Maureen and Sally are on a Saga tour of Delhi and Jaipur. Maureen hails from Lancaster. Sally is from Manchester. Prior to this week they had never met. However, the fact that they are the only two single ladies on this particular Saga holiday, (discounting, of course, Kathleen and Annie from Sunderland, who are sisters and therefore, obvious roomies), they have been asked to share a twin room. On the morning of their third day in India, Maureen takes Arjun -their tour guide- aside in the lobby of the Lalit Hotel, Jaipur. Maureen is not usually once to complain, but she’s not had a wink of sleep these last two nights on account of Sally’s heavy snoring. Arjun listens, nodding. He says he will see what can be done about the situation. Less than ten minutes later, while they are waiting on the last of the post-breakfast stragglers, Sally takes Arjun aside and confesses that she has found herself equally incapable of getting over to sleep due to Maureen’s incessant snoring. She compares Maureen to a hoover, and not a modern, fancy one like a Dyson either. It’s an old-fashioned number she’s invoking, the sort with a suck on it which would lift paint. Arjun listens. Arjun nods. The boy cleaning the decorative fountain with a dishcloth and a bottle of squirty detergent also hears everything but does not intervene. He is only paid to clean.
22nd January 2019
There are hundreds of pigeons congregating around the gates of the Albert Hall. Although this is Jaipur, India, not London, England, the pigeons look very similar to those pigeons usually found flocking around the steps of the original Albert Hall. A man squats in the midst of the pigeons scattering birdseed in wide, arcing loops. This man has a heart condition. His doctor has prescribed two hours per day in the presence of pigeons. “Pigeons,” claims the man’s doctor, “are more beneficial than both medication and meditation when it comes to heart conditions.” The man had been sceptical at first. Then, after some weeks, found that the pigeons’ flapping wings caused a slight fluctuation in the air which passed over his poorly -body gently, therapeutically, with great, yet measured power- so he no longer felt so tight in the chest and his palpitations eased and he was able to return to work on a part time basis. The man remains unsure as to whether it is the pigeons who have healed him, or his own change of outlook which is now optimistic/determined/disciplined. He continues to visit the Albert Hall each morning though he does not tell his colleagues where he disappears to everyday, between the hours of 10 and 12.
23rd January 2019
There was nowhere else available so they booked a room at the Hotel Kafka. It was much cheaper than they were anticipating; approximately a third of what they’d been paying at the airport hotel. “Why so cheap?” she asked. “Maybe it’s something to do with the name,” he replied and they both laughed and riffed for almost five minutes or so on the idea of spending the night in a hotel named after Kafka. “Dear only knows what you’d be when you woke up,” he said, and she laughed some more, and contorted her face into a buggish grin. The following morning when they did wake up, she was disappointed to find he was still a man and she was still a woman and neither of them bore even the slightest resemblance to any kind of insect. “I guess it’s just a name,” she said, though at the back of her mind she was thinking about all the other stories Kafka had written. It was years since she’d last read any aside from the obvious one, but she’d retained a vague memory of cruel and unusual plot twists; things which could be inflicted upon a human mind or body, insidiously, without knowledge or consent. All day she kept asking him if he was feeling ok and he kept saying, “yes, I feel fine, stop asking me,” but something in her did not believe he was telling the truth.
Carys and Michael Davies
24th January 2019
At the back of the room a man is standing behind a table feeding chips into a deep fat fryer. It is raining outside and the room is packed full of people who’ve taken shelter. These people are not interested in the poet reading from the lectern at the front, or the literary agent who will follow him onto the stage to talk about issues related to publishing short story collections, or even the famous Bollywood director who will close proceedings with a short speech, delivered in Hindi. They are only interested in staying warm and staying dry and not being struck by the forked lightning which is currently zip zapping across the front lawn. When they spot the man with the deep fat fryers they do not question why he is here, at a literary event. They do not take time to discover that this particular event is sponsored by McCain potato products. They simply line up and wait for a portion of hot chips and receive their chips gratefully. Then, they stand around the edges of the room enjoying the sensation of heat seeping through a paper plate, defrosting rain-chilled fingers. There is a specific word for discovering hot chips at a dull literary event on a cold, January afternoon. The English translation of this word falls somewhere between surprise and blessing. When pronounced correctly it curls up at the end like a shy smile.
25th January 2019
You did not realise you needed to be clear with the man at the travel desk. You ordered a taxi to the palace but did not specify that it was an ordinary taxi you were after: a white, four-wheeled number, driven by an ordinary man. When your taxi arrived the car itself was unremarkable. The driver looked normal enough until you left the safety of the hotel car park, at which point, he cranked the car’s stereo up to ear-shredding levels and began to gyrate wildly, hands flying through the air, head nod, nod, nodding along to the pulsing beat, while the car dipped in and out of traffic, losing and gaining speed, ricocheting off other cars like a pinball, or a light-blind insect, or an atom observed under a microscope, and you realised then, that this was no ordinary taxi driver you’d hired. This was a djinn behind the wheel and you racked your brain to remember whether djinns were mostly good or mostly evil and seemed to recall they went either way and occasionally granted a wish or two. So you wished for a seatbelt, and a set of killer brakes and, with your third and final wish, asked for a clear road right through to the palace gates though you did not know if your djinn driver could hear you wishing over the music and the racket of car horns and screeching brakes.
26th January 2019
There are two rival gangs of monkeys operating in this area. The black-faced monkeys are content to sit in the trees consuming nuts, or scavenge through the villagers’ garbage in search of discarded fruit. The red-faced monkeys are not so placid. They descend upon the small houses of the village in a rabid pack, opening windows with their tiny, monkey hands. They sneak through doors and, where chimneys are available, will squeeze their skinny bodies down the flue, like Santa, but not so generous. One monkey remains outside at all times, playing look out. He scours the street for returning home-owners. Meanwhile the other monkeys swarm through the house, ransacking the fridge, lifting jewellery from the dresser in the bedroom, upsetting the pots and pans so they clang to the floor with a sound like church bells, struck. They take more than they need and do not strictly need most of the things which they take: earrings, for example, which are of no practical use to a creature whose ears are not pierced. The black-faced monkeys despair. They are disgusted by their red-faced rivals. They tend to avoid red-faced monkeys when confronted by them in the streets and back alleys of the village. If asked, they will usually say, “those red faced lunatics, give proper monkeys a bad name.”
27th January 2019
On the way back down the mountain from the fort -which is the smallest, and arguably least impressive of the city’s three forts, though blessed with unparalleled views- the brakes on the bus failed, causing all twenty four writers, poets, historians, journalists and philosophers to go sailing through the crash barrier, out into the midnight black. There was nothing beneath the bus’s screaming wheels but several thousand feet of air, and beneath this air, unrelenting earth, rocks, shrubs and a few startled snakes. As they plummeted towards certain death the writers wondered if they were famous enough yet to merit a mention in the Guardian’s obituary column, while the journalists composed terse columns of copy outlining events leading up to their own deaths, and the poets teased out complex metaphors which would cast much-needed light upon the situation in hand: falling to one’s death in a rickety coach was like a sudden rainfall, or competing in the downhill slalom, or discovering your Netflix account had expired just when you needed it most. Only the historians on board the coach were truly present for they had always understood what it is to briefly be a footnote on a larger page and had been anticipating a moment just like this one for many, many years.