Read The Levant Trilogy Online

Authors: Olivia Manning

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #War & Military

The Levant Trilogy

 

 

The Levant Trilogy

 

Olivia Manning

 

 

 

 

1.
      
The
Danger Tree  1977

2.
      
The
Battle Lost and Won  1978

3.
      
The Sum
of Things  1980

 

First published as The Levant
Trilogy by Penguin 1982

© The Estate of Olivia
Manning

All rights reserved.

 

Scanned from Orion Edition

ISBN 978-0-7538-0818-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volume One – The Danger Tree

 

To Reggie,
with love

 

 

One

Simon
Boulderstone, aged twenty, came to Egypt with the draft. For nearly two months,
as the convoy slid down one side of Africa and up the other, he had been
crowded about by other men. When he reached Cairo, he was alone.

He had two
friends on board, Trench and Codley, who had been his family, his intimates,
the people nearest to him in the world. The sense of belonging together had
been deeper than love - then, at Suez, a terrible thing happened. He lost them.

As the three were
disembarking, Simon had been ordered out of the lighter and put in charge of a
detachment of men whose officer had gone down with jaundice. He shouted to
Trench and Codley 'See you on shore' before joining the men who had been holed
up in the corridor all morning. They were weary of waiting, and they had to
wait longer. It was mid-afternoon before Simon reached the quay and discovered
that his friends had gone. No one could tell him where. There was an emergency
on and each truck, as it arrived, filled up with waiting men and went. Simon
was not only alone, he had missed his transport. It seemed, too, that he had
reached the most desolate and arid place on earth.

The sergeant to
whom he spoke said Trench and Codley might have gone to Infantry Base Depot, or
they might have gone to one of several transit camps that were in and around
Cairo.

'Wherever they
are,' said the sergeant, 'they won't be there long. Things are in a bloody
mess. Just heard Tobruk's fallen. What bloody next, I'd like to know?' He gave
Simon a travel warrant and directed him to take the afternoon train to Cairo
and report to Abbasia barracks.

'Anyone in
particular?' Simon hoped for the reassurance of a name.

'See Major Perry
in Movement Control. I'll phone through to him. Good bloke, he'll fit you up.'

Simon, waiting at
the station, was numb with solitude. Everything about him - the small houses
packed between dry, enclosing hills, the sparking glare of the oil tanks, the
white dockside buildings that reflected the sky's heat, the dusty earth on
which he stood - increased his anguish of loss. He had never before seen such a
wilderness or known such loneliness.

The train came
in, a string of old carriages foetid with heat and human smells, and set out
slowly through the Suez slums and came into desert. Simon saw a lake,
astonishingly blue, with sand all around it, then there was only sand. The sand
glowed when the sun set. The glow died, the darkness came down - not that it
mattered for there was nothing to see. Simon tried to open the window but the two
Egyptians in the carriage said 'No.' One, holding up his finger in an
admonitory way, explained that sand would be blown into the carriage. As the
journey dragged on, the heat grew and Simon felt that he was melting inside his
clothes. He longed to leave the train, imagining the night air would be cool
but when he reached Cairo, the outer air was as hot and heavy as the air of the
carriage.

Waiting for a
taxi, he breathed in the spicy, flaccid atmosphere of the city and felt the
strangeness of things about him. The street lamps were painted blue. Figures in
white robes, like night-shirts, flickered through the blue gloom, slippers
flapping from heels. The women, bundled in black, were scarcely visible. The
district looked seedy and was probably dirty but the barracks, he thought,
would be familiar territory. He hoped Major Perry would be there to welcome
him. When he was dropped at the main gate, he found he was just another young
officer, another problem, adding to the overcrowded confusion of the place. He
pronounced the name of Perry, to which he had clung as to a lifeline, and found
there was no magic in it. He was told by the clerk in the Transit Office that
the reporting point for his unit was Helwan. The barracks had been turned into
a transit camp. And where was Major Perry? The clerk did not know. The major
could be at Helwan or he could be at Heliopolis.

'All sixes and
sevens these days,' the clerk pushed his handkerchief impatiently across his
sweaty brow and Simon appealed to him:

'But can you put
me up?'

'I’ll try,' the
man gave Simon a second glance and as an afterthought added 'Sir.’

Simon expected no
better treatment. He had been picked for an early commission on the strength of
his OTC training but to the clerk, a corporal in his late thirties, he must
have looked like a schoolboy.

He waited in the
half-lit hall while men walked about him, knowing their way around. Fifteen
minutes passed before a squaddie came to carry his kit to a room on an upper
floor. The stark gloom of the passages reminded him of school and soon, he
thought, he, too, would know his way around.

He was led to a
room, furnished with a hanging-cupboard and three camp-beds, at the top of the
barracks where the ceilings were low. A single lightbulb, grimy and yellow,
hung over naked floorboards.

The squaddie
said, 'If you're lucky, sir, you'll get it to yourself.’

'Not bad,' said
Simon, still with school in his mind, 'but it smells strange.' The smell was
like some essential oil, almost a scent, but too strong to be pleasant,
carrying in it a harshness that suggested evil and death.

As Simon sniffed
inquiringly, the squaddie said, 'They've been fumigating.'

'Really? Why?'

'Look, sir,' the
man went over to a wall that may have been white in the days of Cromer and
Wolseley but was now cracked and grimy grey. 'Take a shufti.'

Simon bent
towards one of the cracks and saw, packed inside, objects the size of lentils,
blood dark and motionless.

'What on earth
are they?'

'Bugs. Live for
centuries, they say. Can't get rid of them. You ought to see the new chaps when
they come here - they swell up, red, like jellies. And itch, cor! But you’ll be
all right. This stuff keeps them down for a couple of months.'

Feeling the
fumigant rough in his throat, Simon went to the
open window and looked out on a parade ground surrounded by the
flat-fronted barracks building. A long wooden balcony, an outlet of the lower
floor, ran immediately under the window and he could see blankets folded at
intervals, indicating an overflow from the dormitories.

There seems to be
a lot of chaps on leave here.'

'Not exactly
leave, sir. Ex-leave you might call it. They're stuck, waiting for transport
'cos trains've stopped running into the blue.'

'Why's that?'

'It's the
emergency. The trains have wog drivers a'corse, and they're scared. The war's
come too close and they think they'll run into the fighting and get shot at. If
you're wanting a bite, I'd get down if I were you, sir. The mess shuts about
nine.'

 

Simon was lucky -
he had the room to himself, but when he woke in the middle of the night, he
would have been glad of company. The murderous smell of the place reminded him
why he had been brought here. He had fought mock battles on Salisbury Plain but
now the battles would be real. The shot would be real and the bullets could
kill a man. The desert itself was not so strange to him because his brother had
been out here for nearly eighteen months. Hugo had sent home letters about
brew-ups, desert chicken, bully splodge and flies. He was very funny about it
all. He said as soon as you got your food you slapped a tin lid over it but
even so you found that inside there were more flies than food.

Hugo had survived
well enough and Simon did not expect to die. Yet men were dying out there;
young men like Simon and Hugo.

Rising at
daybreak, Simon was fortunate enough to find an army truck going to Helwan. While
the civilian world was still asleep, he was driven out of Cairo into the desert
again. In this country it seemed the desert was everywhere. The sun lifted
itself above the houses and lit the streets with a pale, dry light. The truck
driver, dropping him at the camp outside Helwan, told him if he did not get a
lift back, he could take the train. He made his way among huts, over trampled,
dirty sand, till he came on a large brown building like a misshapen mud pie.

Here, in a small
room, in front of a small table, he found Major Perry.

The major, with
fat bronzed face and white moustache, was over-alert in manner and looked as
though he belonged to an earlier war. Half rising, thrusting out his hand, he
said at the top of his voice, 'Got notice of your posting - got it here somewhere.
The corporal'll dig it out,' and then began apologizing for being old and
overweight. 'Wish I had your chance. I'd like to be out there givin' the hun a
bloody nose. You'll have to do it for me. Poor show - this latest! You heard?
Tobruk's fallen.'

'Yes, sir. I
suppose things are pretty bad, sir?'

'You're damn
right, they're pretty bad. We've lost the whole garrison and we'll be lucky if
we don't lose the whole Middle East. Still, we're not beaten yet. It's up to
you, Boulderstone. Fresh blood and fresh equipment: that's what we need. Give
us both and we'll manage somehow. They've got Hitler's intuition and we've got
Churchill's interference: 'bout evens things up, wouldn't you say?'

Simon said
nothing. He was baffled by this equating Hitler and Churchill and he could only
suppose the major was slightly mad. To divert him, Simon said he was out of
touch. He had spent the last two months on the
Queen Mary,
dependent for
news on the radio bulletins. The last one he remembered spoke of 'strategic
withdrawals'.

'Strategic, my
arse!' Perry snuffled so forcefully that he gave out a strong smell of drink,
so Simon realized he was not mad but drunk. He had probably gone to bed drunk and
got out of bed still drunk, and the drinking was carrying him through a state
of near panic. 'This isn't the old Sollum Handicap, y'know - it's a bloody
rout. Bloody jerries coming at us in our own bloody tanks. The stuff those
bastards have picked up would have driven Rommel back to Benghazi.'

'I heard there
was a shortage of transport, sir.'

'Shortage of
transport! There's a shortage of every bloody thing the army's ever heard of.
You name it: we haven't got it. Except men. Plenty of men but no equipment for
them. No rifles, no tanks, no field guns. And the men are exhausted. Damn well
had it.' Perry paused, blew out his lips so Simon saw the nicotine brown
under-edge of his moustache, and deciding he had said too much, his tone
dropped. 'New blood, that's what we want. Too many chaps have been out there
too long, fart-arsing this way and that, till they don't know if they're back
or tits forward. Now you, Boulderstone - in ordinary times, you'd have a month
in camp, but these aren't ordinary times. We need you out there. We've been
refitting a lot of old trucks and there'll be a convoy starting soon. I think
we can get you out there at the double.'

'That's what I'd
like, sir.'

'Keen, eh? Good
man. Might get you away by Tuesday.'

'Till then, sir -
am I on leave?'

'On leave? Why
not. Forty-eight hours. Give me a tinkle mid-way and I’ll let you know what's
doing. You can draw your pay and have a couple of nights on the town. How's
that, eh? Know anyone in Cairo?'

'My brother has a
friend, a girl. I could look her up.' Simon had not thought of looking up
Hugo's girl but now, thinking of her, he blushed and grinned in spite of
himself.

'Ah-ha!' Perry's
wet, blue eyes that had been sliding about in wet sockets, now fixed themselves
on Simon's young, pink face. 'Good show. And if you get a bit of ... I mean, if
anyone offers you a shake-down, that's all right so long as you ring Transit
and release your billet. I know you chaps think Cairo's the flesh-pots, but two
things are in short supply here. One of 'em's
lebensraum.'

'What's the
other, sir?'

'Ah-ha,
ah-ha, ah-ha!'
Perry
snuffled wildly then held his hand out again. 'You don't have to worry. Not
with your looks, you don't So good luck. Enjoy yourself while you've still got
the chance.'

 

Hugo's girl lived
in Garden City. Simon, leaving the shabby purlieus of the Cairo station for the
shabby splendours of the city's centre, thought he could find it for himself.
He would probably see it written up somewhere.

The main streets
impressed and unnerved him. The pavements were crowded and cars hooted for any
reason, or no reason at all. Here the Egyptians wore European dress, the women
as well as the men, but among them there were those other Egyptians whom be had
seen flapping their slippers round the station. The men came here to sell, the
women to beg. And everywhere there were British troops, the marooned men who
had nothing to do but wander the streets, shuffling and grumbling, with no
money and nowhere to go.

It was Sunday.
Some of the shops were open but there was a lethargic, holiday atmosphere about
the streets. Simon had once gone on a school trip to Paris and here, it seemed
to him, was another Paris, not quite real, put up too quickly and left to
moulder and gather dust. There was nothing that looked like a garden or a
Garden City. He would have to ask his way but was nervous of approaching people
who might not know his language, and he was shy of the soldiers who never knew
more than they needed to know. He looked out for an officer to whom he could
speak with ease. He saw officers of every allied country - Poles, Free French,
Indians, New Zealanders - but the sort he wanted, English, young, of low rank
like himself, did not come along.

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