An extract from:

Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark

ISBN 978-1-898728-11-5

On this voyage the SS Arcadia, all 6,000 tons of her, sailed as a one-class ship.  In my callow innocence I thought this meant that no distinction would be recognised between different grades of passenger.  But this was the month of October, when the Indian Civil Servants–the ICS–returned from home leave and new recruits went out.  The voyage gave them a chance of getting to know each other and enabling the younger members to receive some fatherly advice concerning their future careers.

The chief steward knew better than to mix other passengers with the ICS gentry.  By long acquaintance he would have known that the panjandrums of the British Empire considered themselves far superior to any mortal man, be they expatriates or holidaymakers.  He made up the tables in his dining hall accordingly.

Within the first hour or two at sea I felt like an exhibit whose quality was being exhaustively appraised.  My initial attempts at social contact had been brushed aside.  Was it something to do with a cut of my lounge suit?  My age?  My lack of a suitable accent?  Or was it a combination of all these things which stamped me as an outsider?  Whatever the reason I soon realised that if I was not to be lonely during the next three weeks I must scratch up acquaintance with someone who was finding himself every bit as much on the fringe of things as I was.

Fortunately, a little before dinner, as the ship’s lights twinkled in the Channel, a voice coming from a foot or two along the deck rail asked if I would care for a drink.  Looking up I saw a bulky, happy-faced man, quite my father’s age.

“Well I-I don’t really…  thanks all the same,” I stammered.  I’d been warned about the propensity of ship’s passengers to indulge–and what a costly occupation that was.

“You won’t live long in the East,” came the smiling rejoinder, “if you don’t learn to drown its germs.”

“How do you do that?”  I asked, just by way of gaining time as he drew nearer.

“Scotch, my boy!  That’s the stuff!  I’ve been out five times and it’s the whisky that’s kept me on my pins.  Come along to the saloon and warm yourself up.”

Suffering as I was from acute loneliness, I went along with this notion, so I followed him to the saloon bar.

“Two burra pegs and soda,” he ordered from the uniformed steward.  Turning to me he grinned.  “They’re large ones–so you won’t feel obliged to order a round in return.  You can do that another time.”

Until that moment, although I’d downed an occasional glass of bitter with one or other of my store companions, I’d never tasted whisky.  He lifted his glass.

“Here’s to you, son!  On your own, by any chance?”

I told him I was and took a gulp of the scotch.  It burned all the way down.  I didn’t care for it much.

“What are you going to be doing in India?”  was the next question.  His grainy, almost wizened face, with its clear blue eyes, struck me as rather handsome.

“I’ve got a job in Bombay, with Gore & Co.”

“What are they?”

“Oh, just merchants.  They trade all over the country.  Are you a merchant?”

“Bless me, no!”  he laughed.  “I’m an engineer.”

“Oh!”  What a relief–he wasn’t ICS.

“I build roads and bridges and reservoirs and things.  I’ll give you my card–and if you’re ever in Delhi you can look me up.”

“Thanks.  I’ll need some friends if I ever get out and about to see the country.”

Putting down his glass he made as if to move, saying “We’d better get ready for dinner.  No need of a jacket, first night out.”

A few passengers nonetheless had already changed and were drifting into the bar for an appetiser.  Back in the cabin I looked for my fellow occupant but there was no sign of him.  There would hardly have been room for the two of us to change at the same time, so I wasn’t sorry for his absence.  Presently the gong sounded along the corridor and I followed the queue into the dining saloon.  When it was my turn, the chief steward, jovial and purple-faced, scanned the passenger list and ticked off my name.  He put me at a table where there were seven other people–three men and four women.

“Now you’re a complete party of eight,” he beamed at us.  “You’ll be bosom pals before the trip’s over.”  What a poor prophet he turned out to be.

In the course of the meal I discovered that my seven companions constituted a single theatrical company, three couples and an actor-manager.  None of the members were all that young, but they exuded a jolly atmosphere.  Of the women, I was struck most by the one sitting beside me.  She was a trifle older than the others, I fancied, and was perhaps the leading lady.

“You aren’t very old, are you?”  she said with a smile.

I swallowed nervously.  “No, miss.”

“What’s your name?”

I told her.

“May I call you Charlie? –you look like a Charlie.  And I shall be Gertie to you.  How’s that?”

There were crows’ feet at the corners of her grey eyes.  They deepened when she smiled and her mouth revealed one gold filling.

We disclosed our respective reasons for being on the voyage.  The company, it seemed, were going straight to Calcutta for a month to give performances of Gilbert and Sullivan, with “a little bit of Sheridan and Pinero”–whatever that meant.  After that it was on to Cawnpore and Delhi and then they’d be in Bombay for two weeks before going off to Colombo and Singapore.

After dinner the decks and public rooms were largely deserted.  Most of the passengers were worn out after the exertions of getting to the ship.  And so was I, after all the excitement of departure.  The night steward met me at the cabin door.

“Turning in, sir?”

“I think so, steward,” I replied very formally.  He opened the door to reveal an empty cabin, so I added “My cabin companion isn’t about, I suppose?”

He grinned.  “Haven’t you seen the Doc yet?  He’s a card and no mistake.  I’m sure he’ll be in the bar.”

“A doctor, eh?”  I was impressed.

“Ship’s doctor–but not this ship.  He will be off at Port Said to join the Brindisi run.”  He turned to go.  “They’ve not got an awful lot left in them when they’re posted there.  Good night, sir.”

Convinced that no harm could come to me from a doctor, I soon fell asleep in the bottom bunk.  So it was something of a shock when, hours later, the door burst open and a form tumbled in and fell heavily onto the cabin floor.  Switching on the light I leapt out of my bunk.

“What’s up?”  I yelled.  “Who are you?”

A deep groan was my only answer.  I bent down to undo his collar, thinking he had fainted, and was nearly overcome by the volatile stench rising from his nostrils.  He was dead drunk, so I let him lie where he was for a bit.  He was not in uniform, which as a ship’s doctor I had expected him to be.  He looked to be middle-aged and was very sunburnt.  There wasn’t a peep out of the night steward when I rang, so I put a pillow under the newcomer’s head and returned to my bunk.

I suppose I must have gone back to sleep fairly quickly, because when I opened my eyes again it was daylight.  There was no sound to indicate that the intruder was still there, but as I got up, he was there large as life in his bunk, fully alert, lying on his back with his arms behind his head.

Salaam sahib”, he greeted me.  “No tea yet?  I could murder a cup of tea”.  I was amazed that he could look so fresh, in view of the state he’d been in the previous night.

“Ought I to ring the bell?”  I asked.

“No, the steward will be along any minute.  Haven’t got a watch–pawned it–but it must be around eight bells.”

His voice was gruff but not unpleasant.  “Going to India, I suppose?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “The steward told me you’re bound for Port Said.”

“That’s right, sonny.  Just to and fro each week, for people on the short sea passage.”

…to be continued.