‘Cooley’s walk…’ is currently nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.
Cooley had passed a fitful night in the airless guest house. Awake at dawn with queasiness, he pinpointed his discomfort to a shellfish canapé at last evening’s reception. In the gloom, he changed into his light cotton suit and paid the owner 1000 Rupees cash for his one-and-only night’s stay. As day broke over the town of M… , tentatively, briefcase in hand, Cooley commenced the 1-mile walk to the town’s railway station from where the 6.37 express would take him home to Mumbai. All around him open sewers filled the air with the stink of effluent. His eyes burned and his head buzzed. Cooley felt a struggle coming on.
He hadn’t bothered to bring a change of clothing for his first representational visit up-country to the local Honorary Consul’s bungalow. The journey only took four hours and there was nothing in M… to keep Cooley there other than the buffet dinner arranged in his honour to meet the local Brits. Quick in, quick out. Twelve hours and home to tequila on the terrace. Thirty businessfolk had come to meet Her Majesty’s latest Third Secretary (Commercial), to exchange pleasantries and advice on UK companies setting up in India. His right hand had been grasped by ad men, bankers, beer makers, pharmaceutical managers and a team of pale-skinned lawyers from Nantwich. Snacks and scotch followed a delicious hilsa curry, which, with the enlightened chatter and promises of tickets to the cricket, ensured the evening was, for Cooley, a polite success.
Two crows picked at a rotting mouse on a roadside pile of potato peelings. Cooley glanced dispassionately at nature’s pillage and checked his Bangkok Rolex. If the train was on time, he would be on his way in 10 minutes. More importantly, his first-class ticket would give him access to his very own European-style toilet, which would likely prove a luxury. Halfway there, the dirt street broadened into clusters of bodies still sleeping under the clearing sky. It was already warm. Crows hovered and ricked in the air. Cooley’s neck was sticky. He was running a slight fever and he gnawed his lower lip in protest. The smell of sandalwood and carrion was thick. With luck, he’d get a bottle of water from the dining car.
As the station came into view, Cooley felt his stomach tighten and lurch. Having recently seen from his terrace in Bombay many heavy skies break into violent storm, Cooley knew what to expect, but he hoped nonetheless that his own pendulous cloud would hold tight for the next ten minutes. On the bright side, his driver, Raj, would meet him at Victoria Terminus. By midday he could be as ill as he liked in the comfort of his three-bedroomed city-centre home. A speeding Ambassador car spluttered past, kicking up dust and spitting out its grimy exhaust. Cooley felt his stomach shift again. He quickened his step. Please God, be on time. From a hundred yards away, moving on unsteady feet, Cooley picked out a large tent on the station forecourt. Busy with the first birds, its ancient owner, stick thin and stood tall, was hanging a selection of brightly-coloured shirts along the front of his make-shift store.
Cooley’s sphincter opened then and there. It pinged like a flicked rubber band. His mouth opened wide as everything instant and unstoppable rushed from his fundament down to his feet. Anguished and dizzy, he crouched over the roots of a Banyan tree to retch, his mouth sumped in bile, his only pair of trousers soaked through with hot diarrhoea. A thick line of flowering papayas led away tall and straight either side of the railway line. Smoke rose from their vanishing point and a loud whistle shrilled its alert. Thank God, thought Cooley, Thank Jesus Fucking Christ, as he brought himself back to his feet.
Even as the gods punish, they restore. As Her Majesty’s Third Secretary (Commercial) stumbled ill and cursing towards the station forecourt, the tailor was pegging three pairs of trousers to a line at the side of the tent. The 6.37 eased to a halt, the driver let off the engine’s steam which hissed and billowed around his cabin. Cooley ran towards the tent as best he could, gesturing desperately to the Dockers he was wearing, and then to the selection of replacements right in front of his teary eyes.Quick, Quick, one pair of those, one pair, that pair, ek dum jaldi! The tailor picked up on his customer’s distress and was keen to prove his efficiency at this time of obvious need. Yes, Sahib, he said, unpegging the order, Ready, Now, Coming, Quick as a flash!
The old man skipped out the back of the tent as a sequence of doors on the train slammed shut. Now, Man! Please! Help me!The distressed diplomat pulled from a soiled pocket his ticket home and a wad of wet bank notes. In a trice, the tailor returned carrying a brown paper parcel, skilfully wrapped and bowed. The guard shouted Come aboard! All aboard! as Cooley let fall two hundred rupees which made the tailor’s eyes shine like a moonlit Ganges. Cooley grabbed the parcel and hobbled quickly to the platform. Picking up the notes, the salesman shoutedThank you kindly, Sahib. Tip-top day to you! before slipping them into his dhoti and sitting down well satisfied on a three-legged plastic stool.
Cooley boarded the carriage opposite the entrance just as the guard blew a flawless whistle. As the train pulled slowly away from M… the young Englishman made his way through the busy second-class compartments, leaving a trail of pinched noses and silent disdain. As Cooley staggered through the first-class coach, the train picked up speed. At the final compartment he saw a hand-written ‘Reserved’ sign above his name. Privacy. Dignity. He threw open the double doors, tossed the parcel onto the plump seat, parted the curtains and pulled down the window. His eyes were full of tears.
Out over the sun-swept plains Cooley vomited de profundis, his heaves spattered down the length of the carriage. He leant back in, slipped off his shoes, ripped off his soiled trousers and underwear and launched them into the Indian countryside. God, the relief. As he rocked from side to side with the train’s acceleration, Cooley took up the brown-paper parcel again. He tore into it like a five-year old birthday boy, all the while sweating feverishly. He hurled the wrapping out of the window and watched it chase his clothes across the fields. Looking down upon the one saving grace in his day to date, Cooley saw that he held in his hands two crisply starched white shirts.
Four hours later, at a swarming Victoria Terminus, Raj spotted his boss striding with purpose down Platform 23, his rigid face tilting slightly to the massive iron rafters. Raj was bemused at why his boss should have two white shirts tied around his waist in place of the usual western apparel, but by now becoming used to Cooley’s quirks, made no mention of it as he took the third secretary’s suitcase and gestured towards the VIP car park.