An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
As we lay in the roads off Aden the familiar voice of Mr Hitchcock boomed in my ear. “Coming ashore, Nida?”
“No thanks,” I said hastily. “Too hot.”
“Youngsters like you ought to want to see everything.” He crammed his long cigar back into his florid face and took a quick puff. “It won’t cost you anything to look around, you know. It’s not Marseilles.” Peering in my face he added “You don’t look happy. What’s the matter?”
Feeling unable to resist his exhortations, I accompanied him and the inseparable Mr Bunford ashore. Luckily there was nothing to do but stroll around looking in the few shops selling tourist curios, all the time wiping a constant stream of sweat from our brows. We were all rather glad to feel the breeze on board the ship again. Mr Hitchcock smartly led the way into the saloon and ignored–or overlooked–the fact that it was my turn to stand the drinks.
Bunford announced that he’d won the sweep on the previous day’s run. “What everyone forgot was that we needed to make up time because of the delay over the dock strike. I made the necessary allowance.” Turning to me he asked “What about you and your poker school? Have you had any luck?”
“Of course he hasn’t,” chipped in Hitchcock before I had a chance to reply. “How do you think that third-rate concert party could make a living if there weren’t mugs like Nida dying to be fleeced? I’ll wager a pound to a penny he’s flat broke.”
Pride forbade me to admit to this. “I haven’t done too badly,” I lied. “A tiny bit up, perhaps.”
“Good for you,” said Bunford. “Your turn next then.”
It served me right for lying. I ordered whisky for the three of us and signed a chit, telling the steward I must get some of my money back from the purser. But from then on I kept closely to my cabin. I hated mealtimes, since of course I was still posted to Gertie’s table. My fellow-diners cut me out of their conversation–I was no longer an insider. But I wasn’t at all sorry for that.
The ship was still trying to make up for lost time as it crossed the Indian Ocean. It couldn’t go too fast for me. The night before disembarkation I was leaning over the aft rail, watching the moon-flecked spray from the propeller, when somebody touched my arm.
“Got that money yet?”
I slowly turned round. There was Gertie, in the ravishing evening frock I had silently admired during dinner. Her grey eyes gleamed in the moonlight with unearthly intensity.
“It’s all right, Gertie. I shall get it when we land. A friend is going to lend it me–someone on board ship.”
“Well, mind you pay up. Rowlands will be waiting for you as you come down the gangway. I wouldn’t put it past him to demand the money from whoever’s coming to meet you.”
I swallowed hard. She sighed, as if it distressed her to have to bring up such matters on a romantic night like this. Impulsively she slipped her arm through mine and gave a little tug.
“But I’ve got an idea. Now that the Doc’s gone, how about you and me meeting up in your cabin? I’ll show you another way you can pay off your debts.”
Put yourself in my position. Here was an attractive woman, bent on seduction and playing it like only an actress can. The tropical heat of the past few days had brought all my impulses to the boil–and I thought back to an earlier occasion when I had seen rather more of her clear pink skin than she normally showed. This time, I reckoned, she had herself a deal.
“All right then,” I muttered, somewhat gracelessly.
“I’ll be along in half-an-hour,” I heard her say. Then she was gone.
I paced round and round the aft-deck in a moonlit haze. My religious upbringing thumped the pulpit: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery! When half an hour was up I was emotionally exhausted and dripping with sweat, having wrestled with my conscience on a fantasy bed and stifled it with the pillow. Half god and half beast, I crept below to my cabin.
As I opened the door Tiger jumped to his feet. Seeing him there completely threw me.
“I guessed you’d be back soon, so I thought I’d wait. Guess what–I’ve collected some tips! Here’s the three pounds I promised you.”
In panic I grabbed his arm. “Not now, Tiger–I’ve got someone coming!” With a pang of dismay I saw a hurt expression on his face at the ingratitude of my response to his kind action.
“All right–all right,” he shrugged. “I’m just going. One would think it was some girl you’ve got.”
“It is,” I mumbled.
He stared straight through me. “Not that Gertie woman?” I nodded.
We both froze to the sound of movement outside in the corridor. What Tiger did then almost brought tears to my eyes. Raising his voice he snapped, “If that bloody bitch comes in here, I’ll report her to the captain! She’s no actress–she’s just a common tart!”
Counting to ten in a silent whisper, he pulled open the door and peered up and down the corridor.
“It’s all right–she’s gone.”
I collapsed into the chair. Angrily he stalked to and fro in the tiny cabin.
“Fancy her getting her hooks into a kid like you! From all we hear she’s been after every likely male on this ship. Mr Hitchcock and Mr Bunford could tell you a thing or two. She’s probably make more money on this trip than the shipping company itself!”
On bended knee he tried to make me promise that I wouldn’t give Gertie a farthing. “It’s no good,” I groaned. “I’ve got to give her what I owe. She gave me the money when I won.”
Grudgingly he passed over the three pounds and promised to let me have the rest when we went ashore.
Next morning, after breakfast, there was a terrific bustle on deck. Passengers and crew mingled buzzing like swarming bees up and down the gangways, as we steamed the three-mile stretch into Bombay Harbour at a crawl. The air was like hot glue. Even the thought of damp chilly London brought back fond memories and I suddenly felt an enormous surge of affection for my family and workaday colleagues whom I had deserted for the lure of the East–the “romantic East”. Everything I’d experienced on board to date had made me thoroughly homesick.
I kept clear of the gangways and avoided the other passengers as far as possible. But I could not shake off Gertie. I suspected she was shadowing me. Round the bend of the stern I bumped right into her.
In her long camelhair coat and white topi she looked utterly desirable. But the taut line of her jaw rather spoiled the effect.
How could I get out of paying her what little I had–the three pounds which Tiger had given me? But unless I did, the stewards would have to go without their tips.
“I’m–er–just waiting for my friend with the cash. Could I see you as I’m getting off?” I turned away as if to keep an appointment. After lurking round the corner out of sight for a minute I’d decided that the stewards, having seen me out of the saloon and out of the cabin without receiving the just rewards for their service, would by now have come to the conclusion that they weren’t getting any tip from me. So back I went.
Gertie hadn’t moved from where I’d left her.
“It’s all I can lay my hands on for the moment,” I said as I handed over the three pounds.
“Very well. I’ll tell Rowlands and we’ll be outside your place tomorrow to collect the rest.”
With a smile as false as the address I’d had the good sense to give her, I nodded reassuringly. “I’ll keep an eye open for you.”
…to be continued.