Sweat lies cold on Sandy’s skin. She shivers. Her stomach tightens and she tucks up her knees as pain slices through her gut. She grits her teeth and holds her breath. Then she exhales, slowly, controlling the flow of air to suppress the groan that’s fighting its way out of her throat. Her hands shake. Her forehead’s hot. A tingling between her shoulders creeps up the back of her neck and attacks her scalp with a thousand pinpricks. Beside her in the bed, George is sleeping. She can just make out the shape of his body and his arm, which is raised above his head. There is insufficient light to see his face but she knows his jaw will be slack, relaxed after all those beers. Just a few more Kingfishers, he had insisted, with Bill and Joanne, and Sohrab the tour guide, sitting around the crackling log fire under the stars, sharing good company and his best anecdotes as though nothing had happened.
‘Bastard,’ she whispers. ‘She was just a girl.’ She makes a fist, ready to punch him in the ribs, but her stomach grips again. She slips a leg out from under the covers, torn between an exhaustion that renders her too heavy to move and the knowledge that she really must get somewhere fast. She levers herself into a sitting position and her elbow catches the bottle of water on the bedside table. It lands with a thump and rolls, sloshing into the corner of the eco-cabin.
‘Sandy?’ murmurs George, and he rolls over.
Then another watery sound. Her stomach. The grip tightens. Suddenly she’s out of bed. Her fingers explore the table top, fumbling for her phone. In the faint screen light she fights her way out from under the mosquito net, retrieves the bottle of water, slips her feet into George’s trainers and stumbles outside into the night.
The Eco-loos had been the cause of great amusement among the eight members of the Adventure Tours group on their arrival earlier that day; day nine, according to George’s calculation. After the overnight train journey and transfer to the safari lodge, the first item on the itinerary was a visit to the facilities. The ladies and gents were differentiated by colourful hand painted signs saying HE and SHE, and the splashback behind the sinks included a row of teddy bear tiles. George had taken a photograph.
It is only after Sandy has brushed away another tickle and slapped at a sting on the side of her neck that she realises she is not alone in the Eco-cubicle. Mosquitos. There on the curve of her white thigh, illuminated by the light from her phone sits another, cool as you like, impervious to the Deet that Sandy has sprayed all over. Not only is she under attack from the inside, there’s an external threat too. Slap. It takes all her energy. A cluster of the insects waltz in the telephone torchlight. Though they are only swirling specks, she shudders. She was recently shown enlarged photographs and diagrams of these slim legged menacing dancers with their proboscises, antennae and those compound eyes; she had sat with George at their kitchen table while he conducted research for their holiday of a lifetime.
‘A single mosquito bite is all it takes for someone to become infected,’ he read from the laptop, adding ‘Only females of certain species of the Anopheles genus transmit malaria. Females, Sandy. Only the female of the species is deadly,’ and he laughed.
‘Females bite to obtain blood to nurture their eggs,’ Sandy said, continuing to read from the screen. ‘Why would the males bother?’
A single mosquito bite. These words, in George’s voice, repeat in her head. From an infected female. He found that so funny. For a while she watches the mosquitoes, which to Sandy, are of indeterminate genus, sex, and state of infection. She waves her hand through their flight paths without expectation that they will disperse, then looks down at her phone and turns off the light. It’s not as dark out here as she expected, now that her eyes are accustomed. Supplementing the light of the half-moon are the solar powered lamps which mark the pathway and the entrance to the facilities. There is no light from the fire. The remains of the last log were still smouldering when Sandy hurried past. She smelt the wood smoke and felt the heat, but no firelight made it through the ash coating. There was just a brief flurry of orange sparks as a branch settled.
She is wakened with a jolt from a dream of swirling sparks and swarming mosquitos by a rasping sound. A lighter, reluctant to ignite. It could be Sohrab. He’s the only smoker in their party. He’s discreet, but Sandy, who packed in at George’s insistence over forty years ago always notices. The smell of the cigarette smoke reaches her. Then another sound. Someone leaving the gents. Soft voices. A little night yoga for some lucky couple? Shuffling feet on the path. Was that a muttered Namaste goodnight? Namaste. Three short syllables. One simple gesture. Palms together before the chest, accompanied by a bow. A traditional Indian greeting learnt by heart in the comfort of their Cumbrian kitchen. They were rather pleased with themselves.
In the living room, in the bedroom, in the garden.
‘What was that word again, Sandy?’
‘Oh yes, Namaste.’ Hands together, and a bow. They even taught it to their daughter and grandsons when they Skyped to tell them their holiday plans.
‘Listen to this, George,’ said Sandy, looking up from the laptop on the kitchen table. ‘It says here that Namaste actually means I bow to the divine in you.’
‘Then I bow to the bovine in you, Sandy.’
‘I said divine.’
‘My sacred cow, I meant divine. I have always bowed to the divine in you.’
‘It’s implicit in all I do, pet. Namaste.’ Palms together, another bow, a gentle punch to the shoulder, a pat and a peck on the cheek, a tousle of her hair.
‘Still nervous. I could do without the long flight.’ She picked up the itinerary. An organised tour with tour guide, almost a hundred pounds worth of immunisation injected into their bodies, guidebooks, protective clothing, malaria tablets, insect repellent and first aid kit stocked for every emergency; these should have made Sandy more confident, but instead they highlighted the dangers.
‘Are you sure we’ll manage ok, George?’
‘We’ll manage, Sandy. English is the official language. The lingua franca. No worries on the communication front. English. The lingua franca. We’ll be ok.’ He pinched her cheek and gave her a squeeze as he asked
‘What’s for tea, pet?’
‘Get the pan on,’ he ordered, and he slapped her backside. ‘Sounds delicious.’
Namaste. Learning it had been a good call. It had impressed their fellow travellers and Sohrab at the introductory group meeting in their first hotel. They cast the greeting liberally in the direction of hotel porters, waiters, shopkeepers, tuk tuk drivers, chai wallahs, and, of course, each other. Namaste, accompanied by one small coordinated gesture. Palms together and a bow to the divine. And of course, they enjoyed the affirmation of the return greeting, bowing to their own divinity.
A wave of relief passes through Sandy. She takes a sip of water and strokes her stomach, conscious of the fading pain. She is glad of the peacefulness of the safari lodge and this beautifully calm night, even if she is spending it sitting in here. What a contrast to the crazy drives through the city. Sohrab told them over the intercom
‘We can drive without our brakes, but we can’t drive without our horns,’ which summed it up for Sandy. She could perhaps get used to the noise, but U turns into the flow of the oncoming traffic? Never. Her buttocks clench at the thought and her fists tighten. She shivers. It’s chilly. The night grew so cold in their second hotel that she had sent George to ask for extra blankets. Only when they were making up the bed did they notice the extra blankets were actually a pair of heavy curtains.
‘Jugaad,’ said Sohrab, next morning when they told the story at breakfast. ‘Jugaad. A quick fix. When resources are limited, innovation and flexibility can solve the problem.’
‘What was that again, Sohrab?’ asked George
Sandy needs a quick fix for her stomach or she will miss the tiger spotting game drive which embarks at dawn. But the Imodium is in the first aid kit, packed deep in the bowels of George’s suitcase and stowed under the bed. She could perhaps make her way back to the Eco-cabin now, but George’s peaceful sleeping would rekindle her anger. Her head’s not up to that yet. Her hissed, blistering reproaches seemed to have burnt themselves out, but like the brief flurry of sparks at the firepit showed, things were still smouldering underneath. The urge to thump him, pummel him, kept returning, but she didn’t have the strength right now. Bloody hell, George, she was only a girl. It was only a banana. A bloody banana. How could one piece of fruit…? Sandy, shakes her head. Tell me, what difference could one bloody banana make? Her arms tense, her fists are so tight they tremble. This time, her sigh sounds harsh, disturbing the quiet night.
Another small gesture. It lasted a moment. One arm, George’s, bent at the elbow and swiftly raised above his head. His rolled shirtsleeve revealed a tensed, muscular forearm. His flat, stiffened palm trembled in the air. One short throaty syllable accompanied it. Sandy wasn’t sure whether it was even a word. A grunt? A snarl? Some harsh sound had been forced through bared teeth from George’s contorted mouth, and there was no language barrier. No translation required.
The girl had appeared the moment they left the market stall where they had ventured to buy snacks for the train journey. She followed from a short distance, getting closer as they walked on. George took Sandy’s arm and began to hurry. They hesitated by the entrance to the park with the sign saying Please do not Pluck the Flowers, which George thought was a short cut to the hotel, and the girl was suddenly by Sandy’s side, palms pressed together.
‘Please, please.’ Her fingers fluttered over Sandy’s jacket sleeve. Then a gentle tug. ‘Please.’ The girl tugged at her sleeve with one hand, and pointed into her open mouth with the other. George grabbed Sandy’s free hand and pulled her forward.
‘Leave her. Come on.’ He jerked her arm. The pull from the girl’s slim fingers was stronger. Sandy wrestled herself from George’s grip.
‘She’s just hungry. We can spare a banana.’ Sandy reached into her bag, but George snatched it away. The girl grasped Sandy’s arm with both hands, and that’s when George raised his arm, raised his hand to her. And from the girl there was not a flinch. Not a blink. Was that what disturbed Sandy most?
‘We’ve got a train to catch,’ said George.
The masala chai wallah who poured Sandy her drink smelled as though he had been working very hard, but she refused to make eye contact with the smirking Joanne in the bunk opposite. She stared out of the carriage window into the dusk, counting the kites that hung from the trees alongside the railway line, while she sipped from the paper cup. She preferred the little earthenware plant-pots of chai that Sohrab ordered when they were out sightseeing. Sandy had liked the buffalo milk ginger chai, prepared over a dung fire at the roadside. They drank while listening to Sohrab’s stories. After independence, he said. Or before independence. Those were his phrases. Tales from Before Independence. No mention of British rule. Bill, on the top bunk opposite George held up a small triangle.
‘Samosas,’ he declared. ‘They’re just pastry with a bit of spicy potato, but you can’t get more delicious.’ He passed a packet of crisps down to Joanne.
‘Any Coke left?’ she asked him, looking up.
Sandy pulled the blanket up to her ears and checked the time on her phone. Three hours down, fifteen to go. The train’s departure had been two hours late.
‘This is India’, explained Sohrab. Everything runs to IST. Not Indian Standard Time, but Indian Stretchable Time.’
Time did indeed stretch, and a conversation about how we built the railways, mingled with the noises of the train and Sandy dozed until George announced
‘Tourists should never give money to beggars.’
‘That’s right,’ agreed Bill. ‘Perpetuates the poverty.’
‘Especially child beggars,’ added George. ‘They should be in school. For all you know, you could be handing your money over to child traffickers.’
‘I’ve heard that they get the kids addicted to drugs,’ said Bill. ‘I’ve read that they even maim them.’
‘Yes, organised begging. It’s a huge problem.’
Sandy pulled the blanket over her head. It was only a banana. Only a girl. Only a bloody banana.
Sweat lies cold on Sandy’s skin. She shivers. Her stomach tightens again as pain slices through her gut. She grits her teeth and holds her breath. A groan fights its way out of her throat and punches the air. The pinpricks are once more attacking her scalp. She kicks off her pyjama bottoms, unbuttons the top and rips it off. Her hot head is a flurry of swirling sparks, waltzing insects and round and round go abandoned kites a row of teddy bears freed from their tiles. In the midst of this, she sees a hand being raised. It is her own, and it is brought down with all her might onto little legs in red woollen tights. Five times, six. Slap. Another. Around her there is milk and soggy cornflakes, spilt over the kitchen table, soaking into a teddy bear and dribbling down the front of a blue and white checked gingham dress. The child sobs. Then both of them are crying, hugging each other. Repeating sorry, sorry, in each other’s arms. The eco cubicle comes into focus. Sandy sees a dark bubbling of mosquitoes coating her thighs. They cover her breasts and stomach. And there’s the laughing echo of George’s voice, repeating that a single mosquito bite is all it takes. He is interrupted by the sound of someone in the gents and Sandy wakes with a jolt. There are voices outside. It’s dawn. The tiger spotting game drive. No time now for even the quickest of fixes. Two women enter the ladies, chatting in German. Sandy smells cigarette smoke and hears more voices outside.
‘Namaste George,’ with a bowing to the divine in each other, to the saintly in everyone, to the angelic in them all, even to the heavenly in a hungry girl? Then George’s voice calls softly through the door marked SHE.
Ruth Guthrie is a local government officer who lives near Cockermouth in Cumbria where she fills her life with village hall committee matters and chairing the local Amnesty group. She decided to take her scribbling habit seriously and completed an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University. Ruth has previously had a story shortlisted in this competition and is delighted that two of her stories have made the shortlist this time.
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