This is the story of Gemma and me: how I lost her, I suppose. I don't usually tell it to anyone but myself; I save it for the darkest moments: the long hours before dawn or the unexpected panics that creep up silently, mugging me from behind. That's when I repeat it again and again, revisiting each small detail as if by the telling of it I might change the past. This time though, things are different. This time the past has already been erased.
I'll start at the place I thought was the beginning but now know was near the end. I was pretty full of myself back in those days; I thought life was a cinch, that everything I did was charmed and charming. I was twenty-three (name: Esther Waring, B.A.: University of Sussex; passport stamps achieved so far: Morocco, Egypt, and Israel), the year was 1989, and I was perched on the edge of my seat, several thousand feet above the shanties of Delhi. I liked to think of myself as a traveler back then, a lover of movement and excitement, but, ironically, I hated planes. As the wheels touched down I was clutching the worn acrylic armrest of the Air India Boeing 747, trying to look nonchalant but secretly praying. For a few anxious moments I'd been unable to see the runway, even though we were clearly about to land. I peered horrified at the rapidly approaching ground, relaxing only minimally when I glimpsed the rusting carcasses of abandoned planes and suddenly—coming to meet me—an expanse of tarmac. There was a thump, an agonizing rush of speed and lingering doubt (would the brakes work?), and then the plane finally came to rest outside Indira Gandhi International Airport.
The moment we were on the ground my fears evaporated; in retrospect they seemed ridiculous, even slightly shaming. Fear of flying from a global, backpacking babe like me? It was pathetic, a symptom of my chronic need for control. I unclicked my belt, reaching impatiently for my bags. Gemma was still dithering around, groping under her seat for God knows what, but I was unable to wait. Jumping up I pushed my way into the aisle.
The line shuffled slowly forward. When I finally reached the exit I paused, momentarily blasted by the hot air and reek of aviation fuel. Then, shielding my eyes against the dazzling afternoon light, I swung my bags around my shoulders and clanked down the metal steps.
Gemma, who never pushed herself anywhere, let alone into a line of impatiently shoving passengers, didn't appear for at least another five minutes. I waited in a state of frustrated excitement on the tarmac, blinking up at the white flanks of the jumbo until I saw her small rounded frame appearing from its stale-breathed jaws. Her face was screwed up against the light, and she looked dazed, as if unsure of where she was going.
"Poly, you plonker! Over here!"
At the sound of her old nickname she started and glanced up, her expression relaxing as she located my face in the crowd; when she finally reached the bottom of the steps her voice was breathless, her face flushed.
"I lost my passport! It fell down the side of my seat . . ."
"Yup, Poly Styrene, Queen of Kohl is about to conquer the Orient."
"Shut it, Siouxsie Sioux."
She stuck out her tongue and we touched hands, a fleeting gesture that seemed to sum everything up: partners in crime, old friends through thick and thin. Then, linking arms, we climbed onto the airline bus.
The Arrivals lounge was a vast hangar of a building which echoed to the sporadic stamping of passports and the squawk of malnourished sparrows. We waited at the end of a long line to be processed by the sour-faced immigration official perching humorlessly at his desk ahead of us. Besides the Indian families, with their kohl-eyed, frilly dressed toddlers and endless luggage, and various sharp-suited businessmen, the flight had been filled with disappointingly suburban types. A quick inspection of the logo on the nylon bags of a group of middle-aged women informed me that they were part of a Sunnyworld Spectacles of India Tour. Watching them, my heart momentarily drooped. I craved travel, not tourism, you see, and back then the distinction seemed terribly important. For everything I had planned and everything I believed myself to be, I wanted for us to be in a place for the adventurous minority, not some soft option for people like my parents. Catching Gemma's eye, I glanced at the women and pulled a face. Gemma opened her mouth, her tongue lolling like an idiot, and crossed her eyes.
More promisingly, the guys behind us were chatting loudly about "Asia." I kept glancing covertly over my shoulder, checking them out. I knew the sort well: travel bores who'll regale one with tales of hardship and daring for hour after hour, laboring under the illusion that it made them "interesting." Both were vying to be the Best Traveled: one was talking authoritatively about how he planned to cross the Himalayas into Ladakh; the other had an interest in temples. After a while I grew irritated by the competitive tone of their conversation. Turning around, I eyed up a young studenty type reading Hermann Hesse, more out of habit and boredom than any real desire to flirt.
He remained buried in the book. Gemma, too, had dropped to the floor and was picking at her nails and glancing anxiously around. She would be thinking that the latrines nearby smelled disgusting and worrying about where we were going to spend the night, I thought as I watched her sigh heavily and flick a morsel of dirt from her nails. Dear, muddle-headed Gemma, with whom I was about to embark on the journey of my dreams: she so often got unnerved and discouraged by situations that I relished with glee. Now that we were finally here I would have to help her cope.
Two hours later we dragged our rucksacks from the luggage carousel and walked through the smeared glass doors of Arrivals. For a moment we were overtaken, British flotsam bobbing in an unstoppable torrent of bodies and luggage and grasping hands. Drivers waved signs in our faces and touts pushed hotel cards at us while at least three porters attempted to pull our rucksacks from our backs. All around us families were being reunited, the long gone British exiles falling weeping into their relatives' arms as garlands of golden tinsel were placed over their heads. Beyond the sweep of airport concrete the sky gashed red, the last rays of sun reflecting from the glistening, expectant faces of the crowd. Crows hopped around our feet, pecking at the remnants of a spilled bag of chancchuri. The air was suffocatingly hot.
My plan had been to find a taxi, haggle the driver down to ten dollars—a rip-off according to the Lonely Planet guide, but considering that it was our first night I was prepared to compromise—and ride into Connaught Circus. Back at the main entrance to the airport I had dismissed what felt like an endless supply of drivers, but now the place was suddenly deserted. The Sunnyworld drones had climbed onto their shining tour buses, the returned migrants ushered reverentially onto the minibuses hired to return them in splendor to their villages, and the backpackers gone God knows where. Gemma and I stood alone by the side of the road, unsure what to do next.
Isn't it incredible how those apparently minute, split-second decisions can change the course of a life? If we had gone with one of the touts, or asked the backpackers how best to get into the city center, or even done the unthinkable and visited the Tourist Information Office, everything might have been different. But in those days I would never have taken such diminutive action. I was too proud, too keen to prove my credentials as a Traveler: to take the cheapest and most authentic route to everywhere and everything. That was how I'd backpacked around Europe the summer before, how I'd visited North Africa with Luke, the guy I went out with briefly in my second year, and how now, in this year off that I'd dreamed of for so long, I was planning to "do" India. Gemma, whose foreign adventures consisted of a holiday to Majorca with her dad and his new wife and an aborted three months au-pairing in Belgium—neither of which experiences I could honestly count as "travel"—had little say. Perhaps I was naive; I was certainly bossy.
And so, rather than following the other passengers onto an air-conditioned bus or hailing a taxi we suddenly found ourselves alone at the side of the road. And what I realize now is this was the first of my many mistakes, for it was then that we were noticed.
"Look, you stay here, and I'll investigate—see if there are any buses or anything."
Unhooking my rucksack from my back and dropping it at Gemma's feet, I walked swiftly away, swiveling my head around as I searched for suitably "local" looking buses. With the exception of a silver four-wheel-drive vehicle parked immediately opposite, the car park was deserted. It was almost dark now, and I
could feel a line of sweat trickling down the small of my back. Although it tickled, I was pleased it was there: it was right that I should be slightly dirty and sticky with the heat, I thought, it showed that I was well and truly in the South.
I crossed the road, peering through the gloom at a solitary bus on the other side of the concourse. I'm ashamed to admit that despite my total ignorance of Hindi, I made a pretense of examining the sign on the front, as if by staring at it for long enough its destination would seep osmotically into my consciousness. With the unpromising exception of the driver, who was wrapped in a shawl and lying asleep at the wheel, the bus was empty.
Perhaps I should not have left Gemma alone like that, I thought with a jolt: after all, it was the first time she had been outside Europe. I remembered her expression of fleeting panic as I'd set off and imagined her perched on top of the rucksacks, as easy prey for the men who hovered outside the airport in the hope of sex or an easy scam. By now they would be circling for the kill, asking "What country?" and "Please, madam, where is your husband?"
I looked back, hoping to reassure her with a wave, and saw to my surprise that she was no longer alone. Squatting in the dust next to her was another traveler: a tall guy, with long, dirty yellow hair, bright orange drawstring pantaloons in the style of German hippies, and a tasseled leather bag which he had placed on the floor by his feet. Leaning on the railings opposite, apparently overlooking the scene, were two girls. Both had their backs turned toward me, but one was notably skinny, with a long black braid appearing from a beaded headscarf and a red dress, its hem trailing in the dust. The other was broader, with a large behind and lumpy looking legs. She kept turning her head away and shaking it with what could only be irritation. I remember looking at them, and thinking vaguely that something was wrong. Perhaps it was the way they were watching the hippie, as if they knew him but for some reason were not permitted to join him, or perhaps it was just that they were having an argument. Whatever it was, I only glanced at them for a second or so.
I raised my hand and was just about to shout: "Gemma!" when a taxi swerved into my path, its horn blaring in triumph at having found the remaining two passengers from the London flight.
Twenty minutes later we had reached the outskirts of the city, the initially deserted airport road becoming crowded with scooter-rickshaws and motorbikes and overladen Tata trucks. I gazed awestruck from the taxi window. We were traveling through the blasted hinterland of outer Delhi but the landscape seemed gloriously exotic to me, the smoky evening light heavier and hotter than anything I had ever experienced, the air fragrant and filled with promise. About ten minutes into the journey we had passed a flock of vultures picking at something dead on the tarmac; a few miles later we nearly hit a mangy cow idling in the middle of the road. The driver braked hard, then slowly circled around the animal, humming to himself. Gemma and I gawped at each other then burst out laughing. It was too dark now to see what lay beyond the dull orange glow of the highway lights, but outside the cab I could hear cicadas and the distant yowl of jackals.
We sat in silence, our rucksacks on our laps. All I could think was that finally I had made it. I wanted to roll the window down, push my head out, and take it in with great greedy gulps but despite my love of excessive gestures something held me back. Perhaps it was Gemma, whose stolid presence always restrained me from my wilder moments. Even when we were kids and I was about to do something stupid, like pocket sweets from the newsagents, or ring up a teacher and do heavy breathing down the phone, she would look at me and frown and for just a moment I would hesitate. Glancing at her across the back seat I realized that in the fuggy warmth of the night air she was on the brink of sleep; her eyes kept flickering closed, her mouth loosening as her face relaxed. When the taxi bumped over a particularly large hole she opened her eyes and sat up straight, shaking her head.
"Bollocks. I'm tired. Is it something in the air?"
"Didn't you read about it? It's a special gas they use to drug the foreigners so they can rip them off."
She stared at me.
"Well, you shouldn't have guzzled all that booze on the plane!"
"It was free!"
We were silent again.
A few miles further on I said: "So who was that guy you were talking to?"
She gazed at me.
"A hippie? With orange trousers and all that hair? He was sitting next to you? Jesus, Pol? What planet are you on?"
She shrugged, her face fighting and then succumbing to a huge yawn.
"Planet jet lag, I guess."
We were passing a mosque now, its pillars hung with sparkling lights like the fairy castles we used to dream of when we were seven. Gemma stared at it for a moment, her eyes widening.
"It's a mosque," I said in explanation.
She frowned again, then yawned and closed her eyes.
Me and Poly Styrene—that juvenile nickname she had never truly shaken off—had been best friends since our first day at school and that was the way we still were. We might have grown up, moving on from our pubescent skirmish with bin- and eyeliners, progressing through Ska and New Romantics and Dexys up through school until I went off to university, and she moved out of her mum's and into her flat over the Alliance and Leicester, but as far as I was concerned, the sisterhood we had found as little girls was going to last forever. It was part of my badly digested undergraduate feminism, plastered over my consciousness with a capital F. Men weren't important, or at least, they shouldn't be. What mattered—I convinced myself—was the solidarity of women. Sure, we might have had our tense moments, our times of unspoken conflict, but wasn't that just part of the intricate fabric of friendship, weaving us ever closer and more colorfully together? The mosque disappeared and the taxi came up to and then blatantly skipped a set of flashing traffic lights. When I next looked at Gemma she was asleep, her head bumping the taxi door, a silver thread of drool trickling from her mouth.
As I gazed at her, I was overtaken by a rush of affection. There was something so sweet and trusting in the way she fell asleep at every available opportunity. When we were at school she had a habit of dozing off in the middle of lessons and later, in the days of pubs and all-night parties, she was always the first to succumb, curling up in the corner under her coat as we cavorted around her inert body. I was the opposite: too awake, my mind always buzzing. Sometimes I would lie with my eyes wide open all night, waiting for the sky outside my curtains to lighten, for another day to bring me closer to what I thought of as my "real," adult life.
And now, finally, I was here. After all those months of planning and saving, I had escaped the tedium of Britain. Unlike my college friends with their deathly city jobs and sad, hemmed-in plans, I was, I told myself with the triumphant optimism of the very young, a career-path refusenik. Not for me the daily trudge to the office. No, I was different. I was going to hurl myself at the world and see what happened.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Trade
- ISBN-10: 1573229334
- ISBN-13: 9781573229333