Saturday, April 14, 2007

Message in a bottle

If you’re reading this, it’s because of an old problem to which I have finally found a solution. The old problem is: I tend to do everything at the last minute. The new solution is: I must anticipate last-minute problems and do things in advance. Other people have tried this and say it works.

Accordingly, this column was written a long time ago, and has just been dug out of storage by the editor to cover for some contingency, such as emergency travel, or death (other people’s), which has made it impossible for me to write something in real time this week. The problem emerged the last time a relative died unexpectedly. I had to sneak off between sobs and other funeral activities to write, and it told on both the column and on the bereaved.

Of course, sometimes, you find what looks like an elegant solution to a problem, but someone gets mad anyway. For instance, when I was a child, living in Switzerland, I was invited to a classmate’s birthday party a couple of towns over. I was to get there on my own, and they’d drop me home. My mother put me on the train with instructions for where to get off—this was perfectly normal in Switzerland, and not at all a sign of delinquent parenting—but a nice lady on the train talked to me incessantly, and I forgot the name of the station, so I took a bit of a guess and got off somewhere that sounded all right.

If this was the right station my pickup would show up, so I decided to wait around and see; but, being a shy sort of child, I did this from a secure position behind two enormous wooden barrels in a corner of the platform. I liked looking at the world as long as the world couldn’t look at me, and I spent an enjoyable hour carefully observing many people come and go, including the lady who searched high and low enquiring after ‘a little Indian girl’ (we little Indian girls were few and far between in the Swiss villages of 1980). When I was sure that nobody was coming or going any longer, I sallied forth from the barrels to wend my way home.

It was the middle of winter. I had no money for a return train fare, and no idea where I was, and there wasn’t a phone in sight. So I did the only thing I could think of, which was to walk home along the train tracks. It was hard work, what with struggling through a foot and a half of snow, and having to press myself against the snow banks along the tracks every time a train passed, and all this with my body frozen almost solid; but three hours later, in the early winter night, I walked through the door of my house, feeling pretty tired, but quite pleased.

My mother dropped the phone on which she was frantically speaking with the police, and used her freed-up hand to clap me one across the snout. She later said it was out of relief, because she’d been worried sick. I guess she wasn’t impressed that I’d averted the horrible alternative fate, which was that I might have died of starvation behind my barrels. And thus it was that I learned how love can sometimes be unfair, and hurt to boot.

I don’t know why I didn’t reveal myself to the woman who had come to fetch me at the station, but it might have been that I didn’t want to go to stupid Noelle’s birthday party in the first place.


Chandrachud said...


Mike Todd said...

Dude, are you on vacation or something? Please don't make me subscribe to an Indian newspaper.