Read The Levant Trilogy Online

Authors: Olivia Manning

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

The Levant Trilogy (8 page)

Pulling themselves
together, they described their escape, making humour out of the hungry voyage,
the vermin, the lice in the cabins, the passages boarded up because the
freighters had been prisoner transports, the useless lifeboats, with rusted-in
davits. Dobson laughed with them.

'Well, well,
you're safe,' he said. That's the main thing.'

Looking out at
the lawn running down to the river, Harriet glimpsed the possibility of a
settled life in Cairo. But it was only a glimpse. Such a life had not been
offered them here and she was too tired and on edge to pursue the thought of
it.

They had not seen
Dobson for seven months and it seemed to them he had aged beyond that time. He
was putting on weight while Harriet and Guy had grown sadly thin. He had lost
his tufts of baby-soft hair and the skin was beginning to darken beneath his
eyes. Only his diplomat's charm had remained untouched by this injurious
climate. He said, 'Well, now, you'll be wanting money.'

Guy agreed he
needed money but more than that he wanted to know how the Organization stood in
Egypt Who was in charge?

'You probably
know the director. His name's Colin Gracey. He was in Athens at one time.'

Guy stared at
Dobson and Harriet stared at Guy. Dobson could not have spoken a more
disastrous name but, knowing nothing of affairs in Athens, he was merely
puzzled by their dismay. Guy was too discomposed to speak and Harriet explained
that Toby Lush and Dubedat had bolted to Athens, fearing an invasion of
Bucharest, and had made themselves so useful to Gracey, he had actually put
Dubedat in charge of the institute.

'Oh, no!' To
Dobson this seemed beyond belief.

'Yes. Gracey was
supposed to be an invalid - he had some sort of back trouble - and he managed
to get a flight to Syria, leaving Dubedat and Lush in charge. I will say that
Guy won in the end, but that won't help him now.'

'So there was a
struggle for power in Athens!' Dobson looked at Guy. 'I can't think Gracey will
hold it against you. You'll have to see him, of course.' Dobson, with no wish
to involve himself in Guy's situation, was now extending tact rather than
friendship.

Before Guy need
speak, an Embassy servant came in with cups of Turkish coffee. The concentrated
caffeine in the small cups was as stimulating as alcohol to someone who seldom
drank coffee. Guy, as he emptied his cup, sat up sharply, his expression
decided. 'I won't see Gracey and I will not work for him.'

Harriet, worn out
by strain and their three hungry days, could scarcely keep back her tears.
'What are we to do? Where can we go?' Her voice broke on these questions and
Guy hung his head. Yet he remained obdurate. He knew his own worth and had
expected to find here a responsible director who would appreciate his qualities.
Instead he was again subordinate to a man he despised. Having once overcome
Gracey's hangers-on, he would not now come to terms with his cabal. He said,
'I'm as highly qualified as Gracey, which is something he doesn't like. The
only qualification he looks for is willingness to flatter him and do his work
for him. I won't flatter him.'

Harriet said,
'But others will. Now we know where those three were going this morning.
"The man who holds the reins" - Gracey! How on earth did Pinkrose
know that he was here?'

'I told him,'
Dobson admitted. 'Pinkrose rang the Embassy this morning, about ten o'clock,
and he was put on to me.'

'And wasted no
time going to see Gracey,' Harriet put a hand on Guy's arm. 'Darling, you'll
put yourself in the wrong if you don't go too.'

Guy, seeing her
eyes were wet, conceded a little ground. 'If he wants to speak to me, he can
send for me. But I won't work for him.'

Harriet appealed
to Dobson. 'Guy's in a reserved occupation. What happens if he refuses work
offered him? Will he be placed under arrest?'

Dobson laughed.
'Nothing as dreadful as that, but he'll have no salary.'

Seeing them
displaced, homeless, moneyless and futureless, Harriet put her face down into
her hands and Dobson, touched by her desolation, turned his persuasive charm on
to Guy. 'I really think, my dear fellow, you should just go and see Gracey.
After all, he
is
your senior official. It would be the courteous thing
to do.'

Guy, shaken by
this mention of courtesy, raised troubled eyes and at that moment the servant
returned and handed Dobson an envelope. Passing it to Guy, Dobson said, 'This
is for you; an advance on salary, sanctioned by Gracey.'

'He knows I am
here?'

'Yes. While you
were paying off the taxi, I spoke to the finance officer and he got on to the
Organization office. I knew you would want some cash.'

Guy held the
envelope for a few moments then put it into his pocket, saying, 'It's due to
me. It does not change things, but I will go to the office. As you say, it
would be courteous to do so. Where can I find Gracey?'

'T
he offices are on Gezira.
They're rather splendid.'

This fact did not
impress Guy. 'We'll have something to eat and see him after that.'

'Don't go too
early. Offices here shut for the siesta and don't open before five.'

Coming out to the
chancellery with them, Dobson squeezed Harriet's shoulder. 'Cheer up. You're
safe and well. As they say in the RAF: "Any prang you walk away from is a
good prang". And Egypt's not too bad. You probably think it's weird but it
has a certain macabre charm.'

He recommended
them to a restaurant at Bulacq, noted for its river fish, and waved them away.
The restaurant was underground with bare wooden tables and the fish tasted
chiefly of mud, but food was food, and the Pringles were restored. Harriet,
over coffee, commended Guy to his face for his warmth, good humour and
generosity, telling him he had only to be himself with Gracey and Gracey would
be won by him. He could get anything he wanted. And he should stop and think
how fortunate he was. His sight unfitted him for the army, that was true, but
he could be directed into a much worse job. While other young men were fighting
a war, he was only asked to teach and lecture. The times being what they were,
personal pride was out of place. Guy was forced to agree. He said, 'Well, if he
offers me something, I’ll take it,' and seeing him relent Harriet began to
imagine the meeting with Gracey would put everything right And so it may have
done had Gracey been in his office at five o'clock.

There were two
girls, Armenians, in the outer office and they apologized for Gracey's absence.
They admitted he was due in at five, but could not say when he would arrive.
One girl said, 'Sometimes he does not come at all.'

Questioning her,
Guy discovered that Gracey had gone out that morning with three English
visitors, one of them a lord. He had not been back since. The Pringles, if they
wished, could wait in the hope that he would come in for his letters.

It was evident
from their manner of speaking that the girls had very often to apologize for
Gracey. Waiting for nearly two hours, the Pringles realized that here, as in
Athens, Gracey treated the Organization as a mere extension of his social life.

'But it is a
splendid office,' Harriet said, trying to soften Guy's resentment of Gracey's
behaviour. 'A flat like this would be wonderful, wouldn't it?'

The office was at
the top of a block of flats that jutted into the river at the northern end of
the island. The river, reflecting light into the rooms, grew red with sunset
and in the distance the pyramids came into view. It seemed to Harriet they
could do worse than remain in Egypt and live in a place like this, but Guy
said, 'Don't be silly. We could never afford to live here.'

The sun set,
darkness came down, the lights were switched on and the girls prepared to leave
the office. But the Pringles could stay.

'Sometimes Mr
Gracey is very late.'

Guy decided they
would stay another fifteen minutes. At the end of that time, when he was about
to give up, Gracey strolled in and stopped at the sight of him. With no one to
warn him that there were visitors in the office, he looked startled and seemed
about to take to his heels. Guy stood up. Gracey, unable to escape, gave him a
cold nod and said, 'Please sit down,' then went into his office where he could
be heard slitting envelopes and shifting papers about before calling to the
Pringles to enter.

He had adopted an
air of languid dignity, unsmiling and weary. At first glance his appearance was
not much changed. His fair, classical head looked youthful and his long,
delicate body moved with grace but gradually the youthful impression
crumbled. His hair was more grey than gold and his face had dried
and was contracting into lines. Egypt had aged him, as it had aged Dobson, but
more than that: it had depleted what Dobson had retained. In Athens, a spoilt
invalid made much of by Cookson and Cookson's friend, Gracey had been all
smiles and charm. Now he did not smile.

'Well, Pringle,
what are we to do with you?'

Guy was silent,
leaving Gracey to answer his own question. Gracey, apparently having no answer,
frowned as though it were inconsiderate of Guy to survive the Greek campaign.

During the
afternoon, which they had spent at the Metro cinema, Guy had reflected on all
Harriet had said at luncheon. He knew he was privileged to be reserved in a
congenial occupation. Unlike most men, his chances of surviving the war were high.
The least he could do was submit and accept what came to him. Having decided
this, he had one moment of weakness as they set out for Gezira: 'If only it
wasn't Gracey!'

Harriet said,
'You despise Gracey, so the greater the glory in swallowing your pride and
obeying him. Your political beliefs should tell you that.'

'Nonsense. You're
thinking of religion, not politics.'

'What's the
difference?'

'Darling, you're
being silly.'

Gracey said, 'I
suppose you want to stay in Egypt?'

'Is there any
choice?'

'No, not really.
Men have been turning up from all over Europe. I've had to make jobs for them
or get some other director to take them. They've gone to Cyprus, Turkey, Palestine,
the Sudan - anywhere they could be fitted in. I've had my work cut out, I can
tell you.' Gracey looked aggrieved at the thought of the effort expended on the
men from Europe and his glance at Guy seemed to say, 'And, now, here's another
one.'

'T
here's not much scope for the
Organization in Egypt,' he said. 'Here they have the Public Instruction system
- the PI, as it is called - that's been employing English teachers for years.
There's no point in duplicating their work. We have the institute, but that
merely offers straightforward teaching. I can see no opening for a lecturer like
yourself.'

'I'm prepared to
teach.'

'T
he fact is, we're
overstaffed. We've a number of excellent Egyptian teachers of English.'

Harriet said, 'I
believe Lush and Dubedat came here this morning. May I ask if you've taken them
on?'

Gracey,
challenged, lifted his chin and looked remote. 'I owe a lot to them. They did
yeoman service for me in Athens.'

'So you're
employing them here! What about Lord Pinkrose?'

'Lord Pinkrose is
not seeking employment at the moment. He feels he should take a holiday and as
this is a sterling area, he has the means to do so. He has, I believe, a
considerable private fortune on which to draw.'

'If you cannot
employ me,' Guy said, 'I must be repatriated. That is in my contract.
'

'Contracts, I'm
afraid, don't count for much these days. I cannot repatriate you. There's no
transport for civilians. The evacuation ships, and they are few and far
between, take only women and children.'

'Then I suppose I
can be released from my contract and find other work.'

'T
here's no question of your being
released. The Organization holds on to its men. You'll just have to wait till
I can think of something for you.'

'Very well.'

The strain
between the two men was evident and Harriet made an attempt to improve the
situation by asking about Gracey's health. Was his back any better?

'I’m glad to say
it is. Much better.' Unable to resist the chance to talk about himself, Gracey
relaxed slightly as he described his treatment by a French orthopaedic surgeon
in Beirut 'Most successful, I must say - but not at first. The spine was in a
bad way. It did not respond to rest so he put me into a plaster jacket and that
did the trick. I wore it for three months. Not very pleasant and not flattering
to the figure, but I had to bear with it I still get a twinge or two if I exert
myself. I have to take care but so long as I
do
take care, and rest, and
don't overdo it, I can jog along. So ...'

Gracey rose and
extended a hand to Guy. 'Come back in a week. By then I hope I shall have
something to offer you.'

Away from the
office, Harriet said, 'I think he was glad to get rid of us. Perhaps he really
doesn't know what to do with you.'

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