editing and publishing
East of Singapore, 1932
Some people considered Colonel Jacob to be an irascible man; others found
him aloof, intimidating even. Those who had felt the lash of his tongue in
India spoke of him, not disrespectfully, but rather as a man ‘best not to get
on the wrong side of’. But they all would have agreed that the man had a
keen eye for detail and was a stickler for fair discipline. He was imperturbable
in a crisis, cool and measured in the way he conducted his life.
Cool was not how Colonel Jacob was feeling at ten o’clock on that sultry
Saturday morning in late-1932, as, legs outstretched and – rare occurrence
indeed – his jacket off and his collar undone, he sat slumped in a wicker chair
aboard the elderly S.S. Halmahera as it plodded its way inland, up the greasy waters of the Sungai Riau, still a good hour away from its destination, Cuttackpore.
The three days sailing from Singapore had been uncomfortable but no worse than many a voyage on board crowded troopships back in his India days. Heat was part and parcel of the load one had to bear out here. But the heat of the sluggish Sungai Riau was some¬thing that he had seldom encountered, even on the Sub-Continent. The very air seemed to have substance: it weighed him down and sapped every last ounce of his strength.
To make it worse, the rusty electric fan in his cabin had broken down. To seek relief aloft was an option to be resorted to as a last extreme, for the mosquitoes were in plague proportions. In addition, oily smoke from the Halmahera’s single funnel coiled along the deck and the sight and smell of the endless ranks of mangroves that lined the muddy banks of the river were enough to make a weaker man than Colonel Jacob seriously contemplate cutting his losses by jumping over the side.
The Colonel dozed as best he could until the ageing vessel rounded the last S-bend of the river. As it began to manoeuvre towards its berth at the Cuttackpore steamer landing, it caused much ado among the punts, sampans, lighters and other craft in the bustling harbour. The wharves and their confined swing basin were located where the eastern and western arms of the Sungai Riau came together from up-country. Once the two arms had merged, they flowed the winding sixty miles down to the South China Sea. There was not much room for even a medium-sized vessel such as the Halmahera to complete its swing in one go, but the Malay captain could do the turns in his sleep, so often had he made the trip from Singapore.
The Colonel surveyed the city from the ship’s rail. He wasn’t looking forward to this assignment. Probably his attitude of mind had been coloured from the start by Stone-Marten’s account of the case he had been sent to investigate. Nor was the Colonel overly impressed by what he saw: Cuttackpore did not im¬mediately attract someone who had spent many years in the East, with its collection of European buildings, wharves and godowns and ragtag lines of native houses and shops ranged around the semi-circle of the harbour. Far Eastern Colonial outposts were much of a muchness; even the pungent smell of moisture, rot, sewage and cloves was a familiar one. The backdrop of the city too was nothing out of the ordinary: lush green jungle foliage climbing steeply up into the hills, and, far off, the jagged outline of a mountain range shimmering blue in the haze.
Hard to think that only as recently as Monday he had been sitting in his office just off the waterfront in Singapore, trying to invent a plausible excuse not to attend a reception later in the week at the German consulate, when a Chinese messenger brought a note written in the crabbed copperplate of Stone-Marten himself, asking the Colonel to meet him that day at Raffles for lunch and “a chat”.
Stone-Marten was a bald, roly-poly little man of 50 with a florid face who always gave the impression of being faintly flustered, as if he was already late for a meeting somewhere else. Since his schooldays in Cheltenham the nickname of Nubbin had followed him to every posting, along with tales of his buffoonery. Stone-Marten was one of those unfortunates who positively seem to encourage lampoons.
After small talk at the bar, they had taken their drinks through to the hushed and lofty dining-room and there the Consul-General launched into the real reason for inviting Jacob to lunch.
‘Spot of bother in Cuttackpore,’ he began cautiously as the waiter pushed his chair in for him. ‘London feels we need you there as fast as we can manage it. Don’t know the place by any chance, I suppose?’
‘Heard of it would be more exact,’ the Colonel had replied. ‘Somewhere beyond Kuching, as I understand.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Stone-Marten had said dismissively, waving his hand in what could have been an easterly direction. ‘Out that way. Small sultanate, protectorate of ours, dreadful backwater. We only stay there to keep the Sultan from being romanced by the Fascists and other undesirables. What with all that’s looming on the international horizon these days we need to hang on to such friends as we have out here. No doubt London considers they might become strategically useful at some juncture, though I can’t see it myself. Personally I cannot see us ever being forced out of our position in this part of the world.’
‘And what spot of bother precisely?’ the Colonel enquired, pulling the starched napkin open and spreading it in his lap, bringing the conversation back on track lest the Consul-General go off on some hectoring diatribe about international affairs. Stone-Marten was apt to do that, given half a chance, especially when he found himself at a disadvantage in height or intellect.
‘Our chap there seems to have got himself bumped off,’ Stone-Marten continued,
Body in the Nullah