Polly noticed the smell first. Naked apart from a loincloth, his tiny body caked in dirt, a boy danced and keened a song in a reedy falsetto. His mother stood beside him, eyes pleading, clutching a baby and a tin begging bowl.
‘The poor little soul, just look at him!’
‘Come away. There’s nothing you can do.’
Distressed, Polly watched the child. His voice became ever more shrill as he sensed a few rupees. ‘But he’s so thin, he—’
Amanda grasped her wrist, pulled her away. ‘This is India. They’re everywhere. Get used to it.’
The child’s mother followed them, touching Polly’s arm, pulling at her shirt, only dropping back when they reached the platform.
A wall of sound and motion, a roaring cavern with smells of stale clothes, tobacco, diesel. On every side were heads—heads and hands and bundles.
Amanda hugged her. ‘Come back. Please come back. It’s been so good to see someone from home.’
Polly fought against the crush of passengers surging off the train, her last glimpse of her friend a small, white face in the crowd, looking sad. She hauled herself up into the carriage, handicapped by her backpack. With a jerk, the train pulled away. She peered around her with no clue as to coach numbers.
She showed her reservation docket to a guard whose body didn’t fill his uniform. He gestured, unsmiling, in the direction she should go. Clambering over parcels and baskets, battling her way past a hundred people and their curious eyes, she finally reached her seat out of breath. With a last spurt of energy, she lifted her backpack over her head and hefted it onto the luggage rack.
In the time it had taken Polly to find her place, the train and its passengers had left the town behind. She rubbed her shins, sore where she’d banged into sharp-edged boxes and watched the countryside unfolding outside the window. Vivid, green rice fields alternated with villages of dirt roads and brick shacks. An old man in a red turban and a long, white shirt leaned on a stick as he watched them pass. Behind him, the horizon wobbled in the heat, and laundry lay drying on the corrugated-iron roofs of shacks. They were no more than hovels, and her thoughts flew to the budget hotel she had booked on the internet. Please let it be okay. On her own now, the luxury of Amanda’s home left behind, excitement and fright battled for position.
Amanda. How sad she’d looked standing on the platform. Had she made a mistake all those years ago when she’d been bowled over by Salman’s obvious wealth and good looks?
Polly’s gran—who’d always been fond of Amanda—had tried to talk her out of it. ‘They have different ways in India, cariad,’ she’d said.
But Amanda had fallen in love, and that was all that mattered.
Polly shivered in the fierce air-conditioning. The carriage had large, reclining seats, three on one side, two on the other, all occupied and not another European in sight. Mosquito-like buzzing came from the earphones of the woman sitting next to her, loud snores from behind. She stiffened as another blast of frigid air hit the back of her neck. Her journey to Heathrow had been equally cold, with freezing fog hovering over the white fields. She rummaged in her bag for the shawl Gran had pressed on her, the faint smell of lavender and home making her throat ache. The bag had seen better days. It was the one she took swimming because of its waterproof interior. Its battered appearance shamed her, but she’d been too afraid of leaving the house to go shopping for anything better. After a while, lulled by the train’s motion, she slept.
Polly woke with a start, heart racing. Where am I?
A boy in a ragged shirt pushed a tea-urn on wheels, his gaze darting around the carriage in search of customers.
Amanda’s words echoed in her head. ‘Disgusting stuff, chai. Loose tea leaves boiled in a bucket. Stunning amounts of sugar. Industrial quantities of buffalo milk. Don’t go there.’
The tea-urn trundled past, followed by a procession of people trying to sell bottles of water, crisps, and sweets. Poor things, they didn’t seem to sell much.
With a squeal of brakes, they made a short stop at a station—neat with cream and terracotta paint. Small spirit stoves had been set up on the platform. The smell of frying eggs wafted through the carriage as omelettes were cooked then wrapped in palm leaves, secured with a twig.
A child, struggling with a bucket almost as big as he was, washed the outside of Polly’s window. He rubbed away, his expression solemn. He could only reach halfway up and moved on to the next one, leaving her view obscured by grey rivulets of soapy water.
After a lunch of biryani—the stringy chicken suggesting the bird had led an active life—Polly went in search of a toilet.
‘Use the Indian one,’ Amanda had urged. ‘Your bum won’t have to come into contact with anything then. Unless you fall over.’