An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
“Do you like it, being a ship’s doctor?”
“Well… on some ships life isn’t too bad. But the shipping company doesn’t like me. I’ll let you into a secret–I happen to drink a bit. It was either this posting …or The Boot.”
“I see…” I said innocently. “Er–do you have to drink?”
At that he laughed heartily. “That’s a good question, m’boy, a good question. But you won’t have to ask it in twenty years’ time–you’ll know. If life is kind to you, maybe you won’t. If not, you’ll have to be Christ Almighty to avoid sinking into an alcoholic torpor.”
The steward came with a tray and I poured the tea. We drank it in silence.
Then I stripped to the waist and shaved. His eyes followed me during the whole procedure. Afterwards I went off for a bath. Mother had made me a dressing gown of imitation silk and I proudly sported this down the corridor. And what a bath it was! A froth of water and steam gushed out, making the hot tap sting to the touch. The bath towel enveloped me in its warm dry folds. This was a different thing altogether from my twice-weekly bath at home. Then I had been accustomed to the tepid water left in the tank after my bevy of five younger siblings had bathed.
The pleasure of the bath dispersed any lingering resentment over the night’s upsets and I resolved to be friendly to my cabin mate and make no reference to his dreadful behaviour. But when I got back to the cabin, his bunk was empty.
Later on deck, just before breakfast, I saw him leaning over the deck rail with Gertie. They were having a hilarious conversation. Neither of them appeared for breakfast. His name, so the steward told me, was Dr Novino, of Italian extraction. Which explained to my satisfaction why he’d taken such a deep tan.
For three days our ship lunged and tossed in rough seas round the Bay of Biscay. The decks and the dining hall were largely empty. Then the sun began to shine. We sighted Gibraltar’s towering Rock and the temperature began to rise. The ship flared into life–passengers rose from the dead like the Day of Resurrection. In the afternoon a ship’s officer announced a dance after dinner, so I wasn’t surprised to see most of the passengers sporting colourful evening frocks or dinner jackets.
I didn’t own a dinner jacket. The same could no doubt be said of a few others, including Dr Novino, since they all stayed perched on stools at the bar the whole evening. I took care to avoid the Doc. It came to mind that he’d pawned his watch–and I wanted to hang onto my £5 note to see me through the voyage. Indeed, once I’d reached Bombay, I couldn’t expect any pay for a month.
One of those not dancing was the engineer who had bought me a drink the night before. He never lacked for company. But as his eyes fell upon me, he turned to his companion and said, “This child is barely 18, yet he’s managed to land a job in India!”
It was a handsome young man to whom he introduced me. “Mr Bunford–Mr Nida. Mr Bunford is bound for Calcutta.”
“You can’t be one of the ICS fellows at your age, can you?” beamed the other as we shook hands. “I’m in Tobacco.”
“No, I’m in a merchant’s office,” I replied, with the feeling that it gave me a non-committal, maybe a more presentable, social status than simply “merchant”.
Mr Bunford, I learnt, was 24. He had worked for several years in the London office of a large tobacco company. At our host’s suggestion the three of us repaired to the bar and the engineer stood us both a whisky. Then he gave me his card and I saw that his name was Hitchcock. The letters after his name proclaimed membership of as many as three different institutions. I was impressed.
Not wanting to be continually accepting hospitality, I was soon insisting “the next round is mine”, completely forgetting that all I had between me and penury was a paltry £5. By the time we were into Mr Hitchcock’s second round, my head was beginning to swim. So in a bit of a haze I quietly slipped away.
I lay on my bunk fully dressed, reeling with intoxication–a feeling I’d never experienced before. The sea was calm, but it felt as though the ship was lurching in a storm. The cabin door bursting open brought me swiftly to my senses however. Dr Novino entered–quite sober.
“I say, old fellow, I’ve been looking for you,” he wailed. “I’ve got a party on, so I can’t stay. You realise of course I’m a doctor… and have a certain status to maintain…”
“Of course,” I answered in puzzlement.
“Well… the point is, if I–er–borrowed money from anyone I’d be bound to pay it back wouldn’t I? Erm… do you think you could lend me thirty bob until we get to Port Said? My pay’s waiting for me there.”
At the best of times the thought of being banker to a doctor might have piqued my vanity. In my present condition I merely mumbled “Yes I expect I can manage that” and fumbled in my wallet. Under pressure I actually lent him £2 and he dashed back out of the cabin, murmuring his thanks. It didn’t take long to occur to me that now I had just two pounds ten shillings–and somebody had warned me that at the end of the voyage I’d be expected to tip a pound to the chief steward, ten shillings to the cabin steward, and a few shillings each to the deck steward and others. So I could claim scarcely any of that fifty shillings as my own. I’d have to be careful in future to dodge Messrs Hitchcock and Bunford.
There and then I was determined to sample the tin of tobacco which my father had given me as a parting gift. Along with this unaccustomed paternal largesse–quite contrary to his principles I was sure–came a small but adequate clay pipe. I would spend the time smoking and reading books from the library. Outside the bar there was really no need to go spending that much money. A complimentary cup of broth and biscuits was served on deck each morning and all the deck games were free. When someone started a sweep on the day’s run of the ship, I demurred, saying I didn’t gamble. Hitherto I hadn’t realised what stern moral principles I possessed.
When we reached Marseilles and most of the passengers had landed, I ran straight into Dr Novino up on deck.
“Hello, Nida,” he smiled. “Why haven’t you gone ashore?”
“I like it better here,” I fibbed. “I’ll go ashore at Port Said.”
He took hold of my arm. “Come with me. I want company–and I know the place like the back of my hand. Let’s not waste time going up Notre Dame.”
I had no excuse to hand and the launch was all ready and waiting to pull away. From the dockside we strolled to the Cannebière where Dr Novino conducted me to the table of a kerbside café.
“Ever tasted absinthe?” he enquired. A little satanically, I thought.
“What’s that?” I asked. Then, suddenly realising, “…oh, no–I don’t want any alcohol, thanks.”
“Ah, but wait till you try this.” He leaned forward with a conspiratorial air. “Forbidden fruit–it’s actually against the law.”
He spoke in French to the waiter, who evinced no sign of having been solicited for contraband and promptly came back with two squat glasses of bilious syrup plus two chunky glasses of water. To my surprise the Doc paid.
I grimaced as I gulped down the sickly stuff. It was an experience I didn’t want to repeat. Just in case Dr Novino was intending for us both to drink another, I proposed we took a stroll around town.
“Why not!” he agreed, emptying his glass. “We’ll have another on the way back.”
Fortune must have been smiling on me at that particular moment. We hadn’t gone far along the boulevard when we ran into a gesticulating Frenchman, quite clearly another seafarer. He greeted the Doc with open arms, like a long-lost brother.
“If you don’t mind looking round the shops in the meantime, sonny, I’ll see you back here in half-an-hour.” To which I gladly assented. But I had no intention of keeping the rendezvous. I made a beeline for the returning launch.
After we’d set sail, I scoured the ship, fearing the Doc had been left behind–and all through my fault. Eventually I found him in his bunk, snoring heavily. It was the last place I’d thought to look.
…to be continued.