Once she smoked bidis, braided her hair
but when I watched her walk across the tarmac
looking for me in the small group waiting
at the wire and what passed for Customs,
I saw at once she was wearing high heels
and a necklace I hadn’t seen before.
We went to a hotel in the little town
but I was angry and it didn’t work.
She smelt different, sounded different,
as though she came from a different world –
too many conversations with clever men.
And I felt I was still on my own.
I cannot help it, the night ride
into the badlands, the desert:
ticketless, weightless, unencumbered,
my baggage sent on ahead
to sit in some unnamed place,
some unsuspecting sojourn anywhere.
It’s been in storage for years now,
for decades, half a century,
though clearly marked
not wanted on voyage. Yet
there it is: battered, faded,
parts missing, but distinctly mine.
Go back to sleep I tell myself, as if sleep
were a place you could return to:
a name, a platform, the whistle, doors
slamming along the turning strip
of night and day. In place of these cold delays
in a bleak siding. Even then the place I go to
is not sleep. I am there again: the sand-dunes,
the dust-filled yellow sky that never changed,
the ground coming to a shimmering boil,
a hundred kilometers further on, the palm trees,
dry and motionless. I am there again,
listless, exhausted, in the yellow room
that was ours all summer. The ground
like turmeric, the food tasting of earth and salt:
how it coloured everything – the mud walls,
clothes, fingernails. Even my blood.
Half-remembered moments on the canvas cot –
the things that emerge in the night.
He’d use his bike like a knife, wheels
as blades, no mudguards, cutting
up the traffic, ignoring the lights,
head low over the drop-handles
and he’d talk too loud, too long,
of his research, while plunging
into and then out of brief affairs.
I knew that story: either you’re trapped,
or you’re lost, abandoned. Maybe
like most men he wanted to know how
to have some kind of relationship
with a good woman, and not ruin it
with drink, or drugs, or other girls.
And then I became one of them.
Those days, they called it living in sin.
People thought him arrogant, risky,
so – arrogant, risky – we decided to marry,
inviting no-one but the neighbours:
Leif, the old carpenter from Norway
and his tiny Arab wife. She cooked us up
a royal wedding feast. And then, the surprise,
he stayed with me. So we began to work
together, researching the difficult lands, the far-
cultures: his tape-recorder, my camera.
I should have been in the kitchen, my hair
in a modest knot at the back of my neck,
together with the gentle aproned women
who smiled at me from behind their veils.
I too should have been stirring the soup,
roasting meat, carrying the huge dishes
both hands, to offer the table, the men
who went on talking – arguing perhaps,
though I couldn’t understand anything
they said, nor why they did not acknowledge
the women as the lumpy broth steamed
in their bowls – but I was damned
if I was going be left out of that gathering.
So I’d sit down too and wait, ignoring
the shifting of chairs, the silence.
Or I’d stand in the shadows, moving
the lens into focus, wanting that look
on a face, that gesture, that connection,
and again and always ignoring
the silence, the uneasy shifting of chairs.
She went back and I stayed on,
riding my bicycle between villages
in that ferocious heat, the simmering dust,
with my field notebooks bundled up
in my knapsack and the ancient tape recorder
lent grudgingly by the Department
turning and wheezing erratically,
making the voices sound shrill and gabbled
like cartoon characters. Eventually
the tapes ran out, the ends flicking
loosely round and round, though the talking
continued. So the connection was lost.
My letters went unanswered.
I’d been long gone when I heard
the news that could not be undone:
his death. Field work forgotten,
the notebooks gone into the dust.
The tapes were a tangle of dull brown ribbon.
Just one or two creased photographs found
when it was all to be shipped home –
and there were the two of us, bleached,
fragile, smiling into the sunlight and
wearing those funny old-fashioned hats,
with our arms around each other’s waists.
That was when we were in love. And
for once, briefly, there I was
in front of the lens. The only such picture
among a thousand images of him –
talking, gesticulating, sometimes relaxed,
once even laughing at something I’d said.
I kept it. It marked where I was
in the pages of any book I carried until
at last it split and broke into pieces.