Friday, 9 October 2020

Chapter 1 - London, Sunday June 3, 1990

Well, John, it must be a bit funny to see your long-lost words in cold print, as you have just done.  It's as if they have come back from the dead to haunt you, like in some 'Revenge of the Mummy' movie.  But at least you know how your travel diary disappeared.  I took it, and have finally sent it back to you along with this book you are now reading.  I'm sorry it has taken so long.  You must have given up hope of ever seeing it again.

But you don't yet know what happened to me, how and why I disappeared, and why now I seem to have popped up into your life again, at least in these words.  Perhaps you will after you have read this, perhaps you won't.  I'm not trying to lead you up the garden path.  I don't know myself where I'm going, where these words are taking me.  Whether in the end they will provide any sort of explanation, assuming anything like what happened to me can be explained.  Of course, you can cheat, and read the last pages as if this were some twopenny 'whodunnit', to find out who did it.  But this isn't really a whodunnit, more of a whatdunnit or a whywasitdun.  Well, a bit of a whodunnit.  Anyway, I hope that you will follow me as I write this.

It seems a bit unfair that you can skip to the end, but I can't.  I don't know how this book ends, because I am writing it.  In fact, I don't even know how your diary ends.  Except of course that there I could cheat, if I wanted to.  But I don't.  Because what I want to do is to reclaim our time together in Egypt, to go back and tell my side of things, almost to get a second chance to say all the things I wanted to say, but didn't, to have 'two bites at the cherry.'  That is why I don't want to know what you have written at the end.  It would be unreal, writing about the present with knowledge of the future.  

So what I will do is to write about each day as it happens, or rather as you saw it.  In a sense, of course, I am not repeating the past doing this, because I never really knew what you were thinking, I only saw what you did, and heard what you said.  So in a way this will be the first time I really see what you actually thought during those two weeks.  The first time in my life, really, that I actually know the real you.

My first impulse was to answer your comments as they occurred, but I have decided that would be unfair on you.  Even more unfair than just printing your words, as I have done.  Because I know that you will hate this, because you were always so concerned about getting things right and polished.  But in another sense I have been fair, because I have altered nothing except a few names, as you will notice.  This is not to 'protect the innocent', it is not that simple, I wish it were.  It's just to preserve the privacy of some of those involved.  But otherwise I am just 'telling it as it is.'  Luckily your handwriting is so neat that I had no difficulty reading everything, except the bits you must have written in taxis.  I hope I've got all the foreign words and names right.  

There's not much to say about that first day in Egypt.  It's strange, you know, but when you're in a group, with someone leading you, you can go into a sort of automatic pilot.  You just run along behind, like a dutiful child.  The train down to Gatwick, the bustle of the airport, the flight, the taxi-ride from the airport to the hotel, the whole thing of being somewhere else didn't really hit me.  I couldn't take it in.  It's hard to describe, but you know how sometimes you just sit, and stare, and your stare goes blank and unfocussed so that you can see things and yet you don't really see them?, well, that's how it felt for me.  

I do remember the hotel, or rather the feel of it.  It felt like a film set.  I expected famous actors and actresses to appear at any moment, and start acting out 'Death on the Nile' or something.  But it was nice.  The receptionist was friendly, though over-worked what with all these tourists turning up and demanding their rooms, and others wanting information and taxis and reservations, and in three or four languages at once too.  And our room was nice too.  An odd shape, all corners and walls.  A good, solid bed, clean but slightly worn linen, and our own balcony looking out over the road.

The meal in that place where we ate all the time was enjoyable, though I was a bit worried about the knock-on effect on my diet - you know how hard I had been making an effort for this holiday.  Lots of people rushing around, lots of diners, some of them Egyptians so far as I could tell, which is always a good sign, or so they say.  The cats were nice.  And the men in dinner jackets standing around like bouncers at a night-club.  I was a bit unsure about the food to begin with, I'd heard so much about the 'Pharaoh's Revenge', but it was good, and well worth 'giving it a go.'  But what with all this bustle, and the noise, and the long journey, and having to get up so early, and being delayed at Gatwick, well, all in all, it was a pretty hectic day for me, even if you were used to such things.  So I decided to get some shut-eye leaving you free to take a constitutional.

While you were out, something very odd happened.  I had just finished brushing my teeth, which I found quite awkward using the bottle of mineral water rather than the tap-water, as you told me to do, when I heard something.  I stepped back into the bedroom, trying not to leave wet footprints on the carpet because the shower water had not drained away very well, and I heard this sound again.  It was a voice, and it said "Help!"  But it was a very muffled cry, as if a long way off, or perhaps smothered.  I stood very still by the bed.  "Help!" the voice said again, this time behind me.  You could have knocked me down with a feather.  It seemed to be coming from the wardrobe. 

I was really frightened.  Typically, I wished that you had been there to sort things out.  Pathetic, I know, but I did not have the foggiest idea  what to do.  Should I open the wardrobe, ring reception, go and get the police?  The voice said again "Please, please help me, I know you are there".  It was a woman's voice, and it sounded so pained and helpless I just had to do something.  

"Who's there?  I said.

"Please, I beg of you, help me.  I will not harm you.  Please let me out of here," the voice said, as piteously as ever.  I decided to open the wardrobe, but just in case, I emptied out a vase of dried flowers on the chest of drawers, and hoped I could use it for protection if 'push came to shove.'

Gingerly I opened the wardrobe door.  Although the room was quite dark because I only had the bathroom and the bedside lights on, I could see quite clearly inside.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  Inside was a woman, dressed in a brilliantly gleaming gold dress patterned with blue and green.  Her hands and feet were tied with some kind of white bandage.  Her eyes were flooded with tears.

I touched her arm, and felt her trembling.  "Please," she said ever so softly.  I tried to undo the knots which bound her, but they were too stiff.

"Hurry!" she said suddenly.  

"I can't undo the knots," I said.

"They are coming, we must hurry.  Quick, in the bottom drawer of the chest behind you you will find a small casket.  In it is a knife, be careful, it is very sharp.  Hurry, I beg of you."

I looked in the drawer, and sure enough, there was a tiny casket, made of gold and covered in beautifully inlaid Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.  It was quite heavy.  I opened it up, and inside was a scroll tied up with a ribbon, a piece of amber, a polished black piece of stone, some loose sand, and the knife.  The knife had a white bone handle, engraved with more hieroglyphs, and the blade was patterned with strange cross-like shapes.

"Quickly, please, they will find me," the woman said with a pained expression.  As I carefully began to cut away at the bandages around her hands, I saw how beautiful and regal she looked.  She had straight black hair to the level of her chin.  When she moved her head quickly to the side, it swung round like a soft, gleaming helmet.  Her eyebrows were thick and black, and there was kohl on her eyelids.

I managed to free her hands and gave her the knife to cut the bandages around her ankles.  I was about to ask her what terrible thing had happened that she had been bound in this way, and who was after her, but she said:

"No, there is no time.  I am deeply grateful to you for the service you have rendered me.  If circumstances were otherwise, I would know how to reward you more fittingly.  But now all I can give you are words.  Please give me the casket."  I did so, and she took the amber, rubbed it over the black stone, then undid the scroll, muttered something to herself and then said:

"Know, then, that there will be one who will come to you, someone mighty, and, yes, dark, who will lead you to another place, where you will be given something, lose something, and be changed.  I can say no more.  They are here."

Suddenly I heard footsteps in the corridor outside.  Someone was at the door.  I rose involuntarily, and took a pace towards it.  There was a knock.  I heard something behind me, turned, and saw the wardrobe had been shut.  The woman had vanished.  

"Janet!" I heard a voice say outside the door.  I froze, confused, unable to understand what was happening.  My heart knocked against my ribs.  "Look, I'm really sorry, but I forgot to take the key with me."  It was you, John.  I opened the door for you, staring at you as if you were a stranger.  "Janet?  Is something wrong?  I'm really sorry that I disturbed you, it's just that I forgot to take the key, you see?  Has something happened?"

"No, nothing's happened," I said.  "Nothing."  And we went to bed.

But you probably don't remember any of this.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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Egyptian Romance

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