I’ve got a wee hangover today. Too much champagne yesterday and not enough water. I don’t mind hangovers. I had a kidney infection a couple of months ago and I didn’t like that. With a kidney infection you don’t know when it will stop. I mean, once the antibiotics kick in it should only be another day or so, but kidney infections can be persistent (that’s not what the doctor told me that’s what I learned from the internet). So if I had to choose between a kidney infection and a hangover, I’d choose the hangover. With a hangover, you know that it’s only a matter of time. A hydralyte, an icy pole, the leftover chips from the night before, lie on the couch and know that it will all be over soon.
Well, the physical side of it. But the regret. God that lingers, doesn’t it? It will be Thursday before I’ve recovered from that. I always talk too much. I tell myself I won’t, but then I always do. Not bad things. Not secrets. But indiscretions. Too much information. Things that the world doesn’t need to know.
I woke up at five this morning which is partly the jetlag and partly the champagne.
‘Mister,’ I said. He didn’t move. ‘Mister, did I say anything stupid yesterday?’
‘Did I say anything stupid?’
‘Why don’t you go back to sleep?’
‘I did, didn’t I? I talked too much and I embarrassed you.’
Snore. (That’s him, not me).
The only cure I’ve got for talking too much is writing. I’m not sure why that works. I mean writing is just another way of talking, isn’t it? And talking is what I’m trying to run away from. But I do want to write about my trek before it fades too far into the past and now is as good a time as any. The call to prayer has echoed its way from there to here and back again. The sun hasn’t quite come up, and the moon, almost full, hasn’t gone down. I’ve finished the chips and the icy pole and I’m halfway through the hydralyte. Time to write.
Let me tell you about my trek.
I’ll start with the worst, because they always make the best stories, the worst parts do, don’t they? So: the overnight train. I love overnight trains. The cabins, the white sheets on the beds, the rocking…the overpriced sandwiches, pulling in and out of stations…the Agatha Christie romance of it all. Yeah, nah. This wasn’t that. Overcrowded, ripped curtains instead of chunky doors, foul-smelling toilets. And barely an hour into the trip our guide told us that we had to wake up at 3 am because on the last trip he’d guided, ‘Something went wrong.’ This unspecified something happened at a station or series of stations that we would be passing through at 3 am.
‘What something?’ I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me. I tried to explain that I have an excellent imagination and that anything he told me could not be worse than the things I was currently thinking. But his lips were sealed.
Not everyone woke up at 3 am, but I did. And at about 3.15, I saw a rat running down the corridor. Of the train. Maybe it was a mouse, but the train was dark and dirty and crowded and that was definitely a rodent. I don’t think that was the something the guide was warning us about, but oh god, a rat. On the train. I did not get a lot of sleep after that.
Actually, do you know what? I was going to tell you some more about that train, and what I did while I wasn’t sleeping, but the train wasn’t the worst part. Not by a long way.
We had a car accident. The accident itself wasn’t that bad, it was what went on in my head afterwards that was the worst.
We’d finished the trek and spent a night in the most beautiful beds in the world (no, seriously, they were beds like none of us had ever experienced before, the mattresses the perfect balance of soft and firm, the pillows and quilts like clouds, the sheets as smooth as a baby’s skin) and we were travelling in a small convoy of toyotas back to the train that would take us back to Delhi.
I was dreading it. Another night with the rats and the great unspoken something. It was Thursday afternoon, I wouldn’t get back to Adelaide until Sunday morning during which time I would not spend a single night in a hotel. Train, day in Delhi with a hotel booked until the plane, a sixteen hour layover in Changi, plane, Adelaide. So I was sitting in the car, making a joke of it with my newly-made friend because clichefully if you don’t laugh you’ll cry, when there was a solid thump on the roof of our car.
A rock had fallen from the hill and hit our car. We pulled over to the side of the road and I thought we must have been stopping to check that everything with our car was okay. But we were stopping because the car behind us had also been hit by a rock, and that rock had smashed the windscreen of the car.
It was a bit shaky-making, but no one was hurt and even the car wasn’t too damaged, and with a bit of juggling luggage and people between the cars we were soon on our way again.
The woman who had been in the front seat of the damaged car got into the car that I was in.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked because it would give you a fright, wouldn’t it?
‘Yeah, I’m all right, I just feel like I might have got some glass in my hair.’ She scratched at the top of her scalp with her fingers. ‘Can you see anything?’
It was – and I know this is going to sound like a cliché, but truly this is how I felt – as if I’d been thumped in the chest.
And this is where things get a bit intense in my head.
Because that’s exactly what my dad did the night of his car accident. He sat at the kitchen table and scratched his fingers on his scalp and said, ‘I think there’s glass in my hair, can you see any glass in my hair?’ And when he wasn’t scratching his hands on his scalp he was holding them out in front of himself and looking at them as he turned them palms up, palms down and saying, ‘She died. Not even a scratch on me, and she died.’
He did have a scratch or two. When I looked, there were little flecks of glass in his hair. Tiny, tiny pieces of glass. Like grains of sand. It looked like it might have looked if he’d been to the beach on a windy day. And some of the pieces of glass had left tiny cuts in his scalp. Not even cuts. Little pin pricks of blood.
Most of the time – nearly all of the time – my grief for my parents is a selfish, self-centred emotion. It’s about the things that I miss and the things that I don’t have. When I see mothers and daughters shopping together for fabric, or the doctor says to me, It could be menopause, do you know when your mother started and I have to say no, or I see grandparents at music concerts…that’s a little bit about my mum, but mostly it’s about me, isn’t it? It’s about the things that I don’t have.
But in that moment, coming down from the Himalayas, my grief was all for Mum.
It’s been nearly twenty five years since she died. She’d be seventy by now. She might have died a dozen different ways. But here are the facts of her death: she was forty six years old and she died in a car accident before the ambulance could arrive.
Sitting in that car, watching rural India pass by, a world away from the dark and empty highway where my mother had died, I could think of nothing but my mother’s loss. I understood, in a visceral way, what it was that she lost that night. Her life. She lost her life and all that would have filled it. I could feel the enormity of it. Truly, deeply feel it. Like I’d breathed it in and I couldn’t breathe it out again.
If I’d been on my own I would have cried, but it didn’t seem fair to tell the people I was with what was going on in my mind. I managed to hold it together through the car trip and the horrible train and all the way to the hotel in Delhi where I could have a shower and wait for my plane to leave that night.
What a shower that was. I stood under the water and sobbed. Cried like I cried the night she died. I had to force myself to stop. It had such momentum that it might have gone on for hours. And when I finally stopped and got out of the shower I threw up. Not just retching, but throwing up over and over again.
Because by then I’d realised something more. Dad lived with this. He lived with this and much more besides. Because he was driving. He was there. He saw her die. What a thing to make sense of, to make your peace with.
Perhaps that’s why he was so gracious about his own death. Not that he didn’t sometimes question the justice of it. He didn’t want to die. He was a man of whom the larger-than-life cliché was true and when he died a light on Earth really did go out. But he was about as accepting of his death as any person could be. He raged, he fought to stay alive, but he did go gently too. In dignity and at peace.
Too long, didn’t read.
That’s what they say these days, isn’t it? When anything on the internet is more than 500 words. And this is far more than I thought I’d write and I didn’t know that I was going to tell you about the shattered windscreen and the pieces of glass in my father’s hair and the violence of my mother’s death. And not sure why I think writing things that I haven’t told anyone before is a cure for the regret of having talked too much the night before. But there you go.
‘Gee, this has gone to a dark place,’ I said to the mister just now (he’s up and about by now, and he doesn’t have a hangover because he always stops one drink before instead of one drink after and I tell myself I’m going to be more like him, but I never am). ‘I thought I was writing a light-hearted piece about the overnight train and look what’s happened.’
He laughed. ‘Oh, what a surprise.’
Reading this, listening to me talk too much you could be forgiven for thinking that I live in a dark state of unrelenting intensity. But I don’t. I do cry a bit, but I like laughing too. And it’s not always deep and meaningful. Sometimes I talk about things of no real consequence. Which chocolate is better, the Haigh’s cardamom or the Lindt sea salt. Boston Legal was James Spader’s best work. Discuss. If I had to choose between Richard Roxburgh or James Spader I’d choose Richard Roxburgh. No, James Spader. No, Richard Roxburgh. I’m not sure, but I do know I wouldn’t choose Johnny Depp. Not now. Johnny Depp’s gone to the dogs.
So I will end by telling you about the best moment of my trek.
Getting off the train. That was excellent. Leaving those rats and heading towards a hotel with hot water and clean toilets that was really, really good. But it wasn’t the best part. Not by a long way. The best part was our lunch break on the second day. Things were going well. My training had paid off and I was taking the physical part of the trek in my stride (see what I did there, LOL). I didn’t have any blisters. I’d shared a tent with someone and made a new friend. And look! Look where I am. Grass, snow, behind me a shrine.
The cooks served soup and sandwiches for lunch, followed by lentils and vegetables and rice. I had jelly snakes for dessert and lemon-flavoured hydralytes. Lunch finished, we would rest for another half an hour.
I had a little lie down. My head on a rock I’d softened with my coat. The grass was cool. The clouds were a blanket but every now and then the sun broke through and it was late-winter warm.
I missed the mister.
I wished that he were there lying next to me. If he were there, I would rest my head on his chest listening to him breathe with the sun warm on the back of my neck. His hand would stroke my arm and every now and then he would kiss the top of my head.
I missed him. Truly, madly, deeply, more than I ever have before – and that’s quite a bit given this whole living in different countries thing.
But I understood something it was great to understand.
‘This missing,’ I thought, ‘this is how much I love him.’
I turned on my side and pulled my hat over my eyes so that no one could see me cry. It was glorious.