Submitted into Contest #53 in response to: Write a story about another day in a heatwave. ... view prompt



The pages of the album seemed as dry and wrinkled as the old man's skin, the stiff brown cartridge paper and grainy, sepia-tinted photographs matching the colour and texture of his lined, weather-beaten face. I don't know quite how old he would have been back then. I guess I was about thirteen. At that age, even your parents seem ancient, never mind your grandfather.

He was sitting in one of those high-backed cane verandah chairs, complete with a pocket on the end of the arm rest in which to place his glass of whisky, or chota peg as he always called it. Sunil, the houseboy, had brought it for him a few moments earlier, and the old man's face had crinkled into a contented grin as he had taken his first sip, and he had sat back in the chair as comfortably as his old bones would allow him, the photo album resting open on his lap, his dog Rex, almost as frail and wizened as his master, curled up faithfully at his feet.

"Always look forward to a sundowner," my grandfather explained, swirling the smoky brown liquid around admiringly in the bottom of the glass. I didn't think it worth pointing out to him that it was only the middle of the morning. At his time of life, I decided he deserved to be able to enjoy a drink whenever he felt like one.

I had only met him for the first time that summer, but already we seemed to have established a bond. He had spent nearly all his life in India, and even when he had retired from the army, had insisted in 'staying on.' But my father had talked about him all the time, and in many ways, the old man had become something of a legendary figure in the family. Even those of us who, until then, had lived on the other side of the world from him, and only had the stories of his exploits upon which to build a mental picture, felt they knew him. Finally getting to meet him had not been a disappointment, and over those last months of his life, I was to take just as much delight in listening to his stories as he obviously took in telling them to me, the two of us crossing the generation gap as easily as the ocean which had once divided us.

Tales about the Empire might have bored me if I had had to sit through them in school, but even at that tender age, I think I was old enough to appreciate that this was living history, that this old man, with his photographs and his memories, with his regimental souvenirs and his trophies, was something to treasure. The facts, in many ways, didn't really matter that much. They could be got from a history book. But to have the chance to hear how people - how he - really lived, to find out what it was like to play a leading  part in that bizarre, almost surreal musical comedy that they called the British Raj, was, I realised even then, a unique opportunity. When he died, everything - his achievements, his dreams, his reason for being - would, I knew, die with him.

He would always begin in the same way, opening up a page of the album, as if by showing me a photograph, it would help him kick-start his own memory. The cover of the album was bound with the hide of an animal, for all I knew one of those whose heads adorned the walls of his large, rambling and - to a thirteen year old's vivid imagination - infinitely fascinating old house. The house, like some private natural history museum, was crammed with their remains, many still fully intact, preserved for posterity by a local taxidermist whose skills and attention to detail I couldn’t help but admire. They were among the countless items, from genuine antique furniture and exquisite examples of Indian art to the ghastliest excesses of Victoriana and the most useless bric-a-brac, that filled every room, and turned each visit to the tumbledown mansion, for me at least, into an adventure of Boy's Own proportions.

The house he had owned before this, on the outskirts of Bombay, had been even grander, to judge by the photographs. One showed him and my grandmother, together with their three children - my father included - lined up outside on the lawn with their servants; a cook, a butler, a valet, a gardener, a maid, several more with strange-sounding job titles who appeared to have been employed to do the most menial tasks. Remarkably, my grandfather was able to reel off all of their names without once having to stop to think, as if they all still worked for him, as if that particular moment - captured only on a yellowing sliver of paper as destined to crumble to dust one day as surely as the old man himself - had been frozen in time.

He noticed how impressed I seemed at his feat of memory, and gave out a little laugh, a knot of phlegm rising up into his throat as he did. "Funny thing," he remarked, shaking his head. "I can remember details like that - names, faces - as if it were yesterday. But ask me what I did yesterday, and I'm damned if I could tell you. One day just seems like the next now," he added sadly, though more with an air of resignation than one of self-pity.

Outside, the heat of the day was starting to build up, the flies circling around in squadrons, the sounds from the street - voices, bicycles, car horns - drifting in between the slats of the window shutters. But the house itself was cool, the sun locked out, the fan over our heads revolving like the propeller of an aircraft, the two of us sitting, refreshed, in its slipstream, my grandfather allowing himself the luxury of undoing the top button of his tunic, glad perhaps to be able to do so without first having to ask the permission of a superior officer.

He had become used to the heat of course, though he admitted it had taken him some time. He remembered arriving at the docks in Bombay, his first taste of India, a young lieutenant barely out of his teens, and being overwhelmed by the shirt-soaking wave that hit him, the sun almost cauterizing his eyes, the gut-wrenching smell of sweat, urine and excrement. A photograph showed him, impossibly young, posing uncertainly for the camera with a group of equally fresh-faced subalterns, sons of country parsons and minor gentry, Gladstone bags, trunks and packing cases strewn around them, and in the background the feverish activity of the quayside: the scurrying porters, the kowtowing servants, the pleading beggars.

As he turned the pages, in various locations and modes of dress, there would be more photos of that same group, older, more assured, the occasional face suddenly conspicuous by its absence, its owner having fallen victim to a bout of malaria, or dysentery, or the stray bullet of a hill tribesman. Earnest young men, hair cropped short, topees on the floor, luxuriant moustaches now blooming on what had earlier been unshaved, virgin faces; alongside them, on the social occasions, the memsahibs, determined, rather formidable-looking women, stiffly formal whether in ball gowns or at a garden party; and yet more servants - waiters, bearers, handlers for the elephants, grooms for the horses - at a seemingly endless round of tiger shoots, polo games, cricket matches and gymkhanas.

Each photo would come with a personal reminiscence, an aside, or a self-deprecating put-down. How scared he had been arriving in the country that first time, "wet behind the ears and barely finished shitting yellow." How he loved the black-tie dinners in the middle of the jungle, the gossip in the inner sanctum of the Officers' Mess, the Imperial balls, the spectacle of the Durbar in Delhi: two hundred thousand people watching, ambassadors in their frocked coats and cocked hats, Maharajahs with emeralds the size of ducks' eggs nesting in their turbans, soldiers in scarlet, gold, green and blue, the afternoon sun glinting off their swords and lances.

Often, when I arrived, I would find him enjoying a favourite record on the gramophone - Gilbert and Sullivan, or something a little earthier from the music hall - or else listening to the wireless, a keen ear cocked to the news bulletin, cursing now and again at the poor reception, crackling with static. I was a little young to appreciate the significance of most of the items I heard, but one or two stuck in my mind: the midnight broadcast by Nehru, opening the first-ever session of the Indian parliament, informing his countrymen that India would awake “to life and freedom"; Gandhi, still weak from his fast, being helped across the gardens of Birla House by his grandnieces to attend a prayer meeting, a young man stepping from the crowd and firing three shots; the last British troops leaving the country less than a month later, my grandfather, rheumy-eyed, unable to hold back the lump which had come to his throat as the radio played the national anthem, blaming the "bloody socialists" for giving up without a fight. "Too many pinkos, and not enough pink on the map, that's the trouble with the world today," he reliably informed me, washing the lump, and the bitterness, out of his throat with another chota peg.

He picked up his newspaper to check the cricket score, muttered something about it being strange not to see Bradman in the Australian team, and then announced he was going out for a walk in the garden. Sunil and I helped him out of his chair, and I passed him his cane, asking him if he wanted me to accompany him. He waved me aside, not rudely, but determined nevertheless to assert his independence, show that he could still get about without being nursemaided all the time, saying he wanted to be on his own for a while, give himself a chance to have a think.

He opened the French windows leading out onto the back lawn, and a waft of hot air blew into the room as if somebody had switched on a convection heater. A wedge of sunlight hit the parquet floor, particles of dust floating upwards, caught in its midst, like the beam from the projection room in a darkened cinema. The sun hung in the sky directly over his head, a burning crimson sphere, like a Chinese lantern on fire. I looked around the room, certain that he would need his topee, but couldn't see where he had last put it down. After a few moments, Rex, waking up and realising that my grandfather had gone out without him, eased himself up slowly onto his arthritic legs, and padded out into the garden in search of his master.

Sunil, a tall, slim youth only a few years older than myself, stood at the window, smiling, watching the old man and his equally ancient companion teeter gamely down the garden path together. Gesturing towards the radio, he asked me if I minded him switching it off now that my grandfather had stopped listening, and would I like to hear some music?

The sleek modern lines of the high-tech sound system looked a little incongruous next to the Bakelite shell that was my grandfather's wireless set. Ejecting the cassette from the tape deck and placing it carefully back in its case marked 'BBC News,' Sunil flicked quickly through his record collection before pulling out one of his most recent acquisitions, and setting it up on the turntable.

"God Save The Queen' okay with you?" he asked, and I nodded eagerly.

He pressed the 'play' button, turned the volume up full-blast, and let the screaming vocals and thundering guitars of the Sex Pistols' latest single shatter the peace of the Hampshire summer air.

August 01, 2020 08:01

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