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Round the Bend: Pages 31 through 40

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 31 through 40

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

    ```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)



    just eighteen and due to go off for his military service pretty soon. He worked for a firm of contractors and Dad had had him taught to drive, so he was all set to be a truck driver. We had three bedrooms in that house; when I was a boy it had been Dad and Mum upstairs in one room and the girls in the other, and for us boys there was a room downstairs built out behind the scullery in the garden. It was a good big room, and it had need to be because four of us had slept together there when I was a boy, in two beds. Ted had got the girls' room upstairs, and Dad and Mum had titivated up the big old room for me, colourwashed it and all when they heard I was coming home; they'd gone to a lot of trouble over it, working at it over the week-end. I slept there that night, comforted a bit by memories of childhood, and although I stayed awake some time, I did sleep.

    I went out early next day and got a chisel and a brass-backed saw, and started on that window. I worked on it all that day and the next and got it finished and glazed for them, with a coat of white lead paint. I did a lot of odd jobs round the house in the next few days, and got an electric water heater and installed it over the sink in the scullery for Ma. While I worked at these things, I was making up my mind what I was going to do. By the end of the first day, I think I knew what it was to be.

    I took a bus one day and went out to the airport at Eastleigh. There's a firm there, Kennington's, who do quite a big business in overhauling and servicing aircraft; I had thought once or twice of putting in for a job with them. Now I went to the sales side, to a young chap called Warren that I knew slightly, and asked if he knew where I could get a Fox-Moth.

    The Fox-Moth is a de Havilland type, obsolete now; it was produced about 1933. It has a little cabin for the passengers and an open cockpit for the pilot, and an engine of a hundred and thirty horsepower. Mine cruised at about ninety miles an hour. It would carry the pilot and two passengers comfortably, or four passengers if they were very little ones and there was a good long runway to take off on with the overload. The type hasn't been in production for a long time and there weren't many of them left, but Warren said he thought he knew of one in Leicester, dismantled and unused for years, and wanting a lot of work done


    on it. We got on the telephone from his office, and found that it was there all right, and about to be put out on the scrap heap.

    I went to Leicester next day and bought it with a second-hand engine for a hundred and twenty pounds, and arranged for it to be sent down to Eastleigh on a truck. That's how I started in the air transport business.

    I was headed for the Persian Gulf. I'd been to Abadan and Basra and Kuwait and as far down as Bahrein for a night, and I'd seen conditions there. I had an idea that a chap with a little aeroplane for charter, that could land on any decent bit of desert, Might do all right for himself. There's no way to get about that country except by plane or car, and travelling by car on those
    sand tracks is no fun at all. There was nobody doing charter work in that part that I knew of. I had a hunch that if I went there with a Fox-Moth I might make a living. Anyway, it would be something different; if I lost my money I'd always got my trade to fall back on.

    Kennington's were very helpful. I made a deal with them to pay for overheads and for any labour that I used, and when the Fox-Moth came they put it in a corner of a hangar and let me get on with the work myself, with a boy to help me; they knew I hadn't got much money. The plane wasn't in too bad condition. got it all stripped down and had the Air Registration Board inspector to agree what wanted doing, and by Christmas time I'd got the airframe finished all except the final spraying. I was working on it by half past seven every morning, and I never left till eight o'clock at night; I hadn't got much time to spare, because with every day my money was running out.

    I wrote to Mr. Evans at Morden about the middle of December, turning in my job. I told him that it was for personal reasons, that I didn't want to come back there, and that I was going to do something totally different for a change. He wrote me a very nice letter telling me to let them know if ever I wanted to come back into the repair business, and with that I felt I had something behind me to fall back on.

    I finished the engine and got it through a test run on the bench about the end of the first week in January, and got it installed in the aircraft a couple of days after that. I made a test flight on


    January 12th, and there was nothing then to do but the final spray painting and lettering, and make the arrangements for my journey to the Gulf.

    Ma was good to me while I was working out at Eastleigh on the Fox-Moth. I used to go out there on a bicycle to save money, six miles each way, and sometimes I wouldn't be home till nearly ten o'clock at night. Whatever time I came home there would be something hot for me in the oven, and a kettle boiling ready for my tea, and a bit of cheese or cake to eat after. Once while I was eating my supper, Ma said,

    "How long will you be away for this time, Tom?"

    I grinned at her. "Three months," I said. "I'll be broke by that time, and home looking for a job."

    She was knitting, and she went on for a minute. "I don't think so," she said quietly. "I don't think you'll go broke."

    "Lots of people do go broke," I said, "and doing less daft things than this I'm playing at."

    "I don't think you will," she repeated.

    I grinned at her again. "Well, I've never starved in the winter yet."

    "No, and I don't think you will."

    She knitted on in silence for a time. "This place Bahrein where you're going to," she said. "What sort of place is it? How will you be living?"

    "It's a fair-sized town," I said. "An Arab town, of course. There are some white people living there—the R.A.F., and the chaps in the Government. And then, inland there are sort of special towns like Awali run by the Bahrein Petroleum Company, where a lot of British and Canadian engineers live with their families."

    "Will you live there?"

    I shook my head. "I think there's an Arab hotel in the town. I'll probably be there, at first at any rate."

    "Will there be any white girls there?" she asked.

    I knew what she was getting at, of course. "Not one," I said. "There might be some W.A.A.F.'s with the Air Force, but I wouldn't get a look in there."

    "Try and find someone, Tom," she said quietly. "I know you don't feel like it now, and maybe that's right. But I would


    like to see you settled comfortable in a nice home, with a nice girl and some children. Don't give all of your life to your work."

    "Blowed if I know where I'll find the nice home, but it won't be in Bahrein," I said. "Nor the nice girl, either. But I'll bear it in mind, Ma."

    "That's right," she said. "Just keep it in your mind. I do want to see you settled and comfortable, like your Dad and I have been."

    Ma never wanted anything better than she'd got. She knew it was a lousy little house, of course, but it was home and near Dad's work, and there she had lived all her married life, and had her children, and watched them grow up and get out into the world. She never wanted anything better; she had a happiness quite independent of the quality of her house. It's convenient for Dad's Work and she's accustomed to it. She'll never move.

    I finished off the Fox-Moth a few days after that, and she really didn't look so bad, with a new aluminium spray all over her and green registration letters, and a broad green line running backwards down the fuselage from the prop. I had had the cabin seats re-upholstered, too, and replaced the scratched perspex in the windows, so that by the time I'd done with her she looked almost new.

    Dad and Mum came out to see her when she was finished, one Sunday, and I took them up for a joyride over Southampton. Then I was ready to start.

    It was a bad time of year to fly from England, and the Fox-Moth was a very little aeroplane, with no blind flying instruments, or radio, or anything like that. On the day I wanted to start, Monday the 21st, there was a dense fog and it would have been crazy to leave the ground even if the airport officers had let me, which they wouldn't. Next day was better. Ma came out with me to Eastleigh to see me off. I got the aircraft out and ran the engine to warm her up, and got my stuff through customs, and went and made my flight plan at the Control. Then I was ready to get in and go.

    "This is it, Mum," I said. "I'll be back in a year or so."

    She kissed me. "Good-bye, Tom," she said. "Look after yourself, and don't go killing yourself or anything of that."


    "I won't do that, Mum," I said, smiling. One always thinks, of course, "Those things can't happen to me."

    "Don't forget what I was telling you, about finding a nice girl."

    "I won't. Good-bye, Mum."

    "Good-bye, son."

    I swung the little propeller, and the engine fired, and I went round and got into the cockpit, clumsy in my leather coat. Then I waved to Mum and taxied forward, and the Control gave me a green light and I moved to the end of the runway and took off from England.

    I'm not going to say much about that trip out to Bahrein; there was nothing to make it interesting but my own inexperience and the inadequacy of the aircraft for so long a journey. I could fly the thing all right, but my total flying experience was only about five hundred hours and I didn't know a lot about navigation, when I started. I knew a bit more by the time I reached the Persian Gulf.

    I had to land a good many times for fuel on the way. The extreme range of the Fox-Moth was only about three hundred and fifty miles; later on I fitted an extra tank. I went by way of Dinard, and across France to Cannes, landing at Tours and Lyon. From there I went to Pisa and Rome and Brindisi and Araxos and Athens, and from there to Rhodes and Cyprus. I rested a day there and did a quick run round the engine, and went on by way of Damascus to a place called H.3. in the middle of the desert; then to Baghdad, Basra, Kuwait, and so to Bahrein. It took me eight days of trundling along at ninety miles an hour, and I was tired when I got there.

    I landed one evening on the big R.A.F. and civil aerodrome on Muharraq Island. There was a hangar there and the place is an R.A.F. station, but there were no service aircraft stationed there at that time. Several used to come through every week, and at that time the B.O.A.C. flying boats called there, as well as several foreign lines.

    It was a lovely, summery evening as I taxied to the hangar after landing, just like a warm day in June in England. It had been very cold over most of the route, until I got south of Baghdad, and


    then it had begun to warm up. A couple of R.A.F. flying officers strolled out to the machine as I switched off in front of the hangar, and I got out of the cockpit to talk to them.

    "Come far?" one asked.

    "Eastleigh," I said.

    They raised eyebrows and grinned. "How long did it take you?"

    "I left England last Tuesday," I said. "Eight days."

    "Going on to India?"

    "No," I said. "I was thinking of staying here a bit, and see if I can pick up a bit of charter work."

    We talked about it for a time, and then I left them and went up to the Control Tower to report. When I got back to the machine the officers had got some airmen and we pushed the Fox-Moth into the hangar and got my stuff out of the cabin. As we did so one of the young officers that I later came to know as Mr. Allen, said, "Pity you weren't here yesterday."

    "Why's that?" I asked.

    "Party of three engineers going down to Muscat. They're consulting on a new water supply or something. They came in by B.O.A.C. from England. If you'd been here you might have got a job."

    "What happened to them?" I asked.

    "Went on down to Sharjah in a chartered dhow. They left this morning."

    "How far is it to Sharjah?"

    "About four hundred miles. I wouldn't like to do that in a dhow. It'll take them three or four days."

    "How far on is it to Muscat?"

    "About two hundred and fifty miles. They were going to charter a truck to take them from Sharjah to Muscat."

    I said, "Is there any fuel at Muscat?"

    Allen nodded. "We keep a small party there. There's a strip there, and there's hundred octane fuel."

    This was too rich and rare a fuel for my common little engine, but I could mix it with motor-car petrol. I said, "Can I get a telegram to Sharjah offering this Fox for charter to them?"

    "I should think so. They'll probably send it from the Control Tower if you ask them nicely, over the R/T. They're always talk-


    ing to Sharjah. It's more reliable than the land telegraph line. That's always falling down."

    I got the name of the leader of the party from him, and the rest house where they would stay in Sharjah, and went back to the Control Tower. The Control officer knew all about this party, and advised me to wire them care of the Political Agent. I sent off a message detailing the accommodation and range of my Fox-Moth and offering it for charter for eight pounds an hour from Bahrein.

    I had a bit of luck then, because one of the wireless operators, Dick Reed, spoke up and asked me where I was going to stay. He lived in a house in Muharraq town just outside the aerodrome with all the other operators; they ran it as a chummery, and they had a spare room, normally occupied by a chap who was on leave. They offered this to me and I moved in there that night and messed with the radio crowd.

    At the aerodrome, they made me a member of the sergeants' mess, which meant that I could go in there at any time for lunch, or for tea if I was working late. That was a great help, in those early months.

    I spent next day working on the aircraft to get it overhauled and fit for work after the flight out from England, and in typing out circular letters, five copies at a time, to send out to the eighteen or twenty possible employers of a charter aircraft in the Persian Gulf. I got a job next day, to take two engineers from Awali up to Kuwait for a conference, leaving early in the morning and coming back at night. They paid my eight pounds an hour without blinking and the job went off all right, so by the end of the day I was fifty-six pounds in pocket and everyone seemed satisfied, specially me. My eight pounds an hour worked out at about two bob a mile, but we had travelled six hundred miles in seven hours' flying time.

    Next, a reply to my Sharjah wire came in, ordering me down to Sharjah at once. Three days in an Arab dhow had made my eight pounds an hour seem cheap to the water engineers, even though I couldn't carry the party in one load but had to ferry them everywhere in two trips. I took them down to Muscat and stayed with them for a week. In all I was away from Bahrein for


    ten days, and I got back at the end of the job with thirty-eight hours of flying done for them, and a cheque for three hundred an four pounds in my pocket.

    That's the way it went on all the time. The Persian Gulf full of industry—new oil fields being laid out, wells being sun pipelines being laid, new docks and harbours being built all over the place. There are no roads outside the towns and no railway and no coasting steamers and few motor boats. The country full of engineers to whom time is money, and there are always people wanting to get about in a hurry. The country is mostly sand desert, good for landing a small aeroplane when you have learned the different look of hard and soft sand from the air and I was right up to the neck in work from the day I got there Most of the oil companies had their own aircraft, but there was plenty of work left over for me.

    I have been asked sometimes what led me to the Persian Gulf, what instinct told me that I could build up a business there. It's really perfectly simple. If you go to the hottest and most uncomfortable place on the map you'll find there's not a lot of competition; in my experience most British pilots would rather go bankrupt than get prickly heat. If you can find, as I did, a place where there's a lot of business for a modest charter operator, that's also hot and uncomfortable—well, it's money for jam. Only, of course, you can't afford to pay the wages of a European staff.

    To start with, I had no staff at all. For the first two months I did everything myself, serviced the aircraft, washed it down, did the correspondence on my typewriter in the evening, kept the accounts, sent out the bills, and—easiest of all—flew the thing. Presently it got a bit too much, and I got in help for the washing down. I got an Arab boy about fifteen years old called Tarik and paid him twenty rupees a month, about thirty bob, at which he was highly delighted. I taught him to wash and clean the aircraft while I worked upon the engine, and when he wasn't doing that he was running errands for me to the souk—the market. He wasn't fully employed in those early days, of course, but it was useful to have somebody to help with the refuelling.

    It was three months before anyone woke up to the fact that I


    wasn't licensed to carry passengers for hire or reward. I only had a private pilot's licence. An A.R.B. inspector turned up from Egypt one day, travelling around to see what was going on in civil aviation in the Persian Gulf, and told me that I was breaking the law every time I went up. I knew that, of course, but I hoped that nobody else did.

    He was quite nice about it. I told him that next day I had to take Mr. Cassidy and Mr. Hogaarts of the Arabia-Sumatran Petroleum Company from Abu All to Kuwait, and if I didn't turn up they'd be stuck at Abu Ali, and after some hesitation he agreed that I should make this one trip. While we were talking the telephone went and it was Johnson of the Bahrein Petroleum Company wanting to book me for the following Thursday to take a couple of his chaps down to Dubai. I knew Johnson well, and I never believe in hiding things up, so I told him I was with a bloke who said I couldn't carry passengers for hire because I'd only got an A licence.

    "For Christ's sake," he said. "Let me have a talk to him." I handed over the receiver, and he talked to the inspector, saying that they couldn't do without me and all that sort of thing. The upshot of it was that it was agreed that I should do that one trip also, and by next morning the inspector had thought it over and said that he would recommend that I should be granted a provisional B licence.

    The point of this argument was that I could get a B licence without much difficulty on the basis of the experience I had, but I could only go through the examinations for it in England, and I was in the Persian Gulf. I couldn't have got it when I left England; I wasn't good enough. I knew that I could keep them talking for some months and in the meantime I could go on operating, and after that I might well find myself in England.

    By that time, it was dawning on me that I should have to make a quick trip back to England before long to buy another aeroplane. There was far more work than I could cope with. I was flying four or five hours practically every day, and maintaining the aircraft and doing the correspondence for the rest of the time. At that I was only tackling the fringe of the job. It wasn't only taking engineers about the country, though I could have used


    a six-passenger machine on that to supplement the Fox-Moth. There was machinery to be taken out to places in the desert, drilling machinery to be fetched in for reconditioning, spare parts for trucks and bulldozers—all sorts of things, some of them requiring really large aircraft. Nobody was doing more than scratch the surface of the work that was offering, and over and above the lot of it there were things like the transport of pilgrims to Jidda and transport of food to relieve the perennial famines in the Hadramaut.

    If I didn't nip in and get myself established, someone else would come along and do it over my head.

    On Bahrein aerodrome the local R.A.F. and civil air staff began to get quite interested in me. It was obvious at the end of the three months that, licence or not, I was on to a good thing and I was doing pretty well. British N.C.O.'s with the R.A.F. used to come along and watch me working with young Tarik, and suggest that they were due to be demobilized in a few months and what about a job? I never engaged one of them. I knew from my own experience the wages that you have to pay British engineers in the East, and I knew that if once I started on that sort of wage bill I'd be bust in no time. Moreover, I didn't need them. I had all the ground engineer's licences myself. Young Tarik, brown though he might be, was keen and quite intelligent, and I reckoned that with two or three more like him I could service several aircraft myself.

    It was about that time that Gujar Singh turned up.

    Gujar Singh was a young Sikh, who worked as a cashier in the Bank of Asia. He might have been twenty-six or twenty-eight years old at that time, and he was the fiercest thing I had ever seen. Being a good Sikh he never cut his hair, and he had a great black beard that stuck out forward from his chin in a manner that would have frightened any gunman trying to hold up the bank into a fit. When I got to know him better, and travelled with him, I found that he slept every night with a bandage round his head to make this beard grow fiercely outwards from his face. He wore European clothes and was usually dressed in a neat, light grey tropical suit, but he always wore a turban. Beneath this turban there was long black hair that reached down to his waist, coiled