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Yes, come on in…I have a little time to talk, before I’m needed. And I know you must have many questions. Perhaps the best way to answer them is to tell you my story. You might think it a strange tale, but here, now, today, I have to say it seems to me entirely natural. No? Well, perhaps we’ll agree to differ. We’ll see. So…where do I begin?
They were a familiar sight around our part of town, the Indian and his two wives. They weren’t both his wives, but that was how everyone described them. In fact, they were identical – or near-identical – twin sisters, and one of them was his wife. But which one it was remained a mystery, and nobody thought to ask. They were only ever seen as a trio. Their ages were difficult to estimate, but generally agreed to be somewhere between forty and sixty. When they left the house they all shared, the man walked ahead, followed five paces behind by one of the sisters, who was, in turn, followed by the other. They never spoke to anyone, and rarely to each other. He was always handsomely dressed – a blue or grey suit, white shirt, striped tie, and brightly polished black leather shoes. The women were, by contrast, dowdy – old cardigans, shapeless skirts, woollen ankle socks and cheap trainers. The Indian was a Sikh, and the conventional nature of his wardrobe was slightly offset by a selection of brightly coloured turbans and a hairnet tied tightly across his beard.
Each day they visited the supermarket, where their method of shopping never varied. He would walk ahead of the two women, pointing silently at various items. Watching him closely, they removed the relevant items from the shelves and placed them in their wire baskets. At the checkout counter, the sisters would hand their purchases to the till operator while the man looked on. When the bill was presented, the Indian would step forward to pay – always in cash – and the three of them would make the return walk home. This daily trip to the shops seemed to be their only social activity. Nobody knew anything more about them, and as our neighbourhood seemed to contain more than its fair share of eccentric and bohemian characters, they aroused no hostility or suspicion and were left alone to pursue the peculiar lifestyle they had chosen.
When I was fifteen, I became interested in cycling. Like most boys in the town, I had a bicycle to get me to and from school and for occasional short trips, but after watching the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España on television, I begged my parents to buy me a proper road bike and, to my surprise, they did. I joined the local cycling club and began to go on longer and longer trips – sixty, seventy, eighty miles in a day – usually with other members of the club, sometimes alone. One Sunday in August, I devised a 75-mile circular route that would take me out and back through some of the smaller villages and farming communities to the north of the town. I set off an hour or so after breakfast and cycled for two hours before stopping to eat my packed lunch overlooking a reservoir. It was an unusually hot, dry summer, and I remember having to sweep swarms of ladybirds from the frame and handlebars of my bike before I could carry on. I heard music from the direction of several marquees in the distance, and cycled along a narrow lane to discover a summer fete was just getting underway in the grounds of a splendid Georgian hall. I padlocked my cycle next to several others and walked over to the main tent, where a hand-painted sign announced that Benno, Trippi & Benno were about to begin their afternoon performance. Intrigued, I wandered in.
There, on a makeshift stage, sat the Indian. On his knees he held a life-size ventriloquist’s dummy, an exact replica of its owner. And on the knees of the dummy was a smaller dummy, another precise copy of its two larger companions.
He addressed the audience.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Allow me to introduce myself and my two friends. I am Benno. This chap on my knee is Trippi. And the little fellow on his knee is young Benno. We’re delighted to be here. Aren’t we?”
At this, Trippi and young Benno began to chatter simultaneously. They bounced up and down, swivelled around, gesticulated, while Benno pleaded with them in vain to calm down. I had no idea how the Indian did this, but the effect of three overlapping voices was overwhelming. The audience burst into prolonged applause and cheering. Eventually Trippi and young Benno fell silent, and Benno apologised for their exuberance.
“We’ve had a long journey,” he explained, in an aristocratic English accent that betrayed no sign of his own ethnicity, “and these two are impatient to tell you all about their travels. Please, ask them a question.”
“How did you get here?” a voice called.
The three figures on stage answered together.
“We flew,” said Trippi.
“Don’t believe him! We sailed,” shouted young Benno.
“They’re both wrong,” said Benno. “We came by train.”
Again, the three voices spoke together and continued to debate between themselves over the correct answer. The only explanation I could come up with was that the questioner was part of the act, and that the Indian was playing pre-recorded answers to planted questions through equipment built into the two dummies. I decided to test my theory by asking a wholly unpredictable question.
“I think I’ve seen you before. Have you ever been to Llandudno?” I asked, picking a town at random.
“I’ve been to Llandudno,” said Trippi. “I climbed the Great Orme last year and– ”
“No, you didn’t,” interrupted young Benno. “You’re getting confused. Llandudno is in North Wales. We were in South Wales!”
While Trippi and young Benno tried to shout each other down, Benno threw back his head and laughed.
“Well, I’ve never been to Llandudno,” he said. “You two must have gone there without me!”
The three voices continued to compete for attention, and through the melee of noise, it was possible to discern three separate accents. The perfect English of Benno, the mock-Italian of Trippi, and the stage Indian of young Benno. At one point, Trippi raised his hand and struck young Benno on the side of the head. The smaller dummy burst into tears and continued to sob, while Benno remonstrated with an unapologetic Trippi.
“You’ll have to forgive Trippi,” explained Benno. “He’s somewhat emotional. He has a new lady friend, you see. I think it must be love.”
For the next half hour, I sat in amazement, watching the three figures beguile and bewilder the audience. Sometimes they moved back and forth and looked around in unison, as if meticulously choreographed; sometimes they turned and twisted independently. Their voices were clear and distinct, the things they said funny or poignant. They answered whatever questions they were asked without hesitation, and reproduced faultlessly the changes in pitch and tone that characterise routine conversation. And yet there was something unresolved about their astonishing performance; it was as though the three existed not on their own material terms but were temporarily suspended, awaiting some kind of confirmation, like characters from someone else’s story.
They left the stage to a standing ovation, but despite the extended clamour, did not return for an encore. When I went to retrieve my bike some time later, I passed a large car. There were no signs of the Indian or young Benno, but sitting in the back seat were Trippi and a female dummy, perfectly still and gazing into each other’s eyes. I watched them for several minutes, half-expecting some signs of movement. They remained motionless, even when I knocked sharply on the window and called his name, and I laughed at my own foolishness.
My parents were infuriatingly uninterested in my story when I arrived back at home in the early evening. If anything, they treated it as an opportunity to tease me.
“Are you sure it was our Indian?” my father asked. “It’s difficult to tell, under those beards and turbans. It doesn’t sound very likely.”
And when I tried to describe the wholly inexplicable way in which Benno, Trippi and young Benno had spoken together to answer impromptu questions from myself and others, they were equally unimpressed.
“It’s clever what they can do nowadays with all these electronic gadgets,” said my mother.
“Maybe he hypnotises his audience,” joked my father. “You know, gets them to do and hear what he wants them to. I’ve heard all about these Indian mystics!”
A few days later, I passed the Indian and his two wives, making their way slowly toward the supermarket. I glanced at him, but he failed to look in my direction.
“Hey, Benno!” I called after him. “How’s Trippi?”
For a moment, one of the women seemed to hesitate, but Benno carried on walking, apparently oblivious to my presence.
The rest of the summer passed without incident. I returned for my final year at school in early September with little or no idea of what career I might follow. When the nights started to draw in, I decided there would be few opportunities for cycling in the months ahead, and gave my bike a thorough oiling and cleaning before putting it away for the winter. I was on the drive at the front of the house polishing the chrome handlebars when I became aware of someone standing on the pavement staring at me.
“Young man,” said the voice. “I think I know you.”
I looked round to see the Indian. For a moment, I felt a twinge of alarm but was reassured by the realisation that my parents were just a few yards away inside the house.
“Benno,” I said. “Mr. Benno.”
“Is that what you call me?”
He carried on looking at me while I struggled to think of something else to say.
Eventually, I asked, “Have you done any shows recently?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said, sadly.
“You see, Trippi has left me.”
I leaned my bike against the door of the house.
“What do you mean, left you?”
“It’s as I say. His new lady friend…he prefers to be with her than with me.”
There was no pretence in his eyes, no sign that he was joking. Everything about him – his stance, his voice, his demeanour – contributed to the forlorn spectacle he presented. While I didn’t fully understand what it was he was trying to tell me, there was no doubt that its impact on him was profound. I felt genuinely sorry for him.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Perhaps he’ll come back.”
“But that is why I am here to see you,” he continued. “Perhaps you could take his place. Will you come, now?”
I stared at him, nonplussed and unsure of what I should say next. My first instinct was to laugh, tell him he was crazy, and order him to go away. But I had no wish to be cruel. Perhaps it would be kinder to humour him, thank him for his invitation, and explain that I was too busy with school work. Then again, I could simply ignore him and go back into the house. In the end, I did none of these.
“What would you want me to do?” I asked.
“You saw our performance. I would require you to be Trippi.”
“You seem interested in what we do. Trippi told me you tried to talk to him after the show. He apologised, by the way, for not answering you.”
“But how would–” I began.
“No. No more questions,” he interrupted. “You should decide now.”
I did decide, or, as it seemed to me at the time, a decision was made. I walked towards him stiffly, my face contorting, my voice changing as I spoke.
“Thank you, Benno. Yes, I will be Trippi.”
And that is why I am here today, waiting to go on stage. I’m well looked after: Benno can be strict, but he treats me and young Benno with great care and affection. Of course, I miss my parents, but after he had explained the situation to them, they gave Benno their blessing. Being Trippi is an enjoyable, if slightly monotonous life. A lot of the time, I’m packed away and resting. I’ve become used to the dark. I don’t need any food or drink, I don’t have to worry about what time to go to bed or what time to get up, there’s nothing I need to buy. And young Benno and I are very close. We share everything, and we spend so much time together in our tiny space that each of us can predict what the other is about to say. And now that I’ve been here for a while, it’s difficult to imagine myself doing anything else. That’s not to say that I’ll always be here. I remember my cycling. Being out alone on the roads, the sun beating down on my back, the wind whistling through my hair as I freewheel downhill…yes, I do miss that. I miss it very much. But please don’t say anything. Ah, here comes Benno now. I can hear his footsteps. It must be time for the show. Remember, say nothing to him. I wouldn’t want him to think I was unhappy.