Excerpt: Twelve Annas to a Rupee

Chapter 1

In which there is an earth-shaking start to married life.

December 13, 1886, Quetta, Baluchistan, India. 

Vayu, Hindu lord of the wind — of breath itself — guardian of north-west India, blew through the snow-covered Sulaiman Mountains bringing frigid air into the frontier town of Quetta in British India’s North. The wind swept along the town’s snow-packed streets, swirled round stone government buildings, making its way to a modest, wood bungalow where it rattled the window frames and found its way inside. To Lily and Stephen. On kitchen chairs pulled together, they huddled closely under shared blankets. Coal glowed in the stove but provided scant warmth.

Stephen shifted his left arm over her shoulders, holding her closer to warm her and savour her tiny frame, just over four-feet tall. His chin hovered over her head; he inhaled the scent of her hair. Sandalwood. A soft smell that was hers, his new wife. 

Lily clasped a cup of rapidly cooling tea, Stephen tried to caress her thigh on top of her voluminous skirt. She shifted her leg and laughed loudly. 

“Stephen Turner! It’s broad daylight.”

“And who will see? No one will visit on such a cold day. And if they do, we can pretend we aren’t home. We are newly wed.”

She took a sip of her milky sweet tea.

“I hardly see you,” he said.

“Every weekend.”

“I miss you terribly during the week. All I think of is you.”

Lily allowed herself a quiet smile at his desire. 

He could hear her smile.

A month married, a month to the day, after a courtship of sixteen months including a year apart. In all that time, they had spent less than a fortnight with one another, but had laid a paper trail of letters recounting stories about themselves, gradually disclosing their beliefs and dreams, their fears. They had read and re-read those letters, knew one another more thoroughly than courting couples who told their stories only once, then relied on the inevitable vagaries of memory.  

Two days after the modest marriage ceremony, Stephen had to return to his work as a sub-overseer on the Baluchistan and Bolan Pass Railway some 30 miles away. He longed to quit, though he’d only been there a year. The work was interesting enough, and outdoors too, but there was little chance of advancement, of a pay raise should their family grow. He wanted to be back in Quetta, with Lily.

Stephen stretched his legs. He was used to walking and riding for miles every day along the line. He wished the storm would clear so they might take a short walk in the fresh air.

Lily wished Stephen would take her hand; she was too shy to reach for his. Mrs. Turner, she mused to herself. At last. She looked around the house, pleased with how comfortable it was after less than a month. Mamma would be proud, she thought. The one sadness in her life was that her parents had now moved from Quetta to Dalhousie for Papa’s work with the Commissariat Corps. She knew this would happen but not that she would miss them so keenly. 

I should be more independent, she thought. Goodness, I’ll be nineteen after Christmas.

Lily placed her cup on the well-scrubbed, second-hand dining table and picked up a half-knit mitten. She counted the stitches on its band, as Stephen chattered, praising the home she’d made and how good she was with money. Had spent his mother’s wedding gift wisely. And didn’t the print of The Monarch of the Glen, look fine hanging on the wall? Kind of her parents to give it. “This is my first home since I left Calcutta. And if only I could get back to clerical work with the Agency of Baluchistan then…” 

“I thought you liked the outdoor life,” Lily teased. “I can’t see you being content tallying figures day in, day out.”

“I’d be happy if I were close to you, rather than at camp all week long. But I won’t take just any position. I have experience.”

The white muslin curtains billowed with wintry air.

Stephen knew he was competing with scores of other Indian candidates for these clerical jobs. Indianization had been introduced as part of the Raj’s nod toward eventual native self-rule. Under it, natives and Eurasians were preferred for low-level civil servant positions — crannies, as they were called. Stephen knew all this, though he thought it damned unfair given he had gone to school in Britain and came from a good family. 

“They’d be fools not to hire you,” said Lily. “Your education and knowledge of keeping books. Plus, you know this area so well. And you’re learning Pashto.”

A dog began barking. Then another. And a third. And more. Howling, barking, a cacophony of canines.

But Stephen was distracted by another sound: his head jerked to one side, eyes wide open, jaw set.

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

A dull rumbling, like a train coming down the Pishin Valley. But there were none. Not yet. The roar swelled, louder every second. Cups rattled in their saucers. A picture fell off the wall.

“What’s that?” cried Lily. 

After seven years in Quetta, Stephen knew: “Earthquake!” he shouted. “Get out, get out!” 

He grabbed Lily, practically carrying her as they scurried out the door, across the gravel road, dodging others who were also running. Stephen stopped in the centre of a vacant lot, out of reach of any nearby falling buildings, listening as the quake rumbled all around them. He enclosed Lily in his arms. Felt her chest thudding against his. Or was that his? 

What if…? What if…? 

With a sound like thunder, the ground heaved under them, though no cracks opened. Lily didn’t make a sound. She stared at their home, willing it to be safe, but knowing it was a flimsy thing. 

The wooden steps heaved, cracked, cracked again like a walnut, then tumbled to the ground, splintering apart. The front door and its frame followed. The front of the house seethed and billowed, demonically animated. The front wall fell, windows shattered as Lily screamed, long and shrill. Then turned her face into Stephen’s chest, unable to bear the sight of their ruined home. 

He held her closer until the rumbling grew distant, past Quetta, through the Bolan Pass, down to the Indus Basin. He patted his wife all over, checking. 

“Are you okay, darling?”

She nodded. Tears carved rivulets through the dirt on her cheeks. 

“It’s over,” he said. “We’re safe, Lily. It could have been much worse. The house can be repaired. We’re safe. That’s what matters.”

True words, but their home needed a new front porch, doors and windows and most of their precious new belongings that Lily had selected with such care were ruined or destroyed. The muslin curtains hung askew, caught and torn on shards of window pane.