Read The Levant Trilogy Online

Authors: Olivia Manning

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

The Levant Trilogy (2 page)

Something about
Simon, his air of newness, perhaps, or his uncertainty, attracted the beggars
and street vendors. The women plucked at him, holding up babies whose eyes were
ringed in black that he mistook for make-up, but, looking closer, he saw were
flies. Swagger sticks, fly-whisks, fountain pens were thrust at him as if he
had a duty to buy. 'Stolen,' whispered the fountain-pen man,
'Stolen!'
The
sherbet seller clashed his brass discs in Simon's face. Boys with nothing to
sell shouted at him, 'Hey, George, you want, I get. I get all.'

At first he was
amused by these attentions then, as the sun rose in the sky, he grew weary of
them. A hot and gritty wind blew through the streets and sweat ran down his
face. A man pushed a basket of apricots under his nose and he dodged away,
shaking his head. Abandoning Simon, the man swept the basket round and pressed
it upon a squaddie who spat on it. It was a pretty gilt basket full of amber
fruit and the seller was proud of it. He persisted, 'Abbicots, George, mush
quies. Today very cheap', and the squaddie, putting his hand under the basket,
knocked it into the air. The apricots rolled under the feet of the passers-by
and the seller scrambled after them, lamenting, almost sobbing as he gathered
them up from the filthy pavement. The squaddie gave Simon an oblique stare,
aggressive yet guilty, and hurried into the crowd. Simon wondered if he should
go after him, remonstrate, take his name and number, but how to recognize one
British private among so many? They looked alike, as though they had all come
from the same English village; not tall, skin red and moist, hair, shorts and
shirts bleached to a yellow-buff, slouching despondently, 'browned off'.

Simon's
self-reliance weakening as the heat grew, he stopped a taxi and asked to be
driven to Garden City.

 

The girl was
called Edwina Little and Hugo, writing to Simon, described her as 'the most
gorgeous popsie in Cairo'. The phrase had stirred Simon even though he was
about to marry his own girl, Anne. Hugo had instructed him to draw five pounds
from his bank account and buy a bottle of scent from a shop in the West End.
The scent, monstrously expensive it seemed to him, was called
Gardenia
and
it was to travel to Egypt in the diplomatic bag. Simon scarcely knew how to
explain his intrusion into the Foreign Office but the man in charge of the bag
took his request lightly. 'Another votive offering for Miss Little?'

'You don't mind,
do you? I mean - is it really all right?'

'Perfectly.
Perfectly. We'll slip it in somewhere.'

Because of this
romantic mission, Edwina had remained in his mind as a sublime creature,
luxurious and desirable, but more suited to an older brother than to a minor
like himself. Letters between England and Egypt were so slow on the way that
Hugo knew nothing of Simon's posting and had had no chance to offer him an
introduction to Edwina. In going un-introduced, Simon felt a sense of daring
that added to his excitement.

The road sloped
down to the river and on the embankment the driver shouted: 'Where you go
now?'

'Garden City.'

'This
am
Garden
City.' The driver, a big, black fellow, had a Sudanese belligerence: 'What
number he wanting?' The taxi slowed and they spent a long time driving round
curving roads, looking for one house among a great many others,
all giving the sense of a rich past and present disrepair. The driver stopped
from boredom, and Simon protested, This isn't the right number.'

The Sudanese
swung round, his face working with rage, 'This
am
right number. You pay
or me clock you.'

Simon laughed,
'Oh, all right' Walking noiselessly down the sandy road in the comatose air of
mid-day, beneath the heavy foliage of palms and trees, he was startled by a
banging of car doors and a forceful English voice giving orders. Making towards
this uproar, he turned a corner and saw a tall man in khaki shorts and shirt,
with a wide-brimmed khaki hat, directing passengers into two cars. His
commanding shouts of, 'Move up. Now you get in there. That'll do for that one,'
led Simon to suppose he was approaching a military operation. Instead, he found
the first car held two women and an old man with a toy dog on his knee. The
tall man was now intent on filling the second car. Both cars, Simon saw, stood
in front of the house he was seeking. Hoping to avoid the man's eye, Simon
edged in through the garden gate but was detected.

'You looking for
someone?'

'Miss Edwina
Little.'

The man frowned
and though not more than thirty years of age, spoke like an angry father.
'Friend of yours?'

Simon would have
resented the tone had he not heard in it a plea for reassurance. He answered
mildly, 'Friend of my brother.'

From the balcony
above him, someone whispered, 'Hello.' Jerking his head up, he saw a girl who
had placed her arm along the balcony rail and her cheek on her arm. Looking
down, smiling, she begged of him,
'Do
tell me who you are.'

Her hair, brown
in its depths, golden where it had caught the sun, hid most of her face and her
bath robe, of white towelling that enhanced the warm shade of her skin, hid her
body except for the arm and the rising curve of her breast, yet the impression
she gave was one of extraordinary beauty. He could scarcely find breath to say,
'My name's Simon Boulderstone. I'm Hugo's brother.'

'Are you?' She
spoke with wonder, bending closer to him,
while he,
lifting himself on his toes, could smell, or thought he could smell, the rich
gardenia scent which had come to her in the diplomatic bag. He started to tell
her that he had arrived only the day before but the tall man, his voice now
pained and querulous, broke in on him.

'Really, Edwina,
you said you were ill.'

'Oh, I
am
ill,'
she pushed her hair back to smile at Simon. 'You see, I have a headache and
can't go on Clifford's trip but I'll be better when I've had a rest. So
do
come
back later. Promise me you'll come back later.'

'Of course, I
will.'

Gathering her
wrap close to her neck, Edwina stood upright, calling to Clifford, 'Take him
with you, darling.'

'We're pretty
crowded...'

'And bring him
back safely.' Edwina waved to everyone in sight, gave a special smile to Simon,
and went into the darkened room behind the balcony.

Clifford grumbled,
'If she wants you to come, I suppose we'll have to manage it somehow.'
Returning to the command, he ordered the man with the dog to get in beside the
women. Seeing the old fellow meekly giving up the front seat, Simon said, 'Oh,
no...' but Clifford, placing himself behind the wheel, ordered him sharply,
'Get in. Get in. We're late in starting as it is.'

Feeling at fault,
Simon was silent as the cars set out but he looked covertly at Clifford,
wondering who and what he was. With his wide khaki hat, he appeared, at first
glance, to be an officer in one of the colonial forces but Simon now noticed
that he had no insignia. He was a civilian. His looks, too, deteriorated on
examination. His thin, regular features sank towards a mouth that was small,
hard and narrow as the edge of a coin.

Feeling Simon's
regard, Clifford said, 'Always happy to have you chaps along. No point in
coming out here and not seeing the sights.'

Simon, with no
idea where he was being taken, agreed, though the main object of the trip for
him was the return to Garden City.

'Interested in
Egyptology?'

Simon, thinking
of his local cinema with its Tutankhamun decor, said, 'I think so.'

'That's right.
Learn what you can, while you can. This is the Nile.'

Simon looked out
on the wide, grey-silver river moving with the slow lurch and swell of a snake
between banks of grey and yellow mud.

Pointing with his
thumb at some small boats that were going by as indolently as driftwood,
Clifford said, 'Feluccas.' Simon watched the white triangular sails of the
feluccas tilting in the wind. The same wind blew through the car like the
breath off a molten ingot.

'Over there, at
sunset, you can see The Pyramids.'

Simon looked but
saw only the bleary haze of the heat. They had crossed the river into suburbs
where life was coming to a standstill. It was an area of large modern houses
and avenues where trees held out, like inviting hands, patellas of flame-red
flowers. A few cars were still making their way homewards but the homeless -
vagrants, beggars and dogs - had thrown themselves down under the trees to
sleep the afternoon away.

Clifford gave
Simon a sharp, accusing glance. 'What's happening out there?'

'Where?'

'The desert, of
course. Where else? What the hell are you chaps up to? Not long ago we were at
Benghazi - now, where are we? There's a rumour we've even lost Mersa. That
right?'

Simon said he
knew nothing, he had just arrived with the draft, a fact that seemed to cheer
Clifford who relaxed in his seat and laughed, Thought you looked a young 'un.'

The passengers in
the back seat had not spoken during the drive out of Cairo. Looking round at
them, Simon noticed that one of the women - a pale, dark-haired girl - was not
much older than he was. Too thin, he thought, but he was attracted by the
glowing darkness of her eyes and smiled at her.

'I'm Simon
Boulderstone.'

'Hugo's brother?'

'You know Hugo?'

Simon turned in
his seat, expecting to hear more from someone who knew Hugo, but the point of
contact seemed merely to disconcert her and she spoke as though avoiding it, 'I'm
Harriet Pringle. This is Mr Clifford's secretary, Miss Brownall.'

Miss Brownall, a
wan-faced, elderly virgin, bent forward as her name was mentioned and watched
his eagerly, waiting for him to speak, but he could think of nothing to say,
and giving her a smile, he turned away again.

Clifford waved at
the windscreen and said, 'There you are!
' and Simon, seeing the blunt, battered face of the Sphinx, gasped
in amazement. Then came The Pyramids. He had been told he would see them at
sunset but not that he would see them that very afternoon. And there they were,
taking shape like shadows out of the haze - or, rather, one was taking shape,
then another, smaller, pyramid sifted out from behind its neighbour and there
were two, growing substantial and standing four-square on the sandy rock. To
see them better, Simon put his head out of the window then, blinded by the
dazzle of the outside air, drew it in again.

The sun was
overhead now and, with every inch it rose, the heat increased. The car, Simon
felt, was a baking-tin, baked by the furnace outside. The roof pressed like a
weight on its occupants and Simon envied Edwina who could sleep off her
headache in bed. If he had stayed in Cairo he, too, might have been sleeping -
but where could he sleep? Not in that barracks room with its smell of death.
His head nodded and hit the side of the car. He sat up and heard Clifford speaking
to the other three.

'They say Wavell
's made plans for the
evacuation of Cairo but, plans or no plans, it'll be plain, ruddy murder. It's
already started. Every foreigner in Cairo's piling into the trains, going while
the going's good. I don't mean the British, of course. The real foreigners. The
crowd that came here from Europe.'

Harriet Pringle
said, 'We came here from Europe.'

'I mean the
foreign foreigners. Dagos. The gyppo porters are having a high old time at the
station. I was there yesterday, saw them chucking the luggage about, roaring
with laughter, bawling, "Hitler come". It's all fun now but wait till
the hun really gets here.'

The old man with
the dog said, 'I don't know. Not a bad fellow, your gyppo. He may laugh at us
but there's no taking advantage. No insults, no rude words. I don't think they
will harm us.'

Clifford let this
pass but said after some minutes, 'You're not taking yourself off then,
Liversage? Some of us, with jobs and homes here, will have to stay put, but
you're free to go any time.'

Liversage cheerfully
agreed, 'Yes, I'm free to go, but I won't unless they make me. I was pushed out
of Sofia and pushed out of Greece, but now I'll stay where I am. I don't think
they'll bother about an old codger like me,' and dismissing the matter, he
leant into his corner of the car and closed his eyes.

Simon, surprised
by this talk of flight, said, 'I heard there was an emergency but I didn't know
things were so bad. I mean, if it's like that, it's a bit odd, isn't it, going
on a sightseeing trip?'

'Not really. No
point in moping about in town. The trouble is, they're keeping us in ignorance
of the true situation. Bad policy, that, in my opinion. Ignorance breeds fear.
I'd say, "Tell people the truth. Trust them to keep their heads." By
people, of course, I mean us. Not the wog. I wouldn't tell the wog the time
o'day.'

Liversage mumbled
through his sleep, 'Merry fellow, your wog. Can't help liking him.'

Ignoring this,
Clifford said, 'First, we'll take a look at the Saccara pyramids. That over
there's the step pyramid. Dangerous. No one's allowed inside. But there's
another one ...'

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