From Chapter 6:
MISTER THOR - Girl meets boy
The machinations of gastro-intestinal upheaval in India are rarely worth going into. To me, puzzling over the causes of near-perpetual Delhi belly is about as useful an activity as debating the existence of beings in the metaphysical realm: whether they’re there or not, shit will invariably keep on happening. So in the same way, no matter which school of thought I subscribed to – be it the eat-anything-you-can-get- your-hands-on creed or the treat-all-food-with-high-suspicion doctrine – I always eventually ended up with an incendiary sphincter. For every several portions of street food I’d apprehensively eaten – uttering a silent prayer as I nervously ingested lunch from a dubious banana-leaf bowl – it seemed I was just as likely to be sent running to the loo after dining at an air- conditioned restaurant with tablecloths, proper menus and waiters with name badges. My best guess was the pithy excuse that I had a sensitive stomach and needed to be fed tasteless, starchy comfort food (read toast and eggs) at every available opportunity to balance out the spicy, oily fare that sustained me the rest of the time.
It was a dietary supplication that staff at the Ashley Inn, a family-run pension in Bangalore, were happy to accommodate on my first morning. Come day two, however, after an evening at a downtown restaurant gorging on what might have been the best spiced and barbequed chicken I had ever tasted, I was a no-show, locked in my loo, my belly carping and contracting at various intervals, while I flipped mournfully through a copy of India Today to distract myself from thinking just how inappropriate a situation this was to usher a new romance into my life.
My timing was horrible. Thor was due to reach the Ashley Inn in a few hours, possibly hoping to find me reclining seductively on the bed in my Ann Summers’ finest and a black feather boa, while the reality of our first encounter here in India was more likely to involve outings for loo roll and Immodium, me trying to disguise my intestinal noises with well-timed coughs. I brooded as I studied the foot of the bathroom door with fresh intensity. This was not quite how I imagined us igniting the flames of passion.
The demons of uncertainty tainted with pre-date nerves slithered into the toilet bowl from out of the sewer and began to whisper again in my ear; perhaps the universe was trying to tell me that kindling a new interest was a terrible idea. Here I was, on the journey of a lifetime, in my own uninterrupted heaven of selfish existence. The last thing I needed was another person and the inevitable necessity of compromise to encroach on that hard-won and highly enjoyable space, as well as to distract me from the work at hand.
And anyway, where was he going to sleep? Here? In the heady rush of pseudo-tentative emails exchanged about how he’d accompany me from Bangalore all the way through to Chennai (via Kanyakumari in the south and back up again; it was a roundabout route, but, both of us drunk with sexually charged romantic anticipation, we’d agreed it’d be fun), we had neglected to touch on the embarrassing practicalities of the instant intimacy that would be thrust on us, sharing a small car and numerous hotel rooms together over the coming fortnight.
Just as I was thinking about getting in the shower, the phone rang. I waddled into the bedroom with my pants still around my ankles.
‘Hello, madam, I am calling to inform you that your husband has arrived.’
‘Yes, madam, your husband,’ the woman said. ‘Mister Thor. He is on his way up to your room now.’
‘But, I’m not...’
There was a knock at the door. I slammed down the phone, froze by the unmade bed and pulled my pants up to their rightful position. Seconds passed as the room spun around me and I scoured the back rooms of my creative imagination for a way of fishing this situation out of the gutter.
‘Um, hello?’ I squeaked, despite my best attempt to deepen my voice to Dietrich-like standards of sexiness.
‘Hi, it’s Thor,’ came his voice, which I had to admit, despite all events conspiring to the contrary, turned some deep-set part of me to jelly.
‘Oh! Er, hello! You’re here,’ I grunted from the other side of the closed door.
‘Yes. My train got in early, would you believe? Or I screwed up the timetables. In any case, can I come in?’
‘Oh, of course. Of course!’ I exclaimed with a forced cheeriness that must have had him already regretting not taking the train straight to Chennai. ‘Just bear with me for a couple of minutes, will you?’
I ran into the bathroom to try to make myself presentable in under thirty seconds, then back into the bedroom where I rummaged through a mound of dirty T-shirts and some crumpled salwar kameez I’d bought the previous day in FabIndia as an act of concession to local fashion, comfort and climatic necessity. As far as I was concerned, the optimal thing to wear at that moment would have been a large paper bag to cover my body from head to foot. Instead, I settled on a conceptually similar billowy dress that concealed as much of me as possible. I blitzed the air around me with deodorant and tidied my hair into a bun. Then I took it down again; too matronly.
Thor was in all probability reconsidering his options by the time I came round to opening the door. When I finally did, I washed over with a goosefleshy species of fairy dust at the sight of the figure who was looking no more glamorous or date-worthy than myself, clad in a coffee-stained white T-shirt and road-worn drawstring linen trousers, and clutching a green holdall about the size of my cosmetics bag that oozed the miasma of overnight train journey. He was a picture, I conceded almost jealously. How was it that a guy could look like he’d just had a fight with a tipsy tea urn after not bathing for a week and still be a candidate for a GQ fashion shoot? Unlike me, who probably looked mildly trauma- tized, Thor was grinning, clearly oblivious to either of our appearances, or the pit of infirmity that lay beyond the door. I exhaled.
‘Hi. I believe you’re my husband?’
‘Sorry about that,’ he smiled. ‘Just keeping up appearances, you know. We don’t want to cause any scandals, do we?’
‘Certainly not, Mister Thor. What would the neighbours think?’
He stepped into the room, dropped his bag and threw himself onto the bed, to my horror right on top of an overlooked bra and some discarded pants.