Read an Excerpt
A Black Englishman
There’s no twilight in India. Darkness overtakes with shocking finality. I can’t get used to it, but it’s something to do with the breathless quality of the country and the sudden way things happen here. There’s no time to adjust—no warning. I miss the slow blending of colors as shadows come and go until at last there’s just one color, the way it is at home. Here saffron turns to flame and then to gold tinged with blue, and then it goes black. In a moment it’s all over, and that startling dip into darkness feels like a reflection of jarring change or even a foreshadowing of something dreadful. Now of course I see that it was my own darkness that came on suddenly, but I didn’t know it at the time. If I had, would I have stepped so jauntily up the gangway of that P & O liner and waved goodbye, wearing my new suede gloves the color of pistachios? Would I have chosen any of it if I’d known that darkness can strike like a fist or that a person can drown in it—and want to? Absolutely. I’d have chosen the whole bang shoot because I thought I could pull off anything then: I was twenty-three and invincible, and I was going out to India, India, India. It was as though that crimson, heart-shaped subcontinent were thrumming with excitement and glamour all for me. And love had come again. So I picked up my skirts and charged at it, not caring how it would end. I was frightfully in love with love; I saw myself running to meet it the way a man stretches up his arms and whirls a woman down from a train and says: Beloved, you’re here, now we can begin our exquisite life together.My mother knew better, but I wasn’t listening. As she turned to leave the ship with me on it, she said: You’ve made your bed now, Isabel, you’ll have to lie on it. She had no idea what she was talking about because for her there’d never been any getting used to, putting up with, or making do. She was a thoroughbred; she had her own money, and it was only in marrying dear Pater that she’d taken a step down, which no doubt was why it was particularly galling for her to see me making the same mistake. When I’d told her that I was going to marry Neville, she was against it. It’s not his origins, she said. No, don’t give me that look; it’s not those I object to, though certainly they leave much to be desired. I know the grimy village where his aunt lives, and there are God knows how many Webbs in the villages of Wales. And it’s not even that he’s been in India too long: his father born there, and Neville too. That’s far too long to be away from civilization. And though you will sniff at this, it’s not even that he’s a noncommissioned officer. No, it’s really not that. It’s simply a matter of character. His is poor.And with that she packed trunk after trunk of elegant clothes, handmade in London or Paris, and a pale gray visiting suit, and a couple of black gowns for the balls she imagined I’d go to, and some pert little frocks for playing bridge at the club. She even had some lightweight jodhpurs made for me in Bond Street. As if any of this were relevant. She made her view of Neville plain, but never once did she say to me: Don’t do it. Perhaps she didn’t think she had the right to counsel me in the matter of love. It was an area where her intelligence had slipped; this is what she made you feel. So she was unable to say to me: This is a mistake, I forbid it, or even, For God’s sake, Isabel, don’t be such a damn fool. Of course, had she tried, I’d not have given her the time of day. I rolled around in her disapproval voluptuously, and I have to say it made me more determined to put my own questions about Neville aside. I certainly had a sense of Neville’s character; his eyes have a sleepy, predatory look, and I should have known that night in Porthcawl—but what’s the point? It’s like walking backward to see if you can find what you knew perfectly well you’d dropped in the first place.I was willing to go to India with him because I’d chosen marriage more than Neville, and more than either, I’d chosen Life. It was nothing to do with money or security; we had pots of that. It was pure escape, pure rebound—nothing more. I had to get out of Wales. And I had to forget the dead, whose bones were filtering through the rainy battlefields of France, and I had to get away from all those who’d come crawling back, dragging wounds and amputations behind them, their minds crazed by the memory of what they’d seen. My brother talked about it once, when he was drunk, but then he clammed up and never mentioned it again. The ones who came back are all like that. They can’t get over being alive when everyone else is dead. Jack told me that an officer of the Queen’s Regiment had set himself on fire and that soldiers got medals for valor when really they were throwing themselves at the guns. It was hard to believe, after all we’d once believed about the glory and honor of war. Jack spoke about Ed from Cardiff, who’d ended up wandering around no-man’s-land, holding his blown-off arm like a bouquet of roses. Once Jack saw a soldier digging a forward trench slice through a human face, and one night he stumbled over a corpse only to find that it was a boy he’d sat next to in school. I couldn’t take it in. All I could think about was Gareth’s scribbled words on a scrap of grubby paper: My dearest love, the frontline trenches are ten miles away and we are marching to Arras, dead horses everywhere and men tossed in ditches, mangled and headless. No one bothers to collect the dead anymore. None of us have the foggiest idea what we’re doing, we’re civilians, amateurs. All the real soldiers are dead.
OFTEN I FEEL as if I were in the same desperate rush that he was when he first went to France. Off he marched to war, boarding the troop train at Waterloo to have a grand adventure: Can’t wait to get to the front to do my bit; am waiting for orders and desperate to go. I had the same feelings about India, going out in search of a grand adventure, an idea in my head. Mine was a vision of what lay at the end of the shipping lines, where the East began: a world wild and exotic beyond anything our little island could offer. Gareth left behind childhood and innocence and the first passion of our youth; I was leaving behind all my shattered hopes, the haunted, backward glances at places where the dear dead had once run up the blue hills and talked about how it would be tomorrow.
SUDDENNESS CAME ON the minute we reached India. It wasn’t that way going out. The voyage out was a continuation of all I’d ever known, a slow glide through deep water, a casual changing of light as we moved eastward, until one morning everything was lit up like the huge diamond in Queen Victoria’s India crown. We were heading into mystery and magic, into that gorgeousness I’d imagined since the days of flying about in my head, reading The Arabian Nights. On the boat, you see, we had so much time to get used to change, that’s the thing, even going what’s called the shortcut. Naturally, I was sick as a dog crossing the Bay of Biscay, felt my insides would fly out of my mouth any minute. I was so ill and green I thought I’d be happier if they just hurled me over the side and made an end of it. Whenever I lurched up on deck—only at night, of course, because one can’t be vomiting in broad daylight—I saw the regulars hanging on to the railing, the same green faces puking over the side. We recognized one another, but turned away, each enclosed in a shameful cell of sickness, not saying a word.The minute we got to the Mediterranean, I got my balance back. I began to feel the beauty of the sea again and my old kinship to it. I remembered the way we’d run down to the children’s beach near Porthcawl early in the morning when no foot or paw had dented it. I’d wait for Jack to come down with Gareth, and we’d make sand castles, the three of us, I in my woolly bathing suit, which scratched so horribly between the legs, and the two of them running, kicking up sand. They buried me in the sand so that just my face was showing and then stuck a jam sandwich in my mouth to see if I could eat it without making the sand crack. In the old days, sailing to India meant dragging all the way around the Cape, instead of nipping across the Suez Canal and then down the Red Sea, past Mecca to Aden. The voyage out was so lovely. We had long, dreamy days with only the steady pulse of the ocean pulling us toward the Arabian Sea. At Port Said, little boys dove for pennies, and if you lowered a basket with money in it, they put in oranges, black grapes, bananas and pineapples, dates and little purple figs that were so much nicer than the dried ones we got at home. Once a chameleon came up in the basket, and it was so interesting to see such a peculiar Darwinian little chap; he was like something out of the Stone Age. The boat was oh, so glam, reclining on the water like a magnificent white hotel on a blue hill. It had a monumentalism about it. India has that, and I suppose the empire had that once too. Pater, using his Liberal Voice, insisted all that was over by the end of the century. The imperial ideal is dead, he’d say wearily, and the imperial race is weak and corrupt at its core. You certainly wouldn’t know that on the Viceroy of India as it swanned across the ocean toward its glittering destination, ruling the waves, riding the crest of glory.Naturally, Neville and I didn’t have the money for first class, but it was the thing to do to travel POSH—port side going out, starboard coming home. That way one avoided the worst of the sun. For Neville, sailing P & O was a new experience, just as it was for me. When he’d sailed to India, it was on those ghastly troopships that take months to reach Bombay. But it was odd how, at first, as we embarked, the whole thing seemed to rub him up the wrong way. He was snappish and seemed to want to get away from it all. There we were, civilians and military together, and even on the quayside he was upset and surly. He wouldn’t speak and stood stiffly beside me while my head was whipping this way and that, looking at all the expensive luggage, the porters and passengers, some wearing their new topis just for a laugh, the women dressed up to the nines, as if they were at Ascot. A few beautifully dressed Indians were strolling on the deck: exquisite women in saris the colors of exotic birds, men wearing impeccable suits from Savile Row, with snow white turbans on their heads. They were a handsome people, intelligent and cultured, with lovely deep brown eyes. I couldn’t stop staring. I’d not seen Asians before. Well, of course one doesn’t, certainly not in Wales, though Mama told me that after the grim Mutiny business, in eighteen something or other, Queen Victoria always kept two Indian servants by her side whenever she went out in public, as a sign of solidarity, and of shame, for our acts of vengeance after the sepoy uprising. The Indians on the ship dipped their heads in a wonderful way, and I wanted to get close to them to see the exact color of their skin.My eyes were out on sticks. Going down into the hold were vast mahogany cabinets and chests, pianos, dining room tables and chairs, rocking horses, oil paintings, carpets, saddles, a grandfather clock or two, crates of china and crystal, tea chests full of English silver, and even a spanking new Bentley. Must have been for the Viceroy, or a maharaja, but then I saw the little flag all aflutter on the front, so that settled it. Such extravagance, and all this for the hoi polloi, the Raj of India, who were sailing off where destiny and duty drove them. But perhaps that’s not fair, and maybe those days are over just as Pater says they are. Maybe going to India was their way of getting away from what had happened to England, leaving behind dead sons and lovers, or blank eyes in melted faces that look out of windows, seeing nothing. Maybe they have their own soldier who jumps out of his skin if a door slams or a firework goes off. I read in the paper about a doctor who works with the shell-shocked; the marching dead, he calls them. They quiver when the wind blows or start screaming when they pick up a smell that reminds them of poison gas. We don’t have shell-shocked soldiers in India—or do we? Thousands of Indian soldiers died on the western front. Why were they willing to go off to die for something they couldn’t have cared a fig about? All those regiments blown to bits, all those faces turning to mold on the cold hillside. Mother told me that in India, during the war, sacrifices were made, contributions to the war effort, socks and sweaters knitted, that sort of thing, but it couldn’t have been the same as what happened to England, because for us it was right on the doorstep, far too close.Sometimes, at home, when the wind was up, I seemed to get the smell of the dead wafting over the washing line or the cries of men dragging their boots down the lane. Even though I’d only heard about it—breathed or whispered in drawing rooms, or read in the columns of the dead in The Times—it was more real than the soup on the stove. There was a pressure in the air, a certainty of doom that never left. Even in Wales, protected from it, I remember how it felt to see the regiments marching past the post office to go to war. I’d look at one face and then another, thinking, You won’t come back, and you won’t, but you might, and you will, on and on down the marching line, ticking them off, trying to hazard a prayer, or barter with God, to spare the one soldier that absolutely had to come back, because without him life was unimaginable.
ON THE SHIP, for the first time really, I got to know the soldier I’d married—not the one I’d wanted to marry but the one I did marry. I’d never thought of Neville quite as a soldier until we were sailing to India. Later I began to understand how significant a part this played in his character, but in those first days, when he was not much more than a stranger to me, I wasn’t looking that hard. Neville can be charming even as he can be peculiar, and you never know quite what you’ll be getting from day to day or even from moment to moment. He has a vulgarity that’s offset by a kind of meticulous neatness, and I think he gets that from the army. I first spotted it in the way he dressed and took care of his clothing. On the boat he was always hanging up and polishing, sending clothes off for washing and pressing, buffing up his shoes and brushing his hair with a hard palm-down smoothing motion, like someone ironing. He carries a uniform well, and he’s handsome in a Celtic way, long face and melancholy eyes, but he doesn’t look quite as good in mufti. There’s something impressive about khaki. Khaki, so I’m told, began in India when they mixed up some curry powder and turmeric to get a less visible, more jungly shade. God knows how splendid our soldiers must have looked in the days of scarlet and gold or in pure, brilliant white, but khaki is the color of conquest, no doubt about that.I noticed that women stared at Neville as he strolled on deck; he stared back. But that’s natural enough. I look at men, and why not? At least I wasn’t one of those girls going out to India to try to nab a husband. Neville sneered at them, and I didn’t quite understand why. I mean, they weren’t riffraff, not by any means. They were elegant and young, wore slim skirts and high heels, little hats set off to one side on gleaming hair, their faces delicately rouged, wearing lipstick that deep plum shade fashionable in London last season. One woman wore a navy fedora with a brim that hid most of her face. She had the loveliest pale gray traveling costume with simple and expensive lines, and it held her body in a tight embrace. Those girls made up what’s called the Fishing Fleet; those who sail back alone are called the Returned Empties—odd that they’re thought of that way when they’re the daughters of distinguished Anglo-Indian families. Have people forgotten that there’s a shortage of men or that the officers are all dead?As I was thinking this, almost as if he could divine my thoughts, Neville came out with one of his truly ghastly remarks: Bunch of desperate bitches; fat lot of good their looks and lolly will do them with all the eligible bachelors rotting in Flanders and Ypres, all those pampered bodies feeding rats and worms.Lucky for you, I snapped, that you could hide out in India and not have to risk your precious life for England. He went red in the face and his hands knotted, and I swear that if we’d not been surrounded by other people, he might actually have struck me. I thought this but immediately shoved the thought aside. He’d never strike a woman, but the language, to say bitches out loud like that, it was awful, and even worse when he grabbed my arm and yanked me down the steps to our cabin. He slammed the door, stood in front of it, and rapped out: I’m a soldier, Isabel, get that through your head. I’ve been one since I was sixteen and ran away to join the Royal Artillery as a trumpeter. My ancestors have all been soldiers, men with blood on their hands, professional killers. We’re not the landed gentry out for a fox hunt on the plains of Belgium and France, to bag a few Huns, to take a few potshots from the top of a hill. I’ve been fighting since I was a boy, killed my first man when I was sixteen. I like it. I’m good at it. I don’t do it for England. I do it because it’s the way I make my living. I’ve been on more campaigns on the North-West Frontier, fighting Pathans and savages day in and out, than that bunch of faggots on the fields of Normandy will ever know. So don’t you bloody well question my courage or talk to me that way again.I stared at him with my mouth ajar, and then I had one simple desire: to take his head off with one sweep of my hand, even if it broke all my fingers. My anger was so precipitous that it stunned me. I almost looked around to see where it had come from. Neville stormed off out of the cabin and spent the rest of the night knocking it back at the bar. I wanted to keep my fury going. I needed to have something out with him, even though I didn’t know what it was. I kept thinking: Why on earth did I ever have anything to do with this lout? Why had I even thought of coming with him in the first place? What madness had come over me? Much later that night I was sleepless and still furious. I wanted to go up on deck but was scared of the drunks who roll about out there all night until a steward escorts them to their cabins. It was only at dawn that I realized what my anger was really about, and then of course it was gone in a second. I crept deep into the covers and sobbed with grief for what had happened to Gareth and me—to have lost him that way, after I’d left him that way. It was more than I could bear, out there on the vast ocean heading east.There was a strange kind of truce between Neville and me after that. It was as if we’d both become real for the first time. We’d had a good look at each other, and it wasn’t attractive. And that remark of his about his family being in the army for three generations in India, and especially the bit about men with blood on their hands, it was ugly, and it stuck in my head. As the days passed, I came to realize just how much my husband was a soldier and how well it defined him. On deck we’d be strolling, sometimes up ahead of an officer, and quick as a wink he’d step aside, almost clicking his heels to let those “faggots” pass. Life on the boat was like that; the soldiers were always on duty, pandering to the officers night and day. And though he hated them, Neville was right there pandering too. The traveling empire was divided up according to prestige. The Indian Civil Service came at the top, with high-ranking army and government people thrown in; then the Indian police were off on their own, as were the planters, who drank like fishes. Then of course there were the despised types that were making a fortune in India out of tea, cotton, and the spice and gem trade. A couple of planters, who were said to be “retired from tea,” were heading back to India because they couldn’t take life in England. They told stories about fabulous estates and exquisite pleasure gardens up in the hills, in places like Assam and Darjeeling. The military were of course separated by rank, with the officers getting the best of everything: cool smoking and drawing rooms, a vast room where they played billiards and snooker, dining rooms and bars, roomy cabins, and the run of the decks. There were stewards hovering at their elbows with ashtrays and gin and tonics. They barely needed to raise a finger. It’s like that here, of course, but here we all get that, not just the officers. Here everyone can afford a servant problem.When I remarked on how the officers behaved on board, Neville snorted. There they lounge, he said, fretting about what exactly should be worn in the Punjab Club. Will it be white jackets and black trousers, or the other way around? It was the same on the troopships. Our boys got barely enough room to turn round. Battalions were herded onto the troop deck or under the boat deck, conditions no sepoy of mine would be subjected to, flooding latrines and vomit everywhere, terrible food. No officer came to check on the men, to see if they were being fed, or if the latrines worked, or if we had water. Worse than the front. I buttoned my lip and strolled on. But as we got farther and farther from England and closer to India, which of course was home to him, Neville got sweeter. His bitterness vanished once we were out in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight for days on end. When an occasional ship came along, we’d all rush to the side and wave like mad. I saw sharks way down in the indigo blue, and flying fish broke the smooth, flat water. We kept on sailing, and every day it got hotter. People gave ominous little warnings: Oh, this is nothing—they’d laugh grimly—try the Hot Weather in Delhi or Bombay. Or: Wait till you get a taste of it just before the monsoon. Then you’ll know what India’s all about. Every day on the ship it got hotter and hotter. It was so bad in the cabins at night that the stewards came to take our bedding up on deck. It was such a laugh, all of us girls in our nighties, clutching pillows for modesty’s sake, and men in pajamas, traipsing up to the upper deck to get air. We lay there chummily together, looking up and counting the stars, and we sort of camped up there, feeling the soft, cool sea air restore us to sanity and sleep. A woman was reading by moonlight, and so I nipped down and got my Kipling and did the same. One man stayed up all night, resting his back against the railings as he slugged down an entire bottle of gin, and by dawn he looked exactly the same as he had at the beginning. Neville liked to sleep on deck; he said it was like camping in the hills or on the frontier. It was the first time he’d spoken to me about his life in India, so I heard it romantically, under moonlight, with the soft rise of the ocean taking us closer. He told me about encounters with wild natives beyond the United Provinces—what they call the UP—north of Punjab and into Afghanistan, where savage tribes are constantly warring each other and where the warlords cut each other’s throats in broad daylight. This part is out of England’s dominion, and no one can tame or subdue the tribal hordes, try as they might. Neville told me about the close shaves he’d had but said that he was like his father, Major Webb, of the Fifth Royal Gurkha Rifles, who’d never got nicked by a blade or gun. It seemed to me, listening, that he loved and admired his native troops. He called them those bloody browns, or even bally wogs, in a feigned common soldier’s accent, but he usually ended up saying that they were great soldiers, fine fighting men, the best, and the empire would be nothing without them. It’s that to-and-fro tendency about Neville that’s perplexing, but now I’ve been here a bit, I’ve come to see that it’s one of the things about the English generally in India. It’s as if some kind of natural fondness between the English and the Indian has to be constantly repudiated. You notice it particularly when you first get here, and then you begin to notice it less.Up on the deck with the stars swimming the sky Neville was on top of me all the time. It was odd because he’d been rather proper and restrained in that month that we first got to know each other in Wales, before we married. I remember a time when we came upon a couple round the back of the pub and he was incensed by what they were up to. I excused it by saying that the war mentality was still around, as indeed it was. I used to think that the war was actually in me, as it had been in Gareth, only in me it wasn’t visible. I was impatient about everything then, agitated and tense, and, as I look back on it, my body was like that too, wanting to get over what it remembered, desperate to forget. It seemed sex could do it. But we had no sex in Wales, Neville and I, and we were married the day before we sailed. The strange thing is that the minute we were on the ship, he couldn’t get enough. I couldn’t move but that he’d grab and maul me, shoving his hands down my front and up my skirt. He was like a starving person, and three or four times a day were nothing to him. Thinking like this is both invigorating and terrifying at the same time, especially here, where everything’s at least twenty years behind the times, and not a word is ever mentioned about what goes on between men and women in the privacy of their bedrooms. Sometimes I think that even the word body is too much for the English. It’s worse here because you simply can’t get away from bodies. The human form is rammed in your face at all times. Brown bodies, eating, crouching, spitting, mating, stinking, sleeping, rotting, and dying, in the streets and drains and in the brown shroud of the river. They’re always under the feet, under the eye, in buffalo carts, tongas, and rickshaws, in shadow and sunlight, in the jungle or the Ganges, in our bedrooms and kitchens, in our dreams and nightmares. It’s as if these bodily sights have sent the English scuttling into fortified cantonments where one can pretend that nothing carnal goes on, or at least not among the English.I should be fair and say that Neville started off tenderly enough with me. After all, he thought me a virgin. He was slow and considerate, perhaps even nervous at first, and he had a sense of me, of my body. And he most certainly knew what he was doing. I was curious about that, and I wanted to ask, but how could I without seeming to be in the know myself? We moved gently and rhythmically, rocking with the waves into our conjugal life, and though it was a relief to feel intense pleasure again, it was also a grief. I wasn’t always sure that I could hide that from him, and sometimes I think he knew I was sad, and then he was particularly gentle and he would hold me as we lay together afterward. And though I’ve come to see that there’s something about him that’s always on duty, he wasn’t that way when it came to love. He’d experienced carnality in a different way, that’s all I can say, or maybe I’m just saying that he wasn’t English about it.Once I asked him if he talked about sexual matters with other soldiers. I could talk quite freely with him then; it was only later that he put a curfew on all that. He spoke to me about things I was terribly interested in: about the way men talk about women—how soldiers talk. I think I was still wondering if Gareth had talked about me to the men in the trenches, on those long, lonely nights with only the sounds of the shells dropping, or a shot aimed at a head that like a swimmer’s had come up into the moonlight to breathe. When Gareth wrote those words, he made it so real. And now I see that when you write, it becomes less dark. Neville answered my questions easily enough. In the officers’ mess, there’s no talk of women, he said lazily, lying on his back on the narrow berth, with the little porthole to one side and the sheets fallen down on the floor. There’s no swearing of any kind either; that’d be bad form. Among the NCOs, wives are never discussed in that way, of course, but we might talk of certain things, now and then, when we’ve had a peg or two and got carried away. In the barracks and mess, the talk is naturally foul. Men discuss women in the brothels—women called black velvet, or ramjanis, or rum johnies. Some men get hooked up with Eurasian women, who are desperate to have sex with white men. There’s talk of that kind, but never about our women. And you have to understand that there’s so little opportunity to meet or even see women in India. There are the wives, missionaries, and nuns, of course, and the fresh meat that comes out on the boat, but they’ll be picked off quickly by officers, because our caste system’s no easier, and it’s impossible to find a middle-class girl in India.So that’s why he came to Wales, to find a middle-class girl, marry her, and bring her back to India. Mother would be appalled to think of us as middle class, but surely her upperclassness has been watered down by Pater’s lack of it. On the other hand, they both rather tried to elevate the Indian bit of the Pater’s past—all that talk of the plantations in Assam and how Grandfather had made his money in tea. But they left out the bit about no public school and about the scandal, followed by the hurried departure from India to cover up something I’ve never been able to get to the bottom of. There was a huge oil painting on the wall of a child who drowned in India. That’s when they cleared out, buried the dead boy and took Pater to England. He was seven when he left, but still, he was born here, and that comforts me, makes me think I have a link with India—not quite a stranger.On the boat going over, as the days grew hotter, the lovemaking changed. Sometimes I’d walk into the cabin after taking a stroll on deck and he’d be lying on the narrow berth and would push me down and enter me with a force that would leave me swollen and raw. I began to beg off, or I’d spend hours in the lounge, reading, so as not to be alone with him. On the deck, on those hot, hot nights, when you’d think he’d be more restrained because of the proximity of others, he was less. In fact, the idea that the other passengers might know made him even more determined to get sounds out of me, which at one time wasn’t hard to do, but as his ways got rougher, I got quieter. And then I cut off from him. There was something odd about it, peculiar; it was as disturbing as his remark about men with blood on their hands. On deck, when the stewards brought our bedding up, the men slept on one side and the women on the other. Only we two were off on our own, which was frowned on, but he didn’t care. What people think—civilians, I mean—never bothers him. What the army thinks is another matter entirely. When I look back, our honeymoon makes me feel peculiar. I used to admire Neville’s body; it’s a bit like a sculpture, each muscle and curve defined and hard-edged. Men’s bodies amaze me because they’re so unlike mine, which lolls and dips and curves this way and that and, to be honest, is just plain full—not brimming like Mother’s, but full all the same. Fat is not a word we use, Mother and I. There was a time when that word might have applied, and Mother would say it was the Italian tendency. She said that in my case it would pass, because I had enough Welsh blood to thin me down. The longer I’m in India, the narrower I get, which is not as pleasing as I’d imagined because it emphasizes my tallness, as well as the heaviness of my breasts. But to Neville: His hair was longer then, so it was more curly, dark brown and soft. He was a little like Gareth when you looked at his face sideways. Now of course the army’s got him, and you can see each hair and follicle the way you can see each muscle on his chest and abdomen.Once I asked him where he’d learned so much about women’s bodies. He said it was because of what you saw on the temple walls, and watching the dancing girls, and how sex was not shameful in India, just part of religion, part of life. He talked about the things he’d seen up on the frontier, where the natives were insatiable for women’s bodies, though despising women at the same time and using them as an excuse to kill each other. He said the maharajas were the worst and had harems full of young girls and used them all, a different one every night. I said I didn’t quite see how hearing about women would make him such an expert. Oh, he said, I got to know my way around by reading the Kama Sutra. And he toppled me backward onto the sheets and started up again. Neville is insatiable in exactly the way he says the Pathans are. I began to wonder if it might be like opium for him, something he just couldn’t get enough of or do without. Then I thought that perhaps it was to do with having no women for so long, there being so few in India, but then that made me think about the brothels, but it was harder to ask him about this. I suppose I was really trying to understand something about the kind of man he was, and I was beginning to see him not so much as a man but as a soldier, a person altered by war. And that was eerie, to have another version of what I’d left behind. Gareth was destroyed by the experience of war, first his mind and then his body, and Neville was brutalized simply by being a soldier, a man with blood on his hands, liking to kill.I learned nothing from Neville about what went on with Englishmen and native women in India, but I’d already got some veiled information from the Pater. Pretending to be instructive about life in India, he’d told me about the bibis and the way Englishmen, in the past, had not only one mistress but sometimes several. When India was first colonized, Englishmen had even married Indian women. Intermingling was encouraged then, to settle the men—make them stay and all that—and it still goes on, though more clandestinely now. It sounded as if at one time the bibi was almost official, the approved alternative to an Indian wife. She had her own house in the garden with her servants and her children. And all this was quite congenial until a wife came out from England, and then no more bibi; no more coffee-colored issue. The Pater said that Indian women were wonderful and knew entirely how to please. He gave me a clue, in the most delicate way, of course, that perhaps this was part of the grandfather scandal and the reason his parents had left India, but as usual I didn’t get the whole scoop. He implied that he was talking about domesticity and submission rather than erotic matters, but now I think he was trying to warn me. The English wife put her foot down, he said, and that changed the whole bang shoot for everyone and made relations between English and Indian a very different matter. I was to hear that tone about the Englishwoman, the memsahib, a great deal when I got to India. It’s a tone of disapproval and annoyance, implying that Englishwomen in India are a nuisance and spoil the fun for the men. On my first day on station I heard one of Neville’s pals say: You got hooked up, Webb? What rotten luck. Your life’s done for now, old man. Too bad.
WHEN I LEFT HOME, Mother gave me a cutting from her favorite lilac tree, the only one that survived the worst winter in living memory. It was in the middle of the war, when things on the front couldn’t have been worse. The snow kept coming down until it was above the knee, and the cold had a ferocity that made us think, Is it like this for them in France, are they dying of cold and exposure as well as the horror? It was when I first started wondering about survival. Why had that particular tree made it through the winter? And then, when it bloomed again, it did so in such a spectacular way that it made Mother cry. Look, she said, it’s blooming for all the dead ones that can’t. And she walked quickly away with her head down. Whom was she crying for? I’ll never know. Our boy, Jack, was safely back; sent home with a head injury after the Battle of Loos. But she was crying for someone. It was a time when something was loose in the house; it made us full of tension—something more than the war, something to do with Mother. The Pater kept his distance and was struggling too, but with him it’s another kind of retreat, very unlike Mother’s. There are secrets about Mother, one knows that, but she won’t let you near them, so I don’t try to winkle anything out of her. She’s so open and direct in many ways—says it’s the Italian in her—but she can also be impossible to understand. I felt lonely with her so wrapped up in herself. So all that winter I just read on, deep into Pound and Yeats, and swallowing Sons and Lovers and Dubliners in one go, trying to find life in the pages, our own life being too full of dread to stay in it for long.When I told Mother I was going to India, she went straight out to the garden to cut and pot the lilac. I said it couldn’t possibly survive the heat. Of course it will, she said, it will just have a different extreme to bear with, but it can manage that, having learned how. And anyway, you’ll be in upper India, the Punjab, not Calcutta or Bombay. It will settle if you take care of it. It may have worse winters to contend with if you go as far north as Jalalabad or Peshawar, but at least it has that memory in its bones already. She was tucking the little twig into a small wooden box with some stones, earth, and a dollop of manure from the stables, all of which she pressed down firmly. It will be perfectly fine, she said, you’ll see.There were no flowers in the gardens when I left, not even a snowdrop, but whenever I think of Mother’s garden, I see it awash with lilac, lavender, and wisteria, and I see her elegant, staked perennials beautifully massed in long beds—blue and white and pink. She tends them herself, adding more varieties each year, always making sure that the flowers in each bed are the same color. Sometimes she’ll allow a white lily or peony with an edge of pink, or a blue hydrangea with a fleck of white, but she tolerates no real digressions. When you wake at dawn and look out across the gardens, those tranquil pools of blue, silvery white, or rose have a gorgeous stillness that’s almost unearthly. I’d stand at my window and look at my mother’s garden and try to work her out, but I never could. Perhaps I’ll always just admire and adore her, but never really know her at all. Up on the rise, the rose garden with its soft-headed beauties was a lake of pale pink, yellow, and white. Never a red rose. Vulgar creature, common as muck, she’d snap, putting on a lowbred English accent. She hates anything garish or crude; the marigolds here, their harsh orange and yellow and the pong that comes off them would drive her to distraction, but she’d love the lilies, orchids and frangipani and the small wildflowers that pop up when the rains come.I see my mother walking among her flowers, wearing her floppy straw hat, her basket piled high with roses as she walks slowly down the long path that leads up past the croquet green and the tall poplars that remind her of Tuscany. I see her as she stoops to free a tangle of vine or snaps off a dead head, and I watch her climb the stone steps that lead to the kitchens, where Lucy will arrange the roses in vases and place them all over the house. Mother will put a little bunch close to my pillow so I can smell them as I dream. And she’ll have one on her side of the bed too, next to the picture of her own mother, who died when Mama was eleven. I need sometimes to remember how beautiful it all was. Our gray stone house surrounded by tall trees nestling in the valley, which opened up into deep meadows. The bridge over the stream is clear, full of mottled trout flickering in and out of watercress and reeds. Beyond the gardens, the green swell of the orchard dips down to the river running along the valley floor. I’d hear the familiar sounds of the coal mine, and the church clock striking the hour, but even that is sad now: Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?There’s a railway line near here, but when I hear the snorting, clattering Indian trains, I seem to see the track that looped around the long rows of colliers’ houses on the hillside, with the view of the ash-pits and the blue mountains behind them. The miners’ boots came clomping on the cobbles as they trooped home, their faces black as sepoys’, their voices musical, and yet so close to the chichi rhythm I hear in the voices of half-and-half Indians here. I thought I knew about poverty, having seen it in the valley, but it’s nothing compared to the destitution and squalor I see here. I find it quite heartbreaking, and I want to run away when little mothers scramble after me: Memsahib, my child, please one anna or she will die. Memsahib, this is the child of an English officer, see how fair, see the blue eyes, help us to live, memsahib, do not walk away. The minute I step beyond our lines and into the countryside beyond it’s appalling. I can’t get used to it and I won’t. But I feel so helpless with my ridiculous little bag of coins, and I want to smack them when they call after me: Memsahib, you are an angel of God, you have given this child one more day of life …Mother used to make me come with her when she visited the miners’ wives when they were sick, or to give them food and clothing when the mine wall collapsed, or that ghastly time when the shaft gave way and all the miners were crushed or buried alive under the rock. She went every single day, and she made me go with her: You’re coming whether you like it or not. Your grandfather bought this mine and got all three pits back to work when there was real poverty in this valley, so don’t imagine that you’re not going to do your bit. She was a different person when she was sitting with the sick, and it made me think about going to university and about taking up medicine as a career. Sometimes I’d have to go down to the cottages late at night to bring her home, and she’d be sitting there in the darkness, cradling the back of a neck, holding a cloth to lips that were spitting up lung blood. She’d be talking softly, not minding the coughing, the fevers, the pneumonia, the slow deaths. Even the little I picked up watching her is of use, in little ways, here. And I’m sort of beginning to see that little ways shouldn’t be despised. When she was a little girl, living in Florence, her own mother had visited the sick and poor, even though her family was very grand and certainly didn’t need to do more than send out donations. Mother continued the tradition, and she wanted me to do the same, but it’s very different here—because ugly and poor as the hovels were at home, and with all the sickness and dying that went on, you could get away from it, because beyond the mines and ashpits stretched long pastures and meadows, hedges and hills, and the green watered valleys. The miners would sing coming up out of the earth in the evening and turn into the Miners’ Arms to wash the dust out of their throats. They’d stroll home to a supper of stew and mashed potatoes, and a warm fire when times were good. I see all this, I keep it close to me, but it’s also getting mixed up with India. Here the extremity of need can’t be contained; the country can’t feed its people. Here people just die with a promiscuity that appalls, and sometimes, on the tide of the river, you see what looks like a log bobbing along, but it’s a dead body, or part of one.When I’m most happy looking back, I see Ellen and me racing the horses up the hill, our hair pouring down our backs. And I could just howl for the freedom of our youth, our happiness, then, before the war came down on us, so that before you knew it, all that you’d ever known and loved was gone. Just like that, in a moment. Our lovely world had collided with a brutality that wouldn’t go away. It left us broken, unable to go back to where we were, or who we’d been before the war, because with all the young men lost and gone, the young girls vanished too. Overnight we were women—widows or mourners, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the dead, our darlings lost on foreign soil and our own childhoods sucked down into the trenches, never to come back up again.A BLACK ENGLISHMAN. Copyright © 2004 by Carolyn Slaughter. 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