Mud Slide Slim

Vinyl. At first, I thought it was just a man thing – an extension of engines and steam trains. Why would I bother? I had my iPhone and ear buds: music and podcasts on demand. Revelation for me came during an afternoon early in the first pandemic lockdown when I helped him tidy the loft. I had forgotten how many albums we had stored up there. There’s something about the ritual that slows you down and draws you in, so you listen – really listen – to the music. From the small thrill of anticipation as the shiny black disk slides from its sleeve to a short crackle and hum as the needle catches a groove; it’s a routine that prepares for enjoyment.

Rediscovering album covers was a delight. The simple act of holding, admiring the artwork, reading the lyrics and the artist’s notes; all heightened the experience. Most beguiling of all, was the memories they stirred. One, in particular, recalled an episode in my early twenties when I was eager for travel and new ventures. If I close my eyes I can replay how it all started as if it were yesterday. I see a little girl, no more than six or seven, skinny, barefoot in soiled rags, crying with a broken bowl and single brown coin at her feet. Tears had scored channels of clear skin through the grime on her cheeks.

Then it all comes back in a rush…

It’s 1975. I’ve just arrived at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, after a nine-hour train journey from Delhi. I’m tired and hot, but also sparked with a sense of adventure in a place filled with bustling energy and draped in swaying, silky colours. I check directions, handwritten by Greg on the back of a postcard. “Follow Nabiullah Road down to River Gomti, turn right and you can’t miss it. I’ll be waiting for you.”

How long has it been – an hour or more? I’ve missed it and I’m lost. Back in London, the instructions seemed so straightforward. Now I’m here… it’s impossible… nothing like I imagined. People. Noises. Blaring. Smells. My T-shirt sticks to me and sweat seeps from every pore. All my senses are confused. I’m trying to keep it together. Still positive but starting to feel edgy. Why didn’t Greg warn me? There’s a metallic taste on my tongue. I swallow and it burns a passage from throat to chest. I stop. The little girl stands before me. I see her because she’s so still and we’re surrounded by quick, blurred movements. I bend down and hold her hand; tiny, brown and wrinkled. I take a coin from my pocket, press it into her palm and close her fingers. She lifts her head slowly. Her eyes are wide and white with dark chocolatey pools at their centre. She glances over my shoulder. I feel a tug at my back and turn to catch a quick movement in the shuffling press behind. When I look back she’s gone, scampering away, darting this way and that by the side of another, taller child wearing a yellow baseball cap.

I’m puzzled, with a stab of irritation at receiving no thanks for my modest generosity. And then… I understand what has just happened. It comes in a sudden scramble of horror and open-mouthed wonderment at my gullibility. I wrench the rucksack from my back. The zipped pocket is open. Passport – gone. My arm looks… wrong. Now I see why – my watch has been taken as well. How did she do that? But it’s the passport I care about.

What should I do? I stand tall and scan the street looking for the peaked white hats and blue shirts of traffic police. It’s a mass of bobbing heads, veils and skull caps, but it looks like there’s a crossing further on, so I head in that direction.

There’s a policeman in the middle of the crossroad waving his hands and blowing a whistle. The traffic weaves around him and it’s hard to tell whether he’s making any impact – helpful or otherwise. Another policeman stands at the corner watching with arms folded. I approach him, smile and say, ‘Help, please.’ My words are drowned by blaring horns. I try again; louder.

He looks me up and down with an expression that makes me feel naked and fleshy. I fold both arms across my breasts, then blabber a few words meant to convey information about my plight. They fail to impress. He holds out a white gloved hand and says something harsh and guttural. I don’t understand. He speaks again. I shake my head and spread my hands. He repeats it, but louder, stabbing a finger towards me. I think he’s saying ‘pass’ or ‘passport’. I shake my head again and show the empty pocket in my rucksack. He stares at me and after a few seconds points over my left shoulder and says something that sounds like ‘daffodil’ or ‘daffy dilly’. I turn around, wondering where he wants me to go. I spot a sign for ‘Billy’s Café’ and ask him if I should go to see Billy. He nods, then quickly loses interest in me, and blows his whistle at two cyclists. I open the door to the café and the tinkling bell sounds oddly out of place, more Cotswold post office than exotic and gaudy Lucknow. The din of the street quiets as the door closes. It’s a small place with ten square, roughly fashioned wooden tables and benches. About half of them are occupied. At one of them, a group of four westerners with their rucksacks, t-shirts and headbands are chattering over bowls of chicken and rice. I recognise a few words of German sprinkled in their conversation and feel a surge of hope that all may not be lost.

The man behind the bar with long dark hair, moustache, denim shirt and braces also has the look of a westerner. He reminds me of the photo of James Taylor on the cover of his ‘Mud Slide Slim’ album – one of my all-time favourites. Perhaps he’s Billy? He’s watching me. Is that a look of recognition, or is there something wrong with my appearance? I run fingers through my hair, brush my forearms, check shorts and t-shirt. All seem normal.

‘Hi, um… are you Billy and do you speak English?’

‘Yeah, I’m Billy. You?’

‘Helen.’

‘What’s up then, Helen?

‘I’m meeting someone here in Lucknow, then going on to spend some time in Nepal… Kathmandu.’

‘Sounds great. Just arrived here?’

‘Yeah, how do you know?’

‘You smell of lavender soap and you’ve still got creases in your shorts.’

‘Oh, right. I’ve just been…’

‘Are you OK? You look upset.’

‘Yeah, yeah, thanks. I’m… fine. Just… I’ve lost…’ I take off my rucksack, place it on the floor, then squat down to fiddle with the buttons, so he can’t see my face while I try and compose myself. After a few seconds, I stand up, force a smile and click my tongue.

He says, ‘Don’t tell me. You’ve just been had by Tinkerbell.’

‘What?’

‘Little girl, tears, heartstrings, you stop, bend down, lose passport, money and maybe other stuff from a pocket or rucksack.’

Words catch in my throat. I try again, but all that comes out is a ‘yuuuuhh’ sound.

‘It’s a game she plays with an older brother. They’re street urchins. They live in the shelter out back and we feed them.’

‘So… do you know where they are now?’

‘They won’t be too far away. What have you lost?’

‘My passport – oh, and my watch. I can’t believe how she did that. I was giving her a coin. Never noticed a thing. But it’s my passport…’ I can feel the tears forming and I turn away from him not wanting to appear distressed and helpless.

‘Yeah, I know. Here.’ He touches my arm lightly and passes me a cotton handkerchief. ‘I’m pretty sure I’ll see them tonight when they’re hungry. I’ll get them back for you, somehow. It’ll cost, mind.’

‘How much?’

‘Oh, I think fifty rupees should do it. That’s about thirty pence in real money.’ He smiles, and then I know it’s going to turn out OK.

I was there that night, observing from the background, as Billy recovered my passport and watch from Tinkerbell and her brother. I never did keep my rendezvous with Greg. I stayed at Billy’s Café for another 6 years, until we both decided we’d had enough of Lucknow and moved to California. But that’s a whole new story.

Paul Walker

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