‘I used to go to India for a few months every year. A couple of times we even drove there. You could in those days. One year I went to Benares. I rented a place for next to nothing and stayed about three months. Back then there were a lot of hippies in India. They’d run out of money and you’d see them begging. In Benares the hippies all hung out in the same places but I was staying in another part of the city. I think I paid something like three quid a month for my place, which I shared with two other Indian guys.’
I’d brought a bottle of gin and two tall glasses and a lemon and tins of tonic. I’d carried these in a basket the 100 yards or so along the path between his house and ours. Michael was sitting at the table fielding emails on his iPad when I arrived. He read out one to which he had tried and failed to frame a reply. As he read it his eyes filled with tears. ‘It’s difficult to know how to answer without sounding trite,’ he said. ‘I mean what does one say? I hate “passed on” and “passed away”, and “died” doesn’t seem right either.’
‘Kicked the bucket?’ I said. ‘Brown bread’? Then, feeling terribly sorry that at a time like this he had only me for company, and that I was likely to say all the wrong things, I said: ‘I’m sorry. I’m an idiot, as you know.’ Then I produced the gin glasses and the rest of the makings and assembled a couple of paralysing gin and tonics. I’d also bought a packet of cigarettes, which I opened. Michael then abandoned his email correspondence in frustration and we carried our drinks over to a couple of fireside chairs and lit up. I’d recently been in Africa. He asked me how it was. That got us on to the subject of travel, which in turn got us on to his travels to India in the 1960s. His phone was pinging away like mad but he ignored it.
‘One day I thought I’d like to try some opium and I was directed to Mr Nazim’s house. Mr Nazim must have been in his seventies and he had been smoking opium since he was 17. Every day I’d get a rickshaw over there. He wasn’t a dealer in opium but I suppose the little bit he made from me paid for his own habit. It was quite a large, respectable-looking house. His wife and her sisters, I suppose they were, several other women at any rate, were engaged in sewing sequins on saris. That was his business. These women sat there all day long sewing sequins on saris. Every morning I would arrive there at 11 o’clock and Mr Nazim and I would go into his smoking room and his wife would come in with a snack and some drinks and then make up our opium pipes. I’d have two or three pipes and because Mr Nazim had been smoking opium all his life he would have about ten. And we’d lie around smoking these pipes and then we’d fall asleep until about five. Then he would wake up because he had to deliver all these sequinned saris and he’d drop me off close to my apartment. Mr Nazim and I must have done this every day for a couple of months.’
Iggy the spaniel lumbered into the room looking doleful or maybe puzzled. He clambered up on to the sofa and made himself comfortable against one of Michael’s wife’s homemade cushions and looked reproachfully at me over his shoulder as though I were responsible in some way. Michael’s phone pinged again.
‘And something I’ll never forget is that at the apex of the ceiling of Mr Nazim’s smoking room was an opening, about a foot square, through which you could see the sky. And every day I’d lie there watching the smoke rising up and flowing out through this opening. And every day, at ten past 11 on the dot, as soon as our pipes were going, and smoke was rising, this gecko’s head would appear in the opening and it would stay there. It was the same gecko always, and he was always punctual and obviously enjoyed the effect of breathing in the smoke.’
I laughed. Michael laughed. But neither of us was surprised. Geckos are like that: punctual in their habits and they have a presence, as though intelligent. I poured us each another stiff one and passed him another fag.
‘I thought that after smoking opium every day for three months it might be difficult to stop. But not at all. After Benares I went somewhere else and I didn’t take any with me and it never bothered me at all.’
‘What about she “called it a day”?’I said.