PEACOCKS AT CHRISTMAS
Reminders of home pop up where they are least expected…
As Alice stepped from the shade of the deck to walk down the gangplank the heat hit her, and before reaching the bottom her dress was already clinging damply to her skin.
The sights and smells of busy Bombay assailed every sense. On the quayside, among the crowd, she felt something tug at the hem of her dress and looking down, she bit back a gasp of dismay. A child with huge eyes held her hand out.
Alice fumbled in her bag, pulled out a ten-shilling note and gave it to her. A man appeared at her side. “Memsaab, don’t give your money away. I take you where you want to go and you give me the money. Yes?”
“Oh – but someone is meeting me. Mrs Jeffreys… do you know her?”
“No, memsaab,” he said, his head wobbling. “I not know this Mrs Jeffreys. Come.” He motioned to a rickshaw.
Suddenly over the noise and commotion, Alice heard her name being called. A stout middle-aged woman was pushing through the throng of people.
“Alice, Alice Whitmore?” she said on reaching her. Giving Alice no time to answer, the woman rushed on breathlessly. “Marjorie Jeffreys. Oh, this dratted traffic. It’s always appalling, but made worse today because of a cow taking a nap in the road, would you believe. You, scoot, Amit, go on, off with you,” she said to the rickshaw man.
Taking Alice’s arm, she led her to where a Ford motor car idled in the shade. The driver, dressed in white, bowed as the two women approached.
“To the house, Abdul,” Mrs Jeffreys said, pushing Alice onto the back seat before clambering in next to her. “That dreadful man would have driven you all over Bombay and charged you a fortune. He’s a known scoundrel. You must take care, Alice. How was your journey?”
“Not too bad, thank you. A little rough after Cape Town.”
Alice feigned interest as Mrs Jeffreys recounted her journey in 1935 on a rusty old ship which had bobbed like a cork.
“Of course,” she added, “with the war over, shipping is becoming much more frequent so comfort will soon be a prime consideration for companies like P&O.”
Her voice droned on. Alice cast frequent glances past her to the sights on the streets as the driver wound his way patiently through the throbbing mass of humanity and wandering animals.
Oh,my, she thought, thisisnothowI thoughtI’dbespendingChristmas.
The post she’d originally applied for was at a school in Amritsar, but it had been filled and so Alice was asked if she’d take the Bombay position instead.
Unfortunately, the letter had stated, wewouldneedyouattheschoolonthe firstof December, and with no other prospects lined up, she’d accepted.
“So you should settle in pretty quickly.” Mrs Jeffreys interrupted her thoughts. “The cottage attached to the schoolhouse is basic but comfortable and there is old Lami to look after you. He’s wonderful. Ah, here we are.”
They drove through iron gates, stopping before a pretty bungalow bedecked in bougainvillea. The driver jumped out and opened the car door.
“Thank you, Abdul,” Mrs Jeffreys said. “Miss Whitmore is staying for tea then you can take her to the schoolroom. In an hour, please.”
Over tea in the cool lounge, Alice met Mr Jeffreys who explained the origin of the private girls-only school.
“Started by wealthy Indians for their daughters,” he said. “At the moment we have twenty girls, which is an ideal number. I teach maths and science, my wife takes history and geography, your role as you know is to maintain the high standard of English language and literature. Oh, and we have Paul Collins, he comes in twice a week to teach music. Any questions?”
“No, I think you’ve covered everything.” Alice smiled.
“Good. Then while Abdul is taking you to the school, my wife and I shall get changed for the club. Can’t miss our G&Ts… What?”
Mr Jeffreys rose and Alice, having had no time to drink her tea, put the cup down and was ushered to the front door. “Until Monday,” the Jeffreys called. Abdul drove her to the back of the Kashid School building, parked outside a small cottage, deposited her case on the step and without a word returned to the car and drove away. WelcometoIndia. Alice sighed. The moment she stepped into the small hallway, a shrunken old Indian man appeared.
“Welcome, Memsaab, I am Lami.” He grinned, his face wrinkling like crêpe paper. Alice saw he had no teeth, but his smile was warm and it heartened her.
“I’m delighted to meet you, Lami. Will you show me where everything is?”
Hours had passed since Alice’s arrival at the cottage. Lami had served dinner, a dish of vegetables and rice accompanied by a warm naan bread, followed by sliced fruit, but with him gone, the silence of the cottage settled around her like a heavy cloak. Monday morning and company seemed a long way away.
Suddenly a piercing shriek startled her. Running to the window overlooking the garden, she saw Lami feeding a peahen and peacock.