The crackle of gunshots bounced between the mountainsides, the percussion fading with each return of echo. Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett sat side by side on a small level patch, playing gun snap. They had on the table before them two decks of cards, a box of ammunition and two Mark VI service revolvers. Fifteen yards away was a gibbet with two rows of six tin cans suspended from it on pieces of string.
The idea was to be the first person to put a bullet through every can. Sometimes, for a change, they went down to the valley, threw bottles out into a lake, and sank them with rifles. These were fine ways for two old fighter pilots to pass the last hour of the day as the mist rose up and supper was cooked in the bungalows.
Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death. Neither of them missed the killing, and if they went out after duck or small game, they never returned with more than their families could eat. They had both, many times, seen the way in which the light suddenly goes out of a man’s eyes as he passes out of the world, and it was just the same with an animal. There was no longer any triumph in the kill, the guilt was as intense as it had ever been, but still they yearned for the passionate oblivion of the hunt.
There is a kind of man who, having been at war, finds peacetime intolerable, because he cannot develop the civilian’s talent for becoming obsessed with irrelevant details and procedures. He hates the delays and haverings, the tedious diplomacy, the terrible lack of energy and discipline, and, above all, he hates the feeling that what he is doing is not important.
If you have struggled for the freedom of France, or have fought to keep Zeppelins out of the skies over London, what else can seem important thereafter?
Daniel and Hugh were fortunate to be involved in the manufacture of tea, because everything in that industry depends upon good timing and good teamwork, and strictly understood hierarchies of responsibility. Daniel loved the huge and beautiful machinery in the factory, and could not resist rolling up his sleeves and helping the Singhalese engineers when it broke down. Machinery was so much easier to deal with than people. There was always a precise set of reasons why a machine may not be working, and there were always completely logical solutions. People were slippery and elusive, changeable and moody. You thought you understood them and then found out that you did not. You thought they loved you, and then they suddenly turned spiteful or indifferent.
Daniel enjoyed the sheer reasonableness of the machinery, but he also enjoyed the brotherhood of mechanics, and he reflected quite often that he had more in common, and more enjoyment, with the engineers than he did with those British people who congregated at the club. He had picked up some Singhalese, in addition to the Tamil of the tea workers, and was finding that the more languages you know, the better you understand your own. He realised that languages divide the world up differently from each other. He was half French, and had often wondered why it was that his French personality was different from his British one. In French he was more emphatic and rhetorical. Somebody had told him once that in Russian there was no word for blue. There was bound to be a word for pushrod, or tappet, though.
It was very fortunate for him that he had the company of Hugh Bassett, who had spent his war flying Sopwith triplanes and Camels over France, in the Royal Naval Air Service. The RNAS had been operating out of airfields alongside the Royal Flying Corps, and they had an inexhaustible amount to talk about, to mull over, to repeat. Both had binged beyond the borders of sanity, knew the same jokes and ribald songs, had overflown the same strip of desolation month after month; fought the same battle to keep flying sickness disorder at bay, to remain optimistic, to perform over and over again the impossible trick of trampling their own fear underfoot every time they sprinted to the cockpit. Daniel wondered if he had ever been truly courageous at all, but had rather been seduced by the wondrous beauty and excitement of flying, consoled by the airman’s simple fatalism. If today’s the day, then today’s the day. Goodbye, world, it was good to know you. All I ask is to die a clean death, one that’s not by burning.
But now he and Hugh, and the rest of those who had survived, had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with. Some became drunks; others fell quiet and imprisoned themselves inside themselves; some foresaw a brave new world and strode out towards it; others returned to what they had been before, and turned the war into the memory of an outrageous dream from which they had at last awoken. Most were as proud of what they had done as they were amazed to be yet alive.
Archie and Esther
In late May of 1925 Archie was delivered to Taprobane in the early evening, with the intention of spending the first two weeks of his annual three-month leave with his brother, and then going snipe shooting in the wetlands west of Trincomalee.
He had havered over the invitation for some time. The fact was that his long unrequited passion for Daniel’s wife made it painful for him to be with them. He felt cut off and safe in Peshawar or Simla, or in the Hindu Kush. In those places Rosie was a remote and beautiful dream, and that she existed at all was a kind of joy to him, and a pleasure. He could bivouac in a nullah, with his sepoys slumbering about him, and gaze up at the stars, remembering Rosie sipping tea, Rosie as a little girl, Rosie playing tennis, Rosie at prayer in church or talking earnestly about poetry in the conservatory at Eltham. Archie cared not a whit for poetry, beyond ‘How Horatius Kept the Bridge’, but Rosie’s bright-eyed passion for it almost made him believe in its importance. The way she talked about it, you’d think that it was as vital as bread. He loved her blue eyes, her chestnut hair, her freckles, her bohemian armbands, and the way that her hips moved when she walked. He loved her soft voice, and the shadows of sorrow in her eyes that had never quite gone away, even after marrying his brother.
That wedding day had provided the most painful hours of his life. It had been completely unbearable to think of her in Daniel’s arms, night after night, for all the years to come, raising the children that he would never have, and would so much have wanted. On the boat back to India he had written a long confessional letter to Daniel: ‘… One has dreams. It is very hard to endure the sight of them fluttering away like a flock of sparrows. It leaves a taste in the mouth like licking an old penny.’ He had concluded the letter by asking to be buried in Peshawar.
Archie thought a great deal about death. One saw a great deal of it on the North-West Frontier, and the tribesmen seemed to find a value in it much higher than any they attached to life. To them, the latter was just an irksome anteroom to paradise. Archie thought they yearned for death because their religious fanaticism made any enjoyment of this life completely haram. Life was not to be enjoyed until you were dead, and in paradise.
The fun in Archie’s life was of the unenduring, self-destructive kind. He drank too much, and too much enjoyed the danger of being up in the mountains, always in imminent jeopardy of avalanche, ambush, capture and torture. But the most destructive pleasure of his life was thinking of Rosie, becoming paralysed by dreams.
It was therefore with great misgivings that he had agreed to come to Ceylon instead of taking ship straight back to Southampton, and now that he was out on the terrace with Rosie and Daniel, sipping tea as they watched the mist rise up in the valley below, those misgivings became even greater. This was too much like paradise, and something was bound to go wrong.
Rosie was talking animatedly about her work in the clinic: ‘… and the natives don’t trust our medicine at all, because they’ve got their own, and so they only come to us when they’re desperate, and obviously by then it’s too late, and they die anyway, and of course that means they trust our medicine even less.’
‘Damned awkward,’ said Archie, puffing on his cigarette. He smoked Abdullas when he could get them, and was enjoying the first of a pack he had bought in Colombo before setting off.
‘Worse than awkward,’ said Daniel. ‘You build a lovely expensive clinic for your workers, and then it’s only a few Europeans who use it.’
‘It’s so frustrating!’ said Rosie.
‘There must be something you can do,’ said Archie.
‘What do you do in India these days? It seems like a lifetime since I was there. Has anything changed?’ asked Daniel.
‘No, it’s just the same. On the North-West Frontier, the only medicine they believe in is the bullet, if you don’t count things like swallowing a verse of the Koran. It’s completely different in Calcutta or Delhi, obviously. The more sophisticated Indians use both systems at once, as far as I can see, depending on the expense. Rosie, my dear, will you be using the clinic … on the day?’
‘Well, I see that … forgive me … I know one is not supposed to draw attention to such things, but … Well, it is quite evident, if you don’t mind me saying.’
Rosie patted her stomach happily. ‘Oh, you mean this!’
‘Yes. And congratulations. I imagine it’s due quite soon?’
‘Six weeks,’ said Rosie. ‘We’re so happy about it, aren’t we?’ she said, turning to Daniel.
‘We are indeed. Poor little Esther isn’t, though. She doesn’t want the competition. She’s very grumpy, and says, “Daddy, make it go away.” She says she’s going to give it to someone else.’
‘So will you be having the baby at your clinic?’
‘One normally gives birth at home,’ said Rosie. ‘I expect we’ll get the midwife in, and hope that she’s here on time.’
‘I can’t imagine what it’s like, giving birth,’ said Archie. ‘Must be hell. Strange how easy it is for cats and dogs, eh? And such damned hard work for you. The curse of Eve, eh?’
‘I’d rather not think about it,’ said Rosie.
‘Sorry. I’m just glad it’s not something I’ll ever be called upon to do.’
‘Well, I’m glad I don’t have to creep about being ambushed by Pathans,’ said Rosie.
‘We have a lot of fun too,’ said Archie. ‘We put on a new Gilbert and Sullivan every six months, and once we did a mock Romeo and Juliet with our largest officer as Juliet. You should have seen him mince. The sepoys think we’re mad, of course. And then there’s the Peshawar Vale Hunt.’
At that moment Esther came out in her nightdress, with her thumb in her mouth. ‘I can’t sleep,’ she announced. ‘You’re too noisy, and I’m not tired, and it’s not even dark.’
‘I think the plan failed,’ said Daniel to Rosie. ‘I did say there wasn’t any point in sending her to bed early.’
‘Well, I thought that Archie might want us to himself on his first night here. Children can be such a distraction, and then they take all the attention, and you can’t talk about anything else.’
‘Oh, you shouldn’t have done that for me,’ exclaimed Archie. ‘My niece is adorable, and I see her so little.’ He beckoned to her, saying, ‘Viens, chérie, come and sit on my smelly old knee.’
Esther settled herself onto his knee with much aplomb, her thumb never leaving her mouth, and he put his hand to the side of her head, pushing it against his shoulder.
‘Suffer the little children,’ he said happily.
‘You do smell cigaretty,’ said Esther.
‘Nothing like a child for honesty,’ said Archie. ‘Is “cigaretty” nice or nasty?’
‘A bit of both. Daddy doesn’t smoke.’
‘Everyone thinks I’m very strange,’ said Daniel. ‘I don’t smoke, and to make matters worse, I’m half French, though it doesn’t much show. I prefer coffee to tea, and I’d rather be at home than at the club.’
‘You are strange, little brother,’ said Archie. ‘I always did say so.’