The Great City. 'All roads lead to London,' you said, John, when I asked you why you had to commute down there every day. And now it seems you were right. As you have probably guessed, I am living with Vicky, but not at her old address where you sent the tickets and information for the trip. Exactly where or how we are living is not really relevant. Suffice it to say that I am very happy, that for the first time in my life I feel that I am alive as a person.
This sounds harsh, and it is, but over the last year or so I have learnt how to speak out about such things, and to begin to confront them. But to return to that day all those months ago.
Why did I take your travel journal? It was certainly not premeditated. I just saw it and took it. I think now I know why. It was simply that I hated you little black books, with that single menacing word printed on their shiny covers: 'Ruled'. They were like the books which prefects used at school for writing down the names of offenders and their offences. I always felt that somehow you were judging me all the time, finding fault with me. I also resented the fact that you seemed to talk to you black book much more than you did to me. In a crazy kind of way, I was jealous.
And so I took them as they lay there, helpless, defenceless. I felt that I was stealing your power, as if I were stealing your book of magic spells. But for the same reason I felt strangely unable to read them immediately when I got back to England. I was almost frightened of them, of the power they might have. I was also simply too busy with more mundane matters - finding a job, moving house, reshaping my daily life.
I needed to find some way back in to what had happened in Egypt, but felt that I was not ready, not yet strong enough to read your journal. So instead I read some other books about Egypt, hoping that they would let me see the place through different eyes, give me the perspective I needed to try to understand what had happened to me there. For, believe it or not, I still felt alienated from my actions, unsure about what I would do now or why I had done what I had done. They were not guide books: it was not factual information that I was after. Instead I turned to my old friends: novels. I know that you rather despised them for their 'untruthfulness', for their 'lies', but for me they became pretty much all the life I had while you were at work.
I began by reading 'Ancient Evenings' by Norman Mailer. Although I could see it was an immense achievement - one that claimed ten years of the author's life - I hated it. It gloried so in power over others, violence, destruction, brutality. I'm afraid its story of the great and glorious Ramses II made me think of you, John. I am pretty sure that you haven't read it, but I fear that you would enjoy it. It certainly paints a vivid picture of life under that great but chilling figure. But ultimately I felt sorry for Mailer, for his ten years of enslavement to this loveless world - like a genie condemned to a term of servitude, but here to an idea, a male fantasy.
After that I read something in complete contrast: the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz's 'Midaq Alley'. This seemed to me to be the real Egypt I was looking for, and partly found, when Vicky and I went out to Khan al Khalili. Amazingly, it is set precisely in that part of the city - in fact it turns out we actually walked past Midaq Alley without knowing it while we were there. It is a beautiful book, simple, unpretentious, rather messy and moving - none of the heaven-storming you find in Mailer's book, just ordinary people here and now, living ordinary, confused lives.
Finally, again quite different, I read Durrell's 'Alexandria Quartet'. I had actually read this before, but retained only the vaguest of memories of it. In fact, I realised that I could remember practically nothing about any of the hundreds of books that I had read: they had just passed my by like scenery outside a train window. I had not grabbed anything, had not engaged with it. So re-reading Durrell's masterpiece - for it is certainly that - was an odd experience, with odd passages striking distant bells, like those moments of deja-vu when you half-recall having been somewhere before. But even though I found his descriptions of Alexandria gorgeous, they also became tiring in their overblown richness. And the story largely ignored the real Alexandrians, concentrating instead on this amazing gallery of extraordinary - and unbelievable - creations.
Actually I read another book before these - not on Egypt, but in a sense far more relevant to my needs at that moment, and relating to - explaining even - much of what had happened. This was Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own' - what Vicky calls her Bible. She does actually carry a copy around with her all the time - though since she knows most of it off by heart, that is almost unnecessary. I won't attempt to summarise it here; it is simply too well-written for me to try. If you have not read it, John, I urge you to do so. It is not a novel, so you needn't feel that your time is being wasted; instead it is simply one of the most profound books I have ever read on the subject of men and women and their relationships. That sounds very pretentious - after all, I've hardly read that many such books; I suppose in part I am echoing what Vicky says about it - and she is rather better qualified to talk on these things, since she read English at university before studying to medicine.
The net effect of reading these books was something I would never have guessed might occur: I decided to write my own about what had happened in Egypt last year. It was what I had always longed to do - produce a book. When I was reading all that pulp fiction at home I would often start spinning my own stories - wild and fantastic tales of powerful kings and beautiful queens, of kingdoms lost and won, of mysteries, magic and romance. But only in my head: I'd never had the ability - or the courage - to write them down. Anyway, words had always seemed your personal domain.
Now, suddenly, I realised that by writing a book I could tell my side of what had happened - something that I felt I had never been able to do. I was not trying to write a great work - anything would have done - but it had to be my book, totally selfishly about me. I believed then - as I still believe now that I draw close to finishing that book - that this would allow me to reclaim my lost past, to recreate for myself a history that had been lost, buried like some ancient monument waiting for an archaeologist - me, but an older, different me - to come along and reveal.
More particularly, I wanted to offer my own account in the face of yours. This sounds terribly petty, but it was - is - important to me. I had to show - to myself if to no one else - that I had existed during that trip, that I too had experienced things, that yours was not the only possible viewpoint. And so I began reading your journal, a day at a time, thinking about what you said, reacting against you sometimes, ignoring you at others. I used it as a stimulus for my thoughts as I tried to re-create a past world.
And when I had finished it, I decided that I would publish it - though at that stage I had no idea how. I realised that for this project to work, my book had to have some formal existence. I would publish it - and even if the only copies in existence were the six required by law by the copyright libraries, that would be enough - provided, of course, that some latter-day burner of libraries does not come along as happened with the one at Alexandria.
And do you know what, John? - the amazing thing was I have found out how easy it is to publish a book yourself. There is no magic involved, no mysterious apprenticeship required. From your comments I had naively and unquestioningly assumed it to be a long and difficult task, achieved only by the chosen few. But it's easy: you find a typesetter, send them your words, read the proofs, correct them, send them back and then find a printer - and there's your book. It's as simple as that. All you really need is money - that Great Universal Baksheesh which makes the world - not just Egypt - go round.
And of course as well as to the libraries, I knew that I would send you a copy, you who were the real audience in many ways. Because that is another reason why I have written this book: I have realised the power that words give, the power to create, to control. Just as you said when you were talking about that poem on the Battle of Kadesh, how the writer manipulated the story, how victory is always assigned by history, so I wanted to be in control of this little bit of history, to gain this small victory. All right, I will admit it, I revelled in the power over you, and your words, by writing this book, by employing your words in this way.
As I said right at the start of this book, in one way I have tried to be fair, in that I have not cheated by changing your words at all. Instead I have let them speak for you as you wrote them. Although this is unfair in the sense that you never wrote them to be published - well, except for your opening historical introductions which you used for the group - and you would doubtless have put some things differently, it is not so unfair because I think that you write very well - and so does Vicky, and she is a far better judge than me.
Talking of your writing, I have another confession to make. After I got back to England, I did in fact go back to our house once. You probably never noticed, because the only thing I took were the letters that you had written to me when we first met. Yes, I kept them, every one. I don't know if I ever told you how much those letters meant to me: I loved them, and through them, you. They were so beautiful, I was literally trembling with excitement when I first received and opened them. It was the only thing I regretted leaving behind - I wanted nothing else - so one day I crept back to the house and fetched them. It felt so strange to be back there - like some disembodied spirit, wandering through past scenes, noting the tiny differences that were already there, but distant and unrelated to it all now.
So your words have been allowed to speak for you, but I have had the whip hand: I have been able to answer your points, reprimand you, ignore you, contradict you as and when I wanted, and your words and ideas have had to lie there, impotent, and just put up with it. I know it was mean and pathetic and spiteful, but I had to do it, I had to get this poison out of me.
So the writing has been a therapy for me. I have tried to write out of me all those things which I have been dying to say - sometimes without even knowing it. By letting the words just tumble out - almost without thought, certainly without judgement on them - I have embarked on a voyage, a journey through myself. That is why I have not changed what I have written, even though I myself am now very different from the person who started writing this book. You can see this in the style as it has changed. Looking back, my first chapters seem very gauche, very awkward and angry. Vicky offered suggestions on how to improve them, to make them 'read well'. But I have left them apart from correcting gross errors and spelling mistakes, because they are true to what I was, and in part I wanted to record - to celebrate, even - the distance I have travelled in writing this book, not just stylistically, but also in moving from that childish anger to the peace I feel now - largely thanks to Vicky, to whom I hereby record my deep gratitude.
The main therapy has been for me to confront what was going on between us, John. As I have already said, what I relished in part as I wrote these words was the sense of control over this new written destiny. It was a novel and wonderful experience for me. Before, I had always been so passive - it never occurred to me that I could stand up for myself, take control of my life.
It had always been like that. At home I was meek and mild - my father was very strict and brooked no arguments - I had to 'do as I was told' or face the consequences. There were no arguments partly because we never talked. My parents seemed almost incapable of talking with me - or each other. I used to dread mealtimes, with their stony silences. And so I grew up trying to make myself invisible, not to attract any attention to myself.
And it was the same with you - though I don't mean to compare you with my poor parents. You could certainly talk - in fact that was something else I loved about you, the way you would get worked up about a subject and start talking passionately about one of your pet themes. It was what first drew me to you in the bookshop.
You probably don't remember all this. But I'll never forget that young, rather pale man who spent hours browsing - reading on the sly I suppose - all those books, buying some occasionally - when you could afford it I learnt later - and prepared to talk about them endlessly and with such fire. I loved that - I'd never met anyone who seemed so alive, so enthusiastic about something. Your blue eyes seemed to make your earnest gaze even more intense. Compared to the world I had come from it was like suddenly discovering someone who lived his life in colour instead of black and white.
Perhaps I felt an immediate affinity with you because you too did not have that lilting Huddersfield accent. My father had insisted with his usual implacability that I talk 'properly', and not 'common', so that I could 'get a good job.' I later learnt that you had refused to speak like 'the locals' as you put it, out of a fierce pride in your origins and a sense of being different. Because of our accents we were both like foreigners in our own town.
I suppose initially I had this romantic image of you with all your amazing knowledge, all your interests, you horizons. And when we started going out together - I'll never forget how happy I was when you asked me whether I'd like to have a drink with you in the cafe round the corner after work, and how you had lost your usual fluency when it came to this, which was touching - I was moved by your story - it only seemed to make you more of a hero, battling against life which had treated you so unfairly.
Even now, when I think about what you have gone through - your parents dying when you were so young, you being forced to live in Huddersfield, which you soon came to hate; your cold and unhappy aunt and uncle, their own love stunted by who knows what suffering, the poverty you lived in, your sense of shame that you were a further burden to these people, and so felt unable to criticise them for the faults you saw, for their failings towards you; the fact that you felt obliged to go out to work at 16 instead of staying at school, taking 'A'-levels, going to university, such bitter, bitter trials - my heart is wrung with pity for you. Life is so unfair that you had to suffer these things.
I admired you then - as I do now - for the way that you did not lie down and accept all this, but fought back, struggled to change things, despite the handicaps of your situation. I was proud of you when you spoke of the book you would write, and how you would one day be rich and famous as a writer, how we would travel round the world together, meeting interesting people, seeing extraordinary things. I believed in you John, but it was a blind belief.
And that same blindness stopped me from seeing what was happening to me. For example when you said that I did not need to work after we were married. This was plainly foolish financially - we needed every penny - but I did as you asked - I did not want to cross you, to call into question your wisdom or your ability to look after us both. I wanted to believe that it would all work out.
But instead you became resentful that you had to put in such long hours - especially when a couple of months later you started working at that travel agents in London, where there were 'better possibilities' as you said - and I found myself sinking into lethargy. After I had cleaned the house and done the shopping I spent the rest of the day reading - hundreds and hundreds of mostly trivial and forgettable novels, romantic stories which took me away from my humdrum, empty world. I took up cooking as an outlet for my energies, as I suppose many women must do, but you were rarely around to enjoy any of my labours. So I ended up eating it all myself, and putting on weight - which is rather ironic since it was at this time that I actually started to disappear, living only in the stories onto which I projected my fantasies. If I existed at all, it was only as your shadow, dutifully following you around. In a way I am not surprised that gradually you seemed to grow more and more contemptuous of me. I was just some kind of tiresome, fawning animal that tailed behind you all the time, not a real wife, not even a real human being.
Which was why I was so pleased when you asked me for the first time to come along with you to Egypt. I felt that somewhere exciting and romantic might make me more interesting, might change things between us, help us to break out of the circle we seemed trapped in. And Egypt did indeed change things, but not in the way I had expected. Instead, I found myself travelling so far and so fast, I could barely keep pace in a sense. And so when Vicky asked me that question in that gallery, I found myself saying 'yes' without really knowing why. But I did feel that this was some kind of 'historic' moment in my life, and that it was just a decision that had become inevitable.
It had become inevitable partly through Vicky - she opened my eyes to so much, not by any obvious or crude means, but just by talking with me, being interested in my opinions, my thoughts. And inevitable through meeting the others in our party - Alekko, Enid and Eric. Their lives and their stories showed me how reality can be as exciting as any fantasy, that we can make a difference to what happens, that we can choose, that it is worth holding out and making sacrifices for the things that matter. And so Vicky's question came at just the right moment when I wanted to choose - almost as if only to prove that I could choose. Exactly what I was choosing was not clear to me. I only knew that this was a decision that I had to make, and could only make in one way. In a sense the choice was made by a part of me that has been waiting for this other 'I' to catch up as I wrote this book during the six months or so.
Even now, as I look back and see the rightness of that yes, I often wonder at the path which brought me to that point. What steps were really indispensable? Coming to Egypt, I suppose, but then what? Alekko's swashbuckling tales of adventure and romance, the Smiths' moving story of the triumph of enduring love over a lifetime's obstacles - or would meeting Vicky on its own have set me on this course?
But it would never have occurred to me to go along with her that last day, leaving you in the hotel, had I not already asserted myself before by taking the others to Wadi Natrun. And I would never have had the courage to do that had I not been so touched by the Smiths' story, and determined that you would not bully them into going to Suez, a place so full of bitter memories for them. And perhaps, too, I would never have discovered how charged Suez was for them, and its role in their story if I had not fallen into the habit of plying people with questions - often quite impertinent ones - through listening to Alekko's wonderful life and always wanting to know what happened next, even if I found some of his stories a little hard to believe.
And what about Omar? Well, yes, as you no doubt guessed, most of that was pure fantasy, just words that spilled out of my pen when I put it to paper. A tall, dark, handsome stranger did sit at my table in the Egyptian Museum, but I never saw him again. There were was certainly no journey deep below the desert sands. The mysterious message on the hillside at Aswan was real enough, though, and remains inexplicable to me. As for that nonsense about the woman or ghost or whatever in the cupboard....
I suppose at one level I was just being spiteful, teasing you with all the possibilities my words implied and hinted at, leaving you painfully hanging, suspended in ignorance - something I knew you hated. Again, I can only ask your forgiveness. I was, as you will have gathered, upset and confused when I started writing. But on another, deeper level, both episodes were in a sense sketches, my first wooden, implausible attempts to describe something important I was feeling, something wonderful but intangible that I found later in Alekko's tales, and in the story of the Smiths.
So perhaps I did need everyone, and everything was indeed necessary, for what was the eventual outcome, and for this book which I now write to come into existence, itself based on these amazing experiences and inconceivable without them.
When I began writing all this I was still at the beginning of things; I had by no means decided exactly what the final outcome would be, only that whatever it was it would be willed this time, that I would be in control of it. Indeed, so far from having decided that I would leave you for ever, as I wrote this book and found myself getting stronger with every word I wrote, and as I read deeper and deeper into your story, and saw your own growing doubts about yourself, and your relationship with me and with the world, I felt stirring within me a growing hope that we were both heading for the same end point, that we would in fact meet again, but on a firmer footing, one based on a mutual respect.
So things were going fine as I wrote each of the chapters above. Usually it took me only a week or two to read your journal entry, and then to think about and write my response. In fact to begin with I could probably have written even faster, but what with my new job I was only able really to concentrate at the weekend. But this last chapter has been different, has been much, much harder. Perhaps it is because I have had nothing to fight against - without your words to bounce off, I have found myself adrift, perilously alone. Now, I must take full responsibility for my own words - I cannot point to yours as the reason for their existence. Total independence, it seems, is harder than I thought. Perhaps this is what real writing is like. Also, in this chapter I have tried to draw together many of the threads which have been running through this book; this has been difficult, disentangling my motives for the things I have written and done.
This chapter has also been difficult because I realise now that I am coming to the end of the book, the past is catching up with the present. I suddenly feel very alone - even here with Vicky and her colleague we rent our respective rooms from. I realise now that this book has given my life purpose for the last year or so: it has kept me going, provided me with a neat structure for my life - another week, another chapter. And I've found the sensation of ordering, of creating, really exhilarating - I'd love to be a writer all the time if I could. But now that I am near the end of this endeavour I am confronted with the rest of my life - chapterless, formless, random and frightening. How can I go forward without a script?
It was strange: while I was in thick of writing each chapter, I was really worried that I might die before I finished it - it seemed terrible that I might not tell my story, that my life would have been in vain. Which is clearly ridiculous, since my death would obviously make this book irrelevant for me.
This feeling of, well, panic, that I might not finish was also strange because I was conscious that the much-vaunted power I was exulting in above stopped here: all the time I was writing, I did not know how this book would end - whether indeed I would be able to end it. Whereas you, John, the reader, know perfectly well that I finished it - or else you would not be reading it. You also possess the power to leapfrog chapters, to short-circuit all my carefully laid plans of teasing and deceit by jumping straight to the end. Perhaps you have done this? Perhaps these are the first words you are reading, and you have simply not bothered to wade through everything leading up to it?
Of course, I cannot know now as I write these words. But it does make me realise that my power over you is limited and provisional: it depends on your acquiescing in that power by reading this book sequentially, just as your power over me depended on my acquiescence. Since I have now withdrawn from that contract I must accept your right to do the same in reading this book.
That was one unexpected aspect that I had to come to terms with. But something else even more disturbing has happened which has changed the whole nature of this book, diverted its course brutally as a dam does a river.
While I was writing this chapter, literally when I was just at the point a paragraph back, preparing to provide it with a neat little tidy ending, trying to be generous towards you, even rather upbeat in its optimism, offering not just an end but perhaps a beginning too, the threat of the Gulf War - hanging over us for months, but ignored by me so far, wrapped as I was in my own self-important events - has suddenly become a huge and awful reality. A reality I still find almost impossible to grasp. How can it be in this day and age, 1991, that we are engaged in a full-scale barbarous war?
But we are; it is real. And I cannot help thinking back to some of things you have written about, things which now seem very familiar, very contemporary. I mean the campaigns of your beloved Ramses, the 'great' Battle of Kadesh, his empire built with mortar made from the blood of his soldiers and the blood of his enemies and the blood of women and children who happened to be at the wrong place. An empire which may have been the peak of Ancient Egypt as you obviously believe, but one which sank into the sands as quickly as it had risen, leaving behind a few useless statues, a few incomprehensible inscriptions.
And this war has also reminded me of that other exercise in futile imperialism, the Suez Crisis, which seems to have been the trigger for your own thoughts and doubts. The parallels there are even more disturbing: imperialist powers using this or that pathetically transparent pretext to go in to an old colony, trying to destroy the 'war machine' - fighting men reduced to parts of an impersonal thing - mostly by aerial bombardment, while another old empire, that of the Russians, uses the diversion to bully some of its own colonies who are trying to throw off the yoke of oppression.
Don't men ever learn? Does history teach them nothing? Both the British and the Americans on the one side, with their feeble moral pretext for conducting yet another expedition of empire, and Saddam Hussein, whose insane imperial ambition is clearly to build a huge pan-Arab state at whatever cost in human lives (what for? So that his name will 'live for ever'?) are the same little boys with their lethal misery-inducing toys that went into Suez, that have terrorised and jeopardised the world again and again since that first Armageddon three thousand years ago. Only the names are different.
And this is not just some political abstraction. I watch television or listen to the radio, I walk down the street or sit in a cafe, and everywhere around me there are men with that brightness in their eyes as they talk excitedly about 'surgical strikes' and swap stories about the wonders of modern weapon technology. 'Modern' and 'weapon' are a contradiction in terms. And they ought to ask Vicky about 'surgery' in war: she is preparing to receive the expected burns casualties at her hospital where she will attempt to repair some of the obscene damage that will be done to these young men. She showed me pictures of what happens to skin and flesh when trapped inside a burning tank: they melt like some wax doll, and stink like overdone roast pork. I was almost physically sick at the thought of all this happening - and I am sure it will, and that the casualties will be terrible in a long and bloody war - for nothing.
So, John, you can see that I am sad, angry, confused again, that my vaunted serenity and wisdom have slipped through my fingers like sand from the Nubian desert. Who am I angry at? At you? But I can't blame you for the Gulf War, can I? But that is the point: I do, unfortunately, I do. Because this Gulf War is just another demonstration of that greater gulf between men and women. What is happening out there is part of what is happening here, everywhere, what happened to us. And it will go on happening until that other Gulf War is resolved.
This probably sounds ridiculous and totally unreasonable to you, perhaps even 'stridently feminist'. Yes, you're right, of course: I've got much of this from Vicky and her friends. But I only 'got' it because I was ready for it, and can see that it is right, and that for my own self-respect and sense of who I am I have to accept these things and live their consequences. And one of these is to recognise that the gulf between us - a gulf I only became dimly aware of in Egypt - is probably still too great, and that I was wrong when I glibly thought that this marvellous, wonder-working book might be the path to a reconciliation between us.
So what has happened in the space of so few pages? I have not really changed John, but I have been jolted into realising that I have not finished my journey, that it is not that easy, that I am still moving on, and that until I have stopped, or at least know where I am going, we will not be able to resolve what has happened between us, even assuming that you will want to after reading all this.
What has happened in a larger sense is that history has obtruded into my cosy little book, my book over which I thought I had such control. When I began writing it, I thought naively that it would just be about you and me, that it was just a small personal matter between the two of us. But as ever Vicky is right when she says 'the personal is political': there is no distinction. Until now, it was just a slogan, just words. Now I understand - with my heart as well as my head - that what happens on the big scale is simply the same things writ large; they are not qualitatively different. This war, this huge, insane, unforgivable war has just brought home to me again, even more forcefully, how great the distance is between men and women, between me as I am now and what I was, and what you were.
Perhaps I am committing the ultimate in arrogance, patronisingly assuming that you are incapable of changing too, seeing you purely in terms of male stereotypes, rather than as a person with his own rich past, and his own pregnant future. If so, I apologise. Perhaps you hate this war as much as I do. Higgs certainly can't be happy about its devastating effects on tourism generally - much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively closed off, many airlines practically bankrupt - and on specific economies like Britain's that depend on foreign currency from visitors just to keep going. Yes, perhaps I am wrong: perhaps we will meet - who knows? next week, next month, next year? - by chance, as we both cross Piccadilly Circus, just like Enid and Eric; perhaps it will all work out. Perhaps. But somehow that seems unlikely. One thing: I have taken back my maiden name. Is this a decision? I don't think so, more an evening of the odds. In any case, as you can see, I have lost my smug certainty about things.
So why am I publishing this book now, why is it in the form you see before you, when life is so uncertain, when World War III may have begun, and things are changing from minute to minute - when I am still changing? Precisely because things are still in flux. I understand at last that there can be no neat ending, that this book is about life and so must be as messy and as incomplete as life. Now is as good - and as bad - a place to stop as any.
So, John, that is the end of my words, however unsatisfactory. All that is left to do is to give this book, poor orphan that it is, a name. I had originally intended to call it by your own book's title: 'Egyptian Romance' - its easy irony appealed to my mood when I began. And as I dug deeper and deeper into what happened, I saw that I had, after all, written a kind of Egyptian Romance. Then later I discovered that you were going to write a different book instead, 'Empire's End', which seemed to grow more and more appropriate as a description the nearer I drew to my own work's conclusion. So I have decided to call this book by both titles - and to add one more of my own: 'The Tale of a Tourist'. Because that is what I have been until now, a tourist of life, and that is what this book has been, my story.
And now that you have read it, as I hope you have, take it, John, for it is yours, just as it is mine. Please take it to your heart, John, and let the last word be forgiveness.