29 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 15

An Unhappy Christmas Dinner in West Africa

By ROBERT ROBINSON then,' Mclntish clapped his lips to- gether, 'after the richness of the pâté,' he worked • Someone made a joke about marriage and Colonel Bowkett—the Lagos Idiot—said abruptly, was married once.' The three young subalterns , were only just out from England, and fresh from the OCTU they thought of Mess life as a kind of obstacle-course full of conundrums about etiquette that they were never going to be able to answer. 'But she ran away. She left me for another man.' The silence deepened terribly and one of the subalterns found that the piece of bread he was chewing had got bigger. 'Oh, it's not as bad as you're all thinking,' said the Lagos Idiot, 'he was a regular officer.'

Mclntish had planned the meal and done the decorations—artificial snow, some balloons and a couple of dozen coloured pin-up pictures cut out of a magazine—and he sat at the table grimly watching the movement of the knives and forks, determined not to let anyone off a mouthful. It was the first nieal he'd eaten in the Mess for a tylrelvemonth, having sworn not to enter it as long as his enemy Foster remained in the colony. But Foster was returning to England on the day following, and Mclntish made a concession to Christmas.

'Ice-'—and Foster's big square missis, who both talked and moved slower than a tin of treacle, paused as she raised her glass of lemon-squash- `-cold,' she said finally. She sat next to the DDT and 0, who was the Lagos Idiot's im- mediate superior and a sort of emperor as far as everyone else was concerned. Foster was there, a pale fat man who walked as if he had a green banana stuck up his backside. In the back- ground, lightly tethered, was the Lagos Idiot's parrot.

Everyone had been drinking fairly freely, ex- cept the subalterns, who couldn't afford to, and Mrs. Foster, who loved lemonade. Dogo and Audu (the Fosters' boy) came in with the main course and Mrs. Foster said—as though she had been recorded at 71 and was being played back at 3f —'Have you been for that sheet?'

'Sheet !' cried the parrot. .

Audu, who was simple-minded, looked at his mistress in amazement, then nodded.

'We thought it had been stolen,' Foster's wife confided to the DDT tnd 0, with glacier-like slowness, 'but it was probably just held up at the laundry.'

The main dish was an enormous pie made under .McIntish's instructions as a change from the traditional turkey. It was a pigeon-pie and the pigeons had been shot by Mclntish him- self using a .22 rifle, a weapon he beguiled himself with in the afternoons.

was commanding a fort at your age,' said the Lagos Idiot to one of the subalterns. 'Sheet!' yelled the parrot.

Audu and • Dogo came in again with roast yams.

'Delicious,' said Mrs. Foster, managing to string the word out as though it was somebody's collected works. 'Do you like yams?' she asked the DDT and 0.

We transport them in bulk,' he said.

'Who's going to be father?' asked Foster. 'What?' said the DDT and 0.

`Will you carve the thitig, Sir?'

The DDT and 0 was the sort of high-ranking officer who had difficulty knotting his tie. The Lagos Idiot cut the pie and Mclntish watched him narrowly.

Mrs. Foster said to Audu, 'Where is the sheet now?' Audu said, 'In the bush, madam.'

The pie was handed about and Mclntish ate his share, his eyes moving sharply from mouth to mouth.

'Bags of flavour, sir,' said one of the subalterns. 'You call me George, in the Mess,' said Mclntish.

The Lagos Idiot chewed abstractedly, his at- tention engaged by the pin-up pictures pasted round the walls. 'They're extremely handsome. Very taking. They're very taking, sir,' he said to the DDT and 0, who made a noise in reply that sounded like 'Mmmm.'

'Pigeon,' muttered Foster. 'Where did you bag this little lot?'

Mclntish said, 'At the Command Supply Depot. They tend to group on the roofs.'

'I knew it!' exclaimed Foster, 'these aren't pigeons, they're bloody doves.'

'I really don't know what you're doing with a sheet in the bush,' said Mrs. Foster, turning time into eternity.

'I like the expressions on the girls' faces,' said the Lagos Idiot, 'they are well-bred. Provocative with it, of course. 1 should say they were pro- vocative, sir.'

'Do shut up, Bowkett,' said the DDT and 0. 'Doves,' said Foster, 'you can't eat them.' 'They are pigeons,' said Mclntish grimly.

'A strange laundry,' Mrs. Foster said.

'I wish you wouldn't keep harping on that,' said Foster aside. Then he said to Mclntish, 'Picked them off while they were sitting on the roof, did you? What a shame.'

'You are eating pigeon,' said Mclntish.

Two of the subalterns were now addressing themselves to the yam on their plates with gusto, as though a display of enthusiasm for the veg might conceal the fact that they weren't touch- ing the pigeon. The third subaltern said, 'If this is dove, give me dove every time.'

Mclntish said to him, 'David—' `Sir.'

'Call me George, in the Mess. Go down to my bungalow and get my dictionary of birds.'

The subaltern went out. The Lagos Idiot took a pull at his brandy and soda, continuing to stare at the pin-up pictures as he chewed his way through his whack of the pigeons. The DDT and 0,was drumming on the table. Foster had laid down his knife and fork and was look- ing at his plate as though it were a mirage. Mclntish picked up a bone between his fingers and carefully sucked the meat off it. '

Mrs. Foster said, 'I revelled in every mouth- ful,' in about the time it takes to read the Queen's Speech.

'I wouldn't mind,' said the Lagos Idiot, 'I really wouldn't mind making love to any of 'em.' `But they're only PAPER, Bowkett,' roared the DDT and 0 in an ecstasy of impatience. Mclntish's boy appeared in the doorway. 'Mr. Smith, sir. He send message. He say he only find bound copy of Children's Newspaper.' 'Sheet!' screamed the parrot.

'Well, say what you like about doves;' said the Lagos Idiot, 'you can't beat a parrot for companionship.'