The Emperor
by Frederick Forsyth
(Narrated by Nigel Davenport)

The Emperor

'And there's another thing,' said Mrs Murgatroyd.

Beside her in the taxi her husband concealed a small sigh. With Mrs Murgatroyd there was always another thing. No matter how well things were going, Edna Murgatroyd went through life to the accompaniment of a running commentary of complaints, an endless litany of dissatisfaction. In short, she nagged without cease.

In the seat beside the driver, Higgins, the young executive from head office who had been selected for the week's vacation at the expense of the bank on the grounds of being 'most promising newcomer' of the year, sat silent. He was in foreign exchange, an eager young man whom they had only met at Heathrow airport twelve hours earlier and whose natural enthusiasm had gradually ebbed before the onslaught of Mrs Murgatroyd.

The Creole driver, full of smiles and welcome when they selected his taxi for the run to the hotel a few minutes earlier, had also caught the mood of his female passenger in the back, and he too had lapsed into silence. Though his natural tongue was Creole French, he understood English perfectly well. Mauritius, after all, had once been a British colony for 150 years.

Edna Murgatroyd babbled on, an inexhaustible fountain of alternating self-pity and outrage. Murgatroyd gazed out of the window as Plaisance airport fell away behind them and the road led on to Mahebourg, the old French capital of the island, and the crumbling forts with which they had sought to defend it against the British fleet of 1810.

Murgatroyd stared out of the window, fascinated by what he saw. He was determined he would enjoy to the full this one-week holiday on a tropical island, the first real adventure of his life. Before coming, he had read two thick guidebooks on Mauritius and studied a large-scale map of it from north to south.

They passed through a village as the sugarcane country began. On the stoops of the roadside cottages he saw Indians, Chinese and Negroes, along with the m6tis Creoles, living side by side. Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines stood a few yards down the road from a Catholic chapel. His books had told him Mauritius was a racial mix of half a dozen main ethnic groups and four great religions, but he had never seen such a thing before, at least, not living in harmony.

There were more villages passing by, not rich and certainly not tidy, but the villagers smiled and waved. Murgatroyd waved back. Four scrawny chickens fluttered out of the way of the taxi, defying death by inches, and when he looked back they were in the road again, pecking a seemingly impossible living from the dust. The car slowed for a corner. A small Tamil boy in a shift came out of a shack, stood at the kerb, and lifted the hem of his garment to the waist. Beneath it he was naked. He began to pee in the road as the taxi passed. Holding his shift with one hand he waved with the other. Mrs Murgatroyd snorted.

'Disgusting,' she said. She leaned forward and rapped the driver on the shoulder.

'Why doesn't he go to the toilet?' she asked.

The driver threw back his head and laughed. Then he turned his face to answer her. The car negotiated two bends by remote control.

'Pas de toilette, madame,' he said.

'What's that?' she asked.

'It seems the road is the toilet,' explained Higgins.

She sniffed.

'I say,' said Higgins, 'look, the sea.'

To their right as they ran for a short while along a bluff, the Indian Ocean stretched away to the horizon, a limpid azure blue in the morning sun. Half a mile from the shore was a white line of breaking surf marking the great reef that encloses Mauritius from the wilder waters. Inside the reef they could see the lagoon, still water of palest green and so clear the coral clusters were easily visible 20 feet down. Then the taxi plunged back into the cane fields.

After fifty minutes they passed through the fishing village of Trou d'Eau Douce. The driver pointed ahead.

'Hotel,' he said, 'dix minutes.'

'Thank goodness,' huffed Mrs Murgatroyd. 'I couldn't have taken much more of this rattletrap.'

They turned into the driveway between manicured lawns set with palm trees. Higgins turned with a grin.

'A long way from Ponder's End,' he said.

Murgatroyd smiled back. 'Indeed it is,' he said. Not that he had no reason to be grateful to the commuter suburb of Ponder's End, London, where he was branch manager. A light-industry factory had opened nearby six months previously and on a stroke of inspiration he had approached both management and workforce with the suggestion that they minimize the risk of a payroll robbery by paying their weekly wages like the executive salaries — by cheque. Somewhat to his surprise they had mostly agreed and several hundred new accounts had been opened at his branch. It was this coup which had come to the attention of head office and someone there had proposed the idea of an incentive scheme for provincial and junior staff. In the scheme's inaugural year he had won it, and the prize was a week in Mauritius entirely paid for by the bank.

The taxi finally halted in front of the great arched entrance of the H6tel St Geran, and two porters ran forward to take the luggage from the boot and the roof rack. Mrs Murgatroyd descended from the rear seat at once. Although she had only twice ventured east of the Thames estuary — they usually holidayed with her sister at Bognor — she at once began to harangue the porters as if, in earlier life, she had had half the Raj at her personal disposition.

Followed by the porters and the luggage the three of them trailed through the arched doorway into the airy cool of the vaulted main hall,

Mrs Murgatroyd in the lead in her floral print dress, much crumpled by the flight and the drive, Higgins in his natty tropical cream seersucker, and Murgatroyd in his sober grey. To the left lay the reception desk, manned by an Indian clerk who smiled a welcome.

Higgins took charge. 'Mr and Mrs Murgatroyd,' he said, 'and I am Mr Higgins.'

The clerk consulted his reservations list. 'Yes, indeed,' he said.

Murgatroyd stared about him. The main hall was made of rough-hewn local stone and was very lofty. High above him dark timber beams supported the roof. The hall stretched away towards colonnades at the far end, and other pillars supported the sides so that a cooling breeze wafted through. From the far end he saw the glare of tropical sunlight and heard the splash and shouts of a swimming pool in full use. Halfway down the hall, to the left, a stone staircase led upwards to what must be the upper floor of the bedroom wing. At ground level another arch led to the lower suites.

From a room behind reception a blond young Englishman emerged in a crisp shirt and pastel slacks.

'Good morning,' he said with a smile. 'I'm Paul Jones, the general manager.'

'Higgins,' said Higgins. 'This is Mr and Mrs Murgatroyd.'

'You're very welcome,' said Jones. 'Now, let me see about the rooms.'

From down the hall a lanky figure strolled towards them. His lean shanks emerged from drill shorts and a flower-patterned beach shirt flapped about him. He wore no shoes but he had a beatific smile and clutched a can of lager in one large hand. He stopped several yards short of Murgatroyd and stared down at him.

'Hullo, new arrivals?' he said in a discernible Australian accent.

Murgatroyd was startled. 'Er, yes,' he said.

'What's your name?' asked the Australian without ceremony.

'Murgatroyd,' said the bank manager. 'Roger Murgatroyd.'

The Australian nodded, taking the information in. 'Where you from?' he asked.

Murgatroyd misunderstood. He thought the man said, 'Who are you from.'

'From the Midland,' he said.

The Australian tilted the can to his lips and drained it. He burped. 'Who's he?' he asked.

'That's Higgins,' said Murgatroyd. 'From head office.'

The Australian smiled happily. He blinked several times to focus his gaze. 'I like it,' he said, 'Murgatroyd of the Midland, and Higgins from Head Office.'

By this time Paul Jones had spotted the Australian and come round from behind the desk. He took the tall man's elbow and guided him back down the hall. 'Now, now, Mr Foster, if you'll just return to the bar so I can get our new guests comfortably settled in ...'

Foster allowed himself to be propelled gently but firmly back down the hall. As he left he waved a friendly hand towards the reception. 'Good on yer, Murgatroyd,' he called.

Paul Jones rejoined them.

'That man,' said Mrs Murgatroyd with icy disapproval, 'was drunk.'

'He is on holiday, my dear,' said Murgatroyd.

'That's no excuse,' said Mrs Murgatroyd. 'Who is he?'

'Harry Foster,' said Jones, 'from Perth.'

'He doesn't talk like a Scotsman,' said Mrs Murgatroyd.

'Perth, Australia,' said Jones. 'Allow me to show you to your rooms.'

Murgatroyd gazed in delight from the balcony of the first-floor twin-bedded room. Below him a brief lawn ran down to a band of glittering white sand over which palm trees scattered shifting shoals of shadows as the breeze moved them. A dozen round straw-thatched paillots gave firmer protection. The warm lagoon, milky where it had stirred up the sand, lapped the edge of the beach. Farther out it turned translucent green and farther still it looked blue. Five hundred yards across the lagoon he could make out the creaming reef.

A young man, mahogany beneath a thatch of straw hair, was windsurfing a hundred yards out. Poised on his tiny board, he caught a puff of wind, leaned out against the pull of the sail and went skittering across the surface of the water with effortless ease. Two small brown children, black-haired and -eyed, splashed each other, screaming in the shallows. A middle-aged European, round-bellied, glittering sea-drops, trudged out of the water in frogman's flippers, trailing his face mask and snorkel.

'Christ,' he called in a South African accent to a woman in the shade, 'there's so many fish down there, it's unbelievable.'

To Murgatroyd's right, up by the main building, men and women in wraparound pareus were heading to the pool bar for an iced drink before lunch.

'Let's go for a swim,' said Murgatroyd.

'We'd be there all the sooner if you'd help me with the unpacking,' said his wife.

'Let's leave that. We only need our swim things till after lunch.'

'Certainly not,' said Mrs Murgatroyd. 'I'm not having you going to lunch looking like a native. Here are your shorts and shirt.'

In two days Murgatroyd had got into the rhythm of holiday life in the tropics, or as much as was allowed him. He rose early, as he always did anyway, but instead of being greeted as usual by the prospect through the curtains of rain-slick pavements, he sat on the balcony and watched the sun ride up from the Indian Ocean out beyond the reef, making the dark, quiet water glitter suddenly like shattered glass. At seven he went for a morning swim, leaving Edna Murgatroyd propped up in bed in her curlers, complaining of the slowness of breakfast service, which was in fact extremely fast.

He spent an hour in the warm water, swimming once nearly two hundred yards out and surprising himself with his daring. He was not a strong swimmer, but he was becoming a much better one. Fortunately his wife did not witness the exploit, for she was convinced sharks and barracuda infested the lagoon and nothing would persuade her that these predators could not cross the reef and that the lagoon was as safe as the pool.

He began to take his breakfast on the terrace by the pool, joining the other holidaymakers in selecting melon, mangoes and pawpaw with his cereal and forsaking eggs and bacon, even though these were available. Most of the men by this hour wore swim trunks and beach shirts, and the women light cotton shifts or wraparounds over their bikinis. Murgatroyd stuck with his knee-length drill shorts and tennis shirts brought out from England. His wife joined him beneath 'their' thatch roof on the beach just before ten to begin a day-long series of demands for soft drinks and applications of sun oil, although she hardly ever exposed herself to the sun's rays.

Occasionally she would lower her pink bulk into the hotel pool which encircled the pool bar on its shaded island, her permanent wave protected by a frilly bathing cap, and swim slowly for several yards before climbing out again.

Higgins, being alone, was soon involved with another group of much younger English people and they hardly saw him. He saw himself as something of a swinger and equipped himself from the hotel boutique with a wide-brimmed straw hat such as he had once seen Hemingway wearing in a photograph. He too spent the day in trunks and shirt, appearing like the others for dinner in pastel slacks and safari shirt with breast pockets and epaulettes. After dinner he frequented the casino or the disco. Murgatroyd wondered what they were like.

Harry Foster unfortunately had not kept his sense of humour to himself. To the South Africans, Australians and British who made up the bulk of the clientele, Murgatroyd of the Midland became quite well known, though Higgins contrived to lose the Head Office tag by assimilating. Unwittingly, Murgatroyd became quite popular. As he padded onto the breakfast terrace in long shorts and plimsoles he evoked quite a few smiles and cheery greetings of 'Morning, Murgatroyd.'

Occasionally he met the inventor of his title. Several times Harry Foster weaved past him, holidaying on his personal cloud, his right hand seeming only to open in order to deposit one can of lager and envelop another. Each time the genial Aussie grinned warmly, raised his free hand in greeting and called out, 'Good on yer, Murgatroyd.'

On the third morning Murgatroyd came out of the sea from his after-breakfast swim, lay under the thatch with his back propped against the central support and surveyed himself. The sun was rising high now, and becoming very hot, even though it was only half past nine. He looked down at his body which, despite all his precautions and his wife's warnings, was turning a fetching shade of lobster. He envied people who could get a healthy tan in a short time. He knew the answer was to keep up the tan once acquired, and not to revert between holidays to marble white. Some hope of that at Bognor, he thought. Their past three holidays had entitled them to varying quantities of rain and grey cloud.

His legs protruded from his tartan swim trunks, thin and whiskered, like elongated gooseberries. They were surmounted by a round belly and the muscles of his chest sagged. Years at a desk had broadened his bottom and his hair was thinning. His teeth were all his own and he wore glasses only for reading, of which most of his diet concerned company reports and banking accounts.

There came across the water the roar of an engine and he glanced up to see a small speedboat gathering momentum. Behind it trailed a cord at the end of which a head bobbed on the water. As he watched the cord went suddenly taut and out of the lagoon, streaming spray, timber-brown, came the skier, a young guest at the hotel. He rode a single ski, feet one in front of the other, and a plume of foam rose behind him as he gathered speed after the boat. The helmsman turned the wheel and the skier described a great arc, passing close to the beach in front of Murgatroyd. Muscles locked, thighs tensed against the chop of the boat's wake, he seemed carved from oak. The shout of his triumphant laughter echoed back across the lagoon as he sped away again. Murgatroyd watched and envied that young man.

He was, he conceded, fifty, short, plump and out of condition, despite the summer afternoons at the tennis club. Sunday was only four days away, and he would climb into a plane to fly away, and never come back again. He would probably stay at Ponder's End for another decade and then retire, most likely to Bognor.

He looked round to see a young girl walking along the beach from his left. Politeness should have forbidden him to stare at her, but he could not help it. She walked barefoot with the straight-backed grace of the island girls. Her skin, without the aid of oils or lotions, was a deep gold. She wore a white cotton pareu with a scarlet motif, knotted under the left arm. It fell to just below her hips. Murgatroyd supposed she must be wearing something underneath it. A puff of wind blew the cotton shift against her, outlining for a second the firm young breasts and small waist. Then the zephyr died and the cloth fell straight again.

Murgatroyd saw she was a pale Creole, wide-set dark eyes, high cheekbones and lustrous dark hair that fell in waves down her back. As she came abreast of him she turned and bestowed on someone a wide and happy smile. Murgatroyd was caught by surprise. He did not know anyone else was near him. He looked round frantically to see whom the girl could have smiled at. There was no one else there. When he turned back to the sea the girl smiled again, white teeth gleaming in the morning sun. He was sure they had not been introduced. If not, the smile must be spontaneous. To a stranger. Murgatroyd pulled off his sunglasses and smiled back.

'Morning,' he called.

'Bonjour, m 'sieu,' said the girl, and walked on. Murgatroyd watched her retreating back. Her dark hair hung down to her hips, which undulated slightly beneath the white cotton.

'You can just stop thinking that sort of thing for a start,' said a voice behind him. Mrs Murgatroyd had arrived to join him. She too gazed after the walking girl.

'Hussy,' she said, and arranged herself in the shade.

Ten minutes later he looked across at her. She was engrossed in another historical romance by a popular authoress, of which she had brought a supply. He stared back at the lagoon and wondered as he had done so often before how she could have such an insatiable appetite for romantic fiction while disapproving with visceral intensity of the reality. Theirs had not been a marriage marked by loving affection, even in the early days before she had told him that she disapproved of 'that sort of thing' and that he was mistaken if he thought there was any need for it to continue. Since then, for over twenty years, he had been locked into a loveless marriage, its suffocating tedium only occasionally enlivened by periods of acute dislike.

He had once overheard someone in the changing room at the tennis club tell another member that he should 'have belted her years ago'. At the time he had been angry, on the point of emerging round the cupboards to remonstrate. But he had held back, acknowledging that the fellow was probably right. The trouble was, he was not the sort of man to belt people and he doubted she was the sort of person whom it would improve. He had always been mild-mannered, even as a youngster, and though he could run a bank, at home his mildness had degenerated into passivity and thence into abjection. The burden of his private thoughts came out in the form of a gusty sigh.

Edna Murgatroyd looked at him over the top of her spectacles. 'If you've got the wind, you can go and take a tablet,' she said.