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VOLUNTARY AID [image, unknown] Reflections

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Calcutta, the Oberman Grand Hotel and the contract engineer who was an amateur cellist.
A short story by Sydney-based writer George Fisher.

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Illustration: Tony Ansell

Frank sat very still and wondered if the children thought he was a god. The old Toyota in which he travelled careered down the street at an alarming pace, giving no heed to the arthritic crowd. Don’t give to the beggars, the company personnel officer had said. Don’t look at them either. Calcutta is a lovely city.

A god, he thought. With expertise and financial backing the Third World could flourish. He smiled pathetically at the driver, who was mumbling something about very clean ladies. He shook his head and flicked his wrist as if to say keep on going.

The intersection ahead was choked with carts and other taxis. Frank saw a thin old woman clutching a baby to her chest. She ran to Frank’s window and squealed Baksheesh! Baksheesh!

‘Please do not open your window sir,’ said the driver, still smiling, hand held firmly on the horn.

Frank stared at the flaps of skin that were the woman’s breasts, and the flies clockworking in and out of every opening on the child’s body.

He closed his eyes.

The taxi pulled up outside a large white building. Metre - high neon read HOTEL OBERMAN GRAND, Frank watched the wheels and axles, the bikes, and the buses layered with clumps of brown arms and faces, The thought of the evening’s phone call to the parent company began to override the lump which moved between his throat and chest.

When he saw the stranger their eyes connected once, then again. It was a long and protracted stare. The stranger’s light grey suit, which matched Frank’s own, was conspicuous and somehow less offensive than all the brownness. Frank turned, and was enveloped by cool glass.

Once in his room he tried to settle quickly. Too quickly. Whenever his eyes caught crisp white linen he saw dirty brown. When the only sound was the air-conditioning he heard horns, engines, the beggar. he felt strangely disoriented, timeless in fact. He put it down to jetlag.

In the quiet activity of his mind and the room the slimline venetians, provided thoughtfully for discretion, flapped in and out in time with the air outlet breath. Two, three, four, flap ... two, three, four, flap . . . Frank, amateur cellist, member of Perth’s chamber orchestra, knew it as four: four, common time. This was an unexpected pleasure. He dozed, and felt at peace.

He woke some moments later, unsure what day it was, worried if it mattered, He felt angry. Three, four, flap-flap... three, four, flap-flap, the room’s thermostat distorting symmetry. Walking to the venetians he searched for some place of fastening. Nearer, he caught sight of the street beneath. Ants under the shadow of a heavy boot. Taxis, buses, small brown sticks.

He recognised the beggar. He saw her fall as the taxi, speeding towards the airport, clipped her legs and scattered her into the gutter. From this distance he could just make out her hand stretching towards her child.

Running along the street, Frank tried to ignore the smells which poked at the back of his throat. He arrived at the same time as the ambulance he’d called. Mother and child, blood and bone, were placed like groceries through the rear double doors. The ambulance drove off at walking pace, then its siren split the street. Frank followed in a taxi, not sure why.

A small pre-fabricated annexe received the beggar woman. There was a young man in a wheelchair. elephantitis swelling his legs to look like tree trunks. A woman, sitting on a wooden bench, had a leprous face, greying and striped. Frank laughed aloud, noticing how much he was sweating. He explained that he wanted to see the beggar woman, and asked where the surgery might be. A hand motion and a humble smile. This was the surgery.

‘Are you in pain’?’ asked the nurse.

Frank stared, then turned his back.

‘Why have you come’?’ An attractive grain of concern showed in her voice. She spoke to Frank from behind.

‘Who have you come to see?’ she persisted, tugging at his sleeve and pointing to shapes on the hoar. She glanced up at the wall clock. ‘We cannot leave them here at night. Even the rats have hunger. Perhaps your friend has moved on.

The nurse relaxed her grip, turned, and walked over to the leprous woman.

A light-grey suit caught Frank’s eye from the opposite end of the surgery. The stranger had been kneeling next to a patient on the floor, and only now withdrew his hand from hers slowly, though without fear. The stranger pleaded with Frank through the silence. When Frank saw the beggar woman’s form neutralised by a white sheet, he turned and left.

He caught the same taxi which had waited, knowing. The journey to the hotel was silent.

He ate a lobster salad, played with a light French wine and was easily amused when the Oberman Grand string quartet seemed to change key at random. A havana cigar pivotted, partially abused, in his ashtray. He was pleased that the Oberman Grand was in such a convenient location: a short drive to the airport, and a tolerable one to the site of the new assembly plant. Tomorrow he would speak to a government officer about upgrading the arterial road, inspect progress on the water purification works, and sign the contract for the construction of the biggest light industrial plant that India had ever seen. Tomorrow. Tonight had to be endured.

He savoured a crisp cognac in the lounge, just beyond the ears-reach of the string quartet, and scanned an air-freighted copy of the Guardian Weekly. Yet his eyes wandered and soon found themselves staring at what was a most unspectacular Calcutta skyline. Beyond the rigid, tinted glass, the streets seemed less offensive.

Bed would be good: the understanding firmness of the mattress, the quiet. He took the staircase to the second floor to work off a few calories. He moved shirts and underwear and socks from suitcase to wardrobe to dressing table as if by some age-old ritual, patting, reshaping, smoothing wrinkles, flap-flap flap-flap ... Frank braced himself with both arms against his open suitcase. As he looked towards the venetians a worry line etched a deep trough across his brow. From somewhere in a thought or perhaps a nightmare he saw a baby, brown, slight, precarious, and an arm stretching out to find and give comfort.

Frank frowned uncomfortably. He looked at the clock, the venetians, the bed. He’d worked up a sweat within minutes of leaving the hotel, The air was coarse, filled with sighs and the smells of other people’s lives. When he reached the scene of the afternoon’s accident, he crossed the road, as if this might give him another perspective, possibly a solution. Delicate Australian sweat waited in rows on his forehead. Along each side of the street, families huddled on mats and on strips of plastic and around small fires where onions and eggplant were being fried. A young mother washed her clothes in the gutter no further than a whisper from where another was urinating. Chained to a railing on a public building, half in shadow from the street lamp was a clay statue, half man, half elephant.

Frank wiped his brow.

‘Do you like the night?’ said the stranger, now standing beside Frank on the footpath.

Frank turned to walk away, but the stranger’s hand was on Frank’s shoulder suggesting this was not in order.

‘What do you want,’ snapped Frank.

‘Want is such an unfortunate word, my friend. But why have you come.

‘To see... for a walk.’

‘The mother is dead, but where is the child?’ said the stranger. ‘Isn’t that what you wish to know?’.

Frank stepped into the gutter and started walking towards the hotel. The stranger was at his side, smiling, effortlessly keeping pace.

‘Then we shall talk as we walk,’ the stranger said.

‘Where is the child?’ asked Frank, resigned now to the person at his side.

‘Some are taken to the orphanages; some stay in the hospitals for a time; most die.’

‘Where is the child I saw this afternoon?’.

‘She will live. For a time. She is in hospital.’ Light grey calico and Parisian silk walked side by side along the gallery-like street, a mixed marriage in a pagan world. Frank’s pace had taken on the rhythm of a march. The stranger kept up with him, though with shorter strides.

‘I must get some rest’, said Frank, thinly. ‘I’ll give you 500 rupees to ensure the child will get a good home...’

‘500 rupees?’

‘Isn’t it enough?’

‘Oh, sire, it’s very adequate ... a very adequate sum.’ The stranger stopped and Frank, in a few paces, stopped too, still fumbling in his wallet.

‘700 then.’

‘700 rupees? You are very generous. The young lady will grow into a princess.’

‘Thank you. Please go’ said Frank, puzzling slightly at the tone of the stranger’s voice.

Frank handed the stranger a wad of notes. but they fell through his fingers, blending as if by nature with the organic waste in the street.

‘What will she say to her sisters?’ shouted the stranger. ‘Will she be happy to be rescued from the filth so that she too can give handouts and then return to her own comfort? You are a fool.’

Frank squared his shoulder. His eyes burned and his breath came in deliberate hulls. ‘You are the fool,’ he snapped, ‘I’m helping more of these people than you realise.’

‘You have no understanding. How can the rich teach the poor about treasure?’.

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