In Adrian Michaels’ huge fist the phone looked puny. We were in my rooms at the Institute. It was a warm summer day – a Tuesday mid-morning, and I should have been getting ready to take my game theory class. I had called a colleague to take it in my place because of the emergency.
As Adrian closed the handset he growled, “Shit, all hell is breaking loose again, Chats.” Eddie, as we all called him, always growled, even when he talked sweet nothings with his newly acquired girlfriend. He couldn’t help it – he was gentle as a lamb with people he loved, and we had been close buddies since our fourth standard days at Lawrence School up in the Nilgiri Hills. But going by his rough-hewn looks, strangers were hard put to see beyond his menacing exterior. He was a man-mountain, built along the lines of Bud Spencer – he looked six feet any way you measured him: head to toe, around the shoulders or even his waist. He looked like he could crush a battle-tank with his bare hands. His long though well-groomed ponytail, bushy beard and teeth stained yellow with nicotine added considerably to the effect. He would have given any bear an inferiority complex.
The similarity with the star of the “Trinity” movie series of the seventies didn’t end there. His younger brother Julian, four years our junior, was built along the lines of Terence Hill – Bud Spencer’s wirily powerful and athletic partner. Julian was also handsome and clean-shaven, and his fluent steps on the dance floor and shy boyish smile had won him many girls’ hearts. Those hearts broke immediately because right from childhood, he had had Linda Sweeney, one of the prettiest Anglo-Indian girls in Bangalore, as a constant and totally devoted sweetheart. To top it all off, Julian Michaels had been India’s best batting find of the last ten years. He had opened the innings during his debut four seasons ago against a fiery Australian attack on their home turf because of a last-minute injury to one of the regular openers. Julian had promptly scored an intrepid double-century. Going on to score a century in each of the four Tests that followed, he had sealed his place in Indian hearts for all time to come in the space of six short weeks – at the tender age of nineteen.
N D Badrinath, # 503, Silver Nest, MHADA Layout, Andheri (W), Mumbai – 400 053. e-mail id: firstname.lastname@example.org Ph: 98206 36420
It was about Julian that Eddie had just spoken. It looked bad. Julian had gone on probably his third bender of the month and had disappeared since yesterday morning. That in itself need not have bothered us, had it not been for a fact that was known maybe only to two people in the world – Eddie and myself. If the word got out there would be chaos in the cricketing world.
Julian Michaels, cricket superstar, pin-up boy of millions of cricket lovers across the globe and at twenty-three years of age slated for untold pinnacles of achievement, was surely and with accelerating speed, heading down the road to hell.
He had a drinking problem.
Julian’s young spirit had been devoured by the pitiless maw of the media. For three years after his debut, the dream run had continued. He was a natural opener – in test cricket as well as the shorter one-day and twenty over formats of the game. His innate gift for using the space above fielders’ heads and his quicksilver sense of timing had helped him develop a range of strokes that left even the most feared fast bowlers chewing their lips in frustration. The harder they went at him, the more sweetly did the cherry whistle away to the boundary. He had scored two test double centuries in his career so far along with many hundreds. Often, his were the match-winning knocks for India. And of course the cocky disdain with which he treated every bowling attack in the world only added to his sex appeal.
The media had moved in. Press, TV, radio and billboards all made a larger than life montage out of this once-shy Anglo-Indian boy from Bangalore. His every smile brought joy to his fans courtesy instant images on the idiot box. His every sorrow was the subject of deep discussion in college canteens across India the next day. Eddie and I had watched with awe as the superstar soared dizzyingly on a cloud nine that just wouldn’t blow away.
Julian Michaels had been made into an international brand. The problem that most of didn’t spot in time was that he had become just that – a brand.
Global acclaim week in, week out for three long years had put Julian Michaels on a constant high. The good life flowed like water around him – life in fact was an endless stream of parties thrown for one reason or another. No amount of liquor could give him a high to compare with the one he was already on. Maybe that’s why he acquired such a big habit before even trained eyes like Eddie’s or mine could notice. We were both with him on many wild binges. By hindsight maybe we should have seen that Julian was drinking a bit harder than most, that he became violent more easily than most. But to us bottle-hardened veterans it was just routine stuff. And for Adrian to hold down even a powerful guy like Julian while I drove their jeep home was no big deal, so we never thought too much about it, especially not while nursing the mornings after.
The downslide came slowly, insidiously. His reflexes became dulled: ever so slightly, but enough for world-class bowlers to spot and exploit – all those late night parties had to take their toll some time. Julian had started off as one of the hardest workers on fitness in the cricketing world and his concentration while at the crease had become legendary. It took a really good bowler with a really good delivery to catch him at a bad stroke. After three short years, dozens of wild revels and countless bottles of booze, he had begun to lose the grip on his game. Not just that, with every fast bowler worth the name gunning for his scalp, he was in daily mortal danger of being struck down by the thunderbolts let loose at him. Youth was on his side though – it took quite a few matches before his coach began to notice. He saw Julian play a lethargic drive here, get hit by a bouncer there and show a general slackening up in performance. The veteran coach had seen enough cricket at the highest level to know that great form does not last even for the greatest batsmen and knew how to deal with it on the field. He put Julian’s poor showing down to one of those natural downturns. So he advised Julian to go easy on the more risky of his strokes until he regained top form.
And poor Julian continued on the road to destruction unnoticed by anyone.
Now, for the third time in the last one month, I had been called upon by Eddie to help flush his younger brother out from whatever hiding place he had got to and dry him out.
“The guy’s not at any of his regular hangouts in town,” he said, scratching his head with a puzzled frown. Then his eyebrows lowered menacingly. “If I find that bloody Salim is behind this I’ll break his balls. Let’s see where that bugger is.” He dialled and spoke rapidly – the upshot was that Salim was off the hook.
Then the phone rang. He flicked it open. One of our friends in the local newspaper had just heard of a bust-up in a bar the previous night in Hassan, a town some two hours drive away. A local MLA’s son was involved, so the cops had hushed it up. But there were rumours that three celebrity types from Bangalore were also involved, among them a fair-skinned athletic type with a vicious swing. Eddie grunted periodically into the phone and rang off after thanking the source. The message was clear – it looked very much like Julian had been in that Hassan bar last night.
“But that was last night, Eddie,” I said. “God knows where he is now.”
“That’s obvious, Chats,” he replied, “they must have been heading to Bidappa’s coffee estate and stopped over at Hassan for a drink. Why can’t that sonofabitching Julian stay away from public places when he wants to drink, dammit!” he cursed, smashing his fist into the wall, causing a window to rattle.
“Okay, let’s check the coffee estate out, Eddie. No point getting worked up. Julian needs you and you’ve got to keep your cool for his sake.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he waved his hand at me. “Don’t panic man. Now where’s Bidappa’s number?” He grunted as he found it. Sure enough, the boys were holed up there, smashed out of their wits. Bidappa’s manservant must have got scared listening to Eddie’s hard breathing at the end of the wire as he told him to get ten men to sit physically on his brother if required to keep him down until we got there.
Ten minutes later we were gunning Eddie’s jeep out of the campus. Six hours later, climbing through a thin mist covering the soft green slopes of the hills in Coorg, we spotted Bidappa’s sprawling estate house. Hopefully Julian and his gang were still there. Six and a half hours – and I was driving the jeep back to Bangalore with the brothers sitting behind me. We had not eaten since morning – we had stopped for a cup of coffee on the way out and had had another on the estate. I didn’t intend stopping anywhere until we hit my quarters, which were at the end of a secluded lane inside the campus. We had no clue what to do once we got to my place – we just knew that we wouldn’t be disturbed there. The main thing was to get him into the detoxification ward of St John’s hospital by morning without attracting attention. That was going to be one hell of a tough job.
Suddenly Julian turned on his brother. “Where the hell do you think you’re taking me you fat slob? Do you think you own me just because you’re older than me?”
“No buddy, we’re taking you to Bangalore because Linda was missing you. She begged us to bring you to her today.” Eddie glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “She wants you to plan the party for her birthday, buddy. Remember?”
This got Julian stumped. He was trying to clear his foggy mind, trying to recall if his girlfriend had told him any such thing. I examined his face in the mirror. After a few minutes he figured out that we were lying.
“Balls! You guys are bluffing! Nobody understands me any more! All you want is your nice new batsman to keep playing for you, eh? Nobody,” he continued, thumping his chest, “nobody wants me. Me, Julian, nobody wants me. And now you guys are lying to me even about my girlfriend. I can’t trust you man, Eddie, not even you any more.”
I was keeping tabs on the goings on with quick glances at the rear view mirror. Eddie raised his eyebrows in resignation. He threw his arm around Julian’s shoulders and tried to calm him down. But it looked like the kid refused to be placated. I wondered if this was just pretence on his part. If not, why this strong reaction?
The answer was not long in coming. “You think I’m playing only for money and fame, eh? You think I’m not playing for the honour of my team and my country?” Now I knew what was biting into Julian. Ever since they had returned two months ago from a defeat at the hands of New Zealand for the first time in history, the Indian cricketers had been lambasted by the media. Cries of match fixing had gone up, accusations of bad captaincy and inept bowling had been made, the team had been given the works in a rough treatment by the media. But most of all, it had been the first time that the country’s boy wonder had failed in every match. Julian had returned without a single century to his name. Twice when the team needed him the most, he had fallen to irresponsible strokes.
The media had dug around for mud to sling. It had not had to seek far. Both Julian’s sisters had married and migrated to New Zealand in recent years. With spiteful malice the media asked if Julian also had plans to do the same. Was he therefore loath to score and do well against a country he wanted to adopt very shortly? All of us who were close to him knew that this was utter rubbish – Julian would gladly have given his life for India. This same bunch of paparazzi had raised him to such delirious heights not so long back. Fans who had earlier sent dozens of letters and messages every day asking for his help in matters of all kinds, often with nothing whatsoever to do with cricket, now spat venom, defiling his character, casting doubts on his patriotism. He found himself cast out like a leper from a world where he had been made to think of himself as part of every Indian’s daily life. The band of hangers-on that had grown, influencing him day in, day out, had vanished. Never a very bright lad even at Lawrence School, he was now lost without his fair weather friends.
The country and its people seemed to have thrown him unceremoniously into the gutter, calling him names worse than a thief, branding him a traitor to his country. Eddie and I now understood what had brought on this latest binge of drinking. Julian’s heart had been broken and in its stead there was now a dark cauldron spewing confused hatred. That hatred was now being turned on us, who he saw as his captors, bringing him back against his will to a city full of screaming enemies. He had gone to the coffee estate to escape from the mob and we had plucked him out of his rat hole. I wanted to reach out to him, say something to ease the pain. Eddie was watching me and shook his head, warning me to stay silent.
“Hey, big brother, why don’t you say something now, eh? Do you also think I’m a traitor? That is all that I need,” he yelled, screeching with lunatic laughter above the noise of the jeep’s engine, “Even my brother doesn’t believe in me!”
“No, Julian, no,” the big man yelled back, hugging the kid close to himself. I looked up sharply. It was very unlike Eddie to get so rattled. “I mean it buddy, both Chats and I know what you’re going through. We’re with you, buddy, don’t worry about that.”
“No, nobody believes in me. Not Chats, not Linda, not you. Do you think I don’t know what you bastards are thinking? Do you think I can’t see through you all?” I looked at his reflection and saw him looking at me, as if appraising me, though I couldn’t really be sure. He ranted on, not giving us time to think, “What right do you all have to call me a traitor? I have slogged for my country, damn you! For India! India is my country and I’ll kill the bastard who says I have betrayed her.”
“Hey, kiddo, don’t say that to us, man. We are with you, we know you.” Eddie raised his arms, trying to hug him close but the jeep jolted over a pot-hole just then and his fist crashed against his brother’s skull. They both cursed and somehow it made things worse.
The big man looked out at the countryside flying by helplessly and frowned.
I cast my mind back to the image of a young lad of nineteen as he boarded the flight at Chennai airport for Australia. A strapping young buck, full of beans and fun, hope filling his heart. That same lad a few months later, returning to a hero’s welcome in Bangalore. And now this sad creature on the seat behind me, acting like a trapped animal, spitting venom, cringing from his own brother, suspicious of our motives, trusting no one. My mouth tightened grimly at the way the media had played hell with the kid’s mind, tossing him about like a ping-pong ball bouncing on top of a fountain. It was they who had started this fall – that pitiless horde armed with writing pads and cameras.
The first night when we realised that Julian may have a problem – it had been at that time a seemingly interminably long, night for Adrian and myself – is imprinted forever in my mind. The Indian team had returned victorious from the West Indies a week before. Formal banquets in their honour hosted by official cricket bodies and then by various sponsors had followed, topped off by some wild nights in discos hosted by celebrities who didn’t want to miss out on page three photo ops. In between, there were lazy barbeque-and-beer afternoons and riotous evenings at weekend retreats with sundry socialites and hot young babes. All the time Julian was heading towards disaster and often Adrian and I were there, swigging the stuff along with him, not knowing that he was slowly poisoning himself. The high he was going through on account of the blast of adulation he and his team were getting was so great that the kick from the booze was minute in comparison. So Julian ended up drinking harder. Without us noticing, he was guzzling down two pegs for every one that we were having. Smiling like a modern day Adonis for the cameras, dancing into the early morning day after day, surrounded all the time by delirious fans and desperate paparazzi, Julian – along with all of us – was blind to the dark clouds gathering.
* * *
The first night of the holocaust we were at my place – it had been another late nighter and the brothers had decided to crash out with me at the IIM campus on Bannergatta Road. They hated to wake up their aged parents, who normally slept early and for whom the excitement of the victory itself, without the celebrations that followed, had been quite enough.
It was about three in the morning and we were downing a last nightcap. The windows were open but it didn’t do any good – there was absolutely no breeze. The night was deathly still, not a leaf stirred.
It was Julian who broke the silence. “What’s going to happen now, Eddie?” he asked. His voice had a forlorn, almost despondent quality to it that cut through the drunken haze resting on my eyelids.
Eddie had caught the little cry in Julian’s voice, glancing quizzically at me before replying. He tried to change the mood, “Why son, you get back to cricket practice like a good boy after your hangover is gone. All the parties are over, buddy, you’ve been going at it for the whole week. Time to get back into action.”
“I don’t know, Eddie, I don’t know.”
“Come on, buddy, you’re feeling down because there’s no more parties. You’ve had enough booze and late nights for the next six months. Now all you guys need is to relax for a few days, chill out completely if you ask me, no drinking, no partying at all – just lying around with some good books and movies. And then get back to work. In no time at all you’ll be fighting fit.”
“I don’t know, Eddie, I don’t know.”
At this we both sat up, startled. We looked more closely at Julian. He was staring off into the distance. His lips, usually cast in an easy smile, were now curled slackly downwards. His eyes suddenly looked as if they had heavy bags around them. I noticed that he was sweating all over. I reached out to take the unfinished glass from him and his hand was cold and clammy to my touch. Then why was he sweating, I asked myself. A strange chill crawled across my back.
“Come on, kid, time for bed,” said Eddie.
“What’ll happen if I fail next time, Eddie? Tell me what’ll happen. Is it true that I’ll get fucked by the paper guys? That’s what Sahil told me today. He said I better watch out because one day I’ll flop and then surely I’ll get jacked so badly I won’t know what hit me. I told them the media guys were my friends and he started laughing so hard I didn’t know where to look.” Sahil was the guy who had got knocked out of his place in the team when Julian made his debut in Australia. He had been waiting for a chance to return and the way Julian had been going these past three years that seemed most unlikely. So the acid in his heart had finally boiled over earlier tonight, then.
Well at least now we knew the name of the demon that was troubling Julian. Eddie growled as tenderly as he could and reached over ruffle his brother’s hair. “Bullshit, buddy, you’ll never fail. Take my advice, have I ever let you down? You keep yourself fit, listen to that coach of yours, go out there for your team and you can take on any bowler any day. Sahil has an axe to grind with you, kid, you know that. Why bother about that asshole?”
“He said the media doesn’t give a shit about me – they only want a doll to play with. Once I fail they’ll tear me apart without mercy.” His face broke out with a fresh bout of sweating. Then I saw another thing – his eyelids flickered occasionally and it looked to me as if it was an involuntary twitch. The creepy chill on my back returned.
Damn bastards like Sahil and damn the bloody paparazzi, I thought to myself. I could see that Adrian, with difficulty, was keeping his temper in check. There was no point in losing cool now, it would only cut Julian off from us. If his fans had seen him like this then they would not have recognised their hero. Before our very eyes he seemed to sag some more every second and now he was a mere shadow of himself. His cheeks were pale and gaunt, his eyes had a deep, vacant hole inside them as he stared off into the night, his hands flopped lifelessly between his knees. The depression had gotten hold of him tightly. We were losing him fast.
“Come one, kid,” Eddie urged in a gentle whisper. “Let’s go to bed. It’s very late.”
Now he came without a murmur – it was uncanny how quickly his mood had shifted. Adrian and I threw off our shirts and I pulled on T-shirt and shorts. We laid out sheets for ourselves in the drawing room. Then we went into my bedroom to check on Julian before turning in. He was in bed curled up tightly like a baby, wearing only his briefs, facing the wall, eyes wide open. His muscular body was trembling slightly. It was sweaty all over.
“I’ve got a bad feeling, Eddie,” he said. “Things are not going to be good any more. My good days are over. They’re coming after me, Eddie. I know it, they’re coming after me.”
Adrian knelt on the bed beside him and cradled him in his huge grizzly arms. “Shh, shh, kiddo, nobody’s coming after you while I’m here. Take it easy, son, you’re just upset that all the parties are over. Just go to sleep and you’ll be okay in the morning.”
But Julian was not to be consoled and the tears began to flow. Silently at first, then his shoulders started heaving as he gave in to the sobbing. His brother held him tight in his hairy arms, rocking gently. I sat down in a chair nearby. He looked at me – we knew that this was the beginning of a long night. We knew the signs of alcohol addiction – we had both seen many guys go down this road before. He kept rocking to and fro all night long. None of us slept a wink until the sky gradually began filling up with light, then we dozed off.
We took him to the detoxification ward of St John’s hospital the next morning. He was there for a week. We told everyone that a blood clot in the brain had resulted in a mild stroke and that he was out of bounds to visitors. The PR guys were given regular updates on his recovery and somehow we spun out enough yarn to keep the truth out of the papers. The people in the hospital had been very understanding, given the status of their patient and the future that could be ahead of him once he was cured.
* * *
My mind came back to the present as we came down off the hills and the landscape changed to a rolling farmland dotted with boulders of all sizes and shapes – a familiar sight across the Karnataka countryside. This was country steeped in history and culture, with ancient temples of splendid artistic and architectural beauty dating back a thousand years standing as dignified witnesses to countless ages. But we had other things on our minds. We flew past it in grim silence.
“Eddie, I must stop this habit. I must stop and you must help me, Eddie,” Julian piped up all of a sudden. These sudden changes of mood were sure signs of how far gone he was but Adrian did not hesitate one second – he seized the moment as soon as it came up, because he didn’t know when such a chance would show up again.
“Yeah, buddy, don’t worry, we know you have it in you.”
But Julian was now in a completely contrite phase, aching to do good. “I must stop drinking, Eddie. I know I can but I need to stand on my own feet to do that.” The sight of his brave face in the mirror gave me a lump in my throat and I could see that Adrian was likewise in the grip of strong emotion. We drove on like that in silence for a long time. The miles flew by and we cut through several villages, my hand on the horn all the way through each one. Then at long last we saw clusters of bigger buildings in the distance.
“Eddie, we’re nearing Hassan, aren’t we? Hey, Chats, are you going to take the bypass or are you going to go into the city? I just realised, I have Mohan’s car keys in my pocket. We left him back at the estate and he’ll need them. I’ll return them to his parents. That way the poor bugger need not come all the way to Bangalore for them. His house is through the city, Chats, so why don’t you take the main road?”
We let those words hang for a moment without replying. I wanted to get to Bangalore as soon as possible and was planning on taking the bypass. I was sure Adrian wanted the same thing, and did not want to waste any time. Going through the city would add another half an hour, provided we didn’t hang around at this guy’s place. I looked doubtfully at Adrian. He seemed undecided too but I could see how his mind was working. If we turned this simple request down it could set Julian off on another harangue about not trusting him and who knew what else. It looked harmless enough. We neither of us had met these folks but what could a meeting with elderly folks at home lead to? So when we came up to the bypass turning I ignored it and ploughed straight through into the city.
I drew up in front of a sprawling bungalow with a big lawn overgrown with grass and weeds. There was barbed wire fencing around the plot held up by four foot high granite posts at irregular intervals, leaning at different angles. The place must have been a British officer’s bungalow in the old days. A sentry sat sprawled on a chair at the gate. This was the local MLA’s house.
Julian swung down and asked cheerfully, “Want to come in, guys? Mohan’s mom makes absolutely divine dosas and she never lets a soul go hungry! What say?”
We were both getting down with the intention of going in with him and making sure he did not stick around too long or make a nuisance of himself. But at these words we changed our minds.
Adrain said, somewhat hastily, “No kiddo, you go inside, drop the keys off and come out fast, okay? If we come in and the lady starts cooking something she won’t let us leave quickly and I don’t want to waste any time here. Tell you what,” he added, spotting a phone booth just across the road, “I need to make a call so you be quick and let’s get moving, okay?”
Julian looked doubtful. His brother shoved him towards the house and said, “Go on, buddy, make it fast. Tell the folks inside that your brother has some desperately urgent business in Bangalore and we need to be on the road, we stopped only because of the car keys. Now go.”
Julian turned and hurried in and we stepped over to the phone booth, lighting up cigarettes as we crossed the road. “I’ve been thinking ever since that kid said he wanted to give up booze. May be a good idea to get Linda to come over to your place for a quiet heart to heart talk with him – the moment is right. What do you say?”
“Sounds good, Eddie. It’ll be a pleasant surprise for Julian, like as if she can’t wait to see him. It might pep him up. Let’s do it.” I checked my watch and calculated. “Tell her seven o’clock at my place. That should be safe.” He got her on the line and spoke rapidly, without going into too much detail. We didn’t want to scare the living daylights out of the young girl.
We lighted our second cigarette – Julian was still inside the house. We had already been here twenty minutes and were thinking of going in after him when he came rushing out. Some kind of manservant was seeing him out at the door. For a second I thought it was kind of impolite for Mohan’s parents not to come themselves to see him off. It wasn’t that big a place and well, if I was in his place I would have felt kind of cut up. Then I reckoned it made sense if you were a big shot and had a horde of servants to do that kind of stuff. Julian had a coat – some kind of Army jerkin with lots of zips, pockets and padding – over his arm as he came walking briskly down the drive.
“Hey sorry, guys, Mohan’s mom gave me this jacket to pass on to his brother. He’s going on this trek thing next week from college and had asked for it to be sent to him. Lucky we were passing through. Chalo, let’s go.” He looked quite cheerful and swung himself up nimbly before we could stub our cigarettes out. The effect of the liquor, the depression, the hatred, all had vanished. Adrian and I exchanged shrugs and with crossed fingers, got in. We pulled out of Hassan and as we came back into open country and a tree lined highway, the day was cooling down with the sun dipping low on the horizon. Julian began humming softly. He tried on the coat and showed us the various compartments it had, beaming all the while. He was like a kid with a new toy and I prayed silently for this mood to last.
About half an hour out of Hassan, Julian asked me to pull over – he wanted to take a leak. So did I and we stopped by the roadside. Each of us went behind a tree – Adrian and I finishing before the kid. We lighted up and finished a cigarette.
Now, that cigarette took us a good five minutes and there still no sign of him, so realisation finally dawned on us. We looked at each other shamefacedly – we had been well and truly conned. Smoothly he had set the while thing up. Two bloody veterans like us. Damn.
How he knew he could get a bottle at his friend’s place I don’t know – maybe when he had found the car keys in his pockets the idea had come to him on the spur of the moment. Whatever that story was, the thing to do now was to find the cunning bastard and get him back in the vehicle. We both rushed to the tree behind which he had gone – and of course he was nowhere in sight. There were a few bushes down a small slope from the road’s shoulder and the next tree along the road itself was maybe twenty yards away. We rushed there too, no luck. We peered through the gathering dusk at the bushes – there was no way he could be hiding there without us being able to see him. That left only paddy fields all around. They had standing crops, but the plants were just a few feet tall, not enough to hide a grown man. Moreover the farmers had let water into the fields and they were waterlogged. Unless … the thought struck us both at the same time … he was lying down amongst the rushes, water and all. Then we saw it. At a distance of some thirty yards or so, a section of the plants was stirring and shaking. There was no breeze.
By the time we got to him he had downed a half bottle of Johnny Walker Black. Straight and in ten minutes flat. Like we drink water. Lying hidden among the paddy plants. We were angry, more at ourselves than at him I guess, but it made us handle him roughly. We yanked him up, clothes sodden and muddy, hair dishevelled, all the good cheer gone, replaced with a look of crafty jubilation. We checked all his pockets as we should have done back in Hassan. There were no more bottles on him but the harm had already been done. Then his expression changed. He put on the hatred mask all over again and screeched at us, “Fuck you bastards if you won’t let a thirsty man have a drink when he needs it desperately, man! I can take care of myself! I know I have it in me,” he taunted us triumphantly with Adrian’s own words, dancing towards the jeep, dripping slush from all over, “I have it in me, yaah, I have it in me!”
Julian looked like a refugee from a loony bin, jumping and staggering around in his mud-spattered clothes, waving his hands in the air and shouting at the top of his voice. We grabbed him under the armpits and heaved him into the jeep like a sack of rice. Adrian climbed in after him and shoved him angrily into the seat.
Adrian’s black anger was not a good sight to see for any God-fearing man. The devil himself would have been shit-scared, come to think of it. I guess my face wouldn’t have been pretty right then either. There was not a single word spoken by us until we hit Bangalore’s outskirts two hours later. Julian was in an alcoholic daze and had mercifully dozed off. If he had uttered another word on that trip there would have been blood spilt and it would not have been good for any of us. Maybe I’m being unkind to the big man there – but that’s a big maybe.
Clouds had gathered in the sky and it was quite dark by the time we got to the campus. I was thankful for that. All of a sudden I wondered at the wisdom of getting Linda out here now. She was just a pretty young thing and had never seen Julian in this state. We should have thought this thing through before calling her. To be sure, we had called her up before the whisky had happened in the rice fields after Hassan. I voiced my thoughts to Adrian and he nodded his head helplessly. We carried a half-asleep Julian up the stairs to my pad and lowered him on to my bed. Then Eddie went to the phone to call Linda to try and dissuade her from coming, but it was too late – there was a knock on the door. Cursing under his breath, he went to open it. We had had a long day, more than twelve hours on the long and dusty road almost non-stop with nothing to eat and our hands full handling a bloody-minded alcoholic in mud-soaked clothes. All we wanted now was to get through the rest of the night with our patient sleeping soundly without further incident. But first we had to get rid of the girl.
Adrian opened the door. “Hi Linda. Look,” he said, taking her by the arm and speaking in low tones. “Julian has had a relapse of his stroke and that’s why we went to get him. He’s sleeping now. We don’t want to wake him up.” They looked at the bed. The kid was sleeping peacefully. His lank hair, pale face and slumped form gave him the look of a helpless invalid. His muddied clothing added to the pitiable sight.
“Maybe you can come back tomorrow morning. Right now all he needs is rest. Sorry to have called you out here but you must understand.”
She was not to be put off so lightly and I saw her lips set in a resolute smile. “Eddie, if Julian needs me then my place is by his side. Can’t you see the state he is in? He needs a woman and look at how you have put him into bed with all those dirty clothes on him! You guys don’t know the first thing about these things.” Adrian seemed about to give it up then changed his tack.
“Look baby, I know how you feel but trust me, I’ve been through this before.”
“Like this?” she asked incredulously. “Eddie, go get some hot water, please. And a towel, if you have such things with you here,” she added, regarding me as some kind of worm.
There was nothing we guys could say. I guess the exhaustion had gotten to us and quite plainly we couldn’t claim to have taken good care of Julian. We moved resignedly and she went to her sweetheart’s side. That was when she got the whiff of whisky.
“Eddie!” she cried in a frightened voice, “Julian’s stinking of liquor! Have you guys been drinking? Is that why you wanted me to go away? Oh my God!” Her hands were at her cheeks and her eyes were wide with horror.
Her high-pitched scream brought Julian awake.
“Hi Linda, thank God you’re here!” he said, quickly taking in the scene. “My brother has been torturing me, Linda. Take me away from here, I beg you! Look, look at my clothes! They have been beating me for something I never did! Take me away please!” She looked from one brother to the other, confused.
Adrian growled menacingly at the kid, “Shut up, buddy and keep quiet or I’ll shut you up myself.”
As soon as he said the words we knew that was what Julian was hoping for. “See Linda, see! Look at that big bully! I don’t know why I’m being punished!” He staggered upright and caught hold of her elbow. “Look at me, see what they’ve done! We were having a peaceful drink and suddenly they started arguing with me, accusing me of all sorts of things. They knocked me down in the middle of the road and started beating me but luckily some people came up and they stopped. Otherwise I’d have been thrashed to a pulp – two against one, where do I have a chance?”
I decided to make a clean breast of it – there was now no other way. She was maybe too young, too sweet a kid for all this but I knew she really loved Julian and cared for him. It was going to be long and tortuous road to travel before Julian got rid of his problem. He wasn’t going to make it easy for us – he had shown that clearly enough today. We needed reinforcements and now seemed as good a time as any to bring Linda into the picture. It might hurt her badly but it looked like it was now or never.
“Look Linda, there’s some bad news that you will have to be brave about, okay?” I said, mustering all the quiet dignity I could.
The sly mind of the cornered alcoholic moved quickly to head me off with some fast talking. Whirling her around to face him he said with a disdainful sneer, “Now you know what he’s going to say, Linda? That I’m an alcohol addict! Me, your loving boyfriend is an addict. That’s what Chats is trying to tell you! And Eddie is supporting him. Can I afford to be something like that? What will the whole country think? What about the feelings of all my fans? Don’t believe them, Linda. Come on, let’s get out of here right now before they think of more horrible things to say. I don’t know what I have done to deserve this!”
She looked around the room dumbstruck. First at Adrian, who was glowering darkly by the window, clenching and unclenching his fists. Then at me, and I knew she was wondering if I had been about say those terrible words. To call her childhood sweetheart, her darling angel, her idol for all these years, a shameful addict. It became too much for her to handle. She began to cry. First the tears flowed down her cheeks and then she looked up at Julian’s face and the sobbing started.
“Don’t you believe it, damn you,” Julian yelled, shaking her with both hands, towering over her, snarling as the venom poured out uncontrollably once more. She cowered in the corner, covering her face and head with her hands, thrown violently back and forth by his powerful arms. Adrian moved forward and I tried to restrain him with a gesture. The scene looked like it was going to get very ugly. But he only stepped up and with one swipe hurled Julian backwards, loosening his grip on the girl. Then he pinned Julian down on the bed and held him there. Linda fled the room howling.
I caught up with her in the corridor outside and it took me a good ten minutes before I could get her calmed down. Her eyes were rolling around like those of a trapped animal. She was a spent force as far as getting through to Julian’s crazed mind was concerned but I couldn’t let her leave in this fragile state. Her young years had not prepared her for what she had seen in the last few minutes. The high pedestal on which her hero had stood had been utterly destroyed. Only time would tell if her love for Julian had been shattered forever.
We would need more experienced hands than hers to help him out of his private hell.
I led her unprotesting down to the lawns below, away from my pad. We wandered around the staff quarters in the soothing evening air. She was leaning heavily on my arm. A fresh breeze had picked up and it looked like it might rain but that served to cool us down. After a while the tears stopped. The she straightened and mumbled that she was okay.
“Is it true, Chats? What Julian said in there?”
I debated for a minute on how to reply. Then I said, “Look baby, Julian is ill and he needs us all to stand by him in his hour of darkness, okay? He’ll come through it one day but only if those of us around him, who understand him, are strong, see? Right now he’s in a bad shape and you should wait until he’s a little better, just a little better and then your help will be needed. Understand?”
The kid took this well – she nodded her head quickly a few times. I was gladdened. I put my arm around her shoulders and continued, “Okay, now we need to attend to him and keep a close watch on him tonight. You need to go home and think about all you saw tonight, kind of sleep it over and you’ll be in a better frame of mind to help out in the morning. Trust me, I’ve been through this sort of thing before, okay?” More nods. “Adrian and I are both needed by his side tonight, Linda. Can you make it home on your own? Are you feeling up to it?”
A single nod this time. “Don’t worry about me, Chats. I’m okay now. I came in my Dad’s car and the driver’s there. No problem, don’t worry.” With a brave smile she gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
She was a good kid, bearing up well after the traumatic half-hour she had just been through. It can be cataclysmic to see one’s idol smashed to pieces without warning.
We sent her on her way telling her to think about all that she had seen and not to talk to anyone, her parents included, until we had time to figure things out. Because, we told her, we had to think of his family and his fans as well. She said she understood clearly. Adrian and I knew how true that was.
Julian was asleep again. “Where’s the number of that doc at St John’s, Chats?” Adrian asked. I got it and we rang up the doctor who had treated him the last time. He was at a party but the moment he heard us out he pulled out all stops to arrange admission that very night. He would himself be on hand to see him settled in. We thanked him profusely – the guy was a gem. We fixed it with him that we would land up at the hospital at about midnight. Because we had one small problem to sort out before we could finally call it a day. There was just no way we could take Julian into the hospital in the clothes he was wearing. We would have to make a trip to his house after his folks had gone to bed and, without waking them up, get him a change of clothes and toothbrush and stuff. We would have to change him in the jeep – it would be too risky to take him into the house. I would have to go in and get his things while Adrian kept a watch with his brother in the jeep. If Julian woke up when we were at his place then I certainly wouldn’t be able to keep him under control and god knew how his elderly parents would react. We were afraid that the shock of seeing their son in this state would affect them badly.
We waited until eleven pm before leaving the campus. It began to rain heavily on the way to the Michaels’ place in Fraser Town, a picturesque residential part of Bangalore. They had a bungalow in a quiet inside lane and I parked outside the gate. A short driveway curved towards the front door set in the middle of the wall facing the road. Down the right wall of the house from the gate was a door that opened directly into the brothers’ rooms. I headed for that door. But as soon as I walked in through the gate, their Alsatian dog Pluto, came running out and started up a wild barking, deep throated at first and then, recognising me, at an excitedly higher pitch.
I ran quickly to the dog, trying to shush him, but apart from wagging his tail he ignored me and continued yelping, looking towards the gate in expectation. He had sensed that the brothers were there outside. The racket was the last thing we wanted and the risk of waking up the whole neighbourhood was increasing every second. I was on the point of giving the thing up as a lost cause when the front door opened. Mrs Michaels was standing there, a frail little lady with wispy grey hair, clutching a housecoat around her thin shoulders. It was like I was caught red-handed. She peered out at me and smiled in recognition.
“Ah Chats, it’s you. I thought it must be someone we know, the way Pluto was barking.”
“Oh hi, hi, Mrs Michaels,” I managed to stammer. “I, uh, I came by because I wanted to pick up Eddie’s camera.” I held up the keys to their room in my hand. My hair was wet and water dripped off my nose. “Didn’t want to wake you up but Pluto couldn’t keep quiet, I guess,” I concluded lamely, forcing a laugh. “You go to bed, ma’am. I’ll be in and out and off – Eddie’s waiting for me at a friend’s place. You just go back to bed. Good night, ma’am.”
But the darned dog wasn’t shutting up. He kept up his infernal barking, looking all the while through the pouring rain towards the gate. I tried to grab him and turn him towards me but he slipped out of my grip. Mrs Michaels was looking at Pluto in a puzzled way and then at the gate.
“Who have you come with, Chats? Who’s out there?” she asked, waving towards the gate.
“Oh, no one, ma’am, it’s just Pluto in one of his moods. You just go back to sleep, ma’am. So sorry to wake you all up.”
Under the veranda’s light I saw her lips tighten and a stern look creep into her eyes. “Don’t you try those tricks on me, young man,” she said with considerable asperity. “Who’s out there now? Is it my boys, up to no good as usual, eh? Call them in.”
The situation was beyond my exhausted brain to deal with. The game was up. I walked to the gate and yelled out. After a moment the brothers came in, Julian still tottering slightly.
We lined up in front of the old lady under the veranda roof. Adrian and I had resigned ourselves to this new twist – the events of the day had finally gotten out of our hands. Mrs Michaels looked sternly up at her giant of a son, silently chiding him for this strange behaviour, hanging about in the rain outside while I pottered around on their lawn. It was obvious to her that we were up to no good. He meekly shuffled his feet and confined himself to an examination of the floor beneath his boots. Julian stood weaving unsteadily in front of her and she reached out a frail hand to stroke his cheek. He bent forward from his towering height and I could feel Adrian tense, ready to pounce should his younger brother step out of line. She couldn’t have missed the smell of whisky on her younger son’s breath now, it was still coming in waves from his open mouth. But she just stood there, peering up at each of her sons in turn.
The seconds ticked by slowly. The rain sluiced down in sheets behind us. In that hair-trigger tension any false move from the kid could have set off an explosion in Adrian. His emotions had gone through too much strain today. I knew that the big man was at the end of his tether and I braced myself in nervous apprehension.
Then their mother spoke. “Why haven’t you eaten yet, boys, it’s nearly midnight. Poor things, you look quite worn out. Go and have a hot bath, each of you. I’ll get some soup going. There’s smoked chicken too and I’ll make you sandwiches. Now move on, move on,” she finished, flapping her hand dismissively, turning to go inside.
We all trooped in behind her and headed for the brothers’ section of the house. Julian went into his room; Adrian gave me possession of his bathroom while he went off to the one in his parents’ bedroom. Old Mr Michaels, hard of hearing, was sleeping, blissfully unaware of the drama being enacted around him.
Fifteen minutes later, washed and scrubbed, the three of us, Julian included, sat down to an unforgettably delicious meal.
She kept us company with a cupful of soup as we attacked the food. For a while the only sound was that of steady chomping as three hungry young souls cleaned up the soup, a big pile of sandwiches and generous servings of apple pie. Julian went at the food with the gusto of a teenager. The colour had returned to his cheeks; the bags under his eyes had disappeared quite miraculously and his hands were as steady as ours. It was uncanny, but he seemed like a man reborn. Somehow, I don’t know to this day what magic had worked its way into that night, but somehow, Eddie and I sensed that there would be no need to go to St John’s Hospital. Not a word was said but it was as clear as daylight to us that we had passed a turning point – that Julian wasn’t going to hit the bottle again any time soon. It felt as if the immense weight of the day’s events had been lifted from our backs.
When we had finished eating Mrs Michaels said quietly, “I’m sure we all have a lot to talk about tomorrow morning. For now, it’s off to bed for all three of you.”
Julian rose with a smooth movement and stepped around the table. Bending over his mother, he kissed her solemnly on the cheek and said, “Good night, mum.”
Adrian in his turn rose and planted his kiss before growling, “Good night, mum.”
I rose too and stood uncertainly. She looked at me, eyes glittering expectantly, a deep understanding glowing from within. She offered up her cheek. I hurried forward to obey and bending low, pecked it.
“Good night, ma’am,” I said.