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The Temporary Gentleman

Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber


It's a beautiful night and no mistake. You would never think there was a war somewhere.'

These less than prophetic words were spoken by a young navy second lieutenant, on the wide, night-bedarkened deck of our supply ship, bound for Accra. He was a tubby little man, whom the day's sun had scorched red. Happy to hear an Irish accent I asked him where he was from and he said, with that special enthusiasm Irish people reserve for each other when they accidentally meet abroad, Don­egal. We talked then about Bundoran in the summer, where my father had often brought his band. It was a pleasure to shoot the breeze with him for a few moments as the engines growled on, deep below.

The cargo was eight hundred men and officers, all headed for various parts of British Africa. There was the noise of the little parliaments of the card-players, and the impromptu music-halls of the whisky drinkers, and true enough a lovely mole-grey air moved across the ship in a beneficent wave. We could see the coast of Africa lying out along a minutely fidgeting shoreline. The only illumina­tions were the merry lights of the ship, and the sombre philosophical lights of God above. Otherwise the land ahead was favoured only by darkness, a confident brush­stroke of rich, black ink.