Short Fiction




The Repatriation

It was on the boat from Goa to Bombay that Roy Alistair Carlisle-Browne discovered a three-week-old copy of The Times, dated March 15th 1971. He brought it to me as I sat beneath a rusty davit listening to the Indians playing housey-housey in the saloon. 'Look man', he said in his plummy bass, 'They are all dead, man, they are all fucking dead! ' His index finger stabbed the pictures on the page. 'All of them - they prop up their corpses against sacks and photograph them. To fool people - but really they are all fucking dead.' To Roy The Times was just one long obituary from beginning to end. Politicians, members of the Royal Family, ballerinas, footballers - they were all numbered among the dead.

We were taking him back to Bombay to put him on a plane for England. Too much acid, too much opium, too much India. The conspiracy of the world had tightened round him until he trusted nobody, not even us. Since the accident, he had been raving, lucid for fewer and fewer moments each day. He had fallen backwards down a well, like a character in a nursery rhyme, and seen the moon shining above as he lay. 'I thought it was the lid, man. I thought they were going to put the lid on.' We had lifted him out. His body was miraculously undamaged, probably because he had been so stoned and unafraid. But he had left his mind down that well in Goa.

Douglas was in characteristic pose, rolling a joint beneath the next davit. 'Calm down, Roy, you're paranoid', he reassured him for the umpteenth time. Roy pivited on his heel to face his schoolfriend. 'Of course I am, wouldn't you be?' 'Roy, where do you think we are going?' I asked, to see how clear he was. 'To a gig, man, we're going to a gig.' Douglas looked across at me and shrugged his shoulders. An Indian sailor came past and tried to sell us bingo-cards. Roy stared at him as if he were a hallucination, then stalked off with his folded newspaper to strike a defiant pose on the prow, staring out across the Arabian sea, as frozen as a figure-head, except for the two wings of hair streaming out behind him in the breeze. 'The young Sir Robert Clive', Douglas sneered and returned to his work, sheltering the drug with his whole body. Douglas could have rolled a joint in a hurricane. Inside the saloon, an excited Indian voice called 'House!'.

The crowds of Bombay milled relentlessly through Roy's mind. He could keep no impression out. Beggars peered in asking for money, with bony fingers and grubby dishes. The deformed shuas reproached him with defeated eyes. He couldn't get them out of his mind. 'Tiny feet, man. I can hear tiny feet.' The heat made his skin crawl. He was constantly scratching an irresistible itch on his forearms.

It was cool and uncrowded in the embassy lobby. He began to quieten down in its marmoreal atmsophere. The great crest that hung above the reception desk seemed to hold him spellbound. I could see his lips repeatedly mouthing the motto like a mantra - honi soit qui mal y pense, honi soit qui mal y pense ... To him, the lion and the unicorn must have been like a vision of salvation descending from the clouds. Their keeper was a thin-lipped woman in horn-rimmed glasses. She eyed our hair with undisguised distaste. Though Douglas stepped forward to the counter, her attention swiftly focussed on Roy in the background, mouth open, oblivious, gazing up in wonder at the crest. 'It's moving, man, it's all moving, like a flow ... ' Douglas's accent rescued the situation. He stammered out the speech he had been preparing on the way. 'I am Douglas Reece, son of Lord Reece, and this is my friend Roy Alistair Carlisle Brown who is in urgent need of medical attention in England, due to an attack of chronic epilepsy. He must be repatriated immediately ... I am expecting money to be wired from my father, but we cannot afford to wait, as his condition is rapidly deteriorating. Would you be so good as to inform the ambassador.'

It was the voice of someone in authority issuing an order to a subordinate. The woman asked Douglas to repeat the names and wrote them down on her memorandum pad. She was Scottish, her tone enforcedly polite. 'And your name would be?' She turned to me with a simper. 'Dave Allardyce.' She waited as if there might be more. 'One moment please.'

She disappeared through the door beneath the flowing crest. Roy was beginning to struggle with himself again, scratching at the invisible formication. Now there seemed to be a song caught in his throat, a kind of hum that never quite made it to his lips. The Scottish woman returned with an official gaze. 'Would you bring him in please, Mr Reece.' She pointed at Roy. Douglas took Roy by the arm and stepped forward. 'Not you', she added in my direction, though I had not moved, 'Just the two of you.' She ushered them through the inner door to be received. When she came back to face me at the desk, her polite veneer had suddenly been stripped away. The spiteful face came into close-up framed in tufts of red hair, of a piece with the ludicrous crest twisting above. 'What have you been doing?' It was not a question.

There were conditions to the repatriation. The ambassador was not convinced, any more than his secretary, by the term 'epilepsy'. A boy who sat in a leather armchair singing 'I'm strictly a female female' in front of his ambassador was not, in his experience, an epileptic. If Douglas was not to accompany him, then Roy must have a medical certificate stating it was safe for him to fly alone. Otherwise the embassy could not risk the responsibility. A rabbit-like panic came into Douglas's face as he relayed the interview to me on the embassy steps. He did not want to be stuck with Roy a moment longer than necessary in Bombay. 'How do we get the certificate?' I asked. 'A psychiatrist ... they gave me a number to call. Can you imagine ... a psychiatrist ... in Bombay!' He pressed a slip of paper into my hand. 'Here ... you phone ... I'll go to the airline office to arrange a flight. I'll meet you later in the Taj.' Without waiting for a reply, he was down the steps. I let him go, knowing that we might never see him again.

Roy was calmer again in the hotel lounge, out of the afternoon heat and away from the crowds, but I could see the disapproving glances of the Taj clientele were unsettling him. I tried to explain again what we were planning for him. 'You're going back to England, Roy, tonight if we can see the doctor.' 'No man, I told you, I'm going to a gig.' There was a young white woman sitting at the next table. She had overheard our conversation and inquired in a friendly, English way. 'Did you say you're going home tonight?' 'He is.' The woman peered into Roy's benighted eyes. He was humming again to keep out this new voice. I saw his nails suddenly flail his wrist. She saw it too. 'Isn't he very well?' she asked. 'Epilepsy', I said. 'I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do?' I shook my head. 'He's had a breakdown.' 'What's his name?' 'Roy.' 'Would you like some tea, Roy?' Roy offered no response. He continued with his private hum. 'Well I'm sure you would.' She smiled at me sympathetically. 'You look as if you've had a bit of an ordeal. My name's Caroline, by the way ... '

I was grateful for this soft middle-class voice amongst the chattering panic of Bombay. Over tea I told her about Goa and Roy's accident. She listened attentively, smiling only at the detail of the moon as the lid on the well. 'He's from an aristocratic background then?' 'Forty-seventh in line to the throne he claims.' 'Poor Humpty-Dumpty', she said, 'he has had a great fall, hasn't he.'

I left Roy in her charge and went to the lobby to phone the psychiatrist's office. I got crossed lines, unrecognisable signals, then a wrong number. After ten minutes I gave up and went back to the lounge. There was no sign of the woman or Roy. A waiter was picking up a tip from the tea-tray. 'Where did the Englishwoman go?' 'She has gone with her friend.' I sat down and poured myself more tea. Someone else had taken charge of Roy. Why should I worry? He was in good hands, better than mine. But I did worry. Should I ring the embassy? What could they do? Suddenly Douglas was standing over me. 'Where's Roy?' 'He's gone. An Englishwoman took him away.' 'Where?' 'I don't know.' The expression on Douglas's face was not one of panic, but of relief.

Douglas suggested we return to Goa the next morning. We had enough money for the tickets, and he had scored some more dope. 'It's rocket fuel! I tried it. We can have a real fun trip back.' Towards evening we found a cheap room near the Taj, bought some Western chocolate and broke into the dope. Douglas collapsed into whinnies of laughter as he related the interview again, only this time in comic terms. 'I'm strictly a female female,' he hooted, 'You should have seen the old fart's face!'. We were woken around three a.m. by a loud knocking. There was an Indian boy of about twelve at the door.

'You come, you come, Caroline say you come.' We followed the boy down into the street where a taxi was waiting. 'Long, long', he showed us the distance with his hands as an English boy might have show us the length of a fish he had lost. The taxi trundled down unlit thoroughfares lined with sleeping bodies. Occasionally one came erect to watch us pass. Then there were derricks against the skyline. We were in dockland. The address was a dark square construction stranded in a straggle of huts. The broken awning suggested it must have been an old store once. There was the unmistakeable sweet pungency of opium as wimbed onto the verandah. A dim greenish light seeped from the boarded windows. The door opened into a large shop space. Caroline was not there, only Roy spreadeagled on the floor. Beside him a cheap storm-lamp with a green glass, at his feet an empty botte of Johnny Walker and a cold hookah. Douglas tried to rouse Roy, but all he could produce was a low moan. 'He's in the land of caves and torches', he said, 'Totally smashed.' We carried him deadweight out to the taxi.

In the morning Roy experie a patch of lucidity. 'Caroline ... terrific girl ... told her the whole story ... must see her again ... terrific ... she understood, she really fucking understood ... ' Fragments of the previous evening were pieced together. She had taken him to a series of bars, then to the house ... to smoke. 'What happened then, Roy?' 'A flash, an explosion, and she's gone, like in a panto, man ... Spontaneous fucking combustion!' He laughed at his own idea. It seemed to grab him and shake his whole mind and body in a deep cavernous laugh. But almost immediately the laugh gave way to tears of self-pity. 'She understood ... she really fucking understood ... '

We took Roy to the psychiatrist's office without an appointment. He had become sullen and passive, hungover at last from the whisky and the opium. The taxi dropped us outside a shuttered house in a pleasant suburb south of the City. There was no sign of life from the house. Douglas hammered on the door. I could see he was becoming desperately agitated again. 'There's nobody here', I said. 'Of course there is, or if there isn't, we'll bloody well make the lazy sepoys come!' 'There's nobody to hear you.' 'I'll make them bloody hear!' Douglas venting his fury on the shutters . Roy caught the rising temperature of the situation. he began to let out a low monotonous howl. 'Come on Roy', I said, 'I'll take you back to the hotel.' 'You'll do no such thing', shouted Douglas. 'We can come back later', I said, 'Look at the state Roy's in.' 'We're going to get rid of him this time, once and for all - we should have left him down that bloody well.' There were petulant tears in Douglas's eyes. 'I'm going.' I said. Douglas grabbed me by the shoulder as I ushered Roy back towards the taxi. 'He's staying here till someone comes!' Roy's mournful howl was louder. 'He's staying here! He's staying here!' Douglas whined, as if by insisting the world would conform to his wishes. His voice was pure playground. Suddenly he and I were grappling with each other, rolling in the dust. The shutters flew open and a cultivated Indian voice inquired - 'Now to which of you young gentlemen can I be of assistance?'

Roy was in a quiet phase again as we escorted him to the airport. But he realised something was about to happen once we could see the planes. 'Where are we going?' he asked. 'To a gig, man', I said. There was no sign of goodbye from him as the stewardess led him through passport control into the departure lounge. It was like watching someone anaesthetised disappearing into the operating theatre. Roy was clutching his certificate of flying sanity as if it were all that remained of his identity. That much we had impressed upon him. 'Goodbye old man', said Douglas.

It was on the bus back into the city that I told Douglas I would not be returning with him to Goa. 'But where will you go? What about your things?' 'I've hardly got any things.' I could see the rabbit-like panic behind his eyes again at the thought of now travelling alone. 'I'll wait for money from England, and then I'm going home. 'Home!' he scoffed and threw back his mane of hair. 'I don't think I'm cut out for the East', I said.

I met Douglas once more, in the mid Eighties. In Farringdon Road. I'd just had my evening beer after subbing toreign News pages and seeing them safely off to bed. I was coming out of the saloon as he was coming in. There was a woman with him, a white face, pointed chin, almost Chinese-looking. She did not acknowledge me. Douglas was effusive. 'Dave man, it's a miracle. I don't believe it, a miracle!' Even though it was still summer, he was wearing a woollen cap pulled right down over his ears. Wisps of grey hair curled out from underneath. I wouldn't have recognised him. His accent was gone. He spoke street. 'This guy ... ', he kept saying to the unresponsive girl, ' ... this guy was my best mate in India.' His smile never shifted. 'It's amazing. How are you man? You must come and see us. She's wonderful, this girl, really wonderful, the best thing that ever happened to me ... Come and have a drink man ... ' 'I can't Douglas, I'm late already ... expected home ... the kids ... ' 'You've got kids, that's great man, really great ... ' 'Whatever happened to Roy?' I asked him as his words ran out, 'Did you ever see him again?' 'Roy man? Really tragic, man, wasn't it. He was my best friend ... the things we got up to together in India ... ' He seemed to drift, and the smile went out of his face for a moment. The skin was dry and cracked, like leather. Then the smile came back and he turned to the girl. 'You know Roy, the guy in the article.' 'The article?' I asked. 'Yeah man, haven't you seen it - I thought I had shown it to everybody ... a whole page ... he was really famous man.' He took out a big shabby wallet, the kind we used to have in India, its embroidered stitching long since faded. From one of its pouches he drew an old tabloid cutting folded about two inches square, dog-eared, yellow, ink-stained at the corners. It was from an old format edition of the Sun.

There was a picture of Roy sucking on a hookah with great fish-eyes. He was holding the bottle of Johnny Walker in his left hand. The headline would have raised a laugh among the hacks in the office.

HIS LORDSHIP ON THE HIPPY TRAIL Caroline Fazakerly follows the young baronets into the opium den

As I scanned the article, Roy's real words came back to me from the bingo-ship. 'Look at them, man. They prop up their corpses against sacks. To fool people - but really they are all fucking dead.' And I knew, without even asking, to which gig Roy had gone.

This story was first published in The Printer's Devil.

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