Time for a Tiger

Extracts from Time for a Tiger (1956)

‘East? They wouldn’t know the bloody East if they saw it. Not if you was to hand it to them on a plate would they know it was the East. That’s where the East is, there.’ He waved his hand wildly into the black night. ‘Out there, west. You wasn’t there, so you wouldn’t know. Now I was. Palestine Police from the end of the war till we packed up. That was the East. You was in India, and that’s not the East any more than this is. So you know nothing about it either. So you needn’t be talking.’

Nabby Adams, supine on the bed, grunted. It was four o’clock in the morning and he did not want to be talking. He had had a confused coloured dream about Bombay, shot with sharp pangs of unpaid bills. Over it all had brooded thirst, thirst for a warmish bottle of Tiger beer. Or Anchor. Or Carlsberg. He said, ‘Did you bring any beer back with you?’

‘And make up your mind about what bloody race you belong to. One minute it’s all about being a farmer’s boy in Northamptonshire and the next you’re on about the old days in Calcutta and what the British have done to Mother India and the snake-charmers and the bloody temple-bells. Ah, wake up, for God’s sake. You’re English right enough but you’re forgetting how to speak the bloody language, what with traipsing about with Punjabis and Sikhs and God knows what. You talk Hindustani in your sleep, man. Sort it out, for God’s sake. If you want to put a loincloth on, get cracking, but don’t expect the privileges –’ (the word came out in a wet blurr; the needle stuck for a couple of grooves) ‘the privileges, the privileges…’

Vorpal had the trick of adding a Malay enclitic to his utterances. This also had power to irritate, especially in the mornings. It irritated Nabby Adams that this should irritate him, but somewhere at the back of his brain was the contempt of the man learned in languages for the silly show-off, jingling the small change of ‘wallah’ and charpoy…

‘What you could do with is a nice strong cup of tea, sir. I’ll tell the kuki to make you one.’ ‘Does it really do any good, Nabby? (That was better.) ‘I’ve tried every damn thing.’….

His heart beating faster, his throat drying, Nabby whispered to the driver, ‘Not so bloody fast.’ ‘Tuan?’ ‘All right, all right.’ One of these days he must really get down to the language. There never seemed to be the time, somehow….

Relief brought an aching desire to be sitting in a kedai with a large bottle of Tiger or Anchor or Carlsberg in front of him….

He spoke clean grammatical Urdu….

Sultan Aladdin… had few illusions about his own people: amiable, well-favoured, courteous, they loved rest better than industry… their function was to remind the toiling Chinese, Indians and British of the ultimate vanity of labour.

“I should want to go home, like Fenella. I should be so tired of the shambles here, the obscurantism, the colour-prejudice, the laziness and ignorance, as to desire nothing better than a headship in a cold stone country school in England. But I love this country. I feel protective towards it. Sometimes just before dawn breaks, I feel that somehow I enclose it, contain it. I feel that it needs me. This is absurd, because snakes and scorpions are ready to bite me, a drunken Tamil is prepared to knife me, the Chinese in the town would like to spit at me, some day a Malay boy will run amok and try to tear me apart. But it doesn’t matter. I want to live here; I want to be wanted. Despite the sweat, despite the fever, the prickly heat, the mosquitoes, the terrorists, the fools at the bar of the club, despite Fenella.”

He rubbed his groin in a transport of vicarious concupiscence.

…it was a cardinal rule in the East not to show one’s true feelings.

‘Sir, we are trying to work because we are having to take the examination in a very brief time from now, but the younger boys are not realizing the importance of our labours and they are creating veritable pandemoniums while we are immersed in our studies. To us who are their lawful and appointed superiors they are giving overmuch insolence, nor are they sufficiently overawed by our frequent threatenings. I would be taking it, sir, as inestimable favour if you would deliver harsh words and verbal punishing to them all, sir, especially the Malay boys, who are severely lacking in due respectfulness and incorrigible to discipline also.’

‘Quite all right, sir. Plenty of time. You have a sleep, sir.’ Hood turned over with his fat bottom towards Nabby Adams. Thank God. Nabby Adams tiptoed over again to the serving-hatch, ordered another, downed it. He began to feel a great deal better. After yet another he felt better still. Poor old Robin Hood wasn’t such a bad type. Stupid, didn’t know a gear-box from a spare tyre, but he meant well. The world generally looked better. The sun shone, the palms shook in the faint breeze, a really lovely Malay girl passed by the window. Proud of carriage, in tight baju and rich sarong, she balanced voluptuous haunches. Her blue-black hair had some sort of a flower in it; how delicate the warm brown of her flat flower-like face. ‘What time is it, Nabby?’….

…it was a cardinal rule in the East not to show one’s true feelings.

“…as the cinema shows us, they are much more accessible and, for that matter, much more wanton than our own women”

His real wife, his houri, his paramour was everywhere waiting, genie-like, in a bottle. The hymeneal gouging-off of the bottle-top, the kiss of the brown bitter yeasty flow, the euphoria far beyond the release of detumescence.

At the back some newcomers were being given a resume of the plot.

Around them the gawping locals sat, amazed with an amazement that never grew less…

The East would always present that calm face of faint astonishment, unmoved at the anger, not understanding the bitterness.

It had, perhaps, not been a very edifying life. On the booze in England, in India, in Malaya… And then a couple of gins for breakfast and then the first beers of the day in a kedai … He had been driven out of that Eden…because of his sinful desire to taste what was forbidden.

“…reality’s always dull, you know…”

‘The country will absorb you and you will cease to be Victor Crabbe. You will less and less find it possible to do the work for which you were sent here. You will lose function and identity. You will be swallowed up and become another kind of eccentric. You may become a Muslim. You may forget your English, or at least lose your English accent. You may end in a kampong, no longer a foreigner, an old brownish man with many wives and children, one of the elders whom the young will be encouraged to consult on matters of the heart. You will be ruined.’

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