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Round the Bend: Pages 123 through 130

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 123 through 130

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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


    Oh, Threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
    One thing alone is certain, that Life flies:
    One thing is certain, and the rest is lies:
    The flower that once has blown for ever dies.
    Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
    I GOT back to Bahrein about four days after that, after taking my load up to Yenanyaung. I landed back at our base with eighteen passengers from the Burma oil field late one evening. I went into the office before going to the chummery and found, as I had suspected, that we had had to turn away or to postpone a number of important transport jobs for the various oil companies, due to the fact that the Carrier had been absent from the district for nine days. Clearly, I couldn't go on doing business in that way.

    I had a talk about it to Connie and Gujar Singh in my office next day. Ours was a personal business and all the decisions and responsibilities were mine, but I had got into the way of talking things over informally with my chief pilot and my chief engineer whenever difficult decisions had to be made. I had them in now, and told them how we were placed.

    "We can't go on like this," I said. "We've brought this business into being by offering air transport to the oil companies, and now they're offering more business than we can cope with. I'm going to try and get another big aeroplane, and I think it'll have to be a Plymouth Tramp. We'd never get the dollars for another Carrier, even if we'd got the sterling, which we haven't."

    We talked about the Tramp for a time. They both liked the


    idea; indeed, Gujar Singh said roundly that he'd rather have a Tramp for our business than another Carrier. Connie was in favour of a Tramp, but concerned at the diversity of spares that we would have to carry for another aircraft of another type. There was a great deal in what he said; already we were operating five aircraft of four different types, and if we got a Tramp we should have six aircraft of five types.

    "I'll see if I can sell that Fox and get another Proctor," I said. "That makes it a bit better."

    A Tramp it would have to be, and I told them then about my money difficulty. "There's nothing wrong with the business," I said. "But all the profits are taken for the time being by the instalments that I'm paying on the Carrier. All of our profit's going into that, till May next year. The most that I can raise in cash at present is about five thousand pounds, and that's less than ten per cent of the cost of a Tramp. I don't believe the Plymouth people would let us have a Tramp for that."

    Gujar never forgot his banking experience, and he was quite useful at times like this. "You have sufficient assets for a considerable loan," he said. "I do not think the bank here would advance much because aviation enterprises are not quite their business. But they would certify whatever was required to an industrial bank in London. You have a very good name here in Bahrein."

    We talked about that for a time. It meant a trip to England, but that was necessary in any case for the negotiations about the Plymouth Tramp; I did not then know what amount of capital I needed. What Gujar said was probably quite right, but the idea of going trailing round from office to office in the City of London trying to find somebody to lend me fifty thousand pounds or so at some crippling interest rate was not one that I relished. From the point of view of the business it was wrong, utterly wrong from start to finish. Inevitably it meant a big mortgage or debenture held by some stranger, Gentile or Jew, whose interests would be purely financial and possibly divergent from my own, who would have to be consulted whenever I took a chance, who would have to be argued with when things went wrong. Not a happy outlook, and it worried me a lot. I didn't see what else I could do, however.

    I pointed out these disadvantages to them. "If I boob on this


    one it'll mean the finish of the business," I said. "I'm not taking any bouquets for what we've done up to date. We've done it all together. But there's one basic factor that's been at the bottom of our success, and that is that the man who controls the money has been working out here on the job—that's me. If the money control had been by an accountant in a London office, we'd have been bust long before this. And that's just what may happen to us, if we don't look out."

    They saw that point, and we broke up the meeting with nothing decided on the financial point. I hung about at Bahrein for a week although I should have been in London looking for money. I could not bring myself to start on what I knew to be a wrong road, and I stuck around at Bahrein flying the Carrier on local day flights, trying to think of some better finance, moody and bad tempered. I had got myself into a jam, and I couldn't see how to get out of it.

    I came in from Ras Mushaab one evening in the Carrier with a three-ton truck on board with a broken differential for repair. As I passed the hangar on the circuit before landing I saw a big maroon car outside my office that looked like the Hudson that Sheikh Abd el Kadir kept in Bahrein, and I wondered if the old man had taken to coming up to the hangar again to say his prayers. I landed and taxied in and stopped the motors, and Connie came forward from the hangar and met me as I got out of the cabin door.

    "Wazir Hussein's waiting in the office to see you,"
    he said.

    "Hussein? What does he want?"

    He hesitated. "I went over to Baraka on Friday," he said. "I go there sometimes to pray with Sheikh Abd el Kadir, and to talk to his Imam. I told them you were thinking of getting another big aircraft."

    I stared at him. "Did you tell them that I hadn't got any money to pay for it?"

    He nodded. "I think that Hussein may have come with a proposal,"

    "For Christ's sake!" I said.

    He smiled. "I don't see what's wrong with that. It's local money and that's better than London money." That was true enough; if it came to a choice between having an Arab sheikh in the busi-


    ness or a London accountant who had never been out of England, I'd choose the sheikh. "There's just one thing," Connie said. "Watch what you say about interest, if they should offer a loan. They never take interest, you know. They're very strong against usury. It would be very easy to offend them by asking what rate of interest they want."

    I left him to organize the unloading of the truck from the Carrier, and walked across to where Hussein was standing by his car outside my office, a grave, bearded figure in the Arab dress—white headcloth bound with two black cords, and a long white under robe with a wide skirt, and a long coat of a light black linen, gold embroidered, open down the front. He wore a plain leather belt with a gold-hilted curved dagger stuck into it, with a richly chased sheath. He bowed as I came up, and I said, "I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting, Wazir. Shak Lin says that you are waiting to see me."

    He smiled, and said, "I know how hard you work." He spoke very good English. Somebody once told me that as a young man he had been at Cambridge.

    We went into the office and sat down together, and I sent the boy to get coffee from the airport bar. Till it came we talked of general things, the weather, the state of the date crop, the irrigation schemes that the Sheikh had in hand around Baraka, the yield from the pearl fishing, and how the Packard was behaving. Then the coffee came and we sipped it together; when the boy had left the room, the Wazir said:

    "My master, the Sheikh of Khulal, was told by Shak Lin, El Amin, that you are thinking of buying another large aeroplane."

    I nodded. "That is true," and I went on to tell him why I had decided that I had to have it, that there was more work than we could handle and that if we didn't do it somebody else would. Two companies both operating in the same area might split the work so badly that both would be ruined, whereas if we kept it in our hands the business should go steadily ahead. "All the profit that we make goes back into the business," I said. "I take nothing for myself beyond my living expenses."

    He nodded gravely. "My master has been told that you are having to resort to usurers to find the money for this aeroplane," he


    said. "I have explained to him that this is common in England and that no sin is involved on either side, but he has been very much distressed:"

    I said, "It's very nice of him to think of us like that. You know the processes of business in the West, Mr. Hussein. I've got no feeling about paying interest, provided that it's reasonable. What worries me is that if I'm not careful this business may become controlled by those who lend me money, and I think that would be a disaster."

    He smiled a little, and said, "All contact with sin is a disaster." There was a little silence then, and presently he said, "I do not want to be impertinent, Mr. Cutter. My master has sent me to enquire if you need money for this aeroplane, as a loan. It seems very undesirable to him that you should fall into the hands of usurers."

    There was another silence while I thought about this magnificent proposal. "First of all," I said, "will you tell the Sheikh of Khulal how very deeply touched I am by his consideration. It's true that I'm in a difficulty, but I've been in difficulties before and got over them." I paused. "I'm not sure if you realize the scale of the money that is involved. The price of this aeroplane is fifty-five thousand pounds." His face did not change, but then, he was an Arab. "Spare parts and equipment will be needed' for it which will cost about another five thousand—say sixty-five thousand pounds in all. That's about eight lakhs of rupees. All I have in the bank at present is about five thousand. With such an aeroplane I can earn sufficient profit to pay off its cost in three or four years, so that in four years from now I should hope to be free from debt. But if some bad luck should come to the business that we cannot foresee, I could never hope to pay back such a loan from what I can earn upon a salary. No man could do that. If your master should lend money to me in this way and bad luck comes, another war or something terrible, that we cannot foresee, I may never be able to pay him back."

    He inclined his head. "I understand that point. I will explain that to my master."

    I said, "This is a personal business, Wazir. I am not a company, and no person but myself has any share in it. The aeroplanes are


    all my personal property." I thought for a minute. "I will get the accountant to make up an account of my assets to the end of last month, and I will show that to you. I think the book figure will be able to show that the aeroplanes and goods that I own are worth about fifteen thousand pounds, to which should be added the bank credit and the balance of the money that I am owed in trade, and the money that I owe. I think the total figure of my assets will be twenty-one or twenty-two thousand pounds, which would be available towards repayment of this loan if things should go very wrong. It means that if disaster came there would be a balance of thirty-five thousand pounds or so which your master would almost certainly lose. But as I say, I will have the accountant make a statement of my assets and give you a copy."

    He inclined his head. "It is my duty to guard the interests of my master, and I shall be glad to see it. I have never known him to be harsh with a debtor who was unable to pay his debt through no fault of his own."

    I sat in thought for a time. "There's one point I'd better mention," I said. "It may be that in the next year or two I shall have to form the business into a number of small companies, one in India, one in Pakistan, one in Siam, one in Burma, and so on. That may be necessary in the future, because each country reasonably demands that profits which are earned in that country shall be retained in that country and spent in the country. I do not think that this affects the matter because I shall be the only shareholder, but complications of that nature may arise as the business grows."

    He nodded. "It is an interesting point, but so long as all the property is owned by you I do not think my master would complain if some of it was in Siam and could not be transferred. Repayment of the loan should be made here in Bahrein, if possible."

    "Of course," I said. We went on to discuss the details. They were apparently quite prepared to lend me sixty thousand pounds without interest, to be repaid over a period of four years at the rate of £1250 a month. I told him that I would fly over to Baraka with the statement of my assets on the following Tuesday, and he said that he would have a document ready for my signature acknowledging the loan, in Arabic and in English, side by side. Then


    he got up to go and I showed him to his car. He said, "May God protect you," and got in, and drove away.

    I walked over to the hangar in a daze. Connie had gone home, probably to avoid me, but Gujar Singh had just come in in one of the Airtrucks, and I told him all about it as we walked up and down on the tarmac in the evening light. He was delighted with the news, of course, and he made two comments on it that were both shrewd and illuminating.

    The first thing he said was, "This puts us on very firm ground with the Arabia-Sumatran Company."

    I blinked in surprise. "How does that come into it?"

    He smiled. "Their refinery at Habban. It's all his oil, the refinery is on his land, and they pay him the royalty. If they started giving air transport contracts to anybody else, the old Sheikh might lose sixty thousand pounds. They wouldn't want any trouble with the Sheikh."

    It was a point, of course, a sort of discouragement to competition.

    The second thing he said was, "Of course, it's a religious matter."

    I walked with him in silence for a minute. Then I said, "Shak Lin?"

    "Yes. You say he suggested it to them."

    I shook my head. The mere idea that Connie would have used his religious influence with the old Sheikh to induce him to lend me money was utterly repugnant. "That's absolutely wrong," I said. "Shak Lin could never have done that." As I spoke, I wondered why I felt so positively about it. It was inconceivable.

    "I don't say that," Gujar said slowly. "I think like you, he is too good a man. But this is a religious matter, all the same."

    I was silent.

    "It is too near a gift for it to be otherwise," he said. "You have told them, and they must have known before, that if things should go wrong you cannot pay this back. When Sheikh Abd el Kadir dies, he cannot leave a legacy to you or to me. By Moslem law he can only leave his money to his family, or he can leave a legacy for a religious purpose—to build a new mosque, or something like that. They are very strict about such things. Legacies


    are governed by hadith, based upon the Koran. He cannot even dispose of his money as he likes within the family; his children by his concubines share the inheritance equally with his legitimate family, boys two shares and girls one share. When this old man is dead he could not possibly leave money to you, and as he is so near death now, it would be most improper for him to make you a large gift, or even an unrepayable loan."

    I wrinkled my brows. "Why is he doing it, then?"

    He said, "I think he must have consulted with the Imam and the Majlis, and made this loan for a religious purpose."

    We were getting into deep waters. "To buy me another aeroplane?"

    "No. If I may say so, I do not think he cares if you, an Englishman and a Christian, possess another aeroplane or not. But usury in the business that employs Shak Lin . . . that is another matter. To him this hangar is a very holy place, and you, and I, and everyone who works here down to Tarik and the babu clerk, we are all touched with holiness. If usury threatens us, it is a pious and a godly act on his part to step in and stop it, that the shrine may remain undefiled. He could devote his money to that purpose."

    We walked on in silence. "Do you really think that that's the reason behind it?" I asked at last.

    "I do. I think he has consulted with the Imam and the Majlis before doing this."

    "I see. . . ."

    I suppose he saw that I was worried, because after a time he said, "There is no harm in it, and no reason why you should not take his loan. I know it is unusual in the West for men to give large sums for a religious purpose. Perhaps it is more common in my country than in yours."

    "Perhaps it is," I said. "It all wants a bit of thinking about." I left him soon after that, but I thought about it until the small hours of the morning in the hot, brilliant night. I had told Gujar Singh the whole story except two words, which I had kept to myself. Wazir Hussein had referred to Connie as El Amin. El Amin is Arabic, and it means "He who is worthy of trust." Not a bad name for a chief ground engineer, of course, except for the fact that it was one of the names of the Prophet.