Click here to buy Indian Dust
Miss Annie Passano stood in the station yard with her boxes and bundles, the bird cages
and the monkey, and turned her money over in her black leather bag. I had better take a rickshaw, she thought, but it will have to be two rickshaws with all this luggage, what an expense.
She was a big fat middle-aged Eurasian woman with a dark flat face. She wore a white cotton dress that was too tight in front, flat black strapped shoes and a big white topee that sat uneasily over her heavy bun of hair that was as black and coarse as a horse’s tail. She felt sick, giddy and ached all over. Her head pained and it was full of the tumble and thump of the train—no wonder, tossing about in that stuffy compartment while the Hindu widow chewed nuts all through the night. What a journey it had been, and all for nothing.
She looked angrily across the yard to the river. The glare hurt her eyes. Although it was only six o’clock the sun was already up in the bright empty sky that was as colourless as an old dishcloth.
If I take a carriage it will come cheaper, she thought, looking at the rows of ponies drooping between their shafts. They had chains of blue beads round their necks and shining brass on their harness but Miss Passano knew that there were sores under their collars and that their ribs were like birdcages. ‘Poor creatures,’ she said. ‘No, I’ll take two rickshaws.’ She raised her umbrella and the rickshaw men swarmed round her.
When the rickshaws moved out of the yard the monkey sat on her lap holding on to her dress with frightened fingers. At her feet the blue and white birds were silent with terror at the bottom of their cages. She said, ‘Don’t be frightened, we will soon be home and then you shall have water and seed, and for this little one there will be milk and a plantain.’ Although it was so hot she pulled her plaid rug over the monkey’s head to shut out the noise.
It was very hot sitting in the rickshaw as the stream of traffic crawled slowly towards the bridge. Miss Passano felt as if pieces of hot gravel had got under her skin, and her thighs were already stuck together with sweat. She thought the same weary thoughts over and over again.
I did right, she thought, I saw the old man once more. The fare was heavy but I did right to go. They should have been glad that I came all the way from Calcutta. Such a trouble it had been; no one to leave to look after the house and to feed the birds, no one but that silly child, Lily—dear God only knows what she has been up to all alone in the house. And, after all, no one was glad to see me. Old vulture, that is what Fred called me, and that stuck-up sister-in-law of mine was most unpleasant. I had to leave two days after the funeral—my own father’s house too. As for the will—I might have known it—nothing, nothing for me. The old man died unforgiving, no religion in his heart in spite of the priest standing there. Not a rupee, not an anna, not even a picture or a piece of china—and me a lonely woman with an orphan niece to support, a great useless mouth. Nothing for me but the birds and the monkey; no one had wanted them! They said, ‘Take the old man’s monkey, Annie, or we will have it put away. Take the birds too and then you can keep the good brass cage. Come, Auntie, a few more for your menagerie,’ and I had not the heart to leave the poor creatures with that mean ungrateful lot—yes, mean, ungrateful, cruel, same as most everyone else. Well, I have never had much use for people. I would rather have my dogs and birds any day.
Miss Passano took her handkerchief from her bag to wipe her wet face and trembling mouth, and stared defiantly round her.
The rickshaws were wedged in the slowly moving lines of traffic. Buses rocked and clanged down the slope from the bridge; lorries, cars and carts crawled slowly up it. The buses had rattling white tin sides with red letters on them. The wooden wheels of the bullock-carts squeaked as they turned. Everywhere people swarmed and dodged, their heads bobbed through the traffic like the heads of swimmers caught in a dangerous current. A thin mist hung over everything, and overhead the low brassy sky sent the heat and the rising din beating down again as if it were a wide brass gong.
The beggars came round the rickshaw holding out their hands and showing off their sores. Miss Passano did not notice them until a half-naked beggar woman, with a goitre hanging from her neck like a hideous third breast, put her hand on the rickshaw and started her singing whine. Then she shouted, ‘Be off with you!’ and hit the hand with her umbrella. ‘Too many people,’ she muttered crossly, ‘too many people everywhere.’ Poking the rickshaw coolie in his straining wet back she called, ‘Move on, lazy, are we to dawdle here all day?’
Beside the rickshaw was a bullock-cart from the country. It was full of fruit and vegetables and on top of the load that was already too heavy sat or slept a whole family. The bullock’s head was near Miss Passano’s knee. She saw the red wound under the wooden yoke where the flies were thick. She could see into the big oval eye that was full of gentleness and patient suffering. She sat up straight and opened her mouth to curse the driver in the words she had so often used before to other drivers. ‘I see your number, O evil one. I’ll report you to the Society, and now I go to fetch a policeman. You know the law, so many maunds and no more!’ but she did not say them. Not today, she thought, sinking back and looking away, I won’t look today. Each poor bullock in this crowd is like this one, but today I won’t see them, I am too upset in my feelings as it is. Then she said to herself, ‘When I get to my place I shall have a cup of tea, and then I shall undress and Lily shall stand and pour cold water over me. I shall feel better then.’
The rickshaw moved on. There was a dead dog lying in the road; it would lie there, she knew, until it was ground to nothing under the wheels; it was certain that no one would take it away. She could not help thinking of the thousands of homeless starving dogs that skulk round the streets of the city, no one caring what death they come to die. Then she had to think of the thin resigned little ponies; of the unhappy lives led by the buffaloes; of the countless struggling bullocks and the silent birds in their too small cages. ‘Dear God, what a world!’ she moaned. ‘Shall I never get back to my place?’
The air was full of dust and the smell of petrol. Sweat ran down Miss Passano’s back until she thought she must be sitting in a pool. She fanned her face with her bag.
There was a smell of blood in the air. She looked round and her heart jumped as she saw a cart that had moved up beside the rickshaw. It was full of meat from the slaughterhouse and flies made a dark cloud over it. She was sick and faint as she looked at the hacked and half-skinned nightmare of red and white but she could not look away. She sat and stared at the dirty cloth that did not hide the poor load under it.
Miss Passano wanted to get down from the rickshaw and turn away. She wanted to curse and shriek, but she sat still, trembling a little, her lips set in a hard shocked line, holding a handkerchief to her nose. I should like to die now, at once, she thought, I cannot bear any more.
Suddenly she prayed aloud although she did not know it, ‘Dear God, please do something. If I were you I should wave my hand and say, “Let there be no more men”.’ As she prayed, she saw a paradise of green fields covered with flowers and divided by streams that ran as clear as glass. The blue skies were thick with silver stars and the gold sun sent down only gentle rays. On the cool grass lay the creatures, healed of their wounds, at peace forever. It was quiet; there were no voices, no sound but the bleating of the lambs and the singing of the birds. Only she, Annie Passano, was there, tending them and caring for them forever and ever.
Tears came into her eyes. She sat in a dream, hearing only the beating of great wings, blue and white, of angels or of birds. She did not know that the rickshaws had left the bridge and were now running through quieter streets, and she did not move when they stopped outside her gate. The coolie spoke to her; with a start she came to herself. She was only a fat bewildered woman climbing heavily out of a rickshaw.
She fumbled clumsily in her bag and paid the rickshaw men, dropping the few pieces of money into their hands as if she hated to give them anything at all. Taking no notice of their angry protests she opened her gate. She called, ‘Lily! Lily! Come here!’ in a querulous voice.
Lily came down the stairs. She was a thin, dark girl in a dirty dress; her black hair was screwed up in tight plaits and fastened on top of her head. Her shoes were too big for her; they made a loud clopping noise on the wooden steps. She smiled timidly at her aunt, holding one shoulder higher than the other.
‘Child, you should have been at the gate to meet me,’ said Miss Passano. ‘Come now, where’s your voice? The trouble I’ve had to teach you your manners and still you don’t know enough to open your mouth and say, “Good morning. Auntie”.’
‘Good morning, Auntie,’ said Lily in a voice as thin as a piece of cotton. She kept her round black eyes fixed anxiously on her aunt’s face.
‘Come, child, don’t stand there gaping at me. Tell the boy to take up the luggage,’ said Miss Passano. ‘Here, you can carry up the birdcages—be careful of them now, and you can take my rug over your shoulder.’ Miss Passano went slowly up the stairs holding on to the banisters.
The birdcages were too heavy for Lily, they bumped on the steps as she struggled up the stairs. She panted as she answered Miss Passano’s questions. ‘Yes, Auntie, all the canaries are well. Yes, Auntie. I fed them every day. All the dogs too. They are well. No, Auntie. I never went out. Yes, Auntie—’ Her shoes caught on the fringe of the rug; her thin damp fingers slipped from the shiny brass rings. The cages fell to the bottom of the stairs, turning over and over as they went. There was a loud squawking from the birds inside and a few blue and white feathers drifted out and lay on the steps. The dogs started to bark and Miss Passano’s canaries set up a shrill screeching from their cages on the verandah.
Miss Passano put the monkey down on the landing and turned on the child. ‘You wicked careless girl,’ she said thickly. ‘You cruel child! I’ll teach you to be cruel to helpless creatures.’
Beating down the thin uplifted arms she smacked and hit until her own arm was tired. Then dropping the crying girl on the floor she staggered to her basket chair on the verandah. She was breathing heavily and her big breasts were shaking. She sat with her knees apart, her head back on her old red cushion.
Slowly the mists of anger cleared from her brain. She heard the tinkling of china as the boy put the tray on the table beside her, and from somewhere behind her came the sound of gentle sobbing; it was soft and monotonous, it soothed and quietened her nerves. She felt better.
Presently she bent down and undid her shoes and kicked them off across the verandah. Then, taking a deep breath, she unhooked her stays, and leaned back again, folding her hands on her stomach, sighing with pleasure. A soft breeze came through the chiks and dried her wet forehead. Her mind was now a pleasant blank.
The sun climbed higher and, finding holes in the chiks, made white patterns on the floor. From the streets came the sound of distant traffic and the nearer cawing of crows but it was quiet on the verandah. The boy had rescued the birdcages, setting them on an old table on the verandah; the birds cooed gently together, the monkey had had his plantain and milk and was asleep on the plaid rug beside her; only Lily’s sobbing, unnoticeable as rain, went on and on, hopelessly on and on as if it would never stop.
Miss Passano did not hear it. She was asleep.