The girl turned to him. Her face was stern, her black eyes cold against her whitish features. Then she burst into a smile and turned away to look out of the window.
On second thoughts she plopped her heavy rucksack on Neil’s legs. “I’m Cathy.”
Neil said “Ouch!” and then lifted the bag to keep it on the narrow shelf running above the seats. “What do you carry? Bricks? To hit all Indian men?” he said after brushing his hands off imaginary dirt, the way one does after a job well done.
He sat down beside her and took out a packet of chewing gums from his pocket.
“Friends?” he said and extended one strip to her.
“Not so fast.” She took the packet, tore out one and put it in her mouth.
She chewed on it and contorted her mouth. “Yikes, it’s horrible!”
“Hey, this is from your lands.” Neil popped one into his mouth.
Cathy turned to him, “Where are you off to?”
“Pulga. I love treks.”
“Oh my God!” gasped Cathy.
“Aren’t there any more trek routes out there? I want to change my route.”
Neil grinned wickedly. “Somebody up there loves me!” he hummed and laughed aloud.
Cathy smirked lightly. She extended her legs underneath the seat in front of her and leant back. “Okay, for the time being, can you leave me alone?”
“Oh sure,” said Neil and smiled.
“Good,” said Cathy and closed her eyes.
Neil leant back and began tunelessly humming the movie song that was being played in the bus.
His voice reached an octave when Cathy opened her eyes. “Okay, okay, we’ll talk.”
Neil stopped singing. “Oh, really?”
“Anything to make you stop singing.”
“ Oh! Sorry. Did I disturb you?”
“No, no, of course not. You were just a note worse than the bus engine.”
“Ha! Ha! You’re joking!”
“Joking?” Cathy turned to him, “I’m serious. You’re good. It’s just that I can’t take such wonderful music.”
“Where are you from?” Neil cut in.
She looked away. “None of your business.” She looked out of the window and said, “Sweden.”
“You speak English very well.”
“I am an American. My husband is working for a Swedish company.”
“Your husband…?” Neil turned to her looking sorrowful.
“Oh, yes! Big and kicking! He’s Swedish, you know and his hobby is bull-fighting.”
“Oh mah Gawd!” Neil jumped an imaginary inch away. Then remembering something he said, “Bull-fighting is from Spain, isn’t it?”
“So what? It’s contagious. Now every country in Europe is picking it up.”
Neil fell silent. Then turned to her and said, “You’re not lying, are you? I mean… you don’t look married…”
She quickly groped around her handbag and took out a photograph from inside it. She handed it to him, “Isn’t he cute?”
A grotesque pair of eyes beneath a bushy, threatening set of eyebrows, a big nose and a large mouth set in a wide-jawed face with crew-cut hair, stared at him. Neil took the snap and quickly gave it back to Cathy.
“Yeah!” he smiled pathetically and raised his eyebrows.
“That’s not my husband. That’s my boyfriend,” said Cathy. “Here’s my husband.”
She handed him a lesser intimidating photograph. The man seemed to be a soberly dressed professor in his early thirties, complete with glasses and a thin moustache. He handed back the photo.
“You are an interesting character.”
Cathy smiled pleasingly and nodded her head.
“And what are they doing now? Shopping together for you?” he asked smilingly.
Cathy smiled, “I’ve ditched my boyfriend before coming to India.”
“Oh, good! So your husband won, right?”
Cathy turned to him. “Enough talking about me. Now tell me about yourself. Where are you from?”
“Me?” Neil turned slightly defensive. “I am from Calcutta.”
“You speak English very well, too,” she smiled.
A very discreetly camouflaged anger seeped out from his next words.
“We’ve had two hundred years of formal training, you see!”
“Two hundred…?” Cathy initially looked perplexed. Then understanding the meaning of his words, she smiled sympathetically. “You’re still angry with the British?” She knew the Indian history slightly. India had been under a painful British colonization for over 200 years until it was freed very recently.
Neil turned away and somberly nodded his head in the negative. Then smiled and looked at her, “If it wasn’t for them, we would have still been in the dark ages.”
“Ha! Ha!” smiled Cathy teasingly. “So you do admit defeat?”
Neil suddenly turned away and turned serious. “Can we change the topic?” There was a distinct volcano in his voice. A blurred picture of a young man rolling down the stairs of his house, blood getting smeared on the steps and two victorious policemen marching down after the body with revolvers, shaped and vanished from his mind’s eye… It perhaps happened when Neil was very young. Or perhaps he overheard his elders talking about it until the impression formed in colored pictures inside his mind’s eye. He didn’t know. He never wanted to find out.
They both fell silent for a while.
Then she spoke. “Who do you have in your family?”
Neil sighed slightly and looked at her, “My wife and seven children.”
“WHAT…?!!” Cathy gasped!
Neil looked sorrowful and said, “Yeah, not planned, you see, accidents.”
“You’re joking,” Cathy said in a definite tone.
“Yes,” Neil smiled, “the wife part.”
“Wha…! You…” Cathy burst out smiling. “You’re impossible! How did you survive so long? Nobody beat you up?”
“Nope.” Neil shook his head sincerely.
“Okay. So you’re not interested in talking about yourself, right?”
Neil suddenly held her head and turned it towards the window. “See the mountains? We’re way off them. We’ve just started to climb. We have two more hours to go.”
He paused. Cathy turned to him. He smiled. “I’ll not be able to escape.”
She fell silent.
The bus was beginning to climb up-hill. The creamy roads through an ascending landscape with foothills all around green fields now began to look portentous. Mountains soon crammed up nearer on one side, while on the other side the green fields and landscape began to fall further and further down. River Parvati moved along, sometimes becoming a ribbon thrown down into the deep valley, sometimes a cool, swirling entertainer, jumping around their pathway. Their climb had begun. The bus roared its engine louder and began taking not-so-friendly turns at completely unprepared-for bends.
Cathy closed her eyes. It was obvious she decided not to ask him any more personal details.
Neil sensed that. He loomed over her and said, “With eyes closed you look beautiful.”
She opened them and flinched away, “Do you mind?” She seemed to like that phrase very much.
“No I don’t,” Neil said. “Anything to keep you awake.”
“But it looked like you didn’t want to speak?”
“I am speaking.”
“I mean … about yourself.”
“Okay.” Neil sighed. “What do you want to know?”
“It’s okay. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.”
“I am very comfortable with you,” he snuggled an inch closer.
“Hello…!” scolded Cathy.
He grinned. Then became a shade serious and said, “What do you want to know?”
“What do you do, for instance?”
“Me?” He pondered. “I ruin money.” He laughed and then waved his hand, “Sorry!”
He turned somber for a while. He tried to frame his answer. A first-class college graduate running away from sickening jobs he didn’t want to do? A computer-buffer?
Or a criminal with a track record of assisting in a murder and slipping through the fingers of law abetted by an influential mafia person?!
“I escape.” He framed the answer and looked very happy with himself for doing so. He turned a smiling face to Cathy.
She looked nauseated. And turned away.
“Okay, I’ll be honest with you.” He decided to edit some of his track records. “I am a graduate looking for a job.”
Cathy sighed. At last she managed a sensible answer from him. She nodded and asked off-handed, as if to keep the conversation going, “What do you specialize in?”
Neil sensed it. He turned grave. “Girls.”
She looked at him stoically for a moment. Then asked, “Just the anatomy or an Ischemic heart too?”
Neil kept looking doleful. “Anatomy. I have yet to come across an Ischemic heart.” He leant back and whisking a warm spice to his voice he added, “I’d love to.”
She nodded, “Oh, yeah.” She half-asked the question. She turned away and then half-turned. “You know, you should go a little slow on your specialized objects’ nerves. You seem to be picking on them too much.” She waved her hand in the air, “Just a friendly advice.”
Neil jumped up and extended his hand, “Caught you. So we’re friends?”