After the unfortunate incident of the tea party, the relationship between Lorna and me drifted into the doldrums. Neither of us knew quite what to do.
I considered anew the idea of running away to sea, but this time I did not tell Pep.
Then the Fates had a chat amongst themselves, decided that I had suffered enough, and devised a plan to solve the deadlock.
It was simple. They gathered up my Mum, Dad, me and my siblings and shunted us four thousand miles across the world, leaving Lorna to stay with her adhesive mother.
Well. That’s my view of events.
Dad’s version is that he had received promotion, and was given charge of operations of a site just outside the town of Ismailia, halfway down the Suez Canal in Egypt.
It wasn’t convenient for him to travel home to England each evening, so the whole family upped sticks and went with him.
Arriving at Port Said, we stood, rather bemused amid the chaos of a large barn that served as a customs shed, wondering what to do next.
A brawny giant ploughed his way through the crowd and in a voice that drowned out the chatter around us bawled, “Hi there, Tommy. Be with you in a minute.”
“This is Tiny Turner,” Dad introduced the giant to us. “He’s here to take us to Ismailia.”
“You’ll be living in the apartment next to mine,” said Tiny as the car jolted along a road that appeared to have been heavily shelled during the war, and nobody had yet got round to filling in the holes.
“Here we are,” said Tiny as we ground to a halt outside a block of flats at the outskirts of the town. The car immediately became the centre of a horde of children flapping around in what seemed to me to be their nightgowns.
Jabbering away like a flock of crows in a cornfield, they surged around our dust caked vehicle. Tiny ploughed his way through them as if they did not exist, and we followed in his wake.
He opened a door and ushered us inside and closed the door on the clamouring crowd of kids outside. “What do you think?” he said.
“It’s all white,” gasped Mother.
“I’m glad you like it,” smiled Tiny.
“No, I mean that it all white.”
She was correct. The entire apartment shimmered under a coat of white paint.
“It looks as if a Whirling Dervish stood in the middle of the room with a bucket of paint in each hand and whirled around until the buckets were empty,” I said. “They even managed to whitewash half the windows.”
It’s an ideal base for imaginative decoration,” suggested Tiny, sounding like an estate agent soothing the doubts of a prospective buyer.
That afternoon I lounged on the flat roof and gazed at the sands of the desert, trying to figure out why anyone would want to live near such a wilderness??
Then from somewhere downstairs I heard a great outburst of strident Arabic mingled with mother’s indignant tones.
I dashed down into the kitchen and saw mother waving a large saucepan at a woman enveloped in a black tent, who had taken up a position beside the sink and was defending it with a wet dish mop.
My Arabic being limited to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ meant that I could not really act as a referee in this contest. So I did the next best thing.
I retreated and went for reinforcements. Tiny came to our rescue after I spent a few moments kicking and hammering on his door, and shouting that we were being invaded by a woman in black.
We hurried back to our place where the contestants had reached the Eyeball-to-eyeball, who blinks first, looses, stage
Tiny raised his voice, which set all the local dogs howling, and managed to make himself heard above the female commotion.
I suppose he said the equivalent to ‘shut up’ to the woman, but used around fifty words to make his point.
“Sorry about that,” he said as peace descended upon the scene. “This lady,” he pointed to the woman who still retained a firm grip on the dish mop, “Is Rasha. She comes with the apartment and does all the work.” He pointed at mother. “You are supposed to lounge around and look decorative, or go shopping if you feel like it.”
Rasha turned out to be a good cook; although we never did have enough courage to ask exactly went into the exotic meals she produced. Pep and I referred to them as Scarab stew, scorpion salad or camel cutlets, depending on their appearance
A few days later I felt confident enough to venture into the town centre on my own. It was a colourful and noisy place. Market stalls bulging with fruit, meat, cooked and uncooked, stood side by side with live chickens crouched in small hutches with no regard for hygiene. I thought that didn’t matter because no self respecting germ would want to get too close to the goods in these conditions.
Each stall was surrounded by people haggling for goods at the top of their voices. I found out by experience that if you didn’t plead poverty, and bring down curses upon the stall holder, his family, his ancestors and descendents, then you were agreeing to the prices quoted for the goods.
I became subject to another experience that shook me down to my snowy white socks a few days later.
Deciding that I needed a haircut, I stood outside a barber’s shop and watched people going in and out for a while, before venturing inside. Following a tall swarthy man in a spotless white robe, I ascended a flight of stairs and into a large room which I thought was the most exotic barber’s salon that I had ever seen.
Several young girls in brightly coloured clothing sat on the sofas placed around the room. The white robed man spoke a few words to a woman who greeted him like an old acquaintance.
“At last they’re friendly,” I thought, “I hope someone here speaks English.” The man nodded to one of the girls and she followed him into another room.
The large woman then turned her attention to me.
I stuttered, “Short back and sides,” hoping that she would understand.
In very good English, she eventually explained that although her girls offered a variety of services, cutting hair was not one of them. That was left to the barber downstairs.
I returned home still in need of a haircut.
Father decided that it was time I contributed to the family income, and offered to find gainful employment for me. I was not averse to that. Gazing at the desert for hours on end and wandering around the market all day is not the most satisfying way to spend ones time.
In the Brits Club, Dad finished his glass of Stella beer and turned to me.
“I’ve found just the job for you,” he said, setting his empty glass down in front of me. “The NAAFI store at Moascar needs you.”
“Right,” I said. I didn’t ask what it was. I trusted my Dad.
“Who do I see?”
“Jim Fellows. He’s the man in charge.”
“Where and when do I see him?”
“Here and now. I do believe that he’s sitting right behind you. I suggest that you buy him a drink.”
He was. I did, and the job was mine.
The store was a long low building with a counter running the length of the room, and was attended by a group of chattering women who seemed to be enjoying their work, and wanted everyone to know about it.
I became the assistant to a large person so heavily bearded that I never did find out what he looked like.
Our job was to make certain that the goods being delivered to the NAAFI made it from lorry to store room without several items somehow going astray. It wasn’t easy. The robes and cloaks favoured by the workforce sometimes covered more than just a smiling Egyptian inside their abundant pleats and folds.
One man, Alim, who we were sure was a persistent offender, although we never did catch him carrying anything unauthorised, had only one eye He boasted that he lost the other one doing deeds of derrin-do during the war.
He announced one day that he intended to marry one of the store’s cleaning women. She lived in a camp beside the Sweetwater Canal, the contaminated waters of which were lethal to Europeans, but quite beneficial the indigenous population.
When he pointed her out to me, I thought, “If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then it’s a good thing that Alim has only one eye.” In my view, her beauty was buried fathoms below skin deep.
Another marriage that was in the offing, took an unexpected turn that caused consternation amongst the girls at the counters.
An attractive, young girl named Salwa had been working at the store for a few months, when word filtered down that she was leaving soon to get married. It was rumoured that she had been promised to a rich old man who wanted the wedding to take place as soon as possible.
“At his age,” said one of the women who professed to know it all, “He can’t afford to waste time.”
Salwa refused to talk about her impending nuptials, and apart from the fact that her husband- to- be was very rich, we knew nothing of him.
On her last day at the store, the women wept, laughed, and made a great fuss of Salwa, and sent her on her way with their good wishes.
Her body was found floating in the Sweetwater Canal the next morning.
Of course we had to visit the pyramids and the sphinx, and a dozen or so of the British residents hired a coach for the trip.
At the appointed time we assembled in the town square and waited for the coach. The raucous voice of an ancient klaxon and the loud braying of a donkey heralded the arrival of our transport.
An ancient vehicle lurched round the corner, its gaudy paintwork covering a mass of dents and gashes. It looked as if it had taken part in the Battle of El Alamein, and lost.
Our driver, a spindly Arab apparently made of dried liquorice sticks, and exuding a pungent aroma that made sure nobody got too familiar with him, welcomed us aboard.
The coach left the town square, colliding with only one fruit stall in the process, and groaned its way to Cairo in spite of the engine threatening to expire at any moment.
I viewed the monuments with mixed feelings. The sphinx sat in a trench, with only its head and shoulders showing above ground, and looked puny compared with the massive pyramids nearby.
The pyramid was so large that sanding at its base, one could see nothing but a huge wall that eclipsed everything in sight.
We were enticed into the pyramid, and filed up a steep passage lit with a string of light bulbs of about 20 wattage.
“Were going uphill” gasped a tubby tourist. “Why couldn’t they have given the king a good Christian burial underground if they wanted people to visit it?”
Once safely inside, the lights went out.
“There has been a power failure,” said our guide, just in case we hadn’t noticed that we were in complete darkness.
Fortunately for us he is a man of great forethought, and had with him a supply of magnesium flares. He lit one for us, and we made it to the main chamber. To our surprise the lights came on again. We gazed around a bare stone cell with a large unadorned lidless granite coffin in the centre. And that was it.
The last resting place of the great Pharaoh Khufu, and a happy hunting ground for thieves who had stripped it of all its treasures almost before the mourners had left the shrine.
“Where’s the body?” asked the tubby matron, peering into the casket. “There isn’t one. I expect to see a body when I visit a tomb. What happened to it?”
Nobody bothered to explain.
On the way out the guide asked us for a donation to cover the cost of the flares, which he declared he paid for out of his own miserable wages. And they scarcely provided enough to keep his pregnant wife, three children and his sacred mother from starvation. How we wept at his sad story! But we still dropped a few piastres into his hat which he happened to have in his hand.
At the end of the tour we trudged through the sand to our coach. The driver smilingly greeted us with the news that he did not have enough petrol to get us back home. If we liked to pay his friend, who just happened to be standing nearby with his camel, to go back to the city and bring back petrol, then all would be well.
One of our group, and ex-sergeant major by his bearing, checked he fuel gauge. Sure enough it registered empty. Not satisfied with that, he opened the petrol tank, and surprise, surprise, found it to be almost full.
Our chauffeur expressed great joy at the discovery, and brought down curses on the head of the mechanic who had installed a faulty petrol gauge in his beloved vehicle.
Shortly after that, a surge of political unrest swept through the country, and we upped sticks and sailed home, arriving at Southampton on a dull day in February 1950.
Once again I expressed a desire to run away to sea, and this time I succeeded.