By David Flynn
The drive up the mountain from Dehra Dun to Mussoorie had turned into a horror. In a monsoon, the black cab meandered from side to side of the narrow road, approaching the drop to the plains at the left all too often. At times, the driver, foot to the floor, barely kept the machine moving up the snaking, steep incline. Frequently he stopped at a pipe sticking from the rock to fill the overheated radiator of the antique.
About half way up the foothill of the Himalayas, Dan turned to Emma with a smile, about to make one of his jokes. She lay curled below the window level, panting.
"Darling?" he said.
She glanced up from her knot. Her face, always porcelain, was death white. Her blue eyes were what scared him. They looked insane.
"I've never told you," she panted. "Ever since he pushed me down the stairs, I've been afraid of heights."
All Dan could do was hold her, but she didn't want to be held. Her breathing came loudly and tortured, so that all he could do was sit there and feel weak.
After forever, when the cab barely toppled onto the level hill station town, Emma sat up. Tears rolled from her eyes. Her beautiful lips, the fullest, reddest lips in the world, parted in agony.
"I'm sorry," she said, still gasping for air. "It was silly."
"Quit apologising," Dan held her hand. She irritated him, always mumbling apologies. "This is his fault, not yours."
"No, it's my fault," she said. Emma glared at him, another male like her ex-husband. Males were mean. She couldn't smile. By this time on their trip around the world, he had a hard time smiling too.
The driver edged the black sedan through masses of middle class Indian families on vacation, and continued uphill on the road. Past the intersection with the main street the driver made a left turn at a traffic light onto a narrow, bumpy lane.
The old car struggled up an even steeper incline. He looked out the window to their left, across her curled body, at what should have been hundreds of miles of green Uttaranchal farmland, but was grey fog and rain. The cab pulled into a tilted driveway of broken concrete.
On the right dripped a weed-grown park dark with trees. White plants with heads like cobras rose in the gloom. The driver stopped in front of a rotted green door. "OFFICE," the sign read in English. The Savoy Hotel.
Emma stayed in the cab, recovering. In fact, his very body in the same vehicle seemed to anger her.
The Savoy was peeling and dying. Dan saw the oldness with amusement because rot was why he made the reservation. The hotel was a relic of when India was a British colony, a Himalayan retreat where Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie had slept. The Dalai Lama, the King of Nepal and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie were once guests. In pictures on the internet site, the rooms looked haunted.
The office was a glimpse of the 1800s, with cubby holes and tarnished brass behind the dented counter. That delicious feeling of death increased as the manager, an officious, possibly former military man in a burgundy turban, turned him over to a bellhop, whose burgundy tunic was torn and frayed, and whose smile showed no teeth top or bottom in the middle. His stiff back revealed a military background as well.
Driver paid and tipped, the bellhop led them through a U-shaped courtyard of cracked concrete surrounded by two floors of latticed green wood. A team accumulated as they walked, three old men in the torn burgundy tunics lugging the four bags, a young man in a suit, and a maid. The expedition led up broad stairs to a second floor room. Emma followed a bit behind him.
The bed took up the middle 60 percent of the room, two twins joined. She ran for the bathroom. While the young man gave a speech about improvements at the Savoy – he must have taken a business degree – the noise of Emma throwing up came through the bathroom door. The staff looked upset.
When the entourage had gone, had instructed them in everything from the electric switches to the bath, Dan was alone with Emma. His heart sank. She was a ghost yet, lying on the bed in the dark room. Through a door that led to the adjoining room the racket of a large family returning. The TV blasted. Kids screamed.
"Rest a little," he said, "then we can explore this mausoleum. I think it is endless."
"Let's look now," she said, without space for disagreement. "This place is too noisy."
He kissed her, but her lips did not kiss back. In New Delhi he had worried about her new coldness. Now he drifted, still in love, still in hope, still in romance, but dreading whether she did love him still, and whether she would remain closed, like a tight coat. People leaving was his soft spot.
Rain dripped from the gutters. The old green wood ran dark with water. Waterfalls fell where there were gaps. The open end of the courtyard roiled grey with fog and mist.
Downstairs the U was bounded by lattice, with many broken boards sharp as swords. Mouldy deer heads dotted the wall, his favourite with only one horn left. They explored utterly alone. In the empty bar hung pictures of the dead famous who had gotten drunk. These relics impressed Emma, who had never finished her college degree.
"Kipling, Waugh," she said, with the first enthusiasm since they had boarded the train in Delhi. "And Nehru's role in India's independence from Britain began here in 1920." He was never sure what she knew. A scattering of books, a name or two from history, then the most obvious piece of information, Kant and Hegel, and she wouldn't know. He loved to teach her. He should have been a teacher, maybe, instead of a journalist, though a reporter also was a kind of teacher. What a relief not to have to write about the trip after quitting his newspaper job.
"Old names from the British empire," Dan lectured. "And look, even a queen has stayed here."
Alone on the wall opposite the dusty bar hung a black and white photo of Queen Mary, who had been an overnight resident of the Savoy in the early 1900s, though only Princess of Wales then.
Emma put her arms around his waist. He was the one who had taken her from rural Tennessee, and a father who was afraid to eat Chinese food, into the world. She might not like him anymore; but she seemed to need him. He held her waist closely too; divorced, his ex-wife a runaway, he needed her as well.
At the end of the hall a double door opened into a vast dining room. Circular tables, covered with torn gold and white cloths, dotted the bare wood floor, worn to shiny. At the distant end, on a small stage, stood a black piano. No one on that expanse as well. Their footsteps echoed. In the silence, he heard water dripping.
Beyond that hall, another hall, and beyond that hall another hall. The Savoy was endless rot, dark green. They discovered another dining room, another haunted piano. These were draped in dusty white cloths. Then two-story mazes of vacant guest rooms, like the spokes of a snowflake, but on to infinity.
"Nobody else is here except us and the noisy family," he suddenly realised. "I am going to ask them to move us."
At that moment, he knew, a bit down the hill, Mussoorie teemed with people, and the other hotels were booked full months ago.
Emma stood pale white, and a guest ghost of The Savoy. She smiled thinly. She needed dental work.
"I am enjoying myself," Emma said.
"You need rest."
"No. Not while I am enjoying myself."
She could be the stubbornest woman he had ever met. In Tennessee that strength at the core, though the surface be feminine, seemed right; in the middle of India, he questioned whether he wanted to be in the same country with her any more.
Three, then four ancient men in torn burgundy tunics moved their four bags from the room, still blasted with television next door, across the U, to the far end, second floor. The young man in the suit stood nervously by the door. This was a suite with a black foyer, then black doors to a living room, the black wooden floor slanted and partially covered with a torn, stained carpet. The black bedroom came next, a mattress without headboard placed in a bow window, the three panes filled with white fog, then a black bathroom where nothing seemed to work. The tiles were broken, some missing; the faucet in the brown-streaked lavatory dripped.
He tipped the four a few rupees, because they didn't seem to move, four smiling, waiting mouths with few teeth. He offered money to the businessman, who shook his hand no, ever with the most serious expression. When he and Emma were alone, the room filled with awkwardness.
Let's take a nap. Let's make love. Let's read. Let's take baths. Let's walk through Mussoorie.
"Let's walk through Mussoorie," she said. Her face smiled, almost affectionately. He didn't trust her smile. Inside she was so different from outside.
"It's still raining a little," he pointed out.
"I don't care."
"Sure you feel well enough?"
The rain was a mist as they walked through the white cobra heads of the garden. The one bench snaked with vines. The trees were dark and the garden felt like a graveyard. The white cobra heads seemed to watch them.
Down broken concrete stairs to the road that curved along the cliff. To their right was fog. They walked slowly. Dan soon was soaked and miserable. What must Emma have been feeling. She stumbled along, an alabaster statue.
The noise of India increased with every step. They came to the intersection with the main road, the one they had ridden up from Dehra Dun that continued past Mussoorie up into the Himalayan Mountains, snow-capped peaks maybe looming above them but invisible in the clouds they walked among. Cars, trucks, and SUVs edged their way along the narrow two lanes in unending, honking chaos. The silence of The Savoy became horns and shouting people. Emma and he joined the line of families, shuffling along. Each side was walled with shops, selling chapatis, umbrellas, with signs in the Hindi script a mystery to them both. At the bottom of that hill, they turned left with the crowd onto the main shelf of the hill station. A man, dripping with water, stood in their way.
"Give the lady a pony ride," he insisted. His smiled showed few teeth.
"NO!" Dan shouted, and the man grumbled away. In the off season too many beggars, map sellers, ride givers continuously bothered them.
"You are an angry man," a street jewellery seller in New Delhi had complained, as if there were rules and he had broken one by screaming.
"I might have wanted a pony ride," she said. She didn't; he knew she didn't.
Emma's attention was on four big monkeys, big as people, sitting on the edge of the mountain. Hairy, rain-slicked, muscled, they glared, black in silhouette against the grey fog. They were serious monkeys, with resentful expressions. They looked dangerous, and the Indian people gave them a lot of distance.
Emma's red hair was slackened by the rain, and her face so white it glowed.
"I'm all right," she said, reading his thoughts.
"Let's go back," he decided. "You should rest."
"No, I'm all right." But her voice, with the rural accent, wavered. She would walk until she died. His Southern accent had died years ago through education, and once he was asked if he came from Canada.
They shuffled along with the masses. The men in turbans, the women in saris had ceased to be exotic. Mussoorie was a family resort and many children walked too. Although an occasional boy ran amok or screamed, the children behaved. Everyone was there for a holiday from the summer heat on the plains, and despite the rain, the cool of the foothills, they too were determined to see the hidden sites along the ridge, all getting wet. The Himalayas were blocked by the fog above them. When they came to the gondola that rode on cables over their heads into the mountains, there were no takers.
Emma and Dan walked a mile, stopping for nothing. A man ran out of the mist holding a snake out at them. "You would like a picture with the snake? One hundred rupees." Emma screamed, and rushed ahead. She was deadly afraid of snakes. When he had shaken off the man, Dan caught up with her.
"That is the first live snake I have ever seen in my life," she gasped. That she lived out a country road and never saw a snake was a measure of how sheltered her parents had kept the daughter. At times, she seemed to live in the Victorian era, like the Savoy.
"Are you sure you are all right?" he said. He asked the same thing over and over again, but what else?
"Yes, dammit. I'm all right." But she looked like death. She looked pissed-off as the monkeys.
A rickshaw went by, the rubber tires making a sucking sound.
"Let's take that," he offered. The man stopped, and smiled, with few teeth.
"NO! I'm all right."
They had not seen the famous cobra charmers, which she had dreaded. Perhaps that was in the south of this endless culture, a thousand miles away. The India they planned to see was all in the north.
The road sloped upward, and he too breathed hard, faint headed, and felt like stopping. The mist became a steady rain, and by time they had struggled halfway up the hill had turned into a downpour. No view off the side, of course: all grey and fog.
They stepped into a small shop that sold men's shirts. The rain became so intense they could hardly see across the street, the monsoons early. Two SUV's, behemoths on that narrow street, tried to pass each other. Slowly, inch by inch, the Toyota closer to them edged along. The crowd could not get past, and people yelled at the drivers. The drivers yelled back at the people out their open windows. A wallah dressed only in a rag stood waving them on, eyeing the microscopic space between the two vehicles, between the vehicles and the stores, expecting payment afterward.
Dan's attention was turned to this small drama, and when he looked again Emma had fallen on the floor. She crumpled in a knot. There had not even been a plop. The owner of the shop rushed to her, a look of annoyance.
"Darling," he said, kneeling to help. Her blue eyes blinked back at him. He thought: Oh God, Oh God.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's all my fault."
"Shhh." And he really was angry, angry and infinitely worried. Deep anger at her stubbornness roared inside him, but he kept his face neutral. He knew he did this, because it was a skill he took from childhood, where reacting to his farmer father's temper only made that ageing volcano the worse.
"Do you want my assistance?" the owner said. "I will get some water."
"Some water would be wonderful," he said.
Dan held Emma's precious head in his hands. She struggled to get up, but rose only partially. Those lips, full, warm, human, white now, smiled, and he was in love again. He had always been in love with her, and had only forgotten. She had called him first, she had asked him out first; she always had been in love with him too. She kept hearts and dried flowers on every shelf.
A crowd gathered around them, of course. Crowds gathered everywhere they went. The shouts and tension of the vehicles continued, so that when Dan noticed again, the huge SUV's had barely made any progress, trying to pass on a street built for, what? Ponies? The driver on the shop's side was beside himself with rage, his red face matching his turban.
Emma stood with Dan's help by time the shop owner returned. A few sips of the water he brought helped clear her head. She still was sheet white, the wet red hair another, more dangerous, ghost.
"A little food and some rest will bring her back," he told the owner.
"There are restaurants up the hill," he said, rushing them along. They were distracting the customers, trapped and ready for a sale.
"I'll be fine," Emily said. "Really, I'm fine. It's my fault."
But he knew she wasn't fine. He knew that whatever she was inside he did not know, even after a year of love, even after travelling half way around the world in love. He, by contrast, exposed every nerve to her. He was the true romantic. She was too hurt to be a romantic. They spent weekends at Victorian bed and breakfasts, in love, out of time, in separate centuries.
A few rupees to the owner, another ten minutes of interminable waiting for the vehicles at last to disconnect then burst away at speed, and they walked, step by step, up the hill to a second floor cafe.
The meal was forgetful, an ice cream shop, really, with sandwiches. The view, however, narrowed to a shiny ribbon of the flooded street, snaking down the hill, clouds of fog on the left, and fingers of fog from the invisible Himalayas on the right. They watched the rain fall in torrents, floods that flowed into some shops, but the crowds flowed too, umbrellas like black flowers in lines. The scene reminded Dan of his family's vacations in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina, with slow traffic jams flowing night and day, kids in shorts, and miniature golf course after miniature golf course. His poor mother silent hour after hour; and what went on inside of her? He half expected her to explode some day, and murder the whole family, including him.
"I feel a lot better," she said.
"I don't believe you," he said. "You could be an inch from dying and you would say the same thing."
He smiled, affectionately. And that love waved through him again. Stupid, dumb love, so strong he didn't notice it sometimes. Persistence was a good thing, wasn't it? Emma was brave, and he had to remember that she was being educated. Before this trip she had never taken an airplane trip. So many firsts, first other country, first subway (the Paris Metro), first white cow in the street, first India.
"We will take the rickshaw back," he ordered her, feeling male. It felt good. "You can't walk a long distance."
"No," she insisted. "I'll walk."
"No, you won't."
The rain did not stop, and half an hour later they gave up and entered the downpour together, holding hands. The guide books had warned against public displays of affection, like kissing, and they had studiously avoided even a touch. Now, they had to be American a bit. At the bottom of the hill there was a rickshaw driver waiting, having just dispatched a superbly dressed young couple, maybe on their honeymoon. Maybe, so many maybe's in India.
Before they could climb into the canopied seat, however, a man tapped Emma on the shoulder. He pointed to a camera he held. His family waited by the railing, the fog grey behind, the rain falling.
"I hate this," she said, publicly irritated. But she obeyed.
Emma lined up with the family, while he, ignored, waited in the rickshaw. The wife and son put their arms around her waist. The father snapped the picture, and nodded in thanks. Emma left without grace.
As the rickshaw man, skinny, bare-chested in soaked shorts, bare-footed, struggled to move the American weight down the incline without losing control, Dan kept guard on Emma. Her gaze to the side was vague, but she did look one shade less white.
"Think how many photo albums you will be part of in India. Families will look at your picture for years to come. Look at the beautiful woman with the long red hair and pale white skin, they will say. Would you have thought that one year ago?"
The year before they met, when he reported the story of her ex-husband's stalking her. A huge man, 350 pounds. "I married him because I didn't love him," she had said, "and I thought I could make a life out of that."
She smiled, genuinely, and held his arm with both of hers. Next to him her leg was not warm, and her head on his arm was hard.
"You're right. I have to be grateful."
They had speculated why so many people in India wanted her picture. Not his, of course. They ignored him. But during their few days in New Delhi, Emma often had been harassed on the streets by men wanting to take her photograph, or, more often, to have Dan use their cameras to take their pictures as a group. Movie-star attention. Once, after they entered a cab, a man actually stuck his head through the window and rudely snapped a shot. She worried that people thought she was a prostitute. Instead of being flattered, Emma had been afraid to leave the hotel room.
In a few minutes the skinny man dragged them to where the Mussoorie intersected with the highway from Dehra Dun up into the Himalayas. The monkeys were gone, and the crowds thinned. The rain, though softer, still fell.
"Back to the Savoy?" he asked.
But she had not suggested it herself, and he knew that if he wanted to shop for another hour she would have, wordlessly. Her passivity had started to irritate him. Maybe, contradicting all that strength, Emma wanted to be ruled: the huge first husband. He, feminist-era man, hoped not. Equals: they had agreed. Dan accepted that he was lost, raised to be like his father, an old-fashioned king of the house. He divorced his college mistake rather than repeat his parents' misery, but it had been she who had left him. He might have stayed married for years and years, an angry lifetime, mismatched, wasted.
Walking up the hill to the hotel in the steady rain proved the final blow to their health. When they took one concrete step at a time into the dark garden, Emma looked barely alive. He tried to put his hand around her waist to steady her, but she knocked it away. Why was she mad? He never had a clue. If she'd only tell him, he had the will to fix the problem. He loved her very much, and was afraid she had stopped loving him. Just another love leaving him. There had been many. His soft spot.
The white cobra heads of the flowers looked full of poison; they seemed to turn and want to bite their passing legs.
The Savoy was engulfed in fog. Fingers of white cloud wove into its rotten green lattices. Nobody appeared, though there was one black sedan parked in front of the office.
Up the stairs. As they struggled, step by step, muscles hurting, spots before his eyes, he pointed out to her the serious monkeys, now on top of the opposite roof. Silhouetted against the fog, five of the big apes were tearing apart the metal vents. One stopped. He screeched at another. They reared on their haunches and stared at them. Dan hurried her along into the suite.
Once in the cold shelter of the bedroom, they quickly took off their clothes. He didn't even have to say the magic word "nap." In the shade of the late afternoon room, nap they did, deeply, darkly, separately, not touching, under a weight of blankets.
They woke to the crash of thunder. Bam. Bam. Lightning flashed in the dark of night again and again. The bow window with the bed seemed inside the storm.
Emma held onto him. Her smooth naked body felt warm in the cold. Her shape, all skin and softness, no bone, made him electric. He couldn't help himself, how he smoothed her hair, how he cried.
"I love you, darling," he sobbed. "All the junk... I really do love you, and will love you until I die."
"I love you too," Emma gasped. "You don't have to worry. I will never leave you. Never."
And in the lightning and the smash of the rain against the three windows, he spread her legs and entered her. They were passionate for the first time in weeks. She cried and he cried. They crashed against each other. Her hands helped him spread the sperm over her breasts.
For the oddest thing had happened in New Delhi.
Dan thought of it when he was about to climax, his first clear thought during the sex. Even in Tennessee, and with the pills, he had worried each month about the tense weeks until her next period and the uncertainty until the red flow whether Emma was pregnant or not. And that pregnancy, and the child too soon, and their being nailed together.
After the New Delhi taxi had left them at the Hotel Metro, a one-star derelict the airport desk had phoned, and they were alone, Emma searched for her birth control pills. She had months' worth in a small bag, checked in at the Paris airport. All were gone. In their stead was a packet of photographs. Leftover shots of a room with wood paneling, the corner of a tiled roof, a slanted view of some palm trees out a window and an empty desert beyond, a few out of focus photos of a wedding, Indian strangers with blurred red faces. They would never know. Now they had to be careful. Nailed together.
He lay in the lightning flashes at the Savoy, Emma holding on to him with her head hidden in his side, wondering again who had stolen her pills, and why the thief had exchanged those awful pictures. And whether he and Emma would have children. And whether he and Emma would live their whole lives in marriage, dissatisfied, uncomfortable, but joined at the core.
"We could name the baby Savoy," he said, though inside he was trembling with fear.
He felt the convulsions of her laughter, and reached down to pull the blankets over their naked bodies. They fell toward asleep. This, he knew bitterly, was to be the happiest moment of his life.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011