Selkirk had never owned a wristwatch. It had never seemed necessary to be in possession of one. What time it was had never been of any consequence to him in any part of his life. There was his childhood in Calcutta when time seemed lozenge-like, lickable—those long afternoons of lying still in shaded rooms, and then afternoon tea on the veranda with his mother, tapping out with her long nails the anguish of her most recent rebuff at one of the clubs on account of her lowly origins—and then, mercifully, his father, returning from a long day at work, the gentle grey-haired man who had rashly married this chorus girl in the throes of middle age, his father, still loyally serving the company he had joined as a young man in pre-Independence times and trying to make as good a life as possible for them all. When he unexpectedly keeled over, just a few months before he was due to retire, she did not hesitate to return to her old life, and Selkirk was promptly despatched to the boarding school that his father had attended, where time—to return to our original subject—was dispensed in quantities he could neither measure nor understand. Possessing a wristwatch would only have been a painful irony in this situation as, even before he had arrived, every minute of the time that he would spend there had already been cartographied. It was inevitable that he should excel himself academically within such circumstances, since all his energies were perfectly channelled to achieve outstanding examination results. And so he did, and was catapulted thus to Oxford, when time became putty, still somehow leading him towards academic distinction and a lifetime of alcohol consumption, culminating now in this very existence— a professorship at the University of Edinburgh (how proud his grandmother had been that he had returned at last, the son of a prodigal father, to his native soil), a flat in Morningside of as generous proportions as he might ever have desired, and every convenience that he could possibly care for, particularly now that the builders had finally installed the fifty-inch flat-screen television that he had just purchased with part of the meagre inheritance that his grandmother had left him when she had finally died last year—ten thousand pounds and his grandfather’s pocket watch, that was all.
It had been his habit now for a good number of years to stop at the Marks & Spencer on his way home to gather up the necessaries for a good meal. The bill did not normally exceed twenty pounds, the greater part of it being wines and spirits to see him through the evening, but last night he had succumbed to the temptation of buying a dressed lobster, and this, coupled with the bottle of champagne he felt necessary to accompany it, and certain other irrelevant sundries, brought the bill to over forty pounds, which qualified him— it seems—for a free wristwatch. Complimentary, gratis . . . on the house. He took it home, unsure of what else to do with it. Then, sitting upon his sofa, eating the lobster out of its elaborately moulded plastic casing and drinking the champagne while watching a chat show involving a woman sword-swallower, an ex-convict, and a saxophonist, it suddenly dawned upon him that he had left the watch in the shopping bag. He reached in and retrieved it, granted it space upon his coffee table. It was now a valid presence within the tableau that constituted and enclosed the near-empty champagne bottle, the remains of the lobster, an unwashed pint glass from the previous evening’s excesses, and the television remote control. He watched for a while in this condition and then, feeling a sudden surge of pity, took it from its case and put it on.
He woke the following morning in an inevitably crapulous condition, the watch still strapped to his wrist. He must have staggered to bed the night before without any notion of it being tethered to him. Little remained by way of memory of the previous night, barring the inexplicably velvety voice of the female sword-swallower proclaiming that she no longer had any interest in shocking her audience and the ex-convict asking her whether such an early tactic had served simply to position her where she could indulge in the true artistry of sword-swallowing. It was at that point in their conversation that Selkirk had put on the watch. The rest was a blur. On account, no doubt, of the entire bottle of Cointreau he had been forced to drink by virtue of nothing else being there in his home. Normally, he would have stopped at the off-license around the corner to stock up on beer and other sundries, but last night he had been distracted by the weight of the lobster and the champagne and, of course—the watch. He looked across to it now, sitting alienly upon his wrist; his feelings towards it at this moment were not distinguishable from those that he had experienced in his younger years when he had sometimes woken with a woman by his side, not always uncomely but certainly not someone with whom he had an interest having breakfast, toggling each other’s bathrobes or whatever else people did with each other in that way. He took the watch off and put it on his bedside table and turned away from it. In a while, he turned back again to contemplate it in its new position. His bedside table was a new purchase from an antique shop, it claimed to be an item of authenticity from nineteenth-century China and was painted brick red, they were its handles and moonfaced brass fixings that had endeared it to Selkirk and so he had bought it, noting that the bill for such a purchase hardly competed with his weekly expenditure on food and drink, especially drink. But the watch was not at home upon this piece of furniture, lying on its side so that the words WATER-RESISTANT, inscribed upon its large grey dial, became vertical, like the label on the y-axis of a graph. Selkirk turned it over to sit upright on its wide rubber strap. He noticed that underneath WATER-RESISTANT it said 100M, and he was glad of this minor bit of scrupulousness on the watch’s part. The watch hands—he realised, seeing them close together for the first time—were etched slightly differently— a triangle at the tip of one and a circle on the other. Someone had put a good bit of thought into the construction of this watch, clearly. Words that might have described it in a catalogue, like “stylish” and “sturdy,” began to poke the soft mass of his consciousness as he watched it perched there beside him, keeping him from going back to sleep. He sighed and took the watch off the table, placed it on the floor and pulled his duvet over his head, he needed at least another hour, he reckoned, before he would be able to face the day. He had just started to doze off when suddenly he had the thought that he might indeed, when stumbling out of bed, step on his watch. He fought a while with this notion but then, taking the path of least resistance, turned over, scooped it up, and restored it to his wrist, the safest place that it could be.
When he finally opened his eyes again, feeling that he might now possibly get up, he found that the watch had fallen off and was lying quite still and straight beside his pillow. He regarded it for a while, and then quite suddenly felt himself experience a profound and unexpected indifference to it—like a shock of cold water—it was just a watch after all, a tacky little wristwatch, a freebie, a nothing, what difference could it possibly make to his life whether it was part of it or not?
He staggered out of bed and made his way to his kitchen, picked at the remains of the lobster—still sitting, half-uneaten, upon the table—while his morning pot of coffee brewed, and then, for reasons that he could not quite fathom, he sat himself down and began to go through the pile of unread mail that had accumulated over the last few months, which he would normally be in the habit of shoving straight into his kitchen bin, once it had reached a certain unstable height.
There was little of consequence here, naturally—but one smudgy envelope did catch his attention. It was from the company in Calcutta that his father had chosen to stay on with as an employee after Independence, the very institution that had provided him with an idyllic childhood in Alipore, the cool jasmine-filled terraces where he had taken his first steps, and the dry garden where his mother would dance every night after many glasses of gin and ice, always alone. There was a time when she had adored him, dressed him up as you would a doll, or perhaps more a compliant monkey, wheeled him about in flouncy prams with his patient and loving ayah by their side to attend to his more earthly needs—there was indeed a time when she had felt most of her limited self to be occupied with him, his bouncy cheeks and happy first words, and then, by and by, the same gulf that separated her from every other living person had opened up between her and himself, as he became him and she remained her, as was bound to be.
So, what could they want from him, then, the company to which his father had loyally given his service, until two months before his retirement when he had raised the mosquito nets to slide into bed beside his young wife, wondering why his dyspepsia was so bad of such a mildly indulgent evening, and had suffered in the early hours of the morning a grand heart attack which had quickly and almost triumphantly finished his life on this earth? What could they want of him—the company that had continued to pay such a meagre pension to his mother that she had been forced to find a way for herself within her old life as a chorus girl, sent him to board—as laid out in his will—at his father’s old school in Scotland, with his grandparents not far away, to make sure he was not without succour, should he need such a thing or know how to use it when it was offered to him. He had finally plucked up the courage to reject her about fifteen years ago—his mother—when she had turned up to his lodgings in Oxford, jumped uninvited into the car that had come to pick him up to transport him to a party at the house of a distinguished don, and spent the afternoon subjecting her old bones to the trials of jumping on a trampoline with a sari-clad postgraduate student, and making a fool of herself in general. After that, he had sworn never to have anything to do with her, and he had stuck to it.
So, what could they want from him now, how did they even know his address, the company that his father had continued to serve long after it was nationalised, how odd that it should even still be in existence, what could it possibly manufacture now? Was it still housed in that rotting shell of a Georgian building, ceiling fans murmuring madly many feet above, and tired feet and tired hands, too many typewriters, a peanut shell gaping on the stained marble floor . . . Where in his head were such memories housed? Were they memories at all or simply something that approximated memory, pieced together from his own yearnings and those of others that he had been forced to confront, time and time again through the agency of literature and poetry—and more recently, and really quite exclusively now, daytime television.
Clearly it had been forwarded, and so she was still alive then, his mother, and knew also where he might be found. A chilling thought, but then—
at least, she had had the good grace not to try and contact him all these years, it was fair to suppose she might keep it that way. He opened the letter. It was an invitation to the company’s centenary celebrations in mid-December, he would be their guest of honour, for this they were willing to fly him out Club Class and put him up at the Grand Hotel, clearly globalisation had favoured them, everything spoke of it, from their stationery to their cheerily informal manner, his head began suddenly to spin, he put the letter aside and mixed himself a generous Bloody Mary, he needed a clear head to think about this, to make whatever decisions that there were left for him to make.
Later that afternoon, he woke from murky sleep, one Bloody Mary having naturally set a petty pace for another . . . and another and another . . . He woke from all of this in a surprisingly good mood, something almost boyish in it, he woke and said to himself, I will go, I will go, why should I not?
And so, here I am—he said to himself, as the aeroplane hit the runway at Dum Dum Airport—and so, here I am—flat words, nothing to them, it had been too easy really to return, no long sea voyage to wring out any further memories or inchoate sequences of images and emotions, no sense of approaching the past, drawing near, and then nearer—no, none of that—just happy oblivion brought about by endless champagne and a truly excellent Chablis on a ten-hour ride from Heathrow. It was true that he had had the jitters briefly while changing planes there, in Heathrow Airport, just briefly, when they had announced a delay of a mere half hour to his flight and he had somehow interpreted this as the shape of things to come—but then his eyes had strayed mercifully to the seafood bar, and he had spent those thirty minutes eating oysters and drinking a fine Muscadet, so that, in the end, he had seen those moments as a boon, an indulgence granted to him by gods unknown, gods unsung, gods who floated above overcrowded airports and made things happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
And so, here I am—he repeated to himself, as a voice announced the temperature outside, and, of course, the time. The time. Which was different to what was displayed upon his watch. His watch. Which had remained upon his wrist like a good friend upon this precarious journey. The time here. In Calcutta. Kolkata, they called it these days. Kolkata. Just as his ayah did in 1968. Kolkata. The time in Kolkata was 2:30 p.m. His wristwatch said differently. His watch did not know. It was up to him to tell it. An enormous responsibility. Did he even know how? There must be buttons. And pins. To pull out, that is. But he did not know. He should have asked. But to whom would he have put such a question? The checkout girl at Marks & Spencer, smiling broadly as she handed him his free gift. She had an Indian name, so she might have known, seeing particularly as the whole country confined itself to one time zone. Unlike the USA, which was riven by time, and also in so many other ways, now his mind was wandering, he must focus, he must focus, what to do with his watch? People around him were starting to leave, what could he do, what else but to take it off and stuff it into a trouser pocket, he was holding up the queue, quickly he grabbed his carry-on case and made the short journey down the aisle, bid goodbye to the gracious flight attendants, and emerged into the afternoon, dull and pearly, something very pleasing about the quality of this light, and nothing to do with him having known it before, nothing to do with it having buoyed his winter childhood fantasies, nothing at all.
He was met by a polite young man in sunglasses, a faintly American tinge to his accent, who escorted him to a cream-coloured car and sat with him in the broad backseat, making exactly the correct amount of conversation, until they drew up under the portico of the Grand Hotel. Absurdly, Selkirk remembered the place, or thought he remembered it at any rate, remembered being taken there, that is, remembered the women with their bejewelled beehives and their stiff saris, bending down to admire him, their welcoming smells above all, of some particular talcum powder and who knows what else, perfumes brought back by their husbands from abroad, rose petals ground into sandalwood paste by their trusty maids, they would all be old women by now, dead perhaps, or ensconced happily in Pennsylvania with their immigrant children, or still here, perhaps, in this city, sipping tea while having their feet massaged by devoted grand-daughters in skinny jeans and Abercrombie T-shirts—why should he care to know what had become of them, when even their scents and smells were so loose and varied as hardly to qualify as memories at all.
In due course, he was conducted to his suite—and what a pleasant set of rooms they were too—a whole life could be spent here, he mused, as he sat down to his first gin and tonic, hastily put together from the contents of the mini-fridge, a whole life could be idled away here, he thought to himself.
Before he had left, the young executive had handed him a folder containing his schedule (the young man pronounced it “skedule,” naturally) for the next three days. Selkirk picked it up and started to flick through it. It was remarkably sparse. Someone would meet him for dinner this evening at his hotel, unless he preferred to rest—the following day there was nothing planned except for the main event—dinner here at the Grand Hotel, preceded by cocktails (hallelujah)—and then on the third day, seeing as his flight was not till late, an excursion had been proposed to the Bengal coast, to the beach house of a certain Mr. Mallick. And why would he want to do that? Who was Mr. Mallick, anyway? But nothing called for a decision to be made yet, absolutely nothing at all. Selkirk drained his glass and set about mixing himself another drink, he needed a shower, or perhaps even a bath, yes a bath, why not, he walked into the bathroom and started one running. He returned to the minifridge to determine what he would like to drink while having his bath and settled upon a small bottle of some kind of indigenous bubbly, he opened it and poured it into a glass, which he went and set by the bath, and then came back to divest himself of his clothes. Feeling first through his pockets, he found and pulled out the watch and, for the first time, experienced it as something of an encumbrance, it was of no use to him to know what time it was at this moment in the UK, it was even slightly unsettling actually, he placed the watch dutifully nonetheless upon his dressing table like the portrait of a wife he was sure to slip hastily into a drawer later when other opportunities presented themselves.
As he lay in his bath he began to wonder what he really expected of the city, and why it was that he felt no particular urge to leave the hotel and renew his acquaintance with it. This city, where he had spent the first nine years of his life and of which he retained so many vivid memories. It was not anything simple, like the fear of disappointment. He did not desire to be transported in any manner to that past, or even to taste of it more keenly than already afforded, and he was positively indifferent to the idea that many other memories might resurface as a result of this exposure—he was certain that they could do no harm, nor bring him any particular pleasure. In other words, he didn’t care. So why was he here then, what could possibly have motivated him to make this completely unnecessary trip?
He came out of the bathroom wrapped in a hotel robe and towelling his diminishing hair. He felt oddly queasy. His glance fell upon the watch— in Edinburgh, it was exactly the hour that he took his lunch on the days that he actually ventured into work, exactly the time that he would meet with the few colleagues whose company he enjoyed and head with them to the pub, order his usual ploughman’s (they did an exceptionally good ploughman’s), and wash it down with his usual couple of pints. He suddenly felt a deep craving for a ploughman’s. This is ridiculous, he said to himself, I haven’t been here long enough to crave anything. He picked up the room-service menu and began to browse, looking for a substitute. In the end, he ordered a dosa and a couple of bottles of lager, he replaced the menu on the dressing table next to his watch, this is all your fault, he told it, and was pleasantly bewildered by the note of affection that had crept into his voice as he spoke these words.
He ate his meal in bed, flicking through the various television channels that were at his disposal, lingering naturally over the local ones, and soon fell into a firm, felt-walled sleep from which he was woken only by the sharp ring of the telephone, someone from Reception to tell him that his hosts were here, it was eight o’clock—he had forgotten to let them know that he would have preferred to have been left alone this evening. Still, no matter, in fact it was not such a bad alternative to spending the rest of the evening in his room, he felt suddenly.
He dressed quickly, so as not to keep them waiting, and it was only when he got into the lift that he realised that he had—by habit—put on his watch. Habit! The very word set his teeth on edge. He quickly requested the lift attendant to return to his floor, marched back to his room, unbuckling the watch as he approached, and then once inside set it firmly back on the dressing table, shut the door on it, and returned to the lift, smiling grimly.
They were waiting for him in the lobby, the same young man and two very smartly dressed young women—that is, they seemed to him smartly dressed in their hybrid costumes. Both had recently joined the company, they told him during dinner, they had both been recruited straight from the prestigious MBA programme they had enrolled in after earning their degrees. Neither had been educated anywhere other than India, and it pleased Selkirk to know this, although he was not quite sure why. They were wonderfully full of chatter, and utterly without guile, they even managed to draw a few smiles out of the serious young man, but it was a dinner entirely without alcohol, a superb Mughlai meal, clearly the notion of drinking anything with it was absurd, and the young man, who was in charge of ordering, did not have enough of an imagination to ask Selkirk whether he would nonetheless like to wet his lips otherwise. They passed an hour or more together with the young women easily and happily keeping the conversation going—how he admired them and how intensely he wished they were not so drunk on their good youth as to desire yet additional sustenance. He bid them goodbye at the end of their extremely pleasant meal and hurried to the bar, in search of solitude and other noble spirits.
It was fairly crowded at his time of the evening, but he was shown immediately to an empty plush booth and left with a large menu, yes, a cocktail was what he fancied, a cocktail, a dry martini, perhaps. Why did he feel, he wondered, after he had given his order to the waiter, that he might be anywhere, anywhere at all, some weird colonial joint in the New World for instance, or just in Torquay—there was a whole city outside that was different to them all but that he had no desire to see at all, despite having been born there and raised there also, happy other times.
Several martinis later, he raised his swimming head and found that all that was left of the throng was an elegant grey-haired woman sitting at a small table, reading. A waiter approached her, and Selkirk judged by the tone etc. of their conversation that the bar was closing, she was about to be thrown out, as was he. He looked in the direction of the large clock hanging over the bar counter, the hour was—to his mind—obscenely early, what were they thinking?
After he too was requested to leave, he wandered into the central courtyard, he needed some air, and there she was again, like a beaked bird of sorts, standing at the edge of the eerily lit pool in her white sari, she turned to him and smiled—so, we’ve both been chucked out then, she said.
So it would seem, he replied.
They stood for a while in the chilly dark, in a wonderfully companionable silence, the heavily chlorinated water lapping gently at their feet.
There’s always the minibar, she said.
Not much left in mine, he found himself confessing.
I’m sure they’d do room service, said the woman.
Shall we ask?
And so they made their way to Reception where they were told that this was indeed possible and given a menu to choose from—some of that bubbly he’d had in his bath seemed like a good idea to Selkirk, and she thought it more respectable to order some samosas with it. They were asked where it should be sent and thus thrown into mild confusion.
I don’t mind, they both said to each other.
Mine is a real mess, though—said Selkirk, having established that she did not care.
I have not been in mine the whole day, so it should be fine—his new friend said.
They gave her room number to the receptionist and walked over to the lift, which appeared to be waiting for them, doors gaping.
Which floor? Selkirk asked.
She told him. He pressed the button.
This is awfully kind of you, he said to her.
No, no, I’m very happy to have found you, she replied.
Selkirk wondered if this was a good time to introduce himself but then decided to put it off for the moment.
So what is it that brings you to Calcutta? she asked him, once they were seated around her little coffee table, waiting for their order to arrive.
I’ve been invited to attend the centenary celebrations of a company that my father worked for here for most of his life, he replied.
Did you grow up in Calcutta, then?
The first nine years of my life were spent here, and then he died, and we went back, we would have anyway really, he was within two months of his retirement.
So you were a late child?
You could say so, a late child of a late and utterly absurd marriage. I suppose my father must have been fifty-six when I was born.
That’s how old I am now, she said with a lovely laugh.
And so what is it that brings you to Calcutta? he asked.
My niece’s wedding—my older brother’s daughter—a child I loved dearly when she was an infant and I was still a university student and then learned to forget as my academic career took me to the United States, left me to lurch from one university to another in search of dignity and peace.
It seems that we are in the same business, said Selkirk.
Are you also an academic? she asked.
I’m afraid so, I am at the University of Edinburgh.
They call me a Professor of Social Evolution.
That sounds deeply ambiguous.
And you? asked Selkirk.
I teach Comparative Literature.
Pennsylvania State University.
Isn’t that in the middle of nowhere?
It’s in the middle of Pennsylvania certainly, if that’s what you mean by nowhere.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.
No, I know you did not. It’s a good place, you would like it.
How do you know?
Something tells me that your needs are very similar to mine, she said.
There was a knock at the door, their Sula Brut and samosas finally, no doubt. He rushed to sign it to his room and then settled down finally to a refreshingly cold glass of the stuff, so where is this wedding, at this hotel? he asked.
No, not at all, she laughed.
The main part of it had been held at their family home, a crumbling old house in a favoured location that her brother still refused to sell to developers, who were keen to raze it to the ground and erect a few blocks of multistoried apartments in its place. That was where she was supposed to have been staying, except that after a night or two under the same roof as twenty-five other relatives, she had begged to able to make her own arrangements and so had ended up in the Grand Hotel, only to retreat to in the evenings and to have her mornings to herself. She thought that her family would be bewildered and hurt by her behaviour, but they seemed to understand, seemed not to bear it as an insult to their own ways—this made her grateful, but also even more acutely aware of how much of an outsider they now saw her as— and why should they not, why should they not?
Suddenly Selkirk had a vision of her, dredged from god-knows-what, memories, no doubt, of the many ceremonies that the servants would regularly take him to—weddings mainly but christenings (that could not possibly be the correct term) also, and the occasional religious festival—Selkirk could see her there in the crowd with her cropped grey hair and piercing eyes and overpleated white sari, maiden aunt and distinguished professor of literature somewhere in the USA, what a tricky figure she must have cut among them.
When are you returning to the U.S.? he asked.
My flight leaves in about five hours, she replied.
Shouldn’t you be trying to get some sleep, then?
There wouldn’t really be any point—a car is coming to pick me up in about an hour and a half.
Have you packed?
Yes, I did that this morning before I left for my brother’s house.
I’m sorry, that was a very boring and unnecessary question.
So it was, she agreed.
Well, here’s a better one—what is your favourite colour?
Black, I think.
And your favourite animal?
I’m sure I don’t know.
Why did the chewing gum cross the road?
To get to the other side?
No, because it was stuck to the chicken’s foot.
She laughed. I’ll have to try and remember that, she said.
Have you lived most of your life alone? he asked her.
No, not really. I married someone, stayed married for twenty-seven years.
And then got unmarried?
I won’t ask why.
There wouldn’t be much to tell if you did.
Do you hate him now?
I feel a profound indifference.
And a degree of contempt?
I suppose so.
Selkirk refilled their glasses. Should we get another bottle? he asked.
If you’ll let me pay for it this time.
Of course, if you insist.
She telephoned to ask for another bottle of Sula Brut—no more samosas, they had neither of them touched the previous lot.
So, she asked, what about you?
You mean am I married? Good heavens, no.
And why not?
The University of Edinburgh does not permit it.
She smiled and took a sip of her now fairly tepid wine.
There’s no reason why they should, really, there is no vocation that is compatible with marriage, not even motherhood, she said.
You have children?
And where is he?
He couldn’t come to the wedding, he had an important business meeting to attend, in California, I think.
Do you wish he had come to the wedding?
Yes, I do, she said, after a while, yes, I do, it would have made it all much more difficult, but yes, I wish he had come.
I have a mother, Selkirk confessed.
And where is she? Surely she was also invited to this celebration? she asked.
And so she must have been, his mother, a similar envelope, no doubt, to his—his, she had sent on, of course—oh god no, she must already be here, nobody had mentioned it though, but perhaps they thought he knew, perhaps she was arriving tomorrow, and that was why his schedule had been left blank for the day, so that mother and son could make their own decisions about where they most wanted to go, oh horror, oh horror, how could he have been tricked so?
I must go now, he told his new friend.
Are you feeling okay? she asked.
I’m fine. But I really need to go.
Yes, of course, she said.
His room was on the same floor, so he reached it without much trouble, staggered in and shut the door behind him. How could he have not seen it before? It was a trap, finely and subtly laid by her, the chorus girl from Clapham, his mother. No, to say it that way in his head made it seem like he had something against chorus girls from Clapham, which he resolutely did not, this had to be established before he moved on: he had no quarrel at all with chorus girls from Clapham, this had to be established to himself before he could determine what to do next.
Why was she doing this to him? Had he not indicated fully and completely to her that he did not wish to have anything to do with her? And were the grounds not secure—her utter absence from those crucial years when even one gin-soaked kiss at bedtime would have saved him and instead he had to suffer complete desolation at his boarding school or within the confines of his grandmother’s home? Every now and then she would turn up in some scandalous outfit and take him off to give him an alarmingly good time— he hated her all the more for these occasional treats, the strange heavy scent of her enclosing him, her improperly manicured fingers scurrying through his hair—and then time again to be deposited indefinitely with grandmother or taken straight back to school, whichever suited.
And then he had been admitted to St. John’s College at Oxford, and for a while she had suddenly turned into an asset, mother of mine, cool as hell, currently running a brothel for men who fancied a bit of granny-whipping, policemen mainly were her clients, she told his friends, and he was proud, he was comfortable, this was his mother., And then there was his past, eleven years spent in Calcutta. You couldn’t complain with that for a personal history at the age of nineteen, no you could not.
But then came postgraduate studies, which he drifted into almost without knowing it, and a change of scene, a change of friends, not that they adored his mother any less, it was he who suddenly came to abhor their reasons for doing so, came to loathe all her excesses and confabulations, seeing suddenly that what he had valued in her so far had nothing to do with her being his mother, or a friend, or any person who remotely cared about him, at all.
It was well past two in the afternoon when he woke up the following day, partly due to the influence of the slightly hallucinogenic sleeping drug that he had swallowed after brushing his teeth, knowing that mere alcohol would do little to send him the way he wished to go just at that point in time. Tiny little white almond-shaped pills that his friend Justin—now an immunologist in the Department of Evolution and Ecology but still in possession of a valuable medical degree—had prescribed for him, to help him with his jet lag. He should have taken only one of them, but he preferred at the moment to err on the other side of caution, or should it be to err on the side of incaution, not that he cared, he needed bacon and eggs now and a Bloody Mary, a whole host of the latter, actually.
And this the hotel was able to provide—eggs, bacon, a spicy heap of potatoes, and a pitcher of Bloody Mary—you could spend your whole life like this, Selkirk thought briefly to himself before reconsidering the dangers at hand. These being that he might emerge to confront his mother in the corridor, fifteen years older (yes, that was how long since he had last set eyes upon her), and if not directly there, she might be lurking in the lobby, waiting to intercept him, ask him if it was really such a good laugh that they might be reunited here like this, and if not there either that she might be present at the evening’s celebrations, withered and inappropriately dressed, having sensibly decided not to approach him but throwing the occasional bruised and confused glance in his direction, waiting for him to make the first move . . .
He fell back on his bed and buried his head in his pillow, reluctant for the moment to confront and assess his options, and then, feeling under, found his wristwatch. He had lately been in the habit of putting it under his pillow when he slept, and the necessity of this had clearly pierced his profound haze with the force of a new ritual as he lay down last night. He pulled it out, determined to be firm, knowing that its baleful face would doubtless suggest a course of action that he otherwise would never have considered. But no, the watch simply looked a little aggrieved, petulant even. He flung it lightly over to the other side of the bed, self-centred little piece of plastic that it was.
The telephone rang. It was the young man who had been charged to look after him. How are you, sir? he asked.
Well, I am awake, at least, said Selkirk.
I was told by Reception that you had a DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door, so I did not try you earlier, but then they told me that you had asked for room service, so I assumed that you must be up, said the young man.
Have you been sitting in the lobby all this time? Selkirk asked.
No, sir, they have a very decent Business Centre here, I’ve been working in there.
I’m glad to hear that. I would hate to think that you had been waiting for me . . .
No, no, anyway that’s my job, isn’t it?
Well, you are obviously very good at it.
You are very kind to say so, sir.
Selkirk cleared his throat and took another sip of what remained of his final glass of Bloody Mary before he said to the young man, Can I ask you something? You may think it rather an odd question, but I have been estranged from my mother for a long time, and I was just wondering if she was coming to the party tonight.
Your mother? I could not say, sir.
You haven’t been told.
I could find out for you, the young man said.
That would be marvellous.
I’ll ring the office and get back to you.
Look, why don’t I jump in the shower and come down and meet you in about fifteen minutes—we could have a drink together?
It’s a little early for me, sir, it’s only 3pm.
Well, you can have a Coke.
Too much sugar.
A Diet Coke, then?
I have an aversion to its taste.
You know, I’m really starting to like you, said Selkirk.
Fifteen minutes later, on the dot, he was in the lobby, florid but refreshed, smelling reasonable, and there he was, the young man, his laptop balanced precariously on his knees, from this angle he bore a passing resemblance to Jake Gyllenhaal, the young man who was to be his guide, his Virgil in this inferno.
Professor Selkirk, you are indeed a very punctual person, he said, snapping down the lid of his slight machine.
It’s a bad sign, you know.
To be punctual?
Yes, that. Now, did you say you would have a drink with me?
An orange juice, perhaps.
Splendid. I’ll have a martini; I’m in the mood for a martini. Perhaps a few martinis. I trust that the bar is open.
You sound more English than you did yesterday, observed the young man.
Just reverting to type in these tropical climes, said Selkirk.
They wandered into the empty bar and were brought their drinks without much delay.
So, asked Selkirk, did you find out about my mother?
The young man set down his glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
I don’t feel that I should be the person to tell you this, but your mother died about two years ago.
I see, said Selkirk.
I’m sorry, said the young man.
I must confess that I am surprised you were not told.
I’m sure they tried to tell me, but I never answer my telephone, you see, and I usually put my mail straight in the bin.
But you got our letter?
It was forwarded to me from her address, someone still lives there, obviously.
What I mean is that you actually opened our letter of invitation.
So I did.
Rather than throwing it away?
I cannot quite explain, something had changed in my life, on account of . . . I really could not explain this to you.
I should not be asking you such personal questions, said the young man, we are all just very glad you are here.
He returned to his room just after five o’clock, he had two hours to rest and prepare his after-dinner speech, and digest the news that his mother was dead. He realised that it must have been at the time that he was on sabbatical in Berlin and his flat had lain empty for six months and his office also, answering machines clogged up in both places with trivial calls, it must have been then, otherwise they would have found a way to get through to him somehow. Any letters that might have come from lawyers or the government concerning the affairs of the deceased would also have been chucked, the grand lot of them, when he returned. By then they would have given up, whoever they were, probably assumed he was dead as well.
So, she was gone, and what did that mean to him? He remembered the shadows settling upon her thin arms in the afternoons as she sat on the veranda trying to read while he travelled back and forth on his new red tricycle, hooting mercilessly, as if in command of some much greater vehicle. He remembered how her boredom leaked through from under the pages of her book which she held close, far too close, to her pretty freckled face, as if it might shield her somehow from this life that she had chosen on account of the security it offered, traded in the good times for this, a not-so-bad this, servants, a good husband, a divine house, no end of gin and ice crushed to perfection, flawlessly titrated with lime—no, that was his fantasy, not hers—yes, it was true, he would have lived happily as a colonial wife, the role was wasted on her, as was everything else, the love of his father, for instance.
What was he to say this evening, a man newly and properly orphaned, what could he say but the most banal of things, but what else was expected of him? Given that some hideous irony would surely precede it, like the presentation of the gold watch that would have been his father’s retirement present, yes, something like that, something very like that, something invaluable and impossible to justify to his other watch, the very one that stared at him now, hoping still to be useful to him somehow, his free gift from Marks & Spencer on account of having made a purchase in excess of forty pounds, this whore of a watch that he should have long ago cast aside, this precious and infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.
Sunetra Gupta is professor of theoretical epidemiology in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford as well as the author of five novels, several short stories, and essays.