Tell A Tale in 500 Words

Perimeter Walls By Jerome Muir

I arrived at the hotel in darkness, the heat of the Mumbai night acting as my concierge. Western suits, ushered from taxi to reception by staff in faux-uniform benevolence. Inside, an atrium of deadened all echoes. A bar gave off the smell of rich foods a band crooned Abba.

Morning stirred me. I opened the curtains to triple-glazed windows, sheltering me from the city’s airport, from the sounds of its planes and the heat of the day. The runway was bewilderingly close to my room. The perimeter walls of the hotel and airport were separated by no more than 300 yards, separated by a compacted mass of life. Roofs of corrugated iron and wood and fabric stared up at me, waving through the air that already rippled as it rose. At the far edge a group of perhaps twenty boys improvised a cricket match, stumps painted on the aiprort’s wall. Cars shuffled past them, each oblivious to the other

My visit was to have lasted two nights before returning to England. But nature, in the form of an ash cloud over airspace, diverted me, gifting me time alone. I walked to street level, greeted by humidity that pressed my linen shirt to my chest. The first taxi driver in the line agreed to take me around a part of the city, for a fixed fee, and Akarsh became my delighted guide. Hindu temples, commercial and devout. Show-slums sanitising poverty. Everywhere people upon people, life lived over life, compressed. I could feel the energy of the millions, as Akarsh enjoyed the liberation of no fixed destination.

To the Arabian Sea.

Akarsh parked at the edge of a thin strip of sand, an arc of his hand motioned to the water. He urged me not to give money to the children begging meekly on the beach. Climbing from the calm of the car, the sand was the grey of soft chewing gum. To be at the edge of the Arabian Sea was to touch the dividing line between two worlds.

Within a minute a group of boys aged between six and twelve were with at my side, smiling and laughing and asking for dollars. Akarsh caught me with a warning look.

A boy touched my shirt, not quite a tug. He was the age of my youngest son, still sleeping in England. While the other boys yapped and laughed, he pleaded with the passion of silence. His eyes looked up at me and I crouched down to talk with him. No words could come. He lifted a sinew-thin hand, so close to my cheek I could feel the stickiness of his palm. Our faces were inches apart, silent and inarticulate.

Without warning Akarsh thrust the flat of his hand into the boy’s chest. He lurched backwards and lost his balance. The boys hooted in delighted laughter as the boy looked away into the grey of the sand. He took some in his hand, then dropped it.


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