Nevil Shute, 1951

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



I stayed a civilian all the war, working at my normal job of repairing crashed aircraft. I was put in charge of a repair section in 1940 and got to foreman's rank. In 1943 the firm had to strengthen the repair side of their branch in Egypt, and they asked me if I'd go out there for a bit. I was twenty-eight years old, and up till then I'd never been out of England. Of course I said I'd go.

It was on account of that I married Beryl Cousins.

I've not said much about girls up till now because, to tell the truth, I never had a lot to do with them till then. I was so stuck into my job and so keen on aeroplanes and flying that girls passed me by, or I passed them by, whichever way you look at it. Till I got my C and D tickets I was working at classes three or four evenings every week; then when I'd got them, and might have had time to look around a bit and have a bit of fun, the war came. That meant that I was working overtime every night till eight o'clock and sometimes later than that, which sort of limits the time that a chap has to look around and pick himself a girl. Maybe when it's like that he's apt to pick the first that comes along.

I lodged in a suburban road at Morden and Beryl lived two doors up the road from me, and worked in the stores at Airservice Ltd. She was a sort of clerk there, working on the inwards and the outwards files. She was a slight, pale girl with ash-blonde hair. We used to walk to work together in the mornings. We got to having lunch together and tea if she was working late, all in the works canteen, and Saturdays I'd take her to the pictures, or we'd go dancing at a Palais. After six months of that we came to the conclusion that we were in love, and we'd get married when the work let up a bit. We didn't realize we both loved something better than each other. I was in love with aeroplanes, and she was in love with love.

I heard about this job one morning, and when they said they wanted me to go out to Egypt they said it would be for two years and I'd have to go in about three weeks' time. I met Beryl at our usual table for lunch with other people all round us in the works canteen, so I said to her, "Eat up quick. I've got something to tell you, but not here."


We walked out on the grass up the aerodrome hedge when we'd finished; it was September, and a lovely sunny day. I told her all about it as we walked along by the scrap dump of wrecked airframes and engines, and she said, "Oh, Tom! Have you really got to go?"

I hadn't got to, but I wasn't going to miss that chance. "They put it to me pretty firm," I said. "You don't get much choice, these days."She turned to me, and her eyes were full of tears. "I thought we were going to get married about Christmas. That's what we said."I was a bloody fool, of course, but one does these things. I couldn't bear to see her cry. I took both her hands in mine. "I know," I said. "What say if we get married now, before I go?"

She said softly, "Oh, Tom! Do you want us to be married?"

I wasn't really sure I did, but I was twenty-eight and I'd never got that far with any girl before. I said, "Do I want to!" and took her in my arms and kissed her.

After a bit we got to thinking about ways and means. There wasn't time for doing it the regular way with banns called in church and all that. We should have to do it with a special licence, and I found out pretty soon that Beryl knew all about those. Girls study things of that sort more than men. I wouldn't be able to set her up in a house in the time we'd got, and she didn't want to leave her job at Airservice because if she did, and didn't have a baby, she'd only have got directed into something else since it was wartime. So we fixed that we'd get married as soon as we could and she'd go on working just the same, and living with her people.

We went and saw her Dad and Mum that evening and told them all about it. They were pleased all right, because I was making good money and I think they felt that I was likely to get on. Next day was Friday and I asked for the day off and took Beryl down to Southampton and introduced her to my folks, and ten days after that we got married at a registrar's office.

We got a week at Southsea for our honeymoon; it was a fine September that year so that although there wasn't much to do we. could sit on the front and look at the ships going in and out of Portsmouth harbour, and the Bostons and the Spitfires going


out on strikes. I think Beryl was happy, and if I was thinking of the work more than a man ought to do upon his honeymoon, well, it was wartime and the flying schools were waiting for the Tiger Moths I mended, to train pilots. Beryl understood—at least, I think she did.

Looking back upon it now, it must have been a poor sort of a honeymoon. It was wartime in England, and everything was short. There was complete darkness at night, of course, there on the coast, and the cafés and the dance halls and the picture houses were full of men and girls in uniform; a civilian didn't get much priority. You couldn't get down to the beach to bathe except in one little place because of the anti-invasion barbed wire and tank obstacles and land mines, and there weren't any motor coach tours or steamer trips or concert parties on the beach, or anything like that. This was all normal to us because that's the way things were in England then and we didn't grieve over what we couldn't have, but when I think about the sort of honeymoon I could have given her if it had been in peacetime, I feel a bit sore. It might have made a difference.

It was better for me than for Beryl. I had Egypt ahead of me. I was going out to an important job in a warm, spacious country, into all the glamour of a successful war in North Africa. There would be luxury in Cairo, and sunshine on the desert, and the Pyramids, and the Nile, and travel to our various outstations in Africa and Persia and Iraq. For me, this week in Southsea was the last of the drab misery of war in England. Ahead of Beryl was a long, indefinite vista of it, cold and monotonous in the same job, and lonely with me away. We neither of us thought about it like that—or, if I thought of it, I didn't talk about it. But that's the way it was.

We didn't look ahead. I can't remember that we ever discussed where we were going to live after the war, or anything like that. It didn't seem to be much good, with things as they were. The war had been going on for four years; for four years we had been directed where to work and we were getting out of the way of thinking about our future for ourselves. This job in Egypt was to be for two years, and after that I should come


back to wartime England, so we thought, and it would be the same except that everything would be scarcer and more difficult than ever. We never looked ahead to think about the peace, that I remember.

I was flown to Egypt by B.O.A.C. It wasn't possible for Beryl to come and see me off because the time and place of departure were secret. The best that she could do was to come down with me to Mordcn Underground station late one afternoon as I carried my suitcase down from the digs. We walked silent together down the suburban streets; on that last walk we didn't seem to have anything left to say to each other. Maybe she was only realizing then what the separation was going to mean. She hadn't got a lot of imagination.

By the entrance to the station we stopped and looked at each other. It was raining a bit, and the red buses starting and stopping at the halt just by us made a great clatter with their Diesels. I put down my suitcase and took her hands. "Well, girl," I said, "this is it."

She was pretty down in the mouth. "Write to me a lot, Tom," she said. "I'll be ever so lost without you."

"Cheer up," I said. "I'll write as soon as ever I get there, but don't get worried if you don't hear for a while. If they're sending letters round the Cape it might take anything up to six weeks."

"I won't be able to sleep till I hear."

I grinned. "Bet you do. Tuck a bolster in beside you and make belief I'm there, and you'll sleep all right."

She smiled, though she was very near to tears. "Now stop it. . . ."

I took her in my arms. It didn't matter that there were people all around at the bus stop; you saw this every hour of every day, with people going off on draft. "It's only for two years, girl," I said softly. "It'll soon be gone."

"It sounds like as if it was for ever," she said miserably.

There was no sense in prolonging the agony; it was only making things more difficult for her, and we'd said all that there was to say. We kissed, and kissed again, and then I said, "I'll have to go now, girl. Look after yourself."


She released me. "You look after yourself. Cheer-oh, Tom." She was crying now in earnest.

I squeezed her hand clumsily. "Cheer up, girl. It's not for so long." And with that I turned and picked the suitcase up and left her, and went and got my ticket. I looked back over the turnstile and she was there waving good-bye to me with tears running down her face, and I waved back to her, and then I had to turn round and go down to the train.

I went in a Liberator, squashed in with about twenty others in
the rear fuselage. We took off at about ten o'clock that night from an aerodrome somewhere in the south; we didn't know what aerodrome it was, nor where we were going to. We flew on for about eight hours, and then in the dawn we landed. We couldn't see anything out of the aeroplane, and when we got out on to the tarmac we found that we were in a sandy sort of place with palm trees and white houses. They told us it was Tripoli.

We weren't allowed outside the aerodrome; they gave us break
fast in a tent while the Liberator was refuelled, and we took off again for Cairo. We landed at Almaza in the middle of the day and it was good and hot; I had English clothes on, and I envied the chaps working on the aircraft in just a pair of shorts and no shirt. I got passed through the various formalities, and then I went and reported to the manager of Airservice Ltd on the aerodrome.

That two years was a fine experience for me. I was in charge
airframe repairs and general maintenance. I lived in a small hotel about a mile from the airport and I had my office at the back of the hangar. We operated a large number of aircraft all over the Near East and North East Africa, and I was responsible for keeping them in the air, all except engine overhauls, which were the business of another chap. If a Rapide ran off the runway and bent its undercarriage at Luxor or at Lydda, the responsibility for getting it into the air again was mine. If it was a simple and straightforward repair I would send one of my ground engineers to it by air or truck, but if it was a difficult or complicated job I would go myself and see the work put in hand the way I wanted it. We had an old Hornet two-seater that I used to go in if the journey was anything less than five hundred


miles, but there was always a difficulty about finding a pilot who could spare the time, and after a while the firm agreed that I should fly myself about in this thing. It wasn't worth much if I crashed it, and I didn't want any flying pay or insurance.

On these repair jobs, flying myself or being flown by a pilot, I travelled very widely in the last two years of the war. I went to Beirut and Baghdad and Aleppo and Nicosia, and down south as far as Khartoum and Addis Ababa. I got to know about Syrian and Iraqui and Egyptian aircraft hands, what they could do and what they couldn't, what days they had to take off for their religion or their festivals, and why. I tried to learn about all that. It's no good going round and saying that those boys are just a lot of monkeys, that they aren't reliable and you can't use them. You can use them all right if you take the trouble to learn about them, and if you do that you'll find the work is liable to come out a good deal cheaper, because their wages are much less.

I got some experience in negotiating with officials, too. That was a type of job I'd never done before. Whenever parts for a repair had to be taken into Syria or Lebanon or Iraq there were customs duties to be paid or talked out of; in the usual way I'd get to Aleppo or some place like that and find that the repair parts I'd sent up had got stuck in a bonded warehouse, the Government were asking for a hundred and fifty pounds before they would release them, and the ground engineer had got angry and had insulted the Minister for Air. There was nobody to straighten all that out but me, and I got into the way of taking it easy, going to drink a cup of coffee with the Minister, saying what a happy little town it was and how my wife would like it if we came to live there, and sending over a big bouquet of flowers for the Minister's wife. I'd usually get the parts next day without any trouble at all, and nothing to pay. The most I ever had to do was to fix up a joyride for the Minister's children when the aircraft was flying again.

I used to write to Beryl regularly once a week wherever I was, telling her as much about what I'd been doing as I thought would pass the censor. She used to write to me, but not so often. It was


once a week at first, but then it got a bit irregular and sometimes I wouldn't hear anything for three weeks, and then two letters would come together, written within a couple of days of each other. She never seemed to have much to say, but that was natural because life in England was all just the same. Often most of a letter was about some film she'd seen.

There was one of those long gaps in her letters, nearly a month, about October 1944, when I'd been out in Egypt just a year. Air mail was coming through all right. I got a bit angry, because I'd written regularly myself and I didn't see why she couldn't find time to write to me, so I sent her a sharp one. Nothing happened for a bit, and then about ten days later I got a letter from her Dad.
It read:

Dear Tom,

We've been having trouble here, I'm sorry to say, and Beryl wants me to write and tell you before she writes herself, and her Ma and I think that's best too. It's been very dull for her since you went away, and she went up to the West End some time ago and got in with some Polish officers, very nice and well behaved, she says. She took to going about with one of them, a Captain Wysock, and the long and the short of it is, Tom, she's going to have a baby in January.

I know this will be a great blow to you, and I can't tell you how sorry we all are. Captain Wysock has been down to see us and we had a long talk. He was heartbroken about you, but we talked it all out and we thought that it would be best if there was a divorce and he was to marry Beryl; they are very much in love and that is what they want. Beryl will be writing to you in a day or so, but we thought I had better write and tell you first.

Captain Wysock comes of a very high-born family. His father is a count and has big estates near a place called Jabinka and a town house in Warsaw. He has been very generous to Beryl, and we feel that as things have turned out a divorce would be the fairest thing all round, and I hope you will think so too.

Beryl wants me to say she sends you her love, and we all send

our sympathy in what must be a shock to you. But I am sure that it will all be for the best.
Your affectionate father-in-law,..................
Albert Cousins.
I was at Damascus when this letter came to Cairo, and I didn't get it till I got back to Egypt a few days later. By that time the letter from Beryl had just come in, so I got them both together. That one read:
Darling Tom,

I saw Dad's letter before he sent it off and I have waited a bit before I wrote so as you should get his first. I don't know what you must be thinking, Tom, and believe me I wouldn't have had things happen like this for the world. It's such a mix-up. But I'm sure the best way to get it straight now is for you to divorce me. I couldn't come back and live with you again not after what has happened, not even if you wanted me which I suppose you don't, not now. Feodor and I are very much in love and we want to get married, so if you divorce me that will be best and you'll be free to look for someone else. I'm so terribly sorry it's turned out like this. I never thought a thing like this would ever happen to me.

I wish you could meet Feodor, Tom—he's such a dear. His family is terribly rich with a big castle in the country and everything; I do hope they'll approve of me. He hasn't seen them since the war began, but he knows they're all right. After the war, when we're married, we're going there to live. He's given me the most lovely engagement ring, diamonds and emeralds, but first of all we've got to get the divorce.

Don't be miserable about all this, Tom. I know it's all for the best.

Your loving..................................................
I was up to the eyes in work at that time. I read these letters through with my mind half occupied with the problems of getting enough aircraft serviceable to maintain our scheduled services, and


they were just another thing to me. It was like when you're counting on an aircraft being finished for the morning flight to Khartoum, and an engineer comes up at six o'clock in the evening and tells you he needs a right-hand contact breaker and they've only got left-hand ones in the store and they've been telephoning all round and there aren't any right-hand ones in Cairo. Beryl and her boy friend, in my mind, took their turn in the queue with all my other worries, and must wait for attention till I got the decks cleared a bit. At the same time, I was sick and angry when I got these letters, because there'd been a lot of this sort of thing going on in England. Somebody once told me that ten per cent of the wives of men serving overseas had been unfaithful to them. Now I was in with that ten per cent.

In the brief moments that I had to think about my own affairs that day I wondered how in hell she expected me to set about a divorce in a foreign country like Egypt, in the middle of all my work, in wartime. And then I wondered if they were all mad to go believing such a transparent, cock-and-bull story as this Polish soldier had told them, about his father being a count, and huge estates, and all that. It was a crazy, miserable business that they'd written out to plague me with; the only thing to do was to put it out of my mind and get on with the work.

I had to go to Luxor next day, where a young fool of a pilot had run one of our Ansons into the tail of a Dakota of Transport Command. I had to clear up the accumulation of paper work on my desk before going off again in the morning; I worked on late that night. It was after ten o'clock when I had time for my own affairs and I was dead tired, but I had to write to Beryl because I should be away for another two or three days. I got the letters out and read them through, and I was bitterly angry once again that they should plague me so.

I pulled a sheet of paper to me, and I wrote:
Darling girl,

I got your letter and your Dad's together when I got back here after being away for a few days. I won't say what I think because you probably know that, but I'll say this I think you must be bloody well daft, all the lot of you.

First of all, I'll bet you a hundred quid to a sausage that this Polish officer's father isn't a count and that he hasn't got any estates and that the ring he gave you is either stolen or phony. For God's sake snap out of it and act like a grown-up woman, and tell your Dad to do that too. You've been sucked in and fallen for the oldest story in the world, my girl. That's what's happened to you.

Now about this divorce you want. I don't know how in hell you expect me to get you a divorce from here even if I wanted to, and I've not made up my mind about that yet. What do you think this is—the Court of Chancery, with lawyers going round in wigs and gowns and that? I'll tell you 'what it is. It's a bloody hot, dirty, dusty aerodrome, no fans and blinding sun, and grit all over my desk. I've come five hundred miles from one just like it today, and I'm going off to another like it tomorrow. There's no English lawyers here and no English law. If it's a divorce you're thinking of, you'll have to wait till I get back to England in a year from now, and then I'll see if I'm prepared to give it you. Some of you girls seem to think you can get a divorce just by putting a penny in the slot.

You think this over a bit more, and then write and tell me how you're going on. If I was in England now we'd soon find out if this Polish officer is a count or not, and you'd find out what the end of a strap feels like, my girl. I'm not at all sure that you'd find out what a divorce feels like. You can't just pick up being married and put it down, like that. You think it over a bit more.

Ever your loving husband,............................
Considering this letter, it seems to me that I said everything that was in my mind, except that I still loved her. I didn't think to tell her about that. Perhaps I thought she knew.

Nothing much happened then. She didn't write again, nor did I. I was very sore about this Polish officer, and till that was all cleaned up I hadn't got much to say to her. If I'd been in England I'd have cleaned it up fast enough. I did sit down once or twice to write, but I never finished a letter. I could never think of any-