Monday, 15 September 2008

'Postcard from the Desert' by Suzette Hartwell

“A party of us are going to the pyramids this afternoon. A stranger has a good chance of losing himself in this place.”

These were the heart stirring words that Lavinnia’s husband Richard had penned to her on the postcard, which had just arrived in the morning post. The black and white picture showed the three pyramids of Egypt with palm trees and a donkey laden with goods, its master walking behind wearing a long flowing galabiyya.

“This looks like a scene from the bible, it’s almost a timeless picture,” Lavinnia claimed.

Her family agreed as they shared the postcard in turn, each conjuring up what it must be like over in the antipodes. What adventures he must be having.

Although Lavinnia’s impending birth was a blessing, it had cut short her plans to travel with her husband and soul mate. Never mind that the British Steamer Company had just began offering Nile cruises, the thought of a premature birth on a boat, in the heat, surrounded by flies and the “natives” was the last thought this young English woman wanted to entertain, thank you very much! Far better to think of the romantic adventure Richard would be having. Over several steaming cups of good English tea and delicious petit-fours, the family had imagined their intrepid traveller visiting the pyramids by donkey, led by his faithful servant (a local who could be trusted, of course), and taking high tea with a local sheik of the desert. Not to mention the souvenirs he would bring back.

Richard had the same romantic notions about this trip, too. Walking into the Khan-el-Khalili bazaar that first day he couldn’t believe his eyes. There were so many small shops, their owners elbowing each other for room, each vying for his attention, displaying richly patterned carpets and cloth, mother-of-pearl inlaid mirrors, tables and boxes, delicate glass perfume bottles, exotic smells, myriad colours of spices, and hordes of people weaving in and out.

“English! Over here!” Richard spun around, and came face to face with a smiling Arab, his teeth stained by incessant black coffees. “I am Ahmed, welcome my country. You want postcard for back home? Pyramids? I take you there, and you can climb to top. Others are coming.”

“W, Why yes, alright.” Richard couldn’t believe his luck, meeting a local who spoke English and who would take him to see one of the seven wonders of the world. The purchase of postcards was made, a price set for the excursion, and a deal struck. The party travelled by donkey later that following day.

“Gosh, I never imagined them this big!” Richard marvelled, as the pyramids loomed larger.

“Yes, all visitors say this. They are 481 feet high. Ready to climb them?” Ahmed asked. “We will begin climbing here. See? You can climb up these rocks, stretch one arm above the other.”
It looked easy enough, but it was a grinding, hard struggle, to stretch up to the next block, and pull one self up. How Ahmed could do this in a flowing robe amazed Richard.

Ever so slowly, they climbed, until Ahmed stopped and said, “We are halfway, have a look how close the city is.”

Richard turned to appreciate the view, but a sense of vertigo assaulted him. He felt dizzy, but his sweaty hand automatically grabbed the nearest limestone rock as he imagined himself falling, falling … Despite the heat, he instantly went cold, and could feel the bile making its swift, insidious journey up his throat.
“Here, grab my arm,” yelled Ahmed.
By now Richard’s fingertips were only just holding on to the surface of the rock. With his eyes bulging, Richard swung for the outstretched arm of Ahmed, and missed it! He tried again, this time only just catching the end of the galabiyya, but it was enough for Ahmed to reach down and save his companion.

Safely sitting on the edge of the block, both men regained their breath, each quietly thanking his own God. They sat there until dusk, when the desert cooled. The view was spectacular. Richard thought of his life and how insignificant it had been, like the grains of sand that seemed to collect everywhere out here. He made his way back to his hotel, exhausted after the day’s unsuccessful ascent.

The next morning, Richard booked a steamer for his Nile cruise, and put his luggage aboard. The cruise didn’t leave until dusk, time enough for him to go back to the pyramids and complete the climb to the top. This thought had occurred to him while sitting on the pyramid the day before, during his deep soul searching.

Richard did make it to the top of the pyramid, with the help of his friend Ahmed. However, when he finally gazed around, he froze, rooted to the spot. Never before had he felt such fear. No amount of cajoling from Ahmed could coax him down. Finally, after some time, Ahmed reluctantly left his companion to get some help. It was then that Richard realised that he would miss his cruise.

Several hours later, the Nile cruise ship sailed. Her Egyptian captain was confident all passengers were on board, after all, every piece of luggage was accounted for, and the passengers were scattered all over the various decks. He strolled around, greeting the weary travellers, and laughed to himself at their insistence on wearing stuffy Victorian clothes, with heavy lace up clothing and boots in this climate.

The travellers congratulated themselves on such a fine choice of destination, this exotic land of the Pharaohs! They sipped their aperitifs, lulled into a false sense of security by the calming waters and noise of the engines. Below deck, however, all was not well in the kitchen. A fire had broken loose on the stoves, fuelled by a tin of cooking oil thoughtlessly left with its lid open. An explosion erupted and the terrified, unorganised crew’s efforts to scramble up the narrow wooden steps, to reach the top, were in vain. Those above board were stupefied in their horror - surely this couldn’t happen on their trip of a lifetime! The fire continued its destruction, leaving scant little in its place. Those who were able to jump overboard were soon drowned by their heavy clothes, or overpowered by the hippopotami lurking under the water.

A telegram arrived at Lavinnia’s house the next evening. She looked at the faces of her family, hoping they might show some sign that this was not ominous message. With a dry throat and trembling hands, she tore open the envelope. She gasped as she read:

Regret to inform you, fire has destroyed all souls on board British Steamer B.S.1. Friday 1st November, 1901.Your husband’s luggage recovered, will be forwarded on to you as soon as possible. Deepest sympathy to you. Signed: Admiral E.M. Baines, British Steamer Company.

Lavinnia’s screams stopped only when she found herself feeling faint, and falling down, as if from a great height …

© Suzette Hartwell, 2008. Reproduced by kind permission.

Suzette hails from Bendigo in Australia's Victoria State and has recently finished a Certificate of Egyptology from Manchester University. She has also worked in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with the American Research Council. Suzette has documented her travels and experiences and with her kind permission we will be publishing these in coming months.

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