T 11308_0011

This follows from The Colonel (part 2)

The steamer was slinking into Aden past the Tribal Cliffs. Aga Jhan was on the deck. He had never seen a coast line and since leaving Bombay had spent his time breathing in the cool air, washing the salt spray into his beard, savouring each move the ship made into a trough and swaying as the old tub tossed and bit into the swell.

Henry was welcomed at the Captain’s table, his white dinner jacket had been carefully pressed and brushed, his miniature medals gleamed. He made much of his entrance each evening. Stories of Burma and the India he loved amused the officers of the P and O. Many had served in convoys and he felt camaraderie building. Finally he felt at ease enough to ask them about England, a country he did not know. They made much of the dreariness of the post war privations, bleak towns, rationing, destroyed docks and the hopelessness in so many, their futures destroyed. As the wharf came into sight Henry looked towards the twinkling lights of the old coaling station, the tall cranes standing silent as new oil declared them redundant. He flicked his cigarette into the water and made his way to his cabin. Aga Jhan would have packed and they had to change ships for the Suez and then to home.

Master and servant bounced down the gang plank to be embraced by heat, dust, stretched hands and the chaos of Aden. The next days at sea through the Canal reminded them of the sun they would miss. Small boys shouted from the banks, and weary camels toiled to bring in dates and palm leaves from the fields on either side. As they passed Cape Trafalgar the sea turned grey and thick. Gulls pasted themselves to the white capped waves and few passengers ventured onto the deck. Henry wrapped in an old British Warm marched up and down dodging sliding steamer chairs and maintained his new regime of trying to keep fit. His mind was fresh and he wanted to embrace his change of fortune. Sometimes he thought of Maud, of his bungalow, the warmth of India but he did not miss the loneliness and stares of those who were friends when they needed it. His sacrifice meant he limped slightly but others had fared worse.

The day spent in the Azores meant that he could savour some fruits and take a wine in a small cafe in Horta. It was cool and sitting gazing out to the small fishing boats he noticed a prim woman, also alone. She held an English newspaper but strangely was smoking what he knew to be a beedi, a cigarette favoured by the Anglo community. She was struggling to get a match to flame.

He coughed, stood up and offered her his trusted petrol lighter. Cupping her hands she took the light and looking up, their eyes met.

‘My pleasure,’ he stuttered, ‘Glad to see the old habits remain?’

She lowered her hand towards him and as they touched she said, ‘Thank you, yes I’m going to miss them, back in Blighty. Is that were you are headed?’

‘Yes actually, Harrogate. Do you know it?’

‘Of course, I am taking up a post there as a school mistress, what luck to meet you, my name is Diana.’

‘Henry, I mean Silas Henry, may I sit with you?’

They talked into the evening, the shared knowledge of places, the stink of India that they missed and what would they find in England. They strolled back to ship, looking into slatted windows, Henry raising his hat occasionally in salute to old ladies who bustled about the pavements. The funnel on the ship was pushing black smoke lazily into the cool air.

In the awkwardness of the goodbye Henry knew he had to try for the last word.

‘I hope we meet again,’ he said and bowing slightly, took his leave.

‘We will Silas’ she said and looked with intent towards him.

 

 

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