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MISS JILL

‘See that, Miss Jill? They’re smoking marijuana.’

Miss Jill and I were grabbing a bit of down time in Vishnath after an exhaustive village tour. We’d wandered through the back streets peering over fences, smiling, looking into people’s backyards and waving as large white tourists do. There was no great commotion, no Pied Piper parade of small children following along behind us, no particular interest at all. This was New Year holiday, a family day: children ran naked into the water, jumping and swimming with glee, boats were loaded, left, more arrived dumping people, animals, bundles over the side, mothers washed clothes with a ‘thwack! thwack! thwack!’ – Indian river life.

I was on escort duty. Miss Jill required a companion and as her paid guides had fled, it was my privilege to walk with her a little further, down to a bench beside a path that ran the length of this river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. In a concrete shed a hundred yards way three men sat smoking ganja, passing their chillum reverently from one to the next, tossing their heads back, blowing out thick clouds of smoke, quietly laughing amongst themselves.

I couldn’t resist.

Instantly her head went down, her eyes closed and she breathed steadily inward. If she could have pulled a string and folded her ears shut she would have. Drugs were one of her many ‘no-go’ conversational zones – but I was in a playful mood, a little tired of her constraints on my chatter.

‘They’re offering you some, Jill, look,’ and indeed they were, smiling broadly, waving at the old man and his mother.

‘Mroo-o-o-ogh’ she said and shook her head.

We made an odd couple.

I suppose that’s what it looked like to the locals – either Jill was my mother – or she was my wife. After all, she was the only white woman in Assam, I the only white man – assumptions would be made. Somehow I found this unsettling and rather distasteful. I wanted to carry a sign. I’m not with this woman – but that might have complicated things.

We swiftly worked out how to co-exist. Every day there would be an excellent lunch at which Miss Jill and discussed the world for precisely an hour – then at dinner time we’d do the same again. Provided I stayed within her barriers, all was fine. She couldn’t speak of personal things, of sex or drugs or beggars, she refused to enter certain discussions – but was fulsome about others. It was my job to try and work out which was which.

This was a process of trial and error – one in which I had no control. At moments of crisis – if I mentioned an ‘unmentionable’ thing, whatever that might be, she would simply bow her head, close her eyes and refuse to continue. After a few moments conversation would leave that zone of death, pause and then resume as if nothing had ever happened. It was quite a ride.

We were still in the zone of silence over the unfortunate matter of the chillum when the elephant walked by. I’d seen it coming over her shoulder, a weather-beaten monster the size of a semi-trailer, huge ragged ears flapping peacefully, massive trunk swinging gently from side to side. Two small boys huddled high on its neck, completely unconcerned.

The elephant plodded slowly along the path towards Miss Jill and I. Dogster just sat there watching stupidly as the enormous thing got closer and closer. This was an elephant mountain. This was the Mt. Everest of elephants. From my seat on the bench I looked up to see the beaming face of the ten year old in change. He waved. My face fell into a terrible rictus; part terror, part shock, part ‘Hello, please don’t step on me’, part ‘Lordy, lordy, I’m going to die.’ Dogster looked rather as if someone had stuck their finger up his bottom, caught in a frozen moment of confusion.

I didn’t want to make any movement for fear of startling the beast. One whap of its trunk and I was cactus. Miss Jill emerged from her sulk to see the vast grey wall of the elephant’s flank pass by not three feet from her face.

‘Oh,’ she said mildly, ‘good heavens.’

She never mentioned that elephant again. It was for Miss Jill not a real elephant. It was a domesticated elephant – not a wild elephant happily munching villagers in the jungle. There was a world of difference. Wild elephants elicited wild excitement from Miss Jill, mere domestic elephants received a commensurate domestic response – which as we all know, for the British of a certain age, isn’t much of a response at all.

  *

Each night there was a grisly ritual, played out at precisely 7.00 p.m. This was the daily briefing, an occasion that on a ship with passengers can be quite a jolly event. On a cruise with only two it all seemed a little silly. But no matter – it was on the schedule and so must occur.

We were in the twilight zone.

When I first heard there was to be only one other guest I was quite happy. Fewer people to hate, I thought. I forgot that there would be the ship’s manager and the head guide to contend with. I only had three people to hate – but they kept me busy enough.

Rupok the head guide and Pratik the ship’s manager would appear at 6.55 p.m., neatly shaved, showered and changed into freshly laundered, crisply ironed evening wear – Assamese style. The two of them were suspiciously jolly and enthusiastic. I suspected whisky. They would stand by the bar, hovering, waiting for their guests, like the hosts of a Boy Scout social.

At seven, on the dot, Miss Jill would emerge from Cabin One. She would sit in the same chair as she always did and be attended to with a flurry of crisps and a gin and tonic, a paper napkin and the total concentration of Rupok and Pratik.

While this was happening Dogster was in Cabin Eleven at the far end of the boat, sitting by his open window smoking all the ganja in Assam. Eventually he’d appear. As long as he kept his mouth shut no one was any the wiser.

A printed sheet of tomorrow’s daily activities would be passed out and laboriously explained twice in intricate detail, once by Pratik and once by Rupok. They would then attempt conversation with their two guests. Dog took to arriving as late as possible, trying to reduce the dreadful forced labor of ‘the briefing’. He’d got it down to a fine art.

Conversation occurred in one of two ways. Either Miss Jill or I would ask a question then sit back silently as Rupok or Pratik answered it – or Miss Jill would begin talking about subjects of interest only to Miss Jill. I would dutifully attempt to hold the conversation together, translating into common English to Rupok and Pratik what she was on about. Eventually it would get too hard, for me, for them, for everybody but Miss Jill. They would sit silently, politely listening, bored out of their brains, until she finished. The only way I could get a word in – or attempt to draw the two silent men into the conversation was to shut her down. I was really good at that.

All I had to do was talk about sex, drugs or rock ‘n roll and the shutters would come down.

At precisely 7.30 p.m. dinner would be served. Rupok and Pratik would leap to their feet with great fanfare and escort us to the door. With a smarmy grovel and a fake smile they would shovel Miss Jill and I into the dining room then disappear into the night, leaving me and my perennial companion to our twice daily ordeal by fire.

*

I called them the ‘smiling assassins’.

They were quite a double act. Both in their late thirties, educated, intelligent, capable men who had chosen the path of least resistance. They worked for a large tour company – they were institutionalised. Their full priority was to the company that employed them, not the guests. They had created a company culture. They were perfect company men. They did the job to the exact letter of the law; they provided a service and delivered the goods – and not one skerrick more.  They were available at the nightly briefing between 7 and 7.29 and then would vanish, together – always together. I’m surprised I didn’t see them holding hands.

They were so always together, so wrapped in each other’s company that I can only assume they were lovers as well. They were a team. Both lied for each other. They were my only source of information. Babu my guide was a company man as well. He didn’t lie. He didn’t know anything. We tourists were like sausages.

Ahhh, but they hadn’t met the Dogster. After fourteen days together floating down the Brahmaputra they certainly wished they hadn’t.

‘You know the normal kind of people they get on these trips?’ Miss Jill said over dinner one evening.

She was a veteran of a river-cruise or two. I knew what she meant: these cruises attracted a very specific breed of traveller…

‘Well, you’re not one of them,’ she said.

‘Well, I’m pleased about that.’

‘I don’t think they quite know what to do with you…’

  *

Dogster was never a pliant client – he missed that day in tourist school. He wanted different things. He got them. Dog didn’t do what he was meant to do. When he announced that he would be spending a day at the Silghat Fair instead of going off to Kaziranga National Park at dawn to see no animals there was a subtle haemorrhage in Pratik’s brain.

‘But how could you not want to see our greatest National Park. The mists over the early morning water, the sound of the birds passing by…’

‘If it’s so wonderful, how come you aren’t getting up at 4.00 a.m. to go?’

He was thin man, quiet and dangerous, with a secret life that I could only guess at. At least, I hope he had a secret life. He was a company man in a company job with a company wife who loathed him. He didn’t seem to hold out much affection for her either.

‘She’s in Kolkata,’ he said one night. It was the only time he ever mentioned her.

‘Oh, that’s good. So you see her when the ship goes down there?’

‘She won’t come near the ship. She hates it.’

That all he ever said. I think it was enough. They had a child, a poor spoilt brat of about five. Even mention of the child failed to elicit a gleam in his eyes. Dead man walking.

Both of them saw it as an article of professional faith to reveal nothing about their life, their friends, their hobbies, their partners or their preferences. They were a blank professional slate – to me, at least. I only spent twenty-nine minutes each day with them. Then twenty minutes – then ten – then five. Maybe they noticed.

Pratik sat silently. His job description said he must attend some dinners with the clients – on the first and last night. It didn’t say he had to talk. So he simply sat there, shovelling food into his face, limp and silent with that terrible ‘loser’ look in his eyes. Beneath it all was a scared, nasty little man – not a man to trust. So I didn’t. If he talked, I assumed it was a lie.

I was sure he had a secret life – the existing one was very dull indeed. I imagined some strange masturbatory regime, some serious pornography and a whore or three whenever he could get a break.

I took some minor pleasure in unpicking his lies. It passed the time. We all have two weeks together; Miss Jill, Rupok, Pratik and I. There was lots of time to observe. Pratik was a bad liar. I could always tell when he was fibbing. Rupok had much more interaction with the clients. He had lying down to a fine art. He could lie with great assurance, look you straight in the eye and lie – he was the liar of liars, the ne plus ultra of minor deceit. All his lies were little lies, lies of no consequence, lies to keep us in control. Rupok was softer, more handsome in a blank kind of way – just as oblique, just as maddening.

They spent every waking hour together. It was kinda spooky after a while. There was no moment, unless Rupok was off with Miss Jill, that they weren’t in the office watching movies. I know. I gave them the movies to watch courtesy a chance encounter with a crook in Yangon. Pirate movies there, first release stuff, comes eight to a CD. Each CD costs $1.20. That’s fifteen cents a movie. Hell, I’ll watch anything for that.

I’d make a habit of looking in the little window to their office below when I was on deck. I could see them sitting there, a glass of whisky in their hand, sucked in to Bruce Willis. When they’d reappear I’d ask them:

‘Seen any movies today?’

‘No, no,’ they’d huff and puff, ‘too busy to watch a thing.’

‘Shame, there’s some good ones on there…’

‘Oh, I’m sure we’ll manage one or two…’

They watched twenty-four of mine and six of theirs over fourteen days while denying every second of it. That’s around six hours spent watching movies a day – every day. So they were a lot of fun.

*

‘I’m not a lesbian,’ Jill said suddenly over dinner. She pronounced it in the grand theatrical manner: ‘LLLL- es-s-bi– yeeun.’

Frankly, at Jill’s great age it didn’t much matter to me what she was or had been, Dog was more than content to leave discussion of such matters in the ‘let’s not go there’ basket. Now I knew what she wasn’t, but not what she was. A veil was drawn over anything that might come close to identifying her previous existence. She was all clues and no confession.

‘Sometimes things just don’t work out,’ she said once and that was the sum total of her comment on pretty much everything. She may well have spent the last thirty years in jail, for all I know. She had a touch of the killer about her.

She was, however, more than prepared to discuss her illnesses. I was told the never-ending story of her heart operation in grisly detail, of the many miseries of just getting old. Nor was she shy of an opinion about British politics: I heard much of her hero Margaret Thatcher, of Tony Blair the anti-Christ and ‘that current fool in Downing Street,’ whose name she could not bring herself to utter. She knew her opera and her ballet, her current affairs and her crossword – but she’d never used a mobile phone, never turned on a computer.

If at her time of life she no longer chose to listen to things she found distasteful, who was I to point out the error of her ways? It was as legitimate a survival strategy as any – and if the list of things she found distasteful seemed quite a large one, she had after all, seventy-six hard years to identify them all.

*

As we cruised past the hills of Guwahati on our last full day of the voyage I noticed her standing quietly on deck. We dropped anchor a few kilometers upstream, slid the gangplank onto a rather grubby sandbar beneath a temple and the motors stopped. As we came to a halt I turned to her.

‘Well Miss Jill, you’ve sailed your Brahmaputra.’

A cloud passed across her eyes and, in that instant she was gone, gone to the next place, the next leg in her invisible life. Something clicked behind that cloud, some switch was snapped, a decision made – then, in a blink she was gone.

That’s how she did it. Click! – consigned to history.

Click! So was I.

*

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