Fiction

The Exotic Dream of Adam Draycott

J. B. MORTON November 1 1951
Fiction

The Exotic Dream of Adam Draycott

J. B. MORTON November 1 1951

The Exotic Dream of Adam Draycott

Fiction

Ah, Algiers . . . the Casbah . . . the smell of the East.

The siren call of far-off places stirred the soul of the little man in the tourist office.

fíat what happened when the dream came true?

J. B. MORTON

LYING awake on a stifling hot night in his flat in Balham, Adam Draycott could think of nothing that was not a source of active

discontent. His wife bored him; his suburban home revolted him; his boy, whom he could not understand, disgusted him; above all, the humdrum routine of his job exasperated him.

He regarded it as a malicious jest of providence that he, who had always longed to see the world, should spend his life assisting richer and more fortunate people to see it. For he was a trusted employee of Kozitraveile Ltd. His wife, with her usual lack of imagination, answered his dreams by saying that she would have supposed he would be sick of the very idea of travel after so many years spent in the tourist atmosphere. But it was the idea of other people traveling that he was sick of. She herself was perfectly contented with two weeks at Bognor every year. As for the boy, Charles, he was only happy on the greyhound track.

Draycott was forty-five and he still took travel posters seriously; even those of his own firm. That is why he was so good at his work. He believed what he was paid to tell people about far-away places. Many a customer, impressed by the care with which he gave information and the enthusiasm with which he discussed holiday plans, was far from suspecting that the small drab-looking fellow was often putting himself in the customer’s place, and was planning his own holiday.

He was always able to supplement the leaflets and booklets by the store of knowledge he had built up during years of reading travel books and poring

over maps. There were whole passages out of guide books which he could repeat by heart. He had been everywhere in his imagination. But he was not of the type that “gets on.” He had no ambition, since he knew he could never save enough money to do what he wanted. He expected no promotion, and so was never promoted. His discontent with his life increased as he grew older, until his romantic notions obsessed him. Yet all he had to draw on for his memories of foreign lands was a week end in Dieppe and four days in Paris. His wife, Thora, who found his obsession absurd and tiresome, was always urging him to go on a day trip to Boulogne. “Boulogne,” she said, with her steady common sense, “is as foreign as anywhere else.” What was the use of trying to admit her to his secret world of sunshine and color, for which, if he had spoken of it, he would have used the word exotic?

So every morning he went to the vast building in London’s West End which housed Kozitravelle, and every evening returned to the flat in Balham. He always lunched at the same place, and usually alone, being a man of few friends. His colleagues found him dull and humorless. They said he seemed to have no interest in anything outside his work. It puzzled them that the man who became so animated when he stood at the counter should prove so taciturn over the lunch or tea table.

Adam had never confided his trouble to any colleague. He was afraid of being laughed at. Even his wife had no idea of the hunger that was gnawing him, since the passed without his talk leading

to anything. She came

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to treat the whole matter as a rather tedious idiosyncrasy. They were a habit to each other, and for that reason remained together. The more irritable he became the more she rated and abused him.

It was when the hot summer days came that he rebelled most against his humdrum life. It was not that he wanted any wild adventures. He had persuaded himself that the mere fact of being in poster-land would be adventure enough. Clerks abroad no doubt thought they were leading a humdrum life too, but Draycott knew better. And so this summer of his forty-fifth year found him in his usual mood of sullen anger. His wife’s incessant chatter about nothing got on his nerves. Every time she called the cat Boopsie he bit his lip. Every time the boy came home from the stadium, banged the door, and shouted, “What a dawg! What a dawg!” he winced. Then would come a long account of the night’s racing and Thora’s “It must have been fun,” and the boy’s “You’re telling me!” and a peal of silly laughter. And then the gibberings and groanings of the wireless.

He knew that his wife and son both thought he was a fool and that Thora had grown to dislike him, partly because of the antagonism between him and Charles, and partly because she resented his attitude of patient hostility to herself. He took to going to bed early and, instead of reading, he would lie on his back and imagine that the chance had come for him to get away from it all. A travel film of Algiers had excited him very much. It seemed to be so very like the posters. His visual memory was by now so well trained that he could sit down in one of the cafés any night he pleased and watch the people going by. Then he could explore the steep cobbled streets of the Casbah and the gape at the Moorish houses. And inland was the great mystery of the Atlas . . . And the gods watched him as he lay on his bed, and began to laugh.

THORA DRAYCOTT was a large unemotional woman, but even she grew excited, when, in that very summer, her Aunt Martha died and left her enough money to live comfortably. It meant a little bungalow in Bognor or thereabouts for the hot months. It meant that she could help Charles to go into the greyhound business. It meant that Adam could go abroad for a bit—the longer the better. She would have Charles to herself. As for Adam, he made no attempt to hide his delight —or the cause of it.

That night he made his plan. He would take out all his savings and do the thing in style. Marseilles . . . Algiers . . . Next morning he felt ten years younger. The thought that he was really going away, and not merely dreaming about it, intoxicated him. His colleagues were amazed at his gaiety. He even cracked jokes. What amused him was that he had no need to consult any timetable. He knew every detail of his intended journey by heart—the times of departure and arrival, the stopping places, and anything of interest to look at on the way. He gave notice to the firm and informed his wife in a pompous speech that he was going away for good, she might as well divorce him for desertion. He had no intention of coming back. His solicitor was instructed to do all that was necessary. Poste Restante, Algiers, would serve for an address.

“You don’t suppose 1 shall be writing

you love letters, do you?” she asked.

“No,” he said sharply, “f don’t suppose that. But 1 should like my correspondence forwarded.”

To Charles who said, “The Guv’nor’s going oft’ on the razzie,” he gave his usual pained smile.

Outside the house the lift* of Bal ham went on. The heat rose from the pavements, the traffic roared by, the sweating crowds jostled and pushed. Adam looked out of the window with hatred and contempt, in his eyes. He would soon lie rid of this sordid noisy suburb. He had no notion of what, he was going to do after reaching Algiers. Once he got as far as that, the world was his.

When he left the house finally la* did not even look back at it. He was in too much of a hurry to be off. It, was hardly believable that nothing would stop him at the last moment, and when he arrived at the station an hour too early he walked up and down the platform in a fever of impatience.

He spent the night in Paris and left early in the morning. In Marseilles he told himself that he could smell the East, and he spent a day walking slowly about the city and the docks and sitting in cafés. It was all exactly as he had expected: strange, exciting, exotic. He suffered intensely from the heat, but was not. this the sundrenched Midi?

Next day he boarded the ship for Algiers, and was sick for most of the passage. But he was on deck to see the Sahel hills backing the climbing town, the crowded harbor, the unfamiliar lateen sails, the quays, the great arches of the Boulevard de la République, and a mosque exactly where it had been in the travel film. He felt that he was coming home.

HE TOOK a small room in a stuffy hotel in the modern French part of the town and for three weeks walked about in a wonderland, slaking the thirst of a lifetime. He never tired of saying to himself, “I am walking along the street called Bab-el-Oued . . . This is Bab-Azoun . . . These dark men are Berbers . . . This is the suburb of Bab-el-Wad, a bit of old Spain . . .” He lived in the moment, making no plans. Nothing disappointed him, and the days were too short for him to see all that he wanted to see. He did not even realize that he had nobody to talk to and had not made a single acquaintance, until one evening he sat down in a café in the Rue d’Isly.

At the next table there was a lively party of French people. They were full of laughter and when the man nearest to him asked for a light for his cigarette Adam Draycott answered rather eagerly in his Kozitravelle French. The man asked him if he was on holidays, and, in a short time, Adam found himself drawn into the party. They made room for him at their table

and he sat down between a sallow young man and a pleasant-looking woman. Adam came out of his shell with a rush, drank more than he intended to, talked more than he meant to, and thoroughly enjoyed himself. They all seemed to take him for granted, especially the pleasant woman.

They all called her Gabrielle, and she was introduced to him as Mme Lestocq. She was in her middle thirties, handsome in a kind of passive way, and she talked to Adam in a confidential intimate tone which he found most

attractive. Let it not be thought that he had any romantic ideas about women. His marriage had made him a realist on those matters. What he appreciated was companionship, and the chance companionship of these people supplied the only thing hitherto lacking in his rapturous holiday. He decided to lead more of a café life in the evenings and to take every opportunity of conversation.

About a week later he saw her again. This time she was alone at a table and she greeted him like an old friend. He sat down beside her. She spoke English

better than he spoke French, and he learned that she was the widow of a minor official who had died two years ago in Algiers. They dined together in a noisy little eating house and arranged to meet again. They became friends, and the widow, who also had lost her illusions, began to think that a man who made no demands was a rarity. And since she never scared him by introducing anything sentimental into their relationship he was contented in her company. She knew Algiers thoroughly, and together they made many expeditions.

Time passed rapidly and one day he realized that he had spent too much money. His savings were melting and he had the mountains and the deserts to explore. He confessed to her his longing to go off into the strange world that haunted him, and she said, “You will find it dirty and dull and dangerous. You are, after all, a romantic.” Two days later she told him that there was a vacancy in the house where she had an apartment and that he could live there much more cheaply than in his hotel.

Realizing that this sort of thing had

never had any place in his dreams, but being by now, to a certain extent, dependent on her companionship, he left his hotel. Before he knew what he was doing the friendship had become a sentimental one and he awoke one day to find that he had been a year in Algiers, and that his travels had not even begun; also, that his savings were almost gone, and that her contribution to their expenses was not large enough. He would have to get a job. When he told her this she took it as an obvious fact. “Either one is a gentleman of leisure,” she said, “or one is not.”

^^TTTTVr kind of a job could he get TT in Algiers? He began to worry and so became irritable, and soon discovered that Gabrielle disliked any sort of disturbance or fuss. He saw that his peace of mind and hers depended on his being able t o earn enough money for their simple tastes. Then one day, as he was walking along a street, and wondering what he could turn his hand to do, he was pulled up short by a garish poster in a huge window, and found himself outside a travel agency.

A travel agency! Why had he not

thought of this before? Here was a job that he was qualified to do. He was so excited that he went straight in and asked for an interview. After waiting some time he was taken into a large bright room, occupied by a fat grey-haired man at an untidy desk. The man made a note of his qualifications, but gave no sign of approval or disapproval. Adam, talking his unimpressive French, said that perhaps he might be of use in dealing with English and American tourists. The man appeared to consider this for a moment. 1'hen he said, “We have no vacancy.

1 will write to your old firm in London for confirmation of what you have told me. Leave your address, in case anything might turn up.” Adam knew what that kind of answer meant in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred and as he walked home he did not feel like the hundredth case.

When lu> told Gabrielle what he had done she said, “I had thought ofthat, but they don’t pay very much." She seemed to he sulky and Adam became depressed and angry. Ten days later lie received two letters. One told him that, because of a transfer, the travel agency could offer him a job. The other, which he picked up at the Post Office, was from his solicitor. His wife had divorced him.

Gabrielle insisted on celebrating that night and when they returned home from the restaurant she said to him, “My little cabbage, I have always been a respectable woman till you came along. Have you anything to say to me, now that you are no longer married?”

Adam’s mouth went dry. He could think of nothing to say. For suddenly he saw clearly the situation into which he had blundered. What had become of his new life? It was going to be exactly like the old life. He was caught, trapped.

“I am not romantic like you,” she was saying. “1 don’t want to be flattered. But I like ordinary courtesy and decent feelings. Did you think that I was the kind of woman who would be contented to go on living like thislike any sailor’s girl?”

“I never meant ” began Adam. “I just didn’t think. I meant no harm.”

“There’ll be no harm done then,” she answered.

He said no more and she looked hard at him. He could see that she was growing angry.

“We’ll get married,” he said.

“As soon as you like,” she replied curtly.

TWO WEEKS later they were married, and hy that time Adam had got back into the routine of his old life. By day he stood at a counter, with posters on every side of him. But it was without any of his old eagerness that he dispensed information and handed out leaflets. In fact there was a weariness in his voice, and sometimes exasperation, when he answered questions about the places he had never seen. 'Their names no longer had the power of magic over him. They were like music of which he had grown tired. Constantine. Biskra. Touggourt. Temacine. Brezina. Ain Sefra. They wert* probably dull and dirty, like Algiers.

And any evening this drab little man may be seen waiting for a tram; pushing, sweating, cursing; hating the crowds and the noise and the smells. He arrives home out of temper, and his taciturnity and his irritability antagonize his wife, so that she rates him and abuses him just as Thora used to do. They have become a habit to each other and, for no better reason, they remain together. 'There is even a cat to put out at night, a cat called Bibi, more hated than Boopsie ever was. *