Friday 30 November 2012

Windsor Hotel, Nassau. 196-

The red snapper had been excellent, the company less so, and even on the veranda of the Windsor Hotel he had been ambushed.  Dark as it was the old man had sniffed him out though Jonty had cupped his cigarette as if concerned about snipers.
            ‘Didn’t bring a newspaper, old man?’
            Jonty apologised. He could hardly have failed to notice, once rowed to shore from the seaplane he had hired, that he was a newcomer to Bermuda. Quite what a figure of interest this had made him had only become apparent once otherwise happily settled at the bar of the hotel. Strangers had introduced themselves and the more so as the first spoke to the second and the exile telegraph went into a higher gear. Nassau was doubtless the worst for it, but in Nassau for the moment he would have to stay. Bermuda one of those specks of dust on the map that represented the overseas colonies of Great Britain. And still they were that, outposts of a nation that no longer existed and certainly having nothing to do with dull old England. The Dutch and Japanese might enjoy their Empires (and commensurately their wars) and Jonty certainly hoped the Spanish countries and colonies liked fighting one another for they had been at it for decades now. But Bermuda was British since the establishment of St George’s nine years into the House of Stuart’s rule in 1612.
            ‘Not to worry, not to worry...’
            The man made no move to leave and saying nothing more only coughed every minute or so until Jonty introduced himself.
            ‘Overton, old man,” he replied. “Major, retired of course. Whole bloody regiment retired. Dissolved, lost I suppose. After my time of course but don’t tell the others. A chap can run his slate long when they think he’s a true Royalist hero.’
            ‘And were you?’
            ‘No old man. But then nor were you, eh? Get you a drink? Rum matches the place. Always drink local I say, Governor certainly does. Like a fish, only they don’t do they?’
            ‘Don’t they?’
            ‘No, and he does, so silly thing to say really. You’ll wait whilst I get the drinks. Be bloody silly to be running about at this time of night. And chin up, takers a rogue to sniff a rogue.’
            Perhaps arranged to be so or more likely by coincidence, the sound of boots signalled the arrival of the guard across the square. Whilst many had fled England (or just as Jonty well knew, been allowed to leave) and to places like this, so too had gathered every loyal British soldier, sailor and marine in the Caribbean, Atlantic and later even those few that had been in the Pacific. Those that had not understood what had happened back home, or did not care or as now knew they were on to a good thing being paid if not well, then as ceremonials only. Those Jonty watched were typical of those he had seen since arriving. Six come to change the guard like they were duty at Windsor Castle, all corporals but for the one sergeant, all about his age, gone to fat and mightily whiskered.
            Overton returned with two glasses that he held in one hand, in the other a cigar just lit. He did not offer to toast Jonty. He drew on the cigar and perhaps therefore summoning a waiter who fetched the two men an ashtray neither had thought to collect themselves.
            ‘Another,’ said Overton knocking back his glass. Jonty did the same and presently with their glasses refreshed the older man seemed satisfied by something and so announced that he was going to let Jonty in on a secret.
            ‘Where did you school?’
            The question surprised Jonty, who lied. Overton seemed satisfied but did not return the gesture as would have been common amongst gentlemen. And Jonty, having been nowhere for many years where he might be allowed to be considered one, missed the niceties more because of it. His expression he kept neutral.
            ‘I was a spy and a good one too,’ said Overton. He knocked off an inch of ash and the tray too recently washed hissed a little. ‘By which I mean that I betrayed people. A spy as I say, not an intelligence officer or a gentleman of the club, or whatever the vernacular is nowadays. A bad sort all round. Oh, there were reasons. When you break old man, you break all the way. I betrayed so many people and then I betrayed one more, and that person much to my dismay returned a few years later to remind me of what I had done.’
            ‘Quite so.’
            Overton hesitated. He drank down his second which was not, Jonty thought, only his second of the evening. Jonty saw him shake before eyes closed he stilled, reminding the comparatively younger man of a high wire act he had once seen. Overton waved away the moment with his cigar.
            ‘And yet here you are,’ said Jonty.
            ‘I went to Scotland first, but the loyalists had all gone. The Scots had never liked them much and whilst they liked to wave their flags they had never regretted exporting the Stuarts. Crossed the ocean before she came back for me, I suppose I should have just dropped out for a while, but I never felt comfortable in Columbia. All that religion, like the Spaniards although not quite of course, and they will insist on knowing a chap’s business.’
            ‘And you’re not a fellow to just tell a stranger his secrets?’
            Overton took a handkerchief and chuckled into it as he wiped his nose and brow. He said, ‘But surely you know all this?’
            ‘Why ever should I?’
            ‘I’d say because you’re here to kill me? Mme Roux sent you?’
            ‘Ah, why should that you think that?’ he said, more interested now because the old fool was absolutely correct save for the fact that Jonty had not the first idea who he was. The name he had given had meant nothing.
            Overton signalled for the waiter and after a brief whisper and the passing of folded notes a bottle was brought. For a moment neither spoke as Jonty looked out over the narrow streets with their clapboard houses. Pretty with the gables and balconies that were so very Nassau. Concerned over what Overton had said, Jonty expected trouble. When Overton paused to splash two large ones he accepted.
            ‘Tell me Mr Hood, do you like stories?’
            ‘I prefer a good song.’
            Hearing this Overton obliged in a good baritone, ‘No more chant your old rhymes about old Robin Hood, his feats I do little admire.’
            ‘I’ve heard this one.’
            ‘I’ll sing the achievements of General Dick, now the hero of old Yer-hork-shire!’ sang Overton. He coughed, ‘I forget the rest. But that’s not the only song I know, how about another?’
            Jonty smiled thinly. He ran a hand through his hair squinting as he did so.
            ‘Oh one morning when I woke up, O bella ciao, bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao. Oh one morning when I woke up and I found the invader. Oh, handsome Jonty, take me with you...’
            ‘I’ve changed my mind, I’ll take the story.’
            Overton did not answer immediately. He paused before hinting strongly that not only did he know Jonty was a figure of folk song and tales, but so too was he. General Dick the first of them really, the strike maker and the union organiser back when that meant the price of a bullet charged to a man’s new widow. General Dick had been for votes. They still called votes Dicks back home. He the pamphlet celebrity for democracy, for equality, or so the songs went but Jonty, who had been in a few songs of his own, knew how accurate they were; which was not. The older man was wearing a decently stiff lip considering he was convinced Jonty was here to kill him. A mixture of conceit and reputation, Overton’s conceit and Jonty’s reputation. Neither of which saw fit to pick up the conversation and dust it down.
            ‘I don’t suppose you might see fit to...’
            ‘Who is that?’ said Jonty. Inside and an extraordinary woman watched them.
            ‘I can introduce you?’
            ‘General Dick, would it be an awful imposition to ask if you would instead just piss off?’

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