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Round the Bend: Pages 151 through 160

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 151 through 160

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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



    England. That was the trouble with me, I told myself. Now that I'd realized it everything would be all right, and I could sleep.

    That's what I told myself, but it wasn't all right at all. It was no good kidding myself like that. There wasn't any colour in Bahrein. There was an awful lot of grey dust, but no pretty girls. There wasn't an easy life out there, or if there was I hadn't had it. What I had had was hard work and bad food, prickly heat and sores that wouldn't heal because of the sweat, and nobody to talk to. If I had made money it had not been easy money, and it had done me no good whatsoever; in terms of fun or goods or holidays I'd have been better off working in England on the bench in some factory at six quid a week. It wasn't true when I tried to tell myself that the glamour of the East had got hold of me. There isn't any glamour, or if there is, it hadn't come my way.

    I lay sleepless, hour after hour. Somewhere, sometime, I had read a story about a Spitfire pilot going into a dogfight with his squadron. It was near the end of his tour of ops, and he couldn't take it any longer. The story told how he fiddled with his safety harness as they dived towards the Jerries, making sure that everything was ready for him to get out quick, and slid his cockpit cover back a fraction just to make sure it was free. He knew just what he'd do. He'd carry straight on in his dive and not attempt to get a Jerry, but just go right through them. Then, while everybody else was engaged, with no eyes for anything but the Jerry in his sights or the Jerry on his tail, he'd turn his Spitfire over and bale out, and nobody would ever know he hadn't been unlucky. He did that, and got down all right, and the French Resistance boys got hold of him and hid him, and made a fuss of him as a great hero. Two days later he shot himself.

    I lay awake till dawn with that damn story running through my mind. Then I slept an hour or so, and then it was time to get up and take Doris for her day in the country.

    She turned up about half past nine, as pretty as a picture in a white summer frock with a little fine red and green pattern on it. She had colour in her cheeks and a sparkle in her eyes.
    She was carrying a basket full of lunch, with a white napkin tucked around the top of it. "Oh, Tom, isn't it a heavenly day?" she said when she saw me. "I've been up since six."


    I grinned; her mood was infectious and all my gloom was rolling away at the sight of her. "'What got you up so early?"

    "I've been making your lunch. Tom, you can eat sardines, can't you?"

    "I can eat anything,"
    I said. "What have you got?"

    "Sardine sandwiches, and brawn sandwiches, and cheese and biscuits and some little cakes I made last night. I've not got anything to drink except a thermos of coffee. Are you going to bring some beer?" .

    "Might as well," I said. "Shall I get some for you?"

    "I don't drink it," she said. "I'll have cider."

    I went out and down to the Lion and in at the back door, and they let me have the bottles in a bag, because it was out of hours. It was bright and sunny and fresh out in the street. I went and fetched the old Ford from the bombed site and drove it up to the door of our house, and got all the stuff and put it in the back seat. Doris came out and got into the seat beside me, and Ma stood at the door waving us good-bye, and two or three of the neighbours were peeking at us round the corner of the curtain. I let the clutch in and we moved off with a haze of blue, scorched oil rising up around us in the shabby little saloon.

    Doris turned to me, "Oh, Tom, this is fun!"

    It certainly was a lovely summer morning when we got out on to the road. We went by Cadnam and over the open heaths of the New Forest, and we didn't go very fast because the car wouldn't go very fast; it had been nobody's darling for so many years that about twenty-five was its safe cruising speed. We couldn't talk much, either, because it kicked up a pretty fair racket. We just sat and enjoyed the colours of the country and the warm, tolerant sunshine alternating with cool shade, and we were happy.

    I stopped outside Fordingbridge and showed Doris the advertisement of the garage in the paper I had with me, and then we drove in to have a look at it. It was advertised as having a two-bedroomed house, and they wanted seven thousand for it. When we got to it we found it mostly built of tin and rather dirty, and the house was nothing much. I went in and spent about half an hour with the chap looking after it; the owner had just died and previous to


    that he had let it run down badly. I didn't think a lot of it, but it was cheap and in a good position. We got into the car again, and went on to see the one at Bournemouth.

    We stopped for lunch on the way, by a wide river, heavily preserved, full of enormous trout. There was a waterfall there, a little sort of weir; we carried our lunch along the river bank to the tumbling water, and sat down and had it there. As Doris was spreading out the white napkin for a tablecloth, we saw a king-fisher.

    Doris was very positive about the garage that we'd seen at Fordingbridge. "It's all right," she said, "but it wouldn't do for you. There's not enough scope there for a man like you, Tom. It's—it's all too small."

    "I'd have a bit of capital left over for building it up," I said. "It's a possibility, anyway."

    She shook her head. "All right for some people, but not for a man like you."

    I grinned. "Fat lot you know about me."

    "I can't see you fitting in at Fordingbridge," she said obstinately. "Not after all that you've been doing. You'd be bored to tears at the end of a year."

    "Give me another of those rock cakes," I said. "They're good." I knew she had made them herself. She passed them to me, smiling, and I took one and bit into it. "About Fordingbridge," I said. "You may be right, but I'm not sure you are. You think I couldn't stick it in a small town. But I've been living in one for three years."

    She stared at me. "Where?"

    "Bahrein," I said.

    "But that's different, Tom. That's in the East."

    "A small town's a small town, wherever it is," I said. "I've got no feeling against small town life. I rather like it."

    She switched the subject. "It's a rotten little house, anyway," she said. "I'd hate to live in it."

    I grinned at her. "I haven't asked you to."

    She flushed a little, and I was sorry I'd done that.
    "I didn't mean it that way. It's a rotten little house, and you can't make


    it any better. You'd have to find another house, and that would take you away from the business."

    "I know what you mean," I said gently. "You're right, too. In a place like that I think you ought to live on top of the job."

    "It's a small-scale business," she said, "and it always will be. But you're not a small-scale person, Tom."

    We sat and smoked a cigarette after lunch, watching the tumbling water and the birds, and presently we packed up and walked back to the car and got on the road for Bournemouth.

    The Bournemouth business was a good one. It was on the west side of the town out towards Canford Cliffs, in a very good suburban district. It was clean and fairly new, on a street corner on a busy main road with a wide area behind it covered with good houses, all of which would have a car and many of them two. It had four petrol pumps with a good concrete pull in, under cover, and a very good machine shop. About ten hands were regularly employed, and there was a showroom built on to it; they held a sub-agency for Austins. It was a good prosperous modern business going for twenty-five thousand pounds because of the death of the owner; the price seemed a bit on the top side to me. There was no house.

    I spent an hour and a half there, and had a long talk with the manager, a smart young chap who'd been in the R.A.F. He'd had a shot at buying it himself, but hadn't been able to raise the cash. He said there were one or two people after it as an investment. He was quite frank and showed me everything, but I think he was a bit windy that if I came in I'd turn him out and run the show myself. He was probably about right there, because there wouldn't have been room for two of us.

    We left that place at about half past three, and drove down to the sea, and went into a café for a cup of tea and for Doris to tidy herself up in the ladies' room. She was very much taken with that garage. "It's a good business, isn't it, Tom?" she asked. "It's all so clean and nice, and in such a good neighbourhood."

    "I should think it's all right," I said.

    "Would you have enough money for it?"

    "I think so. Yes, I think I should."


    She sipped her tea. "I think you'd do awfully well there. It's big enough to give you plenty of scope."

    "Yes," I said. "It's big enough for that."

    "What's the matter with it? You don't sound very enthusiastic."

    I sat in silence for a minute, looking out of the window at a sailing boat tacking up and down the beach. "Well," I said at last, "it's somebody else's business."

    She wrinkled her brows. "But it's for sale. If you bought it, it'ld be yours, wouldn't it?"

    I nodded. "The first thing I'd have to do would be to sack that chap who showed us round, because I'd want to run it myself. The money's nothing. It's his business, really. He's worked it up." I paused. "The money's just what makes it possible for me to pinch his business off him. That's all the bloody money does."

    "What a horrid way to look at it, Tom."

    "It's the right way," I said quietly. "It's the truth. It's a good business, and I'll think about it. But if I go in there that chap goes out, and he knows it. His staff won't care about that much, either—he's got a good crowd there. I don't know that I want to start off on the job like that."

    "I see that," she said slowly. "Couldn't you keep him on?"

    "I don't know," I said. "It all wants a bit of thinking about. I couldn't keep him on as boss, which he's been up till now."

    We still had one more place to see, in Lymington, and that was on our way back to Southampton. We left the café and got into the little Ford again, and drove out through Christchurch. Lymington lies about fifteen or twenty miles to the east of Bournemouth; it is a little town at the west end of the Solent, on a river near the mouth. It's a great yachting centre, with the unspoilt country of the New Forest all around. I had planned our trip to leave this till the last, because I had a hunch from the advertisement that the Anchor Garage might be what I wanted.

    And it was. It was at the end of the town right down on the waterfront. It wasn't as big as it had been at one time, because in 1943 an ME 109 had come over on a tip-and-run raid and had flattened most of it with a bomb, and killed about fifteen people on the side. Half of it was still standing and the owner had put up a couple of disposal Nissen huts for machine shop and stores.


    The same bomb had brought down about six houses beside the garage; the debris had been cleared away, of course, so that there was now a big open space right on the waterfront, suitable for expansion. The garage had two pumps and a fair amount of car work but much of the business before the war had been marine, and motor boat engines were very much in evidence in the showroom.

    It was owned by an old chap called Summers, who must have been over seventy. He was a good mechanic himself and the place was in good order considering the limitations of the premises, but he was tired and wanted to sell out and settle his affairs before he died. He told me that he was leaving everything to his married daughter, but he wanted to leave it in cash. He was quite willing to stay on and help me if I bought it till I got the hang of things. He wanted fifteen thousand pounds, and there was no house.

    I spent the best part of a couple of hours there with him. He had bought one of the house sites, and he thought the others could be got without great difficulty. He expected a licence to build within twelve months, but I should have to see the council about that. The bomb had made possible a project that he had always had in mind, a slipway for motor boats in his own premises, but he would have to leave that to another man to do. He was old now, and wanted to get out.

    I didn't say much, except grunt now and then, or ask a question, because I was afraid of seeming too eager. It was a lovely garage. The one bombed site he'd bought went through to the main road and had a frontage there right on a corner, so you could have the pumps and showroom up there with a good drive-in. From that the ground he'd already got ran down to the original premises on the quay, and alongside that, as I say, there was vacant land for expansion along the waterfront. There was any amount of yacht work there, increasing every year as yachting grows in popularity, and yacht work is good work because it's not so cut price and people will pay for good quality workmanship in yachting.

    It was Saturday evening, and about seven o'clock by the time that I'd learned all I had to know. The old man said that several people had been to see it and were considering it, but I could


    see that it was rather a big proposition for the average man looking for a garage. Over and above the purchase price, a lot of money would need spending on it in the way of buildings to develop it to what it could be made into, far more than the War Damage compensation. At the same time, there wasn't much immediate return for the next year or two, till buildings could be got up, so that as an investment it wasn't so attractive as some others. I said I'd think it over for the week-end and if I wanted to go on with it I'd come over on Monday or Tuesday, and with that I got back in the car with Doris and drove off.

    "It's an awfully pretty place," she shouted above the rattle of the worn little engine.

    I nodded. "We'll find somewhere to stop and have a pint, and talk it over."

    There is a little pub on the edge of an open heath just the other side of Beaulieu. It was a warm summer evening, and I parked the car on the grassy sward outside this place, and we went in, and got beer and cider and bread and cheese, and took them out on to the bench in front, looking out over the heath. It was very quiet there, and calm, and peaceful. "That's the place," I said. "That's what I want."

    She turned to me, smiling, "Really?"

    "It's marvellous," I said. "Didn't you think so?"

    "I loved it," she said. "It's so pretty, with the water and the boats and everything. But there's an awful lot needs doing, Tom."

    "That's what's going to make it fun," I said.

    She turned to me. "Have you got enough money for it?"

    "I've not got any yet,"
    I said. "If Airservice make an offer for my business I'll hear in the next day or two. If they come through all right, there ought to be enough."

    "There isn't any house," she said.

    "I thought of that one," I replied. "There's a lot of building to be done. I'd like to have a big flat over one bit of the garage, for a start."

    "Oh, Tom! Looking out over the water, with the yachts and everything?"

    I nodded. "That's what I had in mind."

    She said. "A brand-new flat, that one could plan and have


    everything just right from the start! You do have lovely ideas."

    "I don't see why not," I said. "One's got to live somewhere and that ground was all housing at one time. I think one'ld get a permit to do that all right."

    I thought about it for a minute or two, drinking my beer. "Keep a boat, perhaps," I said. "I'd like to do that. A little sailing yacht that one could take away for the week-end."

    She said, "It sounds just heavenly. . . ."

    I sat there staring out over the heath. It was as she said, just heavenly, too good to be true. I was getting tired, I suppose, at the end of the day, and I hadn't slept a lot the night before. It was all within my grasp and I could grab it if I wanted to, and my other life out in Bahrein could go to hell. In time I'd probably forget all that, even if it took a year or two to do it.

    I put the tankard down. "Let's get going," I said quietly. "Dad and Mum will be wondering what's happened to us."

    I ought to have pulled up somewhere on the way back, in the shade under a tree in some quiet spot, and given her a kiss or two, and told her that I loved her. It would have made her day perfect if I'd done that, and mine too, perhaps. But it's no good getting into things too deep unless you're sure of yourself; I'd done that once before, with Beryl. That was how I started killing her, although I didn't see it at the time. I wasn't going to have that happen to Doris. I still had Bahrein on my mind, and so I drove straight on, and presently got home and dropped her at her father's house.

    She said, "It's been a lovely day, Tom. Thank you ever so much for taking me."

    I smiled. "I've enjoyed it. I'll let you know how things go on."

    I went back to the house, and there was a letter for me there from Gujar Singh, and another one from Connie; they wrote to me every two or three days to tell me how things were going. I opened Connie's first.

    There was not much in it except news that his sister was on her way to Bahrein; she was coming in an American ship to Alexandria and from Egypt she would fly. He expected her to arrive in about a week, and said that he had fixed up accommodation for her in the house that he lived in. I wondered how a girl from


    San Diego would react to the conditions in the souk;
    it was none of my business, of course, except that I had offered to give her a trial in the office. He said that one of the ground engineers, a chap called Salim, had left and had taken a job with Sind Airways Ltd in Karachi, and he was looking for another one. I knew that Salim had worked in Karachi during the war, and I was not surprised that he had left to go back there. The rest of the letter was about the routine work going on in the hangar.

    Gujar's letter was more serious. After telling me about the flights that had been made and booked ahead for the next few days, he went on:
    I think it will be better when you can return. The secretary from the Residency, Mr. Connop, came to the office yesterday and asked when you would come back, and when I said a fort-night he seemed angry. He did not say his business, and went away. In the bazaar men are saying that the Resident is angry with you for the loan of money from the Sheikh of Khulal because they say that religious influence has been used to make that old man lend his money. There is much talk about this so that some say that what goes on in our hangar is good and comes from God, and others say that it is evil. I do not think it would have entered anybody's head that it was evil if the English people at the Residency had not been angry, and the servants told it in the souk. And now there is a great deal of talking going on.

    Shak Lin has told you that Salim has gone back to Karachi. I think he has gone to tell the engineers in Sind Airways our way of doing things, but that is nothing to us, because he is gone. Shak Lin is looking for another one.
    Ma was in the room as I was reading this one. "Bad news, Tom?" she asked.

    "No," I said. "Just business." I was furious over what had happened in Bahrein. The loan that had been offered by the Sheikh of Khulal was not of my seeking, nor was it due to any religious trickery on the part of Connie Shaklin. News of it had got to the Residency as some distorted rumour, and they had assumed that


    we had swindled the old Sheikh with a confidence trick and got away with sixty thousand pounds of his money.
    If they believed that, of course, it was their duty to commence enquiries because it was their job to do what they could to protect the Arab population from exploitation. They had been ham-handed in the Residency and had talked in hearing of the servants, and now God knew what might be stirring in Bahrein. It might end in religious riots, easily.

    I didn't get much sleep that night, either. I lay and tossed upon my bed all night, wakeful and in a weary, anxious maze. Salim had left and gone to Sind Airways, in Karachi. I knew Salim; he was one of the most devout of our ground engineers. Gujar said that he had gone to teach the engineers of Sind Airways our way of doing things. What way? The religious way? Gujar could hardly mean anything else. Was Salim, then, a missionary, spreading a new gospel amongst ground engineers? Was he starting up a cult of Shak Lin's teaching in Karachi, as U Myin had started it in Rangoon? What was ahead of us, and where was it all going to end?

    If riots started in Bahrein because of Shak Lin's teaching, how far would they spread? Would the flame run from Bahrein to Karachi, to Rangoon, and on to Bangkok in Siam?

    I lay unhappy and distressed in our small slum house in Southampton all night through, between the gasworks and the docks. Out in the East the situation might be getting out of control, and here was I in England, away from the job and powerless to influence events. There were eight days to go before the Tramp was ready for delivery.

    I got up in the morning, tired and stale. It was Sunday so we had breakfast late. Over the meal Dad said, "We've not heard anything about how you got on yesterday, Tom. See anything you fancied?"

    I stared at him; my mind was far away in the Persian Gulf. "Anything I fancied?"

    "Any garages?"

    Recollection came flooding back to me, but it all seemed unreal now, and vastly unimportant.
    "Oh—garages. We saw one or two, but nothing very much."

    He grunted. "What are you going to do—go on looking?"