Friday, 14 March 2014

Mandalay by Nigel Jarrett

“This is Des,” Sue announced, barely able to reach her friend’s shoulders in the doorway. She looked like someone already out of her depth.

    Desmond Mandalay was not the kind of person you expected to find advertising in a newspaper’s Perfect Partners column.  He justified his appearance there by distinguishing himself from those for whom such action represented a stage in the decline of self-respect. As a remedy for loneliness, lack of social success or shyness in the company of women, he viewed it as desperate – but not in his own case. Sending his personal details to the Express had been for him a first resort. Anyone would have done. Anyone in flight from love and companionship. He was exiled through choice from a distant shore whose continuing turmoil exercised his mind in the day and tormented him at night. Between vigilance and the noiseless images of unrest which provoked it, he endured a state of almost gravitational tension. All this was from Sue.

    I first saw him at the library. Desmond Ramlawan Mandalay.  Apart from one or two students, he was the first black person I had seen there regularly. He was very tall, greying at the temples and straight-backed; in his cravat and blazer he looked like a famous ex-cricketer.   He used to ask for the Times atlas of the Pacific and would scan its pages with a wistful look, as though expecting to find Atlantis, or its South Seas equivalent, snagged among the blue oceanic grids. Sometimes he copied page after page from books on Southern Hemisphere history, the events of which seemed to have ignited, flared briefly in the 1950s and then subsided.

    We recognised each other instantly when Sue brought him to the flat that evening.  Sue had not enjoyed stability in her several relationships, and this time we thought she had gone completely potty in resorting to Lonely Hearts. But that’s Sue – always up to her armpits in life’s lucky dip. Mandalay’s small ad had mentioned nothing about skin colour.

    I call him Mandalay now because it distances him from me in a way I find useful when attempting to do justice to his need for integrity, but also because it surrounds him in my mind with an aura of guilt and notority, like a defendant in an Express court report.  The facts of his exile were straightforward.  After a successful military coup, he had been in charge of a platoon detailed to turf out counter-insurgency in the mountains. The job was lengthy, the pay wagon sometimes never arrived, and the mini-skirted camp followers began disappearing, sometimes with their throats cut.  One evening, shortly before dusk, a few of his men had burst into a jungle seminary and massacred four priests, all of whom had been wrongly suspected of informing. Mandalay could have survived a straight admission of error but, for reasons to do with the complicated business of allegiance and the frosted window that slides behind a man who forsakes the infantry life for the isolation of command, he supported the theory that the priests had been killed by the guerillas themselves. Thus did a hero find himself in an Islington flat, seeking solace or whatever in the classified small ads.

    All of us – me, Sue and the girls – had stayed together. In London it was necessary during those early days of  separation from the Welsh valleys. Later, we provided shelter for those of our number who had succumbed to city blandishments and been found wanting.  All except Sue learned lessons.  For her, life was a halting progress, its setbacks merely the diverting hand of experience laid on delicate shoulders. Often, we listened in horror as she described one romantic entanglemnt after another. We all remember Eric, the musician who two-timed her continually, and we couldn’t forget Neville, the fraudster still brooding in Pentonville’s D Wing.

    To know Sue was to know the rest of the gang. On that first night there were three of us. We were supposedly intelligent, but wit and tolerance do not invariably come attached to an education any more than honour and a sense of duty are to be discovered in the presence of a nodding valet. We were shocked less by Mandalay’s origins than by his arrogance, and we suffered the liberal’s worst pain: that of momentarily giving in to an irrational sense that both were somehow linked.

    There was the way he cast his heavy-lidded eyes over the flat as Sue told us about his escape from the Tropics, and that piercing contempt with which he met our ignorance of the Third World and its faraway troubles. What little he said seemed to be intent on making its own way, and when Sue almost collapsed in giggles while describing some of the other replies to his Express box number, he leant forwards and said to me, “Your library should do something about its History section. Not only is there life below the median latitudes but there are peoples who at this very moment are disturbing your cosy world order.”  It had been a long time since we’d been made to feel personally responsible for a remote act. (Actually, our History shelves are pathetic but they do reflect local interest.)  Sue drifted behind him and pulled a face, as if inviting us to be as impressed as she was by his velvet gravity. Sue was not stupid. Even then we imagined her trying to wriggle free of what would surely turn out to be an unbearable weight. “I’ll see what I can do,” was my spirited reply, but he did not smile.  Mandalay confirmed my suspicion that the truly serious are somehow frightening, and not just because they expose our limitations.  Only when Sue flopped on to the settee beside him and blew upwards through her troublesome fringe did he take her hand and hold it aloft.  I felt that she had completed a union which at once ruled out the rest of us. For all her romantic tribulation, she was always stepping beyond us, albeit gingerly, to glimpse the mysteries of some vivid panorama, and her reports back were often the painful ones of a casualty.

    At first, Mandalay did little more than politely accept our hospitality.  He was less awesome on his next visit to the library but his smile was more of recognition than friendliness.  He asked for  On the Run from Banda, Vijay Mehta’s collection of reminiscences by the African dictator’s scattered opponents. He took a corner seat and removed his jacket. In the room’s permanent twilight, his stiff white shirt dazzled.  I was not at the desk when he returned the book. He gave it to one of my colleagues and left without looking for me.

    Sue became an expert on banana republics as she had once been knowledgeable about betrayed musical genius and incarceration of the non-violent. Mandalay had few friends from the old country – actually an island, St Porteus. Sue told us about a room off the Caledonian Road, walks in Highbury Fields and spicy home cooking. Huddled in the shadows we would imagine Sue and Mandalay way above us, striding out on the illustrious road. But we knew the partnership was doomed. They always were. Sue herself, always a step or two behind, came to expect as much.

    No sooner had Mandalay graduated to pleasantry at the library than his visits became irregular and less frequent.  He used never to miss a week – usually Monday and Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons – but I began noticing his absence from the corner table, which I had come to look upon as his domain. It was curious, this absence, this glaring lack of a presence created by someone whose manner should rightly have made his arrival and departure unimportant. Also, the switch of routine was not mirrored in his union with Sue, which appeared to have reached a plateau fairly quickly. During the following few months, it virtually ended.  If it did not sound slightly corny and did not suggest a relationship which had darkened the lives of others, I would more readily liken it to a solar eclipse. The moon as nocturnal, surreptitious drifter through the day.

    It was Mr Bunce, the senior librarian, who handed me the message.  It was written on a miniature sheet of mauve paper and sealed in a little mauve envelope. Mr Bunce does not care for black men, though he lives fearlessly in their midst near Finsbury Park. They are a graft which has not ‘taken’ and are resentful, whereas a disenchanted Englishman abroad simply puts up with his lot in an expression of civilised self-absorption. These views are offered in the knowledge that a piteous ear will relegate them to eccentricity, for Mr Bunce is going blind ‘slowly but surely’.  When he handed me the note it was with a look of fatherly concern edged with disdain. It was from Mandalay. Would I phone him.

    “I wanted to thank you for your help during the past few weeks,” he said, and, anticipating any thought that his gratitude might just as easily have been expressed in a formal way at work, added, “Things have more or less come to a head.”

    There followed a pause, in which I could hear someone else’s echoing strife across the corridor, separate from his own territory, a silent place on the whole, I guessed, and as good as any other for re-orientating.  I imagined him aglow in the semi-darkness, a radio tuned to the World Service or some earnest foreign station jostling with frivolous voices in the ether.

    Then, before I could ask him to explain, he said, “I mean with Sue. She must be upset. Can I speak to you about it?”

    “Go ahead,” I said.

    “No, I mean…”

    I knew what he meant. We arranged a time and place.

    If we didn’t always think well of people at the start, we would make no progress, not even the rapid sort that leads to the discovery of error. By this time, our gang had all but broken up and our get-togethers were fuelled by remembrance and revelation, with nothing in between, none of the tearfully confessional stuff that had formerly bound us.   For some weird reason, I looked around as Mandalay and I entered the café, not for Sue, who I knew was on the other side of town and actually not as upset as Mandalay believed, but for Mr Bunce and the reproof he cast over his half-moon glasses at anyone who acted quietly in defiance of his prejudices rather than argued the toss. My amusement, the source of which I refused to divulge, had a calming affect.

    “Would you speak to her?” he asked, after a story of humdrum personality clash.

    “Speak to her?” I spluttered.

    But he held up a tawny palm: “I don’t want you to do my dirty work because I’ve done it myself. It’s over. It’s just that I cannot stand bitterness, any kind of nasty taste in the mouth.”

    When I might have been thinking that this was the military mind at work, ensuring the eradication of evidence and culpability, I was actually wondering whether Mandalay was genuine or not and if he had simply spun Sue a yarn. I’d never checked. St Porteus?  Never heard of it. Then I had the eerie feeling that Mandalay knew exactly how my thoughts were being ordered, in the same way that Mr Bunce always seems confident of witnessing the vindication of his political views through some wild assault on my reason, more so now that a veil is being drawn across any evidence that one day might have discountenanced him, such as a visible act of kindness or inhumanity.

    Sue had been cast adrift without much pain or repercussion just once before. She’d met an older man at a jazz concert, one of those London events which sound momentous but attract fewer than two hundred fans, many of them sitting alone on the audience’s fringe. He was typical of the species – an ice cream factory shift manager from Ealing, with an immense record collection but little conversation. For six months, Sue had kept late, deafening hours at Ronnie Scott’s and the Vortex, then rebelled against some unspecified pecadillo, possibly sexual. The vista opened up had been intense but circumscribed, and ultimately polluted. In the case of Mandalay, it was simply too grand, too – dangerous.

    After our first dinner date, Mandalay suggested that we visit the zoo. He worked part-time as a youth counsellor south of the Thames, and some of his afternoons were free. We went on my day off.

    “I suppose Mr Bunce is looking after things today,” he said.

    “Mr Bunce is always looking after things,” I said. “He’s in charge.”

    “Gordon Bunce is a bigot,” he said, and before I could respond, the queue had shortened and he was at the front, lowering his shoulders to speak through the perforated glass circle: “Two adults – please.”

    I hadn’t heard any of our borrowers refer to Mr Bunce by his first name. On official communications he was always G H C Bunce, Senior Librarian. It was weeks before I found out myself.

    “All I know is, he is losing his sight,” I said, by way of defending someone I didn’t much care for myself.  We were drifting through the reptile house, with its sideshows of inactivity, when he told me about the network. Later, he stood staring at a wise old gorilla, its tiny eyes revolving in a fixed, sculpted head. He turned to me and smiled. I don’t know why but I felt small. Perhaps he saw me as representing a tribe that was obnoxiously discreet about its repugnance.

    That night I spoke to Sue.  She seemed defensive. It was all over with Mandalay.

    “Des always seems preoccupied,” she explained. “Then there are the others. His friends from the old country. Two came over from Paris. Did you know Des has a gun? I came across it by accident but I think I was meant to. Do you understand? I’m not supposed to let on. They live in the future. The past was a bad time and they hated it. They want to grab hold of the past and…and…re-arrange it. I just wanted to go to the pub.”

     I laughed. This was Sue, not frivolous but an inhabitant of the everlasting present and recently detached from someone working to vacate the present in the interests of fusing past and future. In describing her thus, I am employing Mandalay’s own usage. Not long after, he and I began seeing each other regularly. We went to the pictures, sat in the park and wandered through galleries and museums. Once, at a depopulated Seven Sisters tube station, he stood placid as a distant voice (we could make out a lone, gremlin-like form near the tunnel exit) propelled insults at him. We stayed with each other at weekends.

    But nothing came of it, nothing of real engagement. I think Sue got more from her relationship with him, albeit as a result of fluttering adoration. That’s Sue. He had stopped coming to the library, but after a while – a decent interval, as they say - I had the sensation of being pushed into his orbit again. Yes, pushed. I phoned. We agreed to meet for breakfast at Gill Wing’s, near Highbury Corner. Mandalay was infectiously surreptitious, which made contact with him almost furtive, and this appealed to me. I don’t know why: perhaps that first flight of us girls followed the bleeping of an intrepid gene, urging us to independence, the bleeps going off at random.

    We sat at a window table, eating bacon and eggs – me and an exiled freedom-fighter with a scar above his eye like a small fossil. He loomed over me, quietly watchful. Actually, he was watching passers-by, not me. I looked out, too. Did we take in the same people – a slow, old Sikh; a skinhead defined by his body language; a dolled-up blonde; three djellaba-draped mums with pushchairs?

   “How’s the all-seeing Gordon Bunce?” he asked suddenly, without taking his eyes off the people drifting past and as if Mr Bunce, wielding a white stick, had just stepped forward, unbidden, from his memory. “Blind yet?”

    “Oh, the irony of the dreamer!” I said.

    He inclined his head, rolled his eyes and chuckled deeply.

About the Author:  Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and music critic, having worked as a daily-newspaper reporter, feature writer and sub-editor. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. His début story collection, Funderland, was published by Parthian in 2011 to enthusiastic reviews in the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, among others, and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize.
    His first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was published by Parthian in November 2013. His poems, essays and stories appear widely and he reviews jazz for Jazz Journal and poetry for Acumen magazine. He is also the co-editor of The Day’s Portion (Village Publishing), a collection of Arthur Machen’s journalism. Since 1987 he's been music critic of the South Wales Argus newspaper and as a freelance also writes music criticism and essays for the British Music Society Journal,  the Wales Arts Review and others.  Born in the industrial Eastern Valley of South Wales, Jarrett was educated in Pontypool and at Cardiff University. He lives in Monmouthshire, not far from Tintern Abbey. His website is:

Image: (c) Nigel Jarrett