Tuesday, June 26, 2007
BLOOD MOON OVER BENGAL
Calcutta, State of Bengal
“They just bloody dropped dead!” The young major's voice trembled in anger as he faced his commanding officer. Electric punkas whirred sluggishly overhead, barely stirring the stifling air in the spacious office and doing nothing to dry the sweat pouring off his body.
The Colonel leaned back comfortably in his cushioned chair, lighting his pipe. "Yes, well, they were Indians weren't they, Major? It's not like they were British officers."
"They were men! Sir! They were not disposable because they were not British. Sir!"
Colonel Mainwarring lifted his grey eyebrows, raking the soldier before him with a contemptuous glance. "The entire regiment is aware of your singular opinion on that subject, Major Covington-Singh. However, it doesn't change the fact that the British Indian Army - especially the soldiers of the 1st Rangpur Foot - must at all times be at the ready. We do not mollycoddle our men because it happens to be rather warm."
"Sir, I appreciate we are not here to enjoy the niceties of a tea party, but it was 120 degrees when those men died from heat exhaustion. More than one day is needed to recover from such a march before departing on manoeuvres again."
The Colonel leaned forward to deposit his pipe in an ashtray and reach for a legal size envelope from a corner of his massive desk. "Nonsense. Any soldier worth his salt will do whatever is required of him. In a few short weeks the summer will end and the monsoons will start. Outbreaks of cholera and malaria will soon follow. Much more efficient to get done what we can now. You can start by studying this lot," he said, handing the Major the thick brown envelope. "Another murder while you were on manoeuvres. Nasty business, and normally not our concern to muck about in civilian matters, but several," he gave Major Covington-Singh a sharp look, "highly placed Indians have caused a palava with the Commissioner and now he's dumped it in our laps. Or more precisely, yours, since you are Security Officer, Major."
"Another Brahmin woman, I see, sir. That makes two now." Major Covington-Singh frowned, flipping through the pages. "If we don't count the prostitutes in the Bustees."
"You are aware, Major, anything that may happen in the Bustees is pure conjecture. It is no man's land. No bloody use imposing law and order in that hellish warren. No, we need only worry about the Brahmins. Find the wog responsible and arrest him. Can't think why the Civils cocked it up. Likely too busy chatting up these passive resistance berks."
"And if it isn't an Indian, Colonel?" the Major asked, his voice tight.
"Are you implying an Englishman may be culpable, Major? Don't be ridiculous! Of course it's a bloody Indian. It's a simple situation, Major. Take care of it." He reached for his pipe and tobacco pouch. "Dismissed."
Nigel Covington-Singh saluted and performed a smart about face before departing the office. He paused a moment, shading his eyes from the unrelenting glare of the Indian sun. He'd accomplished absolutely nothing bearding the Colonel in the den he so rarely left, in an attempt to stall manoeuvres until the mercury fell below the 120 degree mark. No wonder the old man remained in ignorance of how 'warm' it truly was. Nigel wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and headed for the Officers' Mess. A pint of English lager was what he needed.
The lounge was dark after the brightness outside, and with several fans operating, blessedly cool. A native server dressed in a white dhoti and tunic with matching turban approached when Nigel took a seat at the bar.
The server bowed, his face impassive. "Sahib, your pleasure, please?"
Nigel answered him and turned, hearing the stool next to him scraping the floor. A man of medium height, brown hair, and captain's epaulettes sat down and nodded to the bartender.
"I say, old chap, bloody hot out! Do pour me a large gin and tonic, there's a good man." Turning to Nigel, he announced, "Just posted here two days ago. Don't know if I'll ever get used to this heat. Doesn't get like this in Ireland – or in America. Spent three years there. Do you know those ridiculous Yanks have outlawed liquor! Can't go to one's club for a quiet smoke and a civilised drink. One is required to patronise an illegal 'speakeasy'. Rowdy places they are, too. And if the proper palms haven't been greased the bobbies break in and haul everyone off to the nick!" He paused to drink deeply from his sweaty glass. "I say, haven't introduced m'self yet. Harry Woodford at your service, Major –?"
"Nigel Covington-Singh," supplied Nigel.
"Heard you just lost five men on manoeuvres. Bad luck, old man!" He reached in his pocket for his Woodbines and politely offered one to the Major. After lighting both cigarettes, the Captain looked Nigel in the eye and remarked, "Damned lucky it wasn't any more in this heat."
Not wishing to discuss the sore subject, Nigel simply replied, "Quite." Taking a sip of his beer, he enquired, "What took you to America?"
"My fortune, of course. I am, unfortunately, one of those sorry creatures, a second son. Always handy to have a spare tucked away, until of course, the heir grows up healthy and produces an heir of his own. Makes one quite superfluous. M'father, the Earl of Tillinghurst, you know, sent me off to America to make my start." He gazed at the dregs in his glass forlornly before continuing. "Only trouble was I arrived a mere three months before the Crash. Lost everything, of course. Men were blowing their heads off right and centre, doncha know. Tried to make the most of it, but in the end I had to ask m'father for help. He arranged a commission, and here I am ready to cut a swath through the jungle."
Nigel smiled and ordered another round of drinks. "Instead of picking your way through the headless bodies and getting jostled about in one of your speakeasies, you'll be contending with mosquitoes the size of finches, cholera, malaria, snakes the length of this bar, and once the monsoons start, unending rain with mud every place you now see dust." He crushed out his cigarette and took possession of his new lager. "The heat is at its worst now summer is almost over."
The Captain shook his head. "Funny thing for summer to end in June." He pushed his empty glass out of the way and stirred his new one before sipping it.
"I say, one can't help hearing things, and even in the short time I've been here I've heard a few about you. Isn't your father a bigwig up north somewhere?"
"You could say that, yes. He's the Maharaja of Kashmir."
Capt. Woodford's eyes grew large and he opened his mouth to speak, but his words were lost by the low droning of an engine overhead. Very close overhead. It sputtered, coughed, quit and started again in a high pitched wine. In accord, both men rushed to the doorway to witness an old Bristol Fighter more fall on the dusty parade ground several hundred yards distant, than actually land.
Black smoke issued from the engine as the old flyer came to a halt. Three machine guns mountings from the Great War era swung loosely and something from the tail fell heavily into the dirt. Already the fire lorry was on the way, sirens blaring. Men poured from the surrounding regimental offices.
Approaching the growing pandemonium Nigel could see what he had thought were bombs under the wings, was in actuality luggage firmly lashed to them instead. He watched two slender figures emerge from the cockpits and onto the wings. An officer stepped forward to assist them down.
Once they were safely on the ground they reached to pull off their aviation caps, and held their audience spellbound. One revealed golden finger-waved tresses and the other, short red curls.