Thursday, 9 November 2017

The White Swan

Robin Wrigley 

dry sherry


For Erskine, the weekend’s partying left him with a hangover that he was still suffering today, Tuesday. Bourbon, Bintang beer and Jakarta’s climate did no man any favours.
     He was expecting a client in from the field. Harry S. Duimyer was an unknown. The telex said he was an important senior construction engineer on the gas project in central Sumatra.
     Shortly after midday he heard the company car pull into the driveway in the office compound. Harry Duimyer was exactly what he had pictured when he read the telex: mid-fifties, heavy-set, tanned with greying hair under a baseball cap emblazoned with the company logo. He wore a white button-down collar, cotton shirt, the sleeves rolled half-way up his forearms. In his breast pocket was a passport behind three pens.  Half-way down a pair of khaki trousers, the left-hand leg was caught on the top of his light-tan work- boot, slightly caked with yellow mud.
     ‘Pleased to meet you sir. Come through and have some coffee.’ Erskine extended his hand which was firmly shaken. His guest didn’t smile. If anything he looked somewhat sad.
          In the office Erskine closed the door behind them. The maid had placed a silver tray with coffee, milk, sugar and a plate of homemade cookies on the teak table in the corner.
     ‘How’s it going out there in Sumatra, Harry? Erskine asked as they sat down.
     ‘As well as can be expected considering this year’s monsoons. My guess is that your guys will be a month behind schedule.’
     Harry took a sip of his coffee and reached for a cookie. ‘Damn fine cookies,’ he said, biting a biscuit and regarding the remainder in his hand.
     ‘Thank you, my maid Tina makes them – my wife’s recipe.’
     ‘Got your family with you?’ Harry asked.
     ‘No. Wife and the boys are back in the States. She didn’t like it here – got homesick.’
     ‘Too bad,’ Harry sympathised.

For the next hour they talked about the project, then, looking at his watch, Erskine said, ‘Heck Harry, you must be starving. The Hotel Indonesia will do us proud. What d’you say?’
     ‘You’re in charge, young feller. I could do with some decent chow and a cold beer after that site-canteen garbage.
     As Erskine drove the car out into the mid-week traffic, he tried to gauge his guest. He seemed a nice old boy, looking out at the city without comment, but he hated client entertainment duties, continually walking on egg-shells.
     ‘I admire your courage driving in this place, Erskine; I wouldn’t have the guts.’
     ‘Been doing it for some time. I have a driver, but when the journey is open-ended and parking’s not a problem I drive myself. I figure if I’m gonna die, it should be my doing and not some local driver.’ Erskine gave a wry grin, hoping to get a reaction from his passenger.
     Harry said simply, ‘Uh huh,’ and continued looking at the passing street scenes.
     He parked the car in the shade of a mango tree and they sauntered up the main pathway through the manicured gardens. The huge glass doors were opened by a brightly uniformed doorman who greeted them with a ceremonious bow. To the left of the main reception desk, in the air-conditioned lobby a Gamelan duo played two double rows of round, brass metalliphones, tapping in unison with small mallets, producing a sense of circular rhythm, peace and tranquillity,  a marked contrast after the noise of the traffic.
     Erskine stopped to allow Harry to watch and listen to the players.
     ‘Ain’t that just something else, Erskine?’
      Erskine’s attention was caught by the approach of a European couple coming towards them from the main foyer. The man was rather non-descript – Le Carre’s George Smiley perhaps, but the woman was quite stunning. Long, honey-blonde hair resting on tanned shoulders. She was wearing a plain, full-skirted white linen dress.
     Gliding through the muted colours of the hotel’s Javanese décor she had the appearance of a swan navigating a narrow passage of dark water.
     They were twenty feet away when Erskine touched Harry’s arm. He seemed mesmerised by the couple. ‘Listen Harry I just remembered the restaurant here is not that good on Tuesdays. I know a place that will be much better.’ They turned and walked back to the car park.

 Erskine started the engine when Harry put a hand on his left forearm.
     ‘D’you mind if I ask you a personal question young man?’ He was looking closely at Erskine.
     ‘Feel free,’ Erskine said.
     ‘You got woman problems?’ Erskine nodded. This old boy, hair growing in his ears, probably never been out of Texas before, didn’t miss a trick. ‘That blonde?’ he continued. Erskine nodded again.
     ‘One fine looking lady. Pity she looks spoken for.’
     Erskine reversed the car, made a U-turn and drove away.

Dry Sherry

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