Arthur decided to go to Nepal. A bit of an impulse decision. Made after seeing an advert in a magazine. Overpaid rock stars from the sixties used to go there and try and sort themselves out so why not him. Anyway he fancied a decent walk. Jane said yes.
The start didn’t go well. The two hours travelling time from the heart of Yorkshire to London on “The Great Northern” were fine. But it took another two hours to get to Terminal Three at Heathrow, initially by tube, and then the final mile on foot. He was hot and late. A bearded man, in shorts and open-toed sandals, waved a greeting from across what seemed a deserted room. Am I too late wondered Arthur?
He must have looked the anxious holiday maker who would complete the man’s party, ‘Paula’s just gone to phone your wife. We thought you weren’t coming. Are you OK?’
Arthur felt hot again, on the edge of breathlessness. Have I held everybody up? Are we still going? Who’s Paula?
‘I’m OK if you are.’
‘Good, you’d better book in.’
‘Take your ticket over there to Qatar Airways.’ Arthur’s guide eased him in gently.
The car park at Katmandu airport was dusty and noisy. Hawkers and beggars, arrivals and departures, and hangers-on who simply stood and watched.
They were met by a local man in western dress. Collar and tie, slacks and a dark blazer. He looked like a golf club captain, apart from the suntan.
‘Namastay,’ he said, palms together pointing heavenwards. His assistant, also immaculate, gave all the party members a necklaces of orange flowers. ‘Welcome to Nepal. Your transport is over here.’ He introduced a third Nepali from Moss Bross, ‘This is PL, your courier.’
The bus gave them their first view of the third world. Cows, dogs, dust and traffic and the incessant hooting of motor horns. Arthur’s late arrival had prevented him from meeting his fellow travellers until then. Apart from Pete, the man with the beard, and Paula when she got back from the phone. She sat with him on the plane. The bus contained twenty or so, young and old, mostly couples. PL gave them a running commentary
Lots of unshaven men in vests and baggy trousers loafed on the corners of the city streets. ‘Unemployment runs at forty percent,’ said PL. Many of the houses seemed unfinished. Constructed of reinforced concrete pillars and brick walls, the upper tiers were eerie, often no more than a floor and four corners of steel rods. Apparently there was a tax on housing, payable by storey. Those who cannot afford leave the top off.
Beyond the city limits, the bus traversed the Kathmandu valley bottom and then wound up to seven and a half thousand feet through farm land. Arthur thought he was in an agricultural museum. Every job was being done by hand. Reaping, threshing, winnowing and milling, like a demonstration at a history of farming exhibition. PL explained there was no heavy industry. The fertile land produced four crops of rice per year. The farms didn’t stop as they climbed, they simply converted from fields to terraces, cut from the hillside. ‘Steps to heaven,’ said PL. Small mud-walled houses were dotted haphazardously about the slopes. ‘The top floor is the kitchen and the ground floor houses the animals, a built-in central heating system in the winter. The mud is mixed with cow-dung, giving off methane, helping to keep insects away.’
The bus could go no further than Nagarkot village, leaving them a mile walk, uphill, to the hotel – the first experience of exercise at altitude and a shock for some. Then the first view of the mountains. Awesome and empty, beautiful and inaccessible. Stunning at dawn. Deep blue with oranges and yellows reflected off a small number of clouds. And then the sun itself, highlighting the eastern mountain faces. Yet Arthur felt them as nothing more than a picture-post card.
The first evening meal was a tentative affair, exploratory and nervous. Arthur ate with Paula and PL. Arthur guessed that Paula was in her mid-thirties, a Scandinavian living in London. A wedding band was never talked about. Her first job as a guide was with horses. Since then she’d been to Nepal several times. She wasn’t physically fit, and she wasn’t poor. Something was attracting her more than a good walk. PL lived here, in Patan. A management graduate, fluent and self-taught in English, even colloquial English. He smiled and preened as he quoted Shakespeare at length. He chatted easily about his life in the third world. Two daughters from an arranged marriage, meditation, Buddhism and Hinduism. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘We think we are the only truly Hindu nation. India isn’t, it has several religions. Eighty percent of our people are Hindu and the rest are Buddhists. Both believe in reincarnation. We must do well in this life to prepare us for the next. There is no animosity between the religions. Ireland could learn something.’ Arthur didn’t sense PL as smug, but there was just something in his tone that suggested he knew he was right.
The first walking day was steady downhill, through the hillside farmland terracing.
Tight up against Nepalese rural life. Beautiful and appalling. Beautiful in it’s simplicity. Did the farmers have all they needed? Was it the haven of sanity Arthur imagined? Were the farmers content rather than resigned? But also appalling closeness to animal waste and dirt. No signs of material comfort. Begging children.
Arthur did some small talk with a short bald-headed guy. The sight of the children must have set something off.
‘I blame the parents,’ he said, ‘back home the kids these days don’t seem to have any discipline.’
There may have been a preamble to this, but Arthur hadn’t caught it. The connection to poor beggars was lost on him. Arthur thought about his childhood and to show willing he added, ‘I wonder sometimes whether children become what their parents expect. How much say do they have? It might look like indiscipline, but is it?’
Arthur’s companion didn’t comment.
PL halted the group. He’d got permission for a visit to a wayside temple devoted to Kali, her of the many arms. ‘Kali is the goddess of justice and destruction. Disputes are discussed and resolved in front of the shrine. We cannot lie in the presenceof the gods. It saves on all the lawyers fees. Animal sacrifice still takes place, perhaps a goat. The priest sprinkles powder over the beast, and when it nods its head, permission has been granted for the sacrifice to take place.’
There was an empty seat under an eave, apart from an abandoned book and pipe. Arthur noticed a small pile of tobacco. ‘Here’s where a holy man sleeps. He is out in the woods just now and he smokes marijuana.’ PL pointed to a green weed growing in the temple flower bed. A wrinkled matron, with no attempt to hide her actions, took a sample.
Arthur knew he couldn’t avoid playing the game of getting to know you and being known. Who was he? He’d no wish to be in a confessional and dreaded embarrassing personal questions. Like the ones about retirement
‘Oh! you’re young to retire!’
After some ‘umming and erring, he’d stutter, ‘I needed a change. I had to move on,’ hoping this would deter the mildly interested from probing further. “
‘I wish I could retire, but of course I couldn’t afford. Now my brother-in-law………,’ and they would be away, the focus on him gone.
Some persist, ‘Oh! what were you?’ and then, ‘The pressure I suppose. My brother-in-law…….”
Deflecting and changing the subject is less easy with those in the same line of work, especially, ‘The Infirmary? Do you know so-and-so? We were at thingy together in the fifties.’ An image of a stuffy powerful out of date institution. Yes, Arthur had knew so-and-so, overworked and insecure.
‘We visit regularly, I’ll mention we met.’ He will then know the public version of Arthur’s story and so-and-so’s interpretation of it. It will help them break the ice after separation and will soon be discarded as the memories of thingamy are retold and embellished. Arthur wouldn’t be there to correct the factual errors. Just another casualty who couldn’t hack it.
There were no former colleagues on this trip. Arthur could be himself.
‘Hi, I’m Dyce,’ he said as he got in step with a lady in shorts and a baseball cap.
‘Did I overhear you’ve family in Australia?’
‘Yes, we visited last Christmas,’
‘Just outside Sydney. They’ve moved now. We’ve only seen pictures of their new place.’
‘Sounds like a good excuse for another holiday.’
‘I suppose it was Christmas on the beach and the ‘barbie’,’ Arthur’s limited view of Australian life.
‘We didn’t actually. There was an evening meal, cold meats, and a massive dish of prawns. They were gorgeous. It was a shame. Some went to waste, we couldn’t eat them all.’ Arthur’s mind wondered.
‘……….. and of course it’s the young ones who pick it up so quickly, I wouldn’t know where to start.’
Sorry,’ Arthur had lost the thread again.
‘Well yes. I find mine invaluable, for research.’
‘Oh! what’s that about?’
Arthur gave a summary of his college work.
‘My sister-in-law suffers from schizophrenia. It’s terrible you know, it’s devastated the family.’
‘Yes,’ Arthur did know. They moved into single file.
The walk ended at a well-known Hindu Temple, Changu Narayan. A narrow, slightly uphill approach was lined with vendors, goats, chickens, refuse and children. A sunken communal water tap and bath where ladies washed their hair, bodies, babies, pots and clothes. Arthur shivered at the unfamiliar and insanitary. The temple, a pagoda, occupied the centre of a large square of pretty basic two-storey terraced houses. Living here was a privilege apparently said PL, and lots did. ‘Here is a shrine to Ganesh, the elephant. Ganesh removes obstacles. Business men will come with a new project, young couples wanting to have children, a single women looking for a husband. Here is a ferocious incarnation of Vishnu.’ Arthur saw a predator’s head disembowelling something unpleasant. ‘Human sacrifice was outlawed fifty years ago. The last one was held in Patan when a priest was sacrificed. He was in a trance and would have progressed spectacularly in the next life.’ Photographs were nailed to the temple doorway. Relatives, too sick to make the trip, hoped their images would be enough.
The group quietly mingled with devotees and visitors, achingly poor beggars and cripples, schoolchildren and the very occaisional wealthy citizen.
Back to the bus and the first shopping expedition, a craft cooperative, jewellery, wood carving, painting and carpets. PL advised on the need for negotiation. Arthur thought the value for money was reasonable for hand-made goods and yet none of them ever knew the real bottom prices. Whilst both sides of the transaction seemed happy, Arthur was left with vague anxiety about being done. One of his ways of seeing the world, somewhere between grudgingly letting go of hard earned cash but not expecting something for nothing. He saw others take the plunge and he came away pleased with hand-painted mandalas and coaster sets.
Margaret straggled back to the bus with the short bald headed bloke carrying a carpet which they said cost a lot and had been paid for by card. Arthur wondered why so expensive and so early in the holiday? He’d begun to feel a little rueful about his own spending. The spliff smoking wrinkled matron asked about his paintings.
‘What are mandalas?’
Arthur knew a little and PL supplied the rest, ‘Symbols of unity. Usually circular and symmetrically partitioned with a representation of Nirvana in the centre. Buddhist figures everywhere. Aids to meditation.’
The next stop was Bhaktapur, capital of one of the three ancient Kingdoms in the Kathmandu valley. The Potters’ Square, earthenware and rice drying in the sun, medieval houses and temples, historic narrow streets bustling with animals and people. And round the corner, avoiding a motor cyclist, a satellite dish. More negotiation and much easier. Arthur soon adapted to fluid prices, morning prices, first customer prices, discounts for more than one item. Arthur compared his deals with those of his companions. He felt a little childish, silly, buying all those things and bragging how he got the price down. Still it was a bit of fun.
A western materialist haggling over very small amounts of money. Much needed cash for Nepal.
The second day needed a hill climb and many in the group were on the edge of breathlessness. Most accomplished it without major problems. The one slow walker Arthur discovered was called Val. She was also a one-woman complaints committee. Overweight between two ski-poles. In the summer conditions everyone else was in shorts, but Val was always dressed head-to-toe in black. Arthur considered ski-poles to be something of a designer accessory, but Val was possibly the exception. Her smile was a rarity, a collector’s item. Her usual face was expressionless, or a scowl which occaisionally developed into quiet thunder. At the midday break, Val noticed Margaret and the bald headed bloke had not ordered drinks.
‘You not having a drink then?’
‘We’ve left our money at the hotel.’
‘We’ll lend you some.’
‘No, really, we couldn’t possibly.’
‘Are you sure?’
They ate in silence. Chicken fried in batter, a boiled egg and a cheese sandwich with no butter of margerine. It was a dry affair. Margaret and her husband must have been gagging for a drink.
Val then turned to Arthur, ‘Your knickers are showing. I’m sorry I don’t know your name.’
A strange luncheon overture. Arthur wasn’t wearing knickers. Did Val think he was displaying part of his underwear? Did she find the sight distateful?
‘I wear cycling shorts to prevent friction rash. They tend to show.’
‘Of course they do, Dyce,’ said Margaret, with a hint of irritation. Arthur was actually fine with his shorts, but Margaret seemed to find the exchange unnecessary.
‘That’s an odd name,’ said Val.
‘It’s a nickname. Short for Dyson, a patronimic of David. My mum was a Dyson before she married. So it’s a grandpatronimic. My real name’s Arthur.’
‘I can understand why you prefer Dyce.’
Arthur simply sat and looked. There are arsoles even over here he thought. The short bald headed bloke shook his hand, ‘My name’s Barry.’
After the evening meal, Arthur needed the loo. Returning downstairs he recognised the familiar rancid smell of pot. The wrinkled matron sat smoking in the corner of the lounge.
‘I’ve not smelled that for years,’ said Arthur.
‘I let it dry on the windowsill. I just happen to roll my own. I’m Mae.’
Mae spent the next hour telling her story and whatever else. Arthur could do nothing but listen.
Sunrise at six thirty, breakfast at seven. Bacon, omelettes, sausages and toast. Arthur was late. An ever-present house-boy attended. ‘Porridge, sir?’
‘I’ll just have coffee.’
‘Not a lot to say for yourself this morning,” said Keith, chirpy, like he wanted to talk.
‘I’m not really with it until I’ve had four mugs of coffee. I generally come round about half past ten.’ Keith went quiet.
Arthur was not allowed to continue with his own company. Within minutes of setting off on the day’s walk, he was joined by Keith. Two or three local men slowly ran toward them, each with a full churn of milk on their backs, secured by a band of material wound round their foreheads. Arthur and Barry’s eyes widened and their jaws dropped. Silent amazement, until Barry found his voice again. Tales of farming, sport, some potted philosophy.
‘That Jonah Lomu is amazing, isn’t he?’ suggested Barry.
‘To come back from kidney failure takes some doing.’
‘Well, he had nephrotic syndrome. It doesn’t necessarily mean kidney failure,’ said Arthur. ‘Sometimes it gets better with no after effects.’
‘Oh, is that so?’
The previous night a number of the party had gone down with a traveller’s ailment. The wife of a brummy couple had got it, so husband Brian had been on his own. He’d sat with Arthur and taken an interest in Arthur’s college work. Brian caught up with Arthur and got back onto education. Mae was just in front.
‘What about all the students that can’t get jobs? They seem to carry on for ever at college and we are paying for them.’
Arthur wasn’t sure how to frame a reply, ‘I guess I would think about that in two ways. I agree thay many courses don’t have a job automatically at the end of them, and this would appear to be wasteful. But I am also thinking about these experiences as personal development for the students.’
‘Yes, that’s just happened to my daughter. Actually she had a rest period during her studies and decided to change courses. She started with occupational therapy.’
‘I did a course there once.’
‘What was that in?”
‘Counselling. I left after six months. All a bit too intense for me.’
‘A bit like being a psychiatrist I guess.’
Arthur had actually completed the course, graduating with a series of grades over seventy percent. He wasn’t going to admit it. A new skill and back to the discipline of academic life, but not something for the long term. It had failed to help him make sense of anything.
‘What does the little wife do?’ enquired Brian.
‘I’m married to Jane. She is a housewife at the moment. Started as a nurse.’ She actually started as a small and vulnerable single child in a caring family. Moved around with dad’s job, muddled education, no pressure, happy as could be.
‘Staffed in Leeds for a while, paediatrics. Intensive care unit in Liverpool. Back to college then for shorthand and typing. A spell as a gp. receptionist. Research sister in a Cardiff Teaching Hospital. Another receptionist post in a village surgery, near Oldham.”
‘Multi-talented.’ said Brian. Arthur knew she didn’t it that way.
‘Then retirement when our first child came along. Laura is now seventeen. Our middle child is autistic. Jane became interested in helping children with learning problems. There has been work as an assistant teacher for kids with Down’s syndrome. It’s voluntary work at the moment, reading coach in a local special school and a gym class in a social centre.’
Arthur saw this almost for the first time, an outsider’s view. A significant life of suffering and sacrifice, joy and caring. He knew the pieces well, but here they’d been put together differently somehow.
Then Sakhu, the lunch-stop, and their first sight of the pig-keepers, the untouchables, living on the outskirts. Mae sat beside me at lunch,
‘Did I talk a lot last night, David?’
‘Well, you did rather.’
‘This and that, no need to concern yourself. Your family mostly, life as a headteacher, that sort of thing.’ Truth was I’d sat and looked and nodded, but I hadn’t needed to concentrate. Mae had been a pleasant unbroken record.
The afternoon was devoted to sight-seeing at Buddhenath, a Buddhist temple in the outskirts of Kathmandu. PL called it a “Stupa”. A huge solid white dome, decked with prayer flags, it reputedly has a relic of Buddha buried deep within it. Buddhist monks were in abundance, particularly boys. Apparently second sons came here for instruction. Such opportunities have high status, and the boys are not expected to continue into adulthood as monks if they are unsuited for the role. They circumnambulated in the required clock-wise direction, inevitably buying souvenirs from the many surrounding shops. The stupa had a small tower on the top painted on all four sides with the eyes of Buddha and a nose in the form of a question mark. The eyes represented the all-seeing, unblinking eyes of Buddha, with the emphasis on the present. No need to be concerned with the past or worry for the future. The question mark asked about the degree of personal responsibility people take for their lives. Arthur came across a small section of the party gathering prior to departure.
‘He’s collapsed and taking a rest in one of the cafes.’ Another casualty.
‘Did you manage to get anything?’
Margaret dropped her gaze, then looked up, ‘I haven’t enough cash.’
‘I’ll lend it you, don’t be silly,’ someone said.
‘Would you? I need about five hundred, that’s all.’
Wherever they went they were dogged by children. They were beautiful and cute in the country, somewhat more streetwise in Kathmandu. They could use “namaste” as a greeting, but often preferred “hello”, even when they would have no knowledge of nationality. Barefoot, ragged, green candles coming from their noses, they would happily follow for a mile or two. Initially they sought rupees and sweets, but many older ones, particularly around Pohkara wanted pens and pencils. One refusal was usually enough. Every so often they would persist.
In Bahktapur a young man attached himself to Arthur.
‘Hello, where are you from?’
‘I know England very well. I learn very good at school.’ He had excellent English. Arthur chatted for a while and then came the pitch.
‘Our school very poor.’
‘120 rupees buy a Nepal-English dictionary – very cheap. You buy me.’
‘No. I have spent all my money.’ Which happened to be the truth.
This exchange took place as Arthur absorbed the sights and sounds of busy Bahktapur. He was enthralled, conversation very much on automatic, automatic no. The amount the boy wanted was very small, the cause a good one. Had Arthur not been distracted, he might have weakened. The boy eventually wandered away without 120 rupees.
They moved into a cafe overlooking one of the squares as it grew dark and ordered a beer. Arhtur told PL what had happened.
‘You see Dyce, what they do is get you to buy a book, a dictionary for 120 rupees, and when you’ve gone they go back to the shop and sell it for 100 rupees. The same book gets sold several times a day. It goes round and round.’ PL smiled apologetically.
Arthur’s jaw dropped. He’d nearly been had.
‘Well of all the ………,’ Arthur would be tough with begging Nepalese children in the future.
Short, stocky and smiled a lot was Arthur’s initial impression of Barry. He also talked a lot, to anyone who would listen. As if silence gave him a pain. Affable, verging on the bland. He came from a line of Lincolnshire farmers, bonded to land and stock. His visions for how life worked and didn’t work were rooted right there in the family. He seemed to touch something in many of the group when he spoke. They all nodded wisely anyway. A simple philosophy that worked. Yet Nepal disturbed these things he took for granted, and he shared it, several times.
‘You know, Dyce, we have lost something.’
‘The locals seem so happy. They have nothing.’
So much could be said but Arthur said nothing. He feared being misunderstood. He had none of Barry’s certainties, his answers, his solutions. He’d rejected the notions of “normal” family life, natural justice, fairness and truth some time ago. He didn’t wish to be disruptive. ‘Yes,’ he said.
Barry completed the discussion for them. Then went on, ‘Dyce, I’ve just been saying, the children never seem to fall out.’
Ruefully Arthur recalled a scrap or two, raw temper and tears aplenty. What could he say? Was Barry developing an ideal picture of Nepal childhood, which just maybe differed from rural Lincolnshire?
Once again Arthur was preoccupied. Was a Nepal childhood all that different? Did people really need to come to the third world to ask questions about materialism and western values? Arthur momentarily saw himself as a card-player with a good hand. Quietly confident, holding a secret advantage. Smug. Must be somebody else. You were dealt your hand. The game was to play them as well as you could.
The second part of the holiday was in Pokhara, sixty minutes by plane from Kathmandu. PL explained some aspects of Nepalese family life on the way to the airport.
‘The caste system is officially banned in Nepal, but unofficially many of its elements
still apply. Arranged marriage still occcurs. Each family investigates the prospective bride or bridegroom and photographs are exchanged. The private enquiries are needed since it is still possible to send photographs of a young pretty sister when the bride is actually an older less attractive prospect. Sutti, the practice of the wife jumping on the funeral pyre of her dead husband, was outlawed some 50 years ago. Once someone has died the family cannot eat until the cremation is over. A nail is driven into the door way. The wife wears white for so many years.’
Prior to take-off, the group split in two. Arthur’s group visited the crematorium next to the airport, known as Pushupanitath. A series of piers overlooking the river, each pier reserved for a particular caste. Only Hindus were allowed across the river to the temples which occupied a series of terraces behind the piers. The vantage point was something of a marketing opportunity and freak show. Holy men with legs behind their ears smoking cannabis, snake charmers, music groups and the inevitable craft stalls. The cremations were continuous. The lighting and stoking of the funeral pyre were done by men. The priest puts a stake through heart to make sure they are dead. The women stayed at home and grieved. The ashes were then brushed into the river. It was very visible, practical and communal.
They had an extended wait at the airport, sitting, reading, walking around the departure lounge. Pete and Arthur reflected a little on things so far.
‘It’s my first experience of traditional culture,’ said Arthur, ‘and there are signs of change. Bits of the west are creeping in. Pollution, satellite dishes, who knows there’ll be muggings next. Having things means there are those who don’t have things.’
Pete had no answers.
‘Is he your dad?’ asked Barry of Pete.
Pete and Arthur blushed. They were both stout, with red beards and thinning hair.
The plane was a twelve seater, so they needed to be friendly. They were almost in the cockpit. Arthur wondered why the stewardess brought lumps of cotton-wool round. He stuck them in his ears anyway and then heard the sound of the engines. They were OK but the stewardess was sick.
The afternoon was spent shopping and sightseeing along the lake in Pokhara. Very commercial, yet still very cheap. Embroidered T-shirts were very good value. In the evenings when the shops eventually closed we could still see the lights on behind the shutters and hear the hand-driven sewing machines clacking away. Arthur walked up to the edge of town and negotiated a trip back on the lake. The boatman was quite a bit older than Arthur, but fit. He needed to be. Mist concealed the Annapurna mountain range. As they neared the end of the trip, the light was disappearing. Arthur became aware of a dark mass jutting out of the clouds. “Fishtail”, still sacred and unscaled.
Before dinner they watched a troupe of traditional dancers, accompanied by a man squeezing an early form of portable organ and a girls’ choir. The choir was mostly a duet, swelled from time to time by those dancers who weren’t needed. Between numbers these two chatted, giggled and ignored everything else. Three generations of a wealthy Indian family joined them in the audience. Gran walked with a limp. She gratefully sat, with her grandchildren fussing on her lap, such as it was. Arthur guessed it was the beer, and being such a long way from home, but he was overtaken by a powerful sensation of regret. Several bereavements, two children leaving home under a cloud. Not especially unusual. Just not what Jane and he had expected. It was tough for a while.
Barry was concerned, ‘Are you OK?’
‘Yes.’ Arthur turned away and Barry didn’t press it further.
Arthur sat at dinner with Denise. The beer still flowed and somehow it didn’t matter about the violence, the lack of help and the guilt. Laura’s protests and her departure. Denise listened closely and at one point her eyes filled up.
After most of the group had gone to bed, Arthur sat up swapping stories with Pete, Paula and PL. Arthur told the prison joke-book story which seemed to go down well until PL asked, ‘Dyce, how is that funny?’ He never got it despite intensive coaching, by which time Arthur had stopped laughing.
The morning after and a headache. The early-morning view of The Annapurna range was stunning and yet Arthur wasn’t moved any more than he was at Nagarkot.
‘Are you alright?’ enquired Paula. Why had everyone started to ask how he was? She was worried whether he was going down with a traveller’s complaint. He couldn’t face breakfast or the group and missed picking up his packed lunch.
At the start of the walk they were met by Tibetan refugee traders laying in wait. Their goods seemed no different from the Nepalese, apart from Tibetan friendship bands and belts. Arthur bought a couple of pieces from one woman who then gave him a wrist band. As the group set off, three of the girls packed their haversacks and followed. At lunch they promptly set out their stalls on the path side.
Arthur shared the trail with Val for a while, ‘Do you have any children Dyce?’
‘Yes, three. The two eldest have left home now. My middle son has a form of autism with learning and behaviour problems. He became such a handful we weren’t able to cope. He lives in a hostel and comes home regularly. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was nine, so we had several very difficult years. I’m sure he was a big reason why my daughter left home at sixteen. She comes home fairly regularly too.’ Arthur didn’t notice any reluctance to talk.
‘I work for the local authority. We have a number of schemes for the handicapped.’
‘Yes, facilities are improving all the time.’ Arthur remembered the absence of help at home and the lack of appreciation for their struggles. Tony’s headmaster had told them that middle-class families always found it hard. Expectations too high. One social worker after another with no effective resources. No one to listen to the guilt of not being able to cope. Nobody to ease the pain of letting go. It still hurt to recall the day Tony first went away. Almost an unfurnished room, a cell, Jane fussing to make it better, loss and shame mixed with relief. Tony did well out of it though. A large extended family, a good grounding in independent living.
‘He’s brilliant now.’ Permanent regrets, a hole that will never be filled.
‘We don’t have any children. I couldn’t have them. The doctor said my blood pressure condition was too dangerous.’
‘Oh,’ Arthur’d overheard Val talk a lot about a couple children, presumably neices.
‘We tried for adoption, but they said my personality wasn’t right.’
‘Our first two children were adopted, but I don’t remember any personality tests. Did you agreed with them?’
Val was about to respond, but a reorganisation in the walking formation prevented her. The moment was lost and Arthur never heard how Val didn’t adopt. He and Jane were awakened by a late phone-call. They’d been selected for a baby, six weeks old. It was Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one. Come and collect on Sunday. Friends coming for the weekend, sudden large amounts of shopping. Mum and dad buying a pram. Relatives appearing and disappearing. Accepted to foster, training classes and form-filling, but no suggestion of adoption. So different when Tony came. An early return from holiday because of bad weather, a phone-call on arrival. Baby one day old, can you pick up tomorrow? Good weather and it would never have happened. Beautiful child, a horrendous family story, needed a home. A social worker came a few times, when the children were young. Jane and Arthur got cut adrift after that.
need to build in a few more grumpies and word games
It was around ten o’clock one morning when I became aware that someone was trying to attract my attention. I didn’t respond to anyone’s satisfaction,
‘Yes.’ I replied. Keith had found my number.
Everyone chipped in with bits of their lunch, so Arthur didn’t go hungry. How to accept graciously? Did he deserve their kindness when he’d stayed in bed with a hangover?
He stumbled and coughed, ‘That’s very good of you, thankyou. Kind of you.’
Later, they had a disappointing view of “Fishtail” from Sarankot. Clouds and the first rain of the holiday. As they climbed down a very long staircase to the lake, Arthur and Barry were talking about impropriety.
‘What’s another word for that?’ he asked.
‘Do you know, I can’t think of one.’
‘Ah. Got you there.’ A triumph for Barry.
‘Mae, what’s another word for impropriety?’
Her eyes twinkled, ‘Rabellasian.’ Mae somehow didn’t fit the mould of an ex-headmistress. There was too much fun and intemperate life behind the twinkle. Mae chuckled and walked on. Barry went quiet, eyes unfocused.
Barry half turned, ‘You seem to have a lot of medical knowledge.’
‘That’s because I used to be a doctor.’
A light dawned somewhere on Barry’s face, followed by an expression that suggested he’d just kicked himself.
‘It’s not something I generally volunteer.’
‘Why ever not?’
Margaret answered, ‘He doesn’t want bothering with medical problems when he’s on holiday.’
The real reason was about being labelled, neatly placed, sorted. The bit of Arthur that cared, still did, but the pompous arse had defected.
They came off the hill to early evening in the rice fields. A low golden sun, long shadows, scattered rice stalks, recently harvested and now drying, grey soil and grassy borders. A dirt road beside the lake lead back to Pokhara, passing a fishing village. Eight shacks, teeming with people, eating, mending machines, washing, getting on with something.
The last day and they were offered the first day of a trekking circuit. They would actually have to go uphill. Arthur enjoyed the effort and stretched his legs. He was on top streets in front of the rest, no idea of the gap. It didn’t go unnoticed.
‘Here comes the fast group.’
‘You are going the wrong way.’
Denise’s husband, Martin caught Arthur up, ‘I went for a fitness assessment. They classified me as having the stamina of an international hockey player. I’ve never played hockey. Have you?’ Denise and Martin always wore impressive walking gear and designer casual evening wear. Their luggage must have been enormous. They didn’t bring T-shirts however, ‘We planned to buy them over here,’ Barry couldn’t keep quiet. A penny had dropped and switched him on, ‘You’d have thought we could have thought of that.’ Arthur wasn’t sure whether it was a topic of conversation or he was being gently hard on himself. Earlier in the trip Arthur had d chatted to David and Alison, a couple in their late twenties. Alison turned to look back up the road, ‘There’s your dad, David, is he wanting something.’
‘He’s your dad?’ This was Martin who certainly didn’t look like a mature dad.
‘He keeps himself well.’
David had walked back, ‘Yes he does. A bit over the top sometimes. He won’t drink a lot of things. Beer’s OK. Food is the same. A bit health conscious, you know.’ David and Alison were both in pressure jobs associated with cigarettes and racing cars.
On the top of that hill, breathless, sweaty and exhilarated, Arthur momentarily sensed he’d been showing off and rejoined the group. Won’t do he told himself. Barry joined him on the next section. He’d taken to discussing medical conditions in the family. He couldn’t help himself. Arthur was never sure where it was leading. ‘How would the answer to that question help you?’ after an enquiry about physiotherapy. It was a bit like “The House of Commons” question time. The first question, an innocent answer, and then the “my wife, mother, son had that”, and suddenly the innocent answer contains a massive bomb. Yet a clarifying question can be intimidating. Huffily, ‘It doesn’t.’ Its all too hard to explain. Arthur was weary of the millions of misunderstandings. Barry recovered, he never lay down for long, ‘We had my dad for a while. He had emphysema, and got so he couldn’t get his meals.’ A picture of someone’s final months. Arthur recalled Oboe on life support. Sadness could bring people together, and then the loosening when the inevitable happens.
‘I would like to be a little closer to my brother,’ said Arthur suddenly.
‘We had a large family,’ replied Barry.
The transport home was a rickshaw for twenty powered by a deisel engine in extremis. Barry could barely get out of his seat at the finish. Having reached the driveway to the hotel, he limped and lurched. Arthur recalled some discussion about neck injuries and rugby, but this was near to spasticity. Barry reassured him, ‘Like this for 26 years. No worse and no better, but patches like this happen from time to time, usually after a bump or somesuch. Come on grumpy, it’s not that bad.’
Arthur lingered over coffee with Paula. She was Scandinavian and brought up Calvinist. Quite restricting. Travel had been a great adventure. She easily talked about her personal feelings, or rather, easily talked about talking about personal feelings. Something about Nepal she said. Rumania had also been an eye-opener. So poor and oppressed. A third world country in Europe. What a huge dark side. Bit like ourselves, large dark bits of denial. Greed and materialism, rewarded in our culture. They were distracted. Arthur was more than happy for her to keep the rest of her thoughts to herself.
The plane was late for the trip back to KTM and the airport lounge was smelly and untidy. Arthur buzzed and shuffled, unable to settle.
‘Are you the official seat-tester around here?’ asked Barry.
He finally came to rest, too wound up to read. He thought of Laura, living with a dope head. A great sense of loss. How much was his fault for expecting too much? How will she manage in the future? This wasn’t the plan. What was the point? There were no answers and no alternatives to living with the grief.
Mae banged her head on the doorway of the plane, when it finally arrived.
‘Are you OK?’ asked Terry.
‘Had a nice ring to it,’ Arthur remarked.
‘I suppose that would pass for Yorkshire sympathy,’ said Barry.
We dined out that evening. The rest would depart the following morning at 6.30, leaving me to lie in and continue my journey down to the Indian border later in the day. This was farewell. At the restaurant it happened – my worst nightmare. I was the odd one out in a world of couples, left to sit on the edge. This was the real world. We had left an easy off-balance back on the hills. I hurt somewhere and yet it helped me to say goodbye. My new friends were not rejecting me, nor were they testing me. I had passed the test back there at 9000 feet. A test I had set for myself. My good, the bad and the ugly had gradually been revealed to those who wished to see, and they had liked what they saw.
We shook hands and kissed on the hotel stairs as they made their way to bed. I went to the bar for a nightcap.
‘I’ll have a scotch,’
‘I’m sorry the bar’s closed sir. Would you like a beer?’
In the jungle somewhere down on the Indian border, having driven 300k from KTM. Lots of wrecked trucks. Very hot. No electric. 5 miles by jeep into the jungle. Dugout canoe, crocodiles and elephant breeding grounds.
A male sherp carries 100 kg a woman 80 kg.
51 camps in the park. Part of the grand tour. Most stay just for 2 nights between Delhi, Aggra, KTM and Bankok. Everyone has come from somewhere and is moving on soon.
Local guide tries to get me to sponsor his air fare to London. Wants to be an engineer. His family are farmers in the hills. Father afforded college fees in KTM but that was as far as it went. Difficult to say no, but what about the village – come and see us and we’ll have a few do’s. Not impressed. He was actually a nuisance and mildly predatory. The guides in general were polite but distant. Not grateful for the tips. Not happy with their lot – obviously seen a few modern western gizmos and not satisfied with taking rich tourists around the jungle. Took me to get a T shirt. Reasonable price, but they controlled all the negotiation and transaction. A payoff took place, what the hell.
Returning from jungle camp. The jungle is scarl forest with a dense undergrowth of elephant grass, mimosa, umbrella plants, wild asparagus and many more. Two guided walks, evening and morning. Scarily, there were pug marks of two tigers right there where we had walked the night before and quite close to the camp. Bear droppings and rhinocerous tracks too. Monkeys were about and birds – hornbill, minervets, drongo.
Shared the camp with four guys from the uk on a himalayan escorted tour – some trekking, some sightseeing. Irritatingly the barman keeps questioning me about the beer. Rather pay as we go along.
A lowland farm. Rice harvest. Threshing was done with a sheaf of stalks, beating the crop on a low table. The stalks go for building and thatching. Traditional machinery too – a paddle rice mill. Close to the jungle and deer and rhino often graze on the crops at night. The fields are dotted with wooden watch-towers where local men sleep nightly – waking easily to bang a drum and scare the animals away. Bullocks are the power behind the plough, and transport. Pushbikes too.
Locals are given grants to farm elsewhere and let the jungle expand and the large animals expand. Just before the rainy season it can be very windy, hence seeds from the jungle get scattered on the fields.
The trip back to Garda took two hour on an ox-cart, dugout canoe and jeep. Drongos, harriers, shrike, peregrine falcon.
Tough city life is a jungle. The real jungle is very quiet. Keep still and patient and you might see something. Most animals are spotted as a result of their droppings. Tigers mark their territories with slide marks in the ground. Boar dig for roots and worms.
Locals don’t want for much other than what they can get from the land. There are rubber tyres, cooking pots, bikes and some clothes that get bought in. They are immune to malaria and no one knows why. They put it down to not having windows. We were taken inside one house. Dark and spotless, no smell even though the walls contain cow-dung. Average family of four and extended family of 20 in the same house. Marriage occurs between villages when the women get tattooed.
The couple in light brown jungle fatigues, more pockets than a snooker table, all for films and lenses and cameras. Tired and snappy at KTM airport. Done the Indian leg of the tour and no sleep for two days.
Pragyalal Shrestha Pee-el, or PL for short, was our Nepalese courier.
‘We have a saying in Nepal,’ (they actually have several),
‘Good horn, good brakes, good luck.’
I imagined, after a while, that the cars and motor-bikes were simply talking to each other. The hoots were not all angry. Overtaking on a blind bend takes courage and a little reminder for any unseen vehicle to gently move over might save a life.
We were identifying likely chums. Those who may be similar to us. Those who may be different. It seems to start with a range of informal signals, body language. Those first contacts set the pattern for most of the holiday, so powerful is our non-verbal communication skills. Non-verbal that is except for Barry, who needed to chuckle a lot.