Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Chapter 11 - London, Saturday 27 October, 1990

I slept a deep, peaceful sleep that night.  I suppose this is a good indication of how you feel about a place, sleeping as if you were at home.  In a sense, I felt as if I were indeed at home, and surrounded by familiar faces.  Even the waiters at breakfast seemed friends as they asked us with a pleasant smile what kind of eggs we wanted.  We ate in a wonderful little semi-circular alcove off the main dining room, painted the same cool white - and very cold.  I would not have believed that Egypt could be so Huddersfield-like.  Steam rose from our tea as our knives and forks clanked and echoed in the near-empty room.

I thought it inappropriate to ply the Smiths with questions at breakfast, so we talked about this and that.  But once we had taken the taxi up to the Roman amphitheatre, I felt few such inhibitions.  In truth, as you indicated, there was not much to see there, though it had an attractive enough feel to the place - especially when sitting on the stone seats, imagining how people had done this nearly two thousand years ago, waiting for the performance to begin.

"So what happened after the umbrella incident?"  I asked quite shamelessly.

"'The umbrella incident' - that's a good name, isn't it, Enid?" Eric asked his wife.

"Yes, perhaps we should call it that," Enid replied.  "Well, as it happened Mother liked to take a little rest in the afternoon after lunch - to avoid the heat.  Normally I read, or wrote a letter replying to Jim.  But the day after that encounter on the corniche, I found myself strangely drawn to return there despite the sun.  I know it was silly, but I wanted to revisit the spot where it had happened, as if I could revisit the experience of seeing Eric there."

"And you know," Eric added, "the funny thing was, I felt exactly the same way, at exactly the same time.  And so there we were, both heading for that spot - though I had been more impatient, and had been walking up and down the corniche for while when I saw Enid coming towards me.  I thought I was dreaming."

"And I," continued Enid, "knew I wasn't when I saw him again.  And I also knew that this time I would simply go up to him, and say 'hello'."

"Ah, Enid, you were always the braver of us," Eric said in admiration.

"Nonsense dear, it was just that you were more sensible, whereas I was a headstrong girl.  So I did just that, as bold as brass, I walk up to him, and say 'Good afternoon, sir: I must thank you once more for spotting my foolish mistake yesterday.  I hope you are well?' or some such nonsense."

"No nonsense, Enid: your words were like some balm, calming and curing a fever - but that sounds terribly melodramatic.  But they were such bliss to hear.  I could not believe it as I stood there talking with you - as if this were the most normal thing in the world."

"Yes, it was strange, wasn't it?" Enid said, her eyes lifting to the sky as if seeing a far-off scene in her mind.  "But even more extraordinary was that we half-agreed to meet again the next day, at the same place."

" - Which we did, for many days.  Walking and talking as if we had known each other for years."

" - Which it seemed we had, didn't it Eric?  In those few days my feelings for you had grown such strong and powerful roots I could not even begin to think about the consequences of my actions.  I just knew that I had to do this, had to see this wonderful man."

"And we did more than that, didn't we Enid?  We started taking tea in the hotel.  It sends a shiver down my spine even to think about it now.  Supposing your mother had found us then, what would she have said, Enid?"

"Yes, what indeed?  But she didn't, so we never had to face that question.  Instead we went on meeting here and there.  Until one day - "

" - Ah! yes, the fort you mean?"

"Yes, Eric, the fort...."

But before they could tell us what had happened at the fort, you John came up and said we were off again - to the fort!

We drove along the corniche in our taxis, passing the fishing boats in the harbour, just like some cove in Cornwall.  From a distance the fort looked like a lump of sugar, but as we drew nearer you could appreciate its size better.  And to think that this was just the stump of the original Pharos lighthouse - what a sight that must have been, its great light - a mirror reflecting the sun or a huge fire, they think - a beacon for sailors many miles out.  A potent symbol too, the lighthouse of that civilisation.  Today it is a rather cold, horribly military castle, with little sense of that civilisation.  But in its windswept position with the seagulls crying over it, and in its pointlessness and emptiness, it has a certain atmosphere to it.

Perhaps for something to do, we called in at the little Oceanographic Museum which nestled under the fort.  A woman who was feeding her baby there sold us tickets for some few pence.  Inside was an amazing world of old exhibits - stuffed fish in dusty cases, faded and crumbling; models of boats; bits of rope and netting; anchors and relics from long-sunk ships.  It seemed so incongruous here, as if it were itself some shipwreck.

Inside the fort was another tiny museum, again naval.  It had almost nothing in it.  In fact the fort itself was almost completely empty - which added to its charm enormously.  Bare, dusty floors, whitewashed walls, tiny windows giving on to the sea - and that wonderful whistling wind everywhere, roaring through the echoing halls like a trapped spirit desperate to escape.  It seemed an appropriate place for the Smiths to continue their story.

"I don't know exactly why we did it," continued Enid, "but one day we agreed to meet not on the corniche or in the hotel, but in the fort.  Can you remember why we decided to do this, Eric?"

"I think it was just an idea that seemed right to us - or perhaps it was just Fate...."

"Perhaps.  So one afternoon we went there - separately of course.  I remember Eric standing outside, gazing at the sea, the wind ruffling his hair.  He looked so handsome.  I went up to him, he turned and smiled, and offered me his arm.  I took it, and we went into the fort."

"I remember that there was no one there," Eric said.  "Perhaps that was why we both thought of going there - we wanted to be alone somewhere, somewhere where we could just be together, naturally, without worrying about what the world thought.

It felt like some magic castle from a fairy tale.  Enid looked like a princess, and I tried to imagine myself the prince."

"You were, dear, you were.  But what can we have talked about - before, that is?"

"I can't imagine," Eric said.  "I only remember what we said at the end of that meeting, words that will remain with me to my dying day."

"It was you who did it, this time,"  Enid said simply.

"Well, I don't think - I couldn't have done it alone.  We both did it, inching there together," Eric replied.

"Yes, perhaps that is what happened.  But I remember your words as you edged us towards it.  I know I'll remember them for all my life.  You said 'Miss Cholmondley' - we were still very formal at this point, strange though it sounds - 'I fear I am doing you a terrible wrong in all this.  It is not right - in the world's eyes - and yet it feels so right to me.'"

"Yes, I remember that - but it sounds so stiff and stuffy, as if I'd memorised it from some book or something - I wish I could have put things better.  Anyway, you said: 'And to me too.  But I cannot explain why.  If I think - '"

"And then," Enid continued, "you said: 'I can explain why: it is very simple for me: I love you, Miss Cholmondley.  There, I have said it, those three simple words that have gone round and round in my head like the wind in this fort, howling to be let out.  Can you forgive me for saying them?'  And of course I could, because the same words had been burning within me like slow fires."

"You said: 'I do not have to forgive; there are others who must forgive.  I simply love: I too love you.'  And somehow our hands met - "

" - And we were standing there, at the heart of this ancient castle, alone, but together, and I knew that whatever happened we would always be each other's, that our hearts would never part, even if our hands did."

"I also knew that," Eric added, "and when our hands touched I just felt that I had reached where I was going to."

There was nothing any of us could really say.  So we said nothing, but let the wind and the sea and the gulls say it for us as we walked out of that same fort, through the courtyard outside, and then back to the taxis.  We were all moved - and none more so than the Smiths, for whom the thirty years had fallen away like melting ice.

Once we were back in the taxi we were able to make some light and trivial conversation, leaving intact that mood the Smiths' story had created.  The fort would guard it still.

For lunch we went to that really interesting restaurant you had chosen on the corniche just along from our hotel - the Mustafa Darwish.  I liked it because it felt real - this was where Egyptians ate, not just tourists.  And indeed we were the only westerners there.  As if to prove the point about not being for tourists, they didn't even have a menu in English, but luckily somebody was able to explain what was on offer.

The restaurant was wonderfully ornate inside, slightly gaudy in all its bright colours.  Funny plastic gladioli on the table, candy-floss pink and lemon yellow.  Egyptian music - I presume - twangled tinily in the background, perfectly in keeping with the mood of the place.  And there were waitresses - the first that I'd seen in Egypt, where normally only men seem allowed to do this work.  Another reflection of Alexandria's more cosmopolitan heritage perhaps.  The head waitress heavily made-up in pink and blue as if she were about to go on the stage and sing a song.

What a meal, though.  Vegetable soup followed by - if I remember correctly - tehina, baba ganoug, lots of salads - tomato and onion, potato, beetroot, olives and peppers - then a kind of grilled trout with curries, rice with kidneys, and a thin meat pasty and chips.  Had we died and gone to heaven - or was this simply the real Egypt that was normally hidden from tourists and revealed to us that day as a special dispensation?  I decided simply to enjoy it - without worrying about my wretched diet anymore.

Whatever the reason it formed a suitable background to the tale the Smiths continued to unfold.

"What happened after your meeting in the fort?"  I asked between mouthfuls of the addictive tehina.

"Well," Enid went on, "obviously I had to break off my engagement to Jim - it would have been shamefully dishonest to have married him in the circumstances.  Although I felt more and more guilty about the pain I would cause him - him who had been so good to Mother and myself - I knew deep, deep down that I had to be true to my feelings, to myself, that I would rather die than live such a lie.  You are probably shocked by what we have told you - " I was about to reply when she went on " - it is shocking: we were terribly shocked."

" - But we also knew that what we were doing was the only possible way, that we had to take the responsibility for what we were doing - the guilt even - but after what we had both declared, it was the only way.  Or so we thought...."  Eric added mysteriously.

"But I could not break off my engagement immediately.  I knew it would break Mother's heart - she did like Jim so - and she would be so shocked by what had happened.  I asked Eric - and he agreed - that we wait three months for my mother to recuperate fully before we told her - and Jim."

"And I said," Eric continued, " - do you remember those fateful words, Enid? - I said that I would wait three years or even thirty years for her....  Little did we know...."

"So we agreed to wait - and to write."

"I am not a very good letter writer - "

"Oh! Eric, that's not true, your letters were lovely."

" - Thank you, my love, but I always found it hard to pin down my feelings for you with words that would sit there on the paper and look so poor and feeble.  They never really expressed all that I felt.  But I loved reading yours...."

"Every day we left letters for each other on the desk - it was a risk, but we were lucky that Mother never saw anything.  She did notice that I seemed to be writing letters all the time, but assumed that they were to Jim, and was pleased.  But this and other things began to weigh on me.  I have always hated deceit, and now I found myself lying - yes actually lying - in my letters back home.  I dissimulated as much as I could, but short of telling Jim what was happening, I had to lie in part.

And I found this so hard.  I began weeping uncontrollable when I was alone.  I wanted to be with Eric, but knew that this was impossible.  In the end I had to see him again."

"We met on the corniche again," Eric said taking up the story, "a place which by now had come to seem ours because of all the important things that had happened to us there.  But this was not a happy meeting.  I had known from her letters how tormented Enid was at what we were doing - or rather, how we were doing it.  But I had not expected this.  She said that we must not write anymore, that we must be patient.  I felt so torn - I wanted to have at least this consolation, since I dare not see her - I knew what the consequences of that would be.  But on the other hand, how could I refuse her anything?  I knew how much she suffered, how intolerable her position was.  It was clear that I must do everything I could to ease her pain.  So with great sadness, I agreed.  We would stop writing until she felt that she could tell her mother - and Jim."

The switchback story of their love amazed me.  To look at, Mr and Mrs Smith seemed the epitome of the quiet couple, as unobtrusive as their name.  But each new turn of their story showed them in ever more surprising lights.  Is this perhaps how everyone is if you dig deep enough?  Is it just that nobody is aware of all this going on underneath the everyday superficialities?  Or was it just us, John, who actually had nothing deep down, nothing worth excavating in this way?

Once again it was time to move on.  Doubtless, you will wonder at the neatness of these divisions of their and our story.  But in a sense we make our stories fit the time we have.  As Eric and Enid unfolded theirs, they bent and shaped it to the space we had.  And so they stopped now as we headed off to continue our sightseeing in Alexandria.  You may also still be wondering what their tale has to do with mine.  I hope by now that you have some idea - but if you have not, please be patient: you will find out very shortly now.

We took taxis south through the city into a rather different quarter - rather more Arabic, less of the Paris-of-the-Middle-East feel.  We were dropped off at Pompey's Pillar which, as you rightly say, was pretty unimpressive.  It looked like one of those architectural follies you get in English country houses in the Midlands, sticking up pinkly, almost embarrassed by itself.  And as you also say, the Serapeum here was disappointing after the one at Saqqarah.  But I'm surprised you don't say more about the catacombs here - although having read your interesting account of the catacombs at Hermopolis, perhaps these paled into insignificance by comparison.  But for me, they were a memorable experience.

Getting there was interesting, too, as we walked through what looked like the smallest, dirtiest backstreets of Alexandria - with potholes and rubbish everywhere - even a sheep tethered outside one house.  But the local children were helpful, and even refused to take any baksheesh, an act which rather touched me in its simple pride and dignity. 

Anyway, odd that feeling of entering the earth again, this time down a slowly winding staircase into the catacombs.  And that Banqueting Hall - feasting among the dead; but no different from the Irish wakes I suppose.  It was a real warren down there - it felt easy to get lost because the passages twisted this way and that, though the main ones were plain enough.  These had some positively hilarious statues - a crocodile and a dog (the gods Sobek and Anubis apparently) dressed up in Roman centurion uniforms as if for a ball.  They looked across at each other like an ancient comedy double act.  Also what seemed to be a toucan similarly attired - your god Thoth.  An eerie breeze in there....

Around this main chapel or whatever it was, lay a C-shaped corridor with tombs along the walls arranged like a honeycomb.  It was partially flooded, and we had to teeter along swaying, flexing planks which thudded on the stones supporting them as we walked down them - I was a bit worried about Eric and Enid and Alekko down there, but they managed superbly.  The silence very heavy, thick almost, and claustrophobic.  Nice to get out.

Nice too because in that confined space - as you recall, we often had to walk along bent at the waist - it was difficult to talk with more than one person at a time.  But once we had got back first to the taxis and then to the hotel for tea in the front lounge, I was at last able to tackle the Smiths as tactfully as I could - and find out what had happened.  Eric explained:

"After we had agreed not to see each other or write any more, I felt as if I were being slowly roasted alive.  It was so horrible, being so near to her - and yet actually having to avoid her even in the dining room.  I don't know how I managed to keep my word - except that I knew that my poor darling was suffering even more than I was, still having to keep up the role she was playing.  I just prayed - but for very selfish reasons - that her mother would get well soon, so that we could announce our news."

"Yes, it was a terrible time," Enid continued, "but I was sustained by the thought of you, by the thought of being with you so soon - what were a few months?  And that deception? - I just put it out of my mind, writing a few hatefully cold letters to poor Jim.  But I could do nothing else - if I'd let myself contemplate what I was doing, I would never have done it.  Instead I sent round in a kind of daydream.

And then, finally, Mother decided we would go back to England.  Seeing her off one day at the quay I felt even more guilty.  - Guilty at abandoning her, because I had convinced her - lied to her again - that I wanted to stay on a while to see a little of Cairo and Upper Egypt - we had friends in both Cairo and Luxor who had extended an open invitation to us, and which I said I would take up for month or so.  Mother was worried when I told her this, thinking that a girl shouldn't be left alone in a strange land, but as I said to her, 'this is 1956 after all' - and Egypt was quite civilised.  She was not totally convinced, but I think that she herself felt slightly guilty that I had had to devote so much time to her during her illness - in an obscure sort of way she felt that she owed me this holiday.  She was also a little surprised that I was not rushing back to Jim, but did not enquire further - it was not the sort of thing one discussed.

So one day, I found myself free.  Free to see Eric again, free to think in detail about how I would tell her this news, how to soften the blow it would be.  I think, looking back, that I was simply blinded by my love for Eric.  Thinking about it now, I cannot believe that I did the things I did, said the things I said.  I cannot imagine what I hoped to say to her to win her over to this mad scheme, mad but for me impossible to avoid.  But as it happened, Mother never found out, so I never had to discover this the hard way."

"I was spending a lot of time in my room," Eric said, "unable to face going out, not wanting to do anything.  I would just sit on my balcony, watching the waves roll in and in and in, without stopping, matching my feelings.  Or I would lie on my bed, just staring at the cracks in the ceiling, listening to those waves and the odd seagull.  Day after day I did this, month after month, not noticing the passage of time.

Then one evening, apparently like any other, I heard footsteps outside my door.  At first, I thought nothing of it - I often heard people passing.  But then there was a knock.  I sat up on the bed, my heart pounding away.  Dared I hope?  I jumped off the bed and went to the door.  I opened it - "

" - And there I was," said Enid.  "I had come straight from the quay, I had to see Eric, I had to tell him that it was over, our long wait was over.  He took my hand, tears began to roll down my cheeks silently.  We neither of us said a word at first; our hearts were too full.  We just stood there, holding hands, smiling and weeping."

"But eventually we spoke," Eric continued, "we said all the things we had been thinking during those long months of waiting.  We were so happy as we began to plan out our lives together.  We agreed to marry immediately and live in Egypt until my commission had ended - I had only a few more years to go."

"I began writing a letter to my mother, a long, long letter asking her forgiveness, trying to explain, asking her to understand.  And to poor, poor Jim I began another letter, just asking forgiveness, telling him to forget me because I was not worthy of him, because I had betrayed his trust, his love.  They were hard letters to write, they took many days of tears and self-recrimination."

"And through all this," Eric said, "I could only stand by and watch, helpless in the face of all my Enid was going through - and for me.  I could hardly believe it, hardly believe my good fortune.  Despite the sadness of those letters, we were so happy for those few days, the world seemed to lie before us.  Ah, the foolishness of hopes...."

"No, Eric, don't say that, don't.  It worked out in the end, did it not?  And we are happy now, isn't that enough?"

Eric nodded, but I sensed that there were still regrets about - about something that had happened, yet another turn in their fraught journey to each other.  But once again, I was frustrated by the need to move on, this time to get ready for dinner.  Like Eric and Enid - though on a totally trivial scale, I too was learning the pains of waiting, of not knowing how things would turn out - perhaps, John, as you are too, but not for much longer.

And so we came down for our last dinner in that dear old Metropole.  The lads and lasses in the Grecian frieze around the wall danced on, the waiters smiled their rheumy smiles at us, their poor old hands shaking as they poured the wine and served the meat and two veg - something straight out of colonial days.  I felt sad to be here for the last time, the bright lights protecting us from the cold darkness outside, the traffic rumbling still.  Once again Enid took up their story.

"Ah! Eric, telling what happened so long ago makes it sound so hard, doesn't it?"

"It was hard, Enid, it was, hard and painful.  Things seemed to be against us."

"Perhaps it was a test to see if we really loved," Enid suggested.

"Perhaps," said Eric, unconvinced.  "Well, I hope we have passed now, I could not go through anything like that again," he said, suddenly sounding very tired, old even.

"I think we passed, my dear.  But these people are agog to know what happened then.  Well, just as I was about to post my hard-won letters of shame and repentance to my mother and my fiancé, I received a telegram.  How tiny are the margins in our lives: if I had sent the letters the day before - or even before I had read the telegram...."

"But you didn't, Enid.  Instead, you read the telegram."

"Yes, I read the telegram, I read those fateful words: - " and Enid here repeated them in a horrible lifeless monotone, as if they were some totally implacable sentence being read out in court - 

"'Dearest fiancé stop mother gravely ill stop please return at once stop her one wish us married stop devoted love jim end.'"

What could I say, what could I do?  Mother had had a relapse when she had got back to England.  I felt responsible - if only I had travelled with her, if only I had not lied and lied.  Sending my letters was impossible now - they would kill her, quite simply.  I had to go.  But what of my Eric?  I could not leave him - I was caught in an impossible, unendurable situation."

"And I could only watch my dear suffer," said Eric, his face darkening with the painful memories.

I wanted to say it didn't matter, they didn't have to go through with all this for us, but in a sense they did, to justify all that suffering then.  At this point I did not know what had happened, but I knew the outcome: that they finally married.  I sensed that having achieved that, all this sadness in their story should not be taken from them, that it made them who they were, and gave them the deep happiness they had now.  So I sat, and listened, afraid almost to make a move, just as you sit as quietly and stilly as possible in the theatre when in the presence of a truly great performance.  But this was no performance.

Enid continued:

"We talked and talked, trying to find a way out, trying to find out what to do to hurt people least.  In the end, it seemed best that we both went back to England, to try to explain, to be patient, to pray that Mother would understand, would forgive."

"I said that I would extend my sick leave and go with her," Eric explained, " - it wouldn't be a problem, I thought.  We convinced ourselves that we would not be parted by this, that we would win through this together, that we would make it all right.  But it was not to be."

"No," Enid added, her own tones sombre too now.  "We began hurriedly to make preparations to return - I sent a telegram to Jim telling him I would be coming home as soon as possible, and Eric had written a letter to his commanding officer requesting an extension of sick leave for personal reasons - a mere formality we thought.  But by return we received a note that devastated us: permission was refused."

"I could not understand it," Eric said, "there was no reason for this, or at least so I thought.  Everybody obtained extended leave with no difficulty at all - the Army was like that, a civilised sort of place.  But of course there was a reason, but I had been too blind to see it all around me.  For the last few months only one thought had gone through my mind, only one image was before my eyes: Enid.  But there was something happening in the larger world outside, something immense and that could not be ignored.  Gradually it dawned on me.

It was the Suez Crisis.  While Enid and I had been struggling with our own small problems, England and the world was caught up with something huge and almost ungraspable.  I did not know it then, but I was being returned to my company in preparation for that sad episode of Suez, that terrible messy business - that humiliating defeat for Britain - that we all became so ashamed of, and which deprived the country of so much - respect, standing, power - and me of the one thing more important than all these - my Enid."

"It was a blow," Enid agreed.  "Again, we did not know what to do, we felt that the great dam of history was breaking behind us, carrying us wherever it wanted, uncaring of the hurt it did us.  I had to go back immediately to see Mother before she died; I only wanted to make amends for all the wrong I had done her.  She wanted to see me married; the only person I wanted to marry was Eric.  Eric was forbidden to leave.  What, what could we do?"

"I knew what I must do," Eric said, "I would go with Enid, cost what it may."

"Oh, Eric, that would not have been a solution, kind and generous and noble though you were to dare it.  Desertion - what would that have brought us - your imprisonment - death even?  Who knows at that time of crisis, when men go mad and kill for no reason?  How could I have let the man I loved die for me?  This was no romantic story of knights and damsels and dragons.  This was life - and death.  I could not, could not let you do that."

"And so - ...."  Eric looked increasingly drawn, unable to finish the sentence.  He looked old - not in the benevolent grandfatherly way he had before, but like something ancient and exhausted, worn down by time.

"I know, once again, I deceived, I lied.  But I had to.  I saw that reason would not sway you.  I had to agree to your scheme because I could not stop you then."

"You said - "

" - I said that we would get tickets tomorrow, that we would leave as soon as we could.  And then I went to my room to rest, to gather my scattered thoughts.  I said I wanted to sleep."

"And instead you left me."  Eric paused, everyone looked at the two of them silently, in that silent dining room.  "You left me, and sent me a letter."

"I know, Eric, I know."  Enid paused too, and seemed to swallow with difficulty, as if tasting once more all the pain of those acts.  "I left you that night, went straight to the docks, caught the first boat out.  And left you that letter, the bitterest letter I have ever written in my life.  Telling you what I had done, asking you - begging you - not to follow, not to throw your career, your life away.  Begging you for the love you had for me, to let me go.  Telling you that I would always love you, whatever happened, that you must never doubt that, as I would never doubt your love for me.  And I left."

"I never doubted it, never...."

"I know, Eric, I know."

Once again, a silence descended on the table.  None of us knew what to say after this extraordinary tale of ordinary people tossed about by chance, circumstance, the great waves of history.  I think it was you, John, who finally broke the silence, and suggested a final walk along the corniche before we left the next day.  We all readily assented, glad to get away from that bare, clinically white room, where the story of the Smiths seemed to hang, unresolved still.  But no one dared ask for that resolution tonight.

Instead we walked along the corniche, the air blowing from the north and chill, the sea dark as it thundered in.  A few other couples and isolated groups were out too.  There were lights in some of the sea-facing villas, but the ramshackle hotels were dark and abandoned-looking.  A rather sad end to the day, but the kind of sadness born of achieving a certain knowledge - which is often sad, but necessary.  As we walked back to the Metropole, I felt that the next day would be the happier for it.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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