Jack Higgins – The Iron Tiger

They moved on, Drummond pushing to one side the numerous beggars who whined for alms, and finally turned into a narrow, quiet street leading to the river. Faintly on the night air, Janet could hear music. It grew louder and then they came to a narrow arched door.

‘You wanted India? Well, this is It,’ Drummond said.

They went along a narrow passage and came out oa to a small landing at the head of a Sight of steps overlooking a large, square room. It was crowded with Indians, mainly men, most of them wearing traditional dress. They were all eating hugely and talMng loudly at the same time.

In the centre on a raised platform, a young, womanish tabla player, eyes rimmed with kohl, beat his drums with an insolent skill, looking around at the crowd as he did so, a bored and haughty expression on his face. IDs companion, an older man in baggy white trousers, three-quarter length black frock coat buttoned to the neck, looked strangely formal and played the zita, his fingers moving across the strings with incredible dexterity.

A small, neat Hindu in scarlet turban, his eyes flickering towards Janet with frank admiration, approached with a ready smile. ‘A table, Mr. Drummond? You wish to dine?’

‘A booth, I think,’ Drummond told him.

They threaded their way between the tables, all eyes turning towards Janet and gasps of admiration, even clapping, followed them to their booth.

They sat facing each other across a small brass table, a bead curtain partially obscuring them from the other diners and Drummond ordered.

It was a simple meal, but superbly cooked. Curried chicken so strong that Janet gaaped for breath, swallowing great draughts of cold water, thoughtfully provided by the proprietor, to cool her burning mouth. Afterwards, they had green mangoes soaked in syrup, followed by Yemeni mocha, the finest coffee in the world, in tiny, exquisite cups.

‘Satisfied?’ he asked her as he lit a cheroot

She nodded, her eyes shining. ‘Marvellous, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.’

There’s a floor show of sorts,’ he said. ‘Do you want to see it? Not exactly the Copocabana, I warn you.’

There was an unmistakable challenge in his voice and she responded immediately. Tve never refused a dare since I was old enough to walk.’

‘Suit yourself.’

There was a sudden roll on the drum, the lights dimmed a little and there was silence. There was an atmosphere of expectancy that she could sense at once and then a gentle, universal sigh echoed through the room.

A woman stepped through a curtain at the rear and poised for a moment, a dark silhouette against the light ‘Saida! Saida I’ the name echoed faintly through the crowd.

‘One of the few great nautch dancers left,’ JJrummond whispered to Janet ‘She’s fifty if she’s a day, but you’d never guess it.

The right arm extended slowly and a tiny, tinkling cymbal sounded. Immediately the musicians responded on the tabla and zita and Saida started to sway sensuously, moving into the centre of the room.

Her face was heavily painted, a symbolic mask that never changed expression, but the body beneath the swirling, silkea veils was that of a young and vibrant girl.

Gradually, the music increased in tempo and she moved in time, swaying from side to side, discarding her veils one by one until she stood before them, naked except for a small, beaded girdle low across her loins.

She stood quite still as the music stopped and the audience waited. The tabla player’s fingers broke into a fast monotonous tattoo and she started to sway, hands above her head, clapping rhythmically, and the audience swayed with her, clapping in time, crying aloud with delight.

Round and round the perimeter of the floor she moved, faster and faster, sweat glistening on her body, until, with a sudden fierce gesture, she ripped the girdle from her loins and fluag herself forward on her knees, sliding to a halt in front of a large, richly dressed merchant who squatted oa cushions before a low table with two companions.

There was another abrupt silence and then the drum sounded again, slower this time, the beat becoming more insistent each moment as she writhed sinuously, thrusting her pointed breasts at him, twisting effortlessly from knees to buttocks, sliding away from his grasping hands, sharp cries rising from the crowd.

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Categories: Higgins, Jack