« Bid For Freedom | Main | Chapter 14 »

After Work: Lunch With Jeremy

…We were a group of women, passionate about gardens and exotic travel. These were interests not so enthusiastically shared by our husbands, so we were being safely chaperoned by an affable scholarly type.

Our transport for this trip was a lumbering air-conditioned bus piloted by an indefatigable driver who had quite possibly seen it all. He just managed to avoid plowing into ox carts, bicycles, sputtering cars and small children by fractions of an inch…

Following a nerve-twanging bus journey up a mountain in Kerala, India, Dona Gibbs met and chatted to Jeremy, a character even more spectacular and memorable than the scenery amid which he lived.

Here are royally satisfying words about an amazing man.

I think of Jeremy. Often.

I see our red painted chair. An intricately carved panel I had shipped back from southern India. Hand woven fabric on a chair cushion. They remind me of India. And lunch with Jeremy.

“We’ve been invited to lunch at a coffee plantation in the Nelliampathy Hills,” Patrick, our tour guide, beamed at us broadly.

“It’s quite special. Quite rare,” he looked smug and pleased with himself as he revealed his surprise to us. We were a group of women, passionate about gardens and exotic travel. These were interests not so enthusiastically shared by our husbands, so we were being safely chaperoned by an affable scholarly type.

Our transport for this trip was a lumbering air-conditioned bus piloted by an indefatigable driver who had quite possibly seen it all. He just managed to avoid plowing into ox carts, bicycles, sputtering cars and small children by fractions of an inch. The seat right behind the driver was a test of nerves, and so I favored a seat in the middle of the bus where my gasps and exhalations were less likely to distract him from keeping us on the road.

So we boarded our air-conditioned bus/land yacht an hour after breakfast for what we thought would be a short, scenic ride in Kerala, itself a lush paradise.

Two hours later we were still on the bus. Lunchtime had come and gone. Around one hairpin turn after another we climbed, up and up. The road narrowed and narrowed again. The wheels hung over the road. Even over the grinding of the gears and the protests of the motor, I could hear stones spraying over the edge, tumbling into the ravines below.

The driver had switched off his radio, which usually chirruped happy, bouncy pop Bollywood beats. Even from my middle seat, I could see his face had frozen in fierce concentration.

I looked out the window. The view, had I been able to concentrate, was beautiful. In my state, it looked like death. Two inches to the left and I was sure we’d be a statistic, good for a two-inch story in the local paper.

The driver had stopped in the middle of yet another curve and was conferring with Patrick. He then restarted the bus and attempted to reverse it and turn it, nose pointing downhill. Now one front wheel was half over the hillside and large rocks were loosened.

Mumblings became vocal protests. Mine the most vocal of all.

“I want off, “ I heard myself cry out.

“Shut up,” my seatmate said consolingly as she leaned over me to get yet another shot of the ravine.

‘I’m getting out. It can’t be that much further.”

I made my way to the front of the bus, which was now wedged into the curve. I with two others got out. Me, with jelly where knees had been.

“It can’t be far,” I said to them. We walked into a small village. There was a store, several dogs, and a questionable looking hotel. Several people were leaning against the doorway.

“Do you have a telephone?” I asked.

Wide-eyed stares were the reply.

“Do you know the Englishman who lives up there?” I pointed up the road.

Again, stares.

At that moment, a Jeep screeched to a stop.

“Hello, I’m Jeremy, “ the driver, a thin older man, extended his hand and hoisted me into the passenger seat. “I’m sending other Jeeps for the rest.”

We bounced up the mountain and arrived at his home, set in the midst of a coffee plantation. As for a garden, he was of the ”I’ll have one of those, four of those and eight of those,” school of gardeners. Everything was growing, creeping and twining in Disney cartoon definition of “jungle.”

Jeremy’s home was a former palace, 14th century, he claimed. It was built around four traditional courtyards and furnished with traditional Southern Indian antiques, except for a modern blue and red chair, a facsimile that I’d remembered seeing in the New York Museum of Modern Art.

But it wasn’t the house or the garden or even the languid-eyed young boy lounging on a banquette that held my attention. It was our host.

He had attired himself with studied nonchalance in a native wraparound, sarong-like cloth in grays and beiges, long white linen shirt and sandals. He moved among us, offering cups of wine and urging us to fill our plates from a variety of large pots and platters spread out on a long carved table.

“We,” he said, gesturing to the beautiful boy, “made the wine last Tuesday.” His eyes crinkled in amusement. “And the hotel down the hill catered the lunch.”

I took a sip. Last Tuesday wasn’t a particularly tasty vintage, but the food was pungent with spices and delicious in spite of the fact that the Board of Health had probably never crossed the worn threshold. I took another sip of his homemade wine; no stomach bugs could possibly survive it.

He began to talk. He talked as if he hadn’t spoken English to anyone in a long, long time.

He complained about his children. They didn’t visit.

He told me about the lovely hamlet in the South of France he’d restored. It had gotten too crowded.

He talked about his love of modern art, the reason for the red and blue chair.

He expounded on the Kerala government officials. They were plotting against him, he said. He might have to leave his beloved hillside. He’d move the palace if he had to.

He railed on about the villagers. They were stealing his plants. On and on and on.

The hour grew later. I thought about the old man of long gray hair and glittering eye in the “Rime of the Ancient Mainer.”

He talked on. I thought about Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

On and on. I thought about Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

We were finally able to slip from his conversational grasp. He sadly waved good-bye. His flotilla of Jeeps took us back to the bus. The driver had managed to get the front end pointed down the mountain. And off we went.

But I didn’t quite leave Jeremy behind. The restored village. The modern chair. Troubles with the government. Was it true or only fiction fermenting in the brain of an older, lonely man?

I didn’t find out until I read his 2005 obituary in The Independent. Yes, his ramblings were all true and more.

The obituary writer put it this way:

“Handsome, charismatic, with blinding green eyes, the engineer-investor and entrepreneur Jeremy Fry had astonishing energy and interest in almost everything. His designs included a car, a sea truck, a four-wheel-drive wheelchair and a highly successful valve actuator…He rebuilt a village in France, moved a palace in India, rescued the Theatre Royal in Bath and reorganized the Northern Ballet Company.”

Other articles revealed he’d begun his highly successful company, Rotork Engineering Company, on a basement workbench in his Bath home, Widcombe Manor. From the basement he built the firm into a multi-million pound international engineering company.

Widcombe Manor, by the way, was where Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones escaped the scandalized gaze of the public. Jeremy Fry was to have been their best man until illness or the Royal family stepped in to exclude him.

The tabloids dug around for dirt and discovered a 1952 Hyde Park arrest with a two-pound fine after he pleaded guilty to “a minor offense.” “I’m afraid I was rather drunk,” he told the court. Probably the real reason the Royal nose was turned up was that Jeremy Fry was an eccentric and Armstrong-Jones had too many different sorts for friends.

And yes, it seems that the Kerala government had its eye on Fry’s land and claimed he had obtained it illegally. True to his muttering, he then did move his beloved palace, piece by piece across the Continental Divide into Tamil Nadu. He loved engineering challenges until the end.

That day on the mountain. I knew none of this. The name seemed so familiar yet I didn’t know why. If only I had known. Oh, the questions I could have asked.

The obituary also stated that Fry mentored James Dyson. Among many other inventions they created together was the Dyson dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner. That’s right, the Dyson. My beloved vacuum cleaner.

And that’s why when I make my way around the house with my Dyson, I think of Jeremy. I think he would like that.


Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.