They’d always had a saying, or so his father swears up and down and on a stack of Bibles that were mostly hymn-books and catechisms left over from Sunday-school, with one real article resting underneath the palm: “One son for the land, one for law, one for the army, one abroad.” But they’d only managed to have three sons pop out, and bloodthirsty as Emilia is no army will have her in a position she’ll abide—don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes—so they’d shuffled that off to one side and she’d gone off to the one blood sport regularly allowed to women and is trudging her way faithfully through medical school when Hugh’s faced with the grand decision. Not law, since Teddy has that well-covered and Hugh hasn’t the slightest inclination himself; not the army, since he finds in himself a distaste not for the rare bout of regrettable violence—for which Emilia would have his eyes, and Uncle John too if he were alive to do it, and Great-Uncle Norman, who was and would and could—but for the strict discipline: three years of Oxonian freedom, relative as it is, coming hard on the heels of nigh twelve years of schooling, has left in him a horror of regimented life and a desire to avoid it as far as humanly possible. He springs the idea on what he persists, inside his head, in calling summer vac. or the long hols. and instantly regrets it when the whole family, far-flung cousins and half-forgotten bachelor uncles and Aunt Kitty’s brother’s boyfriend—though they don’t call him that, they don’t call him anything because they don’t actually see him more than once every few years when Aunt Kitty loses her temper and patience and drags them out of hibernation—who once wanted to emigrate, chimes in with opinions, relevant and largely otherwise. In the end it’s India, same as Hugh has always—or for the whole month—known it would be, since his mother thinks in terms of the stories she read and was told in her late Victorian childhood and consequently believes even so much as setting foot on an African shore will end in her darling boy being eaten by cannibals, no matter how much Uncle James tells her to the contrary or pleads his twenty years of service in Nigeria or waxes eloquent about Nairobi; the troubles in India—what little she knows or understands about them—seem to reassure her absurdly, since any people who wanted freedom were surely a civilized sort, and don’t you know your Uncle Ned served with, well darling when I say with I mean next to next regiment darling, a Gurkha regiment in the war and he said they were perfectly affable if rather silly-looking with their slitted eyes.
He swots for a good long while, a fair bit harder than he’d done at Oxford or remembers doing at school even for the exhibition or his School Certs, though catch him admitting that when he’d barely scraped a First and hadn’t the governor rung a right peal round his head for that, and the results of the damned exam are a relief and a balm to his soul and then he spends the probationary year in equal parts dragging his heels and reading every scrap he can lay his eyes on that have the least to do with Bombay and the surrounding provinces and native states till at the end he knows the climate, produce and political situation of India as well or rather better than ditto ditto ditto of England, having found both geography and history passingly indifferent in school and generally believing it better for a gentleman to claim honest ignorance of the lies of politicians if at all possible. His mother anoints him with salt water well in advance of the voyage but finally his trunks are packed, every article of clothing lovingly marked like a nightmare of school again and the Good Lord only knows why his mother thinks any of it necessary but any road it gives her something to do and anyhow Uncle James opines that he’ll have to toss the whole load straight into the Arabian Sea and buy sensible thin cotton or sweat to death under his stiff collars in muggy Bombay and then finally, finally he’s well off and the waving figures on the pier shrink and shrink further and Hugh settles in for a good long bout of on-board boredom to settle him after the mad last fling of freedom that the parents all turned a blind eye to for all that it hadn’t been anything very much at all or they wouldn’t have brought Emilia along never mind the other girls and really no family that claims no morality ought to take such a tone towards drunken romping in stream and grove that only ever end in a sudden dunking in icy water at an inopportune time or thorns in tender flesh when someone blunders into a hedge or swears they can climb a tree they in sober fact cannot.
The ship decants him in Bombay Port where he blinks up at the sky in some species of horror at the searing blue, the heat and the gruelling humidity of the place, before he’s collected and carted off to his quarters and spoken to rather severely about the conduct expected of him as a gentleman in service to the Crown, and damn you Treviss if you step one toe out of line we’ve enough on our hands with the elections without you new recruits making perfect asses of yourselves. He blinks at that some more, more than a little terrified about whether his incompetence is leaking out at the edges and whether he is incompetent for certainly he doesn’t much want to be shunted off to some backwater little province to shift for himself where he can do little damage, lord and master to a thousand miserable lives tending to no troubles and grinding them further into the dirt: he has no delusions of grandeur or that he’s here to help anyone but himself but he can do good while making good surely and all he really wants of the Service is that he be allowed a slice of urbanity, the commerce and markets and nightclubs and hotels and civil society of Bombay, tried for Calcutta and couldn’t get it and didn’t even think of trying for Delhi which is too close to the crown and to political foment to suit his quiet soul and is just mostly grateful to not have been parked in Madras or Indore or the North-West Frontier Provinces or Lord forbid in Rajasthan or Hyderabad as part of the Resident’s retinue where they are bound around by native rituals and have to remember how many obeisances or salutations are accorded to what degree of royalty and with what hauteur to ignore these and other rules; which terror and resultant stiff efficiency lasts for very nearly the first six months through electioneering work and through two month-long stints as revenue collector in Satara district, running into trouble in a clutch of little villages in Phaltan tahluk where he is hobbled by his lack of colloquial Marathi and further hobbled because his translator hates him, the villagers, his job and is given to seeking bribes and lapsing into a dialect the villagers only imperfectly understand and all of them shout tremendous amounts conspiring with their volume and the brutal sun to giving Hugh a near-constant migraine, until on his return and at a dinner celebrating his return and survival, St. John informs him that the last man they’d been assigned had in quick succession fallen in love with an upper-class Parsi girl confident in the depth of her English education, had her thrown out of her family after they abused the Special Marriage Act to get hitched, filched the quarter’s taxes from the villages he’d been in charge of—and Hugh himself is just back from, which goes a fair way towards explaining really quite a lot—and finished his act of follies by disappearing with his ill-gotten wealth, the woman and her jewellery off into the uncharted terrain of who knows where in India which is less porous and deep than a century or so ago in the days of the nabobs and white Mughals but no less impenetrable to white eyes without a native guide and the girl’s family had shed their Anglo appearance and a large and growing community of the big business concerns among the natives—though not Tata yet, thank ye gods and little fishes—are beginning to shun the junior Civil Service officers and complaining viciously and at length to their superiors who are accordingly raining down imprecations on their hapless staff.
“But now you’re one of us and the Old Man’s alright with you, so come now, stop looking like they’ve tried offering you their daughters for a rifle, did happen once to a fellow I know tell you later, and drink up, there’s a good fellow.” And back goes St. John to his curry with no regard at all for Hugh’s gulping surprise.
“Give him a moment; that’s a hell of a thing to lay on a man. Here, just don’t make moon eyes at any of the women you meet and you’ll be fine; they’ll flirt with you same or more than any English girl and quite a few are quite delish but it’s not worth losing your career and having to spend the rest of your life hanging about the malaria-ridden Anglo colonies, with every man turned against you, and chances are her family will come down on things a fair bit worse than any of our fellows.”
“He mayn’t lose his job, doesn’t happen that way these days, just because you’ve been here the last ninety-odd years, man and boy. There’s Matthews, for instance, with a boy and girl and that plump little wife getting lovelier by the day.”
“And none of them will ever get into a single good club or get invited for dinner and if they’re sent to school back home they’ll be in social exile at best and very likely have their lives made pure hell and don’t talk to me about how mixed marriages are just fine these days when I’ve been around ninety-odd years and nothing’s changed.”
“So let it be spoken and so let it be done,” intones St. John, and bangs his fist magisterially on the table, effectively breaking up McMillan and Waters’ incipient staring-match.
“Mac’s given to getting maudlin,” he informs Hugh later with no jocular trace remaining and just as though it hadn’t been glaringly obvious to all present. “Doesn’t mean he’s wrong, however. I’d stay well away from the native women, always with the exception of prostitutes, of course. Catch me next weekend and I’ll show you a clean, reasonable place if you haven’t found one already.”
Hugh nods with studied nonchalance and goes into his quarters and locks all doors and windows against the mosquitoes and lights incense ditto and sits down to think about it before his khansama turns up with sugared milk, of which childish treat he has grown inordinately fond. He hadn’t spent his years at university chaste or unwillingly celibate, tried his luck with shop-girls and the occasional girl graduate, but never as a piece of commerce, paid and done with, though now that his libido that had flagged in the heat and strange pace of work and life has begun to show signs of life again, and if native girls are off-limits, and since the English girls were all either the wrong age or looking for marriage in six months or less, it might be a good idea to go with St. John and see whether the girls on tap turn his gorge or turn him on and there’s no chance of giving offense after all unless to St. John by looking like Hugh is above it all or finds his taste in women repulsive and that can be side-lined easily enough if Hugh doesn’t mind looking more squeamish and particular than he remotely is, which he has had much weary practice in doing to herd his friends away from moral cliff-sides through university and even school, though he has failed spectacularly on occasion and prefers not to think too hard on them save in times like this to avoid thinking of the moral and other implications of his impending decision.
Before he has to tell St. John aye or nay—aye, aye, aye, off to the flesh-markets of Hind to see what fragrant parts our foreign coin can buy, what discarded fragment of a Mughal seraglio—there’s the week to be got through, and monsoon breaks on Monday when he’s loafing around pretending to peruse files and longing helplessly for mid-morning chota hazri, which way of breakfasting would horrify his mother to no end but Hugh enjoys rather more than he’d ever expected to, and suddenly there’s a change, a break, a thrilling in the soul. St. John’s told him time and again that he’s lucky to have been away from the city in February while India seethed in the wake of her first nationwide elections, and sure it’s been hard for most of the Civil Service chaps to get used to working with the Congress-walas, and there at least there’s been no difference between their chaps and the Indians, though in most other things there’s any amount of resentment on both sides and no end of separate everything from mess to offices, but about the new ministries Khan and Apte can be both relied on to bitch endlessly over a cigarette and subpar coffee, and often with greater viciousness, since they’re apt to be regarded as traitors to race and countrymen, while Hugh and the other Englishmen are simply white oppressors whose time is drawing to an inevitable end. Hugh feels hauntingly as though the electoral fever-grip the others describe is reincarnated in the rains, the way they crack the skies open and drown the city, the way you can feel that Bombay is nothing more than a set of islands only notionally linked together, the way one wants to do nothing but watch the water tumbling down in endless sheets. Apte, looking in for a file on the revenues due from Phaltan and what Hugh fondly thinks of as his villages, laughs to find him daydreaming and makes pointed comments about Englishmen and rain which Hugh manages to parry with a compliment about Bombay he’s far from insincere about, and then Apte’s making sly overtures of friendship to him that Hugh has no intention whatsoever of refusing, couched in masala chai and crisp samosas as they come, and through Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday morning he turns the question of visiting a brothel over in his head idly, as one does questions one is ashamed of answering the way desire tilts. He will go, and he knows it well enough, but it’s easier to pretend that he’s still thinking about it, is faintly repulsed at the thought, will eventually be led by an unthinking impulse to the brothel despite his better self’s chaste inclinations. Tosh, as Emilia would say, making of it a much stronger imprecation by dint of suitable application of tone.
Thursday he wanders out as the morning is turning to afternoon in reverberating chimes and knocks on Waters’ open door to ask him about lunch and maybe launch into an idle debate about ordering in tiffin versus braving the rain to venture out to their usual joint, and stops, not much put out, because there are two men in the tropical whites of the merchant navy draped on Waters’ chairs and Waters himself is nowhere to be seen. “Hullo,” he starts and then stops, smile freezing uncertainly because both men have swivelled and while one is clearly Waters major, expected this week and more, the other is a revenant it takes Hugh every clamped-closed nerve to not start at.
“Hullo,” says Waters major while Hugh stares and stares and tries to pretend that he isn’t behaving like the panto parody of the callow schoolboy, “you’re new, aren’t you? Last time I was here there was a fellow mooning something awful over a Mohameddan chit. You’re not him, though.”
“Parsi, actually,” Hugh says, “and before my time,” and enters the office because peeking in delicately is doing him no good and terrible things to his back still wrecked and recovering from jolting all over Satara in ancient Jeep and occasionally on horse-back.
“Tom’s around here somewhere, said he’d have some tea brought to us, damned wonder how you can ever find anything in this great ramshackle place.”
“One learns the terrain,” Hugh says, and then because Ralph is holding himself with the curious stiffness he’d used to affect in school after a difficult conversation with Jeepers and isn’t it a right blow to look at that tight posture, shirt straining over the shoulders, and feel an answering ache grow between his wing-bones, he adds, “Hullo, Lanyon.”
Ralph says, “Hullo Treviss,” and comes swinging up to shake his outstretched hand, and while they are smiling at each other helplessly, Hugh beginning to regret this already and so glad about meeting Ralph that he’s grinning like a right idiot and really they both are and of course the way Ralph had to leave’s a pity and shame and if he’d only got hold of Hazell in time it could all have been decently hushed up but clearly Ralph’s done well or well enough that one can acknowledge the acquaintance or oh Lord what use lying the friendship, his own deep fondness for Ralph that’s making relief flood in through him and the little knot of anxiety he’s been carrying all unknowing all this time, all these years, while he’s thinking all this and still holding Ralph’s hand between both of his and smiling, both of them still smiling, Waters comes in sidling right past Hugh and makes Ralph awkwardly conscious of place and time, twisting his hand out of Hugh’s grip and coming to what looks very like attention.
“Well, chaps, we’re off to Watson’s Hotel,” Waters says, aiming a smile uncertainly between the two of them. “Stand you lunch if you’ll join us.”
Ralph looks unsure, torn between hating to tag along on a fraternal outing and hating to hang on to Hugh if he’s not truly welcome beyond the first effusions and doubtless hating to go back onboard ship or into whatever hole-in-the-wall quarters he’s managed to acquire. Hugh, putting into swift practice habit gained over a decade of schooling together and not put out of memory by separation and subsequent distance, gets the first words out a fraction of a second before Ralph can politely refuse all offers and take himself off to skulk in the shipyards, and refuses Waters, pleads old friendships and a need to catch up and swiftly treads on Ralph’s foot in the safe shadows of the long cotton curtains drifting at ankle height in the breeze.
“You’ll have to keep an eye on this one, utter magnet for trouble offshore the damnable idiot: last time we were here he nearly got himself lynched by a mob and couldn’t say what had set it off. More trouble than he’s worth, ought to chain him in the hold when we dock,” Waters major opines, a twinkle in the eye belying the stern tone. The man’s like a parody of a seaman, how the hell does Ralph bear him? Hugh on five minutes’ acquaintance can barely scrape together a smile, and Ralph’s sufferance of fools had always been of the most stinted and grudging sort.
“I did it for going on ten years,” he hazards when it becomes appallingly obvious an answer will be necessary, and contrives to extract them both with a despatch that would make the Old Man sit up and take notice if ever exhibited towards work or heroic rescue of the appropriate people: maybe someone can arrange to drop beleaguered Englishwomen in his path with a guarantee of gratitude blossoming into matrimonial love with the approval of parents and assorted relatives on all sides, no less than two and no more than a half-dozen, a man likes to have his pick of grateful young creatures.
“You needn’t put yourself to any trouble,” Ralph says predictably when they’re safely ensconced in Hugh’s office again, with the door barred against intruders and curtains drawn ditto, but with enough hope under it that Hugh gives in to the impulse of swatting him upside the head with just enough force to disarrange his meticulous coiffure. “It had to be asked,” Ralph protests, and finally steps away from the door to take a quick turn around the room, as though he still can’t talk about anything important save on his feet.
“The only thing that needs to be asked is how long your stay’s likely to be,” Hugh answers, assuming his own usual pose, feet resting on the table and body tilted back in the chair, which is every scrap as uncomfortable here as it ever had been in their shared study at school.
“No more than five days,” Ralph says, putting an abrupt end to his promenade, “Treviss, you absolutely cannot, must not put me up; Waters might look like an idiot but he’s got an elephant’s memory and you’ve got to work with his brother, don’t be a bloody fool, your intention’s appreciated but really a lunch is about what you can risk.”
“Does he know?” It was perhaps just possible that Waters major knows, not because he’s found out, but because he’s the same sort and Ralph and he are intimate, and if the imagination gives notice and attempts violent revolt at the thought at least it is sufficient reason for Ralph to bear him in much the same way he’d always turned a blind eye to Hazell’s many flaws and really Hugh oughtn’t judge since it’s difficult enough to find an obliging girl without all the further traps and obstacles in Ralph’s path and five minutes’ acquaintance is after all hardly sufficient to form any real opinion.
Ralph, having turned the sort of pale green that Hugh was growing increasingly familiar with in his perusal of tax records, offers a bleak smile and says, “It doesn’t take very much time, and I shan’t expose you to the risk.”
“Oh sit down, and shut up. Not another word, no, Lanyon, I swear I’ll gag you. I’ll tell you how it goes.”
Ralph mimes locking his mouth shut in the old way, and turns throwing away the invisible key into pointing at the door, beyond which Hugh’s khansama is faithfully lurking. Waters will have alerted him on the way out, or more likely with Viju he was on the look-out anyway. Hugh orders the car brought and begins to collect his things with no more attention to Ralph, which ancient strategy works as well as ever and Ralph comes along as obediently as a monkey on a leading-string the way the bazaar entertainers display or more accurately a bear where one wonders at the chaining of the brute more than at its many tricks. In the car he stays silent, once stirring as if to ask questions and then subsiding again when Hugh’s orders are clearly for the relative safety of quarters where they are unlikely to be disturbed at this hour and where they can talk privately.
With all that it takes an hour of pleasantries for Ralph to unhitch his shoulders from their uncompromising line and to slump by well-lubricated increments into the questionable embrace of Hugh’s armchair so that three whiskies down and all their classmates inquired after Ralph says, “Have you been here all this time? Waters asked me last time to come visit his brother but I thought I oughtn’t intrude.”
“Since I came, more or less, other than a couple of stints down in Satara. When did you come by last?”
“October or thereabouts,” Ralph says, “Lord, nearly a year. We’ve been parts east since then, called into nearly every port between here and the Maldives, thought of going to Australia but Waters thought we’d be hard put to make it. We’re waiting on repairs just now, poor Karanja's awfully battered, and it only made sense to hug the coast and plump our pockets some while we could: manifest’s got us making a trip to Hong Kong, which we did back in November and decanted safely there reeking of opium, every man alive drugged to the gills from stewing in it the stuff...”
Ralph’s talent for telling a good story, already formidable in the days when he had to piece together adventures from the humdrum everyday of English life, has gained depth and heft with a wealth of new fodder: Hugh, already resigned to a quiet afternoon within doors, perhaps punctuated by dinner out if he can persuade Ralph to excavate himself from the chair—an unlikely proposition at the moment—listens rapt while the stores of eight months’ voyage in the harbours of India, Burma, Hong Kong and the Maldives are strewn at his feet. To hear Ralph, it’s been an endless romp around the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, bright skies and calm seas and good sailing, gently interspersed with good trading; Hugh, hearing him, is reminded sharply of T.E. Lawrence, a far better and more erudite narrator whose gift of turning a humiliating experience beautiful Ralph possesses in an untutored way: exchange camels and executions and sun-stroke ranging into fever for
He opens his eyes and is only then aware that he must have closed them, while the sky darkened and now there’s rain lashing against the windows and Ralph inspecting him with a weary amusement that should raise all his hackles but doesn’t, brings back memories in a sudden flood though they’ve been trickling in since he saw Ralph, and just now with the rains cooling everything down it’s easy to pretend that four years haven’t skipped past them and left them strangers. “Hullo Ralph.”
Ralph’s smile broadens and even in the low light of afternoon the mischief in his eyes is suddenly glaring, “When did you pick up the habit of talking in your sleep? Not when we were in dorms together or I’d have known.”
“In Oxford with all my other vices,” Hugh answers. “Sorry, was I out for long?”
“Not above a half-hour. You’ve picked up some languages.”
“Yes, they make you,” Hugh says shortly, beginning to be angry. “I’ll ask Viju to get us some grub, for dinner we can try Watson’s or the Taj Mahal.”
“Far to go, for dinner,” Ralph offers, thin lips twitching into yet another smile, of which Hugh doesn’t recollect seeing so many in a good week in school since Ralph when small had been miserable and when older had thought it beneath his dignity to play around as the others had.
“The hotel’s about ten minutes’ drive and it would be excellent if you shed the vacuous skin; it’s horrible, you trying to play at Bertie Wooster.”
“I’ve been told I’m quite good,” Ralph says mildly, and settles in to talk quite naturally, as though he hadn’t been smiling like the vicar’s wife at Sunday tea not two minutes before; where has he been, to learn to be so subtly... not feminine, you can’t look at Ralph and think that, but something very like it compared to the usual stern exterior Ralph displayed: impossible to ask, of course, what if one got told? And they hadn’t been the sort of boys who leaned their heads together and whispered secrets, always a very functional friendship, theirs, born in gym class and bred on the cricket-field in the warm summer air that always seemed to wrap school memories around even when reality had been a score of humiliations wrapped around every passable moment and mostly composed of everyday grinding down till nothing was left of the spirit but what it was made of and really you couldn’t expect boys aged six to nineteen to actually commit an act as human as speaking to each other about something as despicable as emotions, so he had in a very gentlemanly way ignored Ralph’s drawn face and done his English homework and felt quite encouraged when Ralph who had usually to be dragged feet-first into anything resembling dress-up had agreed with more than a modicum of grace to take charge of lighting and then after everything months later when Ralph was gone and the rumours had reached him about why he’d chosen to do the lighting he had wanted to say Lanyon wouldn’t, you’re nuts, rotted your brains out by reading thrillers and talking to Jeepers he had realised he couldn’t, because what did he know about Ralph, really, even though they’d decided childishly to be best friends, meeting at an age when loneliness had trumped self-sufficiency and now four years after all disasters maybe Ralph is right and a lunch is all he can risk and there’s nothing but futility in trying to resurrect a friendship that might have been hollow, any road, like an oak tree rotted right through, thunder-struck.
“Whoever told you that is lying and you should mistrust them,” he informs Ralph, and slams out to order Viju to scrounge for food. It’s raining still, and standing in the deflected spray that mists around the veranda cools him off some; no use blaming Ralph for being a tight-lipped bastard when that’s the first thing that conveyed itself to Hugh within an hour or so of their first meeting. Coming back in, he adds, “And if it’s Hazell I’m booting you out and having Viju find a gang of gundas to beat you senseless.”
Ralph startles, says, “Good God. No! His name’s Deacon, actually, up at Oxford right now. I’m surrounded by men who don’t know to leave a lost cause well enough alone.” And goes on to talk about his boyfriend quite naturally, just as though there had been a girl in question and with none of the fevered claptrap that Hugh, always miserably designated the caring one, has had to hear a hundred times from boys who have an awkward tendresse towards inappropriate objects of lust or affection. Tell Treviss, he’ll understand, but this he finds he does; if it were a girl he’d be offering congratulations and begin to tease about a wedding but as things are, given the givens, under the circs he settles for nodding understandingly and trying to think and not to think who this Deacon fellow is, up at Oxford so can’t be much younger than them and he flatters himself he’d know someone like the paragon Ralph is describing and thinking, Lord, he’s in love, old Ralph, who’d have thought? all in a bit of a tangle, so he’s glad when Viju knocks perfunctorily and backs into the room with a gigantic tray and disapproval at Hugh’s irregular hours writ large on his saturnine face, and then they can be occupied with nosh, and if he’d wanted to introduce Ralph to strange new food then that disappointment is squashed easily enough and it takes their minds off all other matters like Ralph’s smile, finally natural, beginning to stiffen again when Hugh could do nothing more than nod. Trouble with Ralph is he’s the most generous person, but he can’t let anyone off, is cruel like that and severely lacking in understanding.
Trouble with Hugh is he thinks too much, catches himself wondering when Ralph smiles gratitude and acknowledgement at Viju, when he turns that smile on Hugh himself, when the long line of boys they’d been at school with, and they’d been at school a good long time he and Ralph, comes trooping through memory to be inspected for signs of Ralph’s eyes on them, and yield a handful of possibilities of which some don’t bear thinking about and anyway Hugh’s being biased and picking only the obvious nancies, the pretty-pretty types and even Hazell hadn’t been delicate as much as touched in the head and all of it’s hopeless lurid speculation anyway because the only fellow Ralph had ever been sentimental about was almost certainly not bent and it doesn’t bear asking about anyway and really he ought to stop. He stuffs the last crumbs of chapati in his mouth, soaked properly in curry and curd and says, “Sorry for the nosh, I’ve gone a bit native, spent a week holed up in places they don’t eat anything remotely English, and got used to the stuff.”
Ralph offers commentary and anecdotal evidence of strange food he’s eaten in strange places—in Burma curried tender bamboo shoots, in Hong Kong octopus, in Bengal hilsa fried in mustard oil served with fragrant rice—and they’re back on easy ground, with Hugh taking up the conversational thread and spinning it through his months in the Service: it’s fun telling stories to Ralph, a good listener who leaves well enough alone and obligingly asks the questions that beg to be asked and when Hugh’s relaxed some, finally, and is pretending looking at Ralph isn’t making his own shoulders ache, says in the tone familiar from Ralph summoning twirps for well-earned thrashings, “I wish you’d tell me now instead of saving it for the evening; I don’t much fancy wandering around in the dark in the rain looking for lodgings.”
“Tell you what,” Hugh says with no inflection and a lot of surprise, recovering quickly, and before Ralph can quite hitch himself up out of the chair and out of the room out of Hugh’s life again, adds, “We were talking about my language trouble in Phaltan tahluk, give a man a minute, would you? He sounds excellent but I’m not sure I trust your taste in men and really after Hazell can you blame me?”
Ralphs drops back in his seat like a puppet with its strings cut and laughs, peal after peal, long back bent and elbows on spread thighs and head in his hands and laughs loud and long enough that Hugh is nearly moved to inquiry and finally raises his head and says gasping, “Hugh, you bastard. No, I suppose I can’t, but really he’s no Hazell.”
“Well,” Hugh says, affected by the sound of his name escaping more than he likes to let on, and fumbling a little now, because Ralph is beginning to look positively happy and that’s unfamiliar, though it’s hideous that it’s unfamiliar. “I am glad I shan’t have to have you beaten senseless by hired goons. And,” he adds, quick with it because Ralph is touchy about the most absurd things and like as not will try another escape if Hugh doesn’t hold him fast in a pact of mutual embarrassment, “because you’re pathetically in love, you miserable bastard, look at you you’re glowing and I want to mock you horrifically but you’ll just assume it’s because of the other thing and bolt and I’ll have to wait forever before I catch another glimpse of you.”
“You’re allowed to tease,” Ralph offers majestically after a long moment of scrutiny. “You really don’t mind?”
“You getting into romantic scrapes over the most pathetic scrap of humanity I’ve had the displeasure of meeting and getting uni and a job you’d wanted for half a decade tossed out the window, sure I mind. You managing to wrangle a doctor who’s fool enough to fall for you, well done Ralph.”
“He’s not a doctor yet,” Ralph demurs, finally human, and it had always taken some time to get him to relax after the hols and terrible conversations with Jeepers and in their last years at school he’d never been simply Ralph except in Hugh’s study with the door barred or sometimes in his own, ditto, and it had been something Hugh rather prided himself on in a very silly fashion, that he got to peel away the R. R. Lanyon to look in at Ralph who liked to sneak issues of Punch from the twirps and Harriet Vane mysteries from his mother and planned on becoming an F.R.G.S and wanted to be an explorer in the Alan Quatermain style. They had visited back and forth, a little, during summer vacations, and after everything that terrible summer he had written to Ralph, hoping his parents wouldn’t have kicked him out or Ralph wouldn’t have been a knob and run away, he had written reams and it had got him into enough trouble at home, because Teddy and Jack had both found out as how could they not, and then the letters had come back unopened, and with the last one a terse note from Dr. Lanyon, asking that he not write again.
“Now, as I was saying before you had your dramatic little nervous breakdown,” he says, and then suddenly it’s evening and Ralph makes promises to meet him at the Taj Mahal Hotel before wandering off to pick up his luggage from wherever he’s stashed it, which Hugh suspects is nowhere save the hold of the ship because Ralph is exactly the sort of idiot who would do that though it’s true Ralph had probably not expected to do more than spend a few civil moments speaking to his captain’s brother and if he’s thinking too much too loud to drown out the fear that Ralph’s walked off into the night not to be seen again except by miraculous accident he always thinks too much and eventually he even relaxes to work for an uninterrupted ninety minutes before Viju ghosts in to announce that a bath he hasn’t asked for has been drawn and his clothes have been laid out: Viju, who lets him go into work with a rumpled collar and unshined shoes, has an uncle bussing in the Taj Mahal, and never lets him off without scrubbing and polishing him to within an inch of his life.
When he reaches it in the evening lights of Bombay all dressed up to go dancing he feels easier for his starched shirt, touches the crisp collar for reassurance and waits for Ralph to come up like he knows every inch of the streets, resplendent in tropical whites with a beaten to hell rucksack swung over one shoulder and a quietness about him under the rakish tilt of the cap that soothes some fluttering anxiety in Hugh: five days he’s got a hold of Ralph and there is such a thing as the postal service and no amount of sailing off into the great blue yonder is going to help Ralph in the cause of dramatic disappearances.
“Hullo, Hugh,” Ralph says, drawing to a halt and doffing his cap. “Damnable weather.”
“Like the devil’s armpit,” Hugh agrees, watching Ralph blanch at the expression. “It’s what Mac says, and he’s been around ninety-odd years so he’d know. Let’s get your bag stowed, what did you bring in it, rocks, and we can get dinner and then tomorrow you’re on your own but this weekend I’ll take you around the place and you can examine fascinating rock formations while I shamelessly ogle the scantily-clad local fisherwomen.”