Round the Bend: Pages 271 through 280
ROUND the BEND
Nevil Shute, 1951
```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)
know at once what Connie weighed, but I could not tell him that. He asked if his emaciation was a recent matter. I told him that Connie had certainly been heavier when he had joined me nearly three years before, but that I had not noticed any very sudden change. He asked if he had been ill, and I said that he had never had any time off. He asked if he was eating well, and here I was able to give him some definite information about Connie's habits of life, having lived with him for ten days. He was interested in his lassitude when there was no work to be done, and asked several questions about that. He asked about women.
After a quarter of an hour of this the Wazir asked if I thought Connie would permit the doctor to make an examination of him. I said I thought that was a very good idea, and that Connie should certainly take this opportunity to be checked over. I indicated as politely as I could that though Connie might be a prophet to them, he was an employee to me, and that if I said he'd got to have a medical examination he'd bloody well have one.
We walked back to the hangar, and I got Connie down off the machine and introduced him to Dr. Khaled. Connie spoke fluent Arabic, of course, and he knew Dr. Khaled well from his visits to the Sheikh's palace at Baraka. He made no objection to a medical examination, and they went off together to the workshop, Dr. Khaled carrying a black case in his hand. I took Wazir Hussein back to the restaurant and sat with him there till the doctor joined us.
He came after about three-quarters of an hour; Connie had gone back to work upon the Tramp. The Wazir questioned him at once, and translated his replies to me. The examination had revealed nothing particularly wrong, beyond the obvious fact that Connie was exceedingly thin and had only small reserves of physical energy. In general, he was careful with his health, apart from the fact that throughout his life he had been in the habit of eating what the native peoples of the countries that he lived in ate, and drinking what they drank. He had had malaria, of course, but it had not troubled him recently, perhaps because I always issued ample supplies of Paludrine to any of my party who were travelling away from Bahrein. That's an economy measure, of course, because if an aircraft gets delayed because the crew are
ill you can lose hundreds and hundreds of pounds, easy as wink. I always made the money side of illness clear to everybody, and my pilots and my engineers appreciated that, and took far more care over my money than they would ever have done over their own health. Connie had taken Paludrine regularly while he had been in Bali, and his malaria had not recurred.
The doctor said that he had taken samples of sputum, blood, and urine, and he had these in test tubes in his case. There were no facilities in Bali for an analysis of these samples. He had good connections with hospitals in Karachi and in Cairo where such things could be investigated, and since the aircraft would be passing through Karachi in three days' time he proposed to put his test tubes in a thermos, jar full of ice, and stop off in Karachi while the analysis was carried out, and come on to Bahrein by airline as soon as he had the report. He wanted to know if the Wazir would agree to this, or if he would prefer him just to leave the samples and travel to Bahrein with the old Sheikh, in which case the report from the Karachi hospital would come on by post.
The Wazir was emphatic that he must complete the journey to Bahrein with the Sheikh, and see him safely installed back in his palace at Baraka. After that, and if the Sheikh was in good health, he could return to Karachi if necessary for a consultation about Connie's samples. He asked me if I could provide an aircraft to take the doctor back to Karachi, if that should be necessary.
I said, of course I could do that if there was no convenient machine upon a scheduled service. I went on to suggest that perhaps it might be a good thing to make some contact with the Dutch doctor in Den Pasar now, since if any treatment should prove to be necessary it would hardly be practical for it to be directed from Bahrein.
The Wazir said blandly that if any treatment should be necessary he did not think that his master would agree that it should be put into the hands of the local doctor in Bali. Until the samples had been examined it was impossible to say what was required, but if the matter should be serious in any way, his master would consider the health of El Amin to be as important as his own,
and much more so. If that should be the case, he was sure that his master would say that a specialist should be engaged in Europe and should fly to Bali to be in attendance upon El Amin for as long as was required. He did not think that his master would like a local doctor to attend El Amin.
We left the matter so. I had already had a good deal of experience of how these fierce, proud Arabs who led simple and ascetic lives themselves could handle the unlimited money that was at their command in any cause that touched on their religion. People who would lend a man like me sixty thousand pounds merely to keep the business that employed El Amin free from usury would not hesitate to pay a man from Harley Street ten thousand pounds to drop everything and fly to Bali and stay there a month. To suggest that they would do otherwise would be offensive to them, as suggesting that they put their riches before their religious beliefs.
I did not see Connie until late that night, or not to talk to. I went back to Den Pasar and did my business with the hotel, and packed my bag, and took a car back to Pekendang. I got there about midday and Madé Jasmi came to me as soon as I arrived and asked by signs if I wanted to eat. I ate what she brought me, and then, as Connie had not turned up, I managed to make her understand that she was to take a bowl of rice and curry to the hangar, and she went off carrying the bowl wrapped in a cloth and a basket of fruit.
Connie came back about the middle of the afternoon and went straight to his charpoy; he did not appear till half an hour before sunset, when he went over to the strip again, to meet the Arabs for their prayers. I sat in a deck chair and waited for him to come back, and presently Gujar Singh appeared strolling through the village, and I called him, and he came and talked to me.
An hour after sunset Connie came back to the village, walking slowly, and flopped down in a deck chair outside his house. I got up and went over to him; Gujar slipped away. I sat down on the wooden step that led up to Connie's house, the place where Madé usually sat. "Tired?" I asked.
He said, "A bit. It takes it out of you, talking to these people. You've got to be right, so exactly right, the whole of the time."
I nodded. "We'll all be gone tomorrow," I said. "Then you can rest for a week if you want to."
He was silent for a time, and then he said, "Did that doctor tell you anything?"
I shook my head. "So far as I know, he didn't find anything the matter with you. He's going to have those samples analyzed."
He said, "He found something all right."
I glanced up at him quickly. "What did he find?"
"I don't know. Nothing that you can put your finger on, perhaps. But he's good, that chap—and cagey, too. He'd never say a word to anyone till he was certain. He thinks there's something wrong with me, and he's got an idea in his head of what it is. I couldn't make him tell me, though."
I was disturbed. "He didn't give us that impression."
"Perhaps he found he could fox you more easily than me."
"What sort of thing does he think wrong with you?"
"I don't know. With a man like that no one will know until he's certain of his facts."
I didn't pursue the subject because I didn't want to turn his mind to sickness; instead I asked about the Tramp and got his report; she was all ready to go first thing next morning. He said he thought the sunrise prayer would take half an hour or so; then we could put the old Sheikh straight into the aircraft and get started up.
Madé came with food, but he ate very little. I said presently, "Nadezna was coming down with me this time, Connie. But then she decided not to. You wouldn't mind her coming down here if she wants a holiday?"
"I'd like to have her here," he said. "It'ld be good for her to get away from the Gulf for a bit." And then he said, "You will give her my message?"
"In my own time, and when I think she wants to hear it," I said. "Yes, I'll give it her."
Nothing more happened that evening. He was evidently very tired indeed, and that I put down to the fatigue of his religious ministrations to the Sheikh. He only pecked at his food, and ate half an orange, and very soon he went into his but and lay down on the bed.
We were all up before dawn, as usual, but early as I was Connie was earlier; he had already gone down to the strip when I came out. Madé Jasmi brought me coffee and fruit as a breakfast, and I packed my small bag, and waved the farewell that I could not say to the villagers, and walked down to the airstrip. The sun was just coming up when I got there, and the Arabs and Connie were at their devotions in the marked-out square beside the hangar, with the Imam leading in the Rakats. The Tramp had been drawn out of the hangar and parked in front of it, and as I walked across the strip I could see Gujar already in the cockpit, busying himself with the preliminaries of flight.
Prayers lasted for about half an hour, as Connie had said they would, and then we were ready to go. While Hosein made out the flight plan and went through the formalities in the Control office, Gujar and I helped the old Sheikh up the duralumin ladder into the cabin of the Tramp, and saw his retinue install him comfortably on the divan bed. Then Gujar and Connie went up into the cockpit and started up the engines; in that climate motors don't take very long to warm up, and in five minutes they were running through the cockpit drill. The run-up over, they stopped both motors again and waited for Hosein to come, and while we were waiting, Connie came down and sat crosslegged on the floor, talking quietly to the Sheikh sitting on his divan.
Then Hosein came and got into the aircraft, and went past up to the cockpit, his hands full of documents and log books. Connie got up and glanced at me, and I nodded and said, "Ready to go now." He turned to the Sheikh and said quietly in Arabic, "May God strengthen you," and the old man said, " 'alaikum as salam," which means, "on you be peace." Then Connie got down on to the strip and put up the ladder to us from the ground, and I closed the door and Tarik stowed the ladder. I went forward and got up into the cockpit and sat at the navigator's table, and Gujar in the pilot's seat with Hosein at his side started the motors, and we taxied down the sunbaked turf to the end of the runway, and took off.
That journey was just one of many journeys that I made along that route, and I cannot now remember much about it. I think we stopped at Penang and at Allahabad, but for the life of me
I can't remember, and it doesn't matter, anyway. I know we got to Karachi about midday after a dawn start, and as we hoped to get the old Sheikh back to Bahrein that night for him to sleep in comfort in the Sheikh Muhammad's palace, Wazir Hussein put Dr. Khaled in a car with his samples, and told him to drive quickly to the city hospital, and leave his samples to be analyzed, and come back immediately so that we could take off. Karachi civil airport is about fifteen miles out of the city, and it was an hour and a half before he came back and we were able to get under way again.
We were all of us in a hurry to get on, because none of us were particularly happy aboUt the condition of the Sheikh. It was obvious that the long journey to Bali, and the excitement there, and the strange accommodation, and the long journey back, had tired him very much. There is an insidious sort of fatigue in travelling in an unsoundproofed aeroplane. After the first few minutes you don't notice the noise at all, and you think nothing of it, but at the end of the day you may find yourself too tired to eat, too tired to sleep without a drug. The pilots knew all about this, of course, and none of us ever flew in my machines without our ears being stuffed with cotton wool, which makes all the difference. Gujar had tried to get the old man to use cotton wool on the flight out, and I tried on the way back to make him use it, but although he did make some effort to co-operate he never kept it in for very long—partly, I think, because his ears were full of hairs and the wool worried him.
Because of this, he was very, very tired on the last leg of the journey home. He sat, or lay propped up with cushions on his divan, and he no longer wanted to look at the maps, or hear where we were, or any of the details of the flight. He did not talk to anyone, and he refused all food, though now and again he took a few sips of water. I know before we reached Karachi Dr. Khaled had suggested to him that we should stop there for the night, or possibly for more nights than one, but he had got a bottle from the old Sheikh who was only anxious now to get back to the places and the people that he knew. He wanted to be back in his palace at Baraka, even if it killed him.
We made a night landing at Bahrein at about half past eight,
local time. I had been talking to them on the radio for the last hour and telling them to ring through to Sheikh Muhammad's Wazir to tell him that the Sheikh of Khual would be arriving at the aerodrome at eight-thirty very tired by his long journey, and to ask for cars to be on the tarmac for the party without fail to meet us when we landed. One of my pals from the chummery, a bloke called Alec Scott, was in the Control room, and I didn't scruple to call him every ten minutes in the last hundred and fifty miles to make sure that he had passed on all my messages.
So, when we taxied to a standstill before our hangar in the floodlit darkness and stopped the engines, the maroon Hudson was alongside the machine before we could get the steps down. We were able to get the old man down on to the ground and into the car within five minutes; he could hardly stand alone, and drove away with one of his servants sitting on each side of him on the broad rear seat to hold him erect in case he should fall sideways on a corner. He was as bad as that.
There were other cars there for the rest of the party and their luggage, and in ten minutes or so they, too, were gone. I stood with Gujar Singh and watched the last car disappear into the darkness. We were all tired, too. "Well, thank the Lord we've got him home safely," I said heavily. "I wouldn't have liked it if he'd died on the way home."
"I was afraid of that," said Gujar. "It would have made great trouble if he had died in India, a Hindu country. I do not think he could have been buried there. . . . If that had happened, I would have suggested that we just flew on as quickly as we could, and brought him home."
"We couldn't have done that," I said. "Not for two days, in heat like this."
"We could have flown high, above the freezing level."
"We'd never have got him through the customs at Karachi," I said. "But anyway, he didn't die on us, so that's all right." But I was only partially correct because, in fact, the old man never left his palace again. He died a few months later. He'd known that he was near the end, of course, before he started on his journey to see Connie.
It was a disappointment to me that Nadezna was not there to
meet us; I didn't look forward to the prospect of telling her that I had failed to make Connie consider marrying Madé Jasmi, but I had looked forward to meeting her, all the same. I went into the office and found my desk completely empty and bare, not a paper on it except one little note, which read,
Dear Mr. Cutter,I grinned, and took the hint, and went to bed.
I know you'll be tired when you get in, so I've taken the IN basket away and locked it up. There's nothing urgent in it. I hope you'll take the hint and go to bed.
I was in the office bright and early next morning, but Nadezna was there before me, and my desk was stacked with correspondence, invoices, receipts, release notes, official pamphlets, and all the other paper clutter that a business can accumulate in a fortnight. Before beginning upon this, I told her about Connie and the girl. "I didn't cut any ice at all," I said. "I don't think he's got any intention of marrying."
"No," she replied. "I don't think he has. It was a chance, though. Tell me, is she nice?"
"She's a very nice girl," I told her. "She's just a village girl, of course—she can't read or write. He'd have to make his life there if he married her, but there are worse places to live than that. They live simply and eat well. Her mother must be forty-five at least, and she's a beautiful woman still. A man who was prepared to settle down and live there quietly could have a very happy life."
"I thought it was like that," she said. "But that's not Connie's way." She paused, and then she said, "Oh, well, that's over, then. How was he in himself?"
"You mean, his health?"
I thought for a minute before replying. I did not want to alarm her unduly. "He's very, very thin," I said at last. "He seems to get tired easily, too. I think he's quite all right, though. Dr. Khaled examined him." I told her about what was going on at Karachi.
She wanted to know a lot of things then, how he was eating, how he was sleeping—all the usual enquiries. I had one or two to make of her. "Has he ever had anything like this before?" I asked. "Any sort of illness?"
She shook her head. "Not that I know of. He's always been thin, and he's always lived a great deal on his nerves. I mean, I've seen him get very tired sometimes, when he's been talking a lot. But I don't ever remember him being in the doctor's hands at all."
"It's probably nothing," I said. "He may need something with his diet down there—cod-liver oil and malt, or something like that."
I settled down then to pick up the threads of my business, and I worked with Nadezna on the papers for the whole of that day. Johnson came on the telephone in the middle of the morning wanting to know the earliest date for the Tramp to leave again for Bali and for the Maclean Dakota to meet it there; having given up a trip to the Sheikh of Khulal, the Arabia-Sumatran Company had an accumulation of scientific equipment and staff wanting to go through to the East Alligator River oil field as soon as possible. I checked the work on the machine with Chai Tai Foong, and came back to the office and rang through to Johnson and told him the machine could take off at dawn the day after tomorrow. I got a cable off to Maclean Airways, and then I sent for Arjan Singh and warned him for the trip, with Kadhim as second pilot.
I got up before dawn that morning to see the Tramp loaded, and to have a final word to the two pilots before they went. I always think it helps if the boss shows up on an early morning show like that, especially if it's the start of a long flight. There was really no need for me to be there, of course; Arjan had done the trip several times before, and though Kadhim was new he'd got over a thousand hours in with the Iraqui Air Force and Iraqui Airways on the Baghdad-Mosul route.
I said to Arjan, "Tell Shak Lin we got the old Sheikh back all right. He's still in bed, though—I think he's pretty sick. Shak Lin's sure to want to know how he is."
He nodded gravely, "I will tell him everything."
In the first light of dawn the Tramp taxied down to the far end of the runway, and took off over the sea, and swept round in a great left-hand turn to get on course, and vanished into the sunrise. I went back to the chumniery and had breakfast and shaved, and went to the office. I had a Proctor booked to take a couple of surveyors out to a place called Marib in the desert later in the day, and I intended to take them myself since I should be fairly clear of office work by then.
At about half past eight, half an hour before the surveyors were due, the maroon Hudson passed my office window with Dr. Khaled and Wazir Hussein in it, and swung round to park. I was dictating to Nadezna at the time. "Christ," I said. "Look, pack up this. Nip out and see if you can find Gujar Singh, and tell him I'd like him to take this Proctor to Marib, because I'm tied up here after all. And look—tell Dunu to go over to the restaurant and order us three cups of coffee—Turkish."
I got up to meet my visitors as they came in. "This is a great honour," I said. Probably they had come to talk about Connie, but one had to let them start it in their own time. "I hope the Sheikh of Khulal was not too tired by the journey?"
They said something or other, and we made the usual polite conversation till the coffee came. When Dunu had gone out the Wazir came to the point.
"We have received the report about El Amin from Karachi," he said. "It is not good."
"Oh," I replied. "What does it say?"
He spoke to Khaled, who produced a white printed form, filled in with a few words of typescript. The Wazir handed it to me; it was in English. There were spaces for Sputum and for Urine, and opposite each of these was typed the one word, "Negative." There was a space for Blood, and here was typed:
Red cells, 2½ million.There was a further space at the bottom for Remarks, and here it said:
White cells, 275,000, with immature cells present.