There is a shrub of the Nilgiri Hills, the kurinji, which is only said to flower once every twelve years. Lives and marriages are measured against the indigo blossoming of the slopes, and each kurinji year many tens of thousands travel to witness the spectacle, certain hotels being fully booked as much as a decade in advance. Nursing my lager beneath the canted tin roof, I wondered what might become of me if I were to remain until the next occasion, an illegal in the hills. Where would my mind be, after further years in this place? Rolling a cigarette, I coughed heavily on lighting it, spat my phlegm amongst the dust and rubbish on the floor. I finished my beer and bought a quart bottle of whisky as I left the bar, saying yes, I will see you tomorrow. I had gone out without my hat and again the night would be cold.
In the morning I cleared my head with a walk round the lake, drinking sweet chai from the stalls along the way, enjoying the tranquillity of mist flushing from the surface before the pedalos and rowboats took over. Ambivalent to my presence, kingfishers sat on telegraph wires as a dabchick idled about the water. It seemed curious, to be seeing this common and English grebe here, so far from home. I bought a coffee and rolled a cigarette, my cough again vulgar and hacking, so very rude at this early hour of the morning. It was then that he introduced himself.
Hey man, he said. Have you got a light for me? He was ponytailed and a staunch six-foot tall, with the assured masculinity common to many long-term Israeli travellers. I wondered how old he had been when first he grew a beard.
Do you want another coffee, he asked.
No, I will buy this one. You can get the next.
How long have you been here, he asked.
About a week, I said. No, wait on. Actually, it’s closer to two
And how long will you stay?
Another week maybe, I’m not sure. I haven’t made up my mind as to where I’m going to head next.
This place it is shit, he told me. What do you do here, every day?
I did my best to explain.
No, he said. This place it is shit. Tell me, have you ever been to the internet?
I said that I hadn’t.
Tomorrow we will go, he said. I am busy today, but tomorrow I will take you, to the internet. Meet me here, at the same time. Tomorrow you will buy the coffee.
After another half-drunken sleep he was there, waiting for me. I bought drinks and we both smoked, the nimbostratus of our habits blending with the vapour rising from the lake. We had a second coffee and as the sun rose over the hills I removed my outer jumper, putting it in my rucksack amongst the fruit I had bought in preparation for our trip. I offered him an apple but he said no, we must be going, and set off anticlockwise along the shore path, the steady length of his strides an effort to keep up with. My attempts towards conversation met only answers of one or two words and so I told him about my life back home, fiscal concerns, the worries in Europe over the possibility of a Greek default.
Shut up, he said. We must focus. When we are walking we will focus, concentrate on our task.
I removed my other jumper when we next had a stop, rolled and smoked a cigarette before applying suntan lotion.
Imagine, he said. The internet. I bet you hadn't thought you would be going there today.
No, I said.
What a thing, that you will be able to tell the folks back home.
I realised that I did not know his name but didn't quite feel comfortable, there was something about him and the situation that prevented me from daring to ask. Something that made it feel as if to ask would require a certain daring.
We walked for another hour or so, maintaining a steady rhythm as the track grew less certain, near enough disappeared through the shola forest. I did my best to keep up, trying not to worry about the suitability of my trainers and hoping that the ground would not get any more rugged. It had been a while since I had exerted myself in such a fashion, and the air in my lungs felt like it belonged here, six thousand feet above sea level. I was glad when next we stopped.
It is around here, he said. Wait here and I will find it.
Ten minutes later he returned. Come with me, he said. It is not far.
If anything I was underwhelmed. It didn’t seem so much, that ramshackle building on the edge of collapse. Why it had been built in the first place was not obvious, immediately clear to me. Here, so far from anything. We maintained a respectful distance from it while smoking cigarettes, as if by a silent and unwritten agreement both rolling another as soon as the first was stubbed out. The tar in my ventricles felt something to savour.
This is what we will do, he said. I will go first and then you will follow, five minutes later. Do as I do and everything will be ok. Just copy me, my movements. First I will smoke another cigarette, get myself ready.
It is important that I prepare, he said. Do not talk to me while I focus.
I watched him as he smoked, stared at the building. The lines and creases of his face did not translate into any luminous message or instruction as to how I should
think when in his position. He threw his cigarette over his shoulder and began to make the noise of a small child imitating the concept of a Red Indian, ran full pelt at the entrance to the building and disappeared with the sound of breaking glass. I smoked another cigarette and did the same.
A steady and metallic hum synthesised through the air, the edible sound on my tongue tasted, past corroded robot dreams recollected and looped, fed into each other and recollected and looped and convoluted and looped and recollected and recollected. Some vast throng of acquaintances rushed towards me, people from school and work, a girl with whom I once enjoyed a brief and carefree fling, this guy who I temped next to for three weeks and my college drug dealer swarming and urgent, all of them holding pictures aloft, themselves at waterfalls and other occasions, looking me in the eye and pleading to know whether or not I approved. I wafted them away, tried to get my bearings. A sign on the wall declared that time would do a handstand if I were to count to ninety-nine backwards. From what, I wondered. The rottenness in the state of Denmark? A bear seemed to trampoline right past me. Everything was peripheral, without solid attachment. So much information floating above my head, spiralling and connotating beneath my feet yet none of it with reason enough that I could hold or even touch it with my brain. As soon as my eye became attracted to any definite and glittering spectacle attention would lapse and I would find myself looking elsewhere, through eyes glazed with nightmare.
Dots and dashes, ones and zeros, nebulous datum units floating and rising without coherence or grip, descending in cascades of zeros and ones and!!!#!?!###??#!####?!?!?!?!?!???##
#######??!!!??!!!####??#??)()()()()(####???dots and dashes and??#??##!!!!!!!#####
###?!?!?!!!!!###########()()()()####!!!!!!!!!!!zeros and ones and!!!!!!!!!!?!!!!!!!!!!!# ###########?????????()()()()????????#####################dashes and dots and
##??!!!??!!!???!!!???!!???!!!!???!!!??!?!?!##############zeros and dots and###### ########???dashes and zeros and dashes, dots, strings of numbers, units binding in temporary sequential patterns to texture and shape the membrane surrounding me, coagulating to shimmer and pulse throughout that synecdoche like electric shoals of jellyfish. I closed my eyes and could not remember where I was. An inspirational quote seemed tattooed upon my retina. You are the mistake of your own ambition, something like that. I took a test to see whether or not I was actually myself.
In the next room, beyond the dogs dressed as children, hunched and cowering figures susurrated a murky drone. Not one of them possessed an actual face. Spasms indiscernible from excitement would bubble and erupt to be absorbed again within the steady and consistent fuzz. A baby monkey rode backwards past me on a pig. I tried to ascertain what was going on, why the drone surrounded me. Not discussions but almost were occurring all around, a symbiotic harmony of disdain. Guffaws boiled over when advice as to changing a plug was requested. It seemed that somewhere a lie had been discovered. A baby monkey rode backwards past me on a pig. From nowhere, and I could hardly believe the excuse for it happening nowadays, somebody misused the word less. The whole room began to fizz and shake, froth over. A baby monkey rode backwards past me on a pig. I was numb, equal measures of intrigue and boredom anchoring me useless. Somewhere on my body there was an itch yet I couldn’t feel where that might be. A panda sneezed. With clenched fist I punched myself across the temples until capable of leaving the room.
There was a tugging on my shirtsleeve and I signed a petition requesting for the queen to be replaced with a penguin. One of my brother’s sketchy mates asked whether or not I liked his blancmange. The corridor was long and clammy. I wondered where my friend had got to, started running.
Avoiding a chimpanzee with an automatic weapon I found myself in a storage cupboard. An unadorned lightbulb burned bright above a lacquered dressing table, shining and resonant in mother-of-pearl. I opened a draw from which flocked butterflies, pale forms vanishing into powder as they brushed against my face. The mirror seemed to creak when I looked at it. I opened a second draw and the room was filled with strange and plastic shrieks, synthetic groaning. A liquid stench of bleach and sweat. I slammed the draw, gathered my senses. With a deep and heroic breath I reopened the draw, the moans and shrieks seeming to reduce the space around me. Peering inside, I recoiled in shock and fluid. I did not want the mirror to be there any more. The air felt sticky, residual, and the dressing table began then to warp, shattering into flotsam sinews within such humidity as that. A baby monkey rode backwards past me on a pig. I punched myself in the groin until capable of leaving the cupboard.
The walls of the corridor were an alloy of metals and plasticine unified through compromise and meat. Likewise the ceiling, the floor. Experiences fluttered in suggestive motion all around, whispering that I should try them out, dip my toe in.
Why not, I thought. It’s what I’m here for.
My first experience went quite well but partway into my second I became confused. Something did not feel right, as if I were not with an experience but the recollection or hypothesis of an experience. A mouth opened out of the wall to my left, in precise and mechanical detail explaining why cotton should never be deemed a suitable fabric for the great outdoors. It’s about wicking coefficients, it said. Sure, Mallory might have gotten to twenty-eight thousand feet, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't be a fool to risk it. The ceiling and the floor seemed to have replaced one another, compensating for misdemeanours I did not understand. Still the experiences offered themselves to me. They were the sort of things I could imagine myself enjoying and I had even tried one or two of them before. Upon telling the experience of surfing that I did not consider myself a particularly confident swimmer the experience of buoyancy aids and adult swimming lessons began to crowd all round me. Declining their kind offers and waving them away I noticed something awry and strange about my hand, where my hand used to be.
Concatenations of zeros and ones where my fingers had been, dots and dashes my palms. My arms, all my flesh the same. I realised then that if not made of code I had been made to resemble it, captured in such an image. But data was I. This is not what I had envisaged my mid-thirties to be. A baby monkey rode backwards past me on a pig. I was not sure if the internet was really my kind of place. At the far end of the corridor gerbils versed in the martial arts guarded what appeared to be a doorway. I thought it was worth a shout, and imitating the noise a small child makes when imitating the concept of a Red Indian I ran headlong towards the rodents.
The sound of breaking glass resounded in my ears. Checking my body, I found that it was my body. A stale odour of urine wafted from the desiccated leaves around my feet. I rolled a cigarette and stepped out of the phonebox.
Hello there, said a man with a welcoming face. I see you’re back then.
It took a moment or so to realise that I did the pub quiz with him every Wednesday evening.
Yes, I said. Sorry, I’m… it, it must be the jetlag.
Not to worry, he said. Where was it you went again?
The int, I said. India. Sorry, it must be the jetlag.
I know you went to India, he said. Don’t be daft. Whereabouts?
I did a bit of a tour, of the south. Spent some time in a place called Hampi and went on to Kerala, lounged about for a bit and then headed up into the Ghats, Tamil Nadu.
And how much was a meal over there?
Depends where you were. Sometimes you could get a decent plate for as little as a quid.
A quid? Wow. Bet you’re sick of curry.
Well, I’m not sure if I want it every meal.
And what did you have for breakfast?
You had curry, for breakfast?
Yes but, well, it’s different, not so spicy. You get a, they’re called dosas, kind of like a crispy pancake, they come with different sauces and dips. Really, they’re delicious.
Well, each to their own, he said. Will you be quizzing later? We’ve missed your contribution.
Probably not this week. Think I need to recover from the flight first.
See you later then. We’ve missed your contribution.
Lawnmowers hummed their business and the fresh-cut scent of grass relaxed throughout the evening air. It felt good, being in the village again. Dog-walkers were out and about and I paused to kick a football back into the park. Yes, it felt good to be back. Rooks smattered overhead and turning the corner at the bottom of the street I saw that the car was in the driveway. Growing closer I could see her through the window. There she was, my beautiful wife. She was rolling pastry on a floured surface. A sight that welled a tear in my eye. The kitchen door opened and she turned
her head towards it, smiled and mouthed something before going back to rolling the pastry. A man came into the room, filled the kettle and lent down enough to nestle his chin within the crook of her shoulder. He looked a lot like me, how I might have looked had I done things differently, made other choices. In spite the door being open I felt that I should knock.
- David Roberts
Read more of David's work here