At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.

The Cold Caller (3)

Previous parts can be found here (1) and here (2)

‘What is it, Sahil?’

‘It was a threatening client, sir.’

‘So, you know how to deal with them, don’t you?’

‘It is not so easy. He is very difficult, he knows me.’

‘I do not think that is likely. Why do you think it?’

‘He knows my name, sir! And he calls me! Even on my mobile!’ My voice had suddenly got much louder, and a couple of my colleagues turned around to look at me. I found myself shaking and knew that the supervisor saw it too. I had lost control.

‘Take the rest of the day off, Sahil,’ he said at last, coldly. It was clear that he did not believe me. ‘Go home and rest.’

‘Yes, Sir.’ I got to my feet and headed for the exit without another word. What could I say? At the door I passed Raveena’s brother, who smiled and said ‘Hi’, but I just mumbled a hello and pushed straight past him, hardly registering his presence. Once outside, I walked towards the metro station intending to go straight home, but decided I could not face getting on a train at the moment – perhaps it was the thought of being in a confined space – so I walked past and went into the Botanical Gardens. I switched off my phone and spent the next hour or so just walking around the gardens, hoping to clear my head.

When I had tired of that, I began walking towards my colony, eventually taking a taxi for the last part of the journey when my legs began to feel tired. As I walked up the steps to my door, I remembered my phone was on silent, and fished it out of my pocket. Glancing at the display, I saw I had half a dozen missed calls. ‘It can stay on silent for now, then,’ I thought, and went inside.

I made myself some supper, and after I had eaten it I sat watching the TV, until I realised I had no idea what the programmes were I had been watching, and switched it off. Then I took out my phone and began to scroll through the list of callers. As I had expected, the majority were from a caller who had withheld their number, but there was also one from Raveena and, after some hesitation, I switched my phone onto normal ringtone again. I thought of calling Raveena but decided that I could not face speaking to her that night. Then, as I sat looking down at the phone in my hand, it rang again. Automatically, I answered it.

‘Hallo?’

‘I am losing my patience with you, Sahil. Do you want me to make things really difficult for you?’

‘I…’

‘My…colleagues, shall I call them, are not as patient as I am. They would like to deal with you differently. They are not as polite as I am.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ He had broken me, and we both knew it.

‘Go home, Sahil. Go back to Delhi. There is no place for you here. Take your things and go. While you still can.’ He rang off, and I sat holding the phone in my hand, feeling terribly small and scared.

I jumped as the phone rang again. For a moment, I did not answer it, but then I saw that it was Raveena’s number. Still I hesitated, afraid that this fellow might even be able to make it appear that he was calling from her phone, but then I told myself that I was being ridiculous, and I answered it.

‘Sahil,’ Raveena’s voice was urgent, ‘I heard Kiraat calling you. He was in the next room. What is going on? I could not hear him very clearly, but it sounded as if he was threatening you. Please, what is going on? I am frightened by this!’

‘Kiraat? It was Kiraat calling me?’

‘Yes, I have told you so, Sahil.’

‘Are you certain?’

‘Oh, my goodness, Sahil! How many times must I say it? Yes, it was Kiraat.’ She lowered her voice. ‘He is still in the next room, talking with our father. What has he been saying to you?’

‘Just…give me a minute, Raveena, to think.’ I sat holding the phone as things dropped into place in my head. It was so simple, really. Kiraat was a software engineer in my own company. It would all have been so easy for him to do. I took a deep breath. ‘I will tell you everything.’

Raveena said that it was too late in the evening for me to go over to their house, and to leave it until the next day. But it seems she then put down her phone and walked straight into the next room and confronted her brother. He did not deny that he had been the caller and said that he agreed with his parents that she should marry a man of their choosing, and that I was not that man. They had quite a quarrel, and it was only when Raveena declared that she was quite prepared to move in with me without getting married first, that her father said ‘Okay, let us meet this boy of yours, tomorrow.’

I had thought my job interview had been tough, but it had nothing on that interview. I was surprised, then, when Raveena’s father said ‘Let us see, then, how your job goes and if all is well in a year’s time then maybe, just maybe, we will give you our blessing.’

At work, my supervisor informed me I would be under observation, as he put it, for a while, but I did not really notice any difference. No sooner had I arranged my desk and switched on my computer terminal, than he had disappeared to another part of the office. I lifted the receiver and called the number at the top of the list on my screen.

‘Hello, Mr Cuthill? My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not!’ I caught my breath, and felt icy fingers creeping up my spine. ‘You’re probably called Kapil or Ravi or something like that. You’re in India, aren’t you?’

Slowly I released my breath.

‘Mr Cuthill, this is most important! I am calling you because your computer is running slowly and there is a problem with it that you must address!’

It was good to be back to normal.

If you enjoyed this story, you can find more in The Night Bus, my collection of short stories and poetry available on Amazon, along with Making Friends with the Crocodile, a novel about how society treats women in India. Both can be found here.

 

The Cold Caller (2)

Part 1 can be found here.

For a couple of days, the incident was always at the back of my mind, but slowly I began to forget it. It must have been about a week later, when they called me at work. I had just put down the receiver after making a sale, when the phone rang.

‘Hello, David? Or Sahil, should I say? I thought that you’d forgotten me.’

‘Who is this?’

‘Don’t you know? Can’t you remember? You called me last week. My name is Williams.’

‘I…’

‘I thought that I would call you to let you know that my computer is running absolutely fine.’

‘Oh…’

‘I really appreciate your concern, though, but it was unnecessary. So I’ve saved myself some money, haven’t I?’

We are taught that if we have a difficult telephone conversation, then we should try to take control, and so I tried that now, as if the caller was just another difficult customer.

‘Mr Williams,’ I attempted to sound far more confident than I actually felt, ‘might I ask where it is that you are calling from?’

‘Can you not remember? Oh, I suppose that you have so many numbers to call. Mine is a Delhi number, Sahil. Do you remember it now?’

‘There is really no reason why I should, Mr Williams…’

‘As I have just told you, I really do appreciate your concern, and I am pleased to find that you are so obviously such a kind and conscientious fellow. I am sure that, in turn, you will be pleased to learn that because of that I am going to be taking a keen interest in your career, so I will be keeping a close eye on you from now on.’

The line went dead.

Like every other line in the building, my telephone was simply an extension number, so there would not really be any point in my getting it changed. The caller might have asked for my extension, or they might have requested me by name. There was no way to find out which it was. For a moment, I thought of telling my supervisor what had happened, but decided it would sound foolish and he would probably not believe me, anyway. I’m not sure I believed what was happening at that point, either, but I did feel a little scared.

Two days later Mr Williams called me again. This time, his tone was rather different.

‘Hello, Sahil. This is Mr Williams here. Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘Look,’ I tried, ‘where did you get hold of my number?’

‘You are not answering my question, Sahil.’ His voice was soft but unpleasant. ‘Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘I don’t think that is any…’

‘Do you know, Sahil,’ he interrupted me, ‘that many people do not like aggressive salespersons calling them up and trying to coerce them into making purchases? Trying to get them to part with their money for no good reason? I have been thinking about that, and I have decided that a nice fellow like you really should not be in this line of work.’

‘I am not going to be lectured at by you!’ I said hotly. ‘I demand that you tell me…’ I realised that the line that I was talking to was dead.

That evening he called me at home, on my mobile. Often, if the caller display indicates a number withheld, then I don’t answer. This time, though, I did.

‘Sahil,’ said the familiar voice, ‘I hope you are thinking about what I have said to you.’ Desperately, I stabbed the button to end the call, and then stood in the middle of the room, staring down at the phone. I couldn’t think clearly; I just felt an awful panic. ‘This is stalking!’ I thought to myself. ‘And no one would believe me if I told them!’ It was no good my thinking it was impossible for him to have my mobile number, for he clearly had.

My phone rang again maybe another dozen times that evening before I switched it off completely. Then, in the morning, I noticed that I had one voicemail message. Although I knew who it would be from, I still listened to it. It was very brief.

‘I wouldn’t want you to get hurt, Sahil.’

I tried my best to act as though there was nothing wrong at work, but I found it very difficult to focus. All went as normal, however, until the afternoon. I had been back at my desk for no more than five minutes, and just put down the phone when it rang again. I hesitated and then, as it might well be a supervisor calling, I knew I had to answer it.

‘Hello, Sahil. Do you think that you can hide from us for ever, then?’

Us! I shivered, and my mouth became very dry. I looked around desperately, noticed that a supervisor was nearby, and silently I beckoned him over. I thought that if I could keep the caller talking, and hand the phone to my supervisor, then ‘Mr Williams’ would at the very least say something incriminating. Unfortunately, though, just as the supervisor reached me, the phone line went dead.

Final part to follow.

The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

A Busy Time in West Bengal

For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.

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Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.

I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.

That left me with a lot to rewrite.

Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.

Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.

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However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.

And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.

Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…

Wandering

I’m posting this poem again, as it rather illustrates what I’ve personally found particularly frustrating during the recent lockdown. We can go for longer walks now, it is true, but that’s still not the same.

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If I could just wave a wand,

I would wander the world.

With my notebook in hand,

And a bag on my back.

 

I would sleep under hedges,

In hotels and haylofts.

Drink beers under trees,

And eat cheese on the moor.

 

I’d watch clouds over hilltops,

And boats on the ocean.

Shapes and shadows at sunset,

A moon with a view.

 

And I’d write trivial poems

Of snowfall and sunlight,

Birds singing at dawn

And the sounds of a stream.

 

There’s the lure of a skyline,

And skylarks above me,

Wine and woodsmoke my welcome,

At the end of the day.

 

To travel, to journey,

There’s magic in wandering

Over moorland and downland,

Through woods and through fields.

 

The world’s full of wonders

All waiting for wanderers.

Let me follow these paths

For as long as I can.

The poem can be found in my collection The Night Bus, which is available here. should your interest have been piqued by this…

Vikings

Allow me to introduce a new joint venture, a magazine (or zine, as I’m informed we hip youngsters now say):

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The final poem in my recent collection, The Night Bus, is a poem called Vikings, and it is reproduced in this here zine with a series of super illustrations.

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This is a collaboration between myself and my talented friend Mark Prestage. As already indicated the poem is mine, while Mark designed, cut and printed the linocuts.

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Mark also did the hard work of putting the zine together, while I just sat around and drank beer. The zine is printed on 16 pages of high quality paper, in a preliminary edition of 40 numbered copies.

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In the UK the price is £4.50 including postage and packaging, and it can be ordered from my Etsy site: here, or directly from me (just email me) using Paypal. Unfortunately the cost of postage overseas makes it impractical to offer outside of the UK (typically doubling the cost of the zine, or even more).

If people make lots of approving noises, we have ideas for similar projects in the future.

Mark also blogs here: drifting in lower case and twits: twit and is well worth a visit.

In My Head…

For those of us who like to travel and have been under Lockdown for a while, the frustration is obvious.

And some of us, I’m afraid, only like to make things worse for ourselves…

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Working on my novel A Good Place set in the foothills of Northern India, I’m not only writing about that place, but also referring occasionally to books, websites, and my travel journals on the area. Looking at lots of photographs, both my own and others.

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Immersing myself in it inevitably leads to frustration, although I’m making good progress on the book.

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I suppose I only have myself to blame, especially for lingering over the photos.

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But that doesn’t make it any the easier.

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Dammit.

Crows

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This is the first poem in a series still not quite completed. Although the rest of the series needs to be read as a single entity, this one works as a standalone piece.

Crows are unsettling.

They make eye contact with you,

Like all their kind:

Rooks, magpies, jackdaws and their ilk,

Black-eyed, mocking, wind-flicked feathers,

Watching you from high branches,

Scattered trees, lone rocks and open fields.

Krra icily in the harshest breeze.

 

They could be smart, dark-suited undertakers,

Clearing up dead bodies or

Smug bankers, lounging in the hotel bar with

After-dinner drinks, bragging raucously.

 

Crows solve problems, are wary, learn,

And remember you.

They may reward kindness

With coins and pieces of glass,

With golf balls, or feathers.

But crows make up murders.

They hold grudges and will plot your destruction

If you cross them.

 

Lockdown Stream of Consciousness

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Here we are in week whatever it is of Lockdown, and I have to say I’m finding it ever so difficult to dream up a new blog post. It’s not that I’m having any difficulty writing, as I’m making good progress with one of my novels. I timetable my day so I write in the morning and don’t allow myself to look at the internet until after lunch. I go out and walk each day, I’m eating well. And I don’t mind the idea of Lockdown as such, since I’m quite a solitary person at the best of times; fond of my own company and never at my best with groups of people.

When it comes to writing a new post, though, I just seem to dry up. I think one reason for this is the major change to everyone’s lifestyles that this crisis has demanded. Not so much the changes to mine, strangely enough, but those of other people. I look at some of the posts I have partly written and think they seem somehow too trite for today. Some others are about journeys or visits to places I love, and I don’t seem to have the heart to finish them. Perhaps it’s all a bit too raw, too painful. I rarely write political pieces, and have even less enthusiasm at the moment than usual. Again, the politics are either too trite, or just incredibly infuriating. And there are more than enough bloggers covering the infuriating stuff, even if I wanted to.

Write a parody? I do, occasionally. But a parody of the Coronavirus Crisis seems tasteless, and both our inept government and the unpleasant fool in the White House are already parodies of themselves. I could do a humorous one later, I suppose. I might go and see what Bob is up to…

But I don’t feel I’ve anything original to offer at the moment, and I’m generally a subscriber to the school of thought that states if you have nothing to say, then it’s best not to say it.

So I thought today I’d pick a random photograph I haven’t posted before and put that up, and just go with a stream of consciousness, and see where it led me.

It turns out it led me here.