Sunday 6 September 2020

Chapter 12 - London, Saturday 24 November, 1990

I hardly know what to say.  So far, after reading the entries in your travel journal I have been able to start writing immediately, as if reacting to your words.  But this time, I have had to stop and think.  I had not expected to read those last few pages, or your unprecedented thoughts on 'a family'.  John, John.  I had seen your mood changing during our trip, but had no idea that it was all this that was going on inside you.  I want to say 'if only I'd known': but that would be stupid - I didn't, and that is that.  But I see now that my pride, my refusal to cheat by reading the end of your journal may have cost me - us? - dear.  It is now nine months since I last saw you - an ironic timescale in the light of what I have just read; it is probably too late to undo what has been done.  If I had read your words sooner, would it have made a difference?  I do not know now.  All I can do is continue on the journey I began with this book, and hope to explain to you what happened and why.  Then we will see.

I feel in any case odd in writing this chapter.  For it is here that our stories diverge, you going your way, and me mine.  When I have described my feelings in what I have written before, it was very much to give my side of the story, to show you how it looked to me.  But from now on, things are different.  Your description of Suez is completely new to me, as mine of what happened to me that day will be to you - even though you did indeed ask how my day had gone, I was unfortunately unequal to the task of telling you.  Or rather, I did not yet know what had happened that day, or what its consequences were.  So in a sense, this is my very belated reply to that apparently simple question.

The previous day had finished without resolution, as if hanging in the air like a question mark.  I found myself constrained again at breakfast the next morning.  Amidst all that bright white light it seemed inappropriate to pick up on things which had been told to us surrounded by the comforting darkness.  And yet I had to know what had happened after Enid had left Eric so suddenly, and how they had eventually married.

Fortunately we were in something of a hurry, since we had to catch an early train, so I had little time to be too frustrated.  I was really sad to leave the friendly old Metropole, to abandon the sight and sound of the sea, to walk no more along the eerily bouncing floorboards, to take that ancient lift down to the reception for the last time.  And to leave Alexandria.  You were right, John, it does have a special kind of melancholy about it, I would say like a woman abandoned by lovers, but that sounds hopelessly sentimental.  Perhaps slightly world-weary then, as if it has seen everything, seen every empire come and go, while it has remained, living life to the full, not caring too much for the future, no obsession with death and the hereafter like the rest of Egypt.  In a sense a place for Alekko and his Big Now.

And yet like that abandoned woman it also feels as if it has been left behind by the rest of the world, left with its rich memories which it is happy to turn over in its mind like a faded photo.  So somehow a place where the past has become a living present, and the present is just another past about to join all the others.  This sounds terribly pretentious, I know, but I am just trying to capture what I felt there, because it was an important place to me, and still is.

So it was with real regret that I sat in that shiny new train as it pulled out of the ornate Alexandria station, heading away from the sea, back through the Delta towards Cairo.  But at least in that civilised, comforting environment I felt able to ask the Smiths about what had happened.

"Your story last night sounded terribly final," I said to Enid, "Did you really leave on the boat - and did Eric follow you?"

"I really left," Enid said simply, "though it broke my heart to do so.  I wrote the letter, packed quickly, went to the docks and caught a boat that was due to leave imminently.  I did it in a kind of fever.  My head was burning, I couldn't really believe I was doing it - it was as if somebody else had taken charge of my body, was moving my legs and arms like a doll.  But it happened.  And I will never forget the sight of the lights of Alexandria receding into the distance as the boat pulled away out into the Mediterranean."

"And no, I did not follow," added Eric.  "A couple of hours after Enid had gone to her room, I went along there too.  I felt rather guilty about disturbing her, in case she was asleep - but I was so happy and excited to see her again after all that time, I couldn't stay away - I just wanted to wish her goodnight, to hear her voice, to tell her, well, that I loved her.  I knocked on her door: nothing.  I knocked again, louder: still nothing.  I was worried, I went to the reception and asked if something had happened to Enid.  I could not believe it when the clerk said she had left about an hour ago, and then gave me that letter.

With my whole body shaking I went back to my room - that room where Enid had been such a short while ago.  I could barely open the letter - I almost tore it to pieces my hands were shaking so much.  Finally I forced myself to read it, and every word was like a knife in my heart.  I thought I would die, I really did.  My heart was pounding, I could not breathe.  I wanted to shout and to scream, but instead found that I was, well, crying silently. 

What could I do?  Every second I wasted in indecision meant that I was more likely to lose Enid for ever.  I had no address for her in England, I had never needed one.  But then if I loved her surely sacrificing her in this way was the truest proof of that?  I swung between being driven to go after to her, and forcing myself to let the minutes tick away.  And my stomach was churning with the sense of what was happening, with the impossibility of my position.  It was like some kind of trap, the trap of our love: I loved her, wanted to be with her more than anything; but if I were to follow her - because of my love - then I would prove that my love was not great enough, that I was not worthy, that I should let her go.

I sat there in that room, racked by this indecision.  But in my heart of hearts I knew that this indecision was itself a decision.  Every minute was a nail in my coffin.  I loved Enid as I had never loved anyone, and I knew that she was sacrificing herself for me, to stop me doing something foolish, possibly fatally foolish, so I could do nothing less for her, I too had to sacrifice myself by saving myself - not just to save myself, but for her sake, for her mother's sake, perhaps even for her poor fianc√© Jim's sake too.  If I stayed it solved so much - except for me...for us."

"Oh my poor Eric," said Enid, moved by his words.  "If only I could unwrite those words, undo what I did to you.  But I know exactly how you felt, because I felt it too.  Every step I took away from you I said to myself was a step of love.  I knew that your love for me would have meant that you would have deserted.  I knew too that you would understand why I did what I did, that it was the only way.  That you would forgive me, and love me...."

"So...what did you both do, I mean how did you meet and all that?" I felt like an awkward schoolgirl asking such blunt questions in the face of their trials.

"Well," continued Enid, "I arrived back in England, and found my mother very ill.  She was so glad to see me, and I knew that I must do all I could to make her last days as happy as I could.  I married Jim, who had waited with a patience that was a constant reproach to me.  Mother...died a few months after our wedding.  I tried to be a good wife, but I was racked with the guilt of my earlier lies, and my continuing lie of this life.  As if he had not suffered enough, my poor husband died of a heart attack nine years later.  I had a small pension, we had no children, I led a quiet life with my guilt, and my memories."

"And I," said Eric, "took part in the Suez invasion, which proved such a horrible mistake for us all.  But for me it was horribly right.  I felt that I deserved it, that it was inevitable that this would happen to me, that it was all part and parcel of the same thing.  After Suez, I extended my commission, was posted round the world, rising a little, but I was not ambitious.  I was content to be sent where they sent me, to do as they told me to do.  I did not care.  I never married.  There was never any question of that.  Then eventually I retired down to the south coast, Eastbourne.  I had my pension, I too had my memories."

"And then one day - " Enid said.

" - Yes, one day - " Eric echoed, his face lighting up.

"It was a miracle.  After all those years, those empty years...."

"I know, for it to happen, just like that...."

"Er, sorry, when was this?" I asked, desperate now to know how they had met again.

"Oh, what, about three years ago Enid?"

"Yes, three years, four months and 10 days ago - "

"Approximately," said Eric smiling with pleasure and love at Enid.

"It was in the afternoon," Enid continued, undeterred, "I was walking across Piccadilly Circus, just by the statue, not thinking about anything - I had stopped thinking in that way years ago - I was just walking along, trying not to look at the litter, and there he was."

"Yes, there I was, just walking along too, and there you were.  Our eyes met, we stopped in front of each other.  We just stood there, looking so hard, almost unable to believe."

"But I knew," said Enid, "I knew this would happen one day.  I did not know how, but I knew it must happen.  It had to, to make sense of all that we had been through.  To make sense of that first look across the dining room in the Metropole."

"Yes, you are right, dear.  It had to happen.  I too was just waiting, and it did happen.  And I think we both knew that this was how it was meant to be."

"So that is what happened, how Eric and I met again.  Everything just followed on from there, as easily as breathing.  We were married a few months later.  We have been together ever since.  I have never been so happy."

"Nor I," added Eric, "nor I."

Once again, we who had had the privilege of hearing their story felt unable to speak.  It was a perfect ending to a perfect beginning.  I think we all felt moved and uplifted at how Enid and Eric had kept that fire alive within their hearts, how their love had been true and enduring, and how they had finally been rewarded for that love, though after much pain and suffering.

And so we sat in the train for some while, each of us thinking our thoughts, looking out at the passing scenery, making a few comments on it, on the weather, until finally a safer kind of talk emerged.  And in that pleasant conversation we passed the time pleasantly enough until we arrived back in Cairo.

At first I too was sad that there was no room for us at the Cosmopolitan.  But the Semiramis did have its advantages - admittedly at a price.  The view from our room was simply stunning - the Nile spread out before us in all its huge glory.  Perhaps I did not mind so much as you because I knew that after the Metropole, anything similar would be a disappointment.  The Semiramis had no pretensions to being an atmospheric little hotel: it was big, brash and efficient.

Which brings us to Suez.  I think that you might have been a little more understanding of the Smiths' reluctance to go to Suez - or at least asked them why.  In fact had you got to know them as I had - and as I have tried to convey in what I have written above - you would see why they would have hated the place which was the cause of so much suffering for them.

Alekko, too, is no great lover of war, and Suez is remarkable chiefly for war and destruction.  I only got involved because I was determined that these people would not be bullied into going somewhere they plainly did not want to go.  The monasteries of Wadi al Natrun sounded much more interesting in any case.  And so it turned out.

After taking a pleasant enough if rather anonymous lunch at the hotel - again, I'd been rather spoilt by experiences in Alexandria - we piled into a taxi - we managed to squeeze into one - and set off for the Wadi.  It's such a lovely word 'wadi' - it sounds very Arabic.  As it turned out there was not much evidence of a wadi or anything when we finally got there.  Once we had left Cairo, the landscape was pretty bare, and remained so until we reached the monastery.

We passed through the village of Bir Hooker - another wonderful name - which looked like something straight out of the Bible: a scattering of low, squat mud-coloured houses, children playing on the dusty road, pools of salt-encrusted water like mini Dead Seas, and goats scrabbling around them.  Then further out into the desert, past fields and windbreaks of trees.  Finally we arrived at the Monastery of St Bishay, or Deir al-Anba Bishay to give it its official title.  This was not because we particularly wanted this monastery, but because this was the one the driver happened to find, which seemed a good enough reason.

It also looked like something else out of the Bible, a Philistine fort in the middle of the desert.  A high plain wall surrounded its buildings, ancient protection against the wandering bedouin hordes who attacked it a thousand years ago.  We entered through a small gate, and found ourselves in a community of 147 monks and 22 novices - a living community, still growing.  We were told this and other information but a lovely monk, dressed completely in black, with an ornate embroidered head covering.  I think he was quite high-up in the monastery, but there was not a trace of condescension, or even mild annoyance at these uncomprehending tourists who had come to tramp around his monastery and generally disturb the peace.  In fact he seemed happy to spend as long as we wanted with us, as eager to learn from us as we were from him.

He told us about the original foundations of St Macarius the Great fifteen hundred years ago - that monastery, the chief one of the Coptic church from where most Coptic popes were chosen, lay a little further south, so we must have passed the road to it on the way from Cairo.  We asked whether we could visit it on the way back, but our monk informed us that unfortunately it was closed until Easter.  It was from these first monasteries that the idea of the secluded life devoted to God spread to Europe and grew to the powerful institutions which wielded such influence there for centuries.  He also told us about the two terrible plagues which had swept the land in the fourteenth century, dealing the nearby towns a blow from which they never recovered.

Alekko had noticed that an icon near the front gate had Greek writing - "but it is not the Greek," he said.  He asked what it was.  The monk explained that a modified form of the Greek script was used for Coptic, even though the languages were quite dissimilar.  I wondered whether they had many ancient manuscripts written in this script.  His answer was delivered without a hint of bitterness, but perhaps with some sadness: "I think you will find some in your British Museum, but not here unfortunately."  Eric asked him whether they still spoke Coptic, and he answered that they did indeed, as well, obviously, as Arabic, and a few other languages like English.  Then the monk invited us to look around his monastery, promising us some tea when we had finished.

It was an idyllic scene.  There were a number of churches there, as well as living quarters - and a wonderful garden in the middle.  It felt like a complete, enclosed world, an oasis of peace and tranquillity.  We went to look at the ancient keep, built at the heart of the monastery in case of attack - and with its own church inside.  To reach the keep we went up some stairs and then across a wooden drawbridge - bleached a pale grey cream colour through the sun and time, the worn pulley still over the door - perhaps a thousand years old.

Up on the roof there was a magnificent view across the sands - brilliantly white in the sun.  A few hundred yards off was another monastery, Deir al-Suryan, surging through the sands in splendid isolation like a great square ship.

Next to the keep was a modern steeple, which ended in a dome with a very curious cross at the top: it was formed out of five crosses joined at their base, one each for the cardinal points of the compass, and one pointing towards the sky to form a kind of pyramid.  It looked like some divine lightning conductor.

Then we went back down, past the garden, and entered the main church - after removing our shoes to walk on the rush mats and carpets.  A beautifully simple interior, unadorned plaster walls with Arabic graffiti scratched on them, dark barrel vaulting, surprisingly ornate chandeliers. In the nave were wonderfully patterned but frayed carpets, and an old worm-eaten pulpit.

Passing through to the main sanctuary - where the miracle-performing body of St Bishay was kept - we saw the iconostasis with its touching, simple icons of the twelve Apostles and other sundry saints, and a wooden cross studded with domestic light bulbs.  To complete this study in incongruity, we could hear from behind a dividing curtain the unmistakable sound of a vacuum cleaner in the innermost sanctum.

After the church's peaceful vision we emerged to find our monk waiting for us with steaming cups of milkless tea.  We sat down with him under the shade of one of the trees growing in their garden.

"Your monastery is very beautiful," I said " - so peaceful."

"Thank you," he said simply.  "If I may ask, how long have you been in Egypt?"  Ten days we told him.  "And I hope you have enjoyed those ten days?"  He could have been left in no doubt as to that from our exclamations about this wonderful country.  "But tell me, if you will: what has been your favourite place here?"

What a question: how was it possible to choose from among the many, many amazing sights we had seen?  But it was a challenge, a friendly one, and as we sat there in the afternoon sun, drinking the hot tea with this kind man, I think we felt the pleasantness of that challenge as an opportunity for us to begin to focus our thoughts, a chance to start ordering all that we had seen and done, and a chance to be grateful.  Alekko spoke first.

"For me, there is no doubt.  I have seen many great things here in this country, but is one place particularly mine: Philae."  What?  we exclaimed: how could he prefer that to the pyramids or the West Bank of Luxor?  The monk smiled at us as we squabbled merrily.  "I will tell you," Alekko said.  "First, you know we took a boat there.  I smelt the sea in that wind - you laugh at me, so far in the desert, but the sea was there.  And then they were islands, and you know I love the islands, they are so beautiful - and safe.  And because it was built by my fathers, the old Greeks.  Philae is a little Greece in Egypt.  And last because its name reminds me of the Greek word for 'friends' - I must love it for that alone."

"So," said the priest, "you have found your home in the most mysterious city in Egypt?" - and as Alekko nodded, the priest suddenly broke out in a wonderfully expressive, spiky language - Greek, I suppose, for Alekko's eyes shone with happiness as he answered in his own tongue.  " - But we must not leave out the others, my friend," the priest said, almost in admonition to himself.

"But he speaks the Greek," Alekko said with delight, " - why?"

"Well, the Coptic church still has links with the Orthodox Church in Greece.  Many years ago we argued, but today we talk.  But what of the others here?  You, Madam and Sir, what place have you loved most?"  he asked Enid and Eric.  What could they possibly answer?

"Alexandria," they said with one voice, gazing at each other.  And they said no more, for the priest pressed them no further, as if he instinctively understood.  Then he turned to me:

"Oh, so many places, must I only choose one?" I asked, desperately trying to decide.  "Um, well, the Pyramids then, such huge, magnificent - no, wait, I mean Hatshepsut's Temple - no, I've changed my mind again - " I had remembered that it was not there that I was happiest, even if I was most awe-struck, but somewhere else: "no, I want to choose Alexandria too, or rather our hotel there, the Metropole, which was so beautiful and peaceful.  Or - "  It was terrible: I really could not make up my mind.  We had seen so much that was wonderful, so many amazing sights - I felt as if I had not assimilated them yet, that they were all just images, not fully comprehended memories.  Perhaps I half-guessed that there was more to come which would put everything else into a different perspective; perhaps I knew that I had to write this book to sift through it all....

"They are all good choices," the monk said, helping me out in my confusion, smiling his beautiful, calm smile, " - and not choosing is a good choice too, because it is true, there are so many to choose from."

"And you madam?" he said, asking Vicky, "are you able to choose from all that you have seen?"

"Well, it is true, I almost feel that everywhere is my favourite," Vicky said, "but of all the places I have seen so far, there is one that I can distinguish as my particular favourite - and that is here, because of its deep tranquillity - and because of the welcome you have given us."

"You are very kind," he said, obviously pleased.  "And since you are all so kind, perhaps I can ask another question - it is such a pleasure to have guests here, to be able to profit from their presence, to find out about what they have seen - we who through choice remain here in our walls."  We said 'of course.'  "I would like to know what you have learnt in your visit to our land."

Vicky spoke first: "I have learnt that the first pyramid - the first great building in stone - was built by a doctor.  Which, speaking as another doctor, does not surprise in the least."

Continuing in this vein I said: " - and I have learnt that once upon a time, women were pharaohs, and wore pharaohs' beards - which does surprise me, a lot."

Alekko was more serious: "I have learnt that everything began here, that even the Greeks started here a little.  So perhaps I have learnt too that we are all Egyptians once - even those Albanians...."

Enid too was serious; she said: "I have learnt - we have learnt - that the past is alive, and that you can go to meet it, as we have done here.  And once you have found it, you can then carry on, living a double life, both past and present - I haven't explained myself very well, have I Eric?"

"You have said it perfectly, my dear," and he looked around at us as if for confirmation.  And we did know what she meant, how she and Eric had managed to go back to that life cut off by history, to join up with those hopes, and to marry them with their present so that they could go forward complete now, as they were always meant to.

"And one last question I promise you," the monk said - but we would have answered a hundred questions, I am sure, it felt so peaceful there, the sun's rays beginning to slant down now, their heat abating pleasantly - "what is that above all else you will remember from this visit?"

Without thinking, an image came into my mind: "I will never forget crossing the Nile at dawn, the air chill and perfectly still, the ferry moving smoothly across the water, the rays of the rising sun cutting through the air almost horizontally, striking the wall of mountains on the West Bank.  But I do not know why I have chosen this above all others.  But I felt as if I were crossing to another world, another life."

Eric said: "I will never forget sitting in the dining room of our hotel - the Metropole - again, seeing where I had sat, and feeling Enid beside me, not separated from me as she was those years ago.  I will always remember remembering that first sight of her."

"And I too will never forget that memory of remembering," said Enid, " - it was as if we had known when we had first set eyes on each other that this moment lay waiting for us thirty-four years ahead, as if all those years were stored up in our first glances."  The monk nodded as if he knew exactly what she meant, even though only we could have known the details that lay behind these words.  But he seemed to understand them in all their depth and implications.

Alekko said: "I shall remember all the stories I have heard, all the people I have met for the first time even, all the beginnings they have given me.  I shall add them to my treasure."

"And I," said Vicky, "shall always remember - " - but at this point our taxi driver had turned up and caught the attention of the monk.  Bowing his head in reverence, he spoke in a quick blur of Arabic.  He looked worried.  "Forgive me for interrupting," the monk said, "but this poor man is concerned about the time - his wife is very ill, his children are with neighbours but must soon come home - he promised he would be there to look after them.  He begs your pardons for being so rude, but asks humbly could he leave with you soon, please?"

How could we refuse?  This poor man had obviously waited as long as he dared, and only entered the monastery with the greatest of reluctance.  We got up, and thanked the monk for his hospitality, and for allowing us to spend this beautiful afternoon with him.  As we were leaving, he insisted on giving us each a further gift: a tiny phial of holy oil from the monastery of St Macarius.  We tried to offer him money in return, but he declined, saying only that if we wished to leave an offering for the monastery on the way out, they would all be most grateful.  

And as we finally said goodbye to this wonderful man, he made a gesture that has remained with me: he lightly kissed his fingers, and then touched his forehead with the one flowing movement.  It was very striking, and as we turned to depart, I noticed several other monks come up to him and make the same gesture in greeting, which he returned.  It was a beautifully gentle kind of holy kiss; it seemed an appropriate image to leave with.

As we went back to the taxi, I said to Vicky:

"We never did get to find out what you will remember."

And she replied:

"I will tell you tomorrow," and smiled one of her warm but slightly mischievous smiles.

Well, John, it has finally begun, I have started speaking of Vicky.  So far, she has been absent from my story; and in that sense, I have not really been describing neutrally and impartially what happened.  For I am sure that even you, John, must have noticed how I began talking more and more with Vicky as time went on during our trip.  I have cheated, and as I recount to you what happened that next day - another day when we went our own separate ways - you will begin to see why I have done this, and how that day at the monastery - apparently so devoid of significance or consequences - led first to one thing, and then to another, until what happened, happened.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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