The mind goes back in time and sometimes ferrets out tiny bits from the past that bother you, until you tell yourself, ‘I’d like to go back in time and do all that differently… correctly.’ Those are little time frames that heckle you and make you feel so imperfect.
‘But then imperfection is what pushes me to do things better,’ I say to myself.
My wife was deep into some calculations while filling her ITR for the year and so she suddenly looked up and asked, ‘Something tells me that something is bothering you?’
I told her to relax as I was just doing some time-travel. ‘Time travel,’ said Specky, ‘Now that is surely something interesting. Where have you just been to?’
‘York,’ I said, ‘York to Scarborough in 1996. Remember that trip?’
‘Ah!’ she said, and smiled. She got up and said, ‘Let me see if we have any pictures from that trip. I remember that long road trip with Mandy and Buddy.’
Mandy was an Orthopaedic Surgeon and Buddy was his doctor wife who had opted to remain a housewife as their daughter Bubbles was too small. They were in London and we had got a call from them… and Buddy, who was Specky’s friend, wanted to spend a weekend with us in York.
‘That’ll be simply fantastic,’ Specky told Buddy, ‘And Pushkin will be super excited.’ Pushkin was a couple of years elder to Bubbles but he was more excited because our friends were driving from London. We didn’t have a car there because Specky, being a Commonwealth Scholar, was a doctoral student in the University of York and we were all managing in the scholarship she was getting. Truth is that we were all thrilled and were all dreaming of a car trip… and we spent that evening looking up at all the alternatives for a day trip around York.
They reached late in the afternoon and we spent the rest of the day taking them around almost every nook of York. We went to the Castle Tower and the York Museum and then also made them walk with us by the River Ouse.
‘I really wanted to do this walk,’ said Buddy, ‘you’ve written such alluring prose on the colourful back gardens of the houses by the river walk…’ and then after a pause, she went on, ‘the quaint cyclists who get down and walk so they don’t disturb the newbie fishermen trying to bait their first trout!’ Well, I had written to them all about the cobbled streets of York, the York Minster, the famous Yorkie, and even the newspaper vendor on Parliament Street who had a distinctive way of shouting ‘Praesss!’ as he sat there asking people to buy the daily Yorkshire press.
‘And do you remember’ I asked Specky, ‘how Mandy was just obsessed with going to every little monument in the city without even wanting to get in?’ Specky smiled and said, ‘It was their idea of a perfect trip, not ours.’
‘Let’s go to the City Centre and wait for the Town Crier,’ I said. But Mandy seemed to be restless and asked, ‘Can you just tell me all about the history of this city and even about this Town Crier?’
I looked at him helplessly and fumbled out some disjointed history. Well, I too was new to the city and to the country and was still exploring. But somehow Mandy expected me to be like some expert city guide which I was not. He said, ‘You know, I like exclusive information about places. This is how I’ll be able to impress my colleagues at the hospital after a weekend.’ I simply looked at him because I had actually not understood what he meant.
Buddy smiled and calmly explained, ‘London is a bigger place and full of really talented professionals. They all meet after a weekend and talk about all the great things they have done even as they were holidaying. Some paint, some talk about seminars or workshops attended, and some others about vacations to Paris. So we planned to come out here to see what the countryside looks like and what makes York such a great tourist attraction.’
‘Aha!’ I said, ‘York is where the Vikings landed. York is where all the invasions happened. York is a city that suffered a lot and thus managed to gather a lot of interesting history and heritage.’
Mandy still sulked, ‘But you don’t know much about this place. I mean nothing beyond what the tourism literature can give.’
‘That’s true,’ I admitted, ‘we still have a lot to know and understand. But forget that and let’s all go and walk around the cobbled history of The Shambles.’ Well, the day went by and on reaching home, Mandy said, ‘We’re planning to drive to a few cities near York and will love it if you guys come along.’
Specky had found the right album and showed me a few pictures of their visit then in 1996. It brought back a flood of memories. The memories of a drive around the countryside of Yorkshire that was utterly fascinating. Let me recount some of that magic and some of the hilarity associated with the trip…
We started early after a hurried breakfast. Mandy said, ‘You sit in front with me. Do bring a map with you. A good navigator can be rather helpful.’ I was fearful because I remembered how our platoon had got hopelessly lost in the mountains during a night route march, all because of the topsy-turvy map-reading that I did then. But I put up a brave front and replied, ‘Of course. I’m an ace with maps. I know all about contours and can translate these squiggly lines into something really meaningful.’
Pushkin shared the front seat with me and the three graceful ladies sat behind and were happily chatting away. It was a warm day and the AC was running. The windows were obviously not rolled down. The road was undulating. The sky was a bland sky-blue. Mandy drove fast and we were soon on the highway to Scarborough. All we could see were vast expanses of land all neatly fenced and straight out of some picture-book. That was when a stink bomb literally exploded inside the car. It wasn’t me, for sure. Nobody said a word… and then Mandy said, ‘You know a part of the roof of this car can be slided to open it to let the fresh countryside air in.’ He pushed a button and we saw a rectangular opening above us. A lot of air swished and swirled inside. We were quite happy that Mandy’s car had this great mechanism.
‘That’s quite an innovation,’ I said… but before I could say any more, we noticed something come in at the velocity of the car and struck Bubbles on her right cheek. She didn’t cry out, fortunately, but caught it in her hands and asked her mother, ‘What’s this?’
‘Heather,’ said Buddy.
The roof-top had been closed again as the reason for its existence was now justified. ‘Heather?’ exclaimed Mandy, ‘Yes, this place has a lot of places where we can stop and walk around. Walk in the countryside, you know. It will give me something to talk about on Monday.’
Mandy was obviously stressed out because of this very British habit of making every weekend count! We Indians are not so particular about them… we are either doing what we should have been doing during the week or just lie in bed for the entire day. He suddenly remembered that I was the one with the map.
‘Hullo Mr Map Reader,’ he asked, ‘I’m sure the walk site must be given in the map.’
I peered cluelessly into the map and said, ‘I think we’ve passed a couple of them.’
Mandy wasn’t pleased at this announcement and said, ‘See the map carefully, Arvind. We really need to stop at least once. A little walk will do us all a lot of good.’
‘There were no smartphones then,’ I mumbled, ‘and no Ambipur then to freshen the car. Our car roof doesn’t sidle open at the touch of a button. We have Ambipur to eliminate all bad odours.’
Well, the mid-nineties was just watching the Windows 3.x getting all the wows and the Ahas! Navigating devices hadn’t yet reached the consumer level. I remember finding our way anywhere was easiest when you just stopped and asked for directions… when in India.
Specky said, ‘Don’t stop. Just go on writing your post. There are some interesting bits that you might otherwise skip or forget to include.’
The map was duly folded and kept in the dashboard. I said, ‘I’d rather be a great lookout than be a map-reader.’ The ladies laughed. Mandy scowled. I told Pushkin, my son, to keep a watch on any direction indicator to the right as this arrangement made me look out of the window and dream. I was soon lost in the gently rolling hills, wooded slopes and valleys and was dreaming about the winding road wanting to blend a fresh perspective every few seconds. There was poetry all around. This is the sort of thing that excites me. Just watching and let everything sink in through the eyes… no words and not discussions to come butting in… there is so much romance in Yorkshire! I sighed… maybe a trifle loudly, because it roused Mandy from his high speed driving fetish. He asked, ‘Found anything yet?’
I said, ‘We passed a couple of great walks. I even saw people in the distance and they seemed to be having a lot of clinical fun. But you’re going much faster than the speed with which words travel from my mind to my larynx!’
Buddy intervened, ‘Slow down Mandy. We aren’t here to just speed drive. We’re here to stop somewhere and take the beauty of the countryside with us.’
Mandy mumbled something about wanting to cover maximum cities and towns and villages in a day’s drive… and then, as if he knew that mumbling wasn’t quite proper, he said, ‘When I went to the US, I touched 108 cities in just a week. I have all the names jotted down in my notepad. The guys at the hospital were jealous!’
‘Don’t you worry,’ I said, ‘You’ll be touching a few today as well. But I see an official car stop coming, so slow down and we’ll stop.’
We all got down and walked to the edge from where we could see what the farmers in that part must be seeing every day. Waist-high stone walls going on and on like a mini Great Wall of China… and everything was a bit purplish. Seeing that they were all content to just stand there and stare, I asked Specky and Pushkin to come with me and we dared to step out of that zone and into the real countryside.
Yes, there was adventure in even walking on the rough trail that we just happened to pick intuitively. It was winding down and after a while we reached on of the stone walls. It also had a rickety gate. I climbed on the waist high wall made of large stones and looked up. There they were… Mandy, Buddy, and Bubbles… content to just look at the truth from a distance, a truth that they had come to find, touch, and discover. I waved. We were not more than ten minutes away from them.
Mandy indicated that they too wanted to join us… and I trudged up that steep winding countryside path and brought them all to where we were.
‘Lovely,’ huffed Mandy. Bubbles was ecstatic. Buddy said, ‘Look, this is the fabled Heather that everyone in London is so ecstatic about all the time.’
Mandy looked closely at the bushy, evergreen shrub with twiggy stems, and remarked, ‘Where is the poetry in Heather? The leaves are more like little needles and it looks quite angry from up close.’
‘You remember what you were looking at as we stood up there in that road-side enclosure?’ I asked, and then without waiting for a reply, added, ‘we were looking at Heather from a distance and it looked like a patchwok quilt. It was probably because young Bell Heather has dark pink or purple flowers and the best time to come is now. In July.’
We were so engrossed in our conversation of being so near Heather that we did not hear him come. He was wearing the sort of heavy knee-length boots that farmers and trekkers often wear. The land is peaty and the rains make sure that leaving the well-trodden path often means walking on soft ground with lots of puddles.
‘Which country you’re from?’ he asked in his heavy Yorkshire accent, without any preliminaries. The accent meant that ‘country’ would sound like ‘coontry’ and a ‘bus’ has the ‘u’ sounding like the ‘u’ in ‘put’. Though we were quite accustomed to hearing this accent, we still were unable to repress our smile.
‘India. We were excited about so much Heather around,’ I said.
‘Ah! It’s a bushy carpet now,’ he said. ‘They’re survivors, these plants. Grow up to half a metre.’ And as he said this he pointed to Bubbles with us, which made her eyes go wide with fear. This farmer was thick-set and was carrying a rifle with him.
Bubbles pointed to the rifle and said, ‘Will you shoot us now?’
‘Ha! I could but I won’t,’ he guffawed and then winking at us, he said, ‘I’m out to shoot the red grouse.’ Seeing that we did not understand a bit of what he meant by ‘shooting the red grouse’, he explained, ‘Red grouse ain’t a jailbird. No, it isn’t as bad either. It’s just a game bird and we here earn by shooting it. I mean the other shoot it and they pay.’
He told us how in this part of Britain as in other parts where the moors were thick and dense, the red grouse shooting treks were arranged from small villages in the country-side. ‘You go up the road towards Scarborough and a mile from this place is The Grouse House where I live. I am with my trekkers today but you can come tomorrow. Seeing you here I came to tell you that if you walk on the part beyond this wall, you’ll be trespassing.’
He waited for a few seconds to let the message sink in and then continued, ‘But you can come in. Be careful of that black cow there. She’s always angry, like my wife.’
We guessed that the money earned from grouse shooting would be dedicated to helping the area and the plants and the birds here. ‘They follow the same logic everywhere in this country,’ said Mandy, ‘every part is made to sustain through its unique activities so organic to the area.’
The farmer’s name was Ben Micklewright and he told us a few other interesting facts about Heather. ‘These plants grow tough and woody and then they collapse. That is bad. So we also burn heather in small patches and let them grow again.’
Buddy said, ‘I know, I read an article in The Telegraph and it mentioned something about rotational burning in these parts of England.’
‘Yeah. That’s what they call it. Rotational burnin’ is hell for the environment but good for heather. Folks like you come so far out from London to see it.’ The farmer now beamed at his sales pitch. He added, ‘We control them fires. The paper didn’t tell you that did it? We won’t want the pet to be destroyed. Bad for other crop.’
He went his way after this and we sighed with relief. ‘So now you do have a lot to talk about on Monday,’ I said, looking at Mandy.
He mumbled about this being hardly interesting and started climbing the stone wall. Buddy asked, ‘Are you planning to go inside the farmer’s fields?’
‘Yes,’ huffed Mandy. He wasn’t the fittest of all but I was happy to find that the group was turning a rather mundane drive into some sort of an adventure! ‘I have a great rapport with animals,’ announced Mandy, ‘and I am going to go near that rude and unfriendly cow to tell her to be friendlier.’ He then looked at me and asked if I would click his picture on my Yashica FX7, an SLR camera that I handled rather well.
‘I will,’ I said and gave him a thumb up sign.
‘Please don’t let the shot be like your map-reading,’ he said and laughed. None of the others joined his mirth.
He slowly walked towards that massive black cow who had now stopped doing whatever it was doing and was looking intently at him. I was poised with my camera. Bubbles and Pushkin were standing on the wall in grim expectation. Specky and Buddy were just short of calling him back. That was when his right leg sank deep in the peaty ground that was soft with rain. It went in about half a feet and for a moment it appeared to us that Mandy had suddenly transformed into a one-legged creature.
‘This is slushy,’ he shouted in disgust, ‘help me.’ As he said this, he lost his balance and fell. Buddy leaped up the wall and then down to rush to help him. I handed the camera to Specky and joined the help platoon. The massive black cow too panicked… she had probably never seen so many people rushing towards her. The British countryside isn’t that thickly populated. All she had ever seen was that farmer going up and down the peaty slopes with a couple of city folk who were thrilled to be holding a dead red grouse in their hands! So the cow just turned away and bolted.
The cow had bolted. Mandy had fallen. The shot was not clicked.
We helped Mandy come back behind the safety of the stone wall. We felt like soldiers all alone in some vast battleground, huddled near a stone fence. I was the first to speak, ‘Sorry Mandy, I couldn’t click you impressing that rude cow!’
‘I didn’t reach her,’ he replied weakly.
Bubbles and Pushkin looked at us like we were the ones who had cheated them out of some super adventure moment! ‘Go back, dad. Call that cow,’ implored Bubbles. But instead, we clicked a few pictures there, with Heather all around us. This wasn’t the end of that road trip. We did finally reach Scarborough where Mandy went to a hotel to wash and clean himself while we stayed on the pebbled beach collecting shells. Bubbles was with us and totally zapped by all the sea-shells. We sat on the pebbles and even selected a few to take home to paint on. Bubbles and Pushkin were excitedly increasing their collection of shells and pebbles when the car horn indicated that our day-by-the-beach was over.
‘Why don’t you too come and sit on the pebbles with us,’ I asked Mandy and Buddy, ‘the kids were having a great time there. They even went right up to the shoreline and raced the waves coming in.’
‘No,’ announced Mandy in his decisive tone, ‘there are other cities to be touched and ticked as seen!’ Even Buddy smiled at this.
So there was yet another fast drive to yet another village… but we insisted that we go down the steep winding road there, cross the fisherman busy with his fishing net, go past the ‘Fisherman’s own Pub’ to hobble on the pebbles down by the sea!
Mandy was suitably disturbed now. He said, ‘I love driving in and out of towns and villages. I don’t like to tumble over pebbles and poo.’ So we let him go back up the village road and sit in the parking lot that had a lovely view of the sea front. We, of course, fondled the Shetland ponies there, collected a few more shells and pebbles, and slowly walked up to join our friends.
‘This is one trip that is unforgettable,’ I said, now that I had finished writing about it.
Specky said, ‘Let’s go back to York when we go to London next year to meet Pushkin.’ Pushkin has now grown up and is an Architect in London. Our plan to drive down from York to Scarborough is almost final and we are looking forward to some red grouse shooting as well this time.
26 July 2013