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Extract from ‘Dreams of Rivers and Seas’

On reception of his mother’s brief phone call announcing his father’s death, John James took a deep breath, booked himself onto the first available flight for Delhi, had Elaine drive him to Heathrow, travelled towards the coming night and arrived at Indira Gandhi Airport to find the weather much cooler than expected. The funeral was to be the following morning. His mother was not in the apartment, but the elderly maid let him in and told him that Mrs James had gone as usual to the clinic. “To clinic,” she said. “Madam has gone to clinic.” John put his bag in the one spare room and sat on the bed. He stared at the bookshelves and sighed. Shall I take a shower? Suddenly he felt a loss of momentum, a faint giddiness. No, the important thing was to see Dad’s body.

John stood up and went back to the kitchen where the maid was sweeping the floor. Did she have a phone number, he asked, for his mother? A mobile or work phone? The woman’s head wobbled as she looked at him. She seemed to have trouble understanding. John repeated the question. “I need to phone my mother, at the clinic.” “Clinic,” the woman said, her head still wobbling. She began to give directions for how to get there. She used her arms, miming a person going out of a door and turning right. John decided the walk would do him good and set off.

Outside, despite the cooler temperature, there was the same glazed and glaring light he remembered from other trips east, the same sour smell in the air, the same odd mix of frenetic traffic, road¬side cooking, languid animals and persistent beggars. He liked it. He felt on holiday. I work too hard, he decided. This would blow away the cobwebs.

Somebody tried to sell him postcards of the old town, trinkets, necklaces, sacred images. He smiled and shook his head. But he couldn’t find the clinic. The broad streets seemed one block of buildings after another, some at considerable distances, all enclosed by decaying red walls. There were big trees between the buildings and swarms of crows cawing in the foliage. John pulled a mobile from his pocket and texted Elaine: “Can you believe it! Mum not home, and left no phone number. Now I’m getting lost looking for her. Wish you were here. Kisses. J.”

John’s father had died of cancer, but the end had come unexpectedly soon. From what John had found about prostate cancer, there should have been no immediate concern. Even in India, such things could be kept at bay for many years. Some westerners actually went to Delhi for cheaper operations. And Dad could always have come back to the UK if he needed special treatment. “John, your father died this morning,” his mother had said. He hadn’t been able to gauge her voice. He had been in the basement lab at the Centre; the centrifuge was noisy and the signal poor. But she certainly wasn’t crying. Mum was a tough one. And his own response had been quiet to say the least. He hadn’t wept. He wasn’t close to weeping. So all Dad’s famous research has come to nothing; those were the first words that crossed his mind. It didn’t upset him. Rather the contrary, as if something poignant had been sensibly cut short.

Only talking to Elaine, did he manage to feel the drama of it. “Oh my God, John,” she cried. “My God! John!” She forgot her own problems. There was the flight to arrange. “How awful – you must check if your visa is still valid. It’s so sudden. The poor thing, your poor mother!” Was she going to bury him out there? Surely not. And what about money? That John had nothing in his current account was common knowledge. He used his credit card to pay for the flight. “What about the future, though: your poor mother, your allowance?” Elaine found a cash dispenser and insisted he accept two hundred pounds, though she too was living off her parents.

Yet all this urgent talk, John sensed as they drove to the airport, was just buzz. His girlfriend was getting a chance to see how her man reacted in a crisis and to show how practical and sensible she could be. He adored her, but this was theatre. She was playing. Her vocation was theatre after all. Everything dramatic was fun for Elaine.

No, the only significant thought, he realised now, of these twenty-four hours that had followed his mother’s phone call, had been the knowledge that he would never see his father again. The words had come to him on the plane. They had been showing a movie in Hindi about a man who was supposed to be marrying one woman but in fact was very evidently in love with another who, for reasons John hadn’t grasped, was quite unsuitable. “You will never see him again,” he suddenly found himself muttering.

The moment the words came into his head he felt a fresh alertness. It was much sharper than the phone-call or anything Mother had said. Then, trying to picture his father, while at the same time watching the film, because the girls were pretty and he liked the brilliant colours and a certain charming artificiality you get in these Indian romances, he realised that there was no image of Dad in his mind: greenish grey eyes, lanky, balding from the front, sandy hair, fine nose, a slightly distracted, sometimes aloof air. It wasn’t much more than an identikit. Or not even. I won’t see Dad again, he thought. And he decided that the first thing he must do on arrival in Delhi was view his father’s body. He would see his dead father and fix the man in his memory for life to come. Except that now, wandering down a broad avenue of New Delhi with dry grass waving on the verges and here and there destitutes wrapped in rags, he couldn’t find Mother’s clinic; he didn’t know where his father was.