By Mark Dawson
SATURDAY NIGHT, three in the morning, and Billy Stavropoulos was making a hell of a racket, kicking and pounding like mad in the boot of the car. Edward Fabian ignored it––they were nearly there––and drove on. Rain lashed the streets, thundering against the roof. The area around the harbour had taken the brunt of a German raid seven years earlier. The rainwater that ran into the gutters was slurry-coloured from brick dust; the tarpaulins that had been nailed over vanished windows flapped incessantly; wild flowers sprouted amongst the ruins. The harbour itself was surrounded by derelict buildings, some of them flattened by the bombs, others looking like they ought to have been. Lines of boats were secured to the moorings, their rigging jangling and rattling as they rose and fell on the tide. There was a strong smell of fish on the wind. Grey streets, blotched and stippled with yellow light, led away into the murky distance.
Edward slowed the car to a stop. It had been given to him by detective inspector Murphy. It was new, probably impounded from some unlucky chap Murphy had arrested, and it still smelt fresh. It was a good car, not as impressive as Edward’s Triumph, but good nonetheless. It was almost a pity that Edward was going to have to torch it when he was finished, but there was no sense in leaving forensics that might lead back to him.
Jimmy Stern was sitting next to him in the passenger seat, staring ahead, impassive. Only the almost imperceptible grinding of his teeth revealed his nervousness. “Ready?” he said.
Edward breathed deeply, the cold damp air burning his lungs.
Jimmy put a hand on his arm. “Edward––we’ve got no choice. We’ve got to do it.”
The cabin’s courtesy light illuminated the ugly bruises on his uncle’s face. “I know we do,” he said.
He opened the car door. There was a dim and economical streetlight at the other end of the harbour but here it was black. It was closer to sleet than to rain, the edged drops seeming to slash their way through the buttonholes of his raincoat. It lashed into him and he was drenched in seconds. He went around to the back of the car and opened the boot. The light clicked on, illuminating the body inside. Billy was curled up in the narrow space, his wrists handcuffed, his knees against his chest, his ankles roped together and with a rough sack tied over his head. He started to moan, the rag that they had stuffed into his mouth turning his protests into an indecipherable mumbling.
Edward slid his hands beneath his shoulders, gripped hard and hauled him out.
THE TROOPSHIP PASSED THROUGH THE MUDDY ESTUARY of the Hooghly River. Edward Fabian and the rest of the men disembarked amidst the great ships of His Majesty’s Navy and were taken by coach through the wide, throbbing, chaotic Calcutta streets. It was a spectacular place that pulsed with life, a place of the most vertiginous contrasts; during the fifteen minute drive to their billet Edward saw a corpse slumped against smoke-stained Victorian statuary, a sparkling American limousine bumping up against a rickshaw pulled by a half-naked tonga-wallah, a blind beggar asking for change from a Naval officer in full regalia, fakirs pushing knock-off suits to men wearing every uniform of the Allies in the Orient. India was poverty cheek-by-jowl with opulence and Calcutta was its apogee. Edward had become accustomed to the rhythm of the jungle: days of monotony between engagements, hours spent in silence broken only by the calls of parakeets and cuckoo-shrikes. Here was its complete opposite: innumerable mendicants, children imploring passers-by for buckshee, slums of swarming multitudes. Plunging into it was a shock to the senses.
They were to be billeted in the vaulted chambers of the Museum, beds jammed among the cabinets and display cases, cool radiating from the marble floor. The welcome was more than Edward could have dared imagine. There were dhobis to launder his clothes and dersis to fix them; after months of sleeping on hard ground or a sodden slop, he had proper rope-and-frame beds; there were baths with unlimited hot water and soap; a spacious canteen with bustling memsahibs fussing over huge pots of curry and dahl. After months of trench foot and pack sores, months of sleep disturbed by threat of Japanese soldiers coming across the wire, months freighted with the constant fear of death; this was absolute luxury.
Edward slept the sleep of the dead for twelve hours. When he awoke he went out to explore. The men were paid eighteen rupees a week and Edward had not drawn anything for the better part of six months; that accumulated into a tidy little sum to spend in a place as cheap as Calcutta. He even looked the part. The men had been given new suits of green fabric, the regimental black cat insignia stitched proudly on the shoulders. He polished his badges and fastened them to his bush hat. He bathed, washed himself with Lifebuoy and slapped Brylcream into his hair. He found his crutch, and, taking the weight off his injured foot, he set out.
He had only paused briefly in India on his way to the front and he was anxious to see the sights. Chowringhee, Calcutta’s central avenue, exerted a pull that few serviceman could resist. It was a wide thoroughfare that followed the route of the Maidan, a railway carrying noisy trams laid out between it and the river. The road was jammed with traffic: coolie-drawn rickshaws, military vehicles, battered trucks, countless bicycles. Sacred cows, garlanded with flowers, enjoyed the right of way and wandered wherever they chose. The pavement side of the street bustled with life, the ramshackle shops and stalls promising everything the Empire had to offer. Edward sauntered happily, stopping for a shave from a slender barber who massaged the scalp and shoulders with ridiculously strong fingers. He bought chapatis and curry from roadside shacks, gambling that his guts were up to the challenge. He bought a Conan Doyle compendium for a handful of rupees. He allowed himself to be jostled into the heaving pit of humanity that was the Hogg Market and, by the time he was spat out at the other end, he found himself in possession of a miniature Taj Mahal carved from ivory, a new pair of shoes, a landscape of an Indian sunset in an enamel frame and a much lightened purse.
The light began to fade and Edward threw himself into a headlong bacchanal. He gorged on a steak dinner from Jimmy’s Kitchen, ogled the twenty-foot high cut-out of Jeanne Crain in ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ that had been lashed to the awning above the Tiger cinema, and joined the soldiers in drinking the bars of Chowringhee dry. He eventually found himself in the Nip Inn. The atmosphere was rowdy and febrile, hundreds of drunken soldiers and sailors taking advantage of an opportunity to get drunk and forget the war. As Edward drank his first pint a brawl broke out between a group of naval ratings and half a dozen airmen. Punches were thrown and furniture shattered. The management had long since given up trying to stop the fighting. They let the participants punch themselves out and then ejected those who were still standing.
Edward was standing at the bar with his second pint of warm beer. He looked out at the sea of green and blue uniforms. He was aware of the American airman behind him and tried to back out of the way so that the man could get to the bar to order his drinks. His crutches made moving awkward in such an enclosed space; the man was impatient, edging forwards, his shoulder jarring against Edward’s arm and spilling his pint.
“Careful, friend,” Edward said.
“What about it?” The man was drunk.
“Pushing and shoving isn’t going to get you anywhere.”