The drive up the ghat road took nearly two and a half hours. From the verdant plains, now lush and gleaming after the monsoon, the winding road rose steadily over 7,000 feet to the top of the Nilgiri Hills. Edward had not been up this road or back to South India in over twenty years, not since he graduated from the Anundur International School. The exotic scenery evoked a flood of memories, and the opulence of the vegetation amazed and delighted him once again, a profusion of eucalyptus trees, cypress and acacia, and the occasional blooming jacaranda tree heavy with its purple blossoms.
It would have been a lot cheaper to take the bus from Madurai, but Edward opted for the comforts and safety of a taxi. During the long ride he reflected on how his life had unfolded since he had departed as a young man ready to conquer the world. With some satisfaction he noted that he had done well for himself; a successful business in Chicago gave him the means to live a comfortable life and to travel now and then.
He had arrived in Madras, now known as Chennai, ten days before. The main reason for the trip wasn’t really to sight-see, or even to visit his former school, but to spend some time with his old school friend Mack. Foremost in Edward’s thoughts were Mack’s most recent e-mails: their cryptic and despairing tone had alarmed him. Edward had thought of making this trip for a long while. His friend’s condition induced him to finally book the flight.
They had stayed in touch all these years. Mack’s real name was Roger, but somehow the nickname had stuck after an ambitious production of Macbeth in their senior year. Mack had earned a teaching degree, then returned to India. He was now the school’s English teacher and in charge of the drama productions. He was good at that sort of thing.
The taxi drove through the main gate of the school compound and stopped in front of the office. Since the school term had ended a few days before there was no one about and the office was closed. The driver, who had been quite chatty and amiable on the drive up, suddenly demanded more rupees, actually double the amount that had originally been agreed upon. Edward had been more than reasonable in their negotiations and had added on a generous tip, but still it wasn’t enough. He knew better than to attempt to reason with the man. With a wave of his hand and a few choice words, whatever he was able to conjure up from his now very rusty Tamil, he dismissed the irksome driver. “Nee kettavan!” he shouted, “tallipo! – You are a bad man, go away!”
He found Mack’s residence, a small bungalow, in an obscure corner of the compound. Mack was waiting for him at the front door.
“Eddie, old boy, varnakam–welcome!” They embraced and held each other for a few moments.
“It’s been a long time. Just look at you, you’re as lean and athletic as ever!”
“India has a way of keeping us in shape; it’s the amoebic dysentery diet.” A look of genuine concern came over Edward’s face and Mack was quick to clarify. “Well, not really. I haven’t had a bout for a while–knock on wood.” He brought Edward through the tiny vestibule and into the living room. “You’ve put on a little extra padding, I see.”
“Life in the big city will do that to you,” said Edward with a sigh. “And I don’t have the Nilgiri Hills to run around in.”
“You’ve had a long trip. How was the ride up the ghat? Don’t tell me you were crazy enough to take the bus!”
“It was fine; not a thing has changed. Even the same chai stalls are still there. And the obnoxious drivers are as enterprising as ever. My taxi guy tried the old shakedown, but I told him to get lost–I still remember some useful words in Tamil.”
“Yeah, all that time we spent bumming around in the bazaar finally paid off!” They both laughed.
While they were talking Mack had taken Edward’s backpack and steered him to the guest room. “This is it. It ain’t much but I think you’ll be comfortable. It’s an improvement over the bunk beds in Eberling–remember those? The old dorm is still there, still in use, but the furnishings have been upgraded a bit. Did you know that we now have a computer lab?”
“Even at the top of a mountain in South India life doesn’t stand still, eh?” mused Edward.
They went back into the living room and Mack’s bearer, Murugan, soon brought a pitcher of frosted nimbu pani. Mack carefully filled two glasses. “To you, old friend!” he said, lifting his glass in tribute. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Here’s to friendship!” countered Edward. He hadn’t had a glass of spiced lemonade since he left India. But there was a noticeable kick to the drink this time. The nimbus had been spiked. “Gin? Where did you get it?” Procuring good quality liquor was not easy in this country. Many states were dry and alcohol was almost impossible to buy legally.
“Oh, connections–someone who knows someone in the bazaar. Grease the right palms and you can get just about anything here.”
“Let’s hear it for good old-fashioned corruption!” said Edward with mock enthusiasm.
“So, how’s life in Chicago?” asked Mack.
“Well, there have been some changes,” he said, dropping himself onto the settee. “Since Janice and I divorced I’ve had to readjust to living alone again. Getting married was a mistake, the biggest of my life. What was I thinking?” He looked pensive for a minute, staring into space, then turned to Mack. “Maybe I should have stayed here with you.”
Edward uttered that last statement so straightforwardly that Mack looked surprised. He said nothing in response, but allowed a trace of a smile.
“And how are you getting on here?” continued Edward, attempting to sound as casual as possible. “Life must get pretty dull, especially when the term is over.”
“I always try to make the best of things, but it does get mighty lonely up here on this mountain. You ready for another nimbu?” Edward held up his empty glass and Mack doled out the last of the pitcher into both their glasses.
“I met a nice British guy on the internet and we spent the winter vacation at a resort in Thailand. Since Bryan lives in Singapore it’s not all that far for him. He’s a stock trader––and you know those bastards are just swimming in money! He could buy friggin’ Singapore if he wanted to.” Pause. “Not sure if I’ll see him again, though.”
“And there’s nothing like a visit to the Taj Mahal once in a while to lift the spirits!” Edward’s touch of sarcasm lightened the mood. They were planning to travel north together in a few days. “By the way,” he continued, “how are the theater productions getting on? It was the thing you always loved the most.”
“Oh, they’re okay. It gives me something to do in the evenings, but my heart isn’t really in it anymore, ever since the incident last October. I wrote you about that, I think. I was the chaperone for that hike, you know. It wasn’t my fault, but still, I wonder if I could have done something different. It was such a freak accident…the boy…” His voice trailed off.
They finished off the rest of their drinks and went in to dinner. They chatted about this and that, how India was changing, how the town was overrun with tourists, how poor the monsoon had been. After a delicious meal of biryani, various curries, chutneys and sliced mangoes they moved back to the comfort of the living room. Murugan brought a pot of steaming sweet chai. His lanky frame was lost in the baggy, well-worn, white cotton trousers and jacket that was his unofficial uniform.
“Sahib is vanting anyting more?”
“No. Thank you, Murugan,” said Mack. “You can leave us now.” The old servant bowed and shuffled off.
Mack and Edward caught each other’s eye and chuckled, enjoying a moment of shared bemusement. Soon they were laughing uncontrollably and wiping tears from their eyes. Murugan had sounded like someone straight out of the Raj, like a servant in the days of Queen Victoria.
“He still calls me ‘sahib’–can you believe it?” said Mack, with a renewed spasm of laughter.
They relaxed in front of the fireplace where a blaze was now beginning to crackle with some liveliness. It warmed the room and scented the air with a hint of eucalyptus. The distinctive fragrance conjured up a rush of pleasant memories for Edward. The locals collected the fallen leaves from the surrounding forest and boiled them down to extract the oil. It was a scent Edward would always associate with Anandur.
The conversation turned to the theatrical productions they had been involved in. Both Mack and Edward had been avid participants in school theatrical performances. Mack had real flair and talent for the stage. He usually landed the lead roles; Edward was only too happy to play the secondary ones.
Edward got up to examine the items on the mantelpiece. There was a Shiva Nataraja, a fine gilded Buddha in the Tibetan style, a hand-painted view of Anandur Lake, a color photo of Mack standing next to a well-tanned young man on a palm-fringed beach, no doubt in Thailand. There was one other framed photo. Edward picked it up in order to examine it more closely. It was a cast photo from what appeared to be a production of The Pirates of Penzance. “Who’s the good-looking kid with the blue eyes? From the costume I would guess he’s Frederic. Am I right?
“He was. Not much of an actor, but really dedicated. Very serious and quiet.” Mack went suddenly silent. When he continued his voice was barely audible. “David. His name was David. He was the one who died in the accident.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ve never really talked about it, but I think of David every single damn day.”
Mack got up and went over to the sideboard. He picked up a bottle of Scotch whiskey and two glasses. “Join me for a nightcap? It’s really good stuff, from the duty-free in Bangkok.”
After pouring the drinks there was another long pause. Then Mack went on. “I was there, you know, when it happened. We were hiking down to Pambar Falls, where the natural water slide is.”
“I do remember that,” said Edward. “It was always a fun place to go despite the knee-breaking hike to get there.”
“Right,” continued Mack. “It’s downhill all the way for hours. I was asked to chaperone for the senior class. We were about halfway down, hiking along a narrow footpath with a steep drop on one side. Everybody was ahead of me, I was bringing up the rear. I could see a few of the girls with David, laughing, just joking around. They had just turned to continue on and he was about twenty feet in front of me. I think he was waiting for me to catch up to him. David’s copper hair glistened in the sun; I remember that very clearly. For some reason he took a step back; I guess he didn’t realize how close to the edge he was. He teetered for a moment, grabbed some branches with his left hand, but they didn’t hold and he fell backward. It all happened so fast, but it was like in slow motion at the same time. I saw the look on his face at that moment. He looked surprised. Not scared, just surprised. I ran to him as fast as I could, but he had already hit the bottom, an outcropping of rocks. The girls screamed hysterically. I didn’t know what to do. It was almost impossible to get down there, but somehow I did. I think he must have died on impact. At least, I hope so.” Mack lowered his head for a moment, then continued. “You know, the strangest thing was that he had a smile on his face. That beautiful angelic face, and he almost looked happy. The rest is a blur. Cell phones don’t really work up here. We had to gather everybody together and hike back up to Anandur. I don’t even know how or when they retrieved the body, but they did. The entire school was in shock. David’s parents flew in from Kuwait where they were living. It was all too horrible, too fucking horrible.”
“I had no idea how it happened,” said Edward. “I can’t imagine what that was like for you.”
There was another long pause and then Mack went on, “The school didn’t want anything about it to be made public; that’s why you didn’t read about it in the alumni news. The accidental death of a student makes for really bad publicity. No school wants that.” He downed a glass of whiskey and poured another. “I have replayed that scene over and over in my head a million times. There’s another thing I remember: in that last second, before he went over, his right arm went up, as if he were reaching out to me to save him. But I couldn’t save him. If only I had been closer, if only I could’ve gotten to him in time, if only, if only…”
“You can’t torture yourself like that. It was out of your control. It happened. That’s all there is to it. I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. It happened. I was a total mess after that. It took me months to get myself together again. When I wrote you I didn’t want to go into the awful details.”
They talked for a while longer, about more mundane things, like what they would do the following day. They agreed that Mack would give Edward a tour of the campus, followed by a hike around the lake. Edward took his leave and headed for bed. He slept fitfully. Sometime after midnight he became aware of odd sounds coming from the living room and got up to investigate.
He found Mack kneeling in front of the settee, one hand clutching the framed photograph to his chest, and the other holding an empty glass. Mack raised his head, revealing cheeks streaked with tears. He looked utterly forlorn. Edward knelt down next to him, put his arm around his friend’s shoulders and kissed him gently on the forehead. Extricating the empty glass from his hand, he put it on the side table, next to the now empty bottle.
John Mueter is a pianist, composer, educator, translator, and writer residing in Kansas City, Missouri. His short fiction has appeared in many journals, including the American Athenaeum, Lowestoft Chronicle, Halfway Down the Stairs, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Simone Press Publishing and The Corona Book of Ghost Stories; poetry in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Literary Nest and the Haiku Journal. His website is here.