|Jem never admitted to being overwhelmed by anything, but, to Madge's secret amusement, he was clearly quite awed by the glorious assault on all the senses that was, as their travel agent had described it, "incredible India". There was an audible sigh of relief from his side of the table when a pot of steaming tea arrived.|
"The tea here's really something," he commented appreciatively. "It was the one thing I never really liked about Tyrol, having to drink coffee all the time. Yes, I know Marie's coffee's excellent, but give me a nice cup of tea any time. I'm rather looking forward to seeing Darjeeling and the tea plantation we're going to. The train should be good fun, as well!"
Madge laughed. "What is it about men and trains? Not that I'm not looking forward to it as well –although not as much as I'm looking forward to seeing the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal."
"Oh, they're definitely top of the list," Jem agreed. "All of it should be wonderful, though. I do hope we get to see some tigers and elephants! Think how thrilled all the grandchildren'll be if we can show them pictures of animals like those in their natural habitats."
"Think how thrilled you'd be, you mean!" Since they'd booked this holiday, Jem had made more than a few references to avid childhood reading of The Jungle Book. "I hope we see them too, though. I remember how excited I was the first time I ever saw an elephant. Oh, there's so much to see and do here! If we had four years instead of four weeks, we wouldn't be able even to come close to discovering India properly." She paused to finish her cup of tea, and to pour herself another. "Jem … you don't mind that we came here first, do you? I know that visiting a cemetery wasn't the most exciting of starts to a holiday, especially one as special as this one's supposed to be, but … well, it wouldn't have felt right coming to India and going off to do other things before visiting Mother and Father."
Jem shook his head fervently. "Of course not. Oh, I can't wait to see the Taj Mahal and the tigers and everything else, but the main reason for coming to India was so that we could come here, and go to Simla, and visit the places where you and Dick spent your first twelve years." He looked at her compassionately. "It isn't always easy, going back; I know. It must be bringing back so many memories. Is it very strange, coming back after so many years?"
"Less of the so many years: you make me sound about a hundred!" Madge's tone was light, but a shadow crossed her face as her mind travelled back in time and she saw, as clearly as if it were yesterday, two bewildered, grief-stricken, twelve-year-olds, and the crying baby who would never even know either of her parents, waiting on the dockside in Bombay in the care of the friend of a friend of their mother's, who, travelling home to attend her niece's wedding, had agreed to keep an eye on them during the journey and see them into the care of their virtually unknown guardian at Tilbury, and the nursemaid who'd been engaged for the length of the voyage. Dick, battling manfully to hold back the tears he scorned to shed in public, had tried to distract himself from his thoughts by vowing that he'd be coming back to India as soon as he'd finished with school and university. Madge, her more practical mind focused firmly on the present and immediate future, had supposed that she'd come back one day, but hadn't given too much thought to when or under what circumstances. Little had she imagined, though, that more than half a century would pass before she'd set foot on Indian soil again.
Several of the fellows at Dick's minor public school had spent their early years in India, but none of the other girls at Taverton High had ever been closer to it than reading a Rudyard Kipling book or looking at pictures in newspapers or magazines. For a time, the fact that she'd lived somewhere which sounded so much more glamorous and exotic than their own small town had made her something of a curiosity, and girls had pressed her eagerly for tales of her life there. But other things had soon claimed their attention, and, eager as most teenage girls were to fit in and be one of the crowd, she'd stopped talking about it and done her best to become just another Taverton schoolgirl.
When Dick had gone into Foresters, she'd briefly allowed herself to think about going out there to visit him, if she could find somewhere to stay, but then Joey had had another bout of bronchitis and she'd chided herself for even thinking about it: Joey's health wouldn't have allowed her to make the visit, and she couldn't have left her. By the time Joey was strong enough to visit India – and, indeed, had done so – she herself had had a husband, several small children to look after, a home and a school, and couldn't have dreamt of leaving any of them.
And the years had passed. War. "Freedom at Midnight", and the agonies of Partition, the reports of which she'd wept over many times. Bringing up a family. Jem's work, the places which it had taken them to, and the pressure which had made it difficult for them to take any sort of proper holiday lasting more than a week or so. She'd told herself how lucky she'd been to have seen as much of the world as she had, and tried to accept that she'd never see India again. She'd even told herself that it was probably for the best. Going back to somewhere so full of memories would never be easy. And yet … with every mention of India in a newspaper, on the radio or on the television, even every Test match series between the England and India cricket teams (Kevin and Kester were both avid followers of cricket), she'd thought about going back. And a visit to Jem's parents' graves had set her sobbing, because she couldn't even carry out the simple task of taking flowers to her own parents' resting places. "I know they aren't really there," she'd choked. "I know they're watching over me and they aren't really in that cemetery. But it's been over fifty years. They never knew you, or Mollie, or Jack, or any of the children and grandchildren. They never even knew Joey. And I can't even put flowers on their graves."
Jem had comforted her, and the moment had passed and hadn't been spoken of again. But, with his retirement from the San freeing up their time, and a long trip to Australia to visit Sybil and Josette and their families planned, partly as a celebration of their ruby wedding anniversary, he'd suggested that they break their journey in India, and take some time to visit the places where she and Dick had once lived and see whichever other parts of the country she most wanted. At first, she'd hardly believed it possible that she'd be going back at last. They'd spent hours with the travel agent, working out all the logistics, booking flights, trains and hotels, but, even when the tickets had arrived, it had seemed like a dream. But here she was.
"It is strange," she said. "But it's exciting too! What was it that Mark Twain said? That India is the one land that all men desire to see? I thought I'd never see it again, but now here we are. Let's finish our tea, have a rest, and then go back out. You thought we'd seen a lot this morning? We've barely even started!"