Matthew, Louis and I are at Heathrow queuing to check in for a flight to Delhi that only two of us will board. Matthew is not enjoying himself. "This abomination of an airport," he says, "is why I cannot and will not fly any more." He has developed five entirely new expressions of enraged despair since we arrived 20 minutes ago – all aimed at a British Airways clipboard-wielder who is patrolling the outskirts of the queue.
"Unbelievable," continues Matthew, "Twenty minutes and we haven't moved. That's got to be a bloody record. Just unbelievable."
I couldn't stand it, so I went and stood for another 20 minutes in a queue at Costa Coffee. When I returned, Matthew was in full flow. "All this fuss about the CIA 'waterboarding' terror suspects, but who," he was asking Louis, "who, I ask you, is logging the effects on the psyche of this unique brand of torture? Eh? Why don't they just bring their extrajudicial prisoners, their so-called 'detainees', here to Terminal 4? Five minutes of this and they'd get the grid reference for Osama's cave, straight off."
Matthew insisted on driving us to the airport, a journey that involved silent, agonised rocking and gentle banging of forehead on steering wheel. Three turnings were missed for the car park, or perhaps it was the same turning missed three times. I have no idea, because on these occasions I tend to focus my gaze into my lap. And now this.
"Ah well," sighed Matthew, "Ah well, at least you are going to spend the next 10 days in a comparatively developed country. How you will re-acclimatise on your return to this Third World hellhole, I dread to think." And he rolled his neck from side to side and barked at a clipboard-wielder: "Are you proud of this? Are you? Could you not get work in the prison service?"
I suggested to Matthew that he might like to leave us to it. "Much as we love you, it's not really your scene is it?" He looked hurt but then agreed and we all hugged goodbye. "Single file! Single file!" he shouted as he strode away. Louis, who always comes over a bit tearful at these airport au revoirs, was a bit wobbly about the chin for a few seconds but then said brightly: "Is it me, or does the queue seem to be moving faster now?"
For three days at Rantambore national park, while Louis sated his passion for bird and wildlife safaris, we were very happy and really only noticed Matthew's absence in the evenings. To provide mild amusement and for small amounts of rupees we would predict precisely what he would be doing at any given moment and then phone for confirmation. "Yup," said Louis, "just as I thought – watching Eggheads on Sky Plus." I could forecast the very moment he'd be booting up his computer for his daily internet poker session. We took childish delight in ringing him when we knew he'd be at the Porchester Baths, causing him to stand about in a towel begging to know, why with the entire Indian subcontinent at our disposal, we could think of nothing better to do with our time and money than make prank phone calls.
But once the wildlife part of our adventure was over, things weren't so much fun. There were long car journeys and anonymous hotels and instead of just thinking fondly of Matthew and his ways, we missed him. Our guides and drivers in India were all easy-going, obliging, smiling fellows who negotiated vast crowds and bedlam traffic without a single impatient hiss or maniacal thrust of head into hands. We found ourselves wondering out loud in a homesick fashion how Matthew would have enjoyed waiting for half an hour at a roundabout while goats were slowly herded round a ruminating, immovable, sacred cow.
And then we encountered Hanif in Agra, and we cheered up. He greeted us at the hotel before our tour of the Taj Mahal with unconvincing smiles and bows and shepherded us with gentle prods to the car. Having positioned himself in the passenger seat, he yelled loudly out of the window and shook his fist at all motorists and pedestrians, including goats and poultry. Hanif is an Indian incarnation of Matthew. We knew this in an instant and for the rest of our stay in Agra it made us happy.
We were especially thrilled when, queuing for the Taj Mahal, he pointlessly shouted "Single file!" before marching us to the front of the queue and inserting us between a worried-looking man from Calcutta and an indignant German. "The story of this building is a love story," he admonished, "this is no place, my friends, for pettiness or anger. Now, single file everyone, and off we go."
We were whisked round, apparently against the clock. Hanif arranged me, despite my protestations, on the famous Princess of Wales bench, and ordered Louis, despite his protestations, to take a picture. Then on and out, in single file. As we queued for the exit he was heard to mutter: "Twenty bloody minutes. It's a disgrace."
And those were the precise words that Matthew greeted us with on our return to Heathrow. Twenty minutes' queue to get into the short-term car park, but he had, he said, only missed the turning once.Reuse content