Round the Bend: Pages 141 through 150
ROUND the BEND
Nevil Shute, 1951
```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)
it against you if Dad was back at work again when I got home, or Mum out at the pictures."
"Do you really feel like that about it, Tom?"
"Of course I do. I ought to be home every six months, but I'm not. I could be, but one gets stuck into things; you get so that you can't bear to take a holiday. But for a thing like this I'd come home any time. Will you let me have that cable?"
"I'll do that," she said.
"Full rate," I said. "None of this deferred or night letter nonsense."
She laughed. "All right."
We came to the shop, and I went in and got my kipper, and they wrapped it up in a bit of newspaper for me, and we turned to stroll home. "How long are you back for this time, Tom?" she asked.
"Three weeks," I said. I told her about the delivery of the Tramp. "It's not worth going back to the Persian Gulf and coming out again."
"That'll be nice for your mother," she said. "She loves having you at home." We walked on in silence. "Will you fly the new aeroplane out to Bahrein alone?"
I shook my head. "I think I'll get my chief pilot back here two or three days before. We'll fly it out together."
I turned to her in surprise. "Yes. You know about him?"
She smiled. "I think I know all about you that your mother knows, Tom. You mustn't mind that. She loves to talk."
"I don't mind," I said. I didn't, either. "He's a Sikh. Do you know what a Sikh looks like?"
She nodded. "I've got a book at the school with a picture of a group of Sikhs. I brought it home and showed your father and mother. They look terribly fierce. Your mother was quite frightened."
"Gujar's not fierce," I said. "He comes to work each day on a rusty old lady's bicycle. I'll introduce you to him when he comes, if you like. But he's married, so don't get any ideas into your head. Got three children, too."'
She laughed, and then she said something about East being
East and West being West and the twain never meeting. Poetry, I think it was. "That sounds like baloney to me," I said. "If you fly East and keep on going, past Rangoon and Bangkok and Manila and Wake Island and Hawaii, you'll find you're back in the West again, although you're still going East."
"That's only geographical," she said. "What Kipling meant was that the peoples of the East are so different to us, we'll never understand them."
"That's baloney, too," I remarked.
"You're very fond of them, aren't you?"
"I get on all right with most people," I said. "Asiatics are just the same as anybody else. I've not found them any more different to us than Spaniards, say, or Czechs."
She was quite unconvinced. "Anyway, I wouldn't want to marry Gujar Singh," she said a little stiffly. "I think mixed marriages are horrible."
"So does Gujar Singh," I replied. That put the lid on it, and we walked the last hundred yards in silence. Dad was home and Ma cooked the kippers and I told Dad a little bit about my trip and how Norman Evans wanted to see me and I'd probably go up to London one day for that. Then we all had tea, and after tea Doris Waters got up to go.
I went with her to the door. "Sorry if I was rude about Gujar," I said. "He's a friend of mine." I paused. "Like to come to the pictures tomorrow night?"
She hesitated, wondering, I suppose, if I was quite hygienic. "I'd love to," she said at last. "I don't know what's on."
"It's all one to me," I said. "I haven't seen a picture for two years."
I fixed up to call for her at her Dad's house next evening after school and take her out; she knew a cafe where we could get fish and chips for tea. Then she went away and I went back into the house. "I'm taking Doris to the pictures tomorrow," I told Ma. "I won't be in for tea."
"Well, you might think of a worse way of spending an evening than that," said Ma. "Doris is a nice girl, Tom."
"From all I hear she's earned an evening out," I said. "What's this I hear about pneumonia?"
I spent the next day wiring up the house for power. They had electric light and a little cooker in the scullery for using when the range wasn't lit, but it had never entered their heads to have any heat upstairs in the bedrooms. When Dad had been ill they had bought an oil stove and had it upstairs in his room, which wasn't so good in a tiny room when you couldn't open a window. I got a lot of rubber-coated flex and fittings and a couple of electric stoves, and set to work to wire up all three bedrooms and the living room with power points.
Doris and I had a grand time that night. I don't know what it was, but everything seemed to go right. The picture wasn't a particularly good one, and I've known better fish and chips, but we enjoyed ourselves. She wasn't so snooty about the East as she had been the night before; she asked a lot about it as if she really wanted to know. In turn, she told me about her school. She had never been out of England, but she had worked for a time in Leicester during the war, when the schools were evacuated from Southampton.
As we were walking home from the pictures that evening she asked,
"What are you going to do, Tom? Are you going to stay out in the Persian Gulf for ever?"
It was May, and England was a very lovely place. It was a question that I had been asking myself, perhaps subconsciously. "It's where my business is," I said. "You can't run away from that."
"Is it nice out there?"
"It's all right," I said. "It's not the part of the East I'd choose to live in, if I had my pick. But there's not much to complain of, really."
"Will you ever come back to live and work in England?"
I walked on for a time in silence. "I'm King of the Castle out there," I said. "Running my own show. I'd never get to that position here in England. Not in aviation."
"Does it have to be in aviation?"
"I could run a garage," I said. "That's about the nearest thing to what I know. A garage, or a haulage contractor's business, or something like that. I'd be no good at anything else."
She nodded. "I should think you'd run a garage awfully well. Would you like that, or would it be dull after the East?"
She had put her finger on the point. "It'ld be dull," I said. "But —well, there's other things to think of, too. I'd like to be in England, now that Dad and Mum are getting on. I think one could settle down all right with a big garage in a little country town, some place like Romsey or Lyndhurst or Poole. I'd like that all right."
"It would be nice for your father and mother if you ever did that," she said quietly. "Of all the children, you're the one they think the most of, you know, Tom."
"Maybe," I said. It was a fact that none of the others seemed to do much for the old folks. Ted could have put those power points in for them, but he hadn't thought of it.
We walked on for a time in silence. "Don't you ever get depressed out there?" she asked presently. "I mean, away from your own sort, with only black people to talk to?"
"They aren't black," I said patiently. She meant her question kindly enough. "They're brown, and when you've lived with them a bit you don't see them as brown people any more. You see them as just people."
She laughed. "You are touchy about them, Tom. But don't you ever get depressed?"
"It wasn't a riot of fun when I left England," I replied. "I was depressed when I went out there."
"You mean, about Beryl?"
"That's right," I said.
"That all happened a long time ago," she said quietly. "I don't know the rights or wrongs of that. I don't suppose anybody knows that except you. But I know this much: that there's nothing in that old story to make you spend your life out in the Persian Gulf, away from everyone you know." And then she said a very queer thing, very shrewd. "I know why you went. You went to find a sort of hermitage."
I stared at her. "Well, I dunno." I had gone there in a tenth-hand Fox-Moth because I was out of a job and wanted to make some money. Or, had I? And then I said, "Perhaps I did."
"I know. But it's time you came back into circulation, Tom. If you stay there alone much longer you'll go round the bend."
I smiled, and she thought I was laughing at her. She flushed a little. "I suppose you think that's silly. But people do go funny when they live isolated from their own sort, out in the tropics."
"I don't think that's silly," I said. "What you say is right. I've got a chap working for me now that everybody says is going round the bend."
"I thought you hadn't got any white staff?"
"I haven't. He's an Asiatic."
"I meant, English people."
"I know you did. But a Chinese can be further from his home when he works in the Persian Gulf than any Englishman, and lonelier."
"Is this a Chinese that you're speaking of, who's going round the bend?"
"Half-Chinese and half-Russian," I said. "Born in Penang, and so a British subject just like you and me."
"What's wrong with him?" she asked. "What does he do?"
"He believes in God," I said a little wearily. "He teaches engineers who work with him to turn to God in everything they do upon aeroplanes, and he gets people to believe that that's the sensible way to set about the job of aircraft maintenance. He's obviously going round the bend. Everybody says so." And with that my old worries and responsibilities closed down on me. A month was too long for me to be away from Bahrein. Anything might be happening in my absence.
"But surely that's not wrong?" she asked.
"I don't know if it's right or wrong," I said. "I only know it's liable to make a packet of trouble, any time."
We were just at her house, and there wasn't time to tell her any more, and I didn't want to anyway. It would have been useless to try and make her understand all that was going on out in Bahrein and further east. I turned to her. "I've enjoyed this evening," I said. "Like to do it again one day?"
She smiled. "Of course I would. I'm free most evenings, Tom. Tuesdays I bring home the essays to correct, but most of the rest are free."
"I'm expecting to have to go to London," I remarked. "There inay be a letter tomorrow. I'll probably be there for a night or two. I'll drop around one evening when I get back."
She nodded. "Fine. I may be round with your mother. I have enjoyed this, Torn. It was nice of you to ask me."
I turned away. "Okay," I said. "We'll do it again."
As I had thought, there was a letter from Mr. Norman Evans next morning. He said that he had. heard a lot about my success out in the Persian Gulf, and he wanted to congratulate me. He went on to say that as they were operating both in Egypt and in India we ought to get together, as we'd have a lot in common to talk over. Would I like to lunch with him at the Royal Aero Club one day? He was free any day that week. Perhaps I would give him a ring and suggest a day.
I rang him from the call box at the end of our street, and went up to London a couple of days later with my bag packed for a night or two. I went to the same economical hotel in Bloomsbury, and left my bag, and took a brief case with a few papers in it, and went out to lunch with my old boss.
He was very glad to see me. I'd never been inside a London club before, and it was all new to me. We had a drink in the bar, and I was really glad to be back with him again. One gets kind of attached to people that you work for, sometimes, and I had always hit it off with Mr. Evans.
He asked how many aircraft I'd got operating, and I didn't mind a bit telling him that. I'd fixed in my own mind the day before the things I wasn't going to talk about—contract prices, and things of that sort—but except for one or two essential bits of business like that I saw no point in hiding anything up. We had a drink or two and then we had lunch. I asked him question for question and he told me all about his staff and aircraft out in Egypt and in India, most of which I knew already, and I told him about mine.
Over the coffee he said, "What we've none of us been able to understand, here at home, is how you managed to work up such a fleet of aircraft on no capital at all, Cutter. I couldn't have done that. It looks like black magic to us. I hear you've placed an order for a Plymouth Tramp."
"You keep your ear pretty close to the ground," I said.
"Well, of course. I wish I knew what you use for money."
I smiled; there were some things I didn't mean to tell him. But I could tell him most of it. "For one thing, I've been very lucky," I replied. "For another, I probably work at a much bigger margin of profit than you do. I don't employ any Europeans at all. Not one. None of my aircraft carry upholstery or soundproofing. If anybody wants a seat he pays extra for the weight of it, at standard freight rates. Little things like that."
"Third-class travel for everybody," he said thoughtfully.
"I've been wanting to ask you about staff," he said. "I knew, of course, that you use only Asiatic pilots and ground engineers. Are you satisfied with that?"
"Perfectly. We've had no accidents yet, and the maintenance is good. You can ask the A.R.B."
"It's very, very interesting. How much do you pay a pilot—say for one of your Airtrucks?"
I grinned. "I'm not telling you."
He laughed. "All right. There's quite a number of people wanting to know that."
"They may find out if they black their faces and come to Bahrein for a job," I said. "They'll have their work cut out to find out any other way."
We sat for some time upstairs with the coffee. "I still don't understand where you have found the capital," he said. "It's very wonderful, the amount that you've been able to do. You aren't a company even, are you?"
"I'm just trading as Tom Cutter. It seems to work all right." I did not want to keep anything from him that I could reasonably divulge. "I'll be quite frank with you, Mr. Evans. Up till now I've been very lucky with getting easy hire purchase terms, for the Airtrucks and the Carrier, so that I could meet the instalments out of profits. For this new Tramp, I've got in some new money, as a personal loan. Local money."
He stared at me. "Local money—in Bahrein?"
"And as a personal loan?"
I nodded. "It's a personal business. The aircraft are all my property—so far as they're paid up."
"I see. You must be getting to be worth quite a bit, if it's all personal."
"On paper," I said, laughing. "You wouldn't believe the struggle that it's been to pay the wages and the petrol bill sometimes."
"I would," he said. "I've had some."
Presently he said, "Look, Tom, this is just an idea that's been passing through my mind in the last month or two. I'm putting it to you without prejudice and with my fingers crossed and all that." I nodded. "You know what we do. We operate charter aircraft based here, and in Egypt, and in Delhi. We've been a bit slow over setting up an organization in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, for a variety of reasons. Well, now in a way you've stolen a march on us and you've done what we should have done ourselves, and good luck to you. As things are, no competition has developed between us, and I hope it never will. I always think of you as one of us. But geographically, we operate each side of you. If we try to join up Delhi with Egypt we shall come into competition with you. If you try to get out and extend your operations either way, you'll come into competition with us. I've been wondering if we couldn't get together in some way."
"That's very interesting, Mr. Evans," I said cautiously. "I think I'm all right as I am, but there's no harm in talking it over."
That began it, and for the next week I was up in London almost all the time. I edited an edition of my balance sheet for them and gave them that to chew over, and in return I asked for theirs. Mine was a darn sight better than theirs was, although my total business was much smaller. I met Evans again at Morden with an accountant, and then I met him again in London with his chairman, Sir Roger Sale. I told them early on that after running my own show I wasn't going to work for anyone, but that if they cared to make an offer to buy my business as a going concern I'd be interested to hear it. I told them straight that if I went on in aviation I was going on as boss of my own show, but I'd consider a proposal whereby they'd pay me hard cash for the business, and I'd get out.
I was thinking of the garage, and of Dad and Mum at home, not getting any younger.
They took a few days to think it over, and I went home. I was troubled about the whole thing, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. In three years I'd got farther ahead in my own business than I had any right to expect; I couldn't suppose that I'd go on getting bigger and bigger at that rate for ever. There was nothing behind me in the way of finance; if the aeroplanes stopped operating for a month I'd be bust. I lived from hand to mouth all the time in that business; there was no cash in it. But it was my own show and I'd made it a success, and out there people depended on my efforts.
Back at home, Dad and Mum were beginning to depend on me, too, as they got older. It looked as if Airservice Ltd would make an offer, and I had a pretty good idea of what it would be. A garage in a country town was well within my reach, with a quiet, pleasant life in the south of England, close to all the places and the people that I knew. I could get married again with more chance of a success this time, and raise a flock of kids. And I knew somebody who'd marry me if I put it to her right, too.
I went around, on the morning I got back, to the garage out at Bitterne on the Portsmouth Road, that I had worked in as a boy and that I had got the sack from when Cobham's circus came, seventeen years before. Mr. Collier still ran it, greyer and older than when I had worked for him; he remembered me and he had heard I was in aviation in the Persian Gulf. I asked him how one would set about buying a garage business if one wanted to, and he produced some copies of a privately issued paper called the Garage and Motor Agent, with a lot of businesses for sale in it. He lent me half a dozen copies and I fixed up with him to hire a little ten-year-old Ford to run around in while I was at home.
I went off in this car next day alone, and drove around, thinking. There was a business at Petersfield for sale, and another one at Arundel, and one at Fordingbridge, and one at Lymington in the New Forest, on the Solent. And there was a good big one in Bournemouth.
I got back home on the first evening and parked the car on a
bombed site near our house. Doris Waters was in having tea with Mother. It was a Friday and there was no school next morning. I said to her, "Like to come for a joyride in my Rolls tomorrow?"
She smiled. "I'd love to do that. Where are you going to?"
"Fordingbridge, Lymington, and Bournemouth," I said.
"Oh, lovely, Tom. Shall I make us up some sandwiches?"
"Not a bad idea," I said. "Make us independent."
Ma asked me, "See anything you fancied today?"
"I saw two," I said. "Trouble is, I don't know if I want a business or riot. Or even if I can pay for it, if I did want it. I'm just looking."
Ma said, "Well, Doris can help you look. Four eyes are better than two."
I ought to have slept well that night, but I didn't. I lay awake hour after hour in the little back bedroom we had all slept in as boys together, listening to all the church clocks in Southampton as they struck the hours, the noise of shunting engines and the clang of trucks from the goods yard, and the occasional siren from a steamer in the fairway. I couldn't sleep at all.
A man has a right to get married and have children, and I'd earned the right to have a wife, both in work and money. A man's got a right to live in his own place. A man has a right to make his life where he can look after his Dad and Mum a bit when they get old. I owed nothing to the East. If this deal went through I could pay back the sixty thousand that I'd borrowed from Sheikh Abd el Kadir for the Tramp. Everyone working for me at Bahrein would go on working for Airservice Ltd, just as they had for me, except that they might get a bit more money; Airservice Ltd paid higher wages than I did. I could get clean out, injuring nobody, putting nobody out of a job, and I could come back to my own place with capital to buy a garage with, and settle down.
It was reasonable, and straight, and the obvious thing to do. And I didn't want to do it.
I lay in bed tossing and turning, trying to reason out why I was such a bloody fool. It was the glamour of the East, of course. The colour, and the easy life, and the quick money. These things had got hold of me, intoxicated me, so that I couldn't break away and come back to a harder, saner, more humdrum life in