PEA­COCKS AT CHRIST­MAS

Re­minders of home pop up where they are least ex­pected…

My Weekly Special - - CHRISTMAS FICTION MINIMAG - By Pauline Saull

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.

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