Blue Dune Books is an online self-publishing venture for the novels of Nick Tebble. Available as ebooks in PDF and Palm Doc format, their common theme is Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

 

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Sample chapter from "Jamuni"

book cover for the ebooks fiction novel Jamuni

'What hast thou done by illusions drawn?
Strayed from home to dark deep woods,
o'er foreign countries roamed.
Flees the time and dusk descends,
across the sky the clouds spread their veil,
the body droops and falters in the march
with bleeding feet in thorns.
Pines the moaning heart for home,
yet who knows not where to wend its way.
'Guide us, O guide', cries the soul,
but who knows for whom rings that cry?'
Bengali folk song

 

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE
PART 1: SIMLING
PART 2: KALIPANI
PART 3: TWO STRONG MEN
EPILOGUE

Prologue

The clicking was constant now. Only when he spoke could he block it out.
"You know mate, you're going to the wrong place," said Prison Officer Stevens, leading him out of his cell.
He looked up. "What do you mean?"
Stevens sniffed. "Well, it stands to reason."
He said nothing.
"I mean, you could sell your story for a packet to one of the papers. Instead you're gonna waste it on some deaf old git who ain't gonna tell a soul. It's crazy if you ask me."
He ignored his escort. Money would be of no use where he was going, and not for the first time since his arrest he shuddered at what he had done: no argument, no debate, no nothing. He had done it.
As he was led into the Spartan chapel, not much larger than his own cell, he stopped at the bowl of holy water to dip his finger into it, crossing himself before being guided to the single confessional that stood to the left of the candle-lit altar. He could hear murmuring from within, and in the gloomy light he made out a pair of legs protruding from the box. He remembered how, when he was a boy in the Dream Time, he had had to make his sins up to keep the Father happy. Assuredly, there would be no stories today.
"'Slike waitin' for a fucking piss!" hissed Stevens, leaning over to whisper in his ear, so that spittle landed on his cheek.
As he wiped the spittle away, he despised himself for asking to come here. Weakness, that's all it was. Because he was afraid of being alone. But someone had to hear the truth, not the forensic kind that would be heard in court, but truth of a psychological kind. That was the only way he could explain it to himself.
The anonymous pair of legs straightened and an elderly prisoner appeared, making for the benches before the altar, where once more he knelt down, this time to pray.
"Alright then. Off you go," said Stevens.
Walking the few steps to the tall wooden box, he knelt down on the padded rest, placing his elbows on the bench in front, waiting for the panel to be pulled across. He heard a cough, the confessional shook as someone sat down, and very slowly the panel slid open, revealing a wire grille. He could make out the profile of a large bald head with flappy ears and an arched nose. Another cough.
"I hope I can shake this off. The sooner summer comes the better," moaned the priest, in a deep, well spoken voice. "Now let me hear your confession."
The words were still there, and without hesitation he began. "Bless me Father for I have sinned. It's been...It's been a long time since my last confession..."
"How long?"
He had to think. "Eighteen years."
There was an amused grunt. "Well, no doubt you'll have plenty to tell me."
He didn't bother replying. The priest's facetious response had annoyed him. But he wouldn't be so flippant in a minute.
"And where is your own parish church?" he continued.
He couldn't answer, and it was this mystery that had, so he believed, brought him here today.
"I don't have one Father. In fact, I don't even know why I've come. I'm not sure I believe in God."
"That is immaterial. He is always ready to listen if you are ready to speak. Now please begin."
He hesitated. "Father..." He couldn't have. It wasn't possible. "Father, I killed a woman."
This time there was no sound of amusement, only a silence of some length.
"Father, I don't know where to start. It might take all day."
"No matter. He has all the time in the world."
He wondered how he was going to remain in the kneeling position for so long; it was alright for the priest on his seat.
"My mind is so confused. There seem to be so many reasons that I'm only just seeing."
The priest sighed. "Then I suggest you begin at the beginning."
This platitudinous advice seemed to help him, but as he closed his eyes and bowed his head, all he could see was him weeping into the other's arms, she lying beside them, dying.


PART ONE - SIMLING

'The ballads which she sang at her music lessons were
concerned with nothing but little angels with golden
wings, Madonnas and lagoons and gondoliers - mild
compositions which, through the childish simplicity of
their style and the defects of their musical
expression, gave her glimpses of the seductive world of
sentimental realities.'
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert


Chapter One

Like everyone else in England, Mary Talbot watched the European Revolutions of 1989 on TV. Back then, in her first year at Manchester University, the events in the Eastern Bloc had filled her with a euphoria not unlike the Radicals' reception of that other Revolution two hundred years before. Yet just as its noble aims had all too quickly degenerated into the Terror, so Mary had watched with dismay the specter of tribalism return to haunt Europe, one of its most repugnant aspects being the resurgence of the neo-Nazi movement. Now that there were no longer Reds to fear and hate, so the Far Right, and many not so Far Right, had found a new enemy and threat in those whose difference afforded no ideological debate: colour.
Immigration, the 'swamping' of Fortress Europe, asylum seekers whose 'bogus' nature all too easily turned them into 'bogeymen', these were the Right's greatest fears, fears which had led to immigrant communities across the Continent becoming the target of neo-Nazi attacks.
In her second year at Manchester University, distantly outraged by the assaults on Bangladeshis in East London, Mary had joined the Anti-Nazi League, an act that seemed a natural progression for one who had been under the spell of the Subcontinent since her childhood, a spell that had already seen her take up both yoga and a profound sense of postcolonial guilt in her first year.
Now, some twelve months since graduating and returning to London, she shivered in the cold October evening, waiting outside the ABC cinema on Ealing Broadway for a bus to take her home. Tired and depressed after another day in the dole office, she inspected her bag one more time to check the ticket was still there. At last she was going, really going, just as she'd always promised herself she would.
The 207 pulled up, and as she climbed on board she couldn't help but notice the Indian women in their colourful saris, cholis and shalwar kameez, the Sikh men with their bright turbans, still unable to believe that she would soon be in that magical land. As a child she had lived behind Ealing Broadway, and though the borough had a large Indian population, she had gone to a Catholic girls' school in another part of the city, so that her relationship with them had rarely extended beyond perfunctory exchanges in the Post Office and Corner Shop (this being before the age when local Asian bands could appropriate such stereotypes and make them their own). Despite this lack of real contact, and despite India itself, her childhood spell had also led her to believe that the Subcontinent's traditions of peace, wisdom and tolerance had a place in the new Europe, where it seemed that many people had forgotten the very reasons for nearly fifty years of Cold War.
Only last month, the British National Party, a splinter group from the more notorious National Front, had won a council seat in Tower Hamlets, an area with a substantial Bangladeshi community; while in France, Germany, Italy and Austria, Nationalist Parties in various guises seemed to be on the rise. Despite these developments, however, Mary's political activism, not to mention her personal expectations, had diminished considerably since leaving college, and with this diminishment she had increasingly found herself longing for escape. Today, finally, she had booked her ticket.
When Philip Oakley, leader of the Ealing ANL, had phoned her last night, asking her to come along on yet another anti-BNP demo, she had told him about her imminent journey. He had not approved. "Typical student," he had sneered, "once you get out into the real world you don't want to know. Just when the Fash' are on the rise, you decide to run away to India."
Mary had been angered by this - though she had still agreed to see him before leaving - but it had to be said, she had been shocked by the contrasting styles of the ANL society at university - where they would usually meet for an evening in a pub, agree how evil racism was before going home having agreed - and the more robust methods of the London ANL which, only last month, had had several bloody clashes with the BNP. Such action accorded neither with her fear of violence nor her philosophy of non-violence - the fear and philosophy being inseparably linked - a philosophy she modeled on the Gandhian, and more anciently, the Jainist principle of 'ahimsa'. This was not a principle to which certain of her 'clients' in the Job Centre subscribed, some of whom only today had threatened to take her life if they couldn't take their cheques.
To her relief, the personnel department had granted her request for six months' unpaid leave, although several of her Indian colleagues could not understand why she had chosen to go to the Subcontinent. Regardless, she was going, not for a long time, but enough to feel she had had a break: from London, from her dead end job, from the ANL and the depressing victory of the BNP, and most of all, perhaps, from Tom.
For lunch today she had seen her friend Zoran in a wine bar in the Ealing Broadway shopping centre, as much the focal point of Ealing as every other English town. She had met him at the only bookshop in the area, when she had been searching for a work on Eastern philosophy and he had been standing next to her inspecting the Occult section. They were soon talking and it wasn't long before a friendship had developed.
He claimed to have come to England from Yugoslavia when he was a boy, his East European accent lending the story some credence, and though he said he now lived a life of "radical non-intervention" and was unemployed, she had never seen him in the Job Centre. She suspected he received some kind of allowance from his parents, of whom he always spoke in reverential terms. Usually when they met he would insist on reading to her some passage from an obscure author she might have come across in a footnote at college. The only time she had tried to bring him and Tom together had been disastrous. She had struggled to keep the conversation going, and afterwards she had asked Tom why he had been so reticent. "He's a bloody weirdo," was all he would say. But he had not expressed any desire for her to stop seeing him, possibly because he thought Zoran was gay. Which he was.
"So how's Mary today?" he had asked in his deep Balkan accent, standing up as she arrived at the table in the wine bar. They were overlooking the tacky piazza, where a dreary fountain splashed passers by, and on Saturdays a tuneless brass band would mark time for the busy shoppers.
"Alright, I s'pose."
After ordering two black coffees from a waitress, Zoran turned to her.
"'She's alright she supposes.' Hmmm, not too good from the sound of it. Let me guess, another paid-up member of the Welfare Club has offered you a one way trip to Heaven?" Mary laughed. "I don't know, Kafka was perfectly miserable working for a large anonymous establishment. Why you should be any less so is by no means clear."
"Work is only part of it. It's..." Mary paused as the waitress returned with the coffee.
"Let me guess," said Zoran, sipping his coffee, "it wouldn't have anything to do with Mister Safeway, would it?"
Despite herself, she couldn't help laughing. "It's not funny. He's getting worse."
Zoran sniffed and placed his coffee on the saucer. "Personally, I've never seen the need for a partner. It's simply a form of weakness. Perhaps he needs to go away for a while."
"That's the last thing he'd do. As far as he's concerned, the rest of the world's full of bloody foreigners. Come to think of it, he's not too pleased about some of the people in Ealing."
"Simply a projection of self-loathing."
Mary shrugged. "Perhaps, but it's not him that needs to get away, it's me."
"Why's that?"
"I've had enough."
"Of what?"
She sighed. "Everything."
Zoran nodded like a sympathetic doctor. "Classic behaviour of the cornered animal. It has two choices: fight or flight. But remember, if you choose flight, later on you will still have to confront whatever it is you're fighting. There's no escape."
"I don't see it like that. I just need some space and time to reassess."
Zoran grunted. "Well that's something I suppose. After all, you know what Socrates said, don't you?"
"No, but I'm sure you're about to enlighten me".
"'The unexamined life is not worth living'. But then," he chuckled, "look what happened to him! You know, these days I tend to follow the Nikeist philosophy."
She frowned and placed her coffee on the table. "What are you talking about?"
"You know? 'Just do it'. The only thing is, I've got nothing to do. But I love it. As James might have put it, the slogan suffers from a great cerebral lassitude. I mean, can you imagine Hamlet's father interrupting his son's soliloquy to indecision and saying, 'son, just do it'. That's the fin de siecle's answer to the great existential dilemma between thought and action." Zoran shook his head and chuckled. "Mmm, perhaps your idea of flight is not so bad after all. This society sucks."
Mary smiled and reached into her bag, producing the ticket she had only just collected from the travel agency in the arcade below. For once her friend's cynicism and irony was briefly conquered.
"My God! You've really done it! You're a Nikeist just like everyone else!"
"No, not like everyone else," she insisted, "but yes, I have done it."
"No doubt it's a Journey to the East?"
She nodded. "You know I've always wanted to go India."
Zoran waved his hand at her. "Asia, Africa, America, it doesn't much matter where you go, you always take your self. That's one thing you can never leave behind."
"Kafka?"
"No, me. So, when are you off?"
"A week today."
"Have you told Tom?"
She shook her head. "He'll find out tonight."
"Rather you than me," he said, and after finishing the coffee and agreeing to call him when she got back, Mary had returned for her last afternoon in the dole office.
Yes, she would tell Tom tonight, she said to herself as the bus pulled up opposite the Viaduct pub in Hanwell. But as she went downstairs and waited for the doors to open, she shivered again. Not from the cold this time, but nervousness. He wasn't going to like it. Not one bit. "Simling," she said to herself, "Simling", the familiar, infantile mantra calming her a little as she stepped off the bus and made her way to the flat.

Chapter Two

"I didn't mean to kill her. It was an accident."
He could almost hear the priest smiling to himself.
"You're not the first to say that."
"Well, it's the truth. The one I meant to kill was him. Sid."
The priest went quiet again, and in the silence he could hear the name. Sid. That name. That man. Him weeping into his arms, she lying beside them, dying. Why? Why?
"Because he took her away from me. But is that it? Would I have wanted to kill him if he'd been white? I doubt it. So the question is this: how the fuck did I become a racist? I mean, already I don't recognize the person I was just a week ago."
A week ago. Him weeping into his arms, she lying beside them, dying.
"If anyone had told me I'd get mixed up with those morons in the BNP, I'd've laughed at them. But I did. And if it could happen to me, then it could happen to anyone." Could happen to anyone. Yeah, he had to believe that, had to believe he wasn't some kind of freak, that the Hitler was in everyone, not just him and a few semi-educated buffoons.
"Her name was Mary."
Mary. Jamuni. That word. That name. That name he'd only heard for the first time one week ago. She lying beside them, dying. Jamuni. Where are you? Where have you gone?
The priest coughed. "You said her name was Mary?"
"Jamuni."
"What?"
"Jamuni. The Purple One. That's what he called her."
"Who?"
"Sid. That's what they called her down there."
"Where?"
"Southall. But I never knew her like that. To me she was always Mary. To me..." He sighed. The priest was right. There was nothing to do but begin at the beginning.

When they first met in the Lower Sixth at St Luke's, she didn't obsess him at all. In fact, she was more into him than he was into her. Because they both lived in Ealing, they went home the same way, and it wasn't long before she knew about his coming from Australia. Back then it meant nothing to him. The only thing he missed was his Dad in Brisbane.

He stopped again, trying to resist the power of that word to take him back into that world, into that Dream Time.

His parents had divorced when he was twelve, and while his Dad stayed in Brisbane, he came over here with his Mum. Mary was the first person he ever spoke to about it. They got on pretty well, though she was much artier than him, and after a couple of tube journeys together he asked her out. She agreed, and one Friday night they met up in Ealing Broadway.
The Queen Vic was still a pub in those days. Mary was already there when he arrived, reading. She was always reading, and when he came back with the drinks he couldn't resist asking her why. She said she liked to escape, and when he asked her where she'd like to escape to, she said 'India'.

India. India. That word. That land. That country that was to take her away from him. She lying beside them, dying.

Even on that first night he felt she needed him. In fact, she always needed someone to be there for her. After all, as soon as she left him she went to Sid.

That name. That man. Him. Weeping. She. Dying.

They had a good night together, kissed, even talked about going to the same university. He went home as happy as he'd ever been. The only problem was that the longer he was with her, the less important the exams seemed. They'd started going out at the end of the Lower Sixth, and almost a year later, in the weeks before the finals, when he should've been revising, he was wondering where they might go for a holiday that summer. He must've been dreaming, because neither of them had any money.
A few days after the exams, she invited him round to meet her parents for the first time. The first time. The first time he ever thought about it. About IT. His problem.

They lived in the posh part of Ealing, very cosy and green, not like his Mum's place in South Ealing. >From the moment he met them, he could tell they didn't think much of him.
"So Thomas," said Gordon, her father, "you're going to be an engineer?"
"That's right. A mechanical engineer."
"Mary tells me you plan following her up to Manchester?"
"Well, I wouldn't say I was following her."
"You know," he continued, "there's a lot to be said for your going to separate establishments. That way you'll know."
Mary turned to him. "Dad, what you should know is that we've already applied for a shared room in the halls of residence."
As Gordon began savagely cutting his steak, too angry to speak, it was his wife's turn to let Mary know what they thought of her boyfriend. Brenda Talbot was never going to accept someone as working class as him. He didn't have the right accent. He lived in the wrong part of Ealing. And worst of all, he wasn't even English.
"Have you seen much of England?" she asked in a leisurely, middle class accent, unlike the crisp and sharp tones of Gordon.
"Not really. I've spent most of my life in London."
She nodded. "Of course, you're Australian, aren't you?"
"Well, I was born there."
"What's it like down there?"
"I can hardly remember. I left ten years ago."
"Oh really? Well, isn't there a joke about the plane arriving at the airport of your capital city, what is it?"
"Canberra," I said.
"Ah yes. The plane arrives at Canberra, only for the passengers to find that the country is closed."
As Gordon burst into laughter, Mary began to blush with shame.
"I think you mean New Zealand," he said as calmly as he could.
Brenda raised her eyes to the ceiling. "Well, they're the same thing, aren't they?"
Hardly another word was said after that, and at the end of the evening, as they stood at the door of the house, Gordon stiffly offered him his hand.
"Goodbye Thomas."
"Hope to see you again."
He muttered some incoherent platitude and shut the door.
He felt awful. Not because of his failure to impress Mary's parents, but because her mother's questions had unsettled him. No one, not even Mary, had asked him as much about Australia before, and on his way home that night, for the first time in his life, he found himself asking the same question over and over again: Who am I?

Who was he? That was the question that had brought him here today, the question that even now he could not answer.
"Maybe it was then, Father, that the idea of going back to Brisbane came to me."
Going back to Brisbane. Brisbane. And she lying beside them, dying.

He didn't see Mary for three weeks after that. She'd gone on holiday with her parents, and while she was away the results came. After receiving his in the post, he went down to St Luke's to see hers. It was just as he'd feared: she was going to Manchester, and he wasn't. Maybe it was from that moment that it all started to go wrong. Maybe that was where he blew it.

"You've blown it, Kent."
That's what the Sixth Form Master told him that day. He was right. The only way of getting into university now would be to do resits, but he couldn't face that, and with Mary still in France, the only person he could talk to was his mother, Lucretia.
By now her dream of becoming a professional opera singer in England - her ostensible reason for
leaving Australia - was over. But with the alimony she was getting from his Dad, she didn't have to work, spending most of her time at home in Ealing, in a lounge full of famous composers' busts and opera scores, singing along to all the stuff she knew she'd never perform on stage.
When he got back from St Luke's he walked into the lounge to find her engrossed in Mozart. It was a couple of minutes before she noticed him.
"Hello darling," she drawled in an Australian accent struggling to be English. "Where have you been?"
"St Luke's."
"But I thought you'd left school?"
"I went to get my exam results. Remember? Those A levels I was doing a few months ago."
"Of course, how silly of me. Off to Manchester now with Mary, I suppose?"
"More like the dole office, actually."
"Good heavens, whatever for?"
"I failed."
"What, everything?"
"Yes."
"But you did so much revision for them!"
What she didn't know was that he'd spent most of the time in his room thinking about Mary instead.
"Can't you go back and retake them?"
"I could. But I'm not going to."
"But you're not trained for anything. What will you do if you don't go to university?"
"I've thought of going out to Brisbane."
For a minute Lucretia couldn't speak. In fact, he'd surprised himself, never realizing until that moment that the desire was there.
"What the hell do you want to go there for?" she finally said.
He shrugged. "First of all I'd like to see Dad. And second, I'm just curious."
"Curious? Believe me, there's nothing there to be curious about."

If only he'd listened. If only he'd not been curious. Then maybe she wouldn't have been lying beside them, dying.

"If I were you I'd think about doing the 'A' levels again, or at least getting a job."
"Well, you're not me."
As he left the room and closed the door, the volume of the music went up immediately. Lucretia couldn't see beyond her distaste for Brisbane, and he knew he wouldn't receive any encouragement from her.
A few days later Mary got back, and that same night they met up in the Queen Vic.
"So how was France?"
"Nothing special," she said. "I spent most of my time lying on the beach, trying to ignore obnoxious French schoolboys."
He couldn't help smiling. "You mean you resisted?"
"It wasn't very hard. They were all ugly. Not like another boy I know."
"Even after he's failed his exams?"
"Even after he's failed his exams." Then she leaned across the table and took his hand. "What are we going to do?"
"You're going to Manchester, that's for sure."
"But it was hard enough when I was in France. I don't like being away from you."
"And just imagine what your parents would say if you told them you weren't going to university because I'd failed my exams. Let's face it, I'd definitely never see you again."
"But I don't have to go up north. There must be somewhere in London I can go."

He couldn't believe it, but back then he was the strong one, deciding things for him and her.
"You chose Manchester and just because I'm suddenly not going is no reason for you not to. Anyway, if you think about it, the terms aren't so long, and if we visit each other, then it really won't be so bad." He squeezed her hand.
"Yes, you're right."
They paused to drink, and in the silence he realized that although they had solved her side of the problem, it wouldn't be so easy to deal with his.
"So what will you do?" she asked.
He could hardly think beyond the next pint, let alone the course of his life. "I've thought of going back to Brisbane for a while."
"To see your Dad?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Just for a few months..."
"Months?! You can't leave me for months!"
"A few weeks then. Look, it's no big deal, and anyway, it won't be for quite a while yet. I don't have any money."
"I couldn't bear the thought of your being so far away."
"Look, it hasn't even happened yet. Stop worrying." He leaned over and kissed her.
"So you're going to have to get a job, then?" she asked.
"Yes."
"What will you do?"
"I've seen an ad in the local paper for something at Safeway supermarket in Southall."
"Safeway in Southall?! What happened to engineering?"
"Look, I don't want to do anything like that yet. I want some time to think."

In those days, he could still persuade her with his strength of will, but what he'd give to start all over again from that summer. He'd have gone back to St Luke's and resat the exams. He'd have gone to university and got a proper job. Maybe Mary's parents would have accepted him then. But most of all, he'd never have gone back to Brisbane.
Brisbane. Brisbane. That word. That land. That man. Him weeping into his arms, she lying beside them, dying.

"What exactly is this job?" she asked.
He was almost too embarrassed to tell her. "It's nothing."
"Well I'd like to know all the same, so I can imagine what you're doing when I'm studying."
"You'll be sleeping, not studying."
She frowned and sipped on her pint. "What do you mean?"
"I'd be working on the night shift, that's what."
"Doing what?"
He sighed. "Packing bloody shelves."
"Oh Tom."
"Look, it's twice the pay I'd get for day work like that. And as I say, it's easy money, no questions asked. In a couple of months I'd have saved enough to go to Oz. Then I'd come back and probably go to university."
After finishing their drinks they left the pub and walked back to Ealing Broadway.
"When do you leave?" he asked.
"Next weekend. But I don't even want to think about it."
She stopped and put her arms around him, and as they kissed he felt her warm tears.
"What's wrong?" he asked, wiping her eyes.
"I'll miss you so much."
"And I'll miss you too."
"You promise to come up and see me?"
"Of course."
"Soon?"
"Very soon."
She looked up anxiously. "I love you."
"And I love you too."

That moment was probably the most she ever needed him. Maybe if things had remained that way, he wouldn't be here now, talking to the priest. But they didn't. No, they didn't. And it was this inability to stop change that now made him hate life so much.
"A week later her parents drove her up to Manchester, and while she began her first year, I signed on, sat at home and waited to hear from Safeway in Southall."
Southall. Another dangerous word. No matter what he said, it seemed, a word was waiting to pounce on him and take him back to that moment, forcing him to picture his weeping into the other's arms, she lying beside them, dying.
The priest coughed. "You were talking about Southall?"
"Yes. They contacted me about a month later, asking me to come down for an interview. I'd never been there before, but as the 207 pulled up outside the Town Hall, I recognized it."
Town Hall. Him. The other. Weeping. She. Beside them. Dying.

Not long after he'd arrived from Australia, some time in '79, a riot had taken place there. The police went mad, killing one of the protestors. That was how he'd recognized it. >From the TV.
The supermarket was on the Broadway, and after passing all the Indian shops he stood outside for a few minutes. Could he really pack shelves at night for a living? After telling himself it was only for a few months, he went in.
A young Indian woman was fielding complaints and enquiries from half a dozen impatient shoppers at the customer service counter. The fact she was Indian meant nothing to him. She was just another person.
She directed him upstairs to an office. On the door it said 'V GUPTA - MANAGER'.

V Gupta. Vikram Gupta. A man he'd barely known, a man whose niece was to bring him to her, to him, she lying beside them, dying.
A large man, with slicked back hair and a considerable paunch, Vikram was sitting at his desk.
"Mister Kent?"
"Yes."
"Please, sit down."
He could see his application form on the desk, and though he was hardly going for a career job, still he was nervous. After quickly scanning his form, Vikram looked up and smiled.
"I see you've not had a job before?" he said, his accent almost completely English.
"Eh, that's right."
"Strange. It says here that you only left school last summer, but you took your 'O' levels two years ago. Can you explain this?"
When filling in the form a few weeks ago, he'd agonized a whole day about whether to put down the 2 'F's and the 'U' he'd got in his 'A' levels, finally deciding it better not to.
"I took my 'A' levels this year."
Vikram nodded. "Didn't do too well, did you?"
"No."
"What were you hoping to do at university?"
"Engineering."
"And what about resits?"
He shrugged. "Not yet. I'm not sure what I want to do next."
"But you are sure you want this job?"
Suddenly Vikram's smile seemed as worthless as his three 'A' level slips.
"Yes, I'm sure. I've been on the dole too long."
He nodded. "I see. And you realize what this job entails?"
"I think so. Yes."
"Packing shelves ten hours a night."
"I know."
"Hmmm. I'm sure you do. But I'm not about to take someone on who I suspect will run off after a couple of weeks. Most of our packers have been here a couple of years."

Packers. One packer in particular. Maybe if he'd never met Dave Morley she wouldn't have been lying beside them, dying.

"It's hard, boring work. Are you sure you can do it?"
"I'm sure"
Vikram reflected for a few minutes, looking down at the form. "Very well," he said, "you'll hear from us shortly. But take it from me, you'll be starting in two weeks."
He stood up and shook his hand. "Thanks. Hope to see you soon."
Vikram laughed. "Not likely, young man."
He looked at him blankly.
"You don't think I'm here during the night, do you? Chances are we'll never see each other again."

If only he'd never had to see him again. Maybe then he wouldn't have spotted Vikram's niece outside the pub, maybe he wouldn't have found Sid with Mary, maybe she wouldn't have been lying beside them, dying.

"Anyway, the bloke had given me a chance, and I took it. The weekend before I was due to start, I took the Inter-City up to Manchester. I could hardly wait to see Mary. But how could I have known, Father? How could I have known that in just the few months she'd been away, Mary had already started turning into Jamuni?"

Chapter Three

Sita had slept the entire eight hours of the flight, and when the air hostess had tapped her gently on the arm to fasten her seatbelt for landing, she momentarily imagined that the plane was about to arrive in Delhi. As it banked and descended for landing, however, she only needed to look out the window to see that she was flying over a strangely green and foreign land.
It was all wrong: he was meant to be here, not her. And now she had been sent away from him, to a country she knew almost nothing about and whose language she could hardly speak. All she wanted was to be with him, and the prospect that they would never see each other again possessed her with such agonizing force that she reached for the paper bag to throw up. But nothing would come. She had refused the meals on the plane, in fact, had not eaten in almost two days, not since her mother had forced her to have some rice, chapati and subzee the morning before she had been taken away from the only person she had ever loved.
And who was this uncle that was supposed to find her a husband? She didn't want to see him. She didn't want to marry anyone. She didn't want to be here.
The Air India 747, the Hathi, touched down on the runway at Heathrow.
"Don't you just love landing?" squealed her neighbour in Hindi, a plump, elderly lady whose flabby folds of flesh were only partly hidden by her pink sari. Seeta rolled her head indifferently and wished she would shut up. All she really wanted to do was hide under one of the seats and wait for the plane to take off for India.
Soon the doors had opened, and reluctantly she left the plane and walked along the gangway into the terminal, already feeling the English chill, wishing she wasn't only wearing a blue sari and yellow choli. Up ahead, the white desks of Passport Control appeared, the passengers from her plane gradually aligning themselves into their respective queues: UK Passport Holders, European Community Passport Holders, Others. Having already secured the tourist visa in Delhi, Sita imagined she would not encounter any difficulty now, although she could think of nothing better than being informed by the authorities that she would have to take the next flight home. Unlike the other lines, hers was moving very slowly, for up ahead, standing at the desk, was a young Indian man clearly having problems with the Immigration officer. She couldn't catch everything that was being said, except for the key words the officer was using, such as 'funds', 'accommodation' and 'back to India'. After some ten minutes of questioning two more Immigration officers emerged from a row of screened offices to the side of the desks and led the protesting man away. Sita envied his misfortune. If only she could be so lucky.
When it was finally her turn to present her Indian passport, she was feeling more irritable than ever. Perhaps if she were rude enough she might be denied entry.
"Next!" called the officer.
Please, thought Sita, don't let me in, send me back. Walking up to the desk she handed her passport over, the officer flicking through it until finding the Tourist Visa and Entry Clearance Certificate, stamping it without so much as a word.
"Next!" he called, passing it back.
Devastated, Sita passed through the barrier and entered the Baggage Collection area, walking up to the carousel on which her flight's luggage was now revolving. Her garrulous neighbour from the plane was flapping her arms at everyone, frantically searching for her luggage. Careful not to catch her eye, Sita approached the carousel, spotting her solitary suitcase after only a couple of minutes.
It had all been too quick, and now she was passing unnoticed through customs, approaching the Arrivals Hall. It looked even more intimidating than Old Delhi station, she thought, walking by the steel railing that separated her from the many expectant faces waiting on the other side. The sound of the PA was almost deafening and she felt as if everyone was watching her. Voices were calling out to faces recognized, and she noticed that there were as many Indians on the other side of the railing as on hers. She couldn't remember what her uncle looked like, having only met him a couple of times as a girl, and she wondered what she would do if he didn't find her, if he hadn't come. Perhaps they'd send her back to India.
"Sita!" She looked around.
"Sita!" It was coming from behind.
"Sita, over here!" Then she saw him, leaning over the railing, waving a photo of herself at her.
"Go down to the end and I'll meet you there!" he ordered in Hindi, already striding along the other side.
Sita nodded and walked slowly to the exit. He was standing there waiting for her, dressed in a dark blue suit, his thick hair greying, and as she walked up to him she expected him either to make 'namaste' or shake her hand. Instead, he took her suitcase, placed it on the ground, and without so much as a word embraced her, his strong arms holding her tightly.
"Oh Sita! It's wonderful to see you," he bubbled, "why, the last time we met you were just a little girl." He stepped back and looked her up and down. "I don't suppose you remember your Uncle Vikram, do you?"
"No," she replied, "please, I'm very tired. I'd like to go wherever it is you're taking me."
"Yes, yes, of course. Come."
It so cold outside, even the buildings seemed to be shivering. How could anyone live in such a country? wondered Sita. Her uncle stopped by a large, expensive looking car, like nothing she had ever seen in India, and after opening the doors with some sort of electronic device, put her case in the back.
"You can sit in the front with me."
"Yes Uncle," she replied.
Pulling out of the car park, Vikram switched on his tape machine, so that they drove to the accompaniment of some Western pop music. She had never liked it, indeed, it had been one of the few things between herself and her distant lover in Natarajapur that they had ever argued about. Stopping at a red light, her uncle turned to her.
"You don't have to worry about whatever happened back in India. You'll find us considerably more sophisticated than those country bumpkins in Bharat."
But all she wanted was to be back in Bharat, away from this ghastly looking land where even the people seemed to blend in with the concrete.
"Where exactly are we going?" she asked.
Vikram laughed and lit a cigarette. "The English call it Little India, but you'll probably find it to be just plain old Southall."
Driving across the roundabout into South Road, Sita had so far seen nothing on the journey from the airport to relieve her almost instinctive dislike of the land to which she had been banished. Reaching the top of a railway bridge, they became caught in traffic, and briefly she was able to look around her.
For as far as she could see on either side, the Middlesex plain stretched into the distance, the odd patch of green punctuating the ugly man-made vista of grey high rise and row upon row of terraced housing. To her it was the embodiment of all that was dreary, an impression that was only compounded by the dismal grey sky above, and she longed for the more familiar and certainly more vibrant features of the Doab. There was, however, one object that couldn't fail to lift her, an object whose white marble, curvilinear towers and pillars managed to gleam even in this dull light. For a moment she thought she was back in India, as she noticed flying from the top of the highest tower a saffron flag with the symbol 'OM' emblazoned in black upon it.
"Uncle, what is that?"
Vikram followed her finger. "Sri Shankara Mandir. It was only built last year," he said blandly.
"But it's beautiful!"
"Yes, if you like that kind of thing." Vikram couldn't remember the last time he'd entered a temple, probably when his parents had died back in the eighties.
Sita was dumbfounded to see a north Indian temple in the middle of an English suburb, but as they drove over the bridge and down into South Road, her uncle pointed to a building on the right.
"And that is the Glassy Junction!" he cried, "Southall's finest pub!"
"Pub? What is that?"
"It's where the English go to relax. They regard it as their second home, and I can tell you there are many Indians for whom the sentiment is much the same. But the Glassy Junction is unique. It is a Panjabi pub. See up there? You don't find that on English pubs!"
Sita looked up to observe six brightly coloured, giant sized figures of Panjabi dancers hanging against the brick wall, all in different poses, all with musical instruments or swords in their hands.
"It's a truly wonderful establishment," he purred. "Perhaps I'll take you there sometime."
Sita could imagine nothing worse, and as they drove along South Road she couldn't quite believe what she was seeing, for although the buildings were undeniably English in style, the shops themselves were Indian in content, so much so that for a few minutes she felt oddly at home. The windows displayed all the sweets, silks and cloths she knew so well, while the streets themselves were full of turbaned Sikhs and sari-, choli- and shalwar-clad women, the restaurants boasting such names as "Jullundhur" and "Ludhiana", and didn't that say "Himalayan Carpets" over there? Bollywood hits blared from music stores, while fruit and vegetable stalls lined the pavement, and as in every Indian street, it was full of traffic. Sita wasn't sure whether all this was comforting or disturbing: would it make her feel at home, or would it only remind her of home?
"Over there is the Town Hall," said Vikram, as they arrived at the intersection of South and Uxbridge Road.
Sita looked across to a creamy white, neo-classical building whose imposing three storeys and columned stairway lent it a moderately grand aspect.
The lights turned to green and they turned left into the Broadway. Like South Road, it was full of Indian shops and restaurants, but Sita hardly had time to examine them before they pulled across the road and turned right into a narrow street whose name she noticed was St George's Avenue, lined with the same type of houses she had seen all along the route from the airport. She found them so ugly, almost depressing.
"This is it, home sweet home," announced her Uncle, pulling into a driveway.
She saw the number sixteen on the door, the only visible mark that distinguished it from all the other terraced houses in the street. At least she now had a proper address to send him. Cruelly, her parents had refused to give it to her when she was in Natarajapur, rightly suspecting that she would immediately give it to him.
"I do hope you will be happy here," said Vikram, opening the front door.
It was much larger inside than she had imagined, with three rooms leading off from the entrance hall.
"Let me show you upstairs," he said.
Sita followed her Uncle into a room which he had tried to make as attractive as possible, its huge oak wardrobe, pine dresser beneath the window, large bed with a cabinet and lamp beside it, all brand new. Yet all she wanted was a cramped, gloomy room in a cheap Indian café. She sat down on the bed.
"It's lovely."
"I'm glad you like it," he said. "Now, are you going to tell me what all this nonsense back home is about? Suddenly your mother sends you to me saying I've got to find you a husband."
Sita looked away. It was three days since she had left him, and in that time she had spoken to no-one about it.
"Do you not trust your Uncle? I promise, whatever you say will be just between us."
"You mustn't believe anything my mother has told you, " she said, turning to him. "I'm not a bad girl."
Vikram nodded. "What's the boy's name?"
"Sid."
Vikram frowned. "That's an odd name for an Indian. He's not Christian, is he?"
"No Uncle, that's just his nickname."
"And what is it your parents object to? I know arranged marriages aren't as common as they used to be, and love marriages are on the up in India. Alright, so Natarajapur isn't Bombay or New Delhi, but then, my sister isn't a peasant."
"You're right. But they still expect me to marry a respectable Hindu boy. But not Sid, oh no, never Sid."
"Why not? What's wrong with him?
Sita wiped a tear from her eye. "Uncle, he's just different. And I don't want anyone else. I..." With great difficulty she controlled her need to cry.
He put his arm around her. "Now don't you worry. Your mother never took to England, but I did, and over here we do things differently. Believe me, I have no intention of marrying you off against your will. Of course, I'll have to tell her that we met several suitors, all of whom proved unsatisfactory. But there will come a time when I suggest you return to India. Naturally you'll have to stay for a few months at least, to convince your mother we've been trying, but I will not force you to marry."
What he didn't tell her was that his sister had also asked him to check all her mail, to ensure that no correspondence took place between the two lovers, and furthermore, he had been warned that this man was so devious he might even try to secure a passage to England to find her. All this, and now Sita's own vague comments about Sid, made him immensely curious about this man from Natarajapur.
Sita turned to him and gave him a hug. "Thank you Uncle, thank you so much."
"And tomorrow night I'll take you to the Glassy Junction. It will make you feel at home."
She nodded.
"Right, I'll leave you to unpack then. The bathroom is at the far end of the hall, and when you come down we can have something to eat."
Sita wiped her eyes. "I might sleep for a while if you don't mind."
"But of course, you are as free as you like while you are here," he said, before closing the door.
Sita stood up and walked over to the window, looking out across the empty, silent street to the identical houses on the other side. Like it or not, her Uncle was the only person she had to talk to, and without him she even feared she might lose her mind. But as she climbed into bed, she reflected that for all his kind words she was still undeniably stuck with a man and a land she had never wanted to see, far from the man and the land she had never wanted to leave.

 

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Blue Dune Books features three novels by Nick Tebble. They are available as ebooks or, if you cannot access them as e-books, you can print them. Common to all the fiction is a 'book in the book' in which figures from mythology, philosophy, science and mysticism appear. In Jamuni, for example, you will find the Buddha as Boddhisatva.