Shellshock by Kim Farleigh

Macadam Manivelle at Montmartre

Macadam Manivelle at Montmartre

Photo by John P Brady


‘Shellshock’ by Kim Farleigh

Being serious about where I was from didn’t last: Norway, then Madagascar, then obscure African countries; six weeks of the same constant question finally caused: “Jerkfuckerstan.”

“Oh, I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s between Malawi and Burundi.  It’s got a population of seven-hundred and I’m captain of the cricket team.”

“Oh, that’s so small.  We are five million alone here in Jaipur.”

“And I think I’ve spoken to every bloody one of you.”

I was waiting to go to Delhi.  Men humping things on their shoulders were scurrying past, sharp expressions in their eyes.  A red sandstone wall of carved, supernatural creatures faced the passing sharp-eyed men, the humanoid-ant stream entering the city’s nest with rickshaws, taxis, horse-drawn carts and elephants.  Cows littered the street.  Horn honked like metallic geese.

“My cousin has a shirt shop.  Would you like to see it?”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Why are you so angry?”

“Why are you such a pest?”

“It’s just a question.”

“One I’ve heard twenty-six thousand, two-hundred and fifty-nine times in six weeks.”

An elephant’s elevated rider resembled a demigod amid fumes, the best way to travel: You could crush people who bothered you.

“How would you feel,” I asked, “if in six weeks you had been asked twenty-six thousand, two-hundred and fifty-nine times where you’re from by people who couldn’t care less where you’re from?”

He left.  I was facing reincarnation as a toad.  He had been another man with nothing to lose.  Optimism overcame their dignity.  Irrational hope meant they didn’t consider that their next victim had been asked the same question innumerable times.  Ambition assumes we are the exception.

A female beggar’s pleading right hand faced me; a plump baby sat in a woollen sling slung over the beggar’s left shoulder.  The baby’s orange, woollen skull cap matched the sling.  Hindu-goddess ear-rings wobbled from the baby’s earlobes.  The beggar couldn’t speak English.  That saved me from questioning.  Her eyes ached with well-orchestrated pain, the passing humanoid ants, lugging loads on their backs, experiencing real pain; those men didn’t have time to harass tourists.  They had to work, dignity forcing them into that painful situation.

The beggar pleaded and pleaded.  Gypsy beggars believe they deserve attention.  Therefore, I ignore gypsy beggars.  Hollywood pain glossed the beggar’s eyes.  She pleaded and pleaded.  The baby was noticeably plump.  A policeman pulled the beggar away.  She pleaded as the policeman dragged her off.

A stall nearby was selling clay bowls of food.  After eating, the consumers tossed the clay bowls onto the ground.  Cows and beggars then attacked the broken bowls.  Sometimes the cows won; sometimes the beggars did.  The consumers consumed amid this competition.  I felt happy watching it.

The bus came.  I wanted to change my flight to leave India earlier than planned.  The airline company’s website claimed that passengers could change their tickets through the internet, but it wasn’t true.  You had to go to Delhi to do it.

Entering the airline’s offices, I saw a bearded, European man screaming at three women who were sitting behind a counter.  Perhaps his hippie days had just ended?  The three silent women were still.  Resignation covered their faces.  Their long black hair hung still.  Their eyes’ whites expressed stultified distance, like people suffering a traumatic defeat.  Forty-two other European-looking people were also in the room screaming.  I counted them.  I assumed I wouldn’t be able to change my flight.  India unlocks trapped emotions, this collective outburst even the most experienced of travellers could not have foreseen, difficult making out clear comments in the noise, like the roar in a stadium during a football match.  I stayed at the door, the shouting multitude before me.  My jaw fell slowly.

One of the women indicated I should approach her.  The forty-three others continued screaming.  I had to lean over the counter to hear her.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’d like to change my departure date, if I can.”

“Your ticket, please.”

I handed it over.

“What day would you like to fly?” she asked

I told her.  She tapped on a keyboard.  She printed out what I hoped was a new ticket.

“There,” she said, handing a new ticket over.  “It’s done.”

Her beautiful Indian voice had volume and elegance.

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Why,” I asked, amazed, “have you served me?”

“Because you’re the only one not screaming,” she replied.


In the airport, I changed rupees into pounds.  The moneychanger possessed dignified solemnity.  His glasses’ magnitude enhanced his face’s thinness.  He counted out the supposed equivalent in sterling.  I demonstrated there had been a shortfall in his calculations.  Apologies weren’t forthcoming; but the missing money got placed on the counter immediately.  Spontaneous commissions abound in India.  To Westerners ad-hoc transactions are corrupt.  In India they’re normal.  The Anglo-Saxon mind can be jarred by spontaneous practises.

On the plane, I drank alcohol, a pleasure that India had not permitted.  Enforced abstinence at that stage of my life was a sacrifice that I made up for without remission, ably assisted in my endeavours by a happy-go-lucky New Zealand air stewardess who prepared the drinks beside where I was sitting.  The first sip of my first Bacardi and Coke in six weeks – a flowing avalanche of coolness, smoothness and sweetness – told me unequivocally that I was in devastating form.  The stewardess chuckled so happily each time I asked for a drink that I wondered if she was drunk herself.  She found everything hilarious.  Each drink reinforced the sensual magnificence of Bacardi and Coke’s clashing flavours.  Each drink added to the stewardess’s joy, as if it had been her who had been engaging in non-stop consumption.  She still remains the most overjoyed, free individual I’ve ever met.  When she spilt a lunch over a man wearing a suit she laughed so freely at her own incompetence that her sweet amiability ended up causing the man to laugh himself.

He wasn’t laughing ten minutes later, however, when an air pocket caused the plane to drop like a stone.  We were cruising over Saudi Arabia when a full jumbo of heads struck the cabin’s ceiling, no one wearing a seat belt.  Everyone screamed except me.  I was too drunk to care.  I had just finished my seventh Bacardi and Coke, having just avoided unnecessary spillage.

India had created shellshock and the alcohol, mixed with the shellshock, had created a desensitisation towards humanity.  After ten Bacardi and Cokes we landed in Muscat in the UAE.  In the transit lounge, I charged towards the toilet, urgency extreme.  In normal parlance I was “bursting to piss.”  A man wearing a turban was walking ahead of me towards the same destination.  He jerked as if being electrocuted; then he plummeted against the toilet door, finishing on his back, his head forcing the door open, his dead eyes wide open empty, like staring through to the ocean floor.  I stepped over him to get through the half-open door.

I had never been so pleased to reach a urinal slab.  Out it poured like the Ganges bursting its banks.  I heard something behind me.  I saw the door slowly closing, the corpse dragged clear of the toilet.  I convulsed with titillation.  My desensitisation had soared to new levels.  Six weeks of harassment had made me a flippant outsider, divorced from self-enhancing self-analysis.

Leaving the toilet, I saw the deceased ringed by people.  A woman doctor who had been on the flight was attempting to revive the corpse.  Another look at those eyes confirmed death.  I’d seen the empty nothingness of corpse eyes before – an unmistakable look.  Nobody comes back from that.

I reached the departure gate to board the connecting flight.  It could not have been a more beautiful day to die.  Azure radiance made everything glitter like jewellery, the blades of light sharpened by inebriation.  I passed an ambulance, its crew leaning against the vehicle.  They’re going to be in for a surprise, I thought.  Their conversation got ended by a man who charged out of the lounge, screaming; the men put out their cigarettes and ran into the lounge.  I let rip with howling merriment.  They were charging to save a corpse.  Maybe they were writing out the will?

Entering the plane, a stewardess thought I was smiling because I was nice.  Eccentric death with Indian shellshock watered with Bacardi and Coke had left a lingering after affect like violin strings resonating with malicious amusement.  Nice passengers smile when boarding planes.  It still remains the only time I’ve ever entered a plane after having seen someone die, a mix rarely experienced; it reminded me of a shop I’d seen in Cairo that sold confectionaries and stuffed animals.  Such unexpected combinations may only exist in the Middle East.

The plane filled up, every seat taken except the one beside mine.  That was where the deceased would have been had his life not ended so abruptly in a transit lounge in the UAE.  I was so delighted by the extra space that I covered my face to hide my glee.  Experiencing extreme sincerity with myself, I was bitterly unconcerned about accusations of nastiness.  I had a Hitlerian disdain for humanity, thanks to the subcontinent that had brought out the excesses of my sense of humour, while churning up fury like a cyclone that saps you of kindness.

I wasn’t laughing for long.  A huge man boarded the plane.  He could have only been going to one place.  Dressed in tennis whites, he was carrying a tennis bag.  He presumably had just been knocked out of a tournament.  Possibly his tremendous serve hadn’t helped him on a slow surface.  When he sat down, his knees almost punctured the seat in front.  The woman doctor was three rows away, crying.  She hadn’t been able to do the impossible, apparent she needed something miraculous at that moment – perhaps some sign that humanity was actually worth saving after all.  But miracles only occur in the Bible where history becomes fantasy.

Not being able to repeat Jesus Christ’s miracles was a catalyst for an outpouring of emotion that had probably built up in her in India.  I had had alcohol and the New Zealand air stewardess for release; she had relied on the impossible.  India will induce such outpourings whether you like them or not.

The tennis player had whispered condolences to her as he had passed.  He looked like a perfect gentleman.  He resembled the product of a rich New England family, the Ivy League look of impeccable manners.  When he had bent down from his great, high-serving height to console the bereaving doctor her eyes had watered with thankfulness.  It had been a beautiful thing for the tennis player to have done; but doing beautiful things in front of people whom he had no interest in talking to was his job, the job not stopping on leaving the court.

Condolences given he sat beside a man who was having an experience so different from his.  It’s difficult imagining that anyone who travels the world playing tennis understands real experiences.  I thought the dead man was lucky to have died rapidly, no messing around; a great way to go.  We all have to do it; I hoped to imitate him, perhaps by collapsing over a table full of drinks in a cocktail bar in Miami.

The real reason why the doctor was overreacting to the death of a man she had never known escaped the tennis player who probably lacked the experience to have understood the source of the doctor’s tears.

A month later, British Airways sacked a New Zealand air stewardess for screwing a passenger on a transatlantic flight.  Other passengers had been disgusted by her fantastic service.  Joining the Mile High Club had ended this woman’s British Airways career; I had no doubt who that air stewardess had been and for her unrestrained, joyous sincerity I wished her the best.


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Kim has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes fine wine, art, photography and bullfighting, which probably explains why this Australian lives in Madrid. 98 of his stories have been accepted by 69 different magazines.

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