We’re going to India for Christmas. I’m seven. I get dressed in shorts and sandals. Five hours later we walk off a plane to the thick, crunching snow on the Moscow airport tarmac. It’s -10c.
This isn’t India I tell my mum.
It’s 1978 and the Cold War lingers like the Russian fog. We’re behind the Iron Curtain. It’s the time of Brezhnev, Carter and the four minute warning.
A few years before, I thought I HAD gone behind the Iron Curtain, to Warsaw, Poland, for a weekend to visit Ian, Auntie Ilu and Uncle Bapson, but Matthew Coombes, the playground sage, didn’t believe me – Poland was too far for to visit for a weekend. My dad later confirmed Matthew was right: we had gone to Walsall, near Birmingham, not Warsaw. (Matthew knew many things including Pele’s real name and the facts of life. Neither Raymond Tong, Stephen Townsend nor I, believed his explanation of the latter.)
I see a rifle for the first time at passport control. He also has a huge peaked cap with a star on it. He moves only his eyes to look at us. My sister holds a sick bag to her mouth. I think she’ll wretch at any moment now. I can’t help staring at the rifle.
Mum keeps the paper work together in a thick wallet full of flimsy airline tickets in triplicate with pink carbon, passports and tags strangled tightly with a rubber band.
Everything’s unfamiliar. The letters on airport signs are unrecognisable, reversed, topsy turvy, mirror writing. There’s an edge of danger, airport staff are dressed in olive green like the plastic soldiers in the box at home.
I make some notes in my pad. Mrs Davies (Brown Class) had told me to keep a diary for we have a month off school and ‘it needs to be educational for that amount of time off,’ she said at Parent’s Evening. Besides, she wants me to present to the class in the lunch hour. I draw the patterns on the ceiling 100 feet above. Rows of short brown tubes stuck above us. Yes she’ll be pleased with this sketch.
We have a five hour layover and have vouchers for food in the restaurant – rice with boiled beef. My sister is still holding an empty sick bag expectantly. The smell of beef makes her dry heave. My dad gives her a stern look.
Three more hours. My dad needs a smoke, and opens his long tube of duty free cigarettes. He unpeels a golden Benson and Hedges 20 and asks a group of Russians paying homage to a bottle in the centre of their table for a light. They oblige and tell him to keep the lighter. (Some years later when I was 10, I recalled this to Lucy Edmonds, a school friend, and how friendly the Russians were. She replied, I don’t think invading Afghanistan is friendly.)
We are herded in to a bus and ascend the airplane stairs. I can’t see any other children. The night air is bitterly cold under a dark blue sky. The plane is slim with propellers, four seats wide, its engines tinny and loud. I sit beside my dad. My sister and mum are a few rows behind us.
We take off and the oval windows fill with pure black mystery. My dad beside me is the familiar comfort. The plane levels. A black Russian dog, small, fluffy with pointy ears and a long muzzle walks up the aisle to the front of the plane. It has a purposeful strut, without shyness. A passenger presses his light to complain. The stewardess berates the passenger. It’s the captains dog she says.
We eat plastic bowls of tough boiled meat, and rice, made flavoursome with pepper. We refuel in Tashkent in the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, but I am so groggy I can only recall the dawn sky, draped towards pink capped distant hills.
Our voyage resumes and when I wake, tiny slivers of ice have congealed outside the oval window, and far below, are snow capped mountains, pine forests and frozen lakes.
Dad is desperately trying to get some colour and flavour from a teabag. He stirs the grey watery liquid, tilts it towards me and says in Assamese:
etu sah bule ( this is tea apparently).
Don’t worry we’ll soon be in Assam he adds. Proper tea. His homely act provides comfort in this cold, noisy and regimented situation.
The plane circles a warm sea dotted with fishing boats and we refuel in Karachi, then Bombay, the runway edged with hills layered with shanty homes, topped with ragged plastic sheets.
It’s our final leg, we land in Calcutta. My sister manages to throw up on the entire descent till the doors are open.
The airport’s name is Dum Dum. My sister and I think this is hilarious. At the baggage reclaim carousel, Bengali customs officials tie the Black Russian dog to a post and argue animatedly with an Aeroflot steward. The animal is forlorn, it’s mid-air bravado lost.
My suitcase is missing. Good job none of Loniba’s wedding gifts were in it but my waffle jumper and moccasins are now gone. And my binoculars too – I loved them. They were 10 times 50 magnification and Assam is full of rhinos and elephants, and I’m a member of the World Wildlife Fund’s Panda Club. I’m gutted.
We eat airport Chinese and sleep in the Calcutta Airport Hotel. Mum lends me a petticoat to sleep in with a big safety pin to make it tighten. The hotel bathroom is foreboding, dank and dark, medieval except for the humming boiler with its orange light. In the hole in the wall, where the shower water expels, a cockroach crackles and watches. I try not to think of it and spend as little time as I can in there.
We sleep four in a bed. Mum is near the lamp, she drops some water purifying tablets in the plastic bedside jug, they cloud the water and give it a mild bitter taste. I sleep to its fizz.
I wake to the sound of roaring plane engines. This is the day we get to Assam. The end of our zig-zag journey, we make our sixth takeoff for a 45 minute flight to Gauhati in Assam. The paddy fields are dry like crazy paving below us and the Brahmaputra winds glinting and magnificent, banked with slivers of shiny white sand.
We land. Through the oval windows my mum points out the flying club building where she learned to fly Tiger Moths twenty years earlier. In the terminal building I can make out distant faces, smiling and vaguely familiar. My mum calls their names. Bhimon Bordeuta. Bhonti Pehi. Bondona Borma. The Assamese morning sky is blue and cloudless. My sister is smiling, her airsickness is gone. The tarmac is warm under my sandals.