Hanging by a Thread

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The past has no power over the present moment.There were days when Lily came close to opening that doorway in her mind behind which lay the safety of insanity. Its still, padded walls of quiet called to her. The peace of catatonic nothing that lay beyond were like an oasis seen from a distance. And the temptation to walk into that haven of light was sometimes strong enough to taste, like tea boiled with cardamom and cloves, the way the natives made it. The door was held shut by a single emotion, a tiny fragile thread: love, and it brought her back through tears, frustration, anger and despair to face the reality of life. Love, so ephemeral and intangible so seemingly frail yet strong enough to ‘launch a thousand ships and set on fire the towers of Ilium…’ Love so great that God had sent his only begotten son so that we would not perish or the kind that could lead one man to lay down his life for another; but for a woman, a mother like Lily, even more, that love demanded that she should continue to live and continue to be sane.

She took a deep breath, weighted with the sorrow of her losses, let the tears take over and hugged the baby. “I will never leave you,” she murmured into his ear, “Never. Ever.” She held him and swayed back and forth in the motion of the tides governed by the moon, that unstable celestial body that ruled the hysterias and moods of women, yet when emulated by them had such a soothing effect.

The rocking motion calmed the baby’s cries and her own frantic heart. Now, she could get through the next few hours and the next, from one day to the other. For two months she’d managed to put away the cruel reality that had snatched her daughter’s life and left her, Lily, quite literally holding the baby, her baby’s baby. A wry laugh escaped her twisted lips at the pun, “Or else you’ll have no one and I’ll never let that happen. We’ll manage. We have to manage.” She kissed his smooth creamy face, soft as innocence, as she pushed her own unruly chestnut hair back into the loose bun at the nape of her neck.

“Why don’t you give it up for adoption?” Her crusty father, up as usual at this hour of the morning, his cigar clenched in his teeth, his clean-shaven face and immaculate shorts and shirt asserting his ‘burra sahib’ status as the owner and manager of this tea estate.

“Father! He’s not an ‘it’ he’s Mary’s son, her baby,” and the tears pricked afresh at the back of her eyes, indignation saving her, “for God’s sake!” She gently laid the baby down in his crib. “We haven’t even thought of a name for him,” she half whispered.

“A name!” he growled, a low rumble thundered in his throat and exploded into, “For God’s sake, Lily, he’s a half-breed! And will be no use to anyone. Get rid of it I say!” His blue eyes were steel in their rage as he moved towards Lily his hand raised.

“Da! Mary was raped. How can you say such a thing?” Lily lost control and wept openly but stood shielding the crib behind her. She was a Bengal tigress in her roaring challenge. For all her pure Scottish ancestry, Lily’s upbringing in the tea gardens of West Bengal had given her a strong affinity with her habitat. She responded with greater warmth and joy to wild orchids and tropical ferns than she did to heather and gloaming. The draw of the tiger in the jungle was as native to her as the wild stag in a glen had been to her grandmother. Whatever feral creature’s influence led her to stand her ground over her tiny grandchild shone with the power of pure primeval nature and her father stopped.The draw of the tiger in the jungle was as native to her as the wild stag in a glen had been to her grandmother.

He wheeled around on his heel and walked out, grabbing his sola topi and rifle. The ‘Da’, his daughter’s affectionate word for him and her flashing green-brown eyes, like her mother’s, had stopped him from striking her. It was all he could think to do. Thick as bile in his throat the rage almost engulfed his brain. But there was a tea plantation to run. He pushed the rising bile down marched out, mounted his motorbike, and expressed his frustration by loudly revving the accelerator making his bike roar. It startled the birds and creatures of the Kipling-like jungle beyond, rich with its leeches and leopards, its regal tigers, opulent orchids, brooding monsoon-green ferns with their grasping fronds and wild pineapples. At this stage in the history of Man it was an indomitable force of nature, unaware and unmindful of the future in which its luxurious abundance would one day be threatened by such as that man, his motorcycle, and its black smoke: flatus that carried with it the stench of tomorrow.

‘Da’ there was no one left who called him that, or Fred in the affectionate way Lily’s mother Mary Rose had once done. It was mostly sir, sahib or Mr. MacDonald. Those who had once called him Mac lay six feet under at the Siliguri churchyard.

There were enough problems trying to run the estate without having his daughter leave him as well. As one of the few remaining British tea garden owner-managers left in Assam and West Bengal things were becoming increasingly hard to hold on to. Almost the entire family had gone ever since India gained its independence in 1947. After his wife succumbed to her third attack of malaria, both his sons decided they’d had enough and returned to Blighty. Eleanor, his other daughter had gone to the UK, studied at Cambridge and married a scientist. So she wasn’t coming home.

‘Home’ he thought wryly, ‘where is it?’ Not Scotland any more. After thirty years in India, he could never feel at home there, not even in Glencairn the family estate with its sprawling lands, streams, ponds and mists that brought ol’ acquaintance to mind. ‘For a’ that an’ a’ that it still wasn’t home for him. Home was east India, the tea gardens and the jungle; the sweat of hard work and the buzz of playing hard: tennis, squash, or a punishing six-a-side soccer match with another garden and beer or a Gin ‘n’ T to follow. ‘Aaah, those were good days’, Fred MacDonald thought to himself, the very act of recalling them calmed his mind as his wife’s cool hand once had.

Fred MacDonald’s old acquaintances were, like him, Scotsmen to whom India was home. The khaki shorts had replaced the kilt and sahib had replaced the word laird. He could no longer stand the damp cold that seeped into his bones in Scotland like mould in tea and like mould it could create much damage. It needed to be stamped out with dry heat, the kind he generated in the drying chambers on the garden deep in the jungles of Bengal, it was the kind of heat that kept his arthritis at bay.

Lily and her husband Tom – another tea planter – had stayed on in India, relatively close to the MacDonald estates. While that had lasted they had been family and home; joy and fun enough for him. They had laughter and parties where the rafters rang, as they would have at any clan gathering in the highlands. The whisky had flowed along with the English concoction gin and tonic to keep the dreaded malaria at bay. In spite of that, his Mary Rose was lost to the rigors of the disease as insidious as the slow uprising of the Indian Freedom movement and eventually as devastating to the body politic of the once great British Empire.

Then Tom died in that horrible accident when a rogue elephant overturned their jeep. And the world lost its orbit.

Lily moved back with him and appointed an Indian manager on her estate – there were getting to be quite a few of these Indian lads now, not a bad lot, many with an English public school upbringing so they were easy enough to get to know, but it wasn’t what it used to be. But what were his choices? Sell out to one of the companies, head back to Scotland and let the moss erode his soul? Never! It was better to have romantic memories of Bonnie Scotland and live the real life grandeur of a tea planter in India.

His was the lot of all displaced people since time immemorial, one foot in the past across the sea and another in the present on different soil with neither foot sure where to plant itself so that the émigré was forever shifting his backside, attempting to get comfortable in one place or the other, never truly at rest in either one. Rest was only for the next generation; sometimes they paid lip service to their ancestry, but most times they moved ahead without a backward glance, like Lily who was, as far as he could tell, more Indian than Scots.

Fred steered his purring motorbike forward, automatically guiding it through the paths between the tea bushes. The workers, all women, were busy picking their two leaves and a bud from the tea bushes and popping them into the baskets on their backs. They acknowledged him with duly servile greetings; their smooth berry-brown faces gleaming in the morning light and turned back to their daily job intent on picking as much as they could to get a better wage at the end of the day when their basket-loads were weighed and tallied.

The sun was just cresting the top edge of the jungle and the late mosquitoes buzzed as they slipped into darker crevices in the undergrowth. The occasional croak of a frog suggested an impending shower and a thin wisp of smoke from a nearby fire snaked wraith-like through the jungle. It sent a shiver down Fred’s back as his thoughts returned to Lily and inevitably to little Mary, or Mary-baba, as the servants called her. She’d been the darling of his eye and life, poor baby, raped at thirteen. “Why, for Jesus’ sake hadn’t they had an abortion?” The anger bubbled up seething swamp mud in his brain. Then he remembered.

It was months before they’d realised the rape had resulted in pregnancy and it was too late and too dangerous. No one in this God-forsaken village was competent enough to do it. They’d have had to go to Siliguri or Calcutta. And there, no decent doctor would have agreed to do it as it was illegal, and with the others, “who knows, we might have lost little Mary sooner.” The thought sobered and calmed him but did nothing to lighten his mood, dark as the gathering pre-monsoon clouds.

Back at the bungalow, Lily had calmed the baby and he was fast asleep in his little crib, the mosquito netting firmly tucked into the mattress, his tiny, perfect milk-tea coloured thumb just nudging his still moving lips. The infant innocence that declared all humanity’s first God-given purity, before the fruit of the Tree had condemned Adam’s descendents to knowledge and to hell. This poor innocent child was condemned to be called bastard through no fault of his own. Lily looked at him and the thoughts swirled around in her head, a miasma of fear and hate, anger and despair. What should she do? Take the baby back to Scotland? The thought plunged her into the dark space from which there was no escape, save through that doorway in her mind. But she knew if she walked through it, she would abandon her little grandson. She gritted her teeth and held on.

A tiny whimper from the baby brought her back into the present. She rose from her chair and peered at the child. It was just a dream. She smiled, went to the door and softly called out, “Koi Hai, is anyone there?”

“Memsahib?” the servants always appeared out of nowhere.

“Chay, teapot mein, make it hot-hot,”

“Yes, memsahib,” and Muna, her old ayah’s daughter, the next generation to serve the MacDonalds, went scurrying off to the kitchens. Muna had a sense of special importance in the big house or ‘burra’ bungalow as the natives called it. Deep down she even had a sense of ownership towards it. As a second-generation domestic and personal maid she was highly respected by the rest of the staff. At nineteen, she had achieved this special status quite easily. Her mother had been Lily-madam’s personal ayah from the time Lily had been a little girl. When Lily married Tom, Muna’s mother had worked for her and Muna had helped around Lily’s house, even as a little girl. Eventually, Muna became Mary-baba’s playmate and then her ayah until the dreadful incident that eventually claimed the young thirteen-year-old girl’s life.

Muna had a special bond with Mary-baba that went beyond the love of a nanny for her charge. The day Mary was attacked Muna had taken her day off. It was never clear whether the man was a tea garden worker or a stray from a passing nomadic tribe. Mary couldn’t say and shuddered horribly when asked; her only response had been a high-pitched keening.

Muna blamed herself and prayed fervently for forgiveness in church, as a Naga she was a baptised Christian, and as a Naga she knew that if she’d been around that day, the rapist would be dead. Muna carried a sharp knife under the waistband of her skirt and knew enough martial arts to decapitate a man and a snake. She could also throw her knife with enough accuracy to kill a pheasant. Neither Lily nor Fred knew of the young girl’s abilities other than as a domestic servant. They may not have slept as easily had they known; distrust of the servants was second nature to the rulers. One was always careful around them. And yet this distrust of their honesty was countered by an abiding faith in their loyalty, although Fred had always displayed a special affection for Muna.

She entered the large kitchen house – a detached building connected to the main house by a thatched passage – and imperiously ordered one of the junior cooks to make a pot of spiced tea, the way Lily memsahib liked it. “Tray mein!” she ordered, as the young man carefully placed milk and sugar in their tiny bowls and two biscuits in a small saucer on the tray. With the tea cosy firmly on the teapot she hurried back to the bedroom veranda where Lily had moved the baby’s crib while she sat on a cane chair dozing lightly in the cool morning breeze.

The house was still in that expectant way the world gets when it awaits the first rains. The light outside had a metallic glint and the birds had ceased their chatter. The only sounds were Muna’s bangles and anklets as she hurried to give Lily her tea. Her senses were at a sharpened alert and she quickened her pace through the darkened corridors to the deep veranda near Lily’s bedroom.

She cocked her head as she heard Mac sahib’s motorbike, its engine cut, as he coasted it and crunched over the gravel towards the side of the house where he knew Lily and the baby would be at this time of the morning. He reached Lily’s bedroom veranda at about the same time as Muna slipped through the swinging net doors of the bedroom and set the tray on the table.

Then both maid and master stopped, gasps of fear choked back in their throats, every hair on their bodies alert.

Lily sat dozing on her cane chair, unaware of the danger that the jungle had disgorged in its earliest retaliation to human encroachment.

Crouching and ready to pounce, was a panther, driven out of the jungle by hunger and a lame foot. He turned as Fred’s bike crunched over the gravel. Then, intent on his prey, the baby in the crib, he leapt.

A flashing silver dagger sliced through the air as Muna flung it with all her might. It caught the panther in its throat but didn’t stop it. Simultaneously Mac’s rifle flew into action and caught the animal in its shoulder as it crashed onto the crib still alive, yawling its anger and hurt, waking the screaming baby who was unhurt.

Lily leapt to the crib pulling it away from the animal’s thrashing paws as the mosquito netting slipped off and entangled its head and forelimbs while she caught the infant in a protective embrace.

In one giant stride Mac jumped onto the veranda and put a final bullet into its head. One part of him aching as he saw that proud head shatter and the blood spatter across the spotted body like so many of his dreams, its dreams and the dreams of his once great country.

He dropped his gun and hugged them all Lily, the baby and Muna, kissing each one fiercely. “My children! My dear, dear children!”

“Da,” Lily asked hoarsely, “all of us?”

“Yes!” He replied gruffly pulling out his handkerchief and blowing his nose, “the baby too!”

Muna went to retrieve her knife, have the panther removed and the mess cleaned up. As she walked away, for the first time Lily noticed that Muna’s dark hair had a hint of red, she wondered if her eyes also had a hint of blue.

“No matter,” she thought, “if we’re a family, then we can hang on.”

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