Almost everyone knew Hilton in the small county of Scotland where she lived. Invitations to a host of functions and celebrations were common, though invitations triggered emotions. As she opened one more invitation in her isolated house in Scotland, surrounded by the moor, she sighed, overcome with the nostalgia of happier days in the military township of Lansdowne in the sub-Himalayan region of Garhwal in India. How she missed the hustle-bustle of Cantonment life in India! She had nurtured the hope of going back to India; hope that was slowly fading away. Struggling to get up, she got off her bed and turned the pages of an album of her Lansdowne days.
It was a journey into the past whenever she browsed through her album. Invariably she would stop lovingly at her favorite photograph of Champion and herself; it showed the memorable occasion when Champion and she had presented Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT on the New Year's Eve at the Club in Lansdowne. The Maltese Cross on the invitation envelope excited her, bringing back to mind, her Royal Garhwal Rifles days; only the Royal Crown above the Maltese Cross had been replaced with Ashoka's Lions - a symbol of free India. She carefully kept the invitation documents in her album. This was a special invitation for the Centenary celebrations of the Garhwal Rifles in Lansdowne in 1987.
The constant peal of church bells in her neighborhood only added to the sudden flood of memories and emotions. All visitors were shown the album and the enlarged framed photograph of Champion with her hung on the wall. "This is our Lansdowne. You can see the clear Himalayas from here-this Bungalow-Tip n Top, Officers Mess, Club - where we presented so many programmes." Her gaze would finally focus on one photograph with memories of her Champion in eternal rest at the Kitchener Lines Cemetery. How she longed to lie peacefully beside him!
Champion, immediately on his arrival at Lansdowne had given a grand party on his donning a Captain's rank. Their joys knew no bounds. Time passed & Champion had to go to war. Hilton continued to stay at Lansdowne for quite some time. She would very often keep on looking at Chaukhamba & the Himalayan Range from the verandah of her bungalow. She would look down towards the foot tracks leading to Bauntha Village; sometimes she looked at the long trail of 'Laddu Ghoras' carrying stores to the villages next door; sometimes she kept on listening to the music of bells hung on the necks of cows and buffalos; listening to the distant 'Dhols' &'Damoos'; sometimes to the distant chants of Garhwali songs. She always had made it a point to talk in broken Hindustani to all those who worked for her - especially her domestic help and others who brought her daily supplies from the local market. All this she did for passing her time and quite often, she sang to herself. It was much later that she remembered that Champion had once told her that she really sang well.
Champion had now returned from the Front & their happiness & joys can only be imagined. Even others who had also returned from war were preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve with great gusto & fervor. Champion gave his willingness to jointly act & stage 'TWELFTH NIGHT' & they both started preparing in right earnest. Hilton was hesitant initially, but she was now all for it.
The cold night of 31 December was something out of this world. The main hall of the red roof Club Bungalow in the midst of Pine, Oak & "Buransh" trees located on top of the spur was beautifully decorated; huge umbrellas in the lawns, petromax lights, candles, red, blue, green & orange paper decorations cut in the shapes of stars & moon were playing hide & seek with darkness & light. On the meandering slope leading to the Club, there were couples walking down the narrow road to attend the celebrations attired in their best trendy dresses - hand in hand, smelling of best perfumes. The Military Band was playing nearby.
Misty white clouds were rising from the nearby valleys like 'White Jhagulas'. The ladies were wearing velvety clothes with typical skin-colored gowns. A huge bonfire with high flames was the center of attraction of all - who was in high spirits. There was a big circle of people around burning logs of pine& oak with everyone chatting in loud voices, singing & dancing. Some of the couples embracing each other were repeatedly saying to each other "How Sweet You Are" or mumbling something to that effect. Some were enjoying meeting each other in total darkness. Some in finely tailored suits, some in golden hair, some in long gowns, some in long overcoats, and some with beautiful blue & green eyes with red lips- all this was there & everyone was dancing to the wonderful music. How beautiful was that night she remembered and how she enjoyed being with her Champion.
The gathering was a mix of men & women both young, middle-aged & old. There were some who were physically challenged. These were the war casualties –some with their hand or leg amputated. Some were walking on crutches. But their glittering medals were enough to tell of their bravery. The Band was playing some popular tunes. Kaludanda (local name for Lansdowne) was festive to the core with nature at her best. Everyone was enjoying the evening. She saw herself and Champion at the entrance receiving guests with broad smiles.
The Play was a hit & the audience had given them a standing ovation. Even Champion never expected that he could act that well. This was the snap of both of us that was literally live & speaking & he had selected it to be enlarged - she was talking to herself.
Hilton's happiness in life was limited. She had never even dreamt that Champion's hobby of riding shall prove so costly. Like other days, he took out his Stallion & God knows as to why he spurred his horse hard that led to the end of both. Champion died on his way to the hospital. He was buried at the Kitchener's Cemetery in Lansdowne. The Lovers Lane thus became the Bridle Path of the Ghost Rider.
She had decided that she would not go back to England. She would work here & spend her remaining life in the surroundings that had given so much to her. She intended to travel throughout the Himalayan region & attain peace & thus fulfill her long-cherished dream. She recalled the writings of Apollonius of Tyana in Cappadocia - the great Pythagorean philosopher who had traveled to India & had acquired a wide knowledge of oriental religions & philosophy. She wanted to lie buried underneath the Indian soil at Lansdowne – lying beside her Champion. Will her dream ever come true?
Why did her mother ask her to visit her back home stating that she was missing her? She resisted initially but later she left for England. She wanted to return & also bring her if she was keeping well. She had arranged accordingly & even given instructions to her caretaker. There is a saying that you may go on your own will but you may or may not return- it is not guaranteed! The same thing happened. She got entangled so much that she could neither leave her mother nor the attraction of England. In the meantime, she lost her mother but even then she just could not return to Lansdowne.
On every 31 December, she would attire in the same clothes that she had worn for the Play, look at the photo of the Graveyard & the hanging Photo & keep on talking to herself. This would give her great solace. Thereafter only, she may attend any other programme.
Hilton caught hold of the album with her feeble hands & embraced it tightly & desired that the album too be buried next to her. She now knew that with this state of health, she would never be able to return to Lansdowne. Invitations shall keep on coming but she was heading to a destination beyond which the human body has no relevance. She was preparing to undergo deep sleep like Champion.
But out here she would sleep alone & shall not have the privilege to lie next to Champion. In failing voice, she spoke to herself, "Every Soil is Different."
They say that the spirits do meet and we hope & pray that Hilton meets her Champion somewhere, sometime wherever souls come together.
May her dream come true!