Saturday Mess went very well. We cooked five pots to keep everything kosher just in case the native sepoys showed interest. They could not eat with the British soldiers of course but just in case. However, my Indian family was not Brahmin or Rajput so that was that. Anything we cooked would be deemed polluting. The Sergeants came however and almost all of the officers. Even my commanding officer came. The regimental mascot, a dog, was dressed up and it had it’s own bowl. The other regimental mascot, a parrot that screamed obscenities, was given rum so it was very happy. I read my little thank you speech off the palm of my hand where it was written in neat ink. Then my Indian family and I served all of the tables. My Indian Brother played the hand cranked organ as entertainment. The 17 course feast lasted two hours. I only wished the Officer Mess went as well….
I was dressed wrong. All of the officers were dressed in their best formal mess kits as if this was Horseguards London rather than India. The memsahibs sailed in like battleships at Trafalgar. The telegraph expert was in civilian dress and I clung to him like a flea. I simply could not talk to anyone else. The officers seemed so intimidating. I would have volunteered to charge across a killing ground straight into artillery cannon armed with only a bayonet rather than sit around that mess table with those strangers. The table gleamed with starched linen regimental silver. Every officer was suppose to bring his own khumagar footman but my Indian Son # 1 seemed so young in his cut down tunic compared to the other khumagar footmen. I tried to sit by the telegraph man and was directed, red faced, to my ‘seat’ by two aged memsahibs who pointedly talked to the other officers because I had failed to come, calling card in hand, immediately on arrival to kowtow to them. I dripped gravy on the white starch table cloth and had to move my plate to cover it. I could not follow the conversation or make conversation. I did not get the jokes. I could not say witty things. So I simply sat there morose and silent like a lump on a bump.
When the memsahibs sailed away to allow port to circulate I had nothing to drink as the officers made toast after toast to justify getting drunk. I stared at the telegraph man across the table and he shrugged back at me. He was just sitting there too. No one wanted to take about the revolutionary potential of the telegraph. Finally my commanding officer signaled for everyone to ‘join the memsahibs’ and I had to jump and hastily and stammer out my speech , still written in ink on the palm of my hand, but alas covered by white gloves.
“I……..I…..I….. I….. the bungalow. I a………will pay all of your back! Thank you!”
“Of course old chap!” one officer said brushing my stammering off with a wave of a white gloved hand. “Gentlemen honor their debts.” I cringed as if gutted by a bayonet!
The memsahibs were in battle formation when we filed into the drawing room ready to attack. There was a piano but everyone stood around chatting with champagne so I did not know if I could move toward it or not. I moved toward the telegraph man instead and we resumed talking about the glories of the telegraph until a memsahib scolded us for boring everyone. Then the memsahib of my commanding officer sailed up with a tonic seltzer all but too late. It reminded me of the steamer to India. I stared into it and wished I had a Bombay Fizzer.
“What are you thinking so wishfully?” a girl’s voice asked.
“A Bombay Fizzer!” I replied without thinking. The girl laughed.
“Damn but I loved those too! Why don’t we have them here?” I stared at her then. She was short with hair cut shockingly short for the heat, a less than pretty face, and a plain dress without fussy crap.
“I can do this!” I told myself. Then I said “Hello. My name is Nicholson.”. I even smiled though it probably came off as glaring. She could be a daughter. She could be a sister. She could be ……available. I like her face. She was just this side of plain. I disliked china doll faces and too blond heads too full of too curly hair. But her brown hair was cut so short….
At that moment her husband came and claimed her. “Queenie here is getting over malaria like you old chap. That is why her hair is cut off.”
“I might keep it short!” Queenie replied perky. “It is cooler. Why don’t we have Bombay Fizzers Bobby?”
‘An’t done there my dear!” a greying memsahib replied “That is a vulgar steamer drink”she added. I withered. It was as if I have been punched in the face.
“I don’t care!” Queenie laughed. “I like Bombay Fizzers!”
“Then we must have them!” her husband laughed. “For when Queenie wants something then Queenie must have it!” He beamed at his wife and kissed her hand. He was middle aged. ‘John Company’ required that officers serve at least ten years before sailing home to court and bring back wives. “Something to look forward too! Eh Nicholson! When you can import a memsahib!” He grinned. He was clearly madly in love with his Queenie.
“I might marry native” I replied without thinking. “I hear native bibi know the ropes of India.
“Smart! Why not!” Queenie laughed.
“That is not done Sir!” a greying memsahib hissed. Then she and other snotty memsahibs fussed with their imported London clothes that were too hot for the Indian climate.
“Used to be the norm” I replied. The devil was in me. “Isn’t it better to marry into India? So the two races become one race? Or else we British will be a tiny minority of aliens living in an alien land. Is that smart? Is it smart to reinforce narrow minded prejudice? Bigotry? And provincialism?” I said slowly, every word a nail in my social coffin. The memsahib of my commanding officer jabbed her fan into my kidney while one foot stomped down on my boot to shut me up. But the devil was in me.
“Memsahibs keep men from circulating among their native NCO’s and connecting with their sepoys!” I continued, out of control. “Memsahibs cut men off from their regiments! Keeps officers isolated in bogus pretend bits of phony Olde England! This room is a gigantic masquerade of phony Olde England right smack in the middle of the bloody Indian Frontier! Tigers are eating my pickets for late night snacks and you memsahibs act as if this is Brighton! At least when ‘John Company’ allowed men to marry bibi they acted as if they were in India instead of England and knew the Indian People and Indian Customs and Indian Languages! No one in this room is talking anything but English! Do you allow you men to ever practice the language at all? Or learn any fucking thing that is not English?”
You could cut the air with a bayonet. My poor Indian Son # 1 stared at me from the far side of the room pleading with me to shut up. But the devil was in me. “And anyway. Indian bibi read the Kamasutra and know how to make love in a position other than ‘missionary’.” Like I said. The devil was in me. The harpies glared at me with utter wrath.
“Yes but then who would want to me imported goods like me?” Queenie laughed, trying to defuse the escalating social debacle . There was this terrible silence. Queenie smiled wanly at me. The harpies glared as their talons clutched their fans as if shredding human flesh. My commanding officer’s memsahib groaned.
“I say!” an officer interrupted, nervously, “Nicholson has not wet the colors!”
The bottle of champagne came out and Indian footmen poured out glasses and a glass of champagne was shoved into my hand.
“Give us a toast Nicholson! Toast the regimental colors old chap!”
Everyone stared at me as my money was spent on champagne which was splashing lavishly into overflowing glasses. I was already in debt. How was I suppose to pay for this? ‘Gentlemen honor their debts’ rang in my brain. How the fuck was I suppose to pay my mess bill debts?
“Give us a toast Nicholson!” everyone shouted. My hand holding my glass shook.
“To the Frontier!” Queenie shouted. Everyone cheered her and drank. She smiled at me as if encouraging me. My hand holding my glass shook. The champagne slopped over and some spilled on her dress.
“I say old chap!” her husband said as he pulled out his handkerchief to wipe her dress.
My hand hold my glass clinched so tightly the glass exploded into bloody shards of glass and champagne spattered everywhere along with blood. I looked down dazed, not knowing where the blood was coming from and saw my hand dripping blood. I stared dazed as Queenie took her husband’s handkerchief and wrapped it around my hand as blood dripped onto the carpet. Everyone stared at me with utter horror.
“Spilled wine. Bloody death” someone whispered.
“But that is only for red wine. This is champagne” an officer replied.
“What curse does spilled champagne bring?”
I stormed out of the mess drawing room and lunged back to my hill tent, shoving my Indian family out, as I threw down the tent flap to weep on my cot. My Indian Son # 1 came running after me to debrief my Indian family about the entire catastrophe. “Not one of us! Not one of us!” I shouted as one fist pounded the cot. “Not one of us and never will be!”