Horla Fiction (December 2020)

 

IN THE EXOTIC  ORIENT

by DON STOLL

 

Mr. Thomas Hedges, in care of:

OYO 19182 Hotel Montana

Pune Highway, near Shivajinagar ST Stand

Gautam Park Society, Gawliwada, Rao Colony

Lonavla, Maharashtra 410401, INDIA

19th December 2020

Dear Tom:

I hope this letter reaches you. Peak of the holiday season here and I know you’ll read this after all that’s passed, but Christmas won’t feel the same where you are anyway.   

One of my nurses said she could show me about e-mail. She said it’s faster and I said I don’t give a toss, you think my busy social life leaves me no time? She said getting no younger Mr. Hedges. I said my dad died just short of a hundred, I’ve got three weeks to go to pass him and I plan to keep going. She said Mr. Hedges you don’t look a day over ninety, then got serious and said a hundred’s nothing to sneeze at. She started cooing, saying I’ll get you there, give you whatever you want. I grinned, and knowing what I was thinking she grinned back.

I said what I want maybe I only think I want because I can’t remember what it was like. She laughed and said Mr. Hedges you make your letter too long your wrist will get tired. I knew what she was thinking so I laughed and said Luv in my experience there’s great rewards in making your wrist tired. A giggle that one is, wish she was my only nurse.             

Anyroad, Tom, your mum says you have a month at the Iyengar Institute, then you visit Rani’s family, then you both come home.

You see that I say England is Rani’s home too, Tom? Her being born in Sheffield makes the difference. You’ve gone London on us, maybe can’t be bothered to bring her up here to show off. And you’re worried I won’t behave, but I’ll be on my best. Your mum passed on the picture you sent, so I wonder is she really that light? All right if she isn’t, though. You love her, that’s enough for your grandad even if her people are from the exotic Orient.  

The exotic Orient’s something I’m not supposed to say even though exotic sounds like a good thing. Or so another nurse says, toffee-nosed lass she is for a glorified bedpan-changer. Told her my grandson’s visiting the exotic Orient, thought she’d have a stroke. I’m thinking been there Luv, know more about it than you do.    

But it got me thinking that for all I know, I’ve said nothing. And certain things I saw there as a young man and never told you—never told a soul—you should know now you’re talking about marrying Rani. Not to say they involve your lass, but it’s still information that I’d be shirking my duty to hold back.

Arriving in India in the summer of 1939, I thought I’d won the pools. We were at peace with Germany and the Prime Minister was saying Hitler’d said he had enough land. Course, people were saying the Prime Minister was a fool. But when you’re eighteen and there are young ladies about who think you cut a fine figure in your uniform and you’re posted to a Garden of Eden like Srinigar, looking down from a mile high and laughing at the heat. . . well, Adolf couldn’t lay a glove on me.

I’d landed a plum assignment as Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Nichols’ “personal secretary.” A university chap he was, broad-minded like his sort often are: had read about things that a bloke like myself had never heard of. Then, from hearing that such-and-such went on, would slip into convincing himself that was enough to make it all right.  

He’d stood me up against a wall while he drew a mark on it, level with the top of my head. Then he laid a tape measure against the wall and said I was exactly six feet. He said “Satisfying my curiosity, already saw you were tall and therefore could be trusted.”

Then he put his face up to the side of my head. He said “Breathe normally, Private, need a look at your skull.”

I said “Sir?” but he didn’t answer. Put his hands on my head and moved them around while he circled me like I was the earth and him the moon. He said “I can generally see them through the hair if it’s a proper short haircut, but to make sure you have to feel them.” I said “Them, sir?” and he said “The bumps on the skull that indicate intellectual and moral traits.”

He touched me in a couple of places and said, “This one indicates steadiness and this one indicates integrity, Private.”

So that was how I got my plum: I was tall and I had the right bumps on my skull!

I soon found out that Nichols was a student of more than the skull and intellect and character.

Tuesday or Wednesday of my first week, he’d asked for tea. The other times I’d taken him tea he was working: writing letters or filling out forms or whatnot. But this time he was reading, and the book had a cover was bound to catch your eye: picture of the Hindu lass with all the arms.

“Interested in mythology, Private?” Nichols said when he caught me looking.

Blokes of his sort like hearing that you know who you are and who they are, so I said “Bit above my head, sir.”

He put down the book.

“Only if you worry about the minutiae, Private. The point’s to get to the heart of the matter, which anyone can grasp.”

He pointed at the picture and said “What do you see?” and I picked up the book.

I said “Half-naked woman with her foot on a bloke’s chest. Blue she is, and holding some other bloke’s bleeding head like she’s Salome with the head of John the Baptist. Her mouth open like she’s excited, wants to drink the blood.”

“And her skirt and necklace?” he said, smiling a superior smile.

Tom, I think this is a famous story, so you probably know what I’m talking about: her skirt was little human arms. Her necklace was little human heads.

He said, smiling the whole while, “Without bothering with names, which would confuse you, the woman is a goddess who has killed a demon, feeding her blood-lust which now threatens to run away with itself and destroy the world.”

He looked at me, but not so much at my eyes. More like at the bumps on my head.

“The chap whose chest she’s put her foot on is a god,” he said. “Her husband, lying beneath her feet to prevent her stomping about and continuing her destructive rampage. His plan is she’ll recognize him and her embarrassment about her rage will bring her up short.”

Nothing came to me to say.

“Private, it’s about the need for men to restrain the passions of women when they allow their passions to run away with themselves.”

He smiled. Wasn’t a pleasant sort of smile, though. More like a wolf baring its teeth when it spies a lamb. Not that I was meant to be the lamb.

“The passions of women, sir,” I said so he’d know I was still following along.

“Mind you, Private, there’s one passion women have that you don’t want to restrain.”  

He showed more teeth and then just like that the wolf smile was gone.                 

“The Hindus may not understand the story that way,” he said. “Yet by way of myth the less evolved civilizations can reveal truths about themselves of which they’re not consciously aware. The Oriental civilizations are dominated by unreasonable passions because the men permit themselves to be too much influenced by the fair sex.”

I nodded.

“Notice that in ‘controlling’ his wife, this poor chap has adopted a womanly passivity when he ought simply to take her in hand and force her to stop.”     

He paused so he could think.   

“The myth is an unconscious revelation both of what a civilization needs in order to be strong, and of why this particular civilization is weak.”        

He took the book back from me. I knew I was dismissed.

I’d forgot to ask why the woman was blue. I asked the next day, saying got to be some meaning to it. Can’t say I got a straight answer.

“I’m going to need your services at a very special place tonight—all costs on me—where you’ll see a chap who shares my fascination with mythology.”

He winks and says, “Not that he’ll be the principal attraction.”

I ask if I’m meant to get a bite before going with him to his “special place.” He says I’ll eat at his expense, I only need to mind the tippling so I can see to his every need.

“Well, not every need,” he winks. “Got others to do that.”

So I start to get the picture.   

Place he takes me to is a big house surrounded by high walls. Guard at the gate wearing a turban, has a mustache you could hang a bloke with.

I look at Nichols and he smiles and says, “Call it a salon.”

We get inside and I see that if it used to be a house, it’s not anymore. Been converted into an establishment for all sorts of entertainment: gambling, drinking, women. Nichols asks for whiskey. Gets me a pint and says “Nothing stronger for you, Private, and take them slow.”  

Yet there’s still something toff about the place. Furniture you think twice about dropping your ass on, fancy art covering the walls. You feel like even if one of the young beauties draped cross the furniture works you up to a head of steam, you should blow it off quiet.

But there’s also blokes that seem to look right past the women. Blokes with a stiff look to them like to let you know they’re here for something else, you can gander at the women all you want but their purposes are higher.   

Chap giving you the strongest sense of that was a Hindu bloke. Held himself like he had a saber up his ass, move an inch in the wrong direction and it’s all over for him. He looked at me once, when Nichols crooked a finger my way and I went to hear what he wanted. But it wasn’t really to look at me. More like straight through me like I was a window, and one in need of washing. Was a bit of chat between Stiff-Ass and Nichols, who got a different look than I did. Like the need for washing still applied, but you don’t dare to look through Nichols.   

There was another Private bowing and fetching like me. I say who’s the monkey with Nichols and he says professor name of Shastri. I say “Professor of what?” and he says—smirking, like—“Professor of Know-all.”   

I get close, try to listen in. Too many people about and too much going on and too many words I didn’t know, some of them Hindu. But at least those stuck in my head because of the strange way they sounded: Kali, Shiva, Shakti—had no clue how to spell them back then—others I’ve forgot. Chat between Stiff-Ass and Nichols started off friendly but went another way fast, soon Nichols is doing all the talking.

Professor finally pipes up and holds his own. He’s flapping his lips and pointing a paw at Nichols but trying to keep his voice low, but I pick up bits and bobs: “Mr. Gandhi” this and “nonviolent” that. Came through pretty clear that Nichols thought Gandhi was a fool, which might have been the only point of agreement between himself and the professor: professor says at one point, “I think you’re right about nonviolence, and I’m quite happy to go the other route.”    

Professor finishes his meal, no easy task given how much he’d been talking. As he buggers off, looking more constipated than when he’d come, Nichols says, “Pity you can’t call on the fury of your gods.”

Professor stares and Nichols smiles his wolf smile at a woman, saying, “Without their help the might of the British Empire will always prevail.”

Professor says, “Even in Christian lands there are scholars who won’t mock other peoples’ gods.”

It stuck with me because he said it so slow and clear.

“They argue that the reality and power of the gods reside in their expression of the spirit of the believers,” he says, Nichols still showing his teeth to the woman like the professor’s not worth his time and all he’s got in mind is taking a nibble out of her. “A spirit handed down generation to generation so that the living continue to feel the suffering of the dead. The British Empire has brought much suffering and death to India. So in time it must reckon with the fury not only of the living, but also of the dead.”

Nichols’ young beauty’s wearing a red top of a sort of satiny material, sparkling all over with sequins and such and buttoned right up to her neck. Nichols, cheeky sod, starts undoing the buttons and says to her, “He expects us to be frightened of your dead when even your living will give us whatever we want.”        

Next morning Professor Monkey was on my mind even though I say Shastri to Nichols. Nichols didn’t want to tell me about him, though, only says his daughter’s the most beautiful woman in Srinigar. Married to a sepoy named Captain Kapoor, he says, full of himself like her father. It makes me think. That because her father’s trained her to want a bloke who’ll walk all over her, or because she’s got enough sand in her to stand up to a strong bloke?

Course, I don’t say that. Nichols’ voice had gone funny when he talked about how beautiful the lady was, so I know that I say anything about her character, that’s treading on dangerous ground. I only say loads of beauties in Srinigar, she must be special. He says she’s the prize. I say not more beautiful than the women last night and he says even more beautiful, Private. I say hope you don’t mind me asking sir, but will we be going back to that particular establishment? He says not till Mrs. Nichols goes away again, she gets back this afternoon. I catch myself before saying that I didn’t know there was a Mrs. Nichols.               

It was Mrs. Nichols’ return after a fortnight with her parents in Amritsar—father a regimental commander there—that revealed in full the nature of my responsibilities to her husband. A good gaffer, Nichols was, only asking for “steadiness and integrity,” which it turned out I needed in order to keep mum about what he would get up to in his office in the afternoon. His visitors were the wives of other officers so my integrity was needed to keep his secret, especially from his own wife.

And my steadiness was needed to give the impression there was no secret to be kept, since a number of dodgy situations arose. These would pop up when Mrs. Nichols came round his office during the day, when shifty eyes would have given away the game. I was to betray no sign of nerves, never mind if one of Nichols’ ladies had joined him in the office just ahead of the missus appearing at the door. My duty was to get her well away from the office, whether that meant escorting her to the tea shop down the road if she looked tired, or making like a mule packing her parcels about if she was shopping. . . whatever.    

I could always count on Nichols for his part. Didn’t matter when his lady had arrived, he’d have her out the door ten minutes before the next hour so I could bring the missus back at five till. He aimed to put up the front of a strict military schedule organized according to hours and half-hours, all business and no funny business. In fairness, it wasn’t altogether a front since he worked all morning. He reserved mornings for work and afternoons for pleasure, almost never mixing the two.

The exception came from one of his most important jobs, which was referring soldiers belonging to the regiment for discipline. Nichols had got quite puffed up about the broad discretion he was allowed in this area. He told me—whether it was true or not—that the consequences dished out to misbehaving chaps depended on whether he’d given thumbs-up or thumbs-down. He said his power was owing to having always played the straight arrow. But he finally went crooked with a case that involved a sepoy who was none other than the aforementioned Captain Kapoor, husband of “the most beautiful woman in Srinigar.”

Full of himself, Nichols had said about Kapoor. Daft too, as it turned out. Thinking the regiment wouldn’t be ready for the Japs—thinking the same as everybody else—he decided not to pretend otherwise like everybody else. He wrote to The Times of India and they published his letter whingeing about the commander’s “incompetence” and “negligence bordering on treason.”  

Yet in the end who was the daft one? I expect Kapoor knew the danger he was inviting and decided that for King and Country he’d lay his head on the chopping block. What was Nichols thinking, though? Keeping work and pleasure separate had worked out well for him. But the chance to use his work in order to take pleasure with Kapoor’s wife was one he couldn’t resist.     

I remember the afternoon just after the letter appeared when Kapoor’s wife came to see Nichols on his invitation. Sari, silk scarf, dot on her forehead like a squashed pimento. But the dot didn’t give me the chuckle it usually did. She was that lovely.

Nichols had me under orders to keep it discreet with his ladies, meaning I was to make eye contact only to say hello. Then I “promote the illusion of their invisibility,” as he put it, by keeping my eyes down.

Kapoor’s wife is that lovely, though, I can’t stop myself looking. Not for long, mind: can’t have gone on for a second past hello, then I remember my place. But in that instant she looks back at me and I have the answer to my question about her. I see there’s sand in her all right, and no bloke’s going to use her as a doormat.    

Don’t want to describe her since it would take a poet. But the eyes more than any other part have stayed with me, so got to make an effort. Even though we didn’t know about black holes, that’s what comes to mind as I think back. Not the appearance since the idea of black holes as I understand it is they let out no light, and this lady’s eyes had a shine like the Queen’s tiara. I mean the effect of black holes, because I was sucked in by them so I didn’t care if I ever got out. I actually had the sensation of being yanked off my feet and pulled toward her.  

Course, she had no intention to suck me in. More like to push me away, and that was a powerful feeling too.        

Anyroad, Nichols’ callers would pass through an anteroom to get to his office. For the sake of the discretion he demanded, I would sit on a chair in the hallway outside the anteroom. But he’d never had a native woman call, or any woman as beautiful, so I thought just this once I would eavesdrop. Keeping my eyes down I escorted the lady in, then came back in a jif with tea and biscuits, bowing and scraping. I left quiet like and crossed the anteroom and went out and shut the door.

Sat in my chair with “West of the Pecos,” by Zane Grey. But racing through it was no distraction, only made my heart race faster. I went back to Nichols’ door and knelt, pressing my ear against the keyhole.  

Meeting wasn’t going like Nichols had planned. His idea—not that I’d asked, but you didn’t need to be Einstein—was to trade merciful treatment of her husband for her “favors.” Yet what I sussed was she’d hijacked their little chat and was giving Nichols a good bollocking. I can tell Nichols wants to put out the fire because I hear him try to interrupt with a mild “There, there,” but the lady’s not having it. She says “Don’t touch me” and I hotfoot it so as not get caught.  

I’m back in my chair but I can’t sail through my book now. I’m itching to know if Nichols has managed to get round the lady. I close the book, study up on the cover that shows a Texas Ranger sort roping a steer, pretty lady on a horse at his side. They’re meant to be on a cattle drive, looks like. But she’s not pretty like Kapoor’s wife and maybe not as much sand in her either—roping them steers can’t be as dangerous as standing up to Nichols in his office like she done—so my mind goes back to her.    

The lady herself comes out. She leaves like I’m not there.   

I go into the anteroom, where I see all I need to see because Nichols’ door is open: that half-naked blue woman was with him, her bare foot on the poor sod’s chest. Howling she was too, or singing. Or singing so you couldn’t tell the difference between singing and howling. Would never have mistaken her for Jo Stafford if you want to call it singing.

She looked my way and I thought I was a goner, but I couldn’t run because fear had me rooted to the spot. I could only shut my eyes—and when I opened them she was gone!

Doc says it’s a heart attack killed Nichols. Course I don’t tell him about the blue woman.   

Truth is, I never told a soul till now because the more time passes, the more it seems like a fairy story. But I got to tell you, Tom, because as my grandson you deserve to know.

You’ll think your grandad’s gone round the bend. But you ever know me as anything but hard-headed, not listening to the rubbish other blokes talk? I saw what I saw with my own eyes.

Not saying your Rani’s anything like Captain Kapoor’s wife, you do something to anger her. Keep your guard up, though. Exotic Orient’s something we’re not supposed to say? Well excuse me, but there’s things about a place like India that the white race can’t understand. Maybe we were never meant to set foot there. Never mind that your Rani’s born in Sheffield. Your grandad’s not saying don’t marry her—just saying please be careful.     

Sorry my letter’s so long, Tom. Took three days to write. But you needed to hear, lad.

Love,

Grandad

 

***

Don Stoll has failed to find a place in the film industry despite several years of residence in Southern California. He believes that lack of photogeneity and lack of talent have blocked his way. In recent times, he has been writing ‘the noirish’ as well as horror, with fiction appearing in PULP MODERN, HOOSIER NOIR, PUNK NOIR , BRISTOL NOIR , CLOSE TO THE BONE, YELLOW MAMA and more. In 2008, he and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasising women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages. Previous writing by him for Horla can be found by entering his name in the search engine at top right of any of our pages.

Title photo credit – Pedro Araújo on Unsplash

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