Chapter 2. On the streets of Bangkok Missy thought only of India.
It was a place she’d never been, the Destination of her dreams, the movie capital of her video collection, spice rack of her kitchen, library of her bookshelf, curator of her collection of framed prints. Kerala, mystic and jungle-ravaged. Rajasthan where the cities shine in the moonlight and the elephants buckle under the blows. Puna where yoga comes from, or went to, or got lost in: her yoga teacher had said something once.
She didn’t miss the stink and near-carnage of the bus-trip into Bangkok. But she was impatient with it. Unlike Indian traffic, she’d seen/smelt/heard it before. She and Len had been to Thailand together. They’d been young, nearly 30, bought their tickets in a babble of excitement and fresh love. Len had been a drinker of kookaburran cheeriness, a lover of the drop in all its forms. Missy had been a specialist, only sour pricy cocktails for her on this trip. They’d both been ready to embrace a new culture, language difficulties, late partying. Or Missy had, at least. It turned out that Len had come primed, ready to give Thailand the raspberry from the moment the plane left Mascot. Nothing was up to scratch. If it wasn’t Too Exotic it was Not Exotic Enough. It was the holiday he railed against so long that she started railing against it herself.
She shoved the thought back to where it belonged, before the funeral.
This time Bangkok was merely a two-day stopover on the way to Delhi. Just long enough to see the place without the chains of the pessimist dragging down her own opinion. You crawl before you walk, whether you’re an infant or a widow.
(It was the first time she’d thought the word, “widow”. One of those cadaverous antique-shop words that stank of mouldy lemons and perfumed aunts. Like a sweaty sheet that wraps itself round you on a steaming exhausted summer night. Like a bad rip in the carpet. Like shame.)
Wondering what she’d be eating in Delhi, Missy didn’t taste the banana pancake breakfast at her little hotel in the shopping district. She launched herself into the streets without fear, aware that the streets of her next stop would be teeming with more bustle, surprise, flavours viler and more aromatic. She gazed in shop windows at westernised silk designs. Not the saris she’d be buying soon.
So she wandered and peered. Vaguely, widow-like, elsewhere. Not elsewhere: India. She was meeting fellow travellers (never “tourists”) somewhere in Agra, agreeing to save the Taj until they’d seen the other sights, sharing a coffee with a young couple. He was in I.T. She was in fashion design but she was thinking about pregnancy and the future. There was an older man, a Frenchman, no, too Agatha Christie, a Pommy with a London accent who turned out to be gay and gentlemanly and kept an eye on Missy. He was an expert on Indian textiles, but it was Missy who knew all the novels and was steeped in the history and lore. They were amazed she’d never been before. She’d met the couple and the gay chap five days before in their hotel in a more interesting part of Delhi. They were the motley start of a party that would have more than one adventure – a robbery, a madman attaching himself to them for five hours, a building collapsing just after they’d left it – more than one religious experience – something in a temple that made sense for the gay fellow. They’d be the party that all the package tours envied.
Missy had crossed into a seedy part of town. She’d been here before too, or somewhere exactly the same. She was thirsty. A girl who could have been 15 or 30 asked her into a bar, a faint note of hope worked into her voice. Missy went in. Grinding American rap music boomed, strippers danced at poles, like something from a movie or a two-second shot from the TV news. Even here she wasn’t Here. Perhaps it was the heat though the bar was a pleasant temperature. There was some guy asking if she’d like a guy or a girl, there was a quartet of backpackers watching a young woman performing tricks with her anatomy and there was Len in her head, slathering ribaldries over the same thing all those years ago while she’d tried to get excited for him, or if not excited, angry at the exploitation. It didn’t matter, Len was in his element, making royal proclamations, taking all the fun out of it.
She turned to the procurer. By now he’d brought her a drink which she didn’t drink. “I’m not a 28 year old looking for a buzz, mate,” she said to his crisp polo shirt. The guy spent a few seconds trying to work out what she’d said. A naked girl had danced over to them, and was gazing and dancing at Missy intently. Missy thought, They’re trying to work me out. She thought, Maybe they have worked me out, they’ve seen thousands of people like me. She thought, Maybe I’m trying to work me out. She thought, Maybe I am looking for a buzz, the only thing that’s changed is that I’m older. She looked at the girl, completely naked, young petite nipples on impossible breasts, luscious dyed red hair on her head and none anywhere else, limbs moving and twisting.
How long since Missy had had a dance? She could dance now with the little prostitute. Those beautiful movements.
“So why are you here, Madam?” the guy said into her ear. Missy bustled out of the bar past a new pair of backpackers.
Back into the heat. Dying for a bottle of water.
She crossed the road, thinking of the couple and the gay man in her Indian fantasy. Len would point out the obvious, make her feel ridiculous. “Did you leave out any clichés at all, darling?” he’d have said. “And where are the unattached straight men?” She looked around at the crowd of motorbikes and cars and tuk tuks.
In an icy shopping mall Missy found the food court – just like Australia – she knew exactly where the food would be – she was unsurprised by the McDonalds – and bought a bottle of cold water and a chicken and rice dish. She was able to count her change with no difficulty. She listened to the bland music, chewed the bland chicken. She knew exactly where she was in the touristy centre of the city, without checking the map. She could find her hotel, the river, the two temples she’d visited. She looked at the other people eating late-morning snacks and guessed effortlessly who they were and what they’d do next. She knew exactly where everything was in her neat suitcase in room 224.
And she wondered why she felt so terribly lost.
Chapter 1. Missy finally had the bag packed and the husband buried. She was feeling a floating, burning, dizzy sensation – which Len would have described as Incipient Urethritis – but this wasn’t to be found near her groin but somewhere above her head, in the space through which she would soon be flying. Thrill, fear, catastrophe, desire, liberation.
Packing her brightest lightest clothes, plus a dark raincoat and rain-hat, she thought about debt and how confusing were her assets and liabilities.
She owed so much to Len, but not in the way everyone thought. And not as Len would have understood, either. The long illness, the everlasting illness, he’d called it, had reached a kind of penultimacy three months ago in the hospital. As they’d both predicted, the morphine was starting to overcome sense, and they were in Last Words territory, when he’d gestured to Missy to lean close. “In order to utter those utterances without which blah blah et cetera.” His breath was ragged in effort and rank in odour. The cancer was everywhere. He’d been hoping to sneak a final cigarette, and in fact she thought that he wanted her to ask a nurse in to smoke one in front of him.
But what he had to say, with all the profundity he could muster, was: “Love, after all this, you take that trip. Take the trip, go wherever, screw a young gigolo, hang out with rock stars, see all that world you wanted. You deserve it, love.”
Which of course missed the point. Not that Missy’s greatest desire wasn’t to see the world in all its ripe brilliance – but that Len thought that she deserved to travel because she had spent a year, no, two years, ministering to his dying throes. As ever It revolved around Him. What Len didn’t get was that she deserved to travel after not two but 22 years of being married to the king. Given to proclamations, always getting his way, controlling, busy, hard, and utterly passive aggressive, he had been Missy’s prison guard and prison. Thanks to him, she’d given up a career, adjusted her social set, become addicted to cryptic crosswords and stupid puns, and pretended so often to worship at his feet that in the end she couldn’t tell the difference.
She had lost herself in the deepest way. She’d done it willingly, chief accomplice in the demise of her self.
Consequently, her greatest fear, the dizziest of those flying sensations, was: that it would still be Len’s wife going overseas. She was terrified that there was no Lisa Twohill left to experience the world. In Paris she would see the Eiffel Tower and think of what Len might say. In Barcelona she’d be drinking wine and opining on its palate with a thesaurus of Len-isms. Marxist-Lenisms, probably.
But what choice did she have? It was what she’d always wanted to do. And she wasn’t going to let her dead husband deny her the chance by suggesting she take it. This would be her trip, her dream, her ticket.
She heard the taxi beeping, the mermaids singing (each to each), and checked in her purse for her passport one more time. It was a crisp new passport; it had arrived registered post, with an accompanying booklet of warnings and suggestions, which she’d read six times. It wasn’t Len’s fault he suffered from agoraphobia. But the effect was that Missy was now desperate to get to Greece and discover an agora for herself.
She wondered if she would ever see her little home again, its bricks, its rhododendrons, its photo albums, its memories. The sound of the click as she locked the door behind her suggested that the possibility of returning was there. So when she reached the cab with her shiny new wheeled luggage she dropped the key into the drain. There were spares, of course, but a little symbolism never hurt anyone, as Len used to say.