Friday 4 September 2020

Chapter 13 - London, Saturday 15 December, 1990

John, dear John, what have I done?  The more I read of your journal, the more I fear I have made a terrible mistake.  What, I ask myself, would have happened if I had read through it all at once, at the beginning, when I started all this?  Would that have made a difference?  Perhaps not, perhaps I would not have been ready for what it said.  And yet it might have made a difference, and it might now be too late.  So why didn't I read your entries all together?

In part, it was because I wanted to reconstruct what had happened, understand clearly what was going on; and for that, I could only take things one day at a time, to separate out the thoughts, the feelings, the experiences I had and which led to what happened.  Also, I suppose, it was a kind of pride: I wanted to prove to myself that I was in control, that I could do it, just read them one at a time, not cheat.  And it was a kind of masochism: I wanted to savour my anger to the full by re-living those days, drip feeding the experience - for I was very angry, though you would never have guessed it - even I was unaware of it almost, conscious of it only as a distant feeling, a sense of something not quite right in my world - until Vicky helped me to understand what was going on within me.

Which brings us back to Vicky, just as this whole book has been leading there.  I have committed enormous sins of omission against you John.  Throughout most of my narrative above, Vicky has barely figured.  And yet during this time she was becoming increasingly important to me.  I suppose that I have said nearly nothing about it so far because I find it hard to pin down what happened when - we spoke about so much, but often in a very casual, haphazard way; there was no neat design that I can now pluck out and describe.  I kept silent too because there were others I wished to focus on: bringing Vicky into the picture would only have distracted my attention.  But mostly, yes, I must say it, it was out of spite that I have kept silent about her.  Spite, and a desire to tease, to keep you on tenterhooks.  Not very noble, not very mature, is it?

So now I must write about her, her who has lain hidden in all that I have written like a secret message, a constant thread, her who has been a ghostly presence in all that has happened to me.  But even now I will not say much because the facts are - to use your word - now too 'precious' to me that I would want to squander them in this public way.  Instead, I will tell the bare minimum necessary for you to understand what happened.  I think, after all this time, all these words, all these confusions and deceptions, I owe you that much - or perhaps I owe it to myself to be that fair to you, and to Vicky in acknowledgement of my great debt to her.

So, John, as you said, she is a doctor - or rather a surgeon, with the NHS.  This trip was a reward to herself after a particular gruelling few months of work - you know the kind of hours doctors are expected to put in.  Which was why she chose a guided tour - something which I know she would normally avoid like the plague - she is very independent, as you probably gathered, and has travelled widely on her own.  But she wanted an 'easy', unthinking holiday, a breath of fresh air after being stuck inside a stuffy antiseptic hospital.

What more can I say?  She has just turned 30, like you.  She is about 5' 3", but with a tremendously powerful presence that makes her seem much taller.  Her eyes are deep brown, her hair almost black, she loves opera and cats, enjoys my cooking - which you never did, unfortunately - and, well, there are a million other details I could tell you about.  But some things are simply not relevant to what follows, and those that are difficult to write in this cold and clinical way, so analytic, so precise.  I must leave it at that, John, unsatisfactory as it is.  Besides, this is about me - and you - and only incidentally about Vicky.  No, that's not true: it's more a matter of me not having any right to talk about Vicky in the kind of detail I have used in trying to explain myself to you.  

Anyway, John, to return to my long-sidetracked story, while you were sleeping that morning in Cairo a couple of days before we were due to come back, I got up early and went down to breakfast - where I met Vicky.  As you said, she was due to fly out that day, but not until the later afternoon.  She was keen to see a little more of Cairo, the side you had not shown us at all, that born of its Arab heritage, and we decided to go together.  Another sin of omission, I'm afraid John, since I failed to mention this to you in my note.

I must confess that I am surprised that you ignored this Cairo: it is the real Cairo, after all.  And as Vicky and I found out from her guide book - her Blue Guide you were so scathing about - it is an amazingly rich world too.  Although the city was a comparatively recent foundation - dating from 'only' 641 AD instead of thousands of years BC - it turns out to have the greatest collection of ancient Islamic buildings in the world, and some of the finest and grandest mosques, not to mention a university set up in 970 AD.  And what an experience it is to go there - amid warrens of tiny teeming backstreets, narrow lanes choked with cars and bikes and donkeys.  It is like some updated version of a Thousand and One Nights.  You feel that anything could happen here - and probably has.

We decided to go out to the Midan Hussein so that we could visit the famous Khan al Khalili, one of the largest bazaars in the world.  A nightmare journey there - I have never seen such mad driving, such congestion - Cairo seems doomed to grind to a halt if the traffic grows any worse.  Everybody just pushes and shoves, inches forward, jumps lights, never lets anyone through even though doing so would clearly ease the hold-up for everyone.  Men at their worst, it seemed to us, determined to win, determined not to 'give in,' cutting their noses off to spite their faces.  But the taxi drivers certainly earn their fare.

One of the problems we found once we had been dropped off was establishing exactly where we were.  Since none of the street signs was in English, we spent ages trying to match up the shape of the streets with our map.  We stood there, the only Westerners in sight, with the Egyptians wandering past, staring at us with frank curiosity, the traffic completely deafening, unrelenting.  It was a very strange experience: feeling utterly lost - we could have been on the moon for all we knew - and feeling utterly helpless, like children in an alien, incomprehensible world.  It was quite humbling really.  But eventually we managed to work out our exact location.

We dived into the Khan al Khalili, tiny, tiny backstreets packed with every imaginable merchandise - and all very Arabic, with few concessions to the tourist, even though its gaudy wares looked the epitome of cheap souvenirs.  Yet there was none of the pressure we expected, no constant attempts to inveigle us into the shops, to buy.

We wandered quite happily, without any real plan, hoping that we would be able to find out where we were - or at least find a taxi willing to take us back to - I was about to write 'civilisation', but that is a terrible thing to say - the hotel.  We emerged from the warren of backstreets, some of them very rough, with horses tethered there, and found ourselves in a larger street with shops selling spices from huge wickerwork baskets as at Aswan.  The colours were gorgeous - purples, yellows, browns - and the smells even more wonderful, scenting the air in an indescribable confusion that will always be the smell of Egypt for me.  And in the background a vague but beautiful music, a woman's voice keening in long sinuous curves of sound.

A little way from here we saw a small mosque, the Mosque of Barsbay, which we decided to visit.  I hesitated at the entrance, not entirely sure whether women were allowed in or what, but Vicky dragged me on.  A  charming little man who was roused from his slumbers by us seemed more than happy to take our E£1 to get in - and to take our shoes.  In fact he was rather obsequious, which was sad and unnecessary, and just showed the corrupting influence of the tourist's money.

The mosque was rather run-down and with repairs going on, which made it look real, but it was also in use - at least that is probably the kindest way of putting it, since most of those in the mosque seemed to be contentedly asleep.  As mosques tend to be devoid of typically Western ornaments - no images, of course - it is a bit hard for an infidel to find much to look at - another sad consequence of our ignorance, are inability to 'read' these buildings and their cultural assumptions.  More interesting was our ascent of the minaret - which our fawning doorkeeper almost insisted on, obviously scenting some more of that appalling baksheesh which enervates the population.

It was positively painful clambering up the dark, dusty and dangerous stairs - painful to hear our man wheezing terribly - foul Egyptian cigarettes?  asthma?  worse?  - as he dragged himself to the top.  And the view from the top of the minaret?  Well, different.  I had expected to see an ancient ocean of rooftops.  Instead, it turns out that even this medieval city is built of concrete, and that even more strikingly, Egyptians use their roofs as rubbish tips: as far as the eye could see, there seemed to be nothing but old bricks and dirt and domestic refuse, piled up high on the roofs - but quite invisible from the ground, and therefore presumably acceptable to the inhabitants.

Also visible was something a little more attractive, the main mosques rising up from these waves of concrete and rubble like ships riding the ocean: as far as we could make out from the maps we could see Ibn Tulun, Hussein, Al-Azhar, Hakkim - and also a the old citadel, the original Arab foundation.  Generally, though, everything was grey, and overhung with a yellowish haze which seemed to be oozing out of the sky.  Blocks of flats girdled the city.

As we made our way back along Sharia Sanadqiyyah past the little side streets to Midan Al-Azhar, the sounds of the traffic grew louder, the smell of petrol fumes stronger.  We decided to look at the Mosque of Al-Azhar, actually a university too - the oldest in continuous existence.  This presented a total contrast with the run-down but charming Mosque of Barsbay.  Al-Azhar had a huge open space surrounded by cool colonnades.  Once again, it was disconcerting to see the faithful gathered at their prayers, kneeling down, and bowing periodically in their devotions.  Vicky and I sat out in the open, letting the sun warm us, listening to the tinny sound of the muezzin blaring from some loudspeaker somewhere.  I was very struck by the contrast between this open air religion, born in a hot climate, where fresh breezes were to be welcomed, and that of our northern Protestantism, centred on massive enclosed cathedrals, symbolic and actual bastions against the cold winter winds and snows.

After this we found a café and took a coffee and a bite to eat.  I tried the local coffee - your favourite 'Turkish' - for the first time, instead of my usual instant stuff - and loved it.  It was black and thick - and so sweet, but with a hint of roasted bitterness too.  In fact it was so good I had another, which Vicky thought excessive - warning me half-seriously about the lethal combination of caffeine and sugar each deceptively small cup contained.  But it was worth the risk.

Then we managed to find another taxi to take us down to Cairo's greatest mosque of all, Ibn Tulun.  It was in a quieter part of town, hidden away, if anything quite so large and imposing can be said to be hidden, certainly enough that the driver had difficulty finding it.

From the outside there is massive wall, through which you pass into an area bounded by another large wall parallel to the first.  Ascending a few steps takes you to the entrance to the mosque.  Inside, there is an even larger and more magnificent space than the one we saw at the Mosque of Al-Azhar.  Very quiet here, deserted almost, apart from the men at the door giving out the overshoes - the alternative to taking your own shoes off, great floppy canvas slippers like the ones we had to wear in the solar boat museum at Giza.  Seeing one or two other tourists in similar garb made me think of them as some kind of joke, designed to make fun of the ignorant unbelieving Westerners.  But there was no hint of this in the doorkeepers.

In the centre of the open area was a massive fountain - alas, without water.  On the north side was the minaret, a beautiful design with an interesting staircase which wound around the outside, making the whole thing look like a torn roll of paper.  The view from the top - over 100 feet high - is stunning, but not so different from the view of the Mosque of Barsbay.  From the minaret we went on to the roof of the covered colonnades.  As elsewhere in Egypt, there was no protection: you could walk right up to the edge - forty or fifty feet up - and over it if you so wished.  I stayed well back, but Vicky insisted on going right up to the edge and peering over.  I closed my eyes.

By now it was late afternoon, and the sun was beginning to fall through a sky veiled with a thin, lemon-coloured smog.  It was a lovely lazy kind of day.  We came out of the mosque but did not return to where we hoped our taxi driver was waiting for us: instead we turned right towards a couple of houses which had been built between the two walls of the mosque.  In fact this was why we had come all the way down here: to visit the Gayer-Anderson Museum, also known as the House of the Cretans.

These two houses were an extraordinary place.  They had been bought and made into a museum by one of those endearing old colonial types who end up 'going native', and come to love their adopted land more than home.  And so this Major Robert Gayer-Anderson, a member of the Egyptian Civil Service - and, as Vicky was quick to point out, a doctor  - spent the last years of his life restoring these sixteenth and seventeenth century houses - rare survivors of domestic architecture.  He scoured the land looking for suitable artefacts and ornaments, and when he was forced to return to England through ill-health, left the museum to the city he loved so much.  It is one of Egypt's best-kept secrets - while we were there, we saw no other tourists at all.

We entered through a beautiful courtyard, after buying tickets from a young girl who seemed to be the only 'guard' around the place - and she was busy looking after her baby brother.  After a lovely airy loggia, there were the so-called Winter Rooms with their blue glazed tiles.  In the Writing Room everything was teetering on the brink of falling to pieces - dusty, faded, a window half off its hinges, a museum about to pass from quaint neglect to outright dilapidation and debris.  But in a way it was better thus: it felt as if nothing had been touched since Major Gayer-Anderson had left, and it lent the place a real sense of character - not like our own antiseptic museums.

Around the high-level bridge linking the two houses, a series of rooms - the Byzantine Room, the Queen Anne Room (?!), the Picture Gallery, offering the fruits of the Major's many passions and eclectic tastes.  And at the heart of it all, the great hall with its divans, sunken fountain, rich yet harmonious decorations, begging for the sound of music, the smell of rich foods, the shifting shadows cast by lamps, the sound of easy conversation.

In the library, which looked like some kind of film-set, there was a secret door leading to a narrow gallery overlooking the hall, hidden from it with ornately carved screens.  It was here, apparently, that the women would eavesdrop on the men's chatter.  It was here that Vicky and I sat, musing on the place, the day, the trip to Egypt.

"I'm really quite amazed at my composure sitting here," Vicky said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, just think: the number of women who were doomed to sit here quietly - apart from the odd giggle of course - while the men sat down on the comfy cushions smoking their hookahs - let's be generous about what they were doing with their hookahs - having a fine old time.  I think that the fact that I'm so calm about it suggests one of two things: (a) I'm getting old or (b) that it's time we went back to the hotel where I can generate a little righteous indignation."

"I've really enjoyed today.  Thanks for asking me to come along." I said.

"Don't thank me," Vicky replied, "it was a pleasure - really.  I hate travelling on my own.  I like to share the experience with others - and to gain from what they are seeing too.  It encourages me to be much more responsive to things.  Besides, it has been really good getting to know you.  While it's true that we have seen lots of wonderful things here, what I'll be most grateful for is meeting you.  No, no arguments, this is not politeness, I mean it - as I was about to say when that charming priest at Wadi Natrun asked us what we will remember from this visit."

"Were you?" I asked in some amazement.

"Certainly was.  And why not?  People should say what they mean, not be afraid of owning up to what they feel."

"I don't think that that's something I've ever been very good at. I seem to have drifted along through life in a rather feeble sort of way.  I can't imagine what you see in me."

"But that's just the point," Vicky said, her voice echoing around the empty hall below us.  "It's precisely because I do see so much richness and wealth in you - I saw it as soon as we started talking.  You are much too hard on yourself, you have so much to offer - you have just got to trust yourself.  But then I suppose it is hardly surprising you are lacking in this self-confidence, so many women are, brought up as they to be humble slaves of their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, their sons - Ah! that's better, I can feel a little warmth coming back now.  But you know what I mean?"

"I think I am beginning to, yes - largely thanks to you, though."  I said truthfully.

"Well, that's kind of you to say so, but you know, no matter how wonderful the doctor, the patient has to want to be cured first - I wonder, is this an Albanian proverb I've stumbled on?  This was within you, waiting to grow.  And so now it's your duty - to yourself - to make it grow."

"Yes, I suppose you're right."  But then it was all a bit too new for me to grasp - I could see what Vicky was saying, but I wasn't so sure that I could feel it.  I felt very shallow, immature.

"Yes, you sound really sure.  So then, what are you going to do about it?"

"About what?" I asked.

"About you, about your life, about John?"

"John?" I asked, worried at the turn things had taken.  But Vicky was not to be put off.

"Yes, John.  Come off it, Janet, stop kidding yourself.  What kind of life to you have with him?"

"We're very happy, I - "

"Don't give me all that, I have eyes to see, you follow him around six paces behind, the dutiful, invisible wife, and - "

"That's not true."  I said, my voice beginning to rise, "What about when John went out to Suez and we all went to the monastery?  I was hardly following him six paces behind then, was I?"

"No, you're quite right, I apologise - I do tend to get carried away at times.  No, I know that you are changing, more and more as time goes on - and it is a privilege to watch someone shake off their shackles of mind in this way.  But my question remains: what are you going to do - if not about 'it', just 'to do'?"

"I - I - don't know."  I answered lamely.  I didn't.  But I did know that she was right, that something had to be done.

"Look, I have an idea - crazy perhaps, but then you'd probably be disappointed if it weren't.  As you know, I have got to leave for the airport shortly - "

"Oh God!, sorry, here's me wittering on, keeping you from - "

" - Let me finish.  I'm going to the airport to fly home.  I want you to come with me."

"Yes, of course.  I'd love to see you off."

"No, Janet, I mean to come back with me to England...."  Vicky regarded me very stilly, as if any movement would break something in the idea.

"Come...England...but I couldn't possibly - John - "  Crazy idea indeed - how could I?  And yet once said, once put into words, the idea which would have been literally unthinkable for me, now seemed ridiculous, but not utterly impossible.

"I think John is a grown man and can look after himself - and if he can't this is the perfect opportunity for him to learn.  Look, Janet, he needs this as much as you do.  Together you are a deadly combination, feeding each other's well, - I have to say it - problems.  I know that is arrogant, but as a doctor I have had to learn to be blunt about painful things - I simply don't have time for niceties anymore, and this is something I can't keep quiet about.  I can see plainly that you are unable even to step back and think about things.  That's all I'm suggesting: come and stay in London, for as long or as little as you like - I'm moving as it happens, and I'm pretty sure the person I'll be renting from has another room free - and just think this through.  You can't do that if you're stuck in the same grooves.  To change something big you have to change something  smaller.  How about it?"

"I don't know, I - "  I felt hypnotised, not so much by Vicky, who was not trying to control me, but by the idea, by the possibility of that freedom just to stop and think.  "But what about a ticket - money - ?"

"Janet, these are minor obstacles, easily overcome.  To be brutal about it, as a doctor who has to work 100 hours a week I have had little time to spend my meagre but more than sufficient salary.  Call it a loan - but it is not a problem.  We can do it, just say the word."

We sat there, Vicky very still again, me very unstill internally, but strangely, strangely drawn to this idea.  I'm sorry John, it must be shocking for you to hear all this.  But I have to be honest with you, in order to be honest with myself.

"Yes," I said, and it sounded as if somebody else had said it, as if the word had been hanging there in the air, waiting for this opportunity to step forward and present itself, and I was just listening, in an abstract sort of way.  And as a mere observer, I was only vaguely surprised by the word.  Or rather, I was content to be passive in the face of this decision that had been made for me by whoever had said the word.

So I said 'yes'.

"Good,"  Vicky said in her best doctor's voice.  "Hang on a minute, I want you to hear something," she said as she fumbled inside her shoulder bag among the guidebooks and suntan lotions.  She brought out a Walkman.

"Ugh!  Bloody thing," she muttered.

"What's the matter?" I asked, surprised at how normal my voice sounded, surprised that I could ask ordinary questions after what had been decided.

"Why do they all have to be Walkmans?  Why can't they produce a Walkwoman too - bloody typical if you ask me...."  And she laughed in her half-real, half-mock exasperation.

She put the headphones on her head, turned on the machine, and adjusted the volume level.  A faint buzzing noise escaped from the earpieces, like a vaguely melodious fly.

"Here, try this," she said as she transferred the headset to me.

I heard the sound of violins, weaving their way along a melody, one with great swoops and slides in it; in the background, the sporadic beat of a drum, the twangling of a mandolin.  Then a woman's voice entered, slow, and with enormous poise and dignity, a voice full of sorrow, but a wise voice too, reconciled somehow to that sorrow.  From time to time the voice would bend with a great wavering halfway between a desperate sob and a cry of exultation.  Although the song sounded Arabic (or so I presumed in my ignorance) it also seemed incredibly ancient, as old as the pyramids.  Timeless was perhaps a better word for it.  Occasionally there would be a sudden flurry of applause from an audience, the odd whistle or cheer of recognition and appreciation.  And all the while this wonderful female voice sang on and on.

"It's beautiful," I said.  "What is it?"

"It is the famous Om Kalsoum, the 'Mother of Egypt'.  She died back in the 70s, but her voice, her message lives on.  You find her singing everywhere - I think it was her we heard in that restaurant in Alexandria, and in the backstreets today.  She is Egypt."

And as I listened it was like hearing a music I had been expecting all my life, but somehow had never heard before.  It seemed so right, sitting here at the heart of this house, no grand temple, no mighty tomb, but a home, with Vicky next to me, and this woman singing, singing.  And suddenly I was aware that Vicky's smiling face was close to mine: and she kissed me.  A kiss I will never forget, though not long or 'passionate'; a kiss I can probably never explain to you, John, except to say that it was almost as if Vicky were breathing a new spirit, a new life into me.

We left that House of the Cretan Women, found our taxi and its slumbering driver, and braved the madness of Cairo rush-hour to return to the hotel.  I came back with no plans, no schemes.  Vicky had already packed and had left her luggage behind the desk.  I saw that our room key was still on its hook: you were out somewhere.  Without a thought I asked for the key and went to the room.

I had meant to take only my passport plus the rolls of exposed film - my other 'memories'; I wanted nothing else, no encumbrances.  But as I was leaving, I was surprised to see it lying there next to the neat pile of guide books: your travel journal.  Again, without premeditation, or a thought for the consequences, I knew that I must take it.

I did so, left the room and went down to the desk.  I did not worry about whether I might meet you at any point: my mind was not engaged in this, it was simply watching it all happen as people in accidents are said to see everything happen as if to somebody else.  At the desk I wrote you the short note which you received from me when you came back, telling you that I was safe, asking you not to try and find me, assuring you that I would write and explain when I could.  As I have indeed done, John, but probably not as you - or I - imagined.  So that now, at last, after all the detours, dead-ends and false trails, you have arrived at a point where you have the facts of what happened.

But clearly, there is more to tell.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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