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Authors: M. M. Kaye

Death in the Andamans

BOOK: Death in the Andamans
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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Epigraph

Author's Note

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Also by M. M. Kaye

Copyright

 

In fond memory

of

‘Fudge'

(
Rosemary Cosgrave
)

and the Islands

 

‘The isle is full of noises…'

The Tempest

Author's Note

This story was roughed out during a wild and stormy afternoon towards the end of the long-ago thirties, on a tiny island in the southern waters of the Bay of Bengal.

I happened to be there because a great friend and fellow art student, to whom this book is dedicated, had accompanied her parents to this far-flung bit of Empire when her father was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Andaman Islands. Shortly after her arrival in Port Blair she had written inviting me to come out and spend the winter with them: an irresistible invitation that would have had to be resisted had it arrived any earlier, since my art had not been paying very well and I could not possibly have afforded the fare. But as luck would have it I had recently put away my paint-brushes and tried my hand at writing instead, and to my stunned surprise a children's book and my first novel, a crime story, had both been accepted for publication. What was more, an advance had been paid on them!

The sum involved was, by today's standards, incredibly meagre. But it seemed vast at a time when a return tourist-class passage by sea, from England to India and back again, cost only £40 (which is less than $50 at the present rate of exchange), and suddenly I was rich! I hastily bought a one-way ticket to Calcutta, where I eventually boarded a little steamer, the S.S.
Maharaja,
that called once a month at the Andamans, and four days later landed at Port Blair and was taken by launch to Ross — an island about the size of a postage stamp that guarded the entrance to the harbour and was topped by Government House, the residence of the Chief Commissioner.

The largest building in Port Blair was a pink, Moorish-style jail; for the main island had been used for almost a century as a convict settlement, and more than two thirds of the local population, many of them Burmese, were either convicted murderers serving life sentences, or the descendants of murderers — this last because ‘lifers' were allowed out after serving a year or two in the jail, permitted, if they wished, to send for their wives and families, given a hut and a plot of land and encouraged to settle. Even the majority of house-servants and gardeners on Ross, including those in Government House, were ‘lifers': and a nicer lot of people I have seldom met! But the house itself was another matter …

It was a disturbingly creepy place. What my Scottish grandfather would have termed ‘unchancy'. And if ever there was a haunted house it was this one. The incident at the beginning of this book happened to me exactly as I have described it, except that the figure I saw was not a European but a malevolent little Burman armed with a
kriss
— the wicked Burmese knife that has a wavy-edged blade. Other and equally peculiar things happened in that house: but that, as they say, is another story. The settings, however, and many of the incidents in this book, are real.

There actually was a picnic party at Mount Harriet on Christmas Eve, and there was also a British Navy cruiser visiting Port Blair. We saw the storm coming up, and ran for it, and a few of us managed to get back to Ross on the ferry: though I still don't know how we made it! Once back, we were cut off from the rest of Port Blair, and from everywhere else for that matter, for the best part of a week. The various Christmas festivities that we had planned were literally washed out, and by mid-afternoon on Boxing Day there was still a horrific sea running and every jetty in Port Blair had been smashed flat. But since the worst of the hurricane appeared to have passed, Fudge and I fought our way around Ross, ending up at the deserted Club, where we sat sipping gimlets
*
and staring glumly at the damp patches on the ballroom floor and the wilting decorations that we had put up so gaily only three days before.

Perhaps because I had just written a crime novel I remarked idly that the present situation would be a gift to a would-be murderer. No doctor on the island, no police, only a handful of the detachment of British troops, no telephone lines operating and no link at all with the main island, and despite the gale, the temperature and humidity so high that any corpse would have to be buried in double-quick time — and probably without a coffin at that! To which Fudge replied cheerfully: ‘You know, that's quite an idea! Who shall we kill?'

We spent the next half hour or so happily plotting a murder, limiting our characters to the number of British marooned on Ross, minus Fudge's mother, Lady Cosgrave, because we decided that our fictional Chief Commissioner had better be a widower with a stepdaughter, and plus two naval officers who had, in fact, been members of the picnic party on Mount Harriet, but had managed to make it back to their ship by the skin of their teeth. And since our real-life cast seemed much too average and humdrum, we derived considerable amusement from endowing them all with looks, characters, colouring and quirks that the originals did not possess.

All in all it proved a very entertaining way of passing a long, wet afternoon. But it did not occur to me to make any use of it, because I had gone back to painting again. I never gave it another thought until a year later, by which time my mother and I were in Persia — or Iran, if you insist, though I prefer the old name. (A ‘Persian' carpet or a ‘Persian' poem sounds far more attractive than an ‘Iranian' one any day.)

The Second World War had broken out that autumn, so sightseeing and sketching were not encouraged — particularly sketching! — and time was hanging a bit heavy on my hands. It was the period known as the ‘phoney war', and there being little else to do I decided to try my hand at writing another crime novel, using the plot that Fudge and I had concocted in the Andamans. Which I did: though by the time I finished it I was unable to get the manuscript home to my British publishers, owing to the fact that by then the war was no longer in the least ‘phoney'. And it was not until a long time later that it appeared in print in England under the title of
Night on the Island.

This is how a tale that was invented during an idle afternoon on a tiny, storm-bound island in the Bay of Bengal came to be written in Persia, in a small town on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab, called Khurramshah, which not so long ago was reduced to rubble in the fighting between Iran and Iraq. Sadly, Ross had long since predeceased it; falling a victim to Japanese bombing that demolished Government House and its ghosts, together with every other building on the island — including the little clubhouse where this story began.

I am told that the jungle has taken over Ross and that no one goes there any more. But that nowadays there is a modern hotel for tourists at Corbyn's Cove. Time and the Tourist march on!

 

 

*
A popular short drink in the days of the Raj, consisting of gin, ice and a dollop of Rose's lime juice, plus a dash of bitters (optional). These, too, would appear to have vanished along with the Empire.

1

Something bumped lightly against the side of her bed and Copper Randal, awakening with a start, was astonished to find that her heart was racing.

For a moment or two she lay staring into the darkness and listening. Trying to identify what it was that had woken her so abruptly. And why she should be afraid? But apart from the monotonous swish of the electric fan blades overhead there was no sound in the silent house, and the hot, windless night was so still that she could hear the frightened pounding of her heart. Then somewhere in the room a floorboard creaked …

Every nerve in her body seemed to jerk in response to that small, stealthy sound and suddenly her heart was no longer in her breast but had jumped into her throat and was constricting it so that she could barely breathe. She had to force herself to sit up and ease one hand out from under the close-tucked mosquito netting, moving very cautiously, and grope for the switch of her bedside light. She heard it click as she pressed it, but no comforting light sprang up to banish the darkness.

This, thought Copper, swerving abruptly from panic to impatience, is absurd! She rubbed her eyes with the back of her other hand and pressed the switch a second time. But with no better result. Yet there had been nothing wrong with the lamp when she turned it off, so either the bulb had given out during the night, which seemed unlikely, or else … Or else I'm dreaming this, she thought uneasily.

The idea was a preposterous one, but nevertheless she pinched herself to make sure that she was awake, and reassured on that point, pressed the switch a third time. Nothing. Then the bulb must have … It was at this point that irritation changed swiftly back into panic as she remembered the yards of flex that lay across the uncarpeted floor and connected the lamp on her bedside table to a plug on the far side of the room. Supposing someone — something — had passed by her bed and tripped over the flex, jerking the plug from its socket? She had done that herself more than once, so there was no reason to suppose
____

‘Stop it!' Copper scolded herself in a furious whisper: ‘You're behaving like a lunatic! And what's more, if you sit here in the dark for just one more minute, you'll end up screaming the house down. So get going!' Thus adjured she took a deep breath and summoning up all her courage, pushed up the mosquito netting and slid out of bed.

The smooth, polished floorboards felt pleasantly cool to her bare feet as she groped her way across to the switch by the bathroom door, and finding it, pressed down the little metal knob with a feeling of profound relief.

Once again a switch clicked beneath her unsteady fingers, and this time a light came on. But it was not the bright, warm comforting one she had expected. Instead, a queer, greenish, phosphorescent glow filled the room, and aware of a movement beside her, she turned sharply and saw, standing so close to her that without moving she could have touched him, the figure of a little wizened man in a suit of soiled white drill.

BOOK: Death in the Andamans
3.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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