Summer twenty three years ago, the man asked me for directions on a flooded street. I was living and working in Kolkata at the time. November twenty three years ago, I said goodbye to the man. It seemed like, whatever we thought, it could not work. I was too broken, we lived in different countries and many other things. Twenty two years ago I married the man. He is Dixie Delicious here (he is from Georgia), Santa Maria is my late mother who, in my psychological experience was, in death, as in life, a peril to me. I am Alison. It was all broken – you can see. But it didn’t matter then and it does not now. This is an extract from my first book, now out of print, but which I will be bringing back in a different form.
There was a man on the other side of the street, wading through water happily and going in the opposite direction and he called across to her, ‘Excuse me, can you tell me the way I could get to the Blue Sky Café?’
Alison was startled because he had chosen a sentence with pleasing internal rhymes (though its tetrameter was imperfect) and momentarily thought she might have imagined the man. She said, ‘Go straight ahead to the corner and you’ll see it there.’ To have attempted the beckoning symmetry of meter really would have been a shade too far. Anyway, what she should have said was, ‘Turn round and go straight ahead and you’ll see it there’ because the man whirled, lost in the watery street. Thus the ability to give inaccurate directions for the simplest of journeys was a point he raised with her later that day when they met on the same side of the street. And still he followed her (with his own directions), alter ego, embolus, itch and all to Albion and the funny old house and came to visit a while and then never left.
And she told the man, ‘I forgive you for the broken tetrameter.’
And he said, ‘Your directions suck and why didn’t you just point to the signpost?’
And she said, ‘Signposts and I have a difficult history.’
His name was Dixie Delicious.
Alison met him, as if in a story, stumbling across a book by a familiar author in an unfamiliar place―and this was, truly, how it was, after the day in the flooded street in Kolkata, Eric Newby, and the very wrong directions which turned out, in a funny sort of way, to be the right ones. Dixie Delicious had a calm eye; he didn’t wake in the night, sitting bolt upright, like Alison did. He had faith: he had it in the palm of his hand and the heel of his shoe and she looked at it and saw possibility and she followed him, just as he followed her. Sometimes, they fell over one another and laughed as they travelled on. And in another city, Alison watched him go out and imagined what he saw, single and indivisible: this was how it went.
Benares, Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities. It was not his city, but she sensed he felt at home there. He sat by the river at dawn and a multitude was there, bathing and praying and offering up what they could. Look at him. Look at how still he is. How does he do that? The sun hit the water and he watched them quietly, not able to offer a libation, yet content to watch and bless vicariously. He bought tea and set it by her bed. Then, later, mangoes, limes, tomatoes, onions and some olive oil from an ayurvedic medicine shop so that he could make a dressing of sorts. He begged a small hillock of salt; his eyes said he hoped she would be proud of what he had done. On the balcony of the room, the light was dazzling. There, he assembled the breakfast for her, and called her out from her room. With his call, though, she sat at ease; he smoothed her hair, put on her hat for her and gave her what he had made. They said little as they ate and watched the sun, still in its ascent. The colour of the Ganges changed from white and gold to the more familiar muddy brown. Now, he stood up and told her that, from now on, he would stop running, stop travelling away from and start travelling to a destination. Whenever he put one foot in front of the other, it would be with her. She understood and that was that. There were smiles of complicity.
‘Stay with me.’
‘I don’t know if I can. I am broken; was never made properly—and there is more than one of me.’
‘And you think any of that bothers me?’
In the lanes below, the monkeys chattered. They could smell the food he had prepared and were ready to steal. He spoke a prayer. The heat of the day was becoming pressing already and the yoghurt sellers a little further along the street were doing a good trade from their trestles full of clay cups, filled with the cool, sour yoghurt.
‘And again and again, I don’t care who you are and if you are more than one,’ he said.
‘What about my dead mother? Dead Santa Maria?’
‘We’ll ignore her.’
‘And Brother who Might as Well have been Dead?’
‘If he Might as Well have been Dead, does it matter? He’s nixed anyway, isn’t he?’
‘I hurt myself.’
‘I’ll stanch the blood or maybe just tie you up to stop you doing it.’
‘That sounds alluring,’ said Alison. Then, ‘What about God who was―or should I say is Dead if He ever Existed?’
And Dixie Delicious said, ‘He is alive. He was down by the river.’
When he was ten, Dixie Delicious happened to be in an elevator in a hotel in Dallas, Texas. In walked a tall man; the boy looked at the man’s shoes. From there, it was a long way up, but look he did. The boy saw that it was Johnny Cash. No, he must be wrong. But hang on; Johnny Cash must have had to ride in an elevator some time, so the boy looked again. He nudged his little brother, ‘Curtis: I think it’s Johnny Cash.’ Maybe the man heard him, maybe not. But he bent low and smiled a warm, wide smile and said, ‘Helllllllo boys.’
The child was star-struck and cannot remember if he said hello back; little brother was possibly unmoved, being too young and green to comprehend that Johnny Cash was not to be seen riding in an elevator with you any day of the week. Cash was, like him, a Southern man. Little links kind of went in deep: faith and difficulty and broken things and joy. And riding in that elevator. Alison noticed that Dixie Delicious would listen and feel at home; saw that Cash was flawed, powerful and weak. He had struggled with addiction and the darkest of insecurities; had gone on a journey from the Arkansas mud to a meeting with a luminary or a President. Cash had faith that was angry and brave and music that haunted even when it jangled. So our boy shared and, for a quiet moment, he picked ‘Down there by the train’ with its invocation to meet him if you had travelled the low road; if, broken and sinning, you had passed the same way.
‘Could that be so? That my friends and I don’t have to do this alone?’
There are some times when the puzzles and the headaches just drift away: the meeting of the man, the thought of the young Dixie Delicious and the notion that now the man who was THE ONE—who could not be otherwise—had a faith that was flawed and wanting and made sense, now that was like moisture on Alison’s parched and callow soul and for a while it washed away her feeling of the absurdity and booted those who created it out of the door. It was temporary, but it was beautiful while it lasted: it was utterly beautiful, and she had the tiniest of notions that one day it would come back. One fine day when golden light breaks through the mist and, as in the song, Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, carries John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln; when rifts are healed and the person who hated you forgives you.
Tear-drops fell like summer tempests and Alison, glimpsing the world through another’s eyes, (sometime while listening to Johnny Cash) sensed possibility and found it both gorgeous and painful. But we must carry on, hankie applied, and tell you that when Dixie Delicious followed Alison there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from both families once everyone began to understand that he might be staying. For issuing from tomorrow, come today and other people, when time is no longer away.
Dead Santa Maria was there, inviting them all out, smilingly, winningly, ‘Come and see my bitch daughter. Look what she’s done now.’
One of the neighbours came out from her house with Dead Santa Maria and shrieked, ‘What the fuck are you doing marrying your holiday romance?’ and there was stony silence from all members of both families, probably for the same reason. The words shotgun wedding hung heavy in the air and over in Georgia the furiously Anglophile family of Dixie Delicious went off ‘yonder’ a bit. Alison dutifully tried to win over them, despite her not being a good church-going girl from below the Mason-Dixon Line. She might by now have been Oxbridge and able to read Greek and Latin, but she was still a liability of big emotions, with a tendency to curse, an untidy Anglo-Cymric background, two dead parents and a Brother who Might as Well have been Dead. In normal families, older siblings didn’t usually leave the younger ones out in a dark and shadowy wood to be eaten by wolves, and normal people didn’t discuss violent and splashing death over tea. Did they?
‘It’s okay,’ laughed Dixie Delicious. ‘My family is entirely dysfunctional, too.’
‘What about the way the dead are present all the time? That there’s little distinction between who’s dead and who’s not? In my case, who’s real and who’s not? Santa Maria is now Dead Santa Maria, but it hasn’t made any difference!’
‘Ah, maybe not that bit, although my mother insists that being dead is no excuse, but that’s because she’s a steel magnolia.’