The Governor's Gin
by Danielle McLaughlin
When Namish arrived at the governor’s house shortly after sunrise, Sameer was waiting. Sameer was a wiry man of about fifty, thinning hair slicked back from his forehead. He was crouched beside one of the marble lions that guarded the entrance and next to him on the ground was a basket of chillies. He was stringing the chillies into bunches, whistling through his chipped front teeth as he worked. It had not rained in several weeks and as Namish dismounted from his bicycle, the dirt track sent up a cloud of scorched dust. ‘Quick,’ Sameer said, getting to his feet, ‘come with me. We have a problem.’
They walked up an avenue lined with coconut palms and jackfruit trees, Sameer carrying the chillies and dragging his bad foot, Namish wheeling the bicycle.
‘Is it my mother?’ Namish said. ‘Is she unwell?’ Widowed some seven years, Namish’s mother worked as an ayah for the governor’s children. Lately Namish noticed that she was prone to sudden weaknesses, her breath coming in gulps and whistles, and when that happened, there was nothing she could do but lower herself into a chair and wait for it to pass.
Sameer shook his head. ‘Your mother?’ he said, and he laughed, ‘the governor is not a man to worry about mothers. Sometimes I think he never had a mother at all; that he was coughed up with a ball of husk from the belly of a wildcat.’
Namish glanced around, fearing they would be overheard. But it was early, the governor and his household still asleep, the lawns and walkways deserted. Out on the bay, no boat broke the stillness of the water.
‘The problem is not your mother,’ Sameer continued, ‘It is something much more serious.’ He stopped and massaged his bad foot. ‘It is the governor’s gin.’
Namish had once asked Sameer how he injured his foot. ‘In 1910,’ Sameer had told him, ‘when I was a younger man, I was shot by a soldier in Bengal and a sliver of bullet lodged beneath my skin, right here.’ He had rolled up his trousers to indicate a scar just above his ankle.
Namish’s mother had raised her eyes to heaven when she heard. ‘Sameer,’ she said, ‘would swear that his right hand was his left. It was a sloth bear trap in the jungle when he was hunting elephant.’ As she spoke, she pulled a needle back and forth through a piece of blue cotton, a dress she was sewing for one of the governor’s children. She put the fabric down in her lap and looked at Namish. ‘Promise me you will not listen to Sameer and his nonsense,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it enough that I have already lost one son?’ And Namish had promised.
The governor’s house was a square limestone structure with a domed roof and two smaller, rectangular wings on either side. On a stone above the door, in ornate Latin script, was the motto of the East India Company: Deus Indicat. Deo Ducente Nil Nocet. Namish followed Sameer through the servants’ entrance and down a flight of stone steps to the pantry.
The pantry was a long, narrow room, cool and dimly lit, with bare flagstones. At the far end, it opened into a large kitchen and from there a staircase led to the main house. The walls were hung with salted hams and sausage. Fowl of various species, plucked bare and goose-bumped, dangled from wires on the ceiling above plates of jelly in lurid red and green.
Sameer produced a bottle from a wooden crate. ‘Taste,’ he said.
Namish put the bottle to his lips, swallowed and shivered. The liquid burnt its way along his gullet before lodging in a small ball of fire in his stomach.
‘That,’ Sameer said, ‘is not good gin.’ He took back the bottle. ‘A boat is coming from Trincomalee,’ he said, ‘It is bringing gin, cigars and some of the governor’s favourite sweetmeats.’ His tongue curled in distaste about the word sweetmeats. ‘After you have attended to your morning duties, you must go to meet it.’
Namish nodded. Opening a cupboard, he took out a mop and a large steel bucket and began to fill the bucket with water. Sameer was about to leave the pantry, but he stopped at the foot of the steps and turned to Namish. ‘Some day,’ he said, ‘you and I will make a bowl of the governor’s head and we will drink from it with straws and remember your brother Ravi. But today ...’ He sighed. ‘Today, you must fetch the gin.’
When Namish got to the shore, he stretched out on a ledge on the eastern side of the cove. In rock pools below, tiny sea creatures looped and wriggled. If he looked back towards the house, he could just about make out the fountain and the ornamental shrubberies to the front. Later, tables would be set with crystal and white linen and drinks would be served. Noon came and went, and the ledge grew hot as a clay oven. Namish felt like one of the fish that Sameer baked for the governor’s supper, with their blackened scales and their mouths stuffed with lemons. He looked out across the bay and hoped that the boat would not be long.
The evening before, as he rounded a corner on his bicycle, Namish had encountered the governor and three of his house guests – two men and a woman – in the middle of the road. They saw him but did not move aside, forcing Namish to a sudden halt. The governor’s face was red and the paunch of his stomach spilled over the top of his trousers. His shirt, like the shirts of his two male companions, was stained with sweat.
The woman wore a green dress, belted tight at her waist, and was smoking a cigarette. She had pale skin and there were streaks of gold in her brown hair. She was not much older than Namish, 18 or 19 perhaps. She touched the governor’s arm and said, ‘Look Charles, one of your little Hindus,’ and then she threw back her head and laughed, exposing her creamy white throat to the evening sun.
A plantain toppled from the basket on Namish’s bicycle and landed in the dust at her feet. She dragged deeply on her cigarette before bending to retrieve it. The top buttons of her dress were undone, revealing the delicate curve of her collarbones and her white lace undergarments. Balancing the plantain in her palm, she offered it to Namish, but when he reached for it, she withdrew her hand and blew smoke in his face. The governor and one of the men slapped their thighs and bellowed with laughter. ‘Oh Dorothy,’ the governor said, ‘you’re quite the little vixen.’ The other man, an elderly gentleman with spectacles, had frowned and turned away. He raised his walking cane and began to strike in sharp, staccato movements at the tinder-dry vegetation lining the roadside.
Now as Namish watched for the boat, he imaged Sameer pacing the floor of the pantry as the first guests began to gather on the lawn and still there was no gin. He climbed down to a rock pool and, opening his shirt, splashed water on his chest. Some of the shirt’s white buttons had fallen out and had been replaced with black ones. The shirt had belonged to his brother Ravi and was made of rough Indian cloth. Ravi had refused to wear the imported cloth from the Lancashire mills.
‘The British have put enough on our backs,’ he said, ‘must we wear their shirts too?’
Then just as Namish was about to give up, when he thought he would have to return to the house and tell Sameer that there was no gin, a white sail rounded the headland.
The crate’s metal rivets dug into his shoulder as he carried the gin back to the house. The cigars and sweetmeats were in a bag strapped about his waist. As he neared the house, he could see people assembled on the lawns to the front, the men in linen suits and wide-brimmed hats with bands of dark ribbon.
‘Their men are like women,’ Sameer had said the evening before as he polished the battalion of shoes and boots lined up in the kitchen, ‘vain, foolish women with their ribbons and their bow ties and their silks.’ The polish left tobacco-like stains on his fingers. He laid down a boot. ‘You will see, Namish. When our bayonets are at their throats, they will cry like women, you will see,’ and he shook his fist. ‘We will dye their ribbons red with their own blood.’ He picked up another boot, applied a dab of polish. ‘There must be no pity, Namish. Pity the snake and you will have more snakes.’ And all the time his brushes darted back and forth across the leather.
When Namish reached the top of the shore path, instead of crossing the lawn, he went through a tunnel of evergreen hedging used by the servants and trades-people. A brown terrier rustled out of the hedge and trotted at his heels, sniffing the bag of sweetmeats and whining. The tunnel enclosed him in a dappled-green light, the sun falling in leaf-shaped filigree across his skin. For a moment everything was peaceful, apart from the fluttering of birds in the densely woven branches, and as the world outside the hedge receded, his thoughts turned, as they mostly did, to his brother.
They had found Ravi in a ditch, his hands bound with rope and half his face missing. He had been stripped of his clothes and maggots crawled from his remaining eye socket. On the eve of the burial, Namish had overheard his uncle, his mother’s brother, in conversation with a neighbour. ‘The tigers must have found him before we did,’ the neighbour said, ‘a man would not do such a thing to another.’
‘We are not dealing with men,’ his uncle said, ‘we are dealing with the British. But our time will come.’
He stopped when he realised Namish’s mother was listening. She came to stand beside them in her mourning robes, the hut dark apart from the flicker of candles on a low table. ‘You may take revenge if you wish,’ she said, ‘but it will be your own,’ and she had placed her hand on Namish’s arm. ‘Come,’ she said, ‘I will remind you where that kind of talk leads,’ and she had crossed the hut and drawn back the curtain behind which Ravi’s body rested.
The tunnel curved, then widened, and Namish saw the house and the wrought-iron railings of the kitchen gardens. He heard the murmur of voices – not Sameer or his mother or any of the other servants, but British voices – and he slowed his pace. There on a bench, one used by maids when plucking fowl, was the woman he had encountered on the road the evening before, the one the men had called Dorothy, this time in a blue suit and a navy, high-collared blouse.
She was flushed from the heat, a pink tinge to her cheeks, and was in conversation with an older, plainer woman. The older woman was burnt a deep crimson, in spite of a parasol clutched in one hand. In the other hand she held a fan etched with Japanese patterns and was fanning her bosom. Dorothy grew quiet when she saw Namish approach. Her companion, oblivious, continued to speak, complaining about the starching of her handkerchiefs. Then she too saw Namish and fell silent.
Dorothy stood up. ‘Whatever can be in such a large box?’ she said, ‘Has Charles sent a gift? He is a most attentive host.’ She threw back her head and laughed. The older woman hesitated before joining in. Dorothy took a step forward and Namish saw that she was barefoot, her shoes discarded beneath the bench, the ends of her skirt sweeping the ground as she walked. ‘Perhaps you have come to carry us away?’ she said, ‘Charles has warned us of the dangers that befall British women in this country.’ The older woman stopped fanning herself and put her parasol down on the bench.
Namish attempted to continue towards the house, but Dorothy blocked his path. She put her hands on her hips and eyed the box. ‘Perhaps it is a monkey?’ she said, ‘Listen, Agatha, can you hear it scratching?’
The older woman gasped and brought a hand to her mouth. ‘You must be mistaken, dear. Surely not?’ She got up from the bench, with a heavy rustling of skirts. ‘I think it is time we joined the others on the lawn.’
Dorothy waved a hand dismissively. ‘Oh pay me no heed, Agatha,’ she said, ‘it is this cursed sun making me playful,’ but still she stood in front of Namish.
Namish went to step around her but she matched his movements, darting first left, then right. The crate was heavy on his shoulders, his skin raw and grazed from the metal rivets. The older woman approached. ‘Come along, dear. You will tire yourself in this heat. And it is best not to be too familiar.’ Dorothy smiled and stepped aside with an exaggerated flourish. Namish hurried past, through the servants’ entrance and down the steps to the pantry.
He barely had the crate lowered from his shoulders when Sameer jumped up and began to grab bottles of gin. He did not ask Namish, as he usually did, what news the boatman had brought. Uncorking a bottle, he put it to his lips and swallowed. Then he smiled and slapped Namish on the back. On a table in the centre of the room, a tray was set with pitchers of quinine tonic and slices of lime. The tray was inlaid with a picture of a man in khaki uniform, binoculars around his neck, riding an elephant. A tiger skin was stretched across the elephant’s back, and a tribe of dark skinned boys ran half-naked alongside. Sameer decanted the bottle into a crystal carafe and placed it on the tray.
‘We must hurry,’ he said, ‘the governor is angry.’
‘About the gin?’
‘He knows nothing about the gin. Do not mention the gin.’ Sameer took a comb from his pocket and ran it across his scalp. ‘He is angry about something else.’
‘Who knows what makes the governor angry? The gods themselves do not know. Perhaps it is the sun on his bald head.’
Sameer made his way up the pantry steps with the tray, muttering under his breath.
Namish fetched a small mallet, a knife and two bowls. He sat at the table and began to shell some coconuts, draining the liquid into one bowl, paring coconut meat into another. He heard feet on the stairs, lighter than Sameer’s, and Dorothy appeared. She had put her shoes back on and they clicked on the stone steps as she descended into the pantry. She paused a few steps from the bottom, her face awed, childlike, as she took in the dead birds and the jewelled puddings, the copper pans and the rows of long-handled knives that hung from the walls.
Namish paused, his knife suspended above the bowl of coconut meat. Dorothy made her way down the remaining steps. ‘I have just seen the funniest thing,’ she said, and she clapped her hands, ‘a bee has stung Agatha.’
She placed a hand on the silk of her costume, just above her left thigh. ‘It became trapped beneath her skirts and stung her right here. Oh, how she danced! All the time waving that ridiculous parasol.’ Dorothy giggled, and covered her mouth with her hand.
Namish went back to preparing coconut. ‘Memsahib, if you take her to the sick bay, Nurse will rub ointment on it. If that does not work, Sameer will fetch the doctor.’
Dorothy took a piece of coconut from the bowl. She chewed slowly, her eyes wandering around the pantry. ‘My sister-in-law is a difficult woman,’ she said, ‘I have had little peace since we arrived. Everywhere I go, she follows me. If I manage to escape her, she questions me incessantly upon my return. I fear I shall die of boredom.’
Her hand dipped once more into the bowl of coconut. Namish noticed her long, shapely arm, her slender wrist. Her fingers were smooth and delicate, unlike the fingers of the local women who returned with hands calloused and blistered from the tea plantations.
‘Coconut tastes different here,’ she said. ‘But then everything is different here. The men, the women, the sun. I think I should like to be a colonist’s wife, to live in a house like this and have my own little Hindu servants.’ She sat down opposite Namish. ‘Back in England,’ she said, ‘the servants are horrid. They whisper behind my back and always take my husband’s side.’
She watched as Namish brought the mallet down on another coconut. ‘Have you ever been to England?’ she said.
He looked to see if she was teasing, but this time her face held no trace of mockery. ‘No, memsahib, I have never been to England. Once, before my brother, Ravi, died – before he was killed – we went together to Bombay. But that is all.’
Dorothy sighed. ‘You are lucky,’ she said. ‘Back in England, there is nothing but rain and embroidery. There is rarely anyone interesting to talk to and whenever I do speak, I am accused of giving offence. I sit all day in the drawing room, with no diversion except to take tea with Agatha in the afternoon when her nerves permit it.’ She nodded at the crate of gin on the table. ‘So it was not a monkey after all?’
Lifting out a bottle, she turned it over in her hands and examined the label. ‘Sometimes, back in England, Cook brings me a bottle of sweet sherry when Edward is away and I hide it in my room, out of sight of the servants.’ A furrow appeared between her brows. ‘Edward’s servants are a pack of vipers,’ she said. ‘They smile to my face, then run to him with every misdemeanour. But Cook … Cook is like a mother to me. My own mother died when I was three and I do not remember her.’ She looked across the table at Namish. ‘I should like to have you for my servant,’ she said, ‘you, I think, would take care of me. You would not hate me the way the others do, the way Agatha does.’
Sameer had left a second tray of crystal ready on the table and, opening the bottle, Dorothy poured two glasses of gin. ‘Let us drink to bees,’ she said, ‘may their cleverness be rewarded.’
She gulped the gin and shuddered. Namish reached for a jug of tonic and added some to her glass. ‘Better,’ she said, tasting again. She nudged the other glass closer to him. ‘Drink!’ she said, ‘It is very good.’
Namish shook his head. ‘Memsahib, it is the governor’s gin. It is for the governor and his guests, not for the servants. That is the rule.’
‘Rules, rules rules,’ Dorothy said, and she drained her glass. ‘Back in England, it is nothing but rules and I am tired of them.’ She poured herself another gin.
As she drank, she looked around the pantry. The shelves were heavy with jars of honey and sweet syrups, bowls of wood apples and mangosteens. On a china platter was an extravagant arrangement of fruit in the shape of a bird. A quiff of purple cherries rose from its forehead, slices of mango curved to form a hooked beak.
‘What is that bird?’ Dorothy said, ‘it reminds me of the peacocks back in England.’
‘It is a parakeet,’ Namish said. ‘It lives in the jungle.’
Dorothy stared. The bird’s wings were constructed from segments of oranges and guavas, woven in intricate patterns and studded all around with cherries and almonds and sequins of dark, plump raisins. ‘I have never seen anything like it,’ she said, ‘did the cook make it?’
‘My mother made it, memsahib. It is something her grandmother taught her. It is the governor’s favourite.’
Dorothy sipped her gin and frowned. ‘I am the governor’s favourite,’ she said, ‘but all the same, it is very beautiful. Your mother must make one for my room.’
Namish thought of his mother and Sameer sitting late the night before, long after the governor’s household had retired, pitting cherries and blanching almonds.
‘My mother is busy with the children,’ he said, ‘perhaps you have seen her in the nursery?’
Dorothy shrugged. ‘I have not been to the nursery,’ she said, ‘Edward and I do not yet have children.’ She swirled gin around the bottom of her glass. Her cheeks had reddened, even though the pantry was cool, the thick walls a bulwark against the heat.
‘For our wedding,’ she said, ‘Edward ordered twenty crates of the finest champagne and did not allow me a single drop. I cried, told him I was sixteen, a married woman, but he sent me to my room.’
She was on her feet, pacing the pantry floor, her fingers curled tight around her glass. ‘People have begun to whisper,’ she said. ‘They say, ‘it is three years now, why has Dorothy not produced a child?’, as if there was some fault on my part. Why, I would very much like a child! A child would give me something to do besides that ridiculous embroidery. I would rather listen to a child wail than converse with Agatha. But how can a woman have a child when her husband will not come to her bedroom?’
Her eyes fixed on Namish’s glass, still untouched. ‘Drink!’ she said, and she brought her small fist down on the table, so hard that the bottles rattled in their crate. Namish did not meet her gaze. Instead, he picked up a shard of coconut, slid the knife expertly between meat and shell.
She came to stand beside him, the silk of her dress brushing against his arm. As she leaned into him, he felt the soft curve of her breasts, her warmth, the smell of gin from her breath. ‘If you will not drink with me,’ she whispered, ‘you will kiss me.’
Her lips were parted slightly, her face just inches from his. ‘Kiss me!’ she said again.
Namish let the knife drop into the bowl. Dorothy put her glass down on the table. She laid a hand on Namish’s shoulder, slid it slowly down his chest. As he raised his face towards hers, he noticed how blue her eyes were, how long her eyelashes as she lowered them in expectation of his kiss. The pale skin stretched taut across her cheekbones was almost translucent. Namish remembered that night in the hut when his mother had pulled back the sheet that covered Ravi, exposing the ragged cavity of his face. He pushed Dorothy away and jumped up, sending his chair crashing onto the flagstones.
‘What on earth is the matter?’ Dorothy said.
Namish retreated to the other side of the pantry and stood leaning against the wall.
‘Perhaps’ – Dorothy’s voice was petulant – ‘you do not think me beautiful?’
‘You are very beautiful.’
‘Then why will you not kiss me?’
Namish stared at the floor and did not answer.
‘Damn you!’ Dorothy said eventually and she gave a bitter laugh. ‘Perhaps you prefer your Hindu girls? I have seen them in the fields, their arms brown and muscular like a man’s.’
There was silence for a while before she spoke again. ‘You are worse than Edward,’ she said. ‘I expect you do not know how to kiss a woman.’ She kicked the upturned chair, sent it clattering across the pantry. ‘I could have you shot,’ she said, ‘shot and fed to the tigers. I have only to say the word, and Charles will see to it. You are nothing but a little Hindu savage.’
She walked over to the ornate arrangement of fruit. Not taking her eyes from Namish, she slowly, deliberately, stretched out a hand and swept the platter onto the floor. It shattered on the flagstones and the magnificent bird disintegrated, its wings and plumed head breaking apart, cherries rolling in every direction. Namish swore and rushed to salvage it but as he did, Dorothy began to stamp on the fruit, crushing it to a pulp, bringing the heel of her shoe down on Namish’s fingers.
There was a loud cry and Namish looked up to see his mother and Sameer standing in the pantry. Sameer was rocking back and forth on his heels, his hands to his head. Namish’s mother turned to Dorothy, bowed, then dropped to her knees and began to gather up the mess. ‘Quick,’ she said to Namish, ‘fetch me more fruit. I must make another. It is the governor’s favourite.’
Namish took a fistful of stringy pulp from the floor. He placed it on one of the tin plates the servants ate from and thrust it at Dorothy who, taken unawares, accepted it. A dribble of dark juice spilled over the edge of the plate and down the front of her blouse. ‘If the governor wants fruit,’ he said, ‘there is his fruit.’
‘Namish!’ his mother said. She scrambled up off her knees, her clothes stained with crushed fruit, and took the plate from Dorothy. ‘He does not know what he is saying,’ she said. She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the widening stain on Dorothy’s blouse but Dorothy slapped her away.
Sameer was moving about the pantry, taking oranges and mangoes from boxes, ladling raisins and cherries into a dish. Namish caught him by the arm. ‘Are we to spend our lives peeling oranges for the British?’ he said, but Sameer did not answer. Instead, pushing Namish aside, he went over to a crate in the corner. He pulled out two large pineapples and placed them on the table. Namish grabbed the pineapples and flung them to the floor. ‘If Ravi were alive,’ he said, ‘he would not be here, in a pantry, making pretty birds for the governor.’ Namish’s mother let out a small whimper but she did not move from the table where she was busy slicing a mangosteen.
A door in the far corner opened and there, at the bottom of the staircase that led to the main house, stood Agatha. ‘My dear,’ she exclaimed, when she saw Dorothy, ‘whatever are you doing here?’
‘Forgive me, Agatha,’ Dorothy said, ‘but I was searching for a compress to soothe your sting. Now these servants have plied me with some strange liquor and I feel most unwell.’
The pantry was silent apart from the rustle of Agatha’s skirts as she crossed the floor. She walked with a slight limp, clutching her left thigh. Taking a glass of gin from the table, she brought it to her nose and sniffed. ‘This gin is bad,’ she said, ‘like everything else in this country.’ She hooked her stout arm through Dorothy’s slender one. ‘You are too impetuous by far, my dear. I knew we should have stayed behind in London. Next time, perhaps Edward will listen.’ And she led Dorothy away.
Namish took the steps of the pantry two at a time. Outside, a heat haze blurred the fringe of palm trees that separated the governor’s estate from the jungle beyond. As Namish rounded the corner of the house, a maid sat plucking a goose on the bench, a flurry of feathers at her feet. She called to him but he did not return her greeting. He walked slowly at first, then faster and faster, until he was almost running. On the front lawn, tables were dressed in dazzling white linen and sun glittered on the crystal. The governor, fleshy and pink-faced, stood in a circle of his friends, seven or eight men clutching crystal tumblers. Amongst them were the two men Namish had encountered with the governor on the road the evening before.
Namish was close enough now to see the beads of sweat on the governor’s forehead. He stopped, just on the edge of the circle, and looked down at his fists, saw that they were clenched and empty. He thought of the knife abandoned in the bowl of coconut meat, the mallet lying idle on the pantry table. The governor glanced up and, for an instant, something resembling fear flickered across his face. Then he saw that it was Namish and his features relaxed again. Frowning slightly, he turned his attention back to his guests.
Namish remained for a moment on the spot where he had come to a halt, his fists still clenched, his nails digging into the flesh of his palms. He looked past the governor and his guests, past the white tables and the lawn, out to the blue infinity of the bay. There, the sea was indistinguishable from the sky and a streak of white gulls trailed, kite-like, above a fishing boat. Namish turned and began to run, back towards the house and along the tunnel of green hedging. He heard the thrum of his own blood in his ears, the fierce thud of his heart.
Down at the shore, two men were fishing from a wooden platform constructed on stilts above the water. Namish remembered the night when Ravi had taken him on a raft to listen for the singing fish. He had watched Ravi dip an oar in the water and place the handle of the oar to his ear. To please his brother, Namish had done the same. ‘Listen,’ Ravi had said, ‘Can you hear them?’ but Namish had heard nothing.
He looked back towards the house. From this distance, it looked like a doll’s house, the governor and his guests, tiny china figurines. Namish thought of his mother on her knees in the kitchen; Ravi’s ravaged face; the crack and splinter of coconut shell. Bringing his hands in front of his face, he examined them, seeing them as if for the first time. He thought of the rope burns on Ravi’s wrists, his hollow, maggot-riddled skull. A small cry escaped him. There would be another day, a better day. A day when Namish’s hands were not empty. A day when the governor was alone.