An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
That evening I could have sworn dusk nearly didn’t come. When at last it did, I went over the arrangements for the last time. Everything seemed watertight. Sebastian was already at the station with the luggage. I took a deep breath. Now for it.
I’d not gone a mile when two men came up from the opposite direction. My water froze to icicles.
“May Allah be with you.”
It was only a greeting between passers-by in the dark. Grunting salaams in reply I hurried on past them. Almost immediately, so it seemed, a figure in black sprang up right in front of me. It was the woman, half a mile ahead of where we’d agreed to meet.
“‘Allo, it’s me.”
“God! –you almost stopped my heart. I wasn’t expecting you here.”
“I started walking because I was all nervy, like. I knew it was you. All the darkies carry lanterns.”
Out of chivalry I took the parcel she was carrying. “We’d better get a move on,” she urged. “Salim–that’s the boy–he’s bound to raise the alarm as soon as ‘e finds me missing.” She was going along at a fair old lick, her voice coming in snatches. I almost had to run to keep up with her.
“I don’t know your name.”
“I’m Laura. Laura Peters. At least that’s what I was. Now I don’t know what I’m supposed to be. An animal at the zoo I think. If it ‘adn’t been for the kid coming, I’d have done this all by meself.”
I explained the plan to her. “The worst part is, you’ll have to put up with the third-class waiting room at Delhi Station for the night.”
“Coo, I won’t mind that.”
Once or twice we had to pull off the road when we saw lanterns ahead. Then suddenly Laura abandoned her cracking pace and sat down plonk where she was, in the roadway.
“Got to sit down for a moment. It’s this sudden shooting pain. I’m seven months gone, you know.”
It was the longest mile I ever walked. At last the lights of the station came into view.
“Ah, there you are, Sebastian. Thank God. Now, will you take charge of the memsahib…?”
“I beg your pardon, sahib, but the train will be half an hour late.”
The platform was crowded. There was only one seat and it was taken. It was out of the question to try shifting the occupant, even–or especially–to let a pregnant woman sit down. In those parts, people in Laura’s condition just didn’t travel. We dared not speak for fear of being overheard. I glanced arond me. In the uncertain yellow lights of the station I kept feeling I could see one or two heavy individuals working their way along the platform, peering in every face. I moved away a yard or two from the others, making out I was alone.
When at last the train steamed in, belching vapour into the forest of figures, it too was packed to capacity and beyond. I watched as Laura and Sebastian squeezed their way into an overcrowded compartment. What if Laura couldn’t stand the press of people and had a miscarriage on the train? With this terrifying thought buzzing in my mind I dozed in my seat, utterly exhausted, in spite of elbows prodding into me on all sides.
A tumult of noise awoke me. It was the racket of an Indian main-line station. Delhi at last. I descended in time to spot Sebastian making for the guard’s van to collect our luggage. But where on earth was Laura?
A throng half in purdah milled around on the platform. There was no way of telling which was Laura. Fortunately she recognised me. Presently an anonymous figure detached itself from the seething mob and tugged at my arm.
“I’m dying of thirst and I’m ruddy famished,” she gasped.
I fought my way to the refreshment room and asked the attendant what there was. The best he could manage was a packet of sandwiches and a ginger beer. I fought my way back again and we got Laura into the third-class waiting room. Sebastian stayed to help her eat and drink. Doing that beneath a purdah must have been a complicated operation, but I didn’t witness it. I went to find a place in the second-class waiting room.
A little later Sebastian sought me out. “The memsahib wants to see you again,” he said apologetically.
“I must have a frock and hat,” she pleaded with me at the door. “Couldn’t your boy go into the bazaar for me?”
“No, he’s better off staying here with you. I don’t want you left in there on your own. I’ll go myself.” Bringing my salesman’s skills to bear, I eyed her up and down and made a guess at her measurements. I wondered if I dared whip out my inch-tape but I didn’t fancy being spotted touching her in public.
Although the night was getting old, I expected one or two shops would still be open. They were. I managed to get two cotton frocks and a straw hat. A couple of minutes after my return I was once again accosted by her disembodied voice. I looked around me in amazement. At last I realised that the source of the voice was the lovely stranger who was standing there staring at me. She looked smashing in the dress I’d bought her, in spite of being more in need of a maternity outfit.
“Gosh, I say–you look quite nice!”
“Thank you.” She pursed her lips in a half smile. Living in seclusion the past seven months had kept her European pallor intact–she might almost have come straight off the boat. Indeed she could have passed for the wife of an Assistant Collector, provided she kept her mouth shut.
I took a few deep breaths. My nineteen years were beginning to tell on me, not to mention the lack of feminine company on my travels.
“I think you’d better come with me, now.”
“What, in among the nobs? Will they let me?”
“Of course they will. I’ve bought you a second-class ticket to Bombay. Let’s try and get forty winks in the waiting room and then we’ll have breakfast in the restaurant.”
Well, I reckoned that if she’d had to pose as Sebastian’s wife before, she could pass as mine now. I lent her my arm. We were young enough to be on honeymoon, so people would discreetly look elsewhere if I chanced to put my arm around her. It wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows if we stole a kiss or two. However, any fancies I might have entertained in that direction were cooled by the fact that she was “seven months gone”, as she put it. Still, who wouldn’t be attentive to his pretty young wife in that condition?
We sat in the waiting room as if we had known each other for years, watching the sky lighten into day. It was the dawn of her freedom, she said. We took a leisurely breakfast together, the rest of our lives stretching out before us.
After breakfast, though, a sense of realism began to crystallise. She turned and looked at me with her sparkling green eyes, probing my thoughts.
“I suppose you’re going to leave me, now?”
I looked down at my hands. “I can’t come to Bombay with you, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got to earn my living. I have to go to the post office and see what my firm’s instructions are–where they’re sending me next.”
“Well, it was good of them to send you to my station…”
I must have blushed. How could I explain that she had Tozer to thank for that?
“What do I do now?”
“Whatever you like. You’ve got your life back, haven’t you?”
“Thanks to you,” she said gravely. She looked away and sighed. “I haven’t the foggiest what I’m going to do now, though.”
Her resolution to put the world between herself and Achmed didn’t seem so firm in the cold light of morning. She hinted as much.
“I suppose,” I said, “you could always go back to him if you wanted.”
She gazed at me in a moment of doubt, then she shook her head vehemently. “No, I could never do that. Anyway, he’d kill me, sure as anything. I’m going straight home, if I can manage it. What’ll I do at Bombay?”
“Take a gharry from Victoria Terminus to the YWCA.” I scribbled down the address for her. She looked at me suspiciously. “How d’you know that?”
I wasn’t keen to tell her. Many’s the time I’d patrolled the pavement outside the YWCA, in company with other young men at the club, on the off-chance of bumping into some girl or other, hungry for company. In her circumstances, I realised, she was badly in need of advice from other women. Single women. Surely someone there would give her a shoulder to cry on, get her a doctor, see her on the ship home. Before she left, she told me, she had extracted fifty pounds from Achmed’s savings. That would be enough to pay the fare back.
The Bombay Mail was only a quarter of an hour late and I quickly found Laura a seat. As I stepped down from the carriage, on impulse I turned and pushed her my valise. She’d find something in it she could use. I could replace my kit from the boxes.
In a few minutes the double-engined train began to chug slowly away, wrapped in a shawl of steam. Laura put her pretty head through the window and blew me a kiss. All sign of tension had cleared from her face. It was sunny and bright, like a child going on holiday.
“You haven’t told me your name!” she shouted. “Or where you live! Don’t you want me to know?”
What a time to ask! We had sat together holding hands for half the night, and only now did she think of it. But what was there to lose? I never expected to see her again. By the time I returned to Bombay she would be on the high seas, or even back home in Kentish Town. I ran along the platform to keep up with the train and hollered the information at her. The end of the platform brought me to a sudden halt and the train snatched her away from me and out of sight.
I stood watching the train dwindle to a black shimmery speck. A sudden pang of loss sneaked up on me and slammed me in the solar plexus. Tears started in my eyes. Cursing myself for a moonstruck fool I wandered aimlessly off the platform. Eventually I went in search of the post office to find out where the firm was sending me next.
…to be continued.