BY MICHAEL JOLL
This story is the winner of the CommuterLit/Whistle Radio Literary Competition. Listen to the story being read live over the air or through the Internet today at 3 pm EDT. Go to the Off the Top show, Whistle Radio 102.7 fm. Copyright is held by the author.
AUBREY GREENWOOD looked forward to going home — and dreaded it.
In the brief evening twilight, Greenwood sheltered from the monsoon deluge beneath the bridge wing of the S.S. Vollendam, a tumbler of gin in one hand and a cigarette burning in an ebony and ivory holder in the other. The tramp steamer swung at anchor in the roads, idling away the hours in motionless solitude, waiting for the rising tide to allow it to cross the harbour bar. To starboard, hidden from view behind the ship’s bridge bulwark huddled the teeming squalor of Malacca. To port lay the cleanliness of the open sea and countless fishing boats riding the oily swell.
Greenwood finished his cigarette, swallowed the last of the gin and tossed the remaining slivers of ice cubes over the side. He knew it would take more than Dutch courage to go through with it, but the enforced idleness of the voyage back to Singapore had afforded ample time — perhaps too much time — to grapple with the problem that had gnawed at his innards all the time he was away: What to do about Richardson?
The real heart of the matter was that he knew he was falling for Richardson. And that would not do. He admitted that he was not ready, perhaps even psychologically unable ever, to undertake a life-long commitment to anyone, man or woman. Richardson represented commitment, a suffocating prison whose walls left him breathless. Something had to give: Richardson had to go.
He headed to the dining saloon. At the First Officer’s table he took his place and acknowledged the passengers already seated. In the long periods of silence while they ate, his untethered mind floated to Richardson. The very thought of the man evoked visions of the brief but nasty scene to come; raised voices, finger pointing, accusations and denials. He would sooner face a dentist’s drill. “Coward,” his inner voice mocked. He hid his trembling hands beneath the table. His stomach ulcer bit. He gritted his teeth until the spasm passed.
His cotton undershirt clung to his body like a wet sheet. A rivulet of sweat trickled from his temple, ran inside his collar and soaked into his starched shirt. He knew it was not simply the humidity of the July air drifting in from the open porthole. He dabbed at the beads of perspiration on his forehead with a silk handkerchief and tucked it back into the breast pocket of his linen jacket, but he could do nothing to rid the smell of fear leaching from his armpits. He glanced at his table companions. How had they failed to notice? He needed a drink to soothe his jitters but, as he had discovered on joining the ship at Rangoon, the S.S. Vollendam did not serve liquor in the dining saloon.
He excused himself from the dinner table as soon as good manners permitted, took with him a full tumbler of gin from the bar to deaden his nerves, and made his way onto the cargo deck. The rain had stopped, for now. In its place, the cloying stench of fish, pork fat and boiled cabbage, syphoned from the galley by the ventilation funnel, draped him beneath its pall. He considered undoing his collar stud and loosening his necktie but decided against it. That would not be proper for an Englishman, not in front of the Dutch officers and certainly not in front of the Lascar crew. Instead, he eased a finger around the inside of his celluloid collar, loosening the noose around his neck for a moment.
He made his way upwind of the nauseating smell and leaned against the deck rail, breathing heavily. From the slight breeze in his face and the vibrating steel beneath his feet he knew the boilers were making steam, and that they were at last under way. As the ship swung its stern to the land, the few dim lights that marked Malacca vanished as one behind a rain squall. He began to relax: Singapore and his adopted home, the final port of call, tomorrow night.
As the squall hit, Greenwood hurried to his preferred spot under the bridge wing, taking shelter from the torrents spilling in ragged streamers from the scuppers overhead. He downed half the tumbler of gin in three gulps, conscious that he needed to collect his thoughts and return a quick, final verdict on the Richardson matter before the alcohol fogged his brain.
Singapore. Richardson. He carefully weighed both options.
In a Singapore without Richardson, divorced from the complication of any relationship except with his typewriter, he could gather the raw material he needed to build his stories. His writing, he admitted, was his passion, his obsession, and the only mistress to whom he owed and granted loyalty. Without Richardson’s restraining anchor he could mingle freely with Singapore’s jostling throngs and linger in their low ceilinged, bamboo and rattan-walled shops where Hindu, Muslim, Chinaman and Malay warily conducted their secretive business. And without Richardson he could trawl Singapore’s clubs, bars and brothels, prowl its docks, wharves and godowns, unhindered and unnoticed, there to observe the quirky individuals he transformed into the characters who breathed life into his novels; the men and women who hid in plain sight from Mandalay to Macao.
Deep down however, he knew that when the salons of Southeast Asia, and the drunkards, whoremongers and louche lounge lizards like himself who frequented them no longer held appeal, like every other writer he knew he would move on. In that respect, Singapore was temporary, like Richardson.
He turned his attention to Richardson. Richardson was different from the other men and the occasional woman who had drifted through his life, small pebbles whose splash had left scarcely a ripple on his broader sea. Greenwood knew he would miss the vulnerable, willowy pianist with the long, delicate fingers and the unfocused stare of shell-shock but he would get over him in time. The young man was, without doubt, talented but, Greenwood suspected, there would be no professional concert platform. He could not guess what Richardson might do when he realized that a concert career lay beyond reach: A quick, fashionable accident in the gun room, perhaps? Or a lingering suicide of alcohol and Burmese poppy milk as the poisons infused and destroyed his body and mind? The latter, more probably, for he had scant doubt that Richardson, like himself, lacked the moral fibre to do the proper thing, and always would. They were too alike.
But, by then, Richardson’s fate would not be his concern.
Weary of the discourse, he congratulated himself on his decision but his ever-present, querulous companion, his nagging doubts, lingered, leaving his verdict open to appeal.
Late the next night the S.S. Vollendam docked at Singapore. Greenwood made his way through stamp-wielding officialdom and took a motorcycle rickshaw through the monsoon rain to his hotel. He had called Raffles Hotel home for more than three years, a refuge for proper white men like himself, and comfortable enough when the power was on.
It was out.
In bad humour, he groped his way around his writing desk in the dark, and undressed. Resigned to spending the night breathing DDT fumes beneath the folds of the mosquito net alongside Richardson’s hot body, he poured half a tumbler of gin, downed it in three gulps and slipped into the bed. But the alcohol proved neither soporific nor comforting. Quailing at the prospect of the coming morning’s showdown, his mind whirled. Lying rigid in the airless, humid night, bathed in a sheen of sweat, sleep evaded him.
Drawn and haggard, Greenwood rose before dawn. The tepid bath water did nothing to improve his sour disposition. In semi-darkness, groomed, shaved and dressed in a silk dressing gown wrapped over his shirt and trousers, he stepped out onto the balcony of his room. While he watched the rain cleanse the city he fingered his cravat and fiddled with the sash of his dressing gown. He shuffled his feet and twisted his body. He pushed a cigarette into his holder, but did not light it.
As the downpour blurred the outlines of the balconies of the rooms across the courtyard, he wondered for an anxious moment if he was viewing them through a thin muslin shroud: His own? Soon enough, he knew; but, please God, not yet. His knees quivered. A shiver ran the course of his spine. His ulcer reacted with an explosive spasm. His uncertainty over Richardson propelled him to the edge of a sheer cliff from which he stared into the black depths of the bat caverns of Borneo that haunted his nightmares. He shut his eyes and tried to focus on how best to rid himself Richardson.
Though afflicted by many vices, cheroot smoking did not number among them, so the pungent smell of Indonesian tobacco drifting into Greenwood’s nostrils pried him from his misery. He sensed rather than heard movement. A moment later Richardson, dressed in a borrowed pair of Greenwood’s pyjamas, appeared without a sound at his side, the evil-smelling cigarillo cupped between thumb and forefinger in his thin, bony hand, the way soldiers used to do in the trenches. In the war that had spared him, but not Richardson.
In contrast, Greenwood recalled his own unremarkable wartime service as a British secret agent in Switzerland, ending with the armistice six years earlier. For most of the war he had snubbed his German counterpart, reported on the man’s activities to his overlords in London, and from the comfort of his room in the Hôtel Belvedere in Geneva had avoided exposure to heroics.
Greenwood knew he had to make his final move that morning, before his nerve deserted him completely, like it had that winter day in ’17, in Montreux. But instead, the thought of taking decisive action pierced his body like a collector’s pin through a moth. He regarded his white knuckles gripping the railing, and shuddered. Coming to grips with his most shameful, most loathsome affliction, he refiled the indelible memory of Montreux and swallowed the bile rising in his throat.
How to break the news? The guillotine; a swift, clean execution, forthright as man to man? Or a gentle let-down for fear of causing unnecessary pain to the sensitive young chap? Surely, after their months together, didn’t Richardson deserve no less than a delicate dénouement? Praying that Richardson could not see his knees shaking beneath his dressing gown, Greenwood turned to face him, as prepared as he would ever be to accept the consequences of his next words.
“Good morning, Aubrey,” Richardson mumbled, his eyes downcast.
“Good morning, old man. Sleep well?”
“Not very well; no.” Richardson studied his bare feet. “I don’t quite know how to put this to you,” he blurted out, “but I have to leave. If I’m to resume my concert career I must return to England. My parents live in Sussex; they’ve plenty of room and a baby grand for me to practice on while I decide what I’m to do next. So you see, Aubrey, I can’t stay in Singapore forever. I have to say ‘Good-bye’. Today. Now. You do understand that, don’t you?”
Richardson turned to Greenwood, his face pleading and his eyes bright. He blinked several times. Tears tumbled down his cheeks. A nerve jigged beside his temple.
Lie or truth? Either way, in an instant the explanation, like the man, no longer mattered. Richardson had drifted in from the Solomon Islands where he had been an assistant to the Assistant Commissioner, a position which he surely only held due to the colour of his skin. Greenwood now had little doubt that Richardson would eventually return there, to the Islands and obscurity, rather than to England and cruel exposure of his musical deficiencies.
“I’m sorry to hear that, my boy, truly sorry, but I certainly understand.” Greenwood hoped that the lie sounded sincere.
“You’ve been so kind to me, Aubrey . . .” Richardson’s voice tailed off as more tears spilled down his cheeks.
“Say no more, dear boy,” Greenwood said. “I shall cherish the memory of every minute that we spent together. I shall never forget you.”
Without offering his hand, Greenwood turned his back on the fey young man, his knees quiet and his grip on the railing relaxed. “If you intend to leave today,” he said over his shoulder, “perhaps you should pack.” He did not see Richardson flinch as if slapped in the face, but held his breath in case Richardson should challenge his brittle resolve.
“Yes, of course; you’re right,” Richardson replied, his voice strained, and Greenwood exhaled silently. The young man disappeared into the bedroom.
Greenwood smoothed his Brilliantined hair with a light touch then lit the cigarette in his holder, grateful that Richardson had not forced his hand or exposed the fear that lurked beneath his urbane façade. He remained on the balcony, his back to the open French doors, careful to avoid any movement that Richardson might interpret as an attempt at reconciliation. A reversal of his good fortune at this critical moment would not do at all.
The rain ceased as abruptly as it had begun the night before, lifting the veil over the balconies on the far side of the courtyard. A good omen, Greenwood decided, though long experience living a few feet north of the equator told him that inside half an hour Singapore would resemble a Turkish bath, to be borne with stoicism until the power returned and the fans creaked back to life. But it would be a blessed Singapore, one without Richardson to clutter and complicate his life.
Greenwood heard the chink of glass and the gurgle of pouring liquor. A new bottle of Gordon’s gin, no doubt, but he did not begrudge Richardson one last drink. He heard the bedroom door close with a soft click: Richardson had not changed his mind. In a few minutes he would be out of the hotel and Greenwood could turn his attention to his beloved Underwood typewriter, and his neglected livelihood.
He remained on the balcony, counting down the minutes to freedom. He noticed the greenery in the large earthenware pots in the courtyard for the first time, dispelling the grey that had been the only colour he realized that he had seen for weeks. His mood brightened. He turned and entered the bedroom. The reek of Richardson’s stubbed-out cheroot filled the air. Greenwood crossed the floor and stood by the bed they had shared all those months. The sheets lay rumpled, still warm to the touch. The smell of Richardson’s night sweat lingered. A momentary pang of guilt at his callousness towards the young man touched a nerve, then as quickly evaporated.
He sat at his writing desk and cracked his knuckles. It was time to write; past time. He pulled open a drawer and took out two sheets of paper. He reached into the other drawer where he kept his carbon paper and where he had placed his old service revolver the previous night when he undressed.
His fingers probed, then scrabbled for the hard steel. He broke into a cold sweat.
Richardson had gone — and the revolver with him.