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TIP TOP IN GANGTOK

 

*

It was the laughter that told me something was wrong, that horrible, desperate sound. Tipp sat there doubled over with mirth at some lame British sit-com from the Seventies but he wasn’t really laughing at the television – not at all. Tipp was howling at the moon, he was screaming for help, a man in unbearable pain. Laughter was the only loud sound he could acceptably make.

‘I’m fine! Look at me! I’m laughing – nothing gets to me!’ he howled.

It was terrible, awful to hear.

‘I’m fine! I’m fine, I’m laughing! I’m fine,’ he screamed.

Do I go? Do I stay right here in my room? Do I walk through that door and sit there beside him, listen to his woes?

I was the only guest. Why not? Dog had time.

He had all the time in the world to listen these days – as long as he remembered not to judge. This was Dogster’s karmic burden, his little repayment for all those ugly years when he judged and never listened.

Here was a man who needed a pal.

Here was my moment to listen.

So I listened. I listened into the cold Sikkim night, I listened over dinner, listened over bottles of warm Sikkim beer as Tipp told the story of Tipp’s life according to him, with pauses for pisses and kind words to the staff – all gathered silently in the kitchen listening to every syllable their boss had to say.

‘I’m fine,’ he said loudly, so the staff would hear, ‘I don’t care.’

I could see his eyes. They said something completely different.

*

Tipp was a handsome Sikkimese of middle-years, still full of the life and energy of youth, determined to live out his extended adolescence to the bitter, nonsensical end. He’d lived many years in California – he’d learnt from experts how to pretend. Unlike most Sikkimese, he knew there was a world outside.

His English was excellent. That was a relief. I’d grown tired of talking about big ideas in words of one syllable, I needed some decent conversation – so did he.

‘Man energy,’ he called it, ‘gotta get myself some man energy – this female stuff is driving me wild.’

Tipp lived with his German wife in a sweet B’nB in the hills, a great project that had cost them their money and their marriage. They had reached the end of their tether. He retreated to his tower of power down in the cowshed, she to her cocoon of rage in town. They tortured each other; she cried a lot while he pretended not to care – which is the worst torture of all. There were just two little problems. One was the hotel in which I now slept. The other was that eight year old daughter.

That child was trapped in the midst of an ugly situation. Mummy was saying very nasty things about Daddy. When the little girl was with Daddy, she told him. So then Daddy said bad things about Mummy and the little girl went home to Mummy and told her everything that Daddy had said then Mummy said bad things about Daddy: so it went on – everybody was getting hurt.

Daddy was trapped in the resort, not daring to step outside for fear of his wife swooping in and changing all the locks. He wasn’t going anywhere, staying put for the duration, doubtless advised to do so by his lawyers. He lived in the cowshed with the law on his side – not because he was necessarily right, but because he was Sikkimese.

Mummy was trapped on a mountainside in rural Sikkim, six hours drive from the nearest airport. She had a bewildered eight year old and a staff of twelve depending on her. She was the only white woman in a culture with very different ideas about the role of women. She was all alone, she was foreign. She didn’t have anybody to talk to – not a soul.

For the duration of hostilities their little daughter was trapped in a hostel across the valley, bitterly unaware. She didn’t know what she had done wrong.

Bongo and the staff looked on in horror while their bosses duked it out. They were mortified, aghast in every way; for the daughter, for the protagonists – but, more urgently, for themselves and their livelihoods, their families – trapped in the wars of the owners; waiting and watching while the echoes from this conflict rumbled right through the valley.

Into all this Mr. Dogster blithely flew, choppered direct to the battle zone. Had I known what I diving into, I would have had the pilot play ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and be done with it.

*

‘We all die. There’s nothing you can take with you.’

He was being Buddhist. It must have driven her crazy.

‘Nobody needs possessions; they only weigh you down…’

He went on and on with this sub-Californian blather. I realized he’d been away from the States for quite some time. He was a bit of a time-capsule.

‘What’s the point?’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Easy come, easy go…’

I didn’t believe a word of it but I didn’t let on. Articulate men in this situation have a master plan for everything. He was Buddhist by convenience right now. Tipp was bullshit walking.

‘I don’t care.’

He was trapped by his masculinity, trapped by his Sikkimese heritage, by that peculiarly Sikkimese way of thinking, trapped by the prospect of ‘losing face’, trapped by his community, trapped by his family expectations, trapped in his cow shed. Tipp didn’t have a friend in the world. He was lost and alone in the hills of Gangtok, a bubbling, scalded wound, spread open there in front of the television, howling his hurt to the world.

She was, of course, the bitch from hell; all women are after a bucket of beer.

‘Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em,’ nudge, nudge, that kind of thing. Men do this, all over the world.

‘I’m a young man still. I’m forty-two,’ he said. I was surprised. Tipp looked way younger. Did I hear the words ‘mid-life crisis?’ ‘She doesn’t get it, she just doesn’t understand.’ Men are so pathetic when they do this.

‘I’m still a young man,’ they bleat – which means: ‘I’ve got minutes left. Quick! Find me a young woman who wants to sleep with her father.’

She just doesn’t understand,’ means ‘she’s stopping me from being fifteen years old all my life.’ How many times has Dogster heard these words from his middle aged friends?

‘She’s got old. Ever since the daughter, she’s just got old. It’s all business, business, business – no sex,’ he said, lowering his voice, ‘practically no sex since the kid.’

Another inoperative Sikkimese man. Does nobody in these hills have sex? Where do all these children come from?

‘You found yourself another girlfriend yet?’

He laughed. It sounded hollow.

‘In this place? In Gangtok? Everybody knows me. I couldn’t if I wanted to. Nah, I wish…’

He held up his right hand.

‘Here’s my girlfriend.’

I already knew he was a wanker. I didn’t need confirmation.

He was living the extended adolescence all men would live without the civilizing influence of their women – Tipp saw it as an act of faith to hang on and hang on till he died. To change would be to abandon his youth and the ideals he lived, drank and swore for. Change would be to acknowledge that he was getting old.

Tipp was my instant best friend. I felt like we were standing round a bar in Vegas and I’d just met my soul-buddy. He was good. He was very, very good. Affable, charming, a whole lotta fun, my host and I bonded well into the night. Shadowy figures flittered in the darkness, listening to every word.

‘I think you’ve been sent here,’ Tipp said late in the evening, unexpectedly serious.

‘For what?’

‘To be the witness.’

*

Bongo was the real witness.

He saw it all, watched as the cyclone developed over time. He’d seen everything, every secret row, each lover’s tiff; he’d watched from a distance. Bongo didn’t understand at all – he didn’t know the passion – but he saw with his twinkling eyes the pain the passion created, watched from his virgin castle as the battle troops aligned. Everything was poised for the final showdown, the pieces were in place – all parties held the high ground, so they thought. Everything stood in perfectly awful balance, just waiting for the merest puff of wind.

‘He’s a gambler, Mr. Dogster,’ Bongo said simply, next day in the car.

So that was the missing clue.

‘He drinks too much. He throws all her money away…’

Bongo didn’t have to say any more. Tipp fell instantly into focus.

The spin of a wheel, the fall of a card, just one more punt, just one more hand, here, take my ring, take my car, take this pile of my wife’s life savings – give me a shot, give me a hit, give me a chance – the one note, ‘me’ note Samba.

Tipp was the happy go lucky guy, Tipp was the super male. To change would be to abandon his addiction – not just to gambling, but to youth, irresponsibility and freedom. The more she demanded the more he refused. The angrier she got – the calmer he was. The more she prevented him – the sneakier he became. This reverse synchronicity had become a deadly, un-winnable game.

‘She told him, if you go back to that casino one more time – it’s over.’

Bongo’s innocent eyes were gleaming.

‘So he got in his car and drove straight there and lost all the Christmas takings.’

This was said with sorrow. Tipp was in the grip of demons from a man’s land Bongo couldn’t hope to understand.

It was interesting, Dog thought, that in all his lengthy soul searching and buddy-beer-bonding last night, Tipp had neglected to mention this little fatal flaw. In the midst of the camaraderie, all that hale fellow well met, how strange this crucial snippet of information slipped his mind. Dogster was being co-opted, one more pawn in Tipp’s awful game.

Tipp was not just good; he was very, very, very good. He was the man’s man, the liar’s liar. He had me fooled. Ellen was dealt a losing hand the minute she met him. She’d married an addict. Like all successful addicts he kept his habit well hidden. Like all successful addicts he thought of no one but himself.

He had, with the terrible pragmatism of a man in the throes of divorce, abandoned his daughter. In his eyes this was a reasonable swap. He’d get the hotel; his wife would get the kid.

*

Ellen, the invisible wife, was there when I came back home. Tipp was back hiding in the cow shed. I felt a bit odd meeting her. I knew so much about her already. She didn’t know I knew anything about anything. This was unfair to both of us. I was being dragged into this unwillingly. She was being played for a fool. In the spirit of balance – and to demonstrate I took no sides, dinner that evening was with her. Bongo looked on with a secret smile. His work was done.

It was like eating with a starving cat. She was tense and agitated, under terrible stress, lost in her own private war zone. Dogster spoke slowly, in a soothing voice, sub-consciously trying to calm her down. Poor thing, she was wrung out, every nerve in her body was on fire. This was cruel and inhumane punishment, indeed; she was all alone, the only white woman in the valley. She knew she was alone. She was desperately alone.

Ellen was fighting every inch of the way, just to stay sane. This was a mother defending her children; one child was the hotel – the other was her daughter.

One had all her money; the other had all her love. Now she was being offered Sophie’s Choice. Her heart-break wasn’t covered up by a blanket of male pride – she let rip. She shrieked and tore into him with all the pent-up fury of a woman badly betrayed. She was tense and full of bile, scalded and horribly sharp. I’ll bet she was scary – scary and sad. She must have loved him a lot to get that mad.

But I wasn’t supposed to know any of this. All I could do was ask questions, knowing what the answers would be.

‘So, how is the business going?’

‘What does Tipp do?’

I let her tell me exactly what Tipp did. That took a while.

‘Tell me about your daughter…’

This was the cue for the floodgates to open. I listened. I had time.

It was a long story, told with absolutely no self-pity. She was impressive. That didn’t mitigate the strain she felt, the hourly rage she harbored – but it showed she was not a victim but a fighter. I listened some more. It took a while but inexorably we moved toward the breaking point.

‘And then I told him if he got in that car…’

I nodded. I knew the punch line.

‘This is tough, isn’t it?’ I said simply.

  *

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Tipp was on his mobile phone, pacing round the garden. Ellen was in the foyer, shaking my hand. I was leaving for the next place, somewhere over the rainbow. They had both come down to say goodbye. When they were together the air was thick with tension; unspoken rage fluttering there in the silence like the wings of a thousand pigeons. I could tell they were just waiting for me to leave so they could fight. There would be blood in the lobby tonight.

She’d done her dough. She knew it. The lawyers knew it. Tipp knew it. He’d sold his charming soul and gambled away their future. I could see why she’d fallen for him.

‘See ya, buddy,’ Tipp said, ‘see ya soon, I hope.’

He grasped my hand with both of his, squeezed it secretly, mano a mano. His eyes were a defeat, a crumble in motion. He knew who I’d dined with last night. He knew that I knew of his dirty little secret. He knew that I knew of his lies. He couldn’t stop. He’d lie and lie again till he was blue in the face, then grin and lie some more.

He’d gambled it all away – first his wife’s love, then his daughter. Now, as her punishment for being his flesh and blood, she was in a silver box with an unlocked padlock on the side. Wake-Up at 4.45, Study and Breakfast and Leaving for School, trapped in a hostel till the war at home was won.  I hope she had Sweet Dreams.

Ellen’s punishment for being his wife was written all over her face. Her sweet dreams had been shattered.

‘See ya, pal,’ I said and smiled, ‘I hope it all works out.’

‘Don’t you worry,’ he said and squeezed my fingers, ‘I have a master plan.’

  *

When I heard he was dead I wasn’t surprised. The news came six months later. Tip topped himself in secret shame, dangled lifeless in the cow-shed. His master plan was a great success; he fixed things in a stroke. He’d beaten his demons and saved the day. What a fine, dead, manly bloke.

*

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