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Authors: James Hamilton-Paterson

The Bell-Boy

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The Bell-Boy

JAMES HAMILTON-PATERSON

For
Hazel
Worthy

Waking beneath the vine, Laki would leave his hutch on the roof and go out into the turquoise dawn. Standing among litter (pails, washing-lines, pigeon shit) he could look over town to the surrounding hills of coconut and bamboo whose western slopes slept darkly even as their sunward faces blazed. In the middle ground a profusion of temples of one sort or another, fierce canonical pressures beneath Malomba’s surface having caused religious buildings to bubble and mould themselves freakishly like cooling glassware. From them arose competing sounds of clergy performing their various rites to celebrate daybreak. The mosque’s glass pencil had already spoken; the weed-tufted skull of the pro-cathedral still dozed. A bronze trumpet blew over one quarter and from another came the distant thrashing of gongs.

Meanwhile the pigeons which had passed the night in their end of Laki’s loft would be circling the sky with a clapping of wings. Now and again amid all this matin din could be heard the noise of water falling four storeys on to a sheet of corrugated iron lying among the weeds below, an awning which had long ago slipped from above one of the Hotel Nirvana’s windows. The water came through a cement spout slimy from laundry. The tap feeding it had lost its handle to a brass thief and the stump of its valve was held down by rubber cut from an inner tube. At this hour of day – before secular Malomba was properly awake and when the town’s women had not yet begun their washing –
water pressure was high and spurted fine jets between the bindings.

Squatting at the tap Laki rinsed himself, using a sliver of detergent soap saved in a coconut shell which he afterwards lodged among the gourds festooning his loft. This den on the hotel’s roof was the most prized thing in his life. Made largely of mud bricks, it had originally been designed as a spacious pigeon loft, one pierced and battlemented wall remaining of an intricate city of cells and perches and roosts. Over the years the interests of the proprietor in pigeons as a source of income had waned and increased and waned again and in the meantime the loft had decayed, been patched together, grown derelict once more. A vine had taken root low down in one wall and had grown inwards, where its dense tanglings now effectively divided the cell before bursting out through a hole in the ceiling which admitted sun, rain, pigeons. On one side of this vine the birds lived and cooed and on the other Laki had his domain. When he had first been given the exclusive use of the place it was with the indifferent magnanimity which awards a dog a leaky packing-case as kennel. Over the three years of his apprenticeship he had scrounged and patched so that sheets of tin and coconut thatch now kept out the worst of the weather and prevented the walls’ further dissolution. He had found a door and stolen a padlock. Now at night he stretched in luxury on his reed pallet, a luxury scarcely known in the town’s slums below where families slept jammed together on the floor of a single room.

He had once thought of clearing out the vine, thereby increasing his space and making it possible to mend the roof above it, but he had grown fond of the shrub. The shifting dapples of sunlight filtering through its leaves pleased him, and in any case it effectively segregated him from the birds. Now and again he puzzled as to where it obtained its nourishment: the mud bricks at the base of its stem seemed hardly enough. Maybe over the years the roots had worked
their way into the hotel’s roof and down inside its walls right to the earth four storeys beneath? Certainly the ceilings of the top-floor rooms were cracked and leaky. No. 41 in particular was only ever assigned to the most derelict foreigners or travelling salesmen. It lay directly under the laundry area and suds often gathered on its floor.

Another reason for keeping the vine was its usefulness as a wardrobe. On one of its many arms Laki now hung his towel and from a wire coathanger elsewhere took a white cotton uniform. Propped in a woody elbow was a triangle of broken mirror from Room 41. Standing before it he slicked his hair with a wet fragment of comb. It was black and luxuriant and made a satisfying wave which gleamed in the early sunlight streaming in above. He peered forward and examined his chin. He wished he needed a shave, but it was pointless to pretend this was any more necessary today than it had been yesterday. ‘Anything can happen at your age,’ Raju the night porter would say encouragingly. ‘Even overnight. Some boys are like plants. The sap rises with hardly a sign of a bud, then suddenly one morning they’re in flower. Just like that.’ Laki lived in daily expectation of a beard, not being sure of anything much, not even of his age. He thought he might be getting on for fifteen; his mother had always been vague.

There arrived in town this very morning the Hemony family, more than usually dishevelled after a battering night in the overnight bus from the capital. Dawn had found them still up among the jungled hills, Jason asleep with his head in his mother’s lap, his sister Zoe curled up on the seat behind. The sun which was lighting up the eastern summits for Laki on his rooftop was not yet high enough to spill its generous
fire into their road which lay in deep shades of grey between walls of trunks. The rubber, coconuts, candelabrums, mock-quassias, gibbet-trees which had accompanied them into last night were emerging once more, faithfully unchanged. They looked identical in every respect. Only the numbed impression of episodes from the previous nine hours – a puncture, three stops in provincial bus stations where brutal fluorescent glare had woken the passengers – convinced Tessa that they had indeed been covering distance. Otherwise they might just as well have been riding a piece of elaborate machinery designed as a film prop to suggest a harsh journey: endlessly repeating scenery and the pounding of iron chassis and wood seats over ruts.

‘Not striving, not grasping, I am in bliss,’ she said to herself out of habit. Her back ached and at dawns like this she was increasingly prey to heretical notions, such as that now and again her life felt like one aimless bus journey. To look back was pointless, of course, since there was only
now.
Had she done so, the history of her two children and their ponytailed father’s defection might have blurred into a wearying sense of seeming always to have been on a potholed road with trouble around the next bend. Exactly twenty years ago she had joined a party in a decrepit Dormobile to Kathmandu. Passports, body searches, desperate cables for funds, shot through with heady freedoms and the smell of stale clothing.

It had begun there but not exactly then. Tessa could never have been present at her own point of departure; she was in pigtails at an English private school when Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters boarded a psychedelic bus and began their magic acid trip round America. Each turn of its wheels had shed religions in a glittering dust which settled over the landscape of the next decade. But soon she and her peers had driven off through that dust in their own buses and minivans to the weirdest places. Twenty years on, the flower children wore suits and those same places had been
thoroughly unweirded by the duty-free set since it was now far cheaper to fly. What exactly was it, then, which still locked her into this penitential form of travel? Not poverty, at any rate. Dogged constancy, maybe.

The sun had come up and suddenly they were at the edge of hills in whose hollow Malomba lay. The passengers left off dozing and began running their hands through their hair, yawning, dabbing their mouths with clean folded handkerchiefs. They were driving directly into morning, the brilliance pouring through the cracked green-tinted windscreen past the dangling talismans and eclipsing the red bulb in the shrine nodding on its spring. This violent clap of light brought the children upright, rubbing their eyes.

‘This it?’ asked Jason.
‘Madonna,
what a dump.’ The outskirts with their vulcanising shops and soft drink depots led to honking streets clotted with people and donkeys and motor-tricycles. ‘What are we doing here?’

‘I told you, Jay. This is where the psychic surgeons are.’

‘I don’t see any.’

A road whose width was reduced by booths jammed end to end and laden with bolts of material. Other stalls were piled with aluminium and plastic ware or hung with paper-chains of lottery tickets. From them loudspeakers blared the conflicting claims of salesmen. The bus bumped over a mush of sugarcane stalks and coconut husks and they were in the terminus. The passengers stood up and thronged the gangway, shouldering zipper bags decorated with the decals of non-existent airlines. Past them and against their grain came pushing a boy in flimsy uniform.

‘Yes, missus. Yes, missus. What hotel?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Tessa’s spine as she stood up sent brilliant electric bolts down the back of both legs. Suddenly she wished they hadn’t come. These wearisome touts … The boy was impervious.

‘Yes, missus. Hotel. What name you have?’

She found a scrap of paper in her Tibetan wool bag.
‘We’re already booked, thank you. The Golden Fortune Hotel. I’m sorry.’

‘Golden Fortune? Chinese hotel, Golden Fortune. Very bad hotel. Very dirty. Finish now.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Finish. No more. Big fire one week ago. Come, I show you.’

‘Terrific,’ said Jason. ‘A great bit of booking.’

‘How was I to know?’

‘He’s probably lying,’ said Zoe. ‘We’ll find it ourselves. What’s the address?’

‘All finish,’ the boy repeated. ‘I take you to hotel, more cheap, more clean.’ And then the clincher. ‘Very near.’

‘How near?’ Tessa wanted to know. She was not yet sure of being able to walk at all.

‘Two minutes, maybe four.’

‘What’s it called?’

But he was propelling them gently out into the light and din like tousled sleepwalkers.

‘It’ll be shitty,’ said Jason. ‘It’ll be like the last place. I’ll wind up having to sleep with her again.’

‘Actually, I’d rather have a floor with cockroaches than share with a smelly twelve-year-old.’

‘Oh, do stop it, you two.’ Tessa was in anguish and when their young guide looked up at her seriously and put his hand over hers she broke the habit of a travelling lifetime and found herself surrendering her bag. Pain; a glance; an expression of the eyes, she thought passively. Just then a scarlet jeep with a shiny white plastic hood glided alongside them. In the general hubbub it made no sound and she turned her head to see four men in sports shirts and mirror sunglasses staring back. It went past and became lost to view but for a moment she retained the memory of sun flaring off its chrome bumpers and dancing across the hood’s tautness as it trembled to the motor; that and the tip of its long aerial
switching above the traffic like the tail of a beast of prey. Suddenly she noticed the boy was no longer with them.

‘That’s funny, where’s he gone?’

‘He’s got our
bag,
Mum. It’s not funny at all. What have you done? Little bugger. Some urchin comes up to you and you give him all our stuff?’ Zoe was nearly in tears. ‘He hasn’t got the money too, has he? You’re
joking.
And our passports? Jesus, Mum, it’s not your back that needs mumbo-jumbo surgery, but your head. Well,
you
get us to the police station and
you
do the explaining.’

But just at this moment – which had made for itself a horrid island in the middle of the pavement round which curious people flowed – and just as they were being hailed from ankle level by a beaming legless vendor of sunglasses, the boy reappeared with the bag.

‘We lost you,’ said Tessa in relief. She wanted to cry.

‘Short cut only.’ He smiled encouragingly as if he knew to the last adrenal pang what had been thought. ‘Very near now.’ And to her surprise they turned a corner and there was a hotel with a tangled bush on its roof. The walk from the bus station, including that dreadful timeless moment, had taken them precisely four minutes as he had said.

‘That’s it?’ asked Zoe. ‘Hotel Nirvana?’

‘Nirbana, yes. I am to working here, living here.’

Behind the Reception desk the board of numbered hooks was hung almost gaplessly with keys, scarcely a sight to cheer a hotel proprietor first thing in the morning. Raju had gone off duty and it was Mr Muffy himself who stood behind the counter, gloomily testing a Japanese adding-up machine which he had just bought from some Indian sharpers in the Wednesday Market. Mr Muffy had a long-standing difficulty with sums. He already had an old pocket calculator whose black window lit up with oblique red figures, but the phrase ‘business efficiency’ was in the air. His new machine did nothing to make his accounts more palatable, however. Indeed, he had just decided he preferred
the calculator since its grim news could be made to vanish into thin air at the touch of a switch, whereas this new machine printed everything out on expensive little rolls of paper.

On seeing the Hemonys he summoned up a smile of welcome, while studiedly ignoring Laki’s proud grin at having captured some early trade. Vain monkey that he was, what did he think he was being paid for?
And
given board and a luxurious free apartment?

‘Good morning, good morning,’ said Mr Muffy. ‘You are from?’

‘Oh, England I suppose,’ said Tessa. ‘The capital,’ said Zoe. ‘The bus,’ said Jason. They all spoke simultaneously in the lacklustre tones common to new arrivals in Malomba, there being no restful way of reaching the town. ‘We’d like a room,’ went on Tessa. ‘Three rooms,’ said Zoe.

‘Passports, please.’ He was suddenly businesslike. Three rooms. Only last week Laki had dragged home an American woman who turned out to have wanted no more than breakfast. The insolent child had had the effrontery to demand his commission, too, which earned him a stinging ear. Still, Mr Muffy wasn’t holding out much hope for these new arrivals. Like most Malombans he fancied himself a practised judge of foreigners’ wealth, and like most Malombans got it wrong much of the time. He and his countrymen were easily misled by people who dressed down; his culture insisted that wealth should be displayed or faked, never concealed. Nonetheless, behind him lay long years of experience in running the Nirvana and he had learned to intuit subtler signs of tourist indigence. He was under few illusions about his hotel. No matter how good Laki’s touting was – and he was prepared to concede nothing – the better-heeled foreigners tended to put up elsewhere at places like the Golden Fortune. A well-named establishment, reflected Mr Muffy bitterly. A fortune was exactly what they were making, those damned Chinese.
Miserly and clannish, they were ruining this country. They simply moved in, and before you knew where you were the honest local was being squeezed out by unscrupulous monopolists. Them and the Indians … He flicked through the tattered passports Tessa had laid on the counter. ‘You are Italian?’

‘No, look – these are British passports. We are Italian
residents
.’

‘Dual nationality,’ said Mr Muffy wisely. ‘Very useful.’

‘It’s not dual at all. We’re English people who happen to be living in Italy.’

‘So you are from Italy? We have to be accurate. The police here are very strict for your protection. These forms must be filled in truthfully.’ He pushed three registration blanks towards her which looked as if they had been run off on scrap paper. Here and there the print was so faint as to be illegible. His finger found the phrase
Country
of
Origin.

‘We’re not actually
from
Italy. Actually.’

‘May I see your air ticket please, madam?’ Tessa rummaged in her bag and produced it. Not striving, not grasping, she told herself inwardly. ‘Exactly. You are from Rome. Rome is the capital of Italy, is it not?’

When the forms had been filled in to Mr Muffy’s liking, she asked, ‘How much are your rooms?’

‘We have an excellent room for three at a hundred and sixty-five a night. Very beautiful view of Malomba. Glass Minaret, Temple of Ashes, everything.’

‘Three singles,’ said Zoe firmly. ‘For a hundred and forty in all.’


In
all?
Not possible, I regret.’

‘Then we’re off. Come on, Mum. We can try that place we saw on the way.’

‘One hundred and fifty,’ agreed Mr Muffy with affected resignation. ‘Fifty each, without breakfast.’

‘With.’

This one was the brains of the family, he thought to
himself, looking at her passport again. Only fifteen, and already such a self-possessed young lady. His attitude became flavoured with the mixture of gallantry and lust which might inform any man dealing with a nubile girl with long blonde hair and a sullen mouth. Put her on a separate floor. ‘You drive a hard bargain, miss.’ She stared back at him impassively, however, so with a proprietorial gesture he scooped three keys off the rack and thrust them at Laki. He took some pleasure in assigning the son to No. 41.

The Nirvana Hotel had no lift. The main staircase began with a certain faded grandeur, having white marble steps which before the steep rise in the price of brass had been carpeted with a maroon drugget held in place by gleaming stair-rods. Now only the holes for the fittings remained. Once round the half-landing the marble ran out suddenly and gave way to cement. Laki, bringing up the rear with their bags, called cheerfully, ‘How long you stay?’

‘We don’t know yet,’ said Tessa. ‘Malomba’s an important spiritual place, isn’t it? There’ll be a lot to see.’

‘Oh, very much to seeing here,’ his voice came up behind her. ‘Malomba have thirty-nine temples, churches, moskies. The Glass …’

‘What about the healers?’ Zoe wanted to know. ‘This
is
the right place for psychic surgery, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, miss. Psychic surgeons we have. Very famous, very good men. You like? I know all of them. If you want I show. Special price because I am friend.’

‘We already have an introduction, thank you,’ Tessa told him from up ahead. ‘A gentleman named Tapranne.’

‘You to knowing
hadlam
Tapranne?’ Laki’s tone was of surprise and respect. All Malombans knew he was the best healer in town and therefore in the entire country. Assuredly most of the other surgeons, if not actual charlatans, were in it for the money. When
hadlam
Tapranne operated, however, money was never discussed. Even if he cured you completely no fee was asked or expected. Laki assumed he
must be immensely rich because his patients were so grateful their generosity knew no bounds. Last year a famous Indian film star had come all the way from Delhi to see him. The man had been suffering from a malignancy which made movement agonising and he flew out his specially padded Rolls Royce so he could make his visit in comfort. After only one session with
hadlam
Tapranne he was completely cured. The
hadlam
had removed a black tumour the size of a pomegranate from near his spine. There were pictures of it in the next day’s press and ordinary doctors had declared it a miracle. There and then the Indian had given the
hadlam
his Rolls Royce and had walked all the way back to the capital. That had been the real proof that something unique had occurred: an Indian film star
walking.
It had taken him a fortnight and when he arrived he described himself as a ‘changed man’. In consequence of this and other miracles, people were coming from all over the world to consult Tapranne and he was by no means easy to see. If these Hemonys had access to him, they must be richer and better-connected than they looked.

BOOK: The Bell-Boy
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