The Bamboo Forest Part 1
The holiday was a last ditch attempt at emotional salvage. Two bodies, who’d once abandoned themselves to each other now simply abandoned each other. Simon was fond of his phrases: ‘habit is a great deadener’. Camilla was fond of sweet things and foreign travel. They sat around the kitchen table in November. Simon opened a guide to Goa. His thoughts strayed to his unworkable manuscript. Every reading rendered it more meaningless. Camilla read out from a biography of Catherine the Great, ‘she was a woman of great ability, though she had in full the vices of her age.’ She looked at Simon, ‘I’m worried about you.’ Simon jutted out his lower jaw. ‘Don’t do that! You look like my ex. If you lose your self-esteem you’ll start hating yourself. Then I’ll hate you, too!’ They agreed to fly to Trivandrum in a fortnight.
This crazy union was doomed from the moment she had breached his garden wall in Brook Green, clutching a whiskey in her swimsuit at midday. Tangled in the jasmine she asked smiling: ‘Why do you play such fucking awful music?’ He moved in two days later.
Her Sicilian blood was thin and fuelled with olive oil. He was a product of Anglo- Saxon lard and indeterminate weather. Her enthusiasms like sudden typhoons swept Simon along.
The hotel, The Mandovi, was built on the sea shore. A female representative from Soma holidays garlanded Simon with greasy flowers. She smiled at Camilla, ‘here it’s gents first.’ A garden had been dug from the pink earth but needed constant tending. Old men in khaki shorts carried baskets of rocks on their heads. They watered it all day long. Camilla disgraced herself at the poolside reception by tumbling into the water, while the Indian Elvis impersonator sang Teddy Bear. Under the waiter’s mocking scrutiny, Simon helped her across acres of marble foyer to the jeep. She lay dripping across the back seat with her legs sticking out of the window into the tropical night.
I’m not her nurse, it’s not up to me to monitor her drinking. I look like a bloody fool, like the last time at the Italian Embassy, when she tried to exit through a painting of the harbour at night. But, still, like a dog to its lamp-post, she needs me. I’m a martyr to suffering. More like a martyr to wind. Camilla smiled at the night jars wheeling around the neon tubes in the trees. Salt felt good on her skin and the Mai Tais made her body glow.
The cyclonic weather and rickety-legged cattle on the beach had created a situation that Simon termed ‘psychologically insupportable’. Camilla had suggested he was ‘psychologically insufferable’ with his skin ointments and morbid fear of multiple anal rape by native fishermen. ‘Travelling with you is a real brown pants job.’ Camilla watched him leaving the chemist with enough Valium and Mogadon to sedate the entire subcontinent. Yet something in her southern blood needed a certain English chilliness to bring out her mischief.
The beach was blustery. Yellow saris streamed in the wind. Little girl abandoned in the sand was frightened by Simon, who traced a circle around her brown body with his big toe. She began howling. Simon remembered the English consul, who’d warned him Goa was experiencing a wave of sex tourism. A Brit, Dr. Piles, was currently residing in a Goan jail for his hands-on approach at his self-funded orphanage.
Camilla was embalmed in coconut oil under a white canopy, being manipulated by the powerful hands of Vassu, the bisexual masseur. He smiled, ‘your eyes are like underwater suns. You are golden girl with rainbows coming out of your ears.’ Mystic phooey but it made her happy. Simon looked at her slim, golden body and felt his pasty inadequacy. He’d got her by default. She was the eye of the hurricane, the magnetic centre of the local community. All Camilla’s parents could say about Simon was that he was ‘terribly slim’. He had no life outside her, but her energy was sending him haywire. He gulped down five Valium and was wary of the unripe coconuts overhead. Dry clash of palms cast their fishbone shadows across the burning sand.
‘Camilla, I’m suffering from the effects of long-distance travel. Body and soul dislocation. Bodily, I’m here, but, my mind’s cooped up on our futon in Shepherd’s Bush.’
Vassu peeled her elasticated bikini down a fraction and polished her coccyx.
“Hmm, isn’t it heavenly?”
A moustachioed Indian wrestler, with a pot belly and tight red swimming trunks, nudged Simon: ‘She’s applying her camouflage. Does she relish Hindu cooking?’ This was the problem. Everyone desired Camilla apart from Simon, yet he found their desire an incentive to intercourse. At first he’d been jealous. Camilla attracted surrogate grandfathers, a wide array of elderly suitors who embarrassed themselves in displays of youthful gymnastics. George, the Hungarian potter, did the crab on the floor of his studio to demonstrate his fitness before cricking his back. He brought gifts of paprika, expensive but inedible French chocolate, lumps of smoked pork fat. Simon wetly absented himself to change pullovers or search for phantom cats. He overheard George telling Camilla she was ‘fascinating’. Number two was Seth Buchanan, a Cornish painter, who was also a cornet-playing champion in a local brass band. All these old geezers assembled in the dusk, with long brawny forearms and creased Golem brows, waiting to be animated by a caress or hot breath on their cocks. Now the whole of India was sniffing at her cami-knickers.
Camilla’s warmth kindled erections in mastiffs and made old men quiver. They dipped their feet in the tide, almost together, before Simon started: ‘Camilla, walk away from that dog, we haven’t had our rabies’ jabs. It might have distemper.’ But Camilla was calling to it and stroking its pink translucent ear tips. ‘Come here, Jenner, does that feel nice? Are you taking us for a walk?’ Every holiday they’d been on, Camilla had befriended a beige bitch and called it Jenner, fed it bread at breakfast and the dog had obligingly scooped little shady hollows in the sand by Camilla’s deckchair. Their photo albums were full of red-eyed Jenners, from Simon’s flash photography.
Camilla swam out to a distant white buoy to ‘tone her tummy.’ Simon fretted from a nearby rock, chewing a biro. If she drowned he’d have to jump in. He was a poor swimmer. Why did she have to compromise him? He fantasized about her death. It would give him the boost he needed to finish his novel. In the beginning Camilla had been intoxicated by his LPs, his blue counterpane under which they entwined like lazy, well-fed pythons. She was impressed by his debut collection of short stories Off-Peak People, a study of peripheral characters that Simon had noticed in parks and libraries. The book had vanished under that month’s literary suet. One lukewarm review ‘in retrospect Simon Quinton’s stories get better and better’ had appeared in the local authors’ section in an Estate Agents’ freebie.
Camilla waved, ‘it’s glorious out here. Don’t be such a plompy!’ In his research he’d followed tramps across London and lost all critical ability. He’d been absorbed by his characters. Still the urge to express and nothing whatever to say. Camilla ran dripping out of the sea, the dog jumping up at her. She looked at Simon scratching on the rocks. She hadn’t the slightest idea what to tell her friends. Simon was her sedative, good at roasting and well-trained in cunnilingus. Poor lamb! Really she’d have to do something about his Englishness. It was killing him, the lie-downs in the afternoon and the v-neck sweaters.
Simon viewed every fisherman as an obstacle to be avoided. He ignored their cries of ‘Coming from?’ ‘Enjoying?’ with an irritable shake of his head. He grabbed Camilla’s arm to propel her to the safety of the hotel precincts. His fingers pinched her brown skin. ‘Why are you such a prick arse? Look, here’s Coco Joe with the mangoes. You need to do a course in anger management or, perhaps, gender readjustment?’
The children from the fishing village had built a miniature replica from a pack of old playing cards. The temple was constructed from discarded syringes. Blame it on the Gerries. Little boy, with Camilla’s help, tweaked the triangular cards, making precise adjustments to village life. A girl in a blue dress dragged a plastic bottle full of sand around the village walls. Camilla made engine noises. Simon smiled blandly. Heat was making him wobbly. He already had an intestinal souvenir from their last trip to the Caribbean. He sat on the sand and remembered corn cobs, cooking on roadside braziers. Superstitions: loups garoux, soucriants and zombies. Masochistic drift to thoughts as mind blanks under empty skies. Fantasy of power, picked up by Goan policemen with bite on shoulder. Restrained with ropes. They parade me through the night market on a leash. ‘Will you take a picture Simon of Coco Joe’s children?’ Simon fumbled with the camera: ‘Say cheese.’ Six little voices shouted: ‘Cheese wallah.’ Camilla ran on ahead with Jenner yapping at her heels.
They dined at the Olive Ridley, watching the red Brahminy kites circle overhead. A pond heron stalked crabs on the beach, stealthily extending its huge spidery claw. Gilbert, the barman, whispered to Camilla: ‘Like the whispering wind you must believe.’ Simon scratched his rash and was shocked to see a man emerging from the sea, mobile-phone glued to his ear. Camilla insisted on smoking some very strong cannabis which Gilbert had brought, wrapped in the Hindu Herald. Simon remembered the mandatory twenty-year jail sentence for possession. Gilbert was offering Camilla an ear massage and mouthing something about a ‘French affair with Indian flair.’ My God these folks were verbose! Erratic colonic tremors, brought on by the cannabis and feeling of fear, necessitated an urgent trip to the privy.
Wearing Camilla’s floral flip-flops and yellow lungi, he gingerly stepped between quacking ducks and banana trees, wrapped in a red towel clutching a toilet roll. He noticed a European man, nattily dressed as if it was still 1970, smoking a joint in the yard. He smiled. Toilet was a disgrace. Stunk like a pig pen. Simon strained away at a canoe-shaped turd, veins turned to wood, ears popping, to the sympathetic encouragement of a lowing long-horned cow. The lowing became confused with his own grunting. He couldn’t tell if he were man or beast. In the darkness, with the venomous millipede, Simon realised that wishes and fears were part and parcel of the same thing. Fear of violence, machetes in the moonlight, abused by toothless Coco Joe. Really a masochistic desire for violent death and multiple anal rape. Two sides of the same soiled coin. The male mind was a sewer in monsoon.
Camilla’s eyes were soft and dreamy. Crumpled smile strung across her face. Her seventh Margarita sparkled in the light from the chandeliers, hanging from the bread fruit trees. The proprietor had certainly created a bit of an ambience. Huge, red curtains were gathered together in the branches: a stage set opening onto darkness and the Indian night. Gilbert was hennaing Camilla’s arm with an Om, ‘I never indulge in Eve teasing. Tonight we go on turtle patrol. Must protect their eggs from hungry fishermen. Have many friends in Green-peace. Own e-mail address.’ When Simon closed his eyes he saw crumbling faces, snarling profiles in top hats, houses twisting through space and, worryingly, huge cosmic fungi. ‘Yes, Camilla, that sounds like fun. I think I may take it easy for a while.’ Camilla had chosen him to avenge her parent’s choice of unsuitable first husband.
Camilla’s eyes shone with the brittle glitter of a winter palace. ‘Why not get Vasssu to massage some of those knots out of your tummy?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Sexually, he’s a dromedary.’
Let her go on turtle patrol with skinny-legged Gilbert in his Nike nylon shorts. They could work their way through the Karma Sutra in the warm surf watching ancient turtles copulate. He’d heard of a brothel in Mapusa, 300 rupees for a fuck. Nymphets threw up their saris and away you went. Hilltop, that was the name. Belgian proprietor, after some exploratory cock-sniffing, had told him all about it over a couple of Kingfishers.
‘Your boyfriend, is he okay? He’s getting too high?’
‘I’m fine thanks, Gilbert. I’ve smoked stronger weed in Shepherd’s Bush.’
He watched the torch beam darting across the beach and heard Camilla’s giggles. Gilbert was chatting animatedly about close encounters with dolphins, Jenner trotted close behind. Spotlight grew smaller as Simon reached for a Mogadon.
When he looked up, a stylish European sat opposite him. His black wing collars stuck out over his white jacket. Simon was enjoying mild hallucinations. Hanging baskets by the hotel porch metamorphosed into severed heads.
‘Fucking India! Zey live like pigs. You see ze Goan toilet. Wooden floor with a drop below. Pigs eats ze shit and we eat ze pigs.’ Serge started to laugh and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. Simon’s head nodded in unison.
‘Serge. Nine months here in catering business, three months back in France. Every day eat fish: grilled fish, King fish masala, King fish curry, I say surprise me and the chef he give me fish!’ Serge laughed waspishly with a slight wheeze, lit a Gold Flake. ‘I show you good time. Full moon party in bamboo forest, near old Portuguese fortress.’
Simon smiled, he liked attention, even from Frenchmen. He wasn’t unattractive, if you discounted his scalp-to-toe body rash which could be mistaken for mild sunburn. But it made Camilla’s possessive touch unbearable. She had her needs and he was a masturbator. He puffed out his chest like a courting pigeon. ‘Yes, I’m a bit of a big wig in London. You know, made a killing in the ‘80s. Taking it easy. Lapping up the local colour. You’re right about the fish, though. Can’t you get any turtle on the black market?’
Serge offered him a pill: a hard yellow disc with a pyramid. Enclosed within it was a lash-fringed eye. Fucking hell! Give Camilla a run for her money. He and psychedelics did not, as a rule, get on. Not since the last time, as a teenager, he’d wrenched the hotel room door off its hinges, stood in the foyer with a shaved head in his mother’s nightdress. Parental relations had never recovered.
‘I’m Simon. I know a bit about these raves. A mate of mine sets up strobes and liquids with phaser pedals.’ This was the nice thing about India, you could reinvent yourself every twenty seconds. In reality, Simon was a part-time writer and prison visitor. He liked talking to those silent men, gaining their approval. Something to do with his remote father.
The moped hurtled across the red laterite road, honking furiously at the odd sleepy cow ambling out of the undergrowth. Little kiosks sold fried nuts in newspaper cones. Shrines to Ganesh flashed from red to green. ‘Tiens...! Hold me here!’ Serge shouted, indicating his paunch, as they weaved through coconut trees. ‘Fucking freedom!’ yelled Simon, punching the air with his fist. The idiocy of this radical gesture haunted him for the rest of the journey. Soon he smelled diesel and the thump of Goan trance, what Camilla termed ‘insect music.’ Bikes flung here and there in the coconut grove. Incense and cannabis smoke spot-lit by a roving mauve light. On the crest of the hill was the old Portuguese fortress painted in day-glo orange.
The latrines of Europe had been flushed out onto this beautiful hilltop spot. Tattooed Austrians with Sitting Bull staring from their biceps sat, empty-eyed, pulling greedily on chillums. Pierced English girls in turquoise lungis, with over-expansive gestures and grinding teeth, flung themselves under the trees, undulating on the octopus ride of controlled substances. Simon dismounted and noticed human shit on the path around the sweet water lagoon. Germans in leather thongs beat out-of-tune bongos. Serge gripped Simon’s shoulder and propelled him towards the illuminated fortress, ‘we make party. You like me? You like adventure? You’re not into boring sex? You experiment a little, oui?’ Pressure of bodies and buzzing in his ears made Simon tremble. Satinal trail curved from Serge’s jacket. Balls of his feet were damp. Simon clutched his saffron lungi. A huge, naked man, painted green, brushed into him. He pointed at Simon. ‘Give it up man, you know it’s bullshit!’