Bhashkar had been out for a walk, stretching his legs and building his strength. He was visiting the cousins of friends from University College London in Suffolk, in the English countryside. It was so pleasant to escape the busy, sooty city, so different from his native Gujarat. He felt the air cool his dark skin, and he loosened his tie.
His path traced the Stour River, and he crossed the Fen bridge, marveling at the wide countryside. Not a person to be seen. He spent much of his time alone as a foreign law student, further isolated because of his vegetarian diet and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. But there were always others close at hand. Here was the first time he felt truly free to explore.
Voices broke the solace and peace of his reverie. He heard the high pitch of women’s voices, and laughter. Where were they? Should he conceal himself? The manners of Victorian England were Bhashkar’s regular study. He could not approach a woman who was a stranger, and she could not approach him. He must be introduced. He felt panicked, but when he came upon a willow on a bank overlooking a pool, he hid himself with great relief. If there was a party out for a stroll, he could wait until they passed, and no one’s offense would be taken.
The voices came past him, and quieted, then drew closer again. He could see that there were three young women approaching the natural pool alongside the river. “The Ladies’ Pond!” he said, sotto voce. His friend had told him of this. Men and women in the country had their own designated swimming areas, where they could exercise and enjoy the health benefits of the cold water. This must be it. He’d wait until he was sure he could escape, and then quietly creep from the willow’s branches.
The early afternoon sun shadowed him under the willow, and with his dark skin, he was completely concealed. He recognized the women. There was Rachel, cousin of his friend Ronald. There was Laura, the Anglican priest’s wife. There was Mary, Laura’s unmarried sister-in-law. Surely they were here only to cool themselves, perhaps dip their feet in the water.
The women had set down their umbrellas, and one pulled a rolled blanket from the bag she carried. Perhaps they were having a picnic? The talk and laughter become louder, more high pitched. Laura and Rachel encircled Mary, and seemed to be taunting her. His abdomen grew tense. He had to escape. He could be discovered at any time, and if Ronald’s family wrote to his host, Madame Duvernoy, he could be turned out of his rooms. No matter what the occasion, the young Indian man would be to blame, he was certain.
Laura was now restraining the laughing, red faced Mary, as Laura was …. undoing the buttons on Mary’s gown? What was happening? Mary put her arms up to allow the women to pull the gown over her head, and Bhashkar saw what he should never have seen: this unmarried young woman in her corset, crinoline, petticoats, and stockings. He felt sick. And yet he felt a not unfamiliar stirring, deep in his loins and his trousers.
“Oh no,” he said to himself, “what is happening?” Laura and Rachel had released Mary’s crinoline cage, and Laura was now furiously pulling open the strings of Mary’s corset. Rachel was working on the buttons on her own gown, awaiting her turn to be released from her corset. As she finished, she walked over to Mary, who helped take the gown over her head. Laura had completed the task on Mary’s corset, and the young woman stood before them in her blouse and underclothes. She kissed Laura on the lips and drew back, tittering, and then kissed Rachel.