The peppercorns of his eyes swell, devouring the egg whites around them. He’s shaking, white-like-a-chicken and overweight. His jellied arms wobble in American cooking-fat and jam.
“They’re eating people alive in there.”
He lurches for the kiosk. “What you got?”
The shy woman blinks three times too many. “Dahl Shrimaan.”
Yellow beads of sweat, swirl in a clockwise direction, up from the pot and into the steam, his western sweat drips off his eyelashes back into the pot.
He whispers, a slow but silent plea – “Please… what – else – have – you – got?”
She nods – “Dahl. It is Dahl. For Mahaashay?”
Here, on the dust lane headed towards Hampi, is his final moment as a human being. His cheekbones twitch as the last shred of digested American bacon seeps through. He’s done.
“FUCK INDIA AND YOUR FUCKING DAHL.”
The once-was-man slumps to the floor. He sits on the ground of a country that’s defeated him. Defeated him with lentils.
“They’re eating people alive in there.”
His words ring inside my eardrums along with his lonely sobs – fucking Dahl, why, I hate it so much, this god forsaken place, fuck.
Travel Scrabble, the game I’d carried for months but never played, is open in my lap. We’d left Gokana. Left our friends. Left what was meant to be my new life. With every wail I want to take the tiny squares of D and A and push them very hard into the mush of his eye balls, then stick H and L very hard up each nostril.
The bus door hangs off its latch. It’s the opening to the place you should never, EVER go, and the place you always have to. The warmth of Gokana beach fades from my back. I look at that bus and I want to throw myself underneath it.
But then, I’M SAVED – before I can fulfil death wish, a shiny western steed on black, smooth tires rolls our way, like fucking Jesus emerging from the cave with a new box of magic tricks. My heart literally moves up my body. I snap the Travel Scrabble shut. The man on the floor lets out a screech of pain. His heart has just shot into his shoes.
“Is that AC? Don’t you dare tell me that’s the bus you get if you want AC?”
I whip my head around towards Ryan and Kate. They’re already looking at me…
‘Shit’, we all think at exactly the same time – ‘Did we tick the AC box?’
Ryan’s scrambling inside his backpack, looking for the pieces of paper, tipping stuff in the dust, cursing his untidy packing. Kate’s leaning over him, riffling frantically through his mounding heap of clothes.
I pray to every Indian God I can think of and twice to the Monkey God.
Ryan finds the papers, almost ripping them as he tears it open…
The last particle of Gokana sunlight fades from his pupils. His mouth sags. For a moment I think he’s going to join the Dahl guy on the floor.
Then he hands me my piece of paper. Five letters, like a death sentence, cling to the top – NON AC.
An Indian man checks our printed reservation by looking at some biro markings on his hand. We try to fool him into thinking we have AC. Then we try to blindly walk onto the AC bus…
I’ll curl up in the corridor, I’ll go in the luggage hold, I’ll go on the roof… just please, please don’t make me go in there… Where people are being eaten alive…
What would happen if I just sat down next to the Dahl guy and neither of us moved? We just sat here forever? Would my mum eventually come and get me? Would some Indian person with a nice, working car come and drive me to Hampi? Or drive me back to my London bed, right into the centre of my comfort zone, where everything’s cool.
It had reached the time. There was no more delays, no more excuses. The Dahl guy dusts himself off – fuck Dahl, piece of shit bus, Hampi’s just a pile of rocks, fuck India, fuck my life – and ambles back into his seat.
“They’re eating people alive in there.”
It’s time to see for our-selves.
A white girl, legs tight to her chest, rocking, crying silently in her bed is the first thing I see. She sits bolt upright, refusing to touch any surfaces, except for the tiny bit of her arse that touches the seat. Kate starts to shake next to me. My eyes dart over every surface rapidly…
It doesn’t take long. I hear them first. Scratching, with their little black socks. My eyes play tricks on me. A flicker here, a movement there. Bodies twisting in their dark shell amour. I try to level out my breathing.
We find our “beds”. I have to climb up high to mine. I feel like I’m in a coffin. In a coffin of cockroaches. The window is cracked and smashed, with a gapping hole. Fuck…
“Um, might I be able to get my bag a second? I need -”
“BAG IN HOLD. WE GO NOW.”
I look over at Kate and Ryan. Kate looks like she’s going to faint.
I want to cry.
And then I notice it. People climbing up into other people’s beds. Kate and Ryan are in the same bed… I look back down at my printed ticket. I look at the numbers carved next to me on the wall… YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.
“I need to swap with you.”
Ryan eye’s flash, “That window’s smashed, I –”
“No, I don’t care about the window. Look at that space… That box with thirty centimetres of air. You see that?”
“Yeah I see that.”
“That’s not my bed. That’s mine and someone else’s bed.”
I indicate everyone doubling up around us… Most people are doubling up with people they know, or sort of knew but are now going to get to know a whole lot more…
I glance at the Indian men left. The Indian men, obsessed with taking photos of me, on every mobile phone possible. At the market, on the beach, in front of the fricking Taj Mahal – the shy white blonde girl who’s on every mantel piece in India, in every-bodies family photo album. Whether it’s ‘please can I have a photo of you with my children?’ or ‘I’m going to snap one in your face, and then ten of your arse and legs while you try to run away.’
“I can’t do this. I can’t share that bed. I’ll share with Kate, and you share that bed, please…”
Dahl-guy is two beds across… “It should be same sex sharing. Bet that’s the rule in AC. It’s an outrage. Fuck this fucking sleeper. Fuck India, etc, etc…”
Ryan’s not happy, he’s trying to think of a way he can twist it.
“GET IN YOUR ASSIGNED SEATS NOW. WE ARE MOVING…”
“Hang on…” Ryan goes back to Kate.
Full of absolute misery I turn, back to my bed.
It’s a prison bus, driven by a mad Hitler. The roads aren’t really roads. Every two seconds I smack my head on the ceiling inches above me. The cold shoots in as the driver starts to hurtle the bus at break neck, Indian speeds. I’m frozen. I can’t feel my hands anymore. I can’t remember the Gokana sun…
I try to imagine I’m somewhere else. Anywhere else… I try so hard to imagine I’m somewhere pretty, and it’s spring. There’s pink blossom and beautiful smells and patterned butterflies…
“Er ello… Mademoiselle?”
Okay so I’m in Paris with perfumed blossom and butterflies…
I open my eyes.
“I sit here too, I’m sorry…”
The French guy gives a shy, awkward gesture towards the bed. His dread locks are thick and his eyes dark with travels.
He climbs up. He spots the window. He frowns and shakes his head. I’m pushed up against the window now but he’s warm. He smells like perfumed blossom…
He indicates we should switch, because of the window. I indicate falling to my death if I’m on the aisle side. He laughs. (I try not to look too pleased).
“Okay, I’m here…” Ryan pops his head up next to the opening, rolling his eyes under dark heavy bags. “There’s a shit load of cockroaches that end though, just to warn you. This is probably the grimiest day of my life.”
He starts to climb up.
“Um, actually I’m okay…”
“Seriously, I don’t mind.” Ryan looks like he couldn’t mind more.
“I’m fine.” I give Ryan a straight look. “Honestly…”
Ryan stops for a moment, then looks like he might punch something.
“For fuck sake…” He’s clambering back down again, breathing loudly.
“Boyfriend?” The French guy gestures.
“No, no definitely not.” I make a very clear international sign for god-no-way-in-a-million-years.
For seven hours my head is bashed constantly against the ceiling. I’m frozen. I could have cockroaches hatching babies in my hair. I can hear the man muttering in his sleep about Dahl. My legs are contorted into a funny shape. They burn. I’m shattered and I don’t sleep…
But I can smell perfumed blossom, and all the way to Hampi I daydream in French.