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Round the Bend: Pages 91 through 100

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 91 through 100

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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



    having made a few extracts from it on a sheet of paper. The Carrier had an automatic pilot, and at our sector height and on our course I put this in and sat for ten minutes watching that it was working all right. Then Connie and I left our seats and went to the wireless, and found Bangkok broadcasting station, and took a series of bearings on it to check our course. In the course of an hour the bearings gradually crept round from 310° to 357° magnetic, which should have brought us to the river, and when we got to that point and stood up to look out of the windscreen, there was the river. It was as easy as that. We landed at Don Muang about an hour ahead of Gujar Singh. The Siamese control officers knew the Carrier well; they were most tactful, and asked no questions.

    We transferred the loads next morning and took off about midday for Rangoon, flying by the Three Pagodas Pass and the line of the Burma-Siam railway made in the war with the labour of Asiatics and prisoners of war at a vast cost in human life. Again we got to Rangoon an hour or so before Gujar, plodding along behind us at a hundred miles an hour. I was able to raise some more maps at Mingladoon airport; we stayed the night in the hostel there and said good-bye to U Myin and went on at dawn next day. That day we landed to refuel the Airtruck at Chittagong after flying up the coast of Arakan, and took off in the early afternoon for Calcutta.

    At Calcutta I left Gujar to follow on behind at the best speed he could make, and went ahead with Connie in the Carrier. We made one long hop to Karachi in the day, flying right over India at about ten thousand feet, stayed there the night, and left next morning for Bahrein direct. We got there in the early afternoon and circled the familiar airport in our new large aircraft. There was the other Airtruck parked outside, and Arian Singh with the ground staff standing looking up at this strange freight aircraft that was coming in to land. They didn't know it was a new addition to the fleet.

    In the next few weeks I had a lot of work. I reorganized the ground staff and put Connie in charge of all maintenance. I wanted to get Gujar Singh on to flying the Carrier as soon as possible, but I was resolved that he should do a hundred hours


    on it with me as co-pilot before taking it on alone. With two of us off nearly every day in the Carrier, because there was a lot of business for it from the start, it was urgently necessary for us to get another pilot. By that time I was getting letters in almost every mail from British pilots wanting a job, but I was getting on all right with Asiatics at a quarter the salary and probably harder working. I got an Iraqui called Hosein who had been an officer in the Iraqui Air Force; he could fly twin-engined stuff and so Gujar put him on the Airtruck right away. I now had four aircraft all going hard, and so I found I had to get another boy clerk and more labourers. It was getting to be quite a business.

    There was work for the Carrier, more work than we could handle, from the first day. For the first time we had an aircraft in the Persian Gulf that was really designed to carry heavy commercial loads; we could take a motor pump out four hundred miles into the desert, or a concrete mixer, or a truck. We could fetch a crashed aircraft from Sharjah or Kuwait and take it to Egypt in a few hours for repair, and we did that more than once, returning with loads of cases of machinery or engineering stores. There was all manner of work for a big freight aircraft, we discovered, in the Persian Gulf, and it showed no signs whatsoever of getting any less.

    In Batavia, Dwight Schafter came up for trial by the Dutch, and got three years' imprisonment; his co-pilot Seriot got twelve months. I wrote to Schafter about that time saying that the Carrier was safe and earning its keep, and I should be willing to negotiate with his attorney to buy it at my own price by instalments over a period. So far as I could see the thing would have paid its cost in about two years; if I could spread the instalment payments over that time I should get it without having to put down any capital at all. Dwight Schafter, I felt, wouldn't need the money till he'd done his sentence; it might well be that he would agree to such a scheme.

    In the hangar, Connie got the organization into order in a very short time. I had increased the staff by the Chinese, Chai Tai Foong, that we had brought from Damrey Phong and by another Iraqui, so that I now had Connie, four licensed engineers, and five engineering labourers, the latter all Arabs from Bahrein. I had


    suggested to Connie that I should get him into the
    radio operators' chummery with me, but he wouldn't have it. "I am an Asiatic," he said. "It would lead to difficulties."

    "I don't see why it should. You're only technically an Asiatic,
    after all."

    He smiled. "Perhaps. But I should prefer to live in the souk. I must learn Arabic now, and anyway, I shall feel freer there."

    He had a great ability to learn languages,
    I was to discover; three months seemed to be quite enough for him to become fluent in any Eastern language. "All right," I said. "I don't want to press you to live on the station. Where are you staying now?"

    "Gujar Singh has found me a room near his place," he said. "A room in the house of an Arab merchant who sells silks. I shall be all right there."

    "It's a good long way from the hangar," I said. "What will you do—walk it?"

    He grinned. "Do what Gujar Singh does—get a bicycle." My chief pilot came to work each day on an old rusty lady's bicycle, his black beard flowing fiercely in the breeze.

    All this expansion made a considerable stir on Bahrein aerodrome. Practically every month I had to go to the R.A.F. and ask if I could lease another building. Although in theory I was making money hand over fist, there was never any of it in evidence; it all went back into aeroplanes and tools and spares—into various capital accounts. I should have been hard put to it to find the money to erect the simplest wooden hut, but fortunately there were plenty of empty buildings belonging to the R.A.F. that had been put up in the war and had been empty ever since. The accountant officer was very helpful; whenever I wanted a new store or office he could usually produce something, although on a very short term lease. I was lucky in the officers I had to deal with, perhaps; certainly without the help and encouragement of the R.A.F. I'd never have been able to build up the business in those early years.

    I had no time, of course, for any social intercourse, nor could I have kept my end up in such matters. I got my education at the fitter's bench, not at a university. The Persian Gulf 'states are advised by a British Resident, Sir William Faulkner, who lives at the


    Residency in Bahrein with secretaries and whatnot from the Foreign Office; I saw these people sometimes as they came and went in aircraft at the aerodrome, but I never spoke to any of them for years. I never did any work for them because my business was freight alone. I've never put a passenger seat into an aeroplane unless its weight was charged for, or employed a stewardess, and I hope I never shall. I went into that business to make money, not to lose it, and my sort of aircraft weren't the sort to carry diplomats about the place.

    I went on living at the radio operators' chummery and in the sergeants' mess.

    I got to know some of the young officers quite well, however. When they went on leave I could often give them a free ride to India or to Egypt if they didn't mind sitting on their luggage with the load in an unheated and unsoundproofed cabin, and I was always glad to help them in this way, as they helped me. A lot of them had nothing much to do, and they were keen on aeroplanes. I did far more flying at Bahrein in those postwar years than ever the R.A.F. did, and these boys used to come down to the hangar sometimes and just sit around and watch. Some of them got to know as much of what was going on in my crowd as I did myself, or a bit more.

    Flight Lieutenant Allen came into my office once for something or other—I forget what it was. As he turned to go he grinned and said, "How's old Harpic getting on?"

    "Who do you call Harpic?" I enquired. It was a new one to me.

    "Sorry," he said. "Mr. Shaklin. Your chief engineer."

    "Doing all right," I replied. "Why do you call him that?"

    "He's clean round the bend."

    "He's a bloody good engineer," I said. "He's brisking up the other boys. I'm getting the maintenance properly done now
    that I've given up trying to run everything myself."

    "He talks religion to them all the time."

    "Well, what of it?" I said. "Do some of you young muggers good if you thought about your immortal souls a bit."

    "You can't maintain aircraft with the Koran in one hand and a spanner in the other. Or can you?"

    "Course you can," I said. "He's doing it. Who told you any


    way?" Because I knew that anything of that sort that was going on in my hangar went on in Arabic. I was starting to understand a bit of Arabic myself by that time, but I was pretty sure that Flight Lieutenant Allen didn't know a word.

    "The barman in the mess was telling us. It's getting talked about all over the town. They say that if you want religion you can go and listen to the Imam in the mosque or you can go and listen to old Harpic in the hangar."

    I grinned. "Do you a bit of good to go to either." He went away, and I sat on at the bare table that I used as a desk, listening to the typewriter in the next room, slightly uneasy. Connie was getting talked about, it seemed. I should know more of what was going on.

    I knew it happened mostly in the afternoon, in the last hour of work before they knocked off for the afternoon prayer. I went down to the hangar that afternoon and got into the cockpit of the Fox-Moth with a pencil and a notebook; I had intended for some time to fit a blind-flying panel in the instrument board and I wanted to scheme it out. But that wasn't really the reason that I went.

    Standing beside the Fox was the first Airtruck, and Connie was doing a top overhaul on the port engine. He had a working platform rigged up by the engine of a couple of planks on trestles, and he was up on this thing with a ground engineer and one of the Arab boys. Most of the rest of the staff seemed to have arranged their work to get within earshot; they were all doing something, but they were listening at the same time. Up on his platform working on the engine Connie was talking to them.

    He was speaking partly in English and partly in Arabic, which he could already speak much better than I could. "We are a peculiar people," he was saying, "we who care for aeroplanes. For common men it is enough to pray five times in each day, as the Imam dictates and as is ordained in the Koran. But we are different, we engineers. We are called to a higher task than common men, and Allah will require much more from us than that." He paused, and said to the man working with him, "Got a five-sixteenth box there? Thanks. Now hold it, just like that."

    They worked on for a time in silence. "You have heard from


    the Imam of the journey that the Prophet of God made, when he was roused from sleep by the angel Gabriel who mounted him upon the horse with eagle's wings, Al Borak. You know how he passed by the Three Temptations and traversed the Seven Heavens till he came to the House of Adoration and the Presence of God. God then gave to the Prophet the main doctrines of the Faith, and ordained that prayers should be said by the faithful each day."
    He paused, and slipped the nuts collected in his hand into an old cigarette tin. "Now, draw her off gently. Wait a minute—the gasket's sticking on this side." They disengaged the cylinder head, and passed it down carefully from hand to hand to the ground.

    Connie straightened up. "How many times were prayers to be said each day?"

    There was a momentary silence. Then two or three said at once, "Fifty times." And someone added, "—Teacher."
    I noted that for thinking over later on. This thing was going deeper than I knew about.

    "That is correct," said Connie. "Fifty times. I see you all don't know this story, or you have forgotten it, and yet of all men you should know it. Do you not know that when the Prophet descended from the Presence he met Moses?"
    One or two of the men nodded. "Moses asked how many times God had required the people to pray, and Mahomet said, fifty times. And Moses told him that it was impracticable, that he had tried it with the Children of Israel and he had never succeeded in getting anybody to pray fifty times a day. He said that the Prophet should go back to God and humbly beg that this number of prayers each day should be reduced. Mahomet did so, and on coming from the Presence he met Moses again, and told him that the number was reduced to forty prayers a day. `That is still too much,' said Moses. 'The people will not pray so many times. You must go back and ask Him to reduce it further.' " He paused. "Let's have that No. 2 cranked cylinder head spanner."

    Presently he went on. "Urged by Moses, it is written that the Prophet went back and back to God until the number of prayers was reduced to five each day. And still Moses said, 'Do you think you can exact five prayers a day from your people? By Allah, I


    have been through this with the Children of Israel, and it cannot be done. Go back and ask Him to reduce it yet again.' But the Prophet said, 'No, I will not go back. I have asked His indulgence already until I am ashamed. My people are not Israelites, and they shall worship Him five times a day.' That is the reason why every Believer has to say his prayers to God five times each day."

    He spoke again to the other engineer about the cranked spanners, and then decided to loosen a part of the induction manifold to get at the nuts. He went on, "That is the story that you know and have been taught as true Believers, only some of you seem to have forgotten it. But you will see that five prayers is the minimum; the number was brought down to be within the power of the unlettered, common man—a camel driver, or a shepherd. But we are not like that, we engineers. We are men of understanding and of education, on whom is laid responsibility that men may travel in these aeroplanes as safely as if they were sitting by the well in the cool of the evening. We are not men like camel drivers or shepherds, and God will demand much more from us than from them. From men like us, the full tally of fifty prayers a day will be demanded. Five of them must be made in public or in private, according to the way you know, but this is the bare minimum for all men. From men like you another forty-five prayers are demanded. I will tell you about them."

    They detached a part of the induction manifold and passed it down to the ground, and started to slack off the nuts of the next cylinder head. "Forty-five prayers a day may seem a lot to you," he said in Arabic. "They did to Moses. Yet forty-five more prayers a day was the commandment of God, and God is All-Seeing, and All-Knowing, and All-Merciful; He would not command that you should do more than you can perform. Men who work as you do upon aeroplanes can pray to God forty-five times a day quite easily, and I will tell you how."

    He straightened up upon the trestle and looked down on them, spanner in hand. He was wearing a soiled khaki shirt and khaki shorts; he wore old oil-stained shoes with socks rolled round about his ankles. Beads of sweat were making little glistening streaks upon his face in the heat of the hangar, and the shirt clung to his


    back in dark, wet patches. His hands and forearms were stained and streaked with oil from the engine, mixed with sweat.

    "I inspect some of the work you do upon these engines and these aeroplanes,"
    he said. "God, the All-Seeing and All-Knowing, He inspects it all. You come to me and say, 'I have replaced this manifold and the job is finished.' I come to look at it to see if there is any fault, and I see everything in place. I look at the nuts, and I see the locking wires correctly turned the right way to prevent the nuts unscrewing, and that is all that I can see. I cannot see if the nuts are screwed only finger tight; I cannot see if you have put a lever on the spanner and strained them up so tight that the bolts are just about to fail in tension. These things are hidden from me, but nothing is hidden from the All-Seeing Eye of God."

    He paused. "God, the All-Knowing, knows if you have done well or ill," he said quietly. "If you ask Him humbly in prayer to tell you, He will tell you if you have done well or ill; in that way you will have a chance to do the job again, and try to do it better. Or you can come to me and say, Help me to do this work, because I cannot do it right. God is All-Merciful, and He will not hold bad work against you if He sees you striving to do right. So I say this to you."

    He paused again. "With every piece of work you do, with every nut you tighten down, with every filter that you clean or every tappet that you set, pause at each stage and turn to Mecca, and fold your hands, and humbly ask the All-Seeing God to put into your heart the knowledge whether the work that you have done has been good or ill. Then you are to stand for half a minute with your eyes cast down, thinking of God and of the job, and God will put into your heart the knowledge of good or ill. So if the work is good you may proceed in peace, and if it is ill you may do it over again, or come to me and I will help you to do well before God."

    He turned back to the engine. "If you do this," he said, "you will soon find that you are praying to God forty-five times a day or more, as He directed the Prophet in the first instance. Moses and Mahomet were quite right to get the tally reduced, because the people of that day were nomads and camel drivers. But you


    are educated men doing the most skilled work in all the world, and so much closer to God. God will require more of you than of common men; you are worth more than many camel drivers, because men look to you to see how good work should be done. And now I tell you, good work can be done only with the help and power of the All-Knowing God."

    It was only then that I noticed what young Tarik was doing. He had got out a penny exercise book, bought in the souk or stolen from a school, and he was writing busily in it with a pencil, using the workbench as a desk. He was obviously having difficulty in keeping up and I would have given a good deal for a look at the book; I didn't know that Tarik could write. But equally obviously, he was doing his best to write down everything that Connie said. I wondered when I saw him how long he had been doing it.

    It was five o'clock presently, and time for the men to knock off. Those who were Moslems, which meant most of the men working in the hangar, went out to the little patch of ground beside the hangar and turned to Mecca and commenced their afternoon Rakats. I had noticed a couple of days before that they had fallen into the habit of doing this together in a little crowd or congregation, and I was surprised to see some of the Arab servants from the R.A.F. camp join them. One of these I thought I recognized as the barman in the officers' mess, though I had only seen him once or twice and I couldn't be sure.

    Connie did not join them in their devotional postures. He went with them and knelt in prayer a little way apart from them, facing Mecca as they did, but kneeling all the time. I guessed that this was because he was not a Moslem, and for the first time I wondered what he was.

    I must say, I was rather impressed. In aircraft work of the somewhat pioneering sort that I was doing you have to be adaptable. When a new situation arises without precedent, you have to go to first principles and make the precedent yourself, and this religious turn that my maintenance crew were taking was just one of those things. I had chosen to staff my enterprise entirely with Asiatics. Having done that with my eyes open, I could not expect to run the non-essential parts of my business wholly in the European way; there must be tolerance on my part, and I must adapt my way of


    doing things to suit their ways of life. You can run a workshop in the Western style with time clocks and job cards and ratefixers and premium bonus schemes, but to make a success of that you've got to have some people from the West to work in it, and I myself was the only one in the party. Or, you can run it in the Eastern way, and that's not necessarily a bad, or inefficient, or a slovenly way. Connie had introduced into my shop a form of discipline that was quite new to me, but the proof of the pudding after all was in the eating, and I was coming to the conclusion that the results were pretty good. The aeroplanes were being well maintained.

    Dwight Schaffer had commented on that when I had met him in the hospital in Batavia; he had said that Asiatic engineers who worked with Connie became confident and responsible people. My own experience was tending in the same direction and I began to watch the work that went on very closely. I must say I was very, pleased indeed, so pleased that I mentioned it to Gujar Singh one day to get his views.

    Gujar and I had flown the Carrier to a place called El Hazil in the Arabian desert about halfway between Kuwait and Egypt, with a load of machinery for the pipeline. El Hazil at that time was little more than a sand airstrip, three wooden huts, and half a dozen tents, with a Bedouin encampment in the middle distance. It was nearly dark when the unloading was finished and there was some stuff to go back to Bahrein that was corning in to the strip in the morning, so we stayed there for the night, sleeping on camp beds in the cabin of the aircraft, as we often did.

    We had supper with the engineers in their mess hut, and strolled over to the aircraft presently, smoking in the cool of the night. It was very quiet in the desert; the dark blue sky was sown with millions of bright stars. I said to Gujar, "How do you think things are going in the hangar now?"

    He said, "I think very well."

    I nodded. "I think so, too." We walked on for a few paces. "I think Shak Lin is very good with them," I said at last. I had fallen into the habit of using his Asiatic name when speaking to an Asiatic. "I'm just a little worried about all this religion. I suppose that's quite all right?"