At 4am the roosters began crowing, and by 6am the sun had come up and was boiling the aluminium hut in which Anna slept. It was June, just a few days after the start of the monsoon, and the first thing Anna noticed when she awoke was the distinct smell of dampness all around her, seeming to have soaked into the building overnight during the cacophonic pounding of the rain on the roof. The dirt floor of her room had also somehow seemed to acquire a quality of moistness as well, and on the other bed in the corner of the room the old man she had been forced to share with slept like a damp fish.
All around there was the distinct sense of an unquiet silence, the kind only felt in this way in India. The countryside of Madhya Pradesh prowled like an empty fen outside the house, empty and yet somehow seeming to buzz with an innate liveliness – and then, within moments, the first sounds of children playing tapped peremptorily on the walls and on the eardrums. Already, even at this early hour, the children were out in the playground and playing football and shouting at each other, and to sleepy ears the noise was too much. It made Anna uncomfortable. Under the thin, threadbare sheet she used as a duvet, a swell of annoyance grappled her chest, and she covered her delicate ears with her old potato sack of a pillow.
Her days had started in this manner for the past three weeks, with the increasing number of irritants to wake her up in the morning. Added to this was now the fact that the rains had come, and the noise of the rain on aluminium kept her up for most hours of the night. For a moment, lying on her unaccommodating camp bed, she helplessly let her imagination wonder what it would be like if she were home right now. If she were still in Suffolk, she would be in her luxurious double bed, swallowed within the reams of deep, warm bed-sheets and in the fabulous hold of her well-known mattress, dreaming about her boyfriend (no, she remembered – he was her ex-boyfriend now. No amount of daydreaming can change that.) She would have nothing to get up for; there were no jobs that needed doing, no school to be going to now she had left (almost exactly a year ago now!); there were no demands on her life, no pressing exigencies to disturb her existence. She wondered briefly if maybe she would have a job now if she were home – perhaps behind the bar in the village pub – but then thought probably not. She was well enough financed by her parents, and the idea of working at the village pub frightened her untowardly. No, she would have nothing to get up for. The first thing she would do would be to make herself some breakfast. And what a range of food she could choose from! There was the always extensively packed cupboard of cereal, and the bread bin containing bread of all the shapes and forms that waitrose had to offer (there was the occasional pack of bagels from tesco too), and the meat tray in the fridge and the gourmet biscuits in the tin. She pictured for herself now exactly what she would do – a salmon and Philadelphia cheese bagel maybe – no! a full English breakfast, complete with bacon, fried egg, mushrooms and buttered toast – God how she missed waitrose salted butter! – and a cup of strong, milkless tea, and then a glass of apple juice as well. She had read somewhere that milkless tea stops you gaining weight, so she always had milkless tea. Unless she was with friends, in which case she disguised this habit and had milk, albeit skimmed if possible.
For a few moments Anna lay there dreaming her wonderful dream, and pretending that she was not where she was, feeling what she was feeling. Those children were getting awfully loud…
With a start Anna threw her head up as the door of her room was thrown open, and the warden of the orphanage exploded inside like a puppy from a cage. The look on his face, however, immediately told her something was quite urgently wrong. He began to insistently beckon her out of the room, waving his hand in a ‘follow’ signal and frowning at her like a manic bulldog. He did not speak any English, and was accustomed to communicating with Anna like this, but when after a few seconds Anna did not move, dumbstruck as she was staring at him, he ran over to the other side of the room and physically pulled her from her bed.
‘Ow!’ squealed Anna in annoyance. ‘Stop it! Give me one minute! Puh-lease!’
But the warden could not understand her, and would not have stopped even if he could. Anna just about caught the sight of the old man waking up in his bed as she flew past out the door, staring with a face of stunned confusion at the scene combusting before him.
The warden pulled Anna, tugging and squealing, down the corridor, where she managed to force her wrist from his hand. He barely looked back at her, however, as he continued to stride urgently down the corridor, and she felt the obligation to continue following him anyway, although with the sour sauce of recrimination festering like a fungus within her. It is a dreadful fact in life that where two cultures misunderstand each other, anger is the first emotion. In that moment, watching the back of the Indian man as he marched insolently down the filthy, shattered-concrete corridors of the orphanage, all littered with dust, mud and innumerable, indescribable scraps of food and packaging, Anna hated him. She hated him. She was furious. It was him that was making her do this; him that was making her do jobs she despised; him that was the reason everything in this goddamn country was so messed up. With fierce, reluctant feet she followed him, and guessed after a sudden left turn through the ‘playground’ (if it could be called that) that they were heading for either the dormitories or the sick bay.
It was Isla’s fault really. Her older sister had taken a gap year four years before, when Anna was just fifteen, and she made Anna feel as if she had to live up to it because the forces of sibling rivalry, however amicable, run deeper than the earth’s crust. Isla had gone to Tanzania with Raleigh International and built orphanages and irrigation systems, and then stayed a month more to build a library in a primary school. To Anna at that age, having only experienced the warm enfolds of her Suffolk home and the comfortable retreat of her boarding school, Marlborough, Isla’s trip sounded like the tales of King Arthur. Although it terrified her at first, and though she only really wanted to stay within her comfort zone and go straight to Newcastle from school as she had planned to, she made herself take a gap year. All her friends were doing it after all. It just took some real guts to say that she was going to work in an orphanage in India by herself.
She knew why she had wanted to do it. She had heard the reams of gap year people flowing in and out of her living room for the past four years, friends of Isla’s who had gone to Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal or Costa Rica, and who had done amazing, life-changing things to help people of different backgrounds and cultures. When asked, she could reel off her reasons for travelling to India on her fingers: to experience a different culture; to get outside her comfort zone; to expand her horizons; to help the less fortunate. Yes, to help the less fortunate – surely that was exactly why anyone would take a gap year. If questioned further she would without doubt say that that was her main aim. But now she was here, now that she had witnessed for herself the riotous squalor of the place, and the apathy and the hateful, hateful ways of the people, she did not think that. She hated everything about it. She hated the horrible, bizarre people she did not understand; she hated the animals; she hated the weather; she even hated the children. Children! Yes, she even hated them. They were loud and rude, and they did not understand personal space, or that her belongings belonged to her. And encroaching on it all like a lizard sitting atop a hideous, crawling anthill was the feeling that all this filth, all this idiocy, all this poverty was their fault.
She thought she must be a racist.
‘These are racist thoughts,’ she thought to herself as she walked. ‘These are things that a racist would think.’ But she did not care. Her swell of furious emotion was too great, and her desire to be at home and have it over with had seized her like a licentious hand.
Through the playground and into the concrete boarding house they went, and here the warden led her into one of the dormitories. Already, with horror, she had guessed what he was going to show her.
The dormitory was a long, dark space, made of bare concrete and precarious wooden beams. All along either side of the room mattresses were laid down so as to create a walkway down the centre, though the mattresses were so low and so grey that one could hardly tell between them and the floor. There must have been fifty of them altogether, squashed into this unnatural space. The dank smell of moisture hung like a wet coat in the air, and also something else deeply unpleasant which was more uncertain. Anna entered to find a crowd of children, all aged between five and twelve, gathered around one mattress about halfway down, all staring at what lay on it. As soon as they saw the warden, however, they moved as a herd further down the room, and then stared from a distance.
By the bed crouched the local doctor. Anna knew he was the doctor because he had visited several times already in the short while she had been there, and he spoke good enough English to engage her in conversation. He was on his knees, and only gave a quick flicker of the eyes and a nod of the head to acknowledge Anna as she approached. On the bed lay a child – she could have been no more than eight years old – folded like a small, damp thing on her filthy grey sheet. She was breathing harshly and infrequently, as if her body could not bring air into her alarmingly thin, fleshless limbs. She appeared more alien than human, wasting away into some foreign universe. And then suddenly the smell erupted as Anna neared, the most disgusting smell she had ever encountered, like the dredges of compost, or the rotting of dead matter. At the paramount of disgust Anna realised that the bed the child lay on was covered with the refuse of the human body, and she immediately thought she was going to be sick. She withheld an incredible urge to retch.
The doctor, looking up with old, inured eyes, remembered how to explain what the problem was in English.
‘Typhoid.’ He said.
Anna had left her body. Typhoid! Of course, with the start of the rainy season the water systems here couldn’t possibly cope. How could a country as useless and horrible as this avoid typhoid in the water? Hateful, hateful place! She stared and stared, horrified and transfixed at the sickly child ebbing away into its death, and the warden and the doctor both seemed to beg her with their eyes, imploring her to do something, though what no one could possibly say.
And as she stared, as horrified as she was with both what she saw and at herself, she thought to herself: ‘I’ll be able to say that I saw a child die of typhoid.’
And it was true. She could see herself now, standing at a drinks party in her sitting room, telling her ex-boyfriend with an air of sagely sincerity about how she saw with her own eyes a child die of typhoid in the orphanage she worked at in India, and then quickly changing the topic to what he had been doing as if she didn’t want to dwell on it. It would seem as if she had grown up ten years in just one. Though, God, she wished Henry were here now… Just two months more, she thought, just two months more and she’d be home. Maybe she’d see him again – or maybe she wouldn’t. She didn’t know, and after all they had split up for a reason. She just wanted to be at home…
The dying girl coughed and spluttered, and the warden began speaking to the doctor in fast, hushed Hindi. Then they both looked at her, as if they wanted answers for their problem. Anna wanted to cry. She wanted to run, to get out, fly straight home and show the world how grown up she had become. She had only come here so she could say she had done this. There was nothing she could do for these people.
She stared and stared at the girl, dying of typhoid, failing even to reach a reasonable age in her life, trickling away into the valley of death as another nameless, numberless entity to pass briefly through a poverty-ridden country. But she didn’t care. This was what happened in India, she thought. It’s what I bring with me back to England that matters. The girl coughed again, and breathed in as if it might be her last.
Two more months, she thought, two more months and home, two more months and bagels, bacon and butter, two more months and a comfortable bed, television, central heating, warm showers, pizza, ice cream, Henry…