gears as Danny agreed.
‘That’s an Indian name is it your real name?’ she asked as they settled themselves, ‘Mine’s Danny by the way.’
Now a few white houses clustered beside the road in clearings, approaching the tea and coffee estate,s the tea bushes clinging to the slopes in orderly rows taming the forest floor.
‘Yes’ Raj answered her
‘You see this really is a voyage of discovery for me, my mum is Indian she met my dad in Bombay where he was working for a British company. Her family called it a ‘love match’ as an Indian girl usually has her husband chosen for her. Soon after I was born they decided to return to Britain thinking it was better to raise a child there, better education and prospects. I was only a baby and have no memories of India you see.’
‘So, you had to come back.’ Said Danny understanding where he got his dark looks his fine features although without knowing his story she would not have guessed his mixed origins. She decided this was perhaps because of his decidedly London accent.
‘Yes, was bound to one day. My visions of it I realized as I grew up were not my own memories but things my mother told me as a small child. I studied forestry and agriculture and India kept cropping up in my research. I decided it was time I discovered my roots and took a sabbatical, what about you?’ he said as if suddenly aware he was monopolizing the conversation.
Danny did not mind, it was interesting, besides it struck her how unlike Gary who never seemed to be aware that he did this to her most of the time, alone or in company.
The bus slowed in the accent of the steeply climbing hills covered with spice forest. Rich in Teak, Indian rosewood, Nutmeg, Cardamom and Citronella and Raj pointed out the groves of different species with a sure eye. Two distinct peaks began to dominate the horizon as climbing steadily the bus chugged past the Silver Cloud Tea Estate and silk farms cultivating mulberry trees. Raj excited, recognized them all, his enthusiasm was infectious and his knowledge enriched the experience for Danny.
Suddenly, they had crested one of the distant peaks that had dominated the skyline since setting out from Monkey Jump. A huge red sun hung suspended an instant before setting in flames drenching the sky in crimson. They sped on over the towering peak as darkness fell. Suddenly tired Danny fell asleep vaguely aware of the forest flying past in the gathering night. Her head bumping against the window woke her and Raj rolled up his jacket and made a pillow with it on his shoulder between their seats, she accepted thankfully and drifted off, feeling both safe and surprised by her sudden happiness.
Jolting to a stop in the bus station at Ooty, tea stalls open despite the late hour the travel weary passengers spilled out into the chill night air, organizing their belongs amidst the shouts from the boys discharging the heavier luggage from the roof. Raj carried a light back pack with him on the bus as did Danny and they easily disentangled themselves from the crowd. He offered to walk Danny to the Hostel she had booked above the old racecourse, explaining he had reserved one of the two rooms available for short stay travelers at the Ootacamund station. Leaving her at the gates of the old lodge they agreed to meet next day.
Discovering she had a cottage to herself in the English gardens in the style of the old days of the British Raj was an unexpected surprise for Danny. She followed the old porter down the path weary but contented. It seems there were endless surprises to this journey, her new travel companion included.
The climate in winter here was like an English summer and the gardens reflected their origins. The next morning Danny was delighted to find the path from her cottage bordered by Forget-Me-Nots, yellow ox eye daisies and tangled hedges of sweet briar roses. Up at the lodge, starched white table cloths embroidered with cross stitch elephants in blue thread and vases heaped with fresh flowers lent the dining room a comfortable charm. The windows, wide open framed by Indian cotton chintz curtains looked out over the gardens onto the racecourse below. Polished wooden floors and sturdy dressers laden with Victorian china from which Danny was served the most aromatic coffee and delicious home- made plum jam with toast in true British style completed her feeling of well being.
High in the Nilgris Hills the air is like wine. Danny found Raj waiting for her as arranged at the gate.
‘I have done some asking around’ he said heading back towards the town. ‘There is an old library the far side of the racecourse above the town. I thought we could go there and see if we can verify our Leopards.’
Danny watched Raj walking ahead. They had left the bustling center and the crowds by the bus station and headed in the direction of the municipal buildings on the hill behind the town. After remarking on the sights and delights of the market in the valley they spoke little. He was taller than Danny, long limbed and walked in looping easy strides, his arms swinging loosely at his sides. After so many years being so much a part of her life she could not help thinking how very different he was to Gary. Not her type at all. Gary would be wearing Chinos and some sort of preppy jacket over a carefully chosen trendy T shirt. If he made any concession to a sports shoe they would have had logos and despite the hazards of India’s sacred cows they would have somehow remained spotless. Raj on the other hand, wore Levis, a rumpled white James Dean T shirt and much worn faded red sneakers.
She decided she liked it, doubting there was such a thing as a mirror in the rudimentary accommodation at the station and probably accounting for the fact that his thick wavy hair looked even more unruly than she had noticed the day before. Gary’s fine light brown hair, she reflected, would be slickly in place because he used a designer brand styling product.
Raj turned round to wait for her. She had been dawdling, absolutely not concentrating on the scenery. Well not that scenery anyway she thought quickening her pace. He had an attractive smile.
‘Sorry, I walk too fast’ he said as she came up beside him, ‘Kinda impatient, one of my faults, Impatient for life, for love, for, well everything.’
The way he looked at her deliberately, slowly like that made her feel self conscious. Raj laughed
‘Come on’ he said.
Danny followed, abreast of him now she glanced sideways at him a few moments later; he was still smiling.
Before settling in for the night Danny opened the door of her cottage to take a last look at the dark hills around the town, the lights twinkling out amidst the trees. India was capturing her heart and smilingly she told herself not to get too carried away but well, Raj held a certain attraction too.
Their discovery at the ancient library, its moldering volumes and equally ancient librarians had yielded results. The two old men, guardians of this bastion of ancient learning wore threadbare and hopelessly old fashioned ill fitting suits lending an amusing incongruity to the courteous ceremony with which they allowed them into the reading room. Despite one of them appearing to be deaf, they had managed to explain and locate an old volume on wildlife. Raj had insisted that he and not the less feeble of the feeble old men mount the precarious ladder on wheels provided for the purpose of reaching the higher shelves. Dust motes rose to dance in the sunlight from the high windows as they turned the yellowing pages uncovering ancient plates and early photographs. Excitedly they identified the Jungle Cat, the leopard species that often hunt during the day.
‘Case closed!’ announced Danny happily. She wanted to hug the old men who both looked pleased and grateful to have been visited and appreciated. It had been a wonderful day. She and Raj had talked for hours eaten a lunch of Dosa, Indian pancakes with coconut chutney, and afterwards strolled together to the Botanical gardens.
Raj of course knew all the plant species and Danny felt herself at home with the numerous perennials familiar to her from her childhood in the south of England. She was a country girl she told Raj when he commented appreciatively at her knowledge of species of English garden flowers.
‘I like London,’ she explained, ‘At least I did for a while.’
‘Now, I am not sure. Coming here, everything seems to have changed and I am not sure what I will do when I go back.’
Raj asked her about her job. She had quit in fact, she knew the rules in the office where she worked. Two weeks holiday and that scheduled at the end of the previous one with the prime dates of choice going to the more senior staff. Her job had not been exciting, in fact she had hung on hoping that when she was married she could give up working, she wanted children and she would soon be thirty. Maybe later she could find something part time, she was good at accounting, you could always find work and Gary had a well paid job.
Raj was lying on the grass beside her, the shadows of Eucalyptus leaves played across his face. Danny could smell their perfume in the afternoon sun. He opened his eyes when she did not go on and looked up at her though half closed lids.
Suddenly he pulled her down into his arms. He kissed her lazily at first then with more intensity and Danny had pushed him away and sat up. Public displays like this in India were unacceptable and although there were few people about Danny was embarrassed and flustered, taken by surprise, another surprise. A family had walked by on the other side of the garden, a small child’s laugh made Raj sit up.
‘Sorry, I told you how impatient I am.’ He said.
Danny had told him then about her breakup, she had not intended to, but after his kiss without knowing why she simply did not care about it anymore, the hurt had simply disappeared. Gary had succeeded in destroying her self confidence. Raj with one kiss, one very beautiful kiss, she thought now, had restored it.
In bed she sleepily went over their afternoon once again. He had left her at the gate of the lodge and behaved like the perfect gentleman. She had English tea on the terrace and afterwards taken a long siesta. Raj had not suggested they meet that evening for dinner but turned before leaving her.
‘The old steam train still runs down to Mettapulayam’ he said ‘from there it is possible to catch a train to Cochin.’
‘What you mean there is actually supposed to be a connection?’ replied Danny laying the emphasis on supposed knowing by now the irregularity of Indian Railways.
Raj had laughed, he had walked away a few steps but came back. He stood close to her looking down into her eyes.
‘I thought I would leave tomorrow would you come with me Danny? because,’ he added softly, ‘I defiantly think there is a connection’.
Raj twirled the train ticket in his fingers looking up and down the narrow track for the Blue Train his gaze thoughtful. They strolled down the platform to look back at the blue hills receding into the far distance.
‘Do you think you could have a future in a country like this?’ he asked suddenly.
Danny let her gaze follow his beyond the tracks beyond the forest, before them small cottages nestling in plum orchards, tea plantations marching in orderly rows beneath the Eucalyptus trees the distinct colors of their bark clearly visible.
‘I don’t know exactly how, but if it were possible perhaps, for now I only know I love it here.’
Raj smiled at the sky.
‘All that studying I did, agriculture, forestry I think I begin to see that I could use it here. Right here in fact, the world is moving fast. It is not the same India I was born into. Here you could have a family, you know, kids, let them run wild, be free, a great climate up here, have a farm, a flower garden Danny, far from the clamor of the world.’ He said.
His smile broadened and was joined by Danny’s laughter.
Two monkeys swung from the station roof onto the platform. They sat for a moment on the edge glancing up and down the track perfectly imitating passengers waiting anxiously for the train. As they scampered away the Blue Train rounded the bend whistle blowing. Puffs of white smoke rose into the air as it chugged loudly into the station.
Danny looked back at Raj he was smiling at her, he took her hand and led her to join the other passengers climbing aboard the train. They found two seats next to one another by the window, looking out they waited expectantly for their journey to begin.
From a safe distance above the track the monkeys watched, chattering softly to themselves as the Blue Train pulled out of the station.