An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
I woke next morning to find the Arcadia creeping gently down the Suez Canal. At 11 o’clock on the dot, the deck stewards brought round trays of soup and biscuits. Most of the passengers lounged in deck chairs, watching the shimmering desert drift slowly astern. Everywhere peace reigned–everywhere, that is, except in my buzzing mind.
I took a cup of soup from a rather lean steward, to whom up till then I hadn’t paid much attention. But now I did, for as he turned to go I saw him glance involuntarily back at me. As he did so I thought his face looked familiar. But I couldn’t place him.
I puzzled over this for a while–and then it struck me. It was Tiger! Tiger Tyler–a boy I had known at college four years earlier, though not over-well. Like me, he was from a big family, and not a particularly well-off one. He’d never struck me as a diligent pupil–and now here he was, skivvying on board a passenger ship. In my plight I resolved to approach him, although it crossed my mind that this would engender acute embarrassment, now that we were on such different social planes.
That evening I came across him in the corridor of one of the lower decks. He was looking very trim in his white evening jacket, stiff collar and bow-tie. I greeted him boldly. “Hello, Tyler! I thought I recognised you this morning!”
He parried my opening thrust. “Er–have we met before, sir?”
“Of course we have, Tiger! I’m Nida, from St James’s.”
He glanced furtively down the corridor. “Look–we’d best not be seen talking out here. I’ll slip along to your cabin when the crew are less active. What number are you?”
I told him and suggested he came around 10 o’clock that night, when passengers would either be drinking or dancing or leaning over the rail, watching the flying-fish by the light of the port-holes as they scuttled away from the bow-wave of the ship.
He was there promptly.
“I remember you now, Nida,” he admitted. “You used to try and teach me algebra when old Jumbo the maths teacher gave up. Yes–and you were the only boy who wouldn’t wear a college cap.”
“That’s right!” Beneath my superficial bonhomie I was nervous and hoped it didn’t show. “A proper cap cost half a crown and my parents thought that sixpence-ha’penny for a tweed one was quite enough to spend on covering my miserable head.”
It emerged that this trip was his third on the Bombay run–and he hated it. “It’s the tips that keep me going. But I don’t know what else I’d turn my hand to now.”
Tiger was two or three years my senior. It would have given me a lot of satisfaction to announce that I was on my way to a fine appointment in India as a just reward for my astuteness at school. But that would never do–I wanted to cultivate him as a moneylender. Somehow I had to win his sympathy.
“You had two younger brothers,” I said. “What are they doing now?”
“I really don’t know”, he replied, shaking his head. “I ran away from home as soon as I could–just to get out of my dad’s reach. I was never that happy there.”
I struggled on, trying to make pleasant chat. “It doesn’t seem a bad ship, this.”
“What–this old crate? She’s due to be broken up soon. Then I hope to get on one of the eleven-tonners.”
“Are you going to be in Bombay long? Perhaps you’d like to come to my quarters one night and have a drink?”
He said he’d love to and took my address. I was beginning to feel sorry for Tiger and nearly gave up the idea of broaching the subject of money. His skinny pallor plainly pointed to the fact that a seafaring life did not suit him.
“Well,” he said as he got to his feet, “I’d best be going. Your cabin mate might return at any minute.”
That gave me the opening I needed. “Oh,” I sniggered, “the old Doc?”
“So you’ve got that old rascal, have you?” He sniggered too.
“Rascal’s the word! –I daresay you’ll know how much he drank. Well… I foolishly lent him some money and he got off at Port Said owing it to me. Now I haven’t even got enough to tip the stewards.”
Tiger’s expression changed. “You know…” an evasive note crept into his voice, “I’ve been doing this job to save up for just one thing. A house. I’ve got a girl back home and I send it all to her. Right now I haven’t a bean.”
“I see.” I must have looked terribly crestfallen because he went on “But I shall be able to draw when the old tub docks. And if I’m lucky there’ll be a few tips to add to that.”
“That’s another ten days…!” My mind raced. “I could pay you back the day after we land…”
Tiger pondered the matter for a moment. “How much do you need?”
I began to breathe again. “Just a pound or two. But perhaps I ought to tell you that I got tangled up in a game of poker with that theatrical mob.”
“Not Rowlands and Gertie & Co?”
“Good heavens! –a kid like you! They ought to be shot!”
“Well… I did. Now Rowlands is pestering me for six pounds.”
“Tell him to go to the devil! Report him to the purser if there’s any trouble.” He shot a hasty glance at the door. “Now I really must be off. See you again.”
My little problem, it seemed, was not going to be solved so easily. I assembled a stock of lies to fob-off Rowlands when he importuned me next, but mostly I kept out of his way in the library, reading “Plain Tales From The Hills”. It was about India–and a crash-course on human nature, courtesy of Mr Kipling.
…to be continued.