Everybody is mad about something. Me? I never had the chance to hope, let alone dream. Hope, ha! A twisted illusion; sometimes the more you looked for it, the less likely you were to find it. Fact is, I didn’t even know what I was hoping for, let alone what my dreams were.
After everything, after all of it, the best I can come up with is this: is there anything purer than a child’s desire to love and be loved? For one who was deprived themselves, who learnt no way to express it once grown, there is nothing more torturous. My father’s eyes revealed the cracks to a fractured soul, a deep grief his backhand slap was quick to share.
His last words to me? You’re out of control, Jan, heading towards a red light. His stern face added to the insult, saying I lived by a misguided sense of right and wrong.
I have my reasons for why my life is the way it is, and when push comes to shove, you do what you have to do, for no one else will! I know now my sins are my own to bear and I’ll be the judge of them from here on out as I alone must live with them. As for the sins imposed on me by others? Well, only death will resolve that shit.
Delhi 1975 – Two years after leaving Australia.
I shifted in my seat trying to get comfortable. Well, as comfortable as one can expect when your blood is crudely being sucked from your veins in a make-shift hospital; if you can even call it that. More like a tent with some ancient medical apparatus. Fortunately for me, my blood type is rare and therefore in demand throughout Asia. There’d been many times I hadn’t eaten for days, funds running seriously low, and tapping my arm for a cash top up was the best available option to stave off starvation. If I were lucky, they’d throw in a free sandwich. Two for one!
Barely a year into my travels, I had reached Thailand and I’d practically sold everything in my rucksack. I’d had to start thinking about other options. Staring down the barrel of not knowing where your next meal would come from, sleeping on the ground for months on end, you tend to move past some ethical boundaries. You meet people who show you things, take you places, like the cockfights. I crossed this little dilemma when I couldn’t even afford a bottle of clean water. Tap water stank, even a sniff would give me a bout of dysentery.
In Chiang Mai, a travel companion introduced me to cockfighting in a bar aptly named Last Resort. He convinced me the roosters were eaten afterwards so there was no real problem. Turns out I won a fair bit that afternoon, enough to fund me for another couple of months, and that sort of win pushed away any remnants of dilemmas about right and wrong. I have to admit, I loved the thrill of the win in a cockfight.
The familiar sting as the needle left my vein. If given the luxury of choice, bloodletting was my preferred source of income over gambling, and no doubt this time I’d stagger out with just enough juice in my body to keep me vertical, as every other time. A few hours of dizziness are a small sacrifice in search of the middle road and to keep my adventure going. This time I had to re-evaluate my theory as they drained me of one bag too many. Dizzy was an understatement.
Pulling back the tent flap, I was belted by the sounds of the street, car horns reverberating through my head. The sunlight blinding, I bumped into a stream of people like a dodgem car. Don’t fall over, Jan, just stand here for a sec. I was as unsteady as a drunken sailor.
An old Mercedes in mint condition slowly drove past then stopped and slowly reversed back alongside me. The back-seat window rolled down, a dark man wearing black-as-night sunglasses asked me if I was OK. He wasn’t Indian, his English was too clean. Pretending not to hear him, I dug into my bag for my own sunglasses and slipped them on. My eyes adjusted. The man hopped out of the car.
‘Are you OK?’ he asked.
‘Thanks, yes, fine.’ Turning to walk away.
He grabbed my shoulder. ‘Jan?’
Fuck, this is all I need right now. I could barely speak let alone deal with this.
‘It’s Dion, we met at the… in Sydney. Must be a few years back now.’
He had my attention. I raised my sunglasses to take a closer look, my vision still blurry.
‘I understand how this must look. It’s OK though.’
I wasn’t convinced.
‘I’m glad to see you again. May I ask, can I buy you some lunch?’ He pointed to a populated restaurant a few shops down, followed by a smile no woman could forget.
My mind was bending, but there was no denying this was Dion. For a while there, he and his — well, entourage — were regulars at the club I’d danced in, the Whisky A Go-Go in Kings Cross, Sydney’s infamous red light district. I’d assumed they were amongst the American soldiers out on R&R we were paid to entertain. I hadn’t made any connection between him and the sub-continent.
With that dark olive skin and even darker eyes, all the girls had a crush on him, me included, though it could have been due to his more-than-generous tips.
‘Up to you, but from the look of you I’d say you need a decent meal,’ he said calmly.
‘Of all the gin joints in all the world — ’ I smiled reluctantly. It was good to see a familiar face.
He nodded to his driver who rolled the car forward to park out front.
Dion pulled out my chair as a waiter placed two menus on the table. I scanned the menu for any English. No such luck, all in Hindu. I looked up, catching Dion’s eye. He knew I was struggling, his face softened.
‘You know, I haven’t a clue what any of this is,’ I said through a nervous chuckle. His looks really were disarming. ‘Can you please order something vegetarian for me?’
The waiter leaned in to take Dion’s order and he spoke to him in an English Hindu blend. That slight French accent! The waiter gave a short bow and scurried off. This food better come soon, or I’ll need to be scraped off the floor.
Sizing him up I asked, ‘What are you doing here, Dion?’
‘I was checking in on the medical facility you came out of. I helped set it up. And low and behold, I saw that hair. I’d recognize it anywhere. I couldn’t believe it.’
‘Well, that makes two of us.’
The waiter reappeared to pour the chai tea. I thanked him.
‘It has grown out of control since the club days,’ I laughed, taking a sip. ‘I take it you live in Delhi?’
‘No, just here for work. My work often brings me here.’ His eyes fixed a little deeper into mine.
‘What work is that?’ I asked, innocently enough.
He had been such a topic of gossip at the club. No one knew what he did but he certainly seemed well-respected by all the big names in town, which usually added up to no good. And here I was, sitting face to face with him in a random teahouse in a random country. All more than a bit weird, but nevertheless I was intrigued. There was an undisputable easiness between us, though he was clearly in an entirely different league to me.
‘Oh, this and that. Let’s just say I’m in the business of helping people who can’t help themselves.’ Well, that sure as hell is saying something and nothing at the same time. ‘Tell me about you, Jan. How you came to be here.’
‘Well, obviously I didn’t want to dance forever, that really was a means to an end. I guess this is the end.’
My club memories made me slightly embarrassed and self-conscious. When Tommy, the Whisky owner, introduced us I could hardly speak. I was only seventeen at the time and very shy.
“The end, Jan? I’d like to think it’s the beginning of something.’
When the food arrived, I changed the topic to my desire to spend time on a houseboat in Kashmir. It had been a dream of mine ever since Robyn, a seasoned English backpacker I danced with for a few months, described her own experiences on one. Surprisingly he knew all about the area, enthusiastically describing Jammu and Srinagar in detail.
Dion said he admired my youth and the bravado I had, travelling alone. My mood lightened as the food digested, my mind and body felt semi-human again. We continued talking and laughing for what seemed like hours. He was a smooth operator, no doubt, and perhaps I was blinded by his charm and exceptional good looks, but it didn’t occur to me to distrust his intentions.
Dion was staying at the most expensive hotel in Delhi while I was crashing at a doss house with other travellers. It wasn’t the Ritz, but was clean and comfortable enough, with meals, mosquito nets and at least half the ceiling fans working. He asked if I would like a suite at his hotel. Before he finished the sentence, I cut him off.
‘No,’ I said. It came out stronger than I had intended. Did he think I was a working girl? Was this what all this was about?
‘Understandable.’ His hands up. ‘I don’t mean to impose. It’s smart not to trust a stranger.’ Dion recognized he had overstepped a mark. ‘Please forgive my forwardness. I can see how you must have taken that. Please, I didn’t mean to imply you’re a… No, Jan. I’m sorry, that is not what I meant at all.’ He looked genuinely panicked.
‘Let me try again. Would you like to see some sights with me? My car is at the ready and I’d love to show you some of my favourite places.’ I must have still looked rather stunned. He gave me a smile that took my breath away, and caution was completely thrown to the wind.
‘I would very much like to share an Indian marvel at dusk with you.’ Hands together, as if in prayer.
‘OK, Dion, sightseeing is why I’m here. Let’s do it.’
I hadn’t got to where I was by taking the paved road, and frankly, life had thrown me so many bloody curve balls I had no real problem with recklessness.
‘Excellent. Off to Agra then, a magic destination, roughly a hundred and fifty miles from here.’
Jesus, I thought he meant local sights.
‘If we leave now we will be there in no time at all.’
Yeah right, we’re talking Indian time here. As comfortable as Dion made me feel both here and back in Sydney, what on earth possessed me to take a ride with him? If, for whatever reason, I required a sudden exit, it would be a long way back to the doss house. Oh well, in for a penny in for a pound. Have to take some risks. Isn’t that what you do when you travel?
The roads outside all the major cities in India are atrocious, although the Indians are generally grateful to have any at all. This particular road was typical, covered with gaping pot-holes, crazy drivers, motorbikes hauling entire families, and then there were the meandering sacred cows holding up traffic; who, by the way, always had right-of-way over humans.
Dion was proving a great conversationalist, sharing his knowledge of the passing sights and terrains. He told me a little about himself, delving into his education at Oxford and his less-than-modest home in Madagascar. Dion claimed to be of African royal blood on his father’s side, a prince, and from his manners he could have been telling the truth or be a master con-artist; the jury was out on that one.
Learning of Dion’s privileged upbringing, there wasn’t a chance in hell I was about to drop into the equation that I never finished school. This would have only led to more questions, and those answers were in the vault. Then again, he knew I had been an exotic dancer before legal age.
Agra is the site of the Taj Mahal, the magnificent memorial built by the emperor Shan Johan after the death of his favourite wife in 1629. I was in awe, one of the Seven Wonders of the New World right in front of me. There weren’t enough words to describe its wonder and majestic beauty, especially at night; the illumination from a full moon was breath-taking. We walked around the grounds and then sat in silence marvelling at the architecture, a perfect setting for lovers. Thankful I agreed to come, I even mentioned to Dion that, if he were lucky, I’d let him bring me back during the day.
Time was getting on and we had a long journey home. We eventually arrived back in Delhi long after dark. Dion dropped me off at the doss house. He kissed the back of my hand whilst appraising me at the same time, absolutely the gentleman.
‘I am leaving tomorrow evening, Jan. Will you give me the pleasure of taking you sightseeing during the day?’ He was talking my language.
‘I think you know the answer to that.’ I was still holding his hand. This man was something else; I knew I had to see him again. Romance had not featured in my travels so far, hell, it hadn’t featured in my life at all, and I figured I was due some.
‘Pick you up at 8.’ I practically had to pry myself away.
Stepping through the front door I turned to have a sneaky look back. My heart fluttered, he was waiting for me to enter the house. Chivalry was not dead with this one.
I was up at the crack of dawn for my daily meditation. Mind and body are clearest first thing. It’s the best time of day for meditating, something I’d picked up from a friend, Old Ben, in Sumatra.
I gave myself plenty of time to bathe and ready myself for my outing with Dion. The streets outside were already bustling. Another mystery trip, I didn’t want to seem overly zealous, but my enthusiasm pretty much ended as soon as we were back on the treacherous and impossible roads. You’d have thought I’d be used to them by now. Travelling down from Nepal by bus had been frightening enough. I’d lost count of how many times I expected to plunge off a cliff in a ball of flames.
High on my Indian to-do list was to visit the Ganges River. The Ganges is an extremely spiritual river to the Indians. They bathe in it, clean their clothes, swim and use it as a toilet; they even burn their dead and scatter their loved one’s ashes in it. Dion had planned a romantic sail down one of its tributaries, except it turned out anything but. I was mortified. The river was flooded, teaming with bloated dead animals and debris. I was dry retching from the combined stenches.
Little did I know, the worst was still to come. Floating past the boat was a half-burnt, contorted dead man, resembling some sort of blackened, mutated balloon. I ran to the side of the boat and threw up. How romantic, Jan! Seeing death and poverty all over Asia was to be expected, for some reason this hit me like a bat, the extreme opposites of this world overwhelmed and saddened me.
We sailed straight back to shore, not a word was said. I’d seen dead bodies on the roads and countless lepers, but this was different. These images would bore into my memory forever; some things just stick!
Arriving back in Delhi, Dion asked if I wanted anything to eat. I thought he was kidding; my face was just returning from a dark shade of green. Instead we took a long walk around Old Delhi’s enchanting Chandni Chawk Markets. Our time was running out; he was leaving the city shortly after our walk.
‘So, have you decided to head up to the houseboats in Srinagar?’ Dion asked.
‘Definitely. I’m not missing that.’
‘How are you planning to travel to Jammu?’
I’d been contemplating that exact question myself. ‘Seems the only half-safe route is to catch a never-ending series of trains and buses.’ Shrugging my shoulders. Wasn’t this typical of India?
‘I will give you a phone number of an associate of mine, Max. He’s the best pilot around. He’s always up around that area. He’s in logistics with me, ferrying goods around. I’m sure he’d have no problems taking a little extra cargo if you two can meet up somewhere along the line. Could save you a lot of time and money.’
He had my ear, despite my absolute dread of planes.
‘A little warning in advance, he can be a cranky bastard at the best of times. But if it were possible, he’d be my one and only pilot.’ Confidence in his voice, this was becoming a very attractive option. Dion continued, ‘No strings attached, Jan, but would you like to stay in my suite? I had to book it for the whole night because of my late departure. It’s all paid for. It’d be a shame to waste it. Check out isn’t until two tomorrow afternoon.’
I stood looking up into his clear eyes. There was an earnestness and gentleness in them that I had not witnessed before. I felt a sense of security wash over me; he was offering some overdue comfort. But the voice inside my head niggled away. What the fuck am I doing? Is this guy going to kill me or am I just paranoid?
He must have read my thoughts.
‘Please Jan, I won’t be there. The suite is yours and yours alone, I promise.’ Backed with another warm and genuine smile.
‘There is something about you, Dion. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet,’ Knowing there was a hot bath and a soft bed was all it took for me to take this leap of faith. ‘But OK, thank you. I will.’
‘I’m pleased. Order whatever from room service. All is taken care of.’ Reaching inside his jacket he pulled out a pen and wrote down four phone numbers, his home address in Madagascar and the name and details of a very good friend of his in Srinagar. Handing it to me, he added, ‘Jopin will organize a houseboat for you.’ Pointing to the name at the top.
‘No, Dion, that’s too much. I can manage from there, thank you, though.’
‘Just call him, Jan. It would take weeks, if not months, to organize this yourself. Please accept my offer. This is a great opportunity for you.’
After collecting my bags from the doss house, he asked, ‘Any chance you could be in Bombay in a few weeks’ time?’
‘Bombay? Um, hadn’t thought about it. Why?’
‘A few openings have come up in some business operations I have running and if you’re interested in making some extra money, I might be able to offer you some work,’ he delicately suggested.
This was interesting. I’d love to keep travelling with a full body of blood, but what did he have in mind? I thought about it for a short while. This guy wasn’t known for his regular church-going back at the Whisky.
‘What kind of jobs?’ I asked warily.
‘Let’s talk in depth about it all later. Plenty of time for details then. Just keep in touch,’ he said.
A team of porters greeted us before we entered the foyer, and from the way they fussed over him, I wondered if maybe he was telling the truth about being a prince. Dion took me up to the suite to collect his luggage and settle me in. The opulence was overwhelming, but I couldn’t focus on my surrounds. I stood by as he assembled his cases, hoping he meant what he’d said and this wasn’t some ploy to get me into his bed. Turning to me, he took my hand and again, kissed it softly.
‘OK, Jan, we will be seeing each other in Bombay in around four weeks,’ raising his eyebrow with a confirming nod.
I returned his nod.
The timing was perfect. Maybe too perfect. A little red flag was waving in the back of my brain. Tomorrow I was to make the trek to Srinagar, ‘heaven on earth’, something that barely over 24 hours ago I would have thought ridiculous. My instincts were telling me to roll with it. Maybe we had crossed paths again for this reason. Dion kissed my cheek and took his leave, shutting the door behind him.
I didn’t know what to think, what to do. Hunger kicked in. I hadn’t eaten anything substantial in what felt like months. I could’ve eaten everything on that room service menu. I ordered a BLT with French fries, a slice of cheesecake, all topped off with a strawberry milkshake. Fatten myself up while I had the chance.
The huge room was tastefully furnished with antiques and housed an ornate king sized four-poster bed, overlooking the city. I had to pinch myself, nothing good ever miraculously appeared at my feet. My senses were always on high alert. I’m not suspicious by nature, I’m suspicious from experience. But maybe this time I was wrong. Maybe good things can just happen.
I enquired at the front desk about my travel plans. A train to Amritsar was leaving at eleven the next morning. A connecting bus would then take me to Jammu. The night manager sorted the bookings as I looked around the foyer, feeling pretty pleased with myself.
I slept like a rock that night and woke early for my morning ritual of meditation; ordered breakfast then took a long and lingering bath, not knowing when I would have another good soak. It was still early and, having a few hours to kill, I thought I’d head out for a stroll. Walking through the hotel entrance, the receptionist and one of the bellboys dashed over to warn me of the hazards of walking the streets alone.
The day before, I had noticed there were hardly any white people around the markets and on the streets. Their concerns made me hesitate. Maybe it wasn’t such a clever idea, so I erred on the side of caution and stayed in. Gave me an excuse to lap up all this luxury.
I’d never stayed somewhere this fancy. I’d heard it was customary to take the hotel bath robe and really soft towels, so in the backpack they went. A hotel bellboy carried my luggage and escorted me down to the lobby. I sat on a beautifully carved wooden lounge with luxurious over-stuffed cushions, pretending to be someone who is someone while watching the other guests come and go.