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Round the Bend: Pages 261 through 270

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 261 through 270

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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


    And God shall make thy soul a Glass where
    eighteen thousand aeons pass,
    And thou shalt see the gleaming Worlds as
    men see dew upon the grass.
    I LOOK back on the ten days that we spent in Bali before the Arab party came as one of the happiest periods of my life. For the first time in many years it was impossible for me to control events in any way. That of itself might not have freed me from the worries and the strain of my responsibilities, but being with Connie did. We had no more serious conversation. There was little to do in the workshop except painting and distempering, which was being done by a couple of Balinese boys from the village, who were doing it very well. Each morning soon after dawn we would stroll over to the hangar and see them started working under Phinit, and as the sun got warm we would go off and go down to the beach and bathe. It would have been just perfect if Nadezna could have been with us.

    We didn't go far from Pekendang. There are forty thousand temples in Bali, I believe, but I only saw the one. I never was much of a sightseer; Connie had wandered fairly widely inland and had been up to the central volcanic mountain, Kintamani, but transport wasn't easy and he seemed to think that when one had seen and absorbed Pekendang the rest was largely repetition. We went once or twice to a place the other side of the strip called Sanoer where a Belgian artist was married to a very fine


    Balinese woman. I think that was the most wonderful house I have ever been in, the walls covered with paintings of the Balinese and their way of life, and full of Balinese young men and women so that it was difficult to say in memory which of the scenes remembered from that house were real ones and which were paint.

    We saw a good deal of the headman of the village, Wajan Rauh. He used to come and sit and talk to us sometimes, about the crops and the fishing, and about the Dutch and the full-scale war that they were waging against the Indonesians in Java and Sumatra. I could not understand these conversations, and I used to sit back, smoking, watching the old man and his friends, watching Connie as he talked with them.

    One did not need any interpreter to see how greatly they valued his advice. All through my life I had seen him gain this influence over people;
    it had been the same story even in Cobham's circus as a boy, I think, and certainly it had been so in Damrey Phong, in Rangoon, in Bahrein. I do not think he ever worked for it, or sought this influence. When simple people came and told him things that troubled them, which they did very often, he gave them straightly what advice he could; and his manner of doing it encouraged them, so that they came back with more important and more intimate matters for his ruling. I think that's all there was to it.

    He told me that they thought little of the war in Java. They did not greatly care who ruled them, whether the radjas who had ruled before the Dutch came and who still ruled them in name, or whether the Dutch. The Balinese had no national ambitions. All they wanted to do was to get on with their farming and their temple festivals and let the world go by them; they had no desire whatever to become involved in great events. If the Dutch or the Indonesians or anyone else wanted to come and rule them, they were welcome to do so, thought the Balinese; they were shrewd enough to know that in the case of one small, self-supporting island it could not make any great change in their daily lives.

    Because they thought so very highly of Connie, and because I was his guest, the village went out of their way to show me all


    their arts. They put on a dance one evening, a most complicated and picturesque affair of stylized dancing by little girls eleven or twelve years old, dressed heavily in gold embroidered skirts and jackets sewn with tiny mirrors, and enormous golden head dresses. This dance was called Legong; it was danced to the music of an orchestra of bamboo xylophones and small brass gongs. It went on for over three hours and seemed to be an affair for the whole village; when one xylophone player tired another took his place and the little dancers danced in relays too, though the two chief ones danced the whole evening with only short pauses for rest. The village sat around in a rough square that formed the stage, and children played about among the dancers who avoided them skilfully, and dogs walked through; from time to time a mother would get up and go out on the floor to adjust the clothing of a little dancer that was slipping, and the dance went on. At about ten o'clock at night it stopped quite suddenly and for no particular reason, and the people all streamed away to bed, gossiping and chatting, well-content.

    Cockfighting was a sport of the men, and they held a main in my honour. I had never seen it before although it still goes on in England, quietly and illegally. It is a cruel sport, of course, because the fight is to the death and usually bloody. It was not the sadist angle that appealed to the Balinese, though, but the opportunity for betting. They are tremendous gamblers, and bet furiously on their cockfights, though I think that this is general in Southeast Asia. Phinit told me that in his mother's village in Siam they breed small fish, three or four inches long, that will fight fiercely to the death when put together, and the people bet on those.

    They put on a play for me one night, entirely incomprehensible to me and, I think, to Connie also. It was quite colourful, and it was amusing to sit in a deck chair and watch. Madé Jasmi, I think, didn't understand much of it either, because it dealt with very highborn people, kings and princes, who for the sake of verisimilitude spoke a regal dialect called Kawi which nobody of common day can understand. Madé Jasmi evidently thought I needed sustaining through this entertainment because she kept bringing me glasses of Toeak, palm juice beer. In the end the


    performance came suddenly to an unexpected finish, as the dance had done, and people and actors melted quickly away.

    I cannot describe the grace, and the charm of that small village. It was like nothing I had ever seen before; I shall find nothing like it in this world again.

    I suppose there always must be something, or there would be nothing to distinguish places such as that from those that we have been taught to look forward to in the world to come. In this case, it was the physical condition of Connie Shak Lin that began to worry me. As I have. said, he had grown very thin. I doubt if he weighed more than about eight stone at that time, and yet he was a big man, five foot ten or eleven in height. When we went bathing together I could see every bone in his body, so it seemed, and I began to get a little worried about him.

    He ate fairly well, though nothing like as much as I did. He didn't smoke or drink; he never had. He was well in himself, at least, when I was there, but he had little energy and spent a good part of each day within his hut, lying upon the charpoy, dozing or asleep. He had a great store of nervous energy that he could call upon, however. It had not distressed him unduly to work most of the night upon the aircraft when it had been there, and he could sit for hours in the evening talking and discussing with the old men. There seemed to be nothing really wrong with him, and certainly nothing that required a doctor. But—well, I was a bit uneasy over him. As I have mentioned, he was very thin.

    After a few days of this idyllic life we began to make preparations for the Arab party. It was a bit tricky, because I had to get the permission of the Dutch Governor for the party to come to the island at all, and though I didn't expect any difficulty it did mean that I had to disclose the fact that they were coming on a pilgrimage five thousand miles or so to see my chief ground engineer, which was unusual, to say the least.

    The Governor spoke no English, and in any case he was too high a dignitary for me to approach direct. I went and called on Mr. Bergen, his second in command, who had served with the American Army in the war and spoke English as well as I did.

    He was interested to hear that this Arab sheikh and his retinue


    were coming to visit Bali. He had already had a telegram about them from his headquarters in Batavia, which was quite incomprehensible to him, and he was glad to find somebody who could inform him on the matter. Only the crews of aircraft, people such as myself and my pilots and ground engineers, can move easily about the world these days, and Sheikh Abd el Kadir and Wazir Hussein and all the rest of them had to have passports and visas for their journey. Before I left Captain Morrison had been getting busy with all this, and the Foreign Office in London had requested permission for their visit from the Dutch Ambassador in London as a matter of diplomatic urgency. Morrison must have been very positive with the Resident back in distant Bahrein, because cables had been flying backwards and forwards halfway round the world in English and in Dutch, so that a notification of permission for this visit had come to the Governor of Bali from his immediate superior without any information what the visit was about. Probably the people in Batavia didn't know themselves.

    I suppose I was a coward, but I really didn't feel equal to explaining to this Dutchman that the Sheikh of Khulal was coming to get Connie's blessing. I felt that it was better to go softly on the religious side. I stressed the vast wealth of the sheikhs, and their power to indulge their slightest whim. I said that this sheikh and Connie had become great friends during his time at Bahrein, and now that the old man felt his end approaching he wanted very much to see Connie again and say good-bye to him. I said confidentially that to Europeans like us a journey of this sort might appear unreasonable, but that he, of course, was accustomed to Asiatic ways of thought, which were not always quite upon our lines. I said that the desire of the old man to see his friend for the last time had become an obsession with him, and his position in the Persian Gulf was such that the British Government were anxious to oblige him. Hence the permission which had been requested for this visit on the highest level, and which had been granted by the Dutch in Holland.

    This went down all right, and Mr. Bergen went out of his way to help me to arrange accommodation for the party. There were few people staying on the island at the time, and the Bali


    Hotel, built for a considerable tourist trade before the war, was not more than half full. As is common in the Indonesian islands, this hotel was built in bungalow style and spread widely as a number of little suites built around courtyards, somewhat in the manner of a very good American motel. I got a row of six of these rooms for the party, each with two beds and a bathroom and a sitting verandah, and I arranged for two cars for their use.

    The Tramp came in to schedule, in the late afternoon. Connie and Phinit and I were there to meet it, of course. We stood in the shade of the hangar and watched it touch down on the strip and run to a standstill; it turned and taxied towards us and I saw the familiar, bearded face of Gujar Singh in the chief pilot's seat on the port side. He taxied to the hangar and swung it round accurately into position for pulling in; then he stopped the engines, and we went forward to the door.

    Tarik opened up from the inside and put down the steps, and Wazir Hussein came down first, grave and dignified in long white skirts, as ever. He told us that the old Sheikh had stood the journey well; he was tired, but not unreasonably so. There were nine of them in the party all told, including the Imam from Baraka and the Sheikh's personal physician, a French-speaking Arab who came, I think, originally from Tunis. I told him the arrangements I had made, and I showed him the two cars which were at their disposal; then I handed over to Connie, who went up into the machine to greet the old man, and I retired myself into the background.

    Gujar Singh came out of the machine in a few minutes, and came over to where I was standing by the bowser, ready to refuel the Tramp. I asked him how the trip had gone. He said it had been normal; the old Sheikh had been interested in the details of the flight, and had followed their journey on the maps with a good deal of intelligence. At every night stop the most elaborate arrangements had been made for them; at Karachi and at Calcutta and at Singapore a fleet of cars had been waiting on the tarmac to meet the aircraft, and suites of rooms had been reserved at the best hotels.

    "The difficulty was to prevent taking on more passengers," he said, smiling. "It is not possible to keep a journey that concerns


    Shak Lin a secret. At every stop ten or fifteen engineers came to me, or to Hosein, or to the Wazir, asking if they might join us, to come here to listen to the Teacher.
    The Wazir consulted me, and I advised him to refuse them all. I think that was the best. Otherwise, there would have been too great a crowd, that would have tired the Sheikh too much."

    "It was like that, was it?" I asked thoughtfully.

    "Everywhere people knew about this journey," he said. "It is the radio operators, of course, talking with each other. Everywhere people wanted to come too. I could have filled the aircraft three times over."

    While we were talking the Arabs were getting out of the aircraft, organized by Connie; there was a bustle of flowing white skirts and black beards, and then the old Sheikh himself appeared, helped down the steep duralumin steps of the Tramp by a couple of his retinue. I went up and said something to welcome him, and he recognized me, and smiled, and Wazir Hussein translated for him. Thanks be to Allah, he said, they had had a safe and an easy journey in the hands of Gujar Singh; he was not tired, and he was grateful to me for the arrangements I had made for his comfort. I replied that anything I had done for him was nothing in comparison with what he had done for me, and he smiled again when that was translated; then he turned away and spoke to the Imam, and said something about sunset prayer.

    That didn't concern me, of course, as a European and an unbeliever, and so I excused myself and went up into the cabin of the Tramp with Gujar to inspect the aircraft and the journey log. Hosein was there tidying up and putting maps and instruments away into their stowages, and I told him that prayer was about to take place and he could go down to it if he wished. Gujar didn't want to go; he often used to go to Connie's prayer meetings outside the hangar at Bahrein but not, I think, when there was an Imam conducting the Rakats; perhaps that made the prayers too officially Moslem, so that a good Sikh could not participate.

    I stood at the chart table in the Tramp behind the pilots' seats watching the Arabs through the little navigator's window. Connie had marked out a small, square area of ground beside the hangar with white stones, and he had had the grass cut here by


    two Balinese boys so that it made a small, level sward. The square was carefully oriented towards Mecca, and in the northwest side there was the usual semicircular indent. Tarik and the other servants brought three carpets from the Tramp and spread them on the ground inside this square; the Imam took his place in the indent, and they began their devotions. Connie knelt beside the old Sheikh in prayer, motionless, all the time; he did not follow the others in the ritual of Moslem devotions, the standing, the kneeling, the prostrations. He remained kneeling all the time.

    The old Sheikh had one of his retinue each side of him, who helped him to his feet each time from the kneeling position. He was evidently getting very feeble.

    Phinit was there, praying with them. Like Connie, he remained kneeling all the time, but his position was just outside the square. He was a Buddhist. I think it must have been something quite exceptional that Connie should have prayed inside their prayer ground amongst the Moslems, and yet not go through the ritual of their devotions.

    The prayers lasted for about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. Then they were over, and I went down and drove with the party into Den Pasar to see them comfortably installed in the hotel. Connie stayed with Phinit at the airstrip to refuel the Tramp; it is better in the tropics to keep fuel tanks always full to prevent condensation troubles. They were not going to work late, however, as the aircraft would be there for a full day and could be serviced normally in working hours.

    I stayed that night in the hotel myself, to be on hand to assist the Arabs if they got into any difficulty; I had a room on the far side of the courtyard from them, in order to be near and yet not be obtrusive. They had brought a Moslem cook with them to ensure that no unclean meat was prepared for their food; I took this chap along and introduced him to the kitchen staff, and I arranged for one of the cars with a driver to be permanently on call parked near their rooms. There was nothing else they wanted, so I went and changed and had a bath myself, and had a Bols, and dinner.

    They had Phinit up there that evening, but not Connie; from my suite across the courtyard I could see him squatting on the


    ground talking to the old Sheikh and his Wazir. I found later that Connie had spent the evening quietly in Pekendang; apparently he was in a position to dictate to these Arab princes who had come six thousand miles to see him, when he would see them and when he would rest. In default of Connie they had got hold of Phinit, and I had little doubt that they were hearing from Phinit heavily embroidered stories of the asceticism of the Teacher. Madé Jasmi would come into this, I thought, but there was nothing I could do about it. Once, talking with the desperate humour of fatigue to Nadezna, I had spoken of the Gospel according to St. Phinit. Perhaps, I thought, as I looked out across the courtyard, the first chapters of that Gospel were already taking shape.

    When I got up next morning soon after dawn, the Arabs were already gone. They met Connie down at the hangar on the airstrip for the sunrise prayer at about six o'clock. They must have stayed there for two hours or so, because when I was ready to go down to the airstrip at about half past eight, they arrived back in the two cars. I waited till the Sheikh was settled back into his room and then went over to see Wazir Hussein, to find out what his plans were. He told me that they were to meet the Teacher again in the cool of the evening, and that they would like to start back for Bahrein next morning, after the sunrise prayer.

    I got a car and went down to the airstrip to see what was happening to the Tramp. I found Connie and Phinit working to give her the routine check over, with Gujar and Hosein helping them; they had got the cowlings open and they were checking the filters, changing the sparking plugs and examining contact breakers; there was a defective directional gyro to be changed. Nothing indicated that there was anything unusual about my party at all; it was just a large aeroplane being serviced by a good crowd of Asiatics.

    I found that Connie already knew about the plan to start back for Bahrein next day, and he was working through the heat of the day to get the servicing of the aircraft finished by midafternoon. There was nothing much that I could do to help them. I told Connie that I would move back to my hut in Pekendang for that last night, for I was going back to Bahrein with the Sheikh's


    party. I wanted to spend the last night of my holiday in Pekendang rather than in the civilized luxury of Den Pasar.

    My car was waiting for me at the small airport bungalow, and I walked from the hangar to it across the sun-drenched tarmac. As I got near the bungalow another car drove up, one of the two allocated to the Arabs. It had only two people in, the Sheikh's personal physician and the Wazir Hussein.

    I went up to their car as it came to a standstill, and spoke to the Wazir. I told him that I was just going back to the hotel to check out, and said that if he wished I would settle the bill for their party and invoice him for it in Bahrein; I told him that I was going to spend the night myself in Pekendang, and that I would join them for the return flight at the airstrip in the morning. We talked about these matters for a few moments, and then he said,

    "I am glad that we have met you here, Mr. Cutter. There is another matter which I came here to discuss with you, if I could find you." He turned to introduce his companion. "This is Dr. Khaled."

    I bowed and said something or other. The doctor was dressed in a grey European suit and a Panama hat. He had a short black beard trimmed to a neat point; he might have been forty-five or fifty years old. Conversation with him was difficult because he could only speak French and Arabic; I know hardly any French and my Arabic, at that time, although adequate for the hangar and the direction of casual labour, wasn't good enough for a prolonged conversation on any subject but aircraft.

    The Wazir said, "Dr. Khaled is worried about the health of El Amin, Mr. Cutter. He would like to ask you a few questions, and perhaps talk also to the Teacher."

    "Of course," I said. "I'm not too happy myself." I took them through into the small verandah with a few chairs and tables that served for an airport restaurant; it was a shady place where we could talk quietly, looking out over the strip. I ordered coffee, but that was difficult, so we drank fresh lime squashes. "I'll tell you anything I can," I said.

    The Wazir had to translate for us; I think Dr. Khaled understood a little English though he could not speak it. He wanted to