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Round the Bend: Pages 131 through 140

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 131 through 140

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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



    I got the accountant on the job next day, and the figures came out just as I had expected. I thought them over for a bit. In a negotiated sale the business was probably worth more than the book value of the assets, but if some disaster were to force a sale the aircraft might not realize the book value. In the accounts I was writing everything off over five years. I added a note about this to the accounts suggesting an additional depreciation of 25 per cent on the aircraft in the case of a forced sale, and then I got into the Proctor and went over to Baraka.

    I circled the palace and the Wazir's house before landing, and saw a car leave for the airstrip; then I landed and parked the aircraft as the car drove up. I got out and drove to the Wazir's house. Hussein came out to meet me at the door. It was a two-storied house built around a court; one side of this court was a blank, windowless wall behind which lay the harem. Hussein had his son and a secretary with him. He greeted me with a grave courtesy and took me up to a room with a balcony on the first floor; there was practically no furniture in this room except two wooden long chairs, a table, and a very beautiful carpet on the floor.

    We sat down and he clapped his hands, and an Arab servant came with coffee. It was delightfully cool in that top room, with a sea breeze blowing through it. We talked of casual things for a time—the weather for flying, the design of the house, the condition of the airstrip, and presently I produced my accounts and explained them to him. "I don't want to conceal anything from you," I said. "This is the true position of the business as I understand it at the moment." I paused. "Please ask anything which may occur to you. I will tell you anything I can."

    He asked a little bit about my forward contracts and about my relations with the Arabia-Sumatran Company, and I told him about the long-range work which was developing for them, which had made this new large aircraft necessary. Then he laid the accounts down, and smiled. "I do not think that there is anything further," he said, smiling. "My master knows of you as an honest man. The money is at your disposal when you need it, sixty thousand pounds. Have you a bank in Bahrein?"

    "I've got an account with the Bank of Asia," I said. "If you would pay it into my account there, I should be most grateful. In


    that case I shall transfer most of it to a London bank at once and fly to England to place the order." I paused. "I can only tell you, what I think you know already, that your help is making things very easy for me."

    He said, "That is my master's wish."

    He told me that the Sheikh was anxious to meet me, and presently we went downstairs and walked a hundred yards or so down the lane to the palace: This was a white house standing in a garden of flower beds and date palms just outside the town. It was not very large as palaces go; it was arranged in two stories around a courtyard and might have had about ten or twelve large rooms in all. It was in a sort of Moorish style with fretted wooden sun shutters at the windows; there was rather a beautiful little mosque immediately adjacent to it in the garden.

    I had been entertained by sheikhs a good many times since I had come to the Persian Gulf, and there was very little to distinguish this lunch party from many of the others. The old man met us at the door; he spoke no English and I had to do the best I could in Arabic; from time to time the Wazir helped me by translating when I got stuck. He had a crowd of about fifteen of his ministers and hangers-on with him, and we sat around on hard chairs in a circle in an anteroom and made polite conversation until lunch was ready. Then we went through into the dining room or whatever they call it, where the meal was prepared upon a table cloth in the middle of the carpet on the floor—a huge pile of rice on an enormous dish with the best part of a sheep boiled and lying on top of it, all very greasy. I knew about this, of course, and had prepared for it by eating nothing that day and very little the evening before. One goes into training for an Arab feast.

    We sat down on the floor, myself next to the Sheikh, and washed our hands in the bowls that the Negro servants brought round. Then the old man tore a bit of mutton off the carcass in the middle with his hands and put it on my plate, and a servant began to hand a multitude of side dishes to me, curries and mushrooms and truffles and dates in sweet syrup and Lord knows what. I'm always very bad at eating with my fingers and 1 always seem to make more mess upon the carpet than the Arabs do, but I must


    say there's a fascination in that sort of a meal. Some of it was perfectly delicious.

    Finally the old man got up, and the servants washed our hands for us, and we went back into the anteroom for coffee flavoured with cloves. It was only then that the Sheikh raised the subject that had brought me there. He said, "The Wazir tells me that your business has been satisfactorily concluded."

    "There only remains for me to express my very deep gratitude for so much help,"
    I replied. "I say this not only for myself, but for the pilots and the engineers who work with me."

    "It is good that men who bring others to the way of God should not be perplexed for money," the old man said. And I thought, Gujar Singh was right. That's what is behind it all.

    Presently I took my leave of the Sheikh, and went back with Wazir Hussein to his house. The Sheikh's eldest son came with us, a young man called Fahad, and at the Wazir's house we had another cup of coffee and he produced the loan agreement. This was a document written on parchment in Arabic and in English, in vertical columns with the two languages side by side. It had only three clauses and was very simple and straightforward. Fahad, who spoke good English, explained it to me with the Wazir, and I signed it there and then, and they gave me a cheque for sixty thousand pounds. I flew back to Bahrein in the Proctor wondering when I was going to wake up.

    Next day I spent an hour telephoning round to all my clients in the oil companies to tell them that I was leaving for England to bring out another large aircraft; I sent a cable to the Plymouth Aircraft Company ordering a Tramp and saying I would visit them during the following week to finalize the specification and to pay a deposit, and I sent a cable to Dad to say that I was coming home. There was a Dakota of Orient Airways going through to Almaza that day and I got a ride in that, and from Egypt I flew home by B.O.A.C. which had a spare seat in a Constellation of the Australian service.

    It was more than a year since I had been in England, and it was good to be back. It was May, and as I travelled down by rail to Southampton I thought that I had never seen a country look so green and beautiful. I had forgotten that England was lovely. I sat


    with my nose glued to the window in the train, just looking at the varied greens of the fields and trees and hedges, at the delicate colours of the
    flowering trees. It was wonderful.

    I went by bus from the station to the gasworks, and carried my bag from there. It was evening, and the tall steelwork of the gasholders, and the cranked cranes of the clocks, were all touched with a golden light. I walked down the familiar streets through the games of the playing. children in a dream; this was my own place, and I was home again. The places I had worked in were all very wonderful and strange, but this was my town, where I belonged.

    I turned into the door of our house and went into the living room. Ma was in, as I had known she would be, and Dad wasn't; he was down at the Lion playing darts. Ma came out of the scullery when she heard the door, and she said, "Torn!" And then she said, "Oh, Tom, you're thinner! Whatever have you been doing with yourself?"

    As I kissed her I said, "Am I, Mum?"

    She said, "Of course you are! Have you been ill or something?"

    I smiled. "Not a day. I'm as fit as a flea."

    "Really, Tom?"

    "Honest, Mum. I've not been ill at all."

    Shc felt my shoulders. "Well, I dunno. You don't look ill, I must say, but you must be a stone lighter." She stood back and looked at me. "You're looking older, too. Have you been working overtime or night shift?"

    "I've been working," I said. "I expect that's it."

    "Well, now you've got to stay at home a bit and get rested up," she said. "How long are you home for now, Tom?"

    "I don't know," I said. "I've come home for another aeroplane, but it may be a month or so before it's ready." In the correspondence they had said four weeks' delivery.

    "Well then," she said, "you'll be able to lie in tomorrow and have a real rest."

    "I've got to catch the seven thirty-three for Plymouth tomorrow morning, Mum," I said. "I'll have to have breakfast before Dad."

    "Oh, Tom! You ought to get some rest. You're looking quite worn out."


    "I'm all right," I said.

    She told me I was sleeping in the same old room, and I took my bag through and unpacked it. None of us children were at home with the old people. Ted had been the last, but he'd gone now. He'd married his Lily as soon as he got out of the Army and he'd got a job driving a truck for a builder at Wootton; they had been living with Dad and Mum up till a week or so before but now
    they'd got a council house, because she was expecting. All the kids were out in the world, and all married and settled except me.

    While I was in the back room, Ma sent young Alfie Lamb from next door down to the Lion to tell Dad I was home, and Dad came back ten minutes later. Ma got supper for us and we sat and talked till after eleven. I told them everything I could about the business, all except the religious part; I left that out because I didn't properly understand it myself. I didn't tell them about the loan I'd got from Sheikh Abd el Kadir, either, and they didn't know enough about business to be curious about where all the money was coming from. They thought I made it, and I didn't undeceive them.

    Once Dad said, "How much money have you got now, Tom?"

    "Bloody little," I said grinning. "I've got about five thousand pounds in the bank."

    Ma said, "That's a lot of money."

    Dad said, "He's got more than that, Ma. He's having us on. Just look at him."

    She said, "Tom, how much have you really got?"

    "That's all," I said. "I've got some aeroplanes, of course."

    "How much are they worth?"

    "I'd only be guessing if I told you, Mum," I said seriously. "They stand me in at about fifteen thousand pounds in the books. If I went bust and got sold up, they probably wouldn't fetch that much. If I sold the business as a going concern, with goodwill, they'd probably fetch a bit more."

    Dad said slowly, "So you've made twenty thousand pounds, then, have you?"

    "I suppose so," I said slowly. "It doesn't feel as if I had. I mean, it just sort of happened."


    "How much would twenty thousand pounds bring in if it was invested, Tom? Say in a row of houses, like it might be these?"

    "Oh, I don't know, Dad. Something like seven hundred a year I should think."

    "Seven hundred a year. You could sell the business and retire and do nothing for the rest of your life, and still have close on twice as much as me each week to live on. You've not done bad for yourself, son."

    Ma said quietly, "Why don't you .do that, Tom, and stay at home, and get a job in England? You could buy a business with that money, and a good one, too." She meant a shop, of course.

    I said, "It's not so easy to get out as that, Mum. There's a lot of other things to be considered. I mean, when you start a thing there's other people get mixed up in it, and you can't let them down. You can't pick things up and put them down just as you fancy. You've got to see things through."

    "That's right," said Dad. "You've got to think about the other people in the business. But what your Ma says is right, Tom. There's no call for you to spend your whole life in the Persian Gulf."

    Ma started to put the plates together. "You want to look about a bit, now that you're home," she said. "You want to find yourself a girl and settle down. That's what you want. We're none of us getting any younger."

    I laughed. "Okay, Ma," I said with mock obedience. "Where shall I start looking?"

    She called from the scullery. "There's two or three nice girls right in this street would do you very well. You don't have to look far. If they knew that you'd got twenty thousand pounds we wouldn't be able to get in or out of the door."

    "Well, don't you go telling 'em," I said.

    I was up early next morning, and took a few things in my bag, and caught the seven thirty-three for Plymouth. It was a slow journey, and I didn't get there till after dinner. There was the hell of a fine car with a chauffeur waiting there to meet me, and I was whisked out to the works just as if I was somebody important, instead of being Tom Cutter from the sergeants' mess out in Bahrein.


    It's an enormous company, of course, employing over twenty thousand hands in all the various divisions of the business. Like most big concerns, they were quite brutal about the money. Within the first five minutes I had to write a cheque for ten thousand pounds before they'd even talk to me, but when they'd got that in their hands they took me seriously, and were they good! Whenever any of them quoted a performance, or gave a price, or a date, you kind of knew that that was dead right and no baloney. What's more, they put me through the hoop about my business, to find out what kind of loads I carried or was likely to carry; they weren't going to have their aeroplane give any trouble because I was using it wrong. When they heard I carried bulldozers they pulled out a reinforced floor scheme; when they heard I aimed to carry pilgrims they pulled out a seating scheme of long, hard dural benches, very light and easily washed down. When they heard I flew normally with a crew of two they pulled out a revised crew accommodation that did away with the radio operator's position and added a hundred and ten pounds to the payload. It was an education dealing with those people.

    They had machines on the production line coming through and they gave me twenty-six days' delivery, from noon the next day. It was getting towards evening by that time, and they pushed me their way like as if I was a little boy. They'd got accommodation for me in their own hotel just by the works, and they gave me a mass of drawings to study that night. They arranged a demonstration flight for ten o clock next morning for me, and they made it very clear that they expected me to confirm the order then with another twenty thousand pounds. After that I was to go away and not bother them any more—they told me the time of my train—for twenty-five and a half more days. I could come back then, with another twenty-five thousand pounds, and fly my aeroplane away exactly at noon, unless I cared to stay for lunch. The only thing they didn't make exactly and precisely clear was if I had to pay for lunch.

    I'd never have got anywhere with those people if I hadn't been able to pay cash down. Their business was, quite simply, to make the best aircraft in the world—not to lend money.

    I didn't have to go back to Southampton by train, as it hap-


    pened. There was a Proctor there owned by my old company, Airservice Ltd, that had come over for some spares. I knew the pilot slightly and he knew me; He had been out in Cairo for a bit and I had met him once or twice when I had taken a load there in the Carrier. He was interested to see me with the sales people, and he said that Mr. Norman Evans, my old chief, would be very glad to hear I was in England, and would be sure to want to meet me. I said I'd be free for the next three weeks and gave him my address; he wanted the telephone number, but of course, he was unlucky. However, he was genuinely pleased to see me and we got along so well I touched him for a lift to Eastleigh; it was a bit out of his way but he said the firm would be glad to do that for me. So I was home with Dad and Mum that evening in time for tea, instead of about midnight, as I thought I would be.

    Mum wasn't expecting me so early. When I went into the house there was a girl there in the kitchen with her, Doris Waters, the school teacher that I'd met when I was home before, daughter of old Waters the plumber. They'd got Ted's school atlas spread out on the table that they'd marked in ink with lines to all the places I had been to, and a lot of picture postcards that I'd sent home, and some photographs I'd brought back with me. Mum had been having a grand time, telling this girl all about me.

    Ma said as I went in, "Hullo, Tom. Thought you weren't coming home till late?"

    "I got a lift back to Eastleigh," I said. "Evening, Doris."

    She smiled, and said, "Good evening, Tom. Your mother's been telling me about your travels. Haven't you been a long way?"

    "You don't have to believe everything Ma says," I said a bit awkwardly. Doris had filled out since I was home last, got more mature; she must have been twenty-four years old or so. It was years since I'd spoken to a young woman like her. She was quiet, and graceful, and pretty; I could hardly take my eyes off her.

    "He's a bad, wicked boy," said Ma. "You can believe that, anyway. Doesn't write home enough, and when he does he doesn't tell us anything. We have to wait till he comes home to hear what he's been up to, and that's only when he wants another aeroplane. When he's got all the aeroplanes he wants we shan't see or hear from him at all."


    The girl said, "Oh, Mrs. Cutter, how terrible! He must be a great disappointment to you." She was grinning.

    "Don't you ever get married, Doris," said my mother. "You'll find children more trouble than they're worth."

    "One thing," I said, "is that they're always wanting their tea."

    "I don't know there's anything for you," said Ma. "I didn't think you'd be home, so I only got three kippers; one for your Pa, one for Doris, and one for me. I dunno what you're going to eat, Tom, unless you slip down to Albert's and see if he's got another one. There was plenty in the box this morning."

    Doris said, "I'll go, Mrs. Cutter."

    "No," I said. "I'll go."

    "Well, don't start fighting over it," said Ma. So she stayed to clear the table and put the kettle on, and Doris and I walked down to the fishmonger's together.

    I knew, of course, that Ma hadn't engineered this meeting, although she was quite capable of it. Doris was in the habit of dropping in to see Mother once or twice a week; I knew that from Ma's letters. I was glad of that, because with us kids all out in the world and mostly living in other places, it must have been a bit lonely for Ma with Dad away all day, especially now that Ted and Lily had moved out and set up their own home. I tried to tell Doris something about that as we walked down the street.

    "Nice of you to keep coming in so often to see Ma," I said. "She looks forward to you coming."

    "I like it," she replied. "Your father and mother are such genuine people, and they're so proud of what their children are all doing. Specially you."

    I walked on for a moment in silence. "Wish I wasn't so far off," I said at last. "They're neither of them getting any younger."

    "I know." She hesitated. "Your mother was really worried last winter, when your father got that pneumonia."

    I stared at her. "When did Dad have pneumonia?"

    "Last January. Didn't you know?"

    "Not a word. Are you sure?"

    "Of course. It was just after Christmas, Tom. He was off work all January." She had reason to know, because the crisis had come in the school holidays, and I found out later that she had been in


    the house with Mother every day, and sitting up several nights.

    I was worried. "Ma told me that he'd had a cold and been off work a bit," I said. "I didn't think much of it."

    She nodded. "She didn't want to worry you. I mean out there, you couldn't do anything to help."

    "'Course I could,"
    I said. "The show can get on without me for a bit, almost any time. I could have been home in thirty-six hours, if there was any trouble with Dad or Mum like that."

    She said, "Flying home? It'ld cost an awful lot. Your father wasn't as bad as that."

    "Not much sense in flying home just for the funeral," I said a bit shortly. "What happened? Did he go to the hospital?"

    "They hadn't got a bed," she said. "It was all right at home."

    Mum and Dad like our house and they'd never move away from it, but it's not much of a place to nurse a serious illness in, with no running water upstairs and the only toilet out in the back yard and shared with the house next door. "Did they try and get him into a nursing home?" I asked.

    "I don't think so," she said. "It comes a bit expensive, you know.

    I said, "For Christ's sake!" I was worth twenty thousand pounds, all made in about three years. It wasn't real money, of course, to Dad and Mum. It wasn't very real to me.

    "I wish I'd known," I said. "I'd have been home inside two days and got all that fixed up. There's plenty of money for a nursing home, or anything they need."

    "I'm very glad to know that," she said seriously. "I'll remember it." We walked along in silence for a bit. I was worried, thinking what a bad son I had been. "If that happens again, Tom," she said seriously, "would you like me to send you a cable?"

    I turned to her. "I wish you would. But if you do that, send it good and early, so that I can get home in good time and do something. I've got all the money in the world to help them if they're sick. Don't wait to send a cable till they're dying."

    She hesitated. "It might mean bringing you home on a wild goose chase," she said. "You wouldn't thank me then."

    "I would. I'd rather have it that way. I don't get home to see them enough, anyway. If you cable me like that, I wouldn't hold