Friday, 18 September 2020

Chapter 8 - London, Sunday 16 September, 1990

Poor John, you really were not very happy in Aswan, were you?  And you have missed so much out - which isn't really like you at all.  It's strange, I feel oddly constrained by what you write, and how much of it there is.  I suppose it's this business of trying not to abuse my position - after all, I can write whatever and however much I like in response to your thoughts, and now you must sit there, and read it.  To tell the truth, I fear I may have overstepped the mark in the last description of my day at Luxor.  I got carried away with Alekko's tale - as I am sure you would have, if you had heard it, or asked him about himself....

And so today (is this a today or a here?  I get so confused with this mixing of times and places - then, in Egypt, now when I write this, later, when you read it.) I shall restrain myself.  I shall not go into the long and marvellous story that Alekko told me on the train from Luxor to Aswan, about how he travelled from Venice through Milan up to Lake Como, and then across into Switzerland at Lugano, and about the family with the twin daughters he met there, and - but I shall not say any more of this, or of how he travelled down to Spain disguised as a nun, even though it made me laugh so much I cried.

Instead I shall say something about our hotel.  I wonder what made you chose this particular one - 'Ramsis' - I don't think.  Actually its position was good, the rooms OK and food not too fattening.  Generally with a nice small and friendly feel - lots of corners to the staircase - and that interesting design leading to the dining room which itself was divided off in unusual shapes.  It felt like an up-market version of some of the youth hostels we used to stay in.

Aswan was simply beautiful.  It reminded me of pictures of the Riviera - a long corniche, the expanse of shimmering water full of slow, elegant boats with their bellying sails, lots of trees and flowering shrubs.  Especially the trees with the amazingly luscious red blooms which lay along the pavement by the Nile like rinds of some exotic fruit.  I remember the sound of them falling behind us, a loud dull squelch.  

I have a memory of a flock of birds, far away in the clear light-blue sky like a tumbling dust cloud.  And there was even a kingfisher - with a fish in his mouth.  Mosquitoes zizzing around.

And everything bathed in the most wonderful sun - like a great amber liquid poured from a jar in the sky.  It caressed the exposed skin - which was something you missed, I suppose, what with your long-sleeved shirt, long trousers and broad-rimmed hat.  Pity you're so sensitive to the sun - this was a sun-worshipper's dream.  In fact, that's something that struck me: even for people who find ancient monuments rather boring - they exist, John, I'm afraid - Egypt is still a holidaymaker's heaven, what with its perfect weather, peaceful resorts - and the biggest beach in the world....

I rather liked Philae.  Probably for all the reasons you didn't - that it wasn't like the great temple of Ramses III.  It reminded me of our hotel - lots of odd angles, nooks and crannies.  And the view kept changing like some touristic kaleidoscope - bits of buildings peeking out, a frieze, a ruin here, a row of columns there.  And all around, that marvellous water, ruffled by the breeze.  Perhaps I liked it too because everything shone in that sun so that the stones were dazzlingly bright as if lit up from inside.  The motorised boat roaring through the water, the sun flashing on the ripples, the wind in my hair.

Unfortunately these wonderful images were rather spoilt by our trip to the dam.  All those signs, all those soldiers, and then this huge brutal slab of concrete, stuck across the poor Nile like an arm in its face.  It just felt so unnatural.  As you've written many times in your account, the yearly flooding of the Nile was of central importance to every aspect of Egyptian life - its origins, its rituals, its daily life.  So what could be more damaging to the soul of a nation than to block this natural ebb and flow?  Only a man would do this - taking control, mastering Nature and all the rest.  I know that all the electricity is necessary for the development of the nation, and that regulating the flow of water allows more efficient use to be made of it, but there must be better ways.

Perhaps because my favourite Queen Hatshepsut ordered its construction, I found the unfinished obelisk rather touching.  And it was strange how the tourists - hundreds of them - simply had to walk up and down it like performing penguins.  Perhaps it was just the notion of walking up an obelisk.  One thing that struck me there was that man playing his little Egyptian violin - a tiny squeaky noise, no tune that I could really hear, but perfectly right for the day and for the place.

I surprised you didn't mention our felucca trip.  Perhaps it wasn't historical enough for you.  And yet I imagine that boats like this have been plying the Nile for a good few thousand years.  Perhaps you just didn't like to record our mishaps.

Like the difficulty we had finding someone to take us out once we had walked back to our hotel from the Cataract - you insisted that we would be ripped off if we took one near that hotel.  You were probably right, but it would have saved us all that searching high and low.  And when we did find one - what did we get, that poor little old man - and his boat trapped by the Nile cruise ship and all the other feluccas?  It only took us about half an hour to edge back and forwards out on to the river.

Then the wind drops, so that poor old man has to row - and you have to help.  After a while it sounds as if he is going to die - he made the most dreadful racking sounds as he tried to catch his breath - he even gets out his asthma inhaler, and sucks it long and hard.  Meanwhile we are drifting on the surprisingly fast current, and the huge tourist cruise ships are roaring past.  Hardly very relaxing for any of us.

But I enjoyed it, nonetheless,  The knocked-about boat, its paint fading and chipped; the little old man - asthma or no - running up the mast like a monkey to unfurl the sail; his constant shouts while you were rowing - you never seemed to be doing what he wanted; getting stuck in the reeds at the end of Elephantine; eventually making it to Kitchener's Island.  It was all worthwhile, John, it really was, all that effort and aggravation.

Kitchener's Island was a gem, like something from another land.  Its lush flowers, and shady trees seemed to have little to do with the harsh terrain which surrounded it on either side of the Nile.  It was an oasis - if you can have oases in the middle of the river.  It was so peaceful just wandering there, quietly, relaxing after a long and hectic day.  Alekko seemed to like it too:

"Ah, lady, is this not good?  And it does remind of somewhere...yes, Granada, I think...."

"Granada?  In Spain, after your escape as a nun?"  I asked, egging him on in the hope of another story.

"Ah, I have said enough of that.  But, you know, what happened in Granada was very strange.  It was like nothing I ever saw again."

"And that was...?"  I had the feeling that Alekko loved to be asked to talk, loved to play with as well as to his audience.

"I will tell you.  As I said, my coming to Spain was, well, different.  It does not matter how that thing was completed - I arrived, that is the important, and I soon found myself in Grenada.  Perhaps for the weather, perhaps for the countryside - it called back to me Greece, Albania, my home - I was there.

I found a job as a waiter in a restaurant - I ate all I could after that ride from Switzerland, hiding in the wagon of cheese, believe me - and I love the Spanish food, especially - do you know? - yes, the paella: fish, and no cheese.  So each day, I would not work in the mornings, and I would walk in the city.  And of course, where could I go one day but to the Generalife - the Gardens of the Moors - Arabs like the Egyptians perhaps.

Do you know this place?  No?  It is like here, this island, only bigger and not an island."

"But where was your beloved water, Alekko?  Surely no place without water is a place for Alekko?"

"Lady, you have right.  There were fountains - such fountains, I cannot say.  Delicate gentle things, with buildings and courts around them.  The buildings with walls like wood, full of holes and fine lines.  Everything very gentle and soothing.  And each day after I would go there in the morning, because it reminded me of something, perhaps a place I had never seen."

"But how - ?"

"Have you never been to a place and known it if and you never saw it?  Surely - and so it was for me.  I had never seen this place, but I knew it.

And one day, I was there, standing by a fountain, not looking, just standing, not moving for a long time.  I hear a tap-tap behind me, I am about to look round and suddenly - bang - there she is, this young lady.  She walks straight into me - I stand in an odd place - and we fall.  She apologises in her beautiful Spanish - I can survive in it, I understand.  But it is I who must apologise - for she is blind, you understand, she could not see me.  It was me, foolish, to be there so.

I insist that we sit, to make ourselves refreshed after our hit.  We sit by one of the fountains.  We talk.  She lives with her mother down in the city.  She comes here often.  Why?  I ask her - meaning, very rude, that she cannot see what is here.  But she comes for the sound of the fountains, for the smell of the flowers, the cool breezes - for it is hot summer now.  We talk, I ask if she comes tomorrow, she says yes.  

The next day, I am there, waiting, and yes, she comes, her white stick tap-tap along the ground.  I say hello, she smiles, we sit, we talk.  I know, I find myself falling in love once more, though she is not a beauty queen, but she is yet beautiful, with her smile of the closed eyes.  She is lovely.

And for days we meet, and talk, and I suddenly realise that this is what will happen - we will meet, we will talk, and nothing more.  That I want nothing more but that I sit in these beautiful gardens, by the fountains, among the flowers, with this lovely blind girl, who cannot see these things, and I talk with her thus every day.  And this was this thing that I never saw again, " he ended simply.

"Do you mean you never saw her again?"

"Not at all, I saw her for many days.  I mean I never even held her hand.  It would not be right, I thought."

"Did you ever wonder what she wanted?" I asked.

"Ah!, lady, that was clear.  She wanted to sit in the gardens, listening to the fountains, sometimes to me, but mostly the fountains.  And so one day I said that I must go.  She says goodbye.  But I lie - I did not leave, I worked as a waiter still.  And I go to the Generalife still, and see her come and sit and listen to the fountains, but now I do not talk, I leave her with what she has.  Because I can offer her nothing that will take its place."

"And you never spoke to her again?"

"Never."

"Even though you loved her?"

"Because, dear lady, because."

"And then what happened?"

"Oh, the usual - another girl, another town, the old story," he said simply.

But that day I did not want to hear any more of those stories.  His blind girl in the gardens of the Generalife suited my mood as I wandered about Kitchener's Island, a mood of gentle melancholy almost.  A mood that was abruptly broken when I happened to look across to the west bank.

There, a huge sandy slope reared up from the river for some hundreds of feet.  Its smooth face was largely unbroken - except for a message, picked out in stones forming letters ten feet high.  The message said 'Janet, O aged Jamaica.'  I looked again in case it was a trick of the light, or my eyes playing up.  But it was definitely there.  But what did it mean?  Was it a message left for some other Janet, years ago?  But it seemed unlikely, the coincidence too improbable.  But if it was meant for me, what did it mean?  It meant nothing - unless that 'O'....  But that was surely impossible.  Besides, the rest of it - 'aged Jamaica' - was meaningless to me.

I stared and stared at this disturbing vision, hoping it might vanish, or at least resolve itself.  But nothing changed - words cannot explain themselves.  They just hung there, like a plea, a taunt, a warning, a - what?

Luckily it was time to go back to the felucca, and back to the hotel.  The wind had now risen, and we were sailing with the tide, not against it.  We flew along as the sun began to fall towards the hills, and the air grew cooler.  My spirits began to lift again, and I thought no more about what I had seen.  Instead, I watched the old man shimmying up the mast as he dexterously pulled in the sail and lashed it secure with rope - a beautiful performance he had doubtless done ten thousand times in his life, and which had happened millions - billions? - of times in the history of the Nile.

Back to the hotel for dinner.  A nice sociable buzz in the room filled with various tourist groups.  Even though it had been a long day, I still felt wide awake and suggested that we go out for a walk along the river.  You didn't seem too keen - I think that you will still enervated by your experiences at Philae.  But you came, probably doing your duty....

It was a glorious evening - a clear sky, with stars so bright.  And most wonderful of all, the moon is out, a thin crescent - and turned horizontally on its side, as if it has rolled over.  I clap my hands and laugh - and you look at me as if I'm mad.  Which I am, but with the beauty of it all.  Lots of people about, taking their evening stroll.  I feel filled with a new energy, a vague sense of awakening purpose - though what, I cannot tell.

We walk about halfway to the Cataract Hotel, and then turn.  I make a suggestion: how about a stroll through the town? - I can see what looks like stalls in an opening.  The others agree, and you seem unwilling to argue any more.  So we go.  And wasn't it magic?  A long, lively street market bustling with customers and shopkeepers, caught in pools of light from simple bulbs hung over their wares - huge troves of bowls, cutlery, pots and pans; row upon high row of dresses and shirts and scarves and blankets hanging over the shopkeeper like a crazy, ragged tent; neat pyramids of glowing oranges, dates, and spotty apples; wicker baskets of deeply-coloured dried petals and spices, their scents filling the evening air with an overpowering perfume, each stall repeated many times down the street, the same, yet with small, personal differences.  Horse-drawn carts somehow ease their way through the narrow spaces, children run shouting about the streets, music plays from shops and cheap restaurants where men sit smoking and watching the world go by.  Ah! John, this was something else.

I slept like a log that night.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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Egyptian Romance

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