The Voyage Out
The ship that was carrying me away from England to Africa in the autumn of 1938 was called the SS Mantola. She was an old paint-peeling tub of 9,000 tons with a single tall funnel and a vibrating engine that rattled the tea-cups in their saucers on the dining-room table.
The voyage from the Port of London to Mombasa would take two weeks and on the way we were going to call in at Marseilles, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Port Sudan and Aden. Nowadays you can fly to Mombasa in a few hours and you stop nowhere and nothing is fabulous any more, but in 1938 a journey like that was full of stepping-stones and East Africa was a long way from home, especially if your contract with the Shell Company said that you were to stay out there for three years at a stretch. I was twenty-two when I left. I would be twenty-five before I saw my family again.
What I still remember so clearly about that voyage is the extraordinary behaviour of my fellow passengers. I had never before encountered that peculiar Empire-building breed of Englishman who spends his whole life working in distant corners of British territory. Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foot-hills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet. For one thing, they spoke a language of their own. If they worked in East Africa, their sentences were sprinkled with Swahili words, and if they lived in India then all manner of dialects were intermingled. As well as this, there was a whole vocabulary of much-used words that seemed to be universal among all these people. An evening drink, for example, was always a sundowner. A drink at any other time was a chota peg. One's wife was the memsahib. To have a look at something was to have a shufti. And from toat one, interestingly enough, RAF/Middle East slang for a reconnaissance plane in the last war was a shufti kite. Something of poor quality was shenzi. Supper was tiffin and so on and so forth. The Empirebuilders' jargon would have filled a dictionary. All in all, it was rather wonderful for me, a conventional young lad from the suburbs, to be thrust suddenly into the middle of this pack of sinewy sunburnt gophers and their bright bony little wives, and what I liked best of all about them was their eccentricities.
It would seem that when the British live for years in a foul and sweaty climate among foreign people they maintain their sanity by allowing themselves to go slightly dotty. They cultivate bizarre habits that would never be tolerated back home, whereas in far-away Africa or in Ceylon or in India or in the-Federated Malay States they could do as they liked. On the SS Mantola just about everybody had his or her own particular maggot in the brain, and for me it was like watching a kind of non-stop pantomime throughout the entire voyage. Let me tell you about two or three of these comedians.
I was sharing my cabin with the manager of a cotton mill in the Punjab called U.N. Savory (I could hardly believe those initials when I first saw them on his trunk) and I had the upper berth. From my pillow I could therefore look out of the port-hole clear across the lifeboat deck and over the wide blue ocean beyond. On our fourth morning at sea I happened to wake up very early. I lay in my bunk gazing idly through the port-hole and listening to the gentle snores of U.N. Savory, who lay immediately below me. Suddenly, the figure of a naked man, naked as a jungle ape, went swooshing past the port-hole and disappeared! He had come and gone in absolute silence and I lay there wondering whether perhaps I had seen a phantom or a vision or even a naked ghost.
A minute or two later the naked figure went by again! This time I sat up sharply. I wanted to get a better look at this leafless phantom of the sunrise, so I crawled down to the foot of my bunk and stuck my head through the porthole. The lifeboat deck was deserted. The Mediterranean was calm and milky blue and a brilliant yellow sun was just edging up over the horizon. The deck was so empty and silent that I began to wonder seriously whether I might not after all have seen a genuine apparition, the ghost perhaps of a passenger who had fallen overboard on an earlier voyage and who now spent his eternal life running above the waves and clambering back on to his lost ship.
All of a sudden, from my little spy-hole, I spotted a movement at the far end of the deck. Then a naked body materialized. But this was no ghost. It was all too solid flesh, and the man was moving swiftly over the deck between the lifeboats and the ventilators and making no sound at all as he came galloping towards me. He was short and stocky and slightly pot-bellied in his nakedness, with a-
But hang on a minute!. . . What was this? . . There was someone with him! . . . There was another fellow scooting along beside him this time! . . . As naked as the Major he was, too! . . . What on earth was going on aboard this ship? . . . Did all the male passengers get up at dawn and go tearing round the deck with no clothes on? . . . Was this some Empire-building body-building ritual I didn't know about? . . . The two were coming closer now. . . My God, the second one looked like a woman! . . . It was a woman! . . . A naked woman as bare-bosomed as Venus de Milo . . . But there the resemblance ceased for I could see now that this scrawny white-skinned figure was none other than Mrs Major Griffiths herself. . . I froze in my port-hole and my eyes became riveted on this nude female scarecrow galloping ever so proudly alongside her bareskinned spouse, her elbows bent and her head held high, as much as to say, 'Aren't we a jolly fine couple, the two of us, and isn't he a fine figure of a man, my husband the Major?'
'Come along there!' the Major called out to me. 'If the little memsahib can do it, so can you! Fifty times round the deck is only four miles!'
'Lovely morning,' I murmured as they went galloping by. 'Beautiful day.'
A couple of hours later, I was sitting opposite the Major and his little memsahib at breakfast in the dining-room, and the knowledge that not long ago I had seen that same little memsahib with not a stitch on her made my spine creep. I kept my head down and pretended neither of them were there.
'Ha!' the Major cried suddenly. 'Aren't you the young fellow who had his head sticking through the port-hole this morning?'
'Who, me?' I murmured, keeping my nose in the cornflakes.
'Yes, you!' the Major cried, triumphant. 'I never forget a face!'
'I . . . I was just getting a breath of air,' I mumbled.
'You were getting a darn sight more than that!' the Major cried out, grinning. 'You were getting an eyeful of the memsahib, that's what you were doing!'
The whole of our table of eight people suddenly became silent and looked in my direction. I felt my cheeks beginning to boil.
'I can't say I blame you,' the Major went on, giving his wife an enormous wink. It was his turn to be proud and gallant now. 'In fact, I don't blame you at all. Would you blame him?' he asked, addressing the rest of the table. 'After all, we're only young once. And, as the poet says. . .' he paused, giving the dreadful wife another colossal wink. . . 'a thing of beauty is a joy for ever. '
'Oh, do shut up, Bonzo,' the wife said, loving it. 'Back in Allahabad,' the Major said, looking at me
now, 'I make a point of playing half-a-dozen chukkas every morning before breakfast. Can't do that on board ship, you know. So I have to get my exercise in other ways.'
I sat there wondering how one played this game of chuckers. 'Why can't you do it?' I said, desperate to change the subject.
'Why can't I do what?' the Major said. 'Play chuckers on the ship?' I said.
The Major was one of those men who chewed his porridge. He stared at me with pale-grey glassy eyes, chewing slowly. 'I hope you're not trying to tell me that you have never played polo in your life,' he said.
'Polo,' I said. 'Ah yes, of course, polo. At school we used to play it on bicycles with hockey sticks.'
The Major's stare switched suddenly to a fierce glare and he stopped chewing. He glared at me with such contempt and horror, and his face went so crimson, I thought he might be going to have a seizure.
From then on, neither the Major nor his wife would have anything to do with me. They changed their table in the dining-room and they cut me dead whenever we met on deck. I had been found guilty of a great and unforgivable crime. I hadjeered, or so they thought, at the game of polo, the sacred sport of Anglo-Indians and royalty. Only a bounder would do that.
Then there was the elderly Miss Trefusis, who quite often sat at the same dining-room table as me. Miss Trefusis was all bones and grey skin, and when she walked her body was bent forward in a long curve like a boomerang. She told me she owned a small coffee farm in the highlands of Kenya and that she had known Baroness Blixen very well. I myself had read and loved both Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales, and I listened enthralled to everything Miss Trefusis told me about that fine writer who called herself Isak Dinesen.
'She was dotty, of course,' Miss Trefusis said. 'Like all of us who live out there, she went completely dotty in the end.'
'You aren't dotty,' I said.
'Oh yes, I am,' she said firmly and very seriously.
'Everyone on this ship is as dotty as a dumpling. You don't notice it because you're young. Young people are not watchful. They only look at themselves. '
'I saw Major Griffiths and his wife running round the deck naked the other morning,' I said.
'You call that dotty?' Miss Trefusis said with a snort.
'I didn't think so.'
'You've got a few shocks coming to you, young man, before you're very much older, you mark my words,' she said. 'People go quite barmy when they live too long in Africa. That's where you're off to, isn't it?'
'Yes,' I said.
'You'll go barmy for sure,' she said, 'like the rest of us.'
The was eating an orange at the time and I noticed suddenly that she was not eating it in the normal way. In the first place she had speared it from the fruit bowl with her fork instead of taking it in her fingers. And now, with knife and fork, she was making a series of neat incisions in the skin all around the orange. Then, very delicately, using the points of her knife and fork, she peeled the skin away in eight separate pieces, leaving the bare fruit beautifully exposed. Still using knife and fork, she separated the juicy segments and began to eat them slowly, one by one, with her fork.
'Do you always eat an orange like that?' I said.
'May I ask why?'
'I never touch anything I eat with my fingers,' she said.
'Good Lord, don't you really?'
'Never. I haven't since I was twenty-two.'
'Is there a reason for that?' I asked her.
'Of course there's a reason. Fingers are filthy.'
'But you wash your hands.'
'I don't sterilize them,' Miss Trefusis said. 'Nor do you. They're full of bugs. Disgusting dirty things, fingers. Just think what you do with them!'
I sat there going through the things I did with my fingers. 'It doesn't bear thinking about, does it?' Miss Trefusis said. 'Fingers are just implements. They are the gardening implements of the body, the shovels and the forks. You push them into everything.'
'We seem to survive,' I said.
'Not for long you won't,' she said darkly.
I watched her eating her orange, spearing the little boats one after the other with her fork. I could have told her that the fork wasn't sterilized either, but I kept quiet.
'Toes are even worse,' she said suddenly.
'I beg your pardon?'
'They're the worst of all,' she said.
'What's wrong with toes?'
'They are the nastiest part of the human body!' she announced vehemently.
'Worse than fingers?'
'There's no comparison,' she snapped. 'Fingers are foul and filthy, but toes! Toes are reptilian and viperish! I don't wish to talk about them!'
I was getting a bit confused. 'But one doesn't eat with one's toes,' I said.
'I never said you did,' Miss Trefusis snapped.
'Then what's so awful about them?' I persisted.
'Uck!' she said. 'They are like little worms sticking out of your feet. I hate them, I hate them! I can't bear to look at them!'
'Then how do you cut your toenails?'
'I don't,' she said. 'My boy does it for me.'
I wondered why she was 'Miss' if she'd been married and had a boy of her own. Perhaps he was illegitimate. 'How old is your son?' I asked, treading carefully.
'No, no, no!' she cried. 'Don't you know anything? A "boy" is one's native servant. Didn't you learn that when you read Isak Dinesen?'
'Ah yes, of course,' I said, remembering. Absentmindedly I took an orange myself and was about
to start peeling it.
'Don't,' Miss Trefusis said, shuddering. 'You'll catch something if you do that. Use your knife and fork. Go on. Try it.'
I tried it. It was rather fun. There was something satisfying about cutting the skin to just the right depth and then peeling away the segments.
'There you are,' she said. 'Well done. '
'Do you employ a lot of "boys" on your coffee farm?' I asked her.
'About fifty,' she said.
'Do they go barefoot?'
'Mine don't,' she said. 'No one works for me without shoes on. It costs me a fortune, but it's worth it.'
I liked Miss Trefusis. She was impatient, intelligent, generous and interesting. I felt she would come to my rescue at any time, whereas Major Griffiths was vapid, vulgar, arrogant and unkind, the sort of man who'd leave you to the crocodiles. He might even push you in. Both of them, of course, were completely dotty. Everyone on the ship was dotty, but none, as it turned out, was quite as dotty as my cabin companion, U.N. Savory.
The first sign of his dottiness was revealed to me one evening as our ship was running between Malta and Port Said. It had been a stifling hot afternoon and I was having a brief rest on my upper berth before dressing for dinner.
Dressing? Oh yes, indeed. We all dressed for dinner every single evening on board that ship. The male species of the Empire-builder, whether he is camping in the jungle or is at sea in a rowing-boat, always dresses for dinner, and by that I mean white shirt, black tie, dinner-jacket, black trousers and black patent-leather shoes, the full regalia, and to hell with the climate.
I lay still on my bunk with my eyes half open. Below me, U. N. Savory was getting dressed. There wasn't room in the cabin for two of us to change our clothes simultaneously, so we took it in turns to go first. It was his turn to dress first tonight. He had tied his bow-tie and now he was putting on his black dinner-jacket. I was watching him rather dreamily through half-closed eyes, and I saw him reaching into his sponge-bag and take out a small carton. He stationed himself in front of the washbasin mirror, took the lid off the carton and dipped his fingers into it. The fingers came out with a pinch of white powder or crystals, and this stuff he proceeded to sprinkle very carefully over the shoulders of his dinner-jacket. Then he replaced the lid on the carton and put it back in the sponge-bag.
Suddenly I was fully alert. What on earth was the man up to? I didn't want him to know I'd seen, so I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. This is a rum business, I thought. Why in the world would U.N. Savory want to sprinkle white stuff on to the shoulders of his dinner jacket? And what was it, anyway? Could it be some subtle perfume or a magic aphrodisiac? I waited until he had left the cabin, then, feeling only slightly guilty, I hopped down from my bunk and opened his sponge-bag. EPSOM SALTS, it said on the little carton! And Epsom salts it was! Now what good could Epsom salts possibly do him sprinkled on his shoulders? I had always thought of him as a queer fish, a man with secrets, though I hadn't discovered what they were. Under his bunk he kept a tin trunk and a black leather case. There was nothing odd about the tin trunk, but the case puzzled me. It was roughly the size of a violin case but the lid didn't bulge as the lid of a violin case does, and it wasn't tapered. It was simply a three-foot-Iong rectangular leather box with two very strong brass locks on it.
'Do you play the violin?' I had once said to him.
'Don't be daft,' he had answered. 'I don't even play the gramophone. '
Perhaps it contained a sawn-off shotgun then, I told myself. It was about the right size.
I put the carton of Epsom salts back in his sponge-bag, then I took a shower, dressed and went upstairs to have a drink before dinner. There was one stool vacant at the bar so I sat down and ordered a glass of beer. There were eight sinewy sunburnt gophers including U.N. Savory sitting on high stools at the bar. The stools were screwed to the floor. The bar was semi-circular so that everyone could talk across to everyone else. U.N. Savory was sitting about five places away I from me. He was drinking a gimlet, which was the Empire-builder's name for a gin with lime juice in it. I sat there listening to the small talk about pig-sticking and polo and how curry will cure constipation. I felt a total outsider. There was nothing I could contribute to the conversation so I stopped listening and concentrated on trying to solve the riddle of the Epsom salts. I glanced at U.N. Savory. From where I sat, I could actually see the tiny white crystals on his shoulders.
Then a funny thing happened.
U.N. Savory suddenly began brushing the Epsom salts off one of his shoulders with his hand. He did it ostentatiously, slapping the shoulder quite hard and saying at the same time in a rather loud voice, 'Ruddy dandruff! I'm fed up with it! Do any of you fellers know a good cure?'
'Try coconut oil,' one said.
'Bay rum and cantharides,' another said.
A tea-planter from Assam called Unsworth said, 'Take my word for it, old man, you've got to stimulate the circulation in the scalp. And the way to do that is to dunk your hair in ice-cold water every morning and keep it there for five minutes. Then dry vigorously. You've got a fine head of hair at the moment, but you'll be as bald as a coot in no time if you don't cure that dandruff. You do as I say, old man.'
U.N. Savory did indeed have a fine head of black hair, so why in the world should he have wanted to pretend he had dandruff when he hadn't?
'Thanks a lot, old man,' U. N. Savory said. 'I'll give it a go. See if it works. '
'It'll work, ' Unsworth told him. 'My grandmother cured her dandruff that way.'
'Your grandmother?' someone said. 'Did she have dandruff?'
'When she combed her hair', Unsworth said, 'it looked like it was snowing.'
For the hundredth time, I told myself that they were all totally and incurably dotty, everyone of them, but I was beginning to think now that U.N. Savory might beat them all to it. I sat there staring into my beer and trying to figure out why he should go around trying to kid everyone he had dandruff Three days later I had the answer.
It was early evening. We were moving slowly through the Suez Canal and it was hotter than ever. It was my turn to dress first for dinner. While I showered and put on my clothes, U.N. Savory lay on his bunk staring into space. 'It's all yours,' I said at last as I opened the door and went out. 'See you upstairs.'
As usual, I seated myself at the bar and began sipping a beer. By gosh, it was hot. The big slowly-revolving fan in the ceiling seemed to be blowing steam out of its blades. Sweat trickled down my neck and under my stiff butterfly collar. I could feel the starch in the collar going soggy around the back. The sinewy sunburnt ones around me didn't seem to notice the heat. I decided to go out on deck and smoke a pipe before dinner. It would be cooler there. I felt for my pipe. Damnation, I had left it behind. I stood up and made my way downstairs to the cabin and opened the door. There was a strange man sitting in shirtsleeves on U.N. Savory's bunk and as I stepped inside, the man gave a queer little yelp and jumped to his feet as though a cracker had gone off in the seat of his pants.
The stranger was totally bald and that is why it took me a second or two to realize that he was in fact none other than U.N. Savory himself. It is extraordinary how hair on the head or the lack of it will completely change a person's appearance. U.N. Savory looked like a different man. To start with, he looked fifteen years older, and in some subtle way he seemed also to have diminished, grown much shorter and smaller. As I said, he was almost totally bald, and the dome of his head was as pink and shiny as a ripe peach. He was standing up now and holding in his two hands the wig he had been about to put on as I walked in. 'You had no right to come back!' he shouted. 'You said you'd finished!' Little sparks of fury were flashing in his eyes.
'I'm. . . I'm most awfully sorry,' I stammered. 'I forgot my pipe.'
He stood there glaring at me with that dark malevolent glint in his eye and I could see little droplets of perspiration oozing out of the pores on his bald head. I felt very bad. I didn't know what to say next. 'Just let me get my pipe and I'll clear out,' I mumbled.
'Oh no.you don't!' he shouted. 'You've seen it now and you're not leaving this room until you've made me a promise! You've got to promise me you won't tell a soul! Promise me that!'
Behind him I could see that curious black leather 'violin case' lying open on his bunk, and in it, nestling alongside each other like three large black hairy hedgehogs, lay three more wigs.
'There's nothing wrong with being bald,' I said.
'I didn't ask for your opinion,' he shouted. He was still very angry. 'I just want your promise.'
'I won't tell anyone,' I said. 'I give you my word.
'And you'd better keep it,' he said.
I reached out and took hold of the pipe that was lying on my bunk. Then I began rummaging round in various places for my tobacco pouch. U.N. Savory sat down on the lower bunk. 'I suppose you think I'm crazy,' he said. Suddenly all the bark had gone out of his voice.
I said nothing. I could think of nothing to say.
'You do, don't you?' he said. 'You think I'm crazy.'
'Not at all,' I answered. 'A man can do as he likes.'
'I'll bet you think it's just vanity,' he said. 'But it's not vanity. It's nothing to do with vanity.'
'It's OK,' I said. 'Really it is.'
'It's business,' he said. 'I do it purely for business reasons. I work in Amritsar, in the Punjab. That is the homeland of the Sikhs. To a Sikh, hair is a sort of religion. A Sikh never cuts his hair. He either rolls it up on the top of his head or in a turban. A Sikh doesn't respect a bald man.'
'In that case I think it's very clever of you to wear a wig,' I said. I had to live in this cabin with U.N. Savory for several days yet and I didn't want a row. 'It's quite brilliant,' I added.
'Do you honestly think so?' he said, melting.
'It's a stroke of genius.'
'I go to a lot of trouble to convince all those Sikh wallahs it's my own hair,' he went on.
'You mean the dandruff bit?'
'You saw it, then?'
'Of course I saw it. It was brilliant.'
'It's just one of my little ruses,' he said. He was getting just a trifle smug now. 'No one's going to suspect me of wearing a wig if I've got dandruff, are they?'
'Certainly not. It's quite brilliant. But why bother doing it here? There aren't any Sikhs on this ship.'
'You never know,' he said darkly. 'You never can tell who might be lurking around the corner. '
The man was as potty as a pilchard.
'I see you have more than one,' I said, pointing to the black leather case.
'One's no good,' he said, 'not if you're going to do it properly like me. I always carry four, and they're all slightly different. You are forgetting that hair grows, old man, aren't you? Each one of these is longer than the other. I put on a longer one every week. '
'What happens after you've worn the longest one and you can't go any further?' I asked.
'Ah,' he said. 'That's the clincher.'
'I don't quite follow you.'
'I simply say, "Does anyone know of a good barber round here?" And the next day I start all over again with the shortest one.'
'But you said Sikhs didn't approve of cutting hair.'
'I only do that with Europeans,' he said.
I stared at him. The man was stark raving barmy. I felt I would go barmy myself if I went on talking to him much longer. I edged towards the door. 'I think you're amazing,' I said. 'You're quite brilliant. And don't worry about a thing. My lips are sealed.'
'Thanks old man,' U.N. Savory said. 'Good lad.' I flew out of the cabin and shut the door.
And that is the story of U.N. Savory.
You don't believe it?
Listen, I could hardly believe it myself as I staggered upstairs to the bar.
I kept my promise though. I told no one. Today it no longer matters. The man was at least thirty years older than me, so by now his soul is at rest and his wigs are probably being used by his nephews and nieces for playing charades.