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An alien ina alien land yearning for love
Armstrong Vaz | 19 Feb 2008

She was told to expect a driver upon her arrival at the port of' Panjim, off the coast of Mandovi River. She stepped off the hydrofoil, and wheeled her green suitcase into the scorching heat. She scanned the surroundings, the taxi drivers now busy with th

She was told to expect a driver upon her arrival at the port of' Panjim, off the coast of Mandovi River. She stepped off the hydrofoil, and wheeled her green suitcase into the scorching heat. She scanned the surroundings, the taxi drivers now busy with these new arrivals, when moments ago they had been dozing off in front of their newspapers.
 
She was hot, she was tired. Her recently trimmed hair felt greasy and stuck to her temples uncomfortably. She was surrounded by loud exclamations, people running around her, confused German passengers.
 
Then, just as she was about to give up waiting and jump into any taxi, she saw her name on a small board- Katherine . She looked up at the bearer of the board. He was wearing a fitted white T-shirt, baggy khaki trousers and a pair of Nikes. He was, perhaps, in his early 30s, a tall, dark-skinned man with thick black hair and a pair of Ray-Bans on his nose, which he lifted as he saw her arrive, revealing a handsome face with deep-set eyes. Katherine ? He asked in an Indian accent. 'Indeed,' Katherine answered, fumbling with her suitcase.
 
'My taxi is right here,' he said, pointing to a blue Toyato Qualis . 'My name is Conceicao .
I will be your driver for the five days you are staying here.'
 
He deftly took her suitcase from her sweaty palms and walked towards his car, saluting a few of his colleagues on the way.
 
As he drove up into the hills, he talked about magical thermal waters Goa has, its 12 warriors class clans who fought off the colonial powers, his village’s 12 water reservoirs and the 12 umbrella festival. A village to which to which he belonged. The fact that January was the best time to visit, and that Germans loved visiting the land because its thermal cures were reimbursed by their national health service.
 
Then, as he was telling her about the good restaurants on the beach side , Katherine caught Conceicao eyeing a girl who was laughing into a mobile phone. She was young and beautiful, with a deep tan and perfect legs. Elisa, who could have once boasted a similar body, felt a pang of jealousy as it suddenly occurred to her that had she been younger, Conceicao might have noticed her in the same way.
 
Then, she immediately thought, why in the world would she want a man like Conceicao to notice her? She was married (to Mark, and her 20th anniversary was coming up), she had a teenage daughter and she was turning 45 in a few weeks. She believed those who told her she didn't look her age. She worked hard, she went out a lot. She accepted the fact that Allison seldom complimented her, because he was not, as her mother had once pointed out, a charmer.
 
He was a taciturn man. Except of course, when it came to animals. Allison charmed chimps and hippos, alligators and crocodiles. He spoke to them, cajoled and then made films about them. Sometimes Katherine wondered if Allison did prefer animals to people. 'You should have married a chimp,' she had told him, in a fury.
 
Katherine mobile phone started to ring. It was Krista , her assistant, who was calling her in the taxi from the hotel where Conceicao was driving her. Krista a Portuguese with a resounding voice had been in Goa for a few days, preparing the launch of the book Elisa's company was publishing.
 
The novel, entitled Margarita was the work of Jose Xavier Columbkar , a 34 -year-old writer from a sleepy village which occasionally sprung up a surprise on the literary scène. Jose Xavier who was being hailed as the new torch bearer of his generation. A trend setter in literary writings
 
 'What the hell is this guy's problem?' she asked Katherine. 'He seems so oblivious to everything. I brought him to this really nice clothing store and he just stared at me as if I were crazy. God, I love writers, but they can sometimes be so weird...'
 
Elisa laughed. 'Krista , this is his place we're on. He's not interested in our way of doing things. All he wants to do is write. Read, and write. Stop bringing him to fancy shops and concentrate on tomorrow night's party.
 
'All right, all right,' Krista replied. 'Got the message. Anyway,' she added, 'how's everything going? I guess you found your driver?'
 
'I did,' Elisa answered quickly. 'But tell me, any news on Costao ? How's he doing?'
 
Costao Costa was the company's brilliant publicist who was prone to bouts of depression that left him unable to function properly. But because of his long-standing loyalty to, and the fact that he was so efficient most of the time, Katherine found it hard to accept the fact that, as Karen would often say, 'if he doesn't see a doctor, he's gonna be history'.
 
But this time, as Krista announced that they hadn't heard from Costao in two days and Pedro Peterson from marketing had gone to check on him, Katherine decided that Krista might be right - maybe this was the time to reconsider her priorities.
 
Just as she told Krista she would see her in a few minutes, her phone indicated call-waiting. This time, it was Allison .'Everything all right, darling?' he asked in his usual, rushed voice.' Fine. I'm in the car on my way to the hotel. ''Did you have a good flight?' 'It was fine.' She paused. 'Have you heard from Maggie ?'
 
'Yes. She has arrived in Pattaya Thailand . She was about to get on the ferry when I talked to her. She'll be staying with Paulo   until next week. After that, I'm not sure... Something about the boyfriend, about going to Manilla..'
 
'Boy friend? Manilla ? I thought she was staying at Paulo’s for a few weeks!' Katherine voice hardened as she envisioned her 17-year-old daughter prancing around naked with her older Portuguese boyfriend. 'That daughter of ours is starting to overstep the boundaries.' 'I thought we didn't believe in boundaries,' Allison remarked coldly. 'We didn't. Now we do, remember?' 'Vaguely.' All right, Allison.
 
Let's change the subject. 'She didn't feel like dwelling on what Maggie’s recent behaviour might mean about the lax attitude to discipline she and Allison had deliberately adopted in bringing up their daughter. It seemed that their method, for all the genuine goodwill they had put into it, had backfired. They had to go through a painful reassessment of their previous ideologies. This involved extensive therapy sessions compounded by a series of self-help books that Katherine kept hidden under the matrimonial bed.
 
Katherine? I'm talking to you.' Allison’s voice filtered back into her distracted ear. 'I'm in the editing room. I found out today that the Doordarshan is going to produce my alligator documentary. ''Really ? That's wonderful! Good for you, darling. ''All right, then. Let's talk tomorrow. Love you darling. ''Love you too.'
 
She hung up and placed her mobile phone in her bag. Conceciao car continued to climb up the hills, the sea appearing beneath them, limpid and turquoise, surrounded by imposing rocks.
 
Finally they reached the gates of the hotel. He parked the car, got out, opened the passenger door and extended a helping hand towards her.. His eyes twinkled at her and Katherine felt her cheeks turn red. 'Get a grip,' she thought to herself, as she followed him into the air-conditioned lobby.
 
Conceciao handed her a card with his phone number. 'You can call me any time, Katherine. I am at your disposition.' And with these words, he disappeared.
           
In her room she took a shower and changed into a light-blue sleeveless dress. She called Krista, and arranged to meet her at the swimming-pool. She found her lying on a beach chair in a striped bikini, her long curly hair framing her tanned, oval face. Her perfectly manicured toes were as red as the glass of Campari she was holding in one hand, her mobile phone in the other.
           
Krista waved as she saw Katherine 'I just got here,' she mouthed, clutching her phone.
'We've got work to do. Let's go,' Katherine said to a crestfallen Krista. I've got to go,' Krista snapped to whoever she was talking to. 'I worked really hard all morning, so I was about to take a little break. I mean, I just got here,' she repeated, in a slightly wringing tone of voice.
 
'So did I, Krista ,' Katherine answered, leading her back to her suite, to the pile of papers that awaited them. 'We've got no publicist; we're going to have to do this ourselves,' she said firmly, as Krista pulled up a chair beside her. Later that evening, Conceciao came to pick up Katherine and Krista for dinner.
 
'I will bring you to a restaurant in the hills,' he announced.’ Great!' Krista exclaimed. 'Will you be having dinner with us up there in the hills?'
 
Katherine nudged her assistant with her elbow. 'Are you crazy?' she whispered. 'He's the bloody driver!'
'Yeah, but he's gorgeous,' Krista whispered back. 'He's f******* gorgeous. He looks like he should be a Calvin Klein model instead of driving around this weird place.' Katherine couldn't help but laugh, louder than she intended to. Everything all right?' Conceciao asked, eyeing both women in the rear-view mirror. 'Oh yes, just fine,' Karen answered jovially. We're very glad to be here.' 'I am glad too,' Conceciao answered simply. He pulled into a little road, and stopped in front of a village restaurant..
           
'Call me when you want me to pick you up,' he said before disappearing again. Elisa's mind kept drifting towards Conceciao. Could a man like him ever be interested in a woman like her? Did any of this have any meaning other than a purely animal drive she found hard to suppress? Or was there something more at stake?
 
Allison had once told her that the reason he enjoyed animals so much was that they did not evaluate their behaviour. 'It's all visceral- the reflexes, the instincts, the love. There's none of that indulgent nonsense we all go through.' Visceral. That is how Katherine felt at that particular moment, as she drank too much wine and Krista smoked too many cigarettes, both of them talking about people in their office, Andrew, Costao, Antonio , Jose Xavier and his book, and Maggie and her boyfriend.
 
It didn't occur to Katherine that Krista , who deliberately avoided the subject of men, might share identical thoughts towards Conceciao. When Conceciao came to pick them up, they invited him to share a glass of local red wine with them. He sat at their table and lit a red Marlboro. He smiled at Katherine, his eyes lightened up by the flicker of the candle.
 
He spoke of his family, of his future, of his childhood. 'Whoever owns our land has to look after it and keep it in the family. My father has three brothers who share the same piece of land, up there in the mountains.'
 
He pointed towards some bright lights in the darkness. 'That's my house,' he said, gesturing at another shining light. 'That's where I grew up, and where I have trouble leaving!' He laughed, and Katherine caught Krista glancing at him. 'How old are you?' Katherine asked him. 'Twenty-six,' he answered, sounding uncomfortable.
 
'Twenty-six! I'm twenty-six!' Krista gasped. 'Oh, really?' stated, obviously uncertain how else to respond. 'I mean you look like, so much older...'
 
Krista added, scrutinizing his face in the darkness. Conceciao laughed. 'We all do in the South.
We grow up fast. It occurred to Elisa that Conceciao was wiser than she had credited him to be. By the time she got back to the hotel, she realised she had a fully fledged obsession that, however hard she tried to shake off, clung to her body unrelentingly.
 
Jose Xavier Coloumbkar book party was a success. Editors and journalists came from all parts of Italy in order to celebrate this unknown talent who stood meekly in a corner, wearing washed-out Levi's and a simple pink shirt. Krista weaved around the room ebulliently, handing out champagne glasses, talking up a storm to anyone in her vicinity.
 
Elisa walked around the room with apparent self-sufficiency and pride in her new discovery, when actually her thoughts kept returning to in his car. She knew he was waiting for her, out there, in the darkness, and she also knew that, at this point, he knew her game. How couldn't he? Where at first she had expressed no desire to experience the island's landmarks, now she asked him to drive her everywhere. And everywhere he drove her he charged her an astronomical fare, but she didn't care.
 
He drove her to the thermal baths, to the archaeological museum, to the private beaches and pools to different restaurants and cafes. He was always available and punctual, as if she were the only person who mattered in his life. This, she knew, was a fallacy, but she found it reassuring to cling to that fantasy.
 
He drove her, his eyes on the road, occasionally glancing at girls, sometimes eyeing her in the rear-view mirror, speaking to her and always answering her questions with a tantalising deference.
He wants me, she decided. He's just too shy to make a move.
 
In her hotel suite she stripped naked in front of her mirror and studied her body good legs, nice feet, bad thighs, decent breasts. Cellulite like blue cheese, but otherwise her body a good, firm shape.
 
Could Conceciao deference be extended to her body? Had he ever been attracted to an older woman? Was he attracted to her?
 
Allison called her twice, to find out how she was doing, if the book party had been a success. Maggie called, too, to say not to worry, she was fine, she was having a great time at Pedro’s and would be staying for the remainder of the summer.
 
Krista asked if she could have two days off to go to Hampi before returning to London.
'Who are you going with?' asked. Oh, just this guy I met,' Karen smiled. 'Fine. Take your two days off but not until I'm gone.'
 
Journalists called, friends and family left unanswered messages at the hotel desk, and her days filled up until it was the last evening before her departure.
 
She slipped on a tight-fitting black dress and high-heeled sandals. On her ears she wore a large pair of coral earrings she had bought that day via Roma. She sprayed on some perfume, and when she walked through the hotel lobby, she felt that all eyes were on her.
She stood by the entrance to the hotel. For the first time, Conceicao was late. Five minutes later he arrived, slightly out of breath. I'm sorry, Signora, I was busy. 'Elisa smiled and told him it
Didn’t really matter. I'm taking you out to dinner,' she announced, as he closed the passenger door after her. 'Really?' He appeared surprised. 'In that case, I have to make a phone call.'
 
He spoke Konkani on his mobile phone. She sat, transfixed. She had never heard him speak it before; his whole history came tumbling down towards her, ungraspable, and the large divide between them became all the more apparent.' Where would you like to go, Senora ?' His voice sounded weary and she became self-conscious.
'
Oh, you choose, Palolem . A nice place. And you don't have to call me Senora as I've told you before. Elisa will do just fine.'
 
'OK, Senora ... I mean Katherine .' They both laughed and he drove on. He brought her to an expensive restaurant by the seafront. He ordered risotto and fish, she ordered salad. He spoke again of his family, of his father, of his two friends who had gone to open an Indian restaurant in London. He smoked a lot and appeared tense.
           
She asked for the bill and he thanked her mechanically for dinner.
When he dropped her off, she summoned her courage and asked him if he'd like to have a last drink with her. 'I'm afraid I can't, Signora,' he said, gently. That's fine,' she said, trying to keep her voice firm.
           
'Well, it was a pleasure to meet you. Conceciao extended his hand out towards hers.
            'Yes.' Her mouth felt dry; she fumbled for words. ' Conceciao she finally said in a low, 'raspy voice, 'you have a dangerous way of looking at women. ''That's because I like them so much.' He smiled, a wide open smile. 'Goodbye, Signora.' Conceciao turned back and walked hurriedly towards his car.
 
'Oh wait, wait!' She tripped on her sandal as she tried to catch up with him. 'What about tomorrow morning? Can you bring me to the hydrofoil?' She knew she sounded desperate, but she didn't care.
'I'm,  I’m afraid I can't,' Conceciao answered. 'I'm going to Capri tomorrow morning. But my cousin Alfredo will be able to do it. 'He disappeared into the darkness and left her sitting alone on the windy terrace of the hotel.
 
Shame descended upon her like a disease. The weight of her thoughts, of her words, crushed forcefully against her. She felt numb, speechless. When she went back into the lobby, she was handed a large stack of papers. 'Your messages,
 
She didn't look at the large stack of papers in her hand. She didn't notice the one which said that had been found dead. All that, she would see tomorrow.
 
She lay on her bed with her tight black dress, her high-heeled sandals, her coral earrings. Much later, she heard the sound of morning, the foghorn of a boat leaving the port.