by Libby Hathorn
He’d been angry when Annie had insisted on coming with him. She’d always wanted to go to India and after all, leave was due to her. She could join a tour group in Sikkim, travelling to Bhutan and possibly Nepal, places she’d always wanted to see. Then she could head back to Calcutta to stay with him at the end of his six-week residency. He’d been angry but it all sounded so perfectly reasonable the way Annie put it, in the end Stephen had to give in to her. The upcoming residency in India had been a miracle arranged by the new arrival on staff, quite without any fuss, so why should he make a fuss now?
He’d met Ashok at Sydney University where he was still half-heartedly managing to run his music course. Ashok, an older man with a soulful face and a soft Anglo-Indian accent, seemed to read his despair or need or whatever it was that was showing, almost immediately. Ashok had proffered details of a retreat in Calcutta in one of the houses of the famous poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore, when he’d found himself confiding, one late afternoon at farewell drinks for a colleague, how desperately he needed to take leave. Stephen knew little of Tagore but he liked the way Ashok had described the man and the place, then the way he’d said he’d like to recommend him, help with the papers, that sort of thing, if he should wish to apply.
‘I’m a great admirer of your early work,’ Ashok had said quite without malice Stephen was sure. ‘Especially your ballet music- a fine piece. The residency in Calcutta has not been filled yet. I know because I am on the Board. What do you say?’
Stephen had been refusing conferences and residencies for years, was adept at it, but Ashok’s words, ‘It’s a house where you’ll be left alone, looked after, but left alone, and you’ll see, it’s a place that refreshes, a place that allows for things.’ So without bandying dates or mouthing duties he’d agreed even though Ashok had mentioned he might well be in Calcutta himself, towards the end of the planned stay.
‘Not that you are obliged to see me Stephen, not at all but I’ll give you my details.’ He wondered why he was so pleased at the idea that once there, he didn’t have to see Ashok or anyone. Once he was in far India, in this poet, Tagore’s house. In Calacutta, safe and sound. No one.
Annie knew quite a bit about Tagore. ‘But what’s this to do with your music, Steve? I mean I know he wrote songs, that kind of thing. The Indian National Anthem for starters. But will you be able to do your work there – India for God’s sake?’ And later, ‘Are there married quarters?’
‘No,’ he answered shocked at the pleasure he took in hurting her, part of the terrifying realisation that he had to do this, to do something without her.
To reach the house alone, to sit on the old-fashioned bed he’d already imagined in the cool rooms of the double doors he’d already imagined, a room that had verandahs to both sides as Ashok had described in that lulling voice of his. A description that had already brought a flood of memories of the past and especially of the aunts. A memory that included an old-fashioned bedroom and an old-fashioned bed. And the stunning relief he’d felt in returning home from that school, to his own boyhood bed with its iron fretwork top and bottom and the kindly voices of the aunts, Elsie and Joyce, as he allowed the unspecified illness full flower; as he burned and burned to blindness and then unconsciousness in the haven of their house. During the crisis and for all the days after, with his strength slow to return, they’d come to hover, to feed him with the plain love of their kitchen and the familiar gossip of the town, buoying him up with the promise of his strength returning, their strength. And how he’d secretly wished he would never get fully better, could stay there with them, safe forever. Funny he should think of them now, both long since gone, as if he should somehow find something of them in a far-off Indian city! Ashok had been convincing.
Someone from the Council was there to greet him, an anxious shabby man glad to hand him over to the house. He made a mumbling invitation about dinner and smiled, waggling his head in obvious relief at Stephen’s firm refusal. All the time, in the steamy little office on the ground floor of Tagore’s house, as he completed forms and was introduced to various staff, his eye kept wandering to the generous upper verandahs where he hoped his room would be.
It was the plump, friendly Meena who escorted him up the stairs insisting on carrying his bag, a tucking and flowing of sari making it seem to him that she glided across the stone floor despite her burden. She deposited the case outside shuttered doors and took him on a mercifully brief tour, pausing reverentially outside the great man’s study. She could not believe he did not want to see it right away but he explained he wanted to take his time and would return alone.
‘Ah yes.’ This understood she took him back to his quarters which turned out to be several rooms.
‘Here you may eat sir, and here is your bedroom, very big bed sir. And here,’ at this she turned and smiled at him as he hurried behind her to the end of the verandah, ‘here is the room to your work!’ She beamed at him and though he felt a pang of guilt he peered in eagerly. He could see the furniture was solid plain and pleasing. An unremarkable desk, a glass fronted bookcase filled no doubt with books he didn’t want to read but providing a dark reflection of the room, two stolid chairs with wavering stripes and a small coffee table, an interruption in between them, with its green baize top overlain with glass.
As he stepped inside he remembered sharply the day the aunts had bought a table home that had been quite similar. There’d never been a low table in the house, after all tables were to sit up at! Even beside their beds, those tables of woven wicker towered above the pillows. But Elsie had been in love with the idea of a coffee table when she’d first seen it in the catalogue, even though Joyce, always suspicious of change, pointed out they didn’t even drink coffee, it being unprocurable in the grocer’s shop in town. The coffee table was nonetheless purchased and it quickly became a talking point with every visitor. When Elsie showed off that new piece of furniture it was well seen every woman coveted one just like it. Some said so immediately and you could see it in the eyes of the ones who didn’t. Elsie kept fresh fruit on the coffee table, splendid in her best cutglass bowl, the one with the three squat little cut glass legs, that hitherto had rarely seen the light of day. The bowl was placed almost wantonly alongside her Readers Digest Atlas of the World, on which she artfully positioned her best deck of cards. Sometimes she’d place a single flower on the dark green cloth cover of the atlas just as she’d seen in the catalogue photograph, bringing a ‘humph’ from Joyce as if she thoroughly disapproved.
He’d liked the table with the cut glass bowl and the book on it, just as he’d liked the way Elsie’s face would soften when she took time to place the flower. He’d seen Joyce secretly re-arrange that flower too, just before visitors arrived and more than once she suggested they take their morning cup of tea at the coffee table. There was no doubt, with or without coffee, the coffee table was a great success.
‘For your work,’ Meena reminded him in tones of such pleasure that he responded with an appreciative, ‘Ahhh!’ that turned to real pleasure when she threw open the shutters revealing a wrought iron balcony painted in hectic green, which, small and green as it was, invited one to immediately step out into an Indian summer. Here he could and view the courtyard, graceful verandahs on the other three sides of the house, and slender stone paths criss-crossing the bright green square of the grass, where figures, obviously those somehow connected to the maintenance of the house, seemed to pass constantly.
It was, as he’d imagined and hoped, a place of his own, to think or not to think at his leisure. He felt an unaccustomed surge of emotion similar to his reaction when he’d gone back to the farm for Elsie’s funeral and he’d fallen into Joyce’s arms feeling both grief and then a childlike relief in being home again. He wished Meena would leave him now. Would she help him unpack?
‘A generous wardrobe sir,’ she said eyeing his fat suitcase.
Would she send up tea?
‘The bathroom’s right here, all for your own sir—not to share. Both hot and cold water too.’ He nodded his appreciation.
‘Dinner at six, then?’ she asked, looking reluctant at one of the open doors.
‘No interruptions,’ he thought to say, though it was hard to speak. A strange torpor had descended. He saw the bed had no bedhead, elaborate or otherwise, but it had an inviting arrangement of cushions, and he realised he was tired from the journey, from the emotion of the streets, the shock of India all over again. He’d backpacked here years ago, so there should have been no surprises. But the sheer nakedness, the surfeit of life on the streets, was so bewildering the first morning that he had to step back into the lobby of his hotel to collect himself a moment, before he forged out into it. And then close to Tagore’s house there’d been that woman, working in a ditch alongside men who’d regarded him with such penetrating dark expressions as he’d hoisted his bags from the car. He’d wanted to speak to her but couldn’t.
He opened the case and took out the Tagore short stories that he’d begun on the plane and put the book on the table by his bed. He’d think about them later, think about the writer in whose house he now resided. Somehow, he knew the poems and the stories would bring the ‘quietness’ that Annie promised they would, but not now. How extraordinary that he could be too weary to be curious. Then he took off his dusty shoes remembering to put them by the door as Meena had explained. He could hear the life of the house, a servant was sweeping on a far distant veranda, somewhere below, men, more than two, conversing in loud voices. Out in the street the thump of a pick and the cries of the workers, the thin dusty woman among them, managing their ditch and the heavy pipes in excited voices and beyond that again the traffic.
It was not a hum like at home but more a sharp scale of horns against a muddy churning bass of motors. Close by, in the frangipanni, a bird’s song swelled and he succumbed to that sound, concentrating on it and letting everything else recede. He lay back among silky cushions, a maharaja of sorts, he thought wryly, smiling at the thought. And then, without warning, without real reason that he could fathom, Stephen began to cry. It wasn’t the soft grief noises he’d made in the bathroom muffled by towels when Annie told him that she’d miscarried once more and she wouldn’t, couldn’t go through it ever again, and he’d embraced her assuring it made no difference to him. It wasn’t like that, a masking of grief. But rather the loud grating sobs of boy grief and though doors were open he gave full rein to it, crying himself out, as he had so long ago on the last the night before his scary uncle had come to take him from the aunts, despite their protests, and place him in the unforgiving school, as planned.
He cried and then he slept exhausted and awoke to the same arrangements of sound in the bigness of the house that sheltered him. And felt, if not peaceful, then unexpectedly pacified. And very hungry. He would find Meena now and discuss the meal for already along the corridors and over the verandah were the good thick smells of Indian cooking.
Stephen fell into the rhythm of the house that asked nothing of him except to avoid the tourists. He gave nothing back in return, other than a nod of a head, a smile at the various staff that came to clean for him, or to take his washing or to bring him tea. A kind of pleasant Indian limbo as summer came bursting into the courtyard with a daily build of heat that had all his ceiling fans whirling and the shutters all closed against the glaring light. Often he would lie in the gloom in the nest of cushions and listen to the recording of Indian music that Meena had, unasked, supplied him and not go out to walk until late afternoon. He’d return to the hotel and take a swim, careful each afternoon, to seat himself away from any expectant looking tourist and return to Tagore’s house with the luxury of an empty evening before him. At night he threw the shutters wide open, for as Ashok had promised, with all the doors wide, breezes criss-crossed the room, making it a pleasant sleeping place.
When he unpacked his bag on the third day, he found that Annie had placed manuscript paper on the bottom of the suitcase and he could hear her saying efficiently, ‘in case the computer doesn’t work, darling,’ and he couldn’t even feel annoyed at her presumption. Computers, composing, bloody manuscript paper were the furthest things from his mind. He was surrendering to something and though not certain what it was he knew it might not be interrupted.
Then he found photos of both of them in an extending silver frame obviously meant to stand on the dresser wherever he was, and which he left folded on a coffee table. The week before Annie was to arrive, he knocked it to the floor and picking it up he opened it and found four photos of the happy couple which he studied closely. One last year in the snow, Annie pretty as always, her gold wavy hair escaping the hood and his own uncertain smile greeting him; then another in their favourite park, the trees stripped of leaves, Annie smart in her designer tracksuit, his a kind of baffled smile at the passer-by who’d been purloined to take the shot; then one of them in the Dorrigo rainforest by a bowerbird’s bower, Annie pointing to it excitedly; and the last, his favourite, though quite unflattering to both of them, in their garden. It had been captured by Annie’s brother the moment he’d dropped the brick in his hilarious attempt at bricklaying, Annie’s shocked face, his own contorted by the swearword he’d uttered for his broken toe, the summer garden burning with flowers behind them.
The day he stood the opened frame in place on the side table was the day he’d found the little girl in his room. She was dressed in grubby pink and had dusty legs and bare feet. Her head rolled from side to side, not in jerky movements but slow, almost graceful. When she smiled at him, and she did, he saw that her mouth was drooling slightly. He found something appealing about her face, her large dark eyes, lustrous hair tied so severely it served to better display her high forehead, accentuating those deep eyes. She seemed so fascinated by the pictures that he found himself pointing to them and saying ridiculous words like ‘Australia,’ and ‘winter in Katoomba,’ until Meena came with chiding tones, ‘Not to worry the composer, not to come up these stairs,’ and flicked at her like at some pesky insect, as she shambled away.
‘Backward,’ and Meena rolled her eyes. ‘Idiot girl! Tell her go away now! Her mother cleans downstairs. The bathrooms, the toilets,’ she said as if explaining something important.
But now she’d found him the girl would not leave him alone. Twice more, on the following days she’d come shyly peering around the doorway and would not cross the threshold until he nodded his greeting. She had learned to say hello, her shy croaky voice surprised him, she could speak, not that she had the expression of a backward child, he thought. She went straight to the photos and pointed to the snow scene.
‘Very cold. My wife and me. Winter, brrr, very cold. Winter.’ She smiled and nodded and then her lips framed the word though no sound came out. It suddenly struck him that the action shot in the garden was high summer, so he elaborated. ‘Garden, hot, summertime, like India, hot! Whew! And wiped his brow. Now she smiled not quite so shyly. Well the autumn leaves said it all and so turning to the third picture he intoned the word, ‘autumn’ and then added’ leaves fall and fall,’ and he made his hands flutter down as you might teaching a much younger child.
‘Autummm,’ she said, and she clearly liked the sound and mulled over as if eating something pleasantly sweet.
He went on. That the bower in Dorrigo had to be a springtime shot, so then he made cheeping noises like a baby bird and sprang about the room as he’d done for Annie’s two-year-old niece, to shrieks of delight. There were no shrieks, but he felt her eyes following him.
’Spring is sprung. Spring! Spring!’ Feeling like a kid himself. And she laughed and for a moment stopped the rocking movement of her head.
‘Spring, summer, autumn, winter’, he said distinctly, slowly, and he pointed as he might to a stave and a group of students considering Vivaldi, but this time he was eager to teach. She didn’t attempt it, but nodded solemnly, seeming to mouth the words after him. So, he said it again pointing patiently and then again more slowly, pointing to the photographs watching her inquisitive eyes move from one photograph to the next.
Suddenly Meena was at the door again, apologising, grabbing the child’s arm. He saw that though she went compliantly, her head began a much more agitated rotation. Not long after he heard wailing in the courtyard, was sure it was her and went along the verandah to see a woman, in dark formless clothes, must be her mother, beating the child around the head.
‘No don’t do that!’ he wanted to shout but then his concern for the child might be misinterpreted- after all he’d allowed her in his room. Thank God she stopped, though the abusive stream of a language did not. He watched as she placed a filthy-looking rag in her daughter’s hand, dragging the child off no doubt to some dark unsanitary interior. He never saw her upstairs again.
One morning, he stood just inside this shuttered door to watch the stream of tourists that came up the side stairs and along the opposite verandah in respectful bunches to peer into Tagore’s rooms, and wondered why people came to pay homage. What would you see but a large prosperous house wherein a humble looking few rooms had housed a great mind? What would you take from it? And yet he’d visited Beethoven’s birthplace and opera houses all over Europe, hadn’t he? To find something, to glean more, to know something else.
That afternoon he made the pilgrimage to Tagore’s study, a room similar to his own, plain too with its marble topped desk, its large high backed easy chairs and though he knew it was forbidden, he sat in one of the chairs briefly to at last get a sense of the house, the man. He sat for a while in the gloom for the shutters were kept closed and though he tried to gauge the man, his work, a vestige of it, he found instead that a great shadow seemed to creep over him.
It hadn’t been a good move he reflected back in his own room, for instead of inspiration a heaviness took hold of him. ‘Prozac time,’ Annie would insist usually quite right. He recognised it for a different kind of cloud. He’d sat in the room of a man who’d live a great long life from 1861 to 1941 and who’d written scores of stories and poems and songs, who’d travelled scores of miles to sing or say them, who’d championed causes, who’d endured bitter losses, and who’d continued to sing. Who’d suffered greatly here at his own ending and, according to the tour guide whose words in English sometimes strayed across the courtyard, had died uttering wise words and comfort to all around him.
In his own room Stephen sat and put his head in his hands. Who was he kidding? Stephen Maher. He was only forty-five and already he’d lost it all. All of it, that sweet power, the unfathomable drive, the gushing spring, that inexorable meaning to it, all of it had gone. He was bereft. Simple as that, he had nothing to give. And he was masquerading as a composer, living off one or two old scores that had gained a certain kudos, that were still played time to time, that to his own mind were tolerable. At least that, he thought grimly for nothing had been close to tolerable to him in years. Commissions were hammered out, conjoint efforts made but in his heart of hearts he knew the ‘heart’ of it was gone. And here in Tagore’s house within coo-ee of that rich vein of talent and intelligence, and what you could only sense as some superhuman drive, he’d come face to face with himself, his art. His lack of it. Gone, evinced, empty, worthless. Perhaps he’d be better learning bricklaying. It seemed bricks were falling everywhere. There was the looming truth too large to be accepted. Words pounded at him and he felt the tide of panic.
All these days alone, the good of them was being swept back. He’d hesitated to seek out the great artist in this great artist’s house and why? He’d been a fool, there’d been a hope of something. And now it was destroyed. No wonder he’d bawled on his arrival—he was going to be witness to a death. The house knew something he didn’t know himself. Had seen him for all he was—a sickening, gutless fraud. He felt sick to his stomach. How had it come and danced in him so briefly, the wonderfulness that had filled not just his head but his limbs with music? His music—some rich pouring forth that he felt—all right—he’d felt it in his bones. Had it all been poured out then, such a pathetic measure of it, if this was the case, or had he wasted it stepping out in Annie’s world too much? No, it couldn’t be Annie’s fault—she’d nurtured him, admired him, encouraged him in her own way. That was unfair and yet he felt his life was already squandered. It was futile and for that matter as he thought about it, Tagore’s house or no, everything was futile.
When was Annie coming? Still three days to go. He’d fall into her arms accept her sympathy, her strength, the drugs she’d no doubt have sensibly brought for him, they’d tour, discuss places and cuisine, anything. Perhaps he couldn’t wait the three days. He’d get out of here. Yes, that was it. He wouldn’t sit here feeling sorry for himself, stuck in a bloody monastery of artistic brilliance, outshone, outweighed, outdone at every turn. He’d book into the glitzy hotel, make himself a friend to anyone by the pool, talk himself silly until Annie arrived. Push it right out of his mind. But he didn’t move. He sat there and let the aching sun pour in on his awful realisations. A terrible thought entered his mind. The Ganges was not far and there were stairs down to those muddy holy waters. He felt exhausted and lay on the bed in the gloom and as it had happened more times than he cared to remember, the mobile phone rang and it was Annie there to save him.
‘Just wait,’ she said when she heard his faltering answers to her usual questions.
’I’m in Nepal and there’s been some trouble, no, not for me but I’m delayed, I’m two days away, three at the most. Just wait darling.’ And he knew he would. Sit it out, wait to be rescued.
When he stepped out onto his green balcony he saw the child at once. She was sitting on a bench on a far side of the yard, staring into space it seemed, expressionless and yet dejected, by her very stance he could see that. She must have almost immediately caught sight of him because she threw up her arm awkwardly in greeting and he waved to her. And then she rose to her feet, her eyes never leaving his, her face suddenly beaming as if she were greeting the Sun God himself. When she reached the patch of grass directly beneath his balcony, she began to dance, at least they were movements that seemed like a dance to him, stiff at first but becoming more rhythmic and swaying. What was amazing to him was that it did not appear random, but rather some weird, rehearsed routine of steps—and yet what an effort it must have cost her. It was for him, clearly for him, these movements, an imitation of animals, flowers, the wind?
The reaching up, managing for a few moments to be on her toes, the fluttering up of her hands, then the bending and sweeping movements around her feet, followed by a sudden shuddering step. Her body then beginning to twirl gathering momentum, moving as fast as her awkward legs allowed her; and then running steps in large circles, arms rising and falling; and finally a swooping as her hands cupped together made great arcs that seemed like offerings up into the air towards him.
As she went through those complicated movements again and the sequence seemed perfectly replicated, it suddenly came to him what she was trying to do, what she was doing! She was dancing the pictures for him. It was the photographs, pictures from his life. He was transfixed. Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter! The child was dancing the seasons for him. She was dancing his life. Charming. No! Bloody amazing!
A little stuttering tune began in his head like a runnel of water from a mountaintop in spring and without effort he followed it hearing the strings take it up with ragged bursts of green and then a great blare of the brass as summer burst in her stretched up hands, great blocks of colour, subsiding to flutes more flutes, woodwinds seizing the chance with the fluttering of fingers, gathering momentum, percussive, then the tearing brass and acidic strings, deep secret sounds of ice and snow, as her small body turned and turned hugging herself for warmth on this blazing Indian summer day. He turned eagerly from the balcony forgetting the dancer and the dance below, running back to his room for the manuscript paper, making urgent notations across the staves page after page of them. The child had faded, the room, the reason, he was in music, and later he told Annie, trying to interrogate the mood and failing, it was a first time feeling but not. Unbridled and free flowing as it was, he felt in some way guided by a hugely generous hand.
That day he stayed in until he felt he’d exhausted himself with it. He tried to walk the streets but the music was so bright in his brain he couldn’t bear to be away from the house returning, working, eating absently whatever Meena brought him. He was in the house, in his study even but he was elsewhere with his music, with India’s music, febrile with it, a child-man, fervid, remote, playing it out and playing it out but never quite finding resolution as he wanted, yet something. It took him three days to get down the entirety of his Indian Summer Suite. On the eve of Annie’s arrival, he returned from it. And the world both inside and outside the house seemed so bright and clamorous it was like arriving anew. Bones ached, the familiar stiffness in his neck was exacerbated by aching limbs. He would go directly to the hotel pool and swim and swim and revel in it. Perhaps he’d look up that address that Ashok had given him after all. And more than likely he’d accept the invitation made once again by the Society—with Annie by his side it would be bearable and she’d enjoy meeting the who’s who of the artistic world of Calcutta. She’d love it!
‘You’ll give this to the child?’
Meena looked into the eyes of the youngish man she’d looked after for these few weeks. The youngish man she’d heard weeping, seen pacing, and then observed in these last few days in the kind of furore of work this house had seen before. It was a pity he was leaving so abruptly and could not present his strange gift himself.
‘Of course! She reached out to take the folded photo frame and as she took it, he blushed and thought, ‘worthless’ and felt obliged to explain, ‘I’ve put a little something behind each of the photos, for the child .’
‘Of course,’ she smiled at him.
‘And you’ve looked after me so well I’d like … ’
She would not accept anything from him, taking his hand in both of hers as the car arrived for him, ‘You have worked,’ she said as an announcement and not a question and quite as if it were something to do with her. And he nodded blushing again like a boy, according her the right of his answer.
‘Yes, Meena, I have. Very well indeed. India has been good to me—and you! Thankyou.’ And with a flurry of help out onto the roadway where the workers had completed their pipe-laying, leaving only the raggedy trail of their labours, he was gone from Tagore’s house, out into the streets of Calcutta. He thought of her, the woman with the curious eyes. He’d have to tell Annie about the woman, and the strange expression that had so unnerved him on his arrival.
A little later Meena found the book of Tagore short stories unopened by Stephen’s bedside but it was too late, the composer and his luggage had already gone. Downstairs, as she placed the unusual gift of the photo frame in a drawer, ready to be handed to the girl the minute she arrived, it struck Meena that the composer, the one leaving these photographs of the very pretty wife, yes, photographs of a very personal nature, had never once asked the child’s name.
India, after a visit to Tagore’s house
Libby Hathorn is an award-winning author, poet and librettist. She has written more than seventy books for children and young people. Translated into several languages and adapted for stage and screen, her work has won honours in Australia, United States, Great Britain and Holland. She is winner of many awards including CBCA awards, the Centenary Medal, and The Alice Award, 2014 for ‘a distinguished and long-term contribution to Australian literature.’ In 2017 she won the Asher Literary Award (a story with the theme of peace) and more recently The Lady Cutler Award, 2020. She has helped develop poetry curricula in Nepal and India and is working on a World Poetry collection.
Of her picture storybooks she wrote the text for Way Home which won the Kate Greenaway Award, UK, with illustrations by Gregory Rogers; Grandma’s Shoes was performed as an opera by Opera Australia and Theatre of Image and Libby won an AWGIE for the libretto; Sky Sash So Blue was performed as an opera in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. Libby is currently working on a picture book as well as the libretto based on her book Outside.