Footing the bill

I knew it was a mistake to have a hire car in India. 

As we left Delhi airport, it was like finding myself in a video game.

Cars sped past, ignoring traffic lights and speed limits as Gerry swerved to avoid the rickshaws and tuk-tuks and people.

‘Ten points for a beggar,’ shouted Gerry, oblivious to any danger.

I tightened my seatbelt. ‘Slow down, you'll hit someone.’

When a passing ox forced the traffic to a halt, a man, or rather a walking skeleton, tapped on my window. He held out a filth-encrusted hand, his words inaudible against the traffic's roar.

‘Keep your window up, Angela,’ said Gerry. ‘Hopefully, we'll be out of this jam soon. Absolute maniacs.’

Eventually, the traffic thinned, and skyscrapers and office blocks became fields and ramshackle dwellings.

Gerry parked up at small cafĂ©. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked. ‘You look pale. Have you tested your sugar lately?’

‘Bloody diabetes. I'm ok, I just need a Pepsi. How far to Agra?’

‘Another 30 miles. These bumpy roads aren't doing much for my back.’

‘I don't mind driving now it’s quieter. It's not fair if you do it all. I knew we should have booked a tour.’

‘Nonsense, I'm not doing the Taj in ten minutes. You won't find me trapped on a coach full of old biddies, while a guide rambles on about his ‘marvellous country.’

Gerry really needed to work on his Indian accent.

As we got out of the car, a troop of monkeys playing on a nearby verge, pattered over towards me. ‘Look, Gerry, how cute. I'll follow you in.’

Gerry wrinkled his nose. ‘This place is a dump. I think I'll just grab us a takeaway sandwich and a drink.’

While I waited outside, I remembered a bruised banana in my bag. ‘Anyone hungry?’ I called. When I’d peeled off the skin, a large monkey ran over, snatched the banana from my hand and bared its teeth. Luckily for me, Gerry reappeared and shouted at it. The monkeys scampered up into the trees and glared at us.

‘We can do without rabies,’ he said.

I know it was stupid, but that monkey unnerved me. That's why I forgot to check my sugar.

On the approach to Agra, the tiredness seeped in, as the road around me filled with cars. The lights suddenly changed, and a man stepped out in front of me. I hit the brakes and the car juddered as I ran over something. I heard screaming, and a man ran into the street shouting ‘Rohan! You just hit my brother.’

The car stalled and I sat gripping the steering wheel, unable to move.

‘Shit,’ said Gerry, getting out of the car. ‘I think you ran over his foot.’

‘Take us to the hospital,’ shouted Rohan’s brother.

‘Angie, get in the passenger side,’ Gerry ordered. ‘And give me your scarf, we need it for a tourniquet. Why wasn't he wearing shoes?’

Forcing myself to get out of the car, I glimpsed a squashed mess of blood and bone as Gerry helped Rohan into the back. I tried to ignore his cries as Gerry drove us to Agra hospital.

Hours later, we were still at the hospital waiting for news. Gerry was drinking coffee as if nothing had happened, but I felt clammy and sick. Would I be arrested? What if the man died?

Sanjay, Rohan’s brother finally appeared. ‘The doctors say he will recover, but they've amputated his foot. Please, can you help him?’

Gerry cleared his throat. ‘Look it was a terrible accident, but they can do wonderful things with prosthetic limbs these days.’

‘Give him some money,’ I said, scowling at Gerry.

Gerry sighed and took out his wallet. ‘Please give your brother our apologies and wish him a speedy recovery.’ He pushed a 3000-rupee note into the man's hand. ‘Now we must get to our hotel.’

‘But this is an insult!’ Sanjay called after us. ‘My brother cannot live on this!’

 

As we headed for the exit, I whispered to Gerry, ‘Can't you give a bit more, I don't want him to starve.’

‘Rubbish,’ said Gerry. ‘He'll probably earn more now from begging than before. Some people maim themselves deliberately.’

‘You won't get away with this,’ Sanjay shouted behind us. ‘This is outrageous.’

‘Keep walking’, said Gerry ‘Whatever we'd have given that man it would never have been enough. You know what these people are like.’

‘But…’

‘It was an accident, wasn't it? Unless you hit him deliberately?’

‘Of course, not.’

‘Then don't let it ruin our trip. Let's get to the hotel, we've got an early start. The majestic Taj Mahal will take your mind off it.’

Gerry was right. As I stepped through the arched entrance gates and saw the most beautiful building in the world, I forgot about the man and his brother. The Taj Mahal was a jewel set in acres of ornamental gardens, fountains and tombs. I posed on the bench where Princess Diana had her famous photograph, then holding hands, we entered the white domed mausoleum. The interior was surprisingly tiny. ‘A bit like Doctor Who’s TARDIS in reverse,’ said Gerry kissing my forehead. ‘Happy Anniversary darling.’ We stood in silence by the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, then Gerry went outside to take some more photos.

Enjoying the peace, I crouched down for a moment tracing the delicate star patterns on the tiles with my fingers. When I looked up, I saw a man on crutches, watching me. He was draped in a filthy loincloth, and his smile revealed a row of rotting teeth. His right leg ended in a stump.

 

I ran out of the mausoleum and grabbed hold of Gerry, gasping for breath. ‘The man whose foot I ran over. He's followed us here.’

‘Don't be ridiculous. He's back in the hospital. Let me have a look.’

I stood, shaking until Gerry returned. What had we done?’

‘No one there at all.’ He said. ‘I doubt he'd have moved very fast on crutches. You must have been mistaken. Are you due another injection?’

Maybe it was my diabetes, or the heat, or just the emotion of the past few days. We spent the rest of the day at the hotel, then I slept undisturbed until morning.

 

I would have preferred a couple of days relaxing, but Gerry was insistent we carried on Varanasi.

'It's meant to be like nothing else on earth.’ he said. ‘The heart of the Ganges. A magical place.’

‘But Varanasi is the place where people go to die.’

‘Well yes, but that's hardly why we're going. It would be a shame to waste our internal flights.’

‘Alright Gerry.’

As the plane descended, I saw pillars of smoke rising from the banks of the river, and my heart sank. I'd had enough of misery, enough of India, but Gerry was fiddling with his camera, eager to add to his latest portfolio.

We walked down a multitude of dark and twisting alleyways to the Ghats. The air was alive with smoke, incense and something unknown and acidic, while our voices mingled with a cacophony of drums, chanting and sitars.

We took a boat ride down the Ganges which revealed a river teeming with people: washing; bathing; crossing in small boats and herding water buffalo.

‘No photos please,’ said our guide, as we approached an area bright with the flames of funeral pyres. We watched with morbid fascination as families stood in silence while their relatives bodies turned to ash. When I eventually turned away, I saw a dark shape bobbing alongside the boat. At first, I thought it was an animal, but to my horror I realised it was the body of man, his flesh rotted after weeks in the water. As the corpse floated past, I cried out. The body was missing its right foot.

 

I've had a lot of time to think about that corpse, the beggar and poor Rohan, as two weeks later I was convalescing in Ealing Hospital. The pain in my ankle had started on the plane home. Sue, my diabetes nurse, said she had never seen anyone's condition deteriorate so fast.

The itching was unbearable. Gerry called it Phantom Limb syndrome. As a child, I had seen a ghost, but when I lifted the bedclothes, I saw only empty space where my foot used to be.

Sue and Gerry sat by my bedside. ‘When can I go back to work, Sue?’ I asked. Staying at home with Gerry suddenly seemed more terrifying than living with one foot.

‘There's no need to rush back,’ said Gerry. ‘We don't need the money.’

I couldn’t resist. ‘I might even earn more money - now that I'm maimed.’

‘Your husband's right,’ said Sue, ignoring my comment. ‘You need to time recover. You've had some awful bad luck. It's the curse of diabetes I'm afraid.’

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘We know it was a curse, don’t we Gerry?’

But for once, Gerry kept quiet.


Taj Mahal

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