The residents of Mrs Craddock’s seaside boarding house all agreed that the gentleman lately installed in room 13 was a foreigner. This much was obvious for he spoke no English, was very brown and had peculiar habits. Mrs May complained that he always passed too close to her on the stairs, which put her in a most indelicate situation. Once or twice she had actually been forced to strike the gentleman with her parasol when he tried to – here she dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in very close – to raise up the lower hem of her niece’s garment. Mrs May had been forced to scold her niece severely for not preserving her modesty more carefully.
The other gentlemen of the house pooh-poohed Mrs May’s concerns. She was simply a foolish old lady with her bonnet tied too tightly. They liked the foreign gentleman. Young Mr Swift even took the gentleman out walking with him.
‘Can’t understand a word he says, but he’s fine company on a walk!’ Mr Swift declared. The foreign gentleman charged up the hills and rarely walked when he could run. He was full of energy, always finding short cuts, ferreting out interesting natural history specimens, and he had a marvellous sense of direction. What larks they had! Walks simply weren’t the same without the foreign gentleman. Mr Swift determined to become more like his companion and took to vaulting over fences and diving under hedgerows.
The foreign gentleman made a wonderful addition to a cricket team. He was devilishly fearless in his pursuit of the ball. It’s true he was no good at batting or bowling, no good at all, and he often brought a match to a complete standstill with his inability to grasp the rules. Of course it was only to be expected. None but an Englishman could truly appreciate the finer nuances of cricket.
Mr Swift also had reason to thank the foreign gentleman. For one evening, strolling back from a public house, perhaps a little half-cut after one too many brandy-and-sodas, a group of ruffians had accosted him, no doubt eager to relieve him of his watch and chain. The gentleman had come to his aid immediately. He had bared his teeth and growled and the scoundrels spun on their heels and fled. The gentleman’s method of self-defence had been eccentric, but rather more effective than Mr Swift’s traditional British boxing. Secretly, Mr Swift practised the gentlemen’s movements in front of the mirror. If only he could replicate that threatening masculine look – nostrils flared, teeth bared, every muscle quivering and ready to strike – he would feel more of a man.
The residents sometimes wondered aloud why the foreign gentleman never took his meals in the dining room, but had Mrs Craddock take his supper up to him on a tray. One evening they were shocked when old Reverend Michaels suddenly dropped his head to his soup bowl and began slurping at it.
‘Good lord man, have you taken leave of your senses?’ cried Mr Swift. ‘There are ladies present!’
‘The foreign gentleman eats his food like this,’ the Reverend explained. ‘His door was ajar and I saw him. He brings his face very close to the food and makes a great deal of noise when he eats. And do you know, I realised he was a sensible chap. Much less chance of spillage like this. Terribly efficient too. Adds savour to the food. It’s a curious thing but I haven’t enjoyed dining this much since I was a child!’
And he thrust his face back into the bowl and began slurping again.
‘Do you know sir, I fancy you may be right,’ said Mr Swift. ‘Let us try the experiment.’ The other young men agreed. They lowered their heads to their bowls and slurped. Mrs May flung her napkin over Miss May’s giggling face to shield her from the awful sight. Unfortunately the disgusting sound was not to be disguised.
The next day Mrs May was about to set out for her daily constitutional along the promenade when a large, brown figure bounded down the stairs in front of her. Reverend Michaels followed close behind.
‘Ah, Mrs May,’ he said. ‘I’m just going out to do my unmentionables in the garden, like the foreign gentleman. One really can learn so much from the refreshingly natural attitudes of these primitive chaps, you know. They’re so unencumbered by civilization.’
For Mrs May it was the final straw. Besides, she had caught one or two looks exchanged between Miss May and Mr Swift, and she didn’t like it, not at all. She ordered Mrs Craddock to pack their bags, gripped Miss May firmly by the arm, and marched her out to a waiting cab. But as she was being helped inside by the driver Mr Swift suddenly gave a devastating howl. He bounded out of the house and seized hold of Miss May. That wretched foreign gentleman was barking out encouragement. Mr Swift began to – it was too disgusting – to actually run his tongue across Miss May’s face.
‘Lucy! Whatever are you doing?’ called Mrs May. ‘Get in the cab this minute!’
Miss May panted feverishly. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth. She rolled her scornful brown eyes at Mrs May, and she and Mr Swift turned as one, leapt over the garden fence and raced away, together.
Kate Tyte was born in Bath, studied English literature at Cardiff
University and worked as an archivist for ten years at places including The Royal College of Surgeons and The Natural History Museum. She now lives in Lisbon where she is an English teacher.
If you enjoyed ‘A Foreign Gentleman’ leave a comment and let Kate know.
You can read more of Kate’s writing at:
Kate’s essays appear in Slightly Foxed magazine issue 55 and 59, and
forthcoming. You can purchase copies here:
Kate’s short story ‘Thinking inside the Box’ appears on The Fiction Pool
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