Wednesday 30 September 2020

Chapter 4 - London, Saturday July 14, 1990

John, what can I say?  You surprise me - I thought I knew you so well, that you would never surprise me.  But what a stupid thing to do - nearly killed by your fear of losing face.  I honestly never expected that your travel journal would reveal such things - nor did I take it for that reason.  I thought if one thing was sure in this world it is my knowledge of you.  But I may need to revise that: what other surprises do you have in store for me?

I do remember that time you made me wash off that perfume.  I wept, bitter tears of rage and frustration.  If only you had explained to me, I would have understood.  Didn't you trust me, or was your pride too great to tell me what happened?  It is sad, John, that you didn't.  If you had, perhaps it would have led to other things, and, who knows?

Well, what is done, is done.  You were right, I was very moved by the pyramids.  As soon as I saw them, I recognised them.  Not in the trivial sense that I'd seen pictures of them, but that they struck a chord in me, that I felt as if a door had opened, a door that would lead to a better understanding of Egypt.

I couldn't help thinking of all those people - how many did you say: 10,000 or was it 100,000? - the mind cannot grasp these kinds of figures. 100,000 grains of sand I can hold (can I?  How big would it be?  I've no idea), but 100,000 people - it reduces them to just numbers, takes away their peopleness.  It must have been a city of them.  Were their wives and children with them?  Or were they left at home?  Were they even allowed to see the pyramids when they were finished, or was this another holy place for men only?

I have been trying to imagine what it would have been like to be a woman in those times.  The only women we really hear about are the queens - and even then we only seem to have their names.  What did they feel?  What was it like to be married to Cheops - Khufu, whatever his name is - a man who could order the pyramids to be built, who ruled 100,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people absolutely?  Did they 'love' each other?  Or was it just duty, or orders?  Have people changed much in five thousand years?  It seems unlikely.  So what were their feelings, their hopes, their thoughts?  I should have asked you, you would probably know of some text or other which tells us at least something.

I found going into the pyramid quite eerie, perhaps because of all the other people clambering up that tiny shaft.  It looked like one of those old engravings of people in hell, pointlessly climbing up narrow spaces, tired, too cramped.  And once inside, at the centre, it felt very cold (not physically), very cheerless.  It was rock and rock everywhere.  There weren't even any hieroglyphs or paintings as in the other tombs we looked at.  It seemed to say this was it, death is the end.

Which is why I found your thoughts on death interesting.  But I can't agree with your ideas on photography, John.  Isn't it natural that people want to take photos of where they've been?  They want to remember the things they've seen, the people they met, all the good times they had.  Is that so terrible?  Otherwise they do lose them - I know I do.  Try as I might, I can't remember certain details about things which happened in the past.  What exactly was someone wearing?  Where did we sit?  What was the weather like?  Without pictures to remind you it is as if it never really happened, as if it was only some kind of waking dream or fantasy.  A least you admit that pictures of people you love can be precious.  It seems a shame to me that you took so few of me, and never really liked me taking any of you.  I regret that now.  I wonder if you do.

You were right about the Sphinx and the other sights: after the Great Pyramid it was all a bit of an anti-climax.  I mean it was still interesting - the boat of Re was beautiful - but it didn't really add anything to my understanding or love of what I'd already seen.  Nothing  surpassed that first impression.

I suppose too that if I were being honest, which is what I am trying to be in writing this, I would have to admit that I was increasingly distracted by the thought of that evening, impatient for midnight to come.  Would I really go, would he really come - and what, if anything, was going to happen?  So if at times I seemed bored or uninterested, it was probably just that - but obviously you weren't to know.  I wasn't even particularly annoyed that you wouldn't go on a camel ride with me when they others were all going.

Midnight did come eventually, and, yes, I did go.  I don't think you noticed - you certainly said nothing.  But then you rarely did.  You were very tired - rather depressed still, as you said in your journal - and were snoring soundly (yes, you do) when I crept out of bed, got dressed, and went down to front of the hotel.  The foyer was lit up, but the night-duty clerk was also snoring happily in his chair - do all men snore when they sleep?  I managed to slip out without disturbing him.

Parked just outside the hotel steps was huge gleaming opentop Mercedes.  The light outside the revolving door illuminated its cream-coloured paintwork.  Sitting at the wheel, his right arm resting easily along the back of the front seats, was Omar.  His face was turned towards the door in expectation.

"You came," he said with evident relief and pleasure as he got out of the car to open the door on the passenger's side.

"I came", I said as I got in.  Omar closed the door quietly, started up the engine, reversed out, turned, and drove on to the main road.

"Thank you," he said simply as we sped along the empty streets.  A few people walked slowly along the pavements, watching us mechanically as we passed.  The night air was fresh.

We drove down to the Nile, through an eerily empty Tahrir Square.  The  neon signs still flashed away, convincing no one.  As we crossed the Nile, the moon broke through the clouds and the sky began to clear.  There were odd spots of light in the hotels along the Nile, forming tiny patterns in the night.  To our right I could see the shape of the Cairo Tower, illuminated at the top.  We did not speak as we passed along the roads with their silent shops and blocks of flats.  Finally out of the darkness at the end of the road even darker shapes loomed.

"We are at the Great Pyramids.  - But I thought you wanted to show me something at Saqqarah, in the Serapeum?" I said.

"Yes and no, Janet.  I hope you will see what I mean - it is better this way."

Omar seemed rather subdued this evening.  Was it because of what I had said the last time we met, my slowness to catch his meaning?  Or did he think that I was being cool towards him?  Should I try and make conversation now?  I opened my mouth, but no sound came out: it was as if a spell had been cast on me.  I looked at Omar: he raised his right hand very slightly off the steering wheel as if to say 'it's not necessary.'

So we remained in silence as we drove up to where our group had come that morning.  I expected him to park the car in the car park - the road was blocked by a barrier.  But instead, he drove up to this.  A man emerged from a watchman's hut nearby: it was one of the tourist police.  What would happen now? I wondered.  He came up to us, and as he approached Omar, made a curious movement with his right hand - touching first his lips then his forehead, bowing slightly as he did so.  Words were spoken between them, quietly.  The policeman seemed to be assuring Omar about something.  What words I did catch sounded very unlike the other Arabic I had heard.

The man then lifted the barrier, and Omar drove through.  We turned right and went along the road by the side of the Great Pyramid which seemed even more majestic against the inky-blue sky, rearing up like some mountain.  We followed the road round behind it, then turned right again towards the second Great Pyramid.  We continued on the road round behind this in its turn, and drove towards the third, smaller pyramid.  

To our right was the desert.  In front of us, beyond this last pyramid, was more desert.  But I could see something else there too, moving towards us silently.  It was men on horses.  As they drew near I could see that there were three men and four horses.  Omar brought the car to a halt.  The men on horseback approached.  They all made the same gesture with the hand to the mouth and forehead.  They looked splendid in their long, flowing robes.

"Well, Janet, are you ready for a midnight ride?" Omar asked.

"I - I can't ride, Omar," I said with growing panic in my voice.

"That does not matter, I have brought my gentlest and most intelligent horse - a mare, naturally.  She will ride herself - you will not even know that you are riding.  Please, come, trust me."

I got out of the car, and approached gingerly the horse he indicated.  She certainly looked peaceful enough, but what did I know of horses?  But, I thought to myself, if you've come this far, you may as well proceed a little further.  One of the men held the animal, while another placed a small set of steps next to the horse.  I mounted the steps and nervously put one foot in the stirrups.  "Go on" said Omar.  I closed my eyes and swung my other leg over.  The horse snorted through its nostrils.  My heart was pounding.

"Well done, Janet.  See, I will have a leading rein at all times: nothing can possibly happen."  He held the rein in his hand as he sprung lightly into his own saddle.  Omar called softly to one of the men; the man approached, his head bowed.  I saw Omar give him the car keys and say something to him - it was definitely not Arabic, far too soft and melodic.  Then Omar led my horse to the sands.  The other two men followed on horseback a little way behind.

At first I clung on to the front of the saddle - frightened, like you were, John, that I would lose my balance and fall off.  Only I seem to have been more fortunate than you in my horse - and in my guide.  The mare truly did seem to ride herself, walking along easily.  So easily in fact that I barely noticed when Omar moved his horse into a canter.  Mine followed with such a gentle flowing movement that I felt that I was riding on air.  Omar looked back and smiled to see my smile of delight.

I don't know how long we rode for; I was too busy experiencing the cool desert air as it stroked my face.  Now we were deep in the desert.  There was nothing to be seen except sand.  In the distance I heard some kind of dog howling to the moon.  A delicious shiver of excitement passed over me.

A little later, we stopped.  I looked around, dumbfounded.  What was Omar going to do?  Were my worst fears to be realised?  I was alone with three men, two of them strangers, one of them almost so, in the desert miles from anywhere.  I suppose in retrospect what I did then was as foolish as your own ride by the pyramids, but in a different way.  Omar called the other two men to him, and pointed down at a small rock in front of us.  The men dismounted, and walked to the rock.  Omar pointed again, and the men dropped to their hands and knees in the sand.  They started sweeping the sand away as if looking for something.

Finally, one of them let out a cry.  The other man moved closer: they seemed to have found what they were looking for.  They began tugging at something.  Suddenly the desert floor seemed to come away in their hands: but no, it was a great hatch with a metal ring.  They opened it fully, pulling the hatch right back as the sand fell off it.

Omar had dismounted, and was standing next to me to help me from the saddle.  He put his hands round me waist and lifted me gently down.  Through the ease and grace of the movement I sensed the strength of his arms.  He led me to the edge of the square hole that had been opened up.  I could see stairs leading down into the darkness.  I hesitated.

"Janet," Omar said, "just once more, trust me."

Perhaps unreasonably, I did, and began to descend.

There were no torches or lamps this time.  But the steps seemed safe, and there was a rope along the side wall which I held on to tightly.  Omar walked the other side, holding my arm firmly but gently.  He walked down confidently, as if the way were familiar.

Then gradually I could make out what looked like lights at the bottom.  We continued to descend, and finally found ourselves in a chamber lit by flaming torches.  As we reached it, I heard the heavy clang of metal on stone as the hatch was closed at the top.  Perhaps I should have been frightened, but I was too interested in finding out where we were.  As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I could see that the line of torches began descending again, but this time it was possible to follow the line of the passage.  I couldn't believe it: the row of torches seemed to continue down and down for hundreds of feet.  I turned and looked at Omar, he smiled, and nodded as if to say 'yes, we are going down there.'

And we did.  The air was pleasantly fresh, and not at all dank as caves often are.  We continued our descent for many minutes, and gradually I could hear a strange noise - a kind of booming, rushing sound.  The further down we went, the louder it got.  Finally I could see that the passageway flattened out and bent round to the right.  Just as we reached the bottom, and entered the right hand bend, the booming suddenly stopped.  I was frightened, but Omar continued to advance as if all this were expected.  And up ahead I could see bright lights - hundreds, thousands of them.

As we approached the end of the level tunnel, a huge shrieking and roaring started up.  An utterly amazing sight greeted us.  Hundreds of people, all carrying torches stood before us.  They were all clad in brilliant white garments, the men bare to the waist, the women in long flowing dresses.  They looked warm, friendly people, but respectful, deferential even.  To the side there were groups of musicians with long golden trumpets.  The trumpets' sounds echoed again and again, gradually growing fainter so that the combined effect was of hundreds of trumpets playing together, but spread out over an immense distance.  Above, I could see a roof of rock which bent up sharply into darkness.  And behind the crowd, slowly rocking, was a huge ship, made of dark brown wood, and adorned with flags and pennants and shields and flowers.

"Omar - what - ?" I asked, unable to take in the sight before me.

"My people bid you welcome," he said, smiling proudly.  He turned to them, and raised his hand.  At once, the crowd and the trumpets were silenced, leaving only the overlapping patterns of echoes which died away gradually.  The people fell back, clearing a path to the ship.  

"But how on earth - ?"

"All will be explained.  Janet, " - and I noticed that pronounced my name in a slightly odd fashion, as if his accent was changing. 

We boarded the ship by a broad gangplank, with rope rails.  Omar guided me over gently.  The water looked a dark, inky green by the shore, and pure black further out.  On board were more people - only men this time - some dressed with brilliant gold ornaments.  Omar led me to a kind of open pavilion in the middle of the ship - there was no mast.  After we had sat down amidst all the brightly coloured cushions there, oars to each side began pulling with huge rhythmic strokes.  Deep inside the ship I could hear the low beat of a drum.  The crowd on the bank broke into ecstatic cheers, the trumpets began their wild sounds again, and everything echoed round and round the vast, dark space.  Above us I could see tiny spots of light.

"Are they stars?"  I asked, confused.

"No stars here Janet: we are 500 feet below the desert floor."

"What?  What are they, then?"

"Glow-worms, specially bred over the centuries for their size and brightness."

Everything seemed so disconcertingly normal to Omar.  Here we were, according to him 500 feet below the desert, on a huge ship sailing across black waters in total darkness apart from the light our torches threw around us, the disappearing brightness of the crowd behind us, and the tiny flickering specks of glow-worms above us.  I could see nothing to the side.  What was happening?

Things were now so beyond comprehension I resigned myself to waiting for Omar to explain - as he had promised he would do.  I did not have to wait long.  Soon, in front of us, I saw a tiny blob of light.  As we approached it, it grew larger, and I could distinguish buildings - temples, courtyards, colonnades.  There was another crowd of people with torches there, but smaller than the one we had left behind.  As we approached another quay, the drum beat slowed beneath us, then stopped as we drifted in closer, turning the while.  With perfect precision the ship came to rest broadside on to the wharf.  Sailors jumped on to the shore with ropes to secure the vessel.  Omar nodded contentedly to see this performance.

Another broad gangplank was thrown across to us.  Omar took me by the hand and led me to land.  In front of us was a huge paved courtyard.  Behind, a great wall of huge stone slabs covered with reliefs of a man in chariot, and hieroglyphic inscriptions.  In the middle, dividing it in two, was a great opening.  Before the opening stood men in ornate costumes, gorgeously coloured and with gold and silver and lapis lazuli everywhere.  As we approached, they bowed in greeting.  Omar spoke some words in that strange tongue, and everyone's eyes turned to me.

"What language is that, Omar - and what did you say?"

"It is my native tongue, Coptic.  I said to them to admire their queen"

"Their queen?  What do you mean?"  I asked, although I felt only too sure that I knew what he meant.

"Do you remember in Zozer's Stepped Pyramid I showed you the list of kings, with mine as the last name of all?"  I said yes.

"What I did not have time to show you was the name underneath mine."

"Alas, it would have meant nothing to me in my ignorance."

"Behold it here," he showed me a huge frieze along the top of the great wall in front of us.  "Know, then, that the hieroglyphs spell out the name 'Djen-anet' - 'She-who-comes-from-the sky'."

"And you think...?"

"No, I know, that you are her."

"Omar, I am honoured, but, but it is just coincidence, I'm afraid.  I am just a tourist, I am no queen."

"No, Janet, it is not just your name.  The priests have a hundred other signs for the coming of the queen: you fit them all."

"But, Omar, even if as you say, the signs fit, it must still be a coincidence.  How can I become your queen?"

"It is ordained.  We must be married, then the struggle can begin in earnest."

"What struggle?"

"To regain my kingdom - our kingdom - from the usurpers, to rebuild the Egyptian greatness."

What could I say?  I understood now Omar's words of the previous days, where they all tended, what he wanted - from me, and from the world.

"Omar, I am already married, I cannot be your queen."

"How can you compare what you have now to what I offer?"

"Omar, I do not want to be a queen, to join your struggle, however right it is."

"So, you care nothing for my feelings, for the trust I have placed in you?" he said, with passion and pain.

"Omar, I do indeed care - why else would I have come tonight?  Ever since we met I have felt - an - attraction for you.  And I am deeply honoured by what you have shown me, by the trust you have placed in me.  But these things cannot be.  I am not this person.  Please, I must go now, it is near dawn."  We both stood silently, facing each other. 

"Very well, I realise this is of an enormity that is hard to grasp.  I have been too hasty.  I have been foolish to say so much so soon, to ask so much so soon.  Forgive me.  But at least you know that what I said, what I hinted at, was true."

"I do, Omar.  I will doubt nothing more.  But please, I must get back.  You would not compromise me by keeping me here would you?  You would not give me pain?"

"No, Janet, I will never do that."  He turned sadly to his attendants, spoke to them in his Coptic, and then turned back to me.  "Please come," he said.

I expected that we would return the way we came, but instead we passed through the opening in the wall, past rows of huge columns, and into a temple at the back.  Inside was a forest of columns with strange tops, half human, half animal.  Passing in deeper, we came to a small inner sanctuary.  At the rear of this was a door.  The priest there opened the door, bowing deeply.  We entered, and found ourselves in a kind of wooden cage.  As soon as the door was shut, the cage began to rise silently.  As we did so, I could see the layers of rock pass by.  After several minutes, another door appeared in front of us, and the cage stopped.  The door opened, and as it did so we found ourselves in another small chamber.  A priest stood by the door.

We passed through the chamber, and out through an exit.  We turned left, through a low arch, leading to some stairs.  Out of the corner of eye, to our right, I caught a glimpse of a huge city, built on a hill, lit by thousands, tens of thousands of torches, tiny flickering points of light, all apparently underground. Transfixed by this unbelievable sight, I hesitated.  

"Omar - " I said "your people - ?"

He simply nodded, and said only "I am afraid we must ascend a little way."

After what seemed an eternity of stairs - my legs were still tired from climbing inside the Great Pyramid - we reached another small chamber ending in another door.  This was much smaller than the others, and seemed little used.  Omar took out a key from his pocket, unlocked the door, and - with some difficulty - opened it.  

As we stepped through, Omar bringing a torch from the last chamber, I was amazed to find myself back in the Serapeum, at the end of the corridor where I had seen Omar the day before.  So this was what he had wanted to show me, the secret entrance to his hidden kingdom.  And it was certainly secret: even though I had just emerged through it, I was unable to find the door again in the rough wall.

We hurried through the brooding place of the bulls - now even more terrifying without the electric lamps, and with only the wavering light of the torch.  We reached the end, where there was a locked grille.  Omar called out softly, and I heard the footsteps of a man approaching.  He bowed as the others had done, and unlocked the grille.  We went up the rampway to the surface.  It was wonderful to see the real moon and stars again, and a relief not to feel the millions of tons of rock above me.  Amazingly, there in front of us was Omar's Mercedes, the keys in the ignition.  There was no one in sight - the keeper of the Serapeum had disappeared.

"Janet - ," Omar said, and took me in his arms.  Before I could say anything he was kissing me passionately on the lips.  I'm sorry, John, I'm sorry.  I don't know how long we stood there together - the kiss seemed eternal.  I had never been kissed like that before.  It was as if my soul was being drawn out of my body, and the body itself was fading away, irrelevant, an encumbrance.  But gradually I became aware of a lightening in the sky.

"Omar," I said softly, pulling away from him gently, "We must go."

We turned to the car, got in, and drove off through the desert.  The Stepped Pyramid was beginning to emerge from the darkness.  I don't remember much about that drive back.  My heart was too full, my mind racing wildly.  Somehow we got back to the hotel, somehow I got upstairs and to bed.  You were still sleeping soundly.  I rose late the next day.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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