Apricots and Coconuts

Along the shore where you live, not far from the sealer’s cove, is a place where you retreat whenever the world—the small one you inhabit—snares you like a nasty jag. The many people, aimless in their own pursuits of happiness and enterprise, admirable in how they remain steadfastly thankless for the tasks you perform at their behest, cause you to consider thus: none would matter to a man whose life was normal. 

‘But,’ you muse, ‘what is normal?’ 

You pad the packet of Player’s against your woollen tunic and, taking the first cigarette out, light it with the powerful spark of your last match’s life. The golden glow of the terrific flame in the sconce of your hands, you realise, burns like your life, your youth, brief and impassive, before the lone embers rise into the Turkish blue sky above. 

‘What is normal, Herr Schilling?’ you sigh. 

You watch the breakers roll over the impenetrable lightness of the sea, the harried sandpipers hastening for the safety of drier terrain as the waves crash against the pure sands of the cove behind them. It hearkens back to a sand-swept land many thousands of kilometres and years far off, to the gentler days of Indian summers and other unalloyed pleasures, long since passed, to a time when it seemed the unimagined agonies of the loss of innocence, of bosom friends, was itself a foreign country. But, when you stand against the moss laden limestone of the cove, feeling the chill of the cold rock coursing down your spine like a misconnection in a switchboard, it is as though you never left such a place. 

***

A Mercedes-Benz saloon drawing up to the main entrance of the hotel draws your attention. The motorcar—alpine white and rebarbative when compared to its surroundings—idles with a steady thrum of the engine as you glance from the cabin at the sisal grass and tiny lizards sunning themselves on the wicker furniture. Several men—locals dressed in what appear to be colonial uniforms of the King’s Rifles, complete with triumphal fez, puttees, and brown leather shoes—rake the palm fronds from the lawn. You imagine this must be what Britishers hope will become the new Sunningdale after the East African Campaign ends. 

Suddenly, a man’s voice coming from the other side of the cabin distracts you. ‘Your door, Sar.’ Mcha, the young charge and factotum sent to shepherd you through Tanganyika, stands beside the Mercedes-Benz saloon. Having seen you start a little through the cracked window, he grins and asks, ‘Pleasant trip from Tanga, Herr Schilling?’
 
‘Yes, fine, vielen da-,’ rising from the car you halt yourself from speaking German. 

‘No, no, bwana,’ Mcha raises a tactful finger. ‘Speak freely. The Colonel here holds no hard feelings,’ Mcha takes your hand in a double grip using both of his, and smiles. The sinews of his thin though powerful hands are soft—much more than your idle pen pushers are—and, you notice, he is not dressed in the Ruritanian outfit of the others. 

‘Sar is unsure of something?’ Mcha leans in towards you and lowers his gaze. ‘Perhaps Sar has left something behind at the seaport?’ he offers with a raised eyebrow as a severe, balding man in military dress and a beautiful woman (his wife?) in a straw-coloured sundress brush past you, entering the hotel.  

‘Was that the Colonel just now?’ you ask, forgetting your previous thought. 

Mcha glances over his shoulder. ‘No Sar,’ his features drop considerably, ‘That was the Commissaire—part of the deputation sent from Brussels,’ Mcha speaks conspiratorially, his vowels drawn out. ‘Sar would be wise to avoid this man.’ He nods his head with a knowing look. 

Understanding this warning, you bow your head. 

‘And what about the woman?’

‘That’s where he gets his venom, Sar.’ 

Confused, though aware some things are best left alone, you refrain from questioning further. Instead, you let the notion play on your mind like a childhood enthusiasm. 

Possibly reading your thoughts—or indeed your bemused expression—Mcha offers, ‘In fact, Sar, we like to call her the Desert Rose, for it is what’s inside her that can kill!’ 

The Desert Rose! 

‘And what about the Commissaire? Has he any such nickname I should know about?’ you asked.

‘The Apricot. Sar can think about this in his room!’ 

And with another warm double-grip handshake, Mcha was gone. Moving towards your suitcase, left open for you at the foot of your double bed, you pondered the riddle. So, what was so lethal about this Desert Rose? And why was the Commissaire known as the Apricot?

An apricot is a reddish—if not orange—colour? No. 

An apricot is quite sweet once you bite into it? No. 

An apricot is soft on the outside … knock knock knock.

Was that a knock on the door? you ask yourself. 

‘It’s Colonel Harding, Herr Schilling. I’m sorry to interrupt you but I was wondering if we might have a chat about your papers?’ 

You see through the slatted door of your suite a large frame in a khaki ‘safari’ suit. So, this is the head of the station! The Colonel’s pearly knees are a terrible shade of pale in his short trousers.
 
‘Yes, yes, Herr Oberst,’ you lift the latch of the door and let the Colonel in.
 
‘I see the German has not left you yet. Good. Good indeed,’ the Colonel pats his tunic’s breast pockets and looks about the room. 

‘Would you like to sit?’ you offer. 

‘Ah yes? Yes, of course. Thank you.’ The moustachioed military man lowers himself into the wicker chair by the window. ‘Splendid view, that,’ he gestures towards the vista overlooking the two-tone verdant lawn out the front of the hotel and, beyond the iron gates, the flatness of the savannah dotted by sausage trees like ground peppercorns over a tablecloth. ‘You should see it when it rains. You can almost make out the Usambaras.’ 

‘I have the papers, Mister Harding. Have you done what you said you would do?’ 

The large man shifts in his seat. ‘Of course. One stamp is all you need. Now, once you have, ah, disposed of the Commissaire and his wife, well, you will be a subject of His Majesty.’ 

‘Fine. Thank you, Colonel. Drink?’ you lift the lid of a crystal decanter. 

‘I suppose it’s true, then, what they said about you Germans at the Battle of Tanga. Apricots, the lot of you. Soft on the outer with a hard edge inside.’ 

You smile, now knowing the answer to Mcha’s riddle.
    
‘Us Brits, however, and you must swiftly learn this, were called coconuts! Can’t say I know what they mean, my hair’s not even remotely brown.’ 

As the Colonel runs his thumb and forefinger along the lip of his glass, deep in thought, and as the sounds of young officers’ wives splashing in the swimming pool rise up from the terrace, you recognise that coconuts are, generally, hard on the outside and soft on the inside. You cock your head to the side, arrange a pensive expression on your face and pretend to give his revelation some thought.

‘Search me, Colonel. Search me.'

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