Read The Levant Trilogy Online

Authors: Olivia Manning

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

The Levant Trilogy (4 page)

Where the road
opened into a Midan there was a sphinx, its nose rubbed off by time, and here
the cars stopped under the trees. Car rugs were spread out on the sand, packets
of cakes and sandwiches were taken from the boot of Clifford's car and everyone
sat down, waiting for Miss Brownall to make tea on a spirit-stove. Sitting in
the steamy shades, they watched camels plash by, grunting morosely, heads held
high in contempt of the creatures they were forced to serve.

No one was hungry
except Simon who had had nothing since his canteen breakfast, but he was
reluctant to eat food to which he had not contributed.

'Tuck in. Tuck
in,' Clifford shouted at him, and everyone who had brought food urged it upon
him. Simon tucked in.

The heat now had
a leaden weight so even the flies were stilled. The sun had passed its meridian
and the light was taking on an ochre tinge that gave to the trees and the
sandy air an antique richness. They all sat bowed, drowsy, and Harriet felt
they had lost the present and were in some era of the remote past. Then Miss
Brownall came round with cups of tea. They roused themselves and began to talk.
The man who had spoken of Ozymandias, unwound his scarf from his hat and,
sipping his tea, watched Harriet from the corners of his eyes. After some
moments, he began fidgeting across the rug towards her, making an introductory
mumbling and creaking in his throat that at last became words.

'This ... yes,
this is the young person who knows things. She can tell us what's going on.
She's in the American information office.'

The man to whom
he spoke was the one who had backed Harriet's opinion of the cave. He was thin
and elderly and his raw, pink hands, tightly clenched, were nervously pressed
into the ground at his sides. He smiled on Harriet, saying, 'Oh, I know. I know
she's in information.'

The two of them
gazed expectantly at her and she introduced them to Simon. The man with the
scarf was Professor Lord Pinkrose; the other was called Major Cookson. The
major was
so absurdly unlike a
professional soldier that Harriet laughed slightly as she spoke his name. As
for information, she had no more than anyone else.

Pinkrose's face
went glum. A pear-shaped, elderly man, he was wearing an old-fashioned tussore
suit that buttoned up to his chin. His nose, that rested on top of his scarf,
was blunt and grey like the snout of a lizard. His eyes, too, were grey - grey
as rainwater, Simon thought - and looked coldly on Harriet when he realized she
had nothing to tell. He was about to turn from her when he remembered he had
another question to ask. 'Have you any news of Gracey? ... any news? Every time
I ring the office, I get a girl saying, "Mr Gracey is not available,"
and that's all she says. It's exasperating. Over and over. "Mr Gracey is
not available." It's like a machine.'

Gracey was the
head of the organization which employed Harriet's husband, Guy Pringle. She
said, 'It is a machine; an answering machine. There's no one in the office. The
place is locked up. I've tried to contact them, too. Guy's in Alexandria in an
out-of-the-way place and if the advance goes on, he could be cut off there.'
Harriet, her anxiety renewing itself, spoke with feeling. 'It's Gracey's job to
order him to leave but Gracey's not here. He's taken himself to a safe place as
he always does when things look bad. I went to the office and found the
porter. He told me Gracey's gone to Palestine.'

'Gone to
Palestine! Gone to Palestine!' Pinkrose seemed baffled by the news and then
became agitated. 'You hear that, Cookson? You hear that? Gracey's gone to
Palestine.'

'So have a lot of
other people.'

'But he said
nothing to me.
Nothing.
Not a word. This is disgraceful, Cookson. To go
off without a word to me. Did you know he had gone?'

Cookson shook his
head. I never see Gracey these days. Now I'm on my uppers, most of my old
friends have faded away.'

Pinkrose, caring
nothing for Cookson's lost friends, interrupted him. 'I'd no idea the
situation was so serious. No idea. No idea. No idea at all.'

Harriet watched
Pinkrose with a smile, quizzical and mildly scornful, while Pinkrose's small,
stony eyes quivered with self-concern. She had known him first in Bucharest
where, sent out to give a lecture, he had arrived as the Germans were infiltrating
the country and had been abandoned then just as he was abandoned now. He was,
she thought, like some heavy object, a suitcase or parcel, an impediment that
his friends put down when they wanted to cut and run. Looking beyond him to
Cookson, she mischievously asked, 'And what are your getaway plans this time,
Major Cookson?'

Cookson gave a
wry, sheepish smile, not resenting the question. In Greece, where he had had
money invested in property, his house had been a centre of hospitality. When
the Germans came down on Athens, he had chartered two freighters, intending to
take his friends to safety. Pinkrose had been among those invited. They had
kept their plans secret but had been discovered and Cookson was ordered by the
military to include anyone who chose to leave.

Now, having spent
the money he had in Egypt, he existed on a dole from the British Embassy. He
had been brought by Clifford merely as a driver of the second car. His clothes
were becoming shabby, he looked underfed and Pinkrose, who had been his guest
in the past, treated him as an inferior. For a time those who knew Cookson's
story had no wish to speak to him but now, seeing him so reduced in the world,
Harriet looked on him with pitying amusement. He answered humbly, 'I have no
plans, and if I had any, I've no money to carry them out. Those freighters cost
me a fortune and I didn't get a penny of compensation from the army.'

'Still you got
away with all your possessions while we were allowed only a small suitcase. You
even had your car on board.'

'My poor old
car,' Cookson sighed and smiled. The Egyptian customs've still got hold of it.
They refuse to release it - not that it matters. I couldn't afford to run it'

Harriet, having
decided the past was past, smiled with him, realizing that now they were almost
old friends, while Pinkrose went on with his fretful mumblings, the more angry
because he had been left in the lurch for a second time.

A crowd of
children had gathered to watch the strangers. Mr Liversage, enlivened by his
tea, went over to them and trailed his dog backwards and forwards in front of
them, his manner gleeful, expectant of applause. The children stared,
confounded by the laughing old man and the old, bald toy dog which was a
money-box in which he collected for charity. At first they were silent then one
of them opened his mouth to jeer and the others took up his contempt with
derisive yells and shouts of 'Majnoon'. Stones were thrown at man and dog and
Clifford rushed in, wielding his fly-whisk like a flail, and scattered the miscreants.
That done he ordered his party to rise. 'Wakey, wakey. We've a long drive
back.'

As they moved and
dusted themselves down, a passenger from the second car, a university professor
called Bowen, said, 'Isn't this where that chap Hooper lives? He took over a
Turkish fortress and spent a mint of money on it.'

'Hooper?' The
name brought Clifford to a stop. 'Sir Desmond Hooper? Now he's the one who
could tell us what's happening out there. He's always wining and dining the
army big shots.'

Bowen, a small,
gentle fellow, nodded. 'Well, yes. He might know more than most people.'

"Then why
don't we look him up? Call in for an early sundowner?'

'Oh, no,' Bowen,
aghast at the idea, had the support of Cookson and Mr Liversage, when he
realized what was being argued, said firmly, 'Can't do that, my dear fellow.
Too many of us. Can't march an army into a chap's house, don't you know! Simply
not done.' Pinkrose, however, eager for news and concerned for his own safety,
felt differently. 'Why not call in? Why not? These aren't ordinary times, no
need to stand on ceremony these days. It's disgraceful the way we're kept in ignorance.
If Sir Desmond Hooper knows what's going on, it's his duty to tell us. Yes,
yes, his duty ... it's his duty, I say.' Pinkrose spoke indignantly, carrying
his anger with Gracey over on to the innocent Hooper.

The others -
Simon, Harriet, Miss Brownall and a girl from the second car who was also one
of Clifford's employees - took no part in the discussion but waited for
Clifford's decision. Harriet, entertained by it, was not unwilling to see the
Hooper fortress in the anonymity of so much company.

Pinkrose's
agreement settled the matter for Clifford. 'We
'll go,' he said. Bowen begged, 'At least ring
him up first'

'Ring him up?
Where from? We
'll
get more out of him if we take him unawares.'

Clifford spoke to
one of the camel drivers and was directed towards the river. The fortress was
soon evident. Larger and more complex than most desert fortresses, it stood up
above the trees, a white-painted, crenellated square of stone behind a
crenellated white wall. The wall enclosed a row of palms from which hung
massive bunches of red dates. A boab, looking out through the wrougbt-iron
gates, seemed doubtful of the party but Clifford's masterful manner impressed
him and he let them in. They drove between extensive, sandy lawns to an
iron-studded main door where three safragis lolled half-asleep. One of them,
rousing himself with an air of long-suffering, came to the first car and
inquired, 'What do you want?'

'Lady Hooper.'

'Not here. Layey
Hooper.' The safragi made to walk away but Clifford shouted, 'Sir Desmond,
then.' The safragi had to admit that Sir Desmond was at home.

Mr Liversage
refused to leave the car but the others - even Bowen's curiosity was stronger
than his discretion - followed the servant into a vast hall where the parquet
was as deep and dark as the waters of a well. The house was air-conditioned.
Enlivened by the drop in temperature, they seemed all to realize suddenly the
enormity of their intrusion into the Hooper household. Harriet had an impulse
to run back to the car but the safragi had opened the door of a living-room
and, feeling it was too late to retreat, she went in with the rest. The room
was as large as a ballroom and made larger by its prevailing whiteness. Walls,
carpets, curtains and furniture were white. The white leather and the
white-painted surfaces had been toned down with some sort of 'antiquing'
mixture which Harriet noted with interest. The only colour in the room came
from half a dozen paintings so startling in quality that she took it for
granted that they were reproductions. Moving to them she saw they were
originals.

She said to
Clifford in wonder, 'They're real.'

'I don't like
that modern stuff.'

'They were painted
before you were born.'

'I don't like
them any the better for that.'

Clifford,
disconcerted by his surroundings, was in a bad temper.

Sir Desmond
entered and looked at his uninvited guests with bewildered diffidence. Deciding
they were friends of his wife, he said, 'I'm afraid Angela's not here. She's
out on a painting expedition.' Then he noticed Bowen, 'Ah, Bowen, I did not
know you were here.'

Bowen,
identified, blushed and tried to excuse himself, 'I'm sorry. So wrong of us to
interrupt your Sunday peace. It's just ... we ...' Struggling to find an
excuse, he twisted about in anguish.

'Not at all. Sit
down, do. Won't the ladies sit here!'

Harriet, Miss
Brownall and the other girl were put into the seat of honour, a vast ottoman so
deep they almost sank out of sight. The men found themselves chairs and Sir
Desmond, placing himself among them, asked if they would take tea.

Clifford said
they had had tea and his manner left the occasion open for a more stimulating
offer, but Sir Desmond merely said, 'Ah!' He was a tall, narrow man with a
regular, narrow face, dressed in a suit of silver-grey silk. His hair was the
same silver as the silk and his appearance, elegant, desiccated yet
authoritative, was that of an upper-class Englishman prepared to deal with any
situation. He looked over the visitors who, dusty, sweaty, depleted by their
travels, were all uneasy, except Clifford. Clifford's assurance was such that
Sir Desmond dropped Bowen and addressed the younger man: 'Well, major, what
brings you into the Fayoum?'

Clifford blinked
at the title but did not repudiate it. 'We're just exploring a bit. Voyage of
discovery, you might call it.'

'Is there anything
left to discover in this much-pillaged country?' As he spoke Sir Desmond
noticed that Clifford had on his shoulder not a crown but a plain gold button
and his voice sharpened as he inquired, 'What are you? Press? Radio? Something
like that?'

'Certainly not.
I'm in oil. The name's Clifford. The fact is, Sir Desmond, rumours are going
round Cairo and we don't like the look of things. And we don't like being kept
in ignorance. The station's in an uproar with foreigners trying to get away and
I heard even G H Q's packing up. What we want to know is: what the hell's
happening in the desert?'

'I don't think I
can answer that question, Mr Clifford.'

Rancour came into
Clifford's voice. 'If you can't, who can?'

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