Harry Brown may have been a telecoms engineer but he never expected that he would be forced to resort to an Internet dating service.
He was no Brad Pitt, but he was no Mickey Rourke either. For a man in his early fifties, he was in reasonable shape – a bit of extra weight above the belt, but otherwise reasonably lean, taller than average, and with a good head of hair.
He was a man who liked order – the sort who not only wore matching shirt, tie and socks but underwear too (“Suppose I'm knocked down in the street and taken to hospital?”). A profound sense of disorder had recently entered his life when his wife Susan had left it. The divorce was now absolute but he still had no idea how to meet new women.
The 'Matching The Mature' site recommended by a well-meaning colleague had at least thrown up an interesting proposition and he was meeting Sandra this evening in a central London restaurant that she had suggested. Her photo on the site had been tantalising and it had not misrepresented her; she was a striking, even voluptuous, middleaged woman.
“So tell me, Harry, what exactly is it that you do?”
Nervously he gabbled: “I'm an engineer with BT. I'm planning the roll-out of what is known as next generation access but the media call super-fast broadband. Most of it's fibre to the cabinet but there's some fibre to the home. FTTC can provide around 40 mega bits a second and FTTH is typically 100 mega bits a second.”
“I'm sorry, Harry, but I've no idea what you're talking about.”
This evening had not got off to a super-fast start, but Harry had read somewhere that women liked to talk about themselves.
“Sorry, Sandra. Why don't you tell me what you do?”
“I'm in HR. They used to call it personnel but now it's human resources. At the moment, I'm working on a new performance appraisal system that's designed to maximise the development of individual empowerment within a framework that achieves an alignment to corporate objectives so that we enhance both the customer experience and shareholder value.”
“I'm sorry, Sandra, but I've no idea what you are talking about.” The evening was rapidly getting worse, but somehow it didn't seem to matter to the vixen from HR.
Harry started with minestrone soup. When he spotted something in his bowl that looked suspiciously like a dead insect, he thought of asking the waiter what it was doing there but feared that, the way the date was going, he would be advised it was the breast-stroke. Sandra did not help his discomfort: “Looks like you're in a bit of a bind, Harry.”
Harry had already decided that, however curvaceous his dining partner was, he was out of his depth here and had no wish to move to more amorous encounters. To ensure that this would be the case, he ordered chicken kiev for his main course. As he plunged his knife into the leg, hot garlic squirted all over his shirt and tie and even managed to dampen his chin.
Sandra was surprisingly relaxed about the geyser: “Let me whip you back into shape” she offered, as she leaned over with a napkin and dabbed all the wet areas and some more.
By the time they reached dessert, Harry was growing distinctly tense. The raspberry pavlova should calm him down – it was a favourite. The meringue was unexpectedly resistant to his spoon, so he applied some force, only to be absolutely showered with fine white dust.
Sandra was utterly nonchalent: “I might have to help you out of those messy clothes.”
Harry's eyes widened. What was she talking about?
Sandra lived locally and he was in a state, so it would have seemed churlish of Harry to decline the offer of a clean-up and a coffee back at her flat. As she went to the kitchen, he made for the bathroom. Passing Sandra's bedroom, the door being ajar and the bedside lamp being on afforded him an easy and compelling vista: on the double bed lay black lace negligée, blindfold, stout leather whip, and padded hand-cuffs.
The super-fast broadband man made a super-fast exit from a boudoir that offered passion and pain in proportions that he could not calculate and would not contemplate.
Once safely round the corner, he used his mobile to summon a mini-cab from his local firm. When it eventually arrived, he collapsed gratefully into the front passenger seat and unburdened himself to this stranger driving him back to the haven that was home.
“I've just had the worst night of my life. I can't imagine anything more terrifying.”
“I seriously doubt that, sir” responded the driver soberly.
“What do you mean?” queried Harry.
The driver – a Tamil from Sri Lanka – then told him a horrific story about how his family had been shot and shelled for years by both the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese army. Many had been killed and the rest had become refugees.
Harry was shaken by what he heard and his evening now looked comical rather than threatening. “Are the surviving members of your family all over here now?” he inquired.
“All of them except my sister Vani.”
Vani (the name means 'sweet voice' in Sanskrit) Swaminathan was short and slight but, if one looked beyond the plain clothing, an attractive woman with a clear complexion, noticeable cheekbones, and shiny brown eyes.
She was eking out an existence in the north Indian city of Varansi, previously known as Benares. Her impoverished life was a mere smudge on the swirling mass that constituted one of the most ancient towns on earth, dating back 3,000 years, which today housed over three million souls, swollen each day by 60,000 pilgrims.
For Varansi took its name from the Varuna and the Asi, tributaries of the great Ganges river, and it was the religious centre of Hinduism, regarded as a most auspicious place for a Hindu to die and to be cremated. This explained the 100 or so ghats – stone steps leading down to the holy Ganges - where pilgrims prayed and bodies were burned.
Ever since the civil war in Sri Lanka had driven her here, Vani had made a kind of living selling wood for the funeral pyres at the Manikarnika Ghat - the main burning ghat and one of the oldest and most sacred in Varanasi.
For Western tourists, the ghats and pyres were something utterly outside their previous experience. For them, death was a private matter with a funeral a private ceremony in a church or a crematorium. Here in Varanasi, in the presence of relatives and close friends, bodies in shrouds were carried between bamboo sticks and dipped in the holy waters of the river before being placed on a tall pyre of thick logs which were then set on fire in full view of any passers-by. The bodies were consumed by the flames until the ashes and bodily remains were flung into the waters and drifted down the river.
Often the fires would not have fully consumed the cadavers and it was not uncommon to see floating down the Ganges a hand or a foot, an arm or a leg, or even a whole body when the family could not afford the wood for a cremation.
For Vani, it was almost a redeeming experience to witness day after day the burning of the dead and the anguish of the living. The smell of burning flesh would live with her forever. Sometimes, in the flames of the funeral pyres, she would see the burning of houses in her village back home. Often, as she heard the crying and wailing of the dead person's relatives, she would recall the losses her own family had suffered in a war which had seemed endless. Her husband dragged off against his will to fight with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, never to return. Her baby son blown apart by shelling from one of the armies.
Vani's day would end with the sun-setting ceremony of arti. Bells were rung, cymbals were clashed, horns were sounded and fires burned in a brightly-illuminated performance that she invariably found both magical and mystical.
When the day was done, she would walk back to the room she rented with two other women in a district of the city known as Old Benares. This was an area of narrow alley ways, thronging with food sellers and shopping establishments. However, the tiny stone passage ways were shared with lots of venerated cows who regularly defecated, making it a squalid and filthy quarter.
That night, Vani was making her way home, weary from a long day but satisfied to have earned a few much-needed rupees. She never felt really safe in this city: her skin was much darker than most residents, almost black compared to various shades of brown, and she was a young, attractive, single woman. Tension had risen in the last few days when a Tamil man was accused of murdering a local storekeeper in a bungled robbery. She was convinced that she faced more discrimination here than her family in London.
So, when she turned a dark corner in Old Benares and saw a bunch of aimless and intoxicated youths lounging by some steps, she was naturally anxious. It all happened so quickly and brutally – the theft of her money, the tearing of her clothes, the savage beating with heavy sticks. To cover up their crime and to impose a final degradation, they dragged her limp body down to the river and threw her unconscious form into the swirling waters.
The sun was barely struggling to climb the horizon next morning when the young American strolled by the sides of the holy Ganges, taking in one last view of this extraordinary city. Many times now, he had seen the preparation of the shrouded bodies, the lighting of the wooden pyres, and then the hurling of the remains into the waiting wetness. He had become almost used to seeing bits of bodies bobbing in the eddying waters. But he had never seen what looked like a full body washed up downstream of the main gnats. And he was astonished when he thought he detected some movement of the chest.
He raced over, immediately established that the young woman was still alive, and persuaded a nearby dweller to summon an ambulance. Back by the riverside, he swathed the body in his jacket and cradled the woman in his arms, while he waited anxiously and tried to reassure her in an English which she seemed to recognise.
Vani opened her eyes slowly, looked up at her rescuer, and whispered something. He bent an ear over her mouth and just caught the words “Thank you”. The ambulance came reassuringly quickly and the American prepared to hand her over to those who would know how best to save her. But, before she was placed on a stretcher, she grasped his shirt and pulled him down, before murmuring “Who are you?”
Bradley Turner had the good looks and easy manners that attracted stares and confidence wherever he went. His clothes were stylish, yet simple, and he took trouble over his appearance.
He never knew the name of the young woman that he pulled out of the edge of the Ganges and he never knew what happened when she was rushed off to hospital. Later that same morning, he had a flight from Varanasi to Delhi, from where he took an aircraft to New York and then another on to Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina. It was his father's 60th birthday and he had to be back at the family home in Mount Pleasant for the celebration.
Henry Turner had been a successful businessman for 25 years before he went into politics and he had now served five two-year terms as a Republican member of the House of Representatives. His political career was progressing well and, after the mid terms in the Fall, he was confidently expecting an important Committee Chairmanship. He had always been a Christian but, at the age of 41, he had become 'born again' and, over the years, he had become increasingly fundamentalist in his beliefs in the face of what he saw as a liberal establishment determined to undermine basic American values.
The birthday barbecue had been a great success – all sizzling steaks and browning burgers - with family members and political associates making fulsome tributes to Henry's sterling qualities. Once most of the guests had departed, Bradley approached his father and asked: “Could we have a word, dad?” Flush with pride and whiskey, the older man drawled easily: “Sure, son. Let's go to the study.”
Seated comfortably in dark red leather armchairs, Congressman Turner faced his youngest son: “So, what's on you mind, Brad?”
“My trip to Varanasi. It wasn't so much a holiday as a kind of retreat.”
“And what does that mean?” his father quizzed with an hint of aggression.
“I went to think. To sort things out.”
“To think about what?” came the irritated response.
“About my gayness”.
“Aaah, no – not that again, Brad.”
“What do you mean? 'Not that again.' We never talk about it.”
The Congressman looked troubled: “You know I don't like to talk about your homo-”, he paused, “sexuality.”
“Well, we need to talk about it now. I've made a decision.”
“Pleeease, Brad. We have an understanding.”
“No, dad. You have an understanding. If I keep my gayness hidden, you live with it. Which means we never mention it and you do fine politically.”
“That's not fair, Brad” his father snapped. “You know my religious beliefs. You know that I detest the homosexual life style. But I say nothing because you're my son.”
“Well, you're going to have to say something now, dad – because I'm coming out.”
“Oh, son!” came the pained reaction. “Why do you have to do this to me? And now, after all these years?”
“Tyler and me – we're in love and we've decided to enter into a domestic partnership.”
“Not in South Carolina, you're not!” the Congressman almost shouted.
“Of course not. In the District of Columbia. We're moving to DC. I have a new lobbying job and Tyler will find a teaching post.”
“Oh God. You're coming out. You're pretending to be married. You're going to live in Washington. You're going to be working on the Hill. This is too much!!”
“It's something I have to do, dad. I can't keep living a lie.”
“But, if you do this, Brad, you know what it'll mean, don't you? I'll have to publicly condemn you.”
“And if you do that, father” said his son, becoming deliberately formal “I'll never speak to you again.”
This conversation was proving every bit as painful as Brad had feared. He put the inevitable question: “You would really put your faith before your family?”
“I'd put God first, yes. I have no choice.”
His father was slumped in his chair now. “But why do you have to choose to do this?” he almost wailed.
“It's not a choice, dad” insisted Brad. “It's my life.”
“And it's a disgusting life!” snarled his father. “It's an abomination!”
“I think I'd better leave.”
“If you leave now, if you go with that man, it's over between us, Brad!”
“I have to do this – dad”, Brad said quietly but firmly.
“Then say goodbye to your mother before you leave” the older man advised quietly.
As the son left the father in the study, both men wept silently. One with boiling anger but with a degree of pity; the other with deep shame and a profound sense of sadness.
Brad quickly explained the situation to his mother, his older brother and his sister, all of whom he knew would stand by him. As he was about to leave the family home for the last time, the family maid – Rosanna from Mexico – rushed up to him. She kissed him on both cheeks, hugged his fit body, looked him full in the face and announced: “Good luck, Mr Brad. I proud of you. You like my brother – you both want people's rights.”
Fernando López may only have been in his thirties, but he was already balding and putting on weight. He enjoyed his food too much and took too little exercise. The smoking didn't help either. His health never bothered him though because he was a man with a cause.
He had been a trade union organiser for almost a decade. It was a tough, thankless job but he knew that, without the protection of a union, low-paid workers were exploited mercilessly in a globalised market where labour was just another commodity – dispensable if not cheap.
He was now facing the most obdurate employer ever. Home-grown Mexican companies were tough enough, but multi-nationals were even worse, with American multi-nationals vicious in opposing trade union recognition even if they dealt with unions in the US. Congressmen like his sister's employer simply did not care how American companies behaved abroad – the foreign workers had no votes in their districts.
A US-owned fabrication plant on the outskirts of Mexico City had refused to recognise the union, even after a high-profile, two-year campaign and the recruitment of two-thirds of the workforce. But he sensed that the management was tiring of the unwelcome media publicity and that just one last heave could do it.
A friend of a friend had given him the direct telephone number of the producer of the top news programme on Mexican television and he called him to put the case for a special feature on the dispute.
The producer was hard-nosed: “I'm sorry, Seńor López – your campaign is just not news. It's been running too long. There's nothing new. I would need something different. Something visual.”
“Something visual?” mused Fernando.
“Exactly” came the response. “This is television, not radio, not a newspaper.”
“I see ...”
“Look, I have to go.”
“Wait – please” urged Fernando.
“And what am I waiting for?”
“I'm thinking ...”
“And what are you thinking?”
“A moment please ...”
“Really, Seńor López. I have to go. We have schedules.”
“Zócalo. 12.30 Thursday. Have a crew there. You'll have your story – I promise.”
Zócalo – more properly known as Plaza de la Constitucion – was one of the largest squares in the world, the beating heart of a mega metropolis approaching some 20 million. It was 12.50 on Thursday and the television crew was becoming fidgety. They were not alone – Fernando had pulled out all the stops and corralled a load of other local media representatives and invited representatives of all the major embassies in the capital. He felt that this was this last chance to win recognition for the union. But it would only work if there was major embarrassment for the company here in Mexico, back in the States, and if possible around the world.
Then an odd noise was heard from the direction of Avenida Juarez. Gradually the chomp-chomp-chomp sound became clearer as fifty-odd pairs of feet in boots announced the impending arrival of some kind of demonstration. Then it was kerr-jing, kerr-jing, kerr-jing as fifty-odd hand bells were rung in rhythm. As the workers turned into the huge square, the members of the film crew could not help adopting huge grins. Every worker was dressed in a Father Christmas outfit – the brightest possible red, set off by a wide black belt and a fluffy white beard. And at their head was Fernando. In the 40C heat of a Mexican summer, the scene could not have looked more incongruous. Of course, that was the whole point.
The troupe headed towards the camera and then the crew saw that there were placards with slogans like “Give a Christmas gift to us today. Recognize our union.” and “Even Santa recognised the union of his reindeers.” As Fernando's entourage approached the camera., he led his men and women in the kind of 'jody' used in an American military jogging exercise. They deliberately used English to ensure that the America media would use the images as well and, with some luck, the film would be on YouTube within hours and the campaign would be both viral and international in days.
“All we we want is a decent wage.
That why the union's all the rage.
We're not gonna stop till we've won,
Because we know our time is come.
One, two – union!
Three, four – union!!
Five, six – union!!!”
The producer had his visual.
Of course, the American embassy did not send anyone to witness the demonstration, but other embassies did – including the German Embassy whose labour attaché rather enjoyed seeing an American multi-national forced to act reasonably. Next day, he filed a report for Berlin before starting some long-anticipated leave.
Kurt van Haaren was tall and heavy with short, blond hair. He combined a sharp intellect with a social conscience and enjoyed the fact that his work enabled him to promote labour rights while travelling to different parts of the world.
The German had a passion; he loved waterfalls – the bigger, the better. It had all started when, as a child, his parents had taken him to the Röthbach Waterfall, the tallest in Germany. He was captivated by the clearness, the coolness, the sheer power of all that water tumbling down and down and down - it was a primeval force of nature. While at university, he had managed to make a trip to Niagara Falls on the US/Canada border.
His current assignment to the embassy in Mexico had given him reasonable access to spectacular falls in South America, especially Angel Falls in Venezuela – the tallest on earth – and Iguazzu Falls on the Brazilian/Argentinean border – perhaps the most beautiful on the planet. But he had a real yearning to see the famous Victoria Falls, on the dividing line of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and this period of leave would enable him to fulfil that dream. He was still single and travelled alone.
The political situation in Zimbabwe was precarious and, as a result, the so-called Zam or Zim choice was no choice at all. On the Zambian side of the falls, he found that, as well as a stunning aquatic display, he was blessed by a charming hotel and a delightful chambermaid.
The Royal Livingstone Hotel was set by the lush banks of the mighty Zambezi River, overlooking hippos, usually easier to hear than see, with the mist of the falls clearly visible but not audible. Since the hotel was in a park, the lawns were regularly enlivened by a group of zebras nibbling at the grass and monkeys scampering across with babies hanging underneath the bellies of their mothers. Kurt had booked three nights at the hotel, but immediately knew that he was going to find it hard to leave such comfort in such a location.
Once in his room in late afternoon, he found the first of what would become a series of messages from his chambermaid. Two towels had been cleverly twisted into the approximate shape of an animal with arms and legs of similar length and two plastic tops acting as eyes. The creation sat on the bed with a note sitting between the legs: “I am your chambermaid and this is your monkey for today. In my Tonga language, we call this animal 'sokwe'. Please enjoy his furriness and let me know if you want anything. Your maid Mutinta.”
Known in the Kololo language as 'Mosi-oa Tunya' ('The Smoke That Thunders'), the falls were everything that Kurt had hoped and he spent the next day exploring each of the six separate falls - the Devils Cataract, the Main Falls, the Horseshoe Falls, the Rainbow Falls, the Armchair Falls, and the Eastern Cataract. - becoming thoroughly soaked by the spray on many occasions.
Back in his room, there was another creation and another note. One towel was clearly a face with the plastic tops as eyes again, but another towel was inventively splayed around the first to act as an animal mane. The child-like writing explained: “The monkey was frightened away by this lion – we call it 'shumbwa' in Tonga - but he will be kind to you. Hope that you had a nice day. Your maid Mutinta.”
Next day, Kurt continued his survey of the falls. He went on an extensive boat trip up-river and then took a helicopter ride over the expansive vista, enjoying a thrilling view that was utterly impossible for the Scottish explorer David Livingstone in 1855.
In his room once more, there was the usual welcome. Today a basic animal face was decorated with two hand towels acting as elongated ears and a bath towel represented the trunk. The note announced: “The lion was charged away by this elephant which we call 'muzohwu'. This is your last day here. Please come back soon. Mutinta.”
It had been a magical visit and tomorrow morning he would just have time to do a bungee jump from the Victoria Falls Bridge – if he kept his courage – before making a short visit to Cape Town and returning to Mexico City. It was half an hour before sunset and he decided that, since it was the last night here, he would have a 'sundowner' on the hotel sun deck by the Zambezi River.
As he was leaving his room, Kurt observed a young, black woman emerging from the room next door. She gave him a wide smile displaying dazzling white teeth : “Good evening, sir. I am Mutinta, your chambermaid. Have you enjoyed your stay? Did you like my little animals?”
He returned the smile: “Hello, Mutinta. I've had a wonderful time here. And I loved the animals.” He glanced back at the door to his room, returned his gaze, and grinned: “The monkey was my favourite. I really miss him.”
“Truly, sir?” She looked thoughtful. “Then perhaps we can arrange for him to revisit you before you leave.”
On the sun deck, Kurt sipped something called 'Blue Zambezi' as the blinding red orb prepared to dip below the misty horizon. This was perfection, he thought. One of the waiters brought him a complimentary bowl of peanuts and he lazily took a few. Suddenly his vision was totally filled with a cheeky monkey from the hotel grounds sitting on his table and, before he knew it, the mischievous creature was brazenly scoffing all his peanuts.
The other guests on the sun deck were laughing at him and, as he looked around, he observed that all the waiters were sharing the joke. Indeed it was becoming clear that his waiter had set up the situation for everyone's amusement. The monkey scurried off and then there was Mutinta standing by his table.
“You said you want to see the monkey again” she offered by way of an apology.
“That was a good joke, Mutinta” Kurt conceded gracefully. “Do the waiters do that every evening?”
“Usually, I think. But I only work here when I'm home from university” she explained.
“You go to university? That's wonderful. But isn't it expensive?”
“Yes – it's very expensive. But, a few years ago, we had a New Zealand couple here. I was their chambermaid and we talked a lot. Since then, they send me some money every couple of months to help me study.”
The cat hopped off the bed, annoyed that her usual sleeping position, alongside the right leg of her owner, was not working out tonight because Deborah Mackenzie simply could not settle. Towards 2 am, the insomniac gave up on the attempt at sleep and decided to take a short drive.
Most New Zealand towns hug the coast and Wanganui was no exception, so it did not take long to reach a low cliff overlooking the sea. Deborah switched off the engine and the lights, climbed out the vehicle, and wandered as close to the edge as she dared.
A mild breeze gently tugged at her lose clothing. Having recently celebrated her 50th birthday, she was still an attractive woman who wore her hair longer than most women of her age and dressed with a quiet elegance. Having had two children, she had put a little weight on her stomach but she still turned heads whenever she was at a party.
Out here, it was totally silent except for the sea and unilluminated except for the town lights way behind her and a near full moon far above her. Her absent gaze wandered skyward. It was a mild, clear night and a canopy of stars enveloped her reassuringly. She looked out for familiar constellations such as the Southern Cross and the W-shaped Indus. It never failed to induce in her a sense of awe to realise that she was not looking at a geographical terrain but a time map. The starlight she was viewing was dozens or hundreds or thousands of years old.
It made her situation seem irrelevant in the tides of time – but she still felt the anguish. Until a few months ago, her life had seemed idealic. She had met builder New Zealander James Mackenzie in London, they had married there, and a few years later moved out to Wanganui where they had both raised two adorable daughters – one now married and the other engaged – and Jim had raised one house after another. Then, four months ago, Jim had been working on a roof when he had a massive heart attack – the doctor said that he would have been dead before he hit the ground. Six weeks later, the local company where she had worked part-time for 16 years had succumbed to the recession and gone bankrupt.
She was fine financially: there was no mortgage (Jim had built their home) and her husband had been sensible and invested in a decent pension scheme and some savings accounts. She could live comfortably, afford decent holidays, and ensure that Mutinta completed her degree. But she was far from fine emotionally. She had not anticipated that the pain of loss would still be so intense and so physical. So this was what writers meant by heartache.
Vacantly Deborah let her eyes wander downward to the sea which reflected the stars and the moon in gently undulating rhythms. She thought she observed movement near the horizon and peered harder to see what it was. Something was there. Then it was gone. Then it was back again. At this distance, she could hear nothing but she marvelled at the smoothness of the shape and the grace of the movement. It was a whale. A white whale. Could a whale be white? Perhaps it was just a trick of the moonlight. But it was a wondrous sight, a luminescent vision which moved her greatly, and she felt a tear slowly descend each cheek.
Every New Zealander – but virtually nobody beyond the islands – knew the Maori legend of how the life of young Paikea had been saved by a whale. Perhaps this whale could save her. She knew this was nonsense but nevertheless this was an epiphanic moment for her. She was going to turn her life around. She would start by reconnecting with her roots. She would return to England for an extended break and see family and old friends.
Back at the house, Deborah was still not ready to sleep so she checked her e-mail. There was message from Harry Brown. They had worked together some 30 years ago in the Post Office telecommunications business and managed to keep in touch all this time. Originally it was mainly a newsletter with each year's Christmas card, but e-mail had made contact easier and more regular and she and Jim had always visited Harry and Sue whenever they returned to London.
She tapped at the keyboard:
“So sorry that you're still feeling so miserable. Sue doesn't know what she's missing. Your Internet date sounds like a nightmare – put me off the idea totally.
I've decided to visit London again. I'll tell you the dates as soon as I've booked the flight. Would love to do lunch or dinner.”
She clicked 'send'.
Published on 21 August 2009
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