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Round the Bend: Pages 171 through 180

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 171 through 180

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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



    I never got invited to any of the Residency parties, of course, because only officers go to those and I lived with the radio operators and in the sergeants' mess. I'd spoken to him once or twice upon the tarmac and he'd always been quite friendly. I got up as he came in and gave him a chair and a cigarette.

    "What I've come about," he said, "is this loan. I understand that you've been borrowing money, Cutter, from the Sheikh of Khulal."

    "That's right," I said. "You may know the amount."

    "Sixty thousand pounds?"

    I nodded. "That's right." It struck me that he didn't care about the job he had to do.

    "Well, that's a very large sum of money," he observed.

    "It would be to you or me," I said. "It's a very small amount in the aircraft business. It's the cost of one aeroplane."

    "That may be," he replied. "Quite frankly, Mr. Cutter, we don't much care to see the sheikhs lending their money to buy aeroplanes. We should very much prefer to see them spending it upon their people, in the provision of roads, hospitals, schools, and things of that sort. There are other sources of finance for aircraft projects. But unless the sheikhs provide the schools and hospitals in their own sheikhdoms, nobody else will. It's very undesirable that they should lend their money to enterprises that are of no benefit to their people."

    He had a point there, of course, but I didn't see what I could do about it. "I see what you mean," I said. "This is a local enterprise and we employ a good many local people. I should have thought local capital was rather a good thing."

    "I'm afraid we don't take that view of it at all up at the Residency," he said. "In fact, you employ hardly any truly local people. Half a dozen labourers at the most. All your skilled employees come here to work for you from other parts of the East. If you were employing two or three hundred Arab labourers recruited in the district upon work that they can do, digging ditches for example, we might take a different view of this large loan. As it is, I'm afraid we consider it very undesirable, and in more ways than one."

    "I'm sorry about that," I said.. I sat in thought for a minute,


    wondering how much trouble they intended to make. "This loan wasn't my doing," I said at last. "I didn't go round asking for it. I had to get in some more money to do what the oil companies want me to do—I had to get another large aircraft. The Sheikh of Khulal heard that I was in that position and sent his Wazir to offer me this money as a loan. That's what happened."

    "Where is the money now?" he asked.

    I didn't like that one. "Just outside the hangar," I said evenly. "That is, unless my chaps have pushed it in."

    "You mean, it's been spent upon the aeroplane that you've brought back from England?"

    "That's what it was lent me for," I replied. "Fifty-five thousand pounds was the cost of that aircraft. I've got about eight thousand pounds' worth of spares on order for it."

    "I see," he said. "How did the Sheikh of Khulal get to hear you needed money?"

    It was no good trying to conceal anything from these people. They probably knew anyway. "My chief engineer goes over to Khulal sometimes," I said. "I think he told them I was having to expand."

    "That's Shak Lin?"

    For some reason his use of the Chinese version of the name annoyed me, though I did it often myself. But this was a pretty formal matter, and Connie was a British subject. "Mr. Shaklin is my chief engineer," I said.

    "Yes. And he goes and talks some bastard form of religion to the old man."

    "I don't know anything about that," I said. "Whatever he does over there he does in his spare time, on his day off. I know, of course, that Mr. Shaklin is a religious man. But I've never discussed the Sheikh of Khulal with him, or him with the Sheikh. You're not suggesting, are you, that he should have had a permit of some kind before going to see the Sheikh?"

    "No . . ." he said thoughtfully. "You'd better know the suggestions that have been made, though, Mr. Cutter. It has been suggested that your man Shak Lin used his religious influence with the Sheikh of Khulal to get you a very large loan which would be free of interest under the Islamic law, whereas for a speculative


    business such as yours you would have had to pay large interest charges on a loan obtained from any other source."

    I got up and crossed over to the window and stood looking out. I wasn't going to answer that one in a hurry; I was too angry.

    "That's a nice suggestion," I said at last. "Who thought that one up?"

    He said, "It seems rather an obvious deduction from the facts."

    "Maybe." The trouble was, that it was so very nearly true. It was the truth told with a twist. "The facts are what you say, of course. I have saved interest charges. The motive was completely different—the motive for taking this loan. You can believe that or not, just as you like."

    "It's all very unfortunate," he said. "It lends itself to misinterpretation."

    I swung round from the window; I'd had just about enough of this. "What do you want me to do?" I asked. "Give back the money?"

    He smiled. "I don't suppose you can do that." I could have wiped that grin off his face with the greatest pleasure, but I didn't do it.

    I crossed to the table where my brief case was, full of the papers I had brought from England. "I could," I said. "I don't know that I'm going to. However, I'll show you something." I pulled out the letter from Mr. Norman Evans and chucked it across the table to him. "That's a cash offer for this business," I said. "I've just refused it, but I could get it back again. I could pay back that sixty thousand in a month from now if I decided to. But I shan't do that just because you and the Resident have come to the conclusion that I'm a bloody crook."

    He took up the letter and began reading it. "That's rather extreme language," he said mildly.

    I didn't answer that, but I stood in silence staring out of the window as he read the letter. One works and struggles to build something up over the years, and then an ignorant and suspicious official, full of his own importance,. comes along and tries to knock it down.

    He came to the end of the letter and laid it down. "I see," he said. "You say that you have refused this offer?"


    "That's right."

    "Why? It seems a very good offer to me."

    I crossed to the desk and sat down in my chair, and lit a cigarette. "I'll tell you why I refused it," I said slowly. "I was going to accept it first of all, and retire from the Gulf, and take my money and go back and live in England. Then I heard from my chief pilot that you people had been raising a packet of trouble out here, over this loan and over Mr. Shaklin's religious doings. In England, it looked as if you'd stirred up a hornet's nest here for no reason at all. Well, when I sell a business, I sell it clean—not with a packet of unknown trouble hanging round its neck. I called the deal off and I came back here."

    "Why do you think that we raised any trouble?"

    "I know damn well you did. Everything was quite all right here when I went away. 'Then you found out about this loan
    , and your boys at the Residency heard you talking and spread it all over the souk. My people live down there—they know what happened. If the Imam hadn't been such a good chap you'd have had a holy war or something on your hands."

    He coloured a little. "That's a considerable exaggeration," he said stiffly.

    "All right," I said. "Let's leave that. Where do we go from here?"

    "I beg your pardon?"

    "What do you want me to do?" I asked. "I'm quite willing to co-operate with you, provided what you want is reasonable."

    "Well, Mr. Cutter," he said, "I shall have to go and talk it over with the Resident. Some rather large issues may arise out of this matter, concerning the whole future of commercial development in the district. If anything has to be done, I'll get in touch with you again." He paused. "In the meantime, may I take it that there will be no more borrowing money from the sheikhs?"

    "You may for the next month," I said. "I've got no further expansion in mind at the moment."

    "Only for a month?"

    "I should have thought that was time enough for you to make your mind up what you want to do," I said. "I'm not going to ac-


    cept a permanent restriction of that sort just from you, this afternoon."

    That was the end of it, and I went out with him to his car. It was a bit unfortunate that sunset prayers outside the hangar were just starting up. I hadn't seen that for a month or so, and it had grown a great deal in my absence. The waste ground by the hangar had been levelled off over an area of about a hundred yards by fifty, and marked out with white stones with a semicircle in the side towards Mecca. That had been done since I went away. There were only about twenty of our people from the hangar, but there were three motor bus loads from the town, and a large number of miscellaneous Arab bodies from the R.A.F. camp. There must have been about a hundred and fifty people there in all, all turned to Mecca and in prayer. About ninety per cent of them were Moslems, doing their Rakats together. The non-Moslems knelt a little way apart behind Connie, facing to Mecca like the others, but in silent prayer. Some of the men who had come up from the town in buses I knew as merchants in the souk, and some of them were quite well dressed. A few were in European clothes.

    Major Hereward stood looking at this going on in silence for a minute. His disapproval was evident, but there didn't seem to be much that I could do about it. Finally he snorted, got into his car, and drove away without a word.

    It didn't look so good.

    When I got to the office at half past seven next morning, our normal time for starting work in that hot place, the girl was there waiting for me. She was in European clothes, a light cotton frock, bare legs, and white shoes. She had long black hair done up in European style upon her head, but you could see the Chinese in her as, indeed, you could with Connie. I think her Russian mother must have been a pretty woman because Nadezna had good features, and she had a sort of impish cheerfulness that may have come from the Chinese father.

    "Morning," I said. "It's Miss Shaklin?"

    "That's right," she said. "My brother told me to stick around here." She spoke with a slight American intonation.


    "Come on in," I said. I led the way into the office and gave her a chair. "Your brother told me that you'd like a job with us."

    She nodded. "That was the general idea."

    "Can you take dictation at the rate I'm speaking now?"

    "Why, surely, Mr. Cutter. I can take quicker than that."

    "I told your brother that I'd give you a tryout for a couple of months if you came here," I said. "After that, no hard feelings if we part." She nodded. "What we didn't discuss was what the wage would be. Got any ideas on that?"

    She shook her head. "I just don't know what people pay out here, or what it costs to live."

    "I don't pay San Diego wages."

    "I know it."

    I sat in silence for a minute. Then I raiscd my head and smiled at her. "Why did you come here, Miss Shaklin? It's a pretty dud sort of a place, and rough living for you, I should think."

    She smiled. "Well," she said, "it's kind of different to San Diego." She was silent for a minute. Then she said, "I suppose Connie told you about Mother dying." I nodded, and said something or other. "Well, after that there didn't seem to be much sense in brother and sister living right on opposite sides of the world, and neither of them married, nor likely to be. So as he was stuck fast here and I was sort of loose in San Diego after Mother went, I said I'd come out here for a time anyway, and keep house for him."

    I wondered if she had found him living as she had expected, but there was no sense in starting a discussion of that sort with this girl. I had troubles of my own to deal with, without digging into hers. I straightened up at the desk. "Okay, Miss Shaklin," I said. "Now about the wage. I haven't an idea what a shorthand typist gets here. I don't suppose there is another one outside the bl—outside the Residency." I should have to watch the language now, with a girl in the office. "I'll tell you what I'm going to suggest. The wage of a cashier in the bank here is two hundred and fifty chips a month. That's supposed to be enough for a married man with a family, living in this town. I know that, because Gujar Singh was one before he came to me. That's on the Indian


    standard, but then you're a single woman. I'll give you that for a start, two hundred and fifty rupees a month, and see how it works out. If it's not enough, come and tell me about it. I don't want to put you to any real hardship, but I don't pay European wages. I'd be bust in a fortnight if I did."

    She said, "That sounds fair enough, the same rate as a teller. It's good enough to make a start on, Mr. Cutter. Maybe I won't be here long enough to feel the pinch."

    "Right," I said. "Well, I'll just show you round and then we'll get started." I took her in and introduced her to the babu clerk and showed her our one typewriter. She said it looked as if it had come over in the Ark and spent most of the intervening time up in the snow on Mount Ararat. I said I'd get her a new one because I knew that there'd be trouble if I tried to take it from the babu or make them share it; it was a sort of badge of office to him and a sign of social elevation that he wrote letters on a typewriter. There were some new Royals in a shop down in the souk; I'd make Gujar go and buy one for me because he'd get it cheaper. Then I showed her where the ladies' room was in the airport building about a quarter of a mile away, and then we got settled down to the dictation.

    I heard no more from Major Hereward, but Johnson of the Arabia-Sumatran came out to see me that afternoon. The Tramp was in the hangar and I took him and showed him that, and we climbed all over it and opened the big nose doors to show him how a truck was driven into it. It was absolutely brand new, of course, and everything was clean and shining and polished; he was quite impressed. Then we went over to the office and I sent for cups of coffee from the restaurant; one falls into the Eastern way of doing things.

    He told me what he wanted, and it was as I had supposed. This first flight to Australia was in the nature of a test of a new mode of operating their vast concern. They were thinking in terms of a much freer exchange of staff and equipment between their properties in the Persian Gulf, in Central Burma, in southern Sumatra, and in North Australia. They had in mind a regular service once a fortnight linking up these places if this first flight proved to be a success, and this trial service would continue for at least six


    months. It might be, after that, that it would need to be stepped up to once a week, or else they might want to run a smaller and more comfortable aircraft for passengers only on alternate weeks with the freight machine.

    We started then and did a little figuring. To run the Carrier or the Tramp from Bahrein to East Alligator River via the other places was going to cost them £4500 for the return trip, so that the fortnightly service was going to cost them about £120,000 a year. It was a fleabite to them apparently, but it was the hell of a lot of money to me..

    I told him that I could handle it for him, and I convinced him with facts and figures that I could. I think he wanted to be convinced, and indeed be said as much. "I'm very glad to hear that you're happy about the fortnightly service," he said presently. "I should be sorry, personally, if we had to put the business elsewhere. For one thing, your quotations have always been lower than anybody else's, and yet you seem to make your business pay."

    "It's the hundred per cent Asiatic labour that I use," I said.

    He nodded. "It's partly that, and partly your own ability. We like the use you make of Asiatics. We think you're on the right lines, politically. I think you'll have fewer difficulties in running a service for us through Pakistan, India, Burma, and Southeast Asia than a wholly European concern might have."

    "I think I will."

    "And you're quite happy that this thing won't overstrain your resources?"

    "It's about the limit I can do upon my present capital, Mr. Johnson," I said frankly. "I shall put the new Tramp on the service and use it for nothing else. When you decide to start, I shall get another spare engine and put it in Australia with a couple of engineers; I'll have to have some staff out at the other end. The utilization of that Tramp will be at the rate of 2100 hours a year. Well, that's reasonable. We can do that. We may have to send the Carrier occasionally when the Tramp is in for C. of A. or for an engine change, but that should be all right."

    "Your Carrier's pretty well occupied, isn't it?"

    "That's so," I replied. "As I say, a contract of this sort would pretty well fill me up. I can handle it all right, but if any more


    work comes in I'll have to get another aircraft—somehow or other."

    He smiled quietly. "We shan't be difficult about the schedule. We can adjust the dates of the flights by a day or so to help you, if you give us plenty of notice. Only our own people are involved. It's not as if it was a public service."

    "That may be a great help," I replied. "We might want that for an engine change."

    "Will you have any difficulty in expanding further, if more work comes in?"

    "Not technically," I replied. "I can get the aircraft and I can get the staff. Every Asiatic ground engineer in the East seems to want to come and work here—I don't know why. The only difficulty will be finance."

    "You've got a good business," he said. "I shouldn't have thought you'd have much trouble with finance."

    "There's been the hell of a lot of trouble over the last lot,"
    I said candidly.

    "Sheikh Abd el Kadir?"

    "That's right. It seems my name stinks round these parts."

    He nodded. "I know they aren't pleased at the Residency."

    "Do your people object?"

    "I don't think so," he said slowly. "I don't think we object at all. We have to pay the sheikhs these vast sums in royalties for the oil that lies under their deserts, really huge sums of money that they've done nothing to earn. If some of that money finds its way back into your business, I don't think we object at all. It means that part—a small part—of the money we pay out comes back to do a useful job for us. I think we rather like it."

    He went away quite satisfied, and I went on with my work. I stayed at Bahrein for about ten days before we took,off for Australia, and in that time I didn't fly at all. There was too much to do upon the ground. The growth of staff continually made new organizations necessary in the business; what had been adequate for a staff of two was quite inadequate for a staff of thirty. The stores were a headache now. I had one or two long talks with Connie about that; we were having rather a curious trouble. There was practically no pilfering from the hangar, most unusual for the East; I could only put that down, uneasily, to the supposition


    that the staff regarded our hangar as a holy place. Tools and materials, however, were continually getting lost; one day there would suddenly be no quarter drills in store, day six or seven would be found in various drawers or other parts of the hangar. It was the same with gasket material and taps and dies and things like that.

    I worked out a new stores system and put it into force with the help of Connie and his sister. Nadezna was a great help. She was quiet and efficient, and she was always there; moreover, she took an interest in the business and, living with her brother as she did, she could learn the ropes without having continually to bother me with questions. Like most girls in an office, she had an aptitude and a liking for routine work and she filled a very necessary place in our business. It was always a burden to me to check invoices, release notes, and all the many documents that every aeroplane must have for every part put into it, but it was no irritation to her to trace out the pedigree of a spare length of flexible petrol pipe and enter it under the proper reference numbers in the aircraft log book. She seemed rather to like that sort of job.

    I commented on that once, and she said, "I like seeing everything all entered up and right, and the job properly done. It makes me feel good."

    "You're very like your brother," I remarked. "That's what he tells people in the hangar."

    "I know it." She paused, and then she said, "Quite a few people round these parts seem to be taking an interest in what Connie says in the hangar."

    "Didn't you know about that—when you came here?"

    She shook her head. "He always was a bit that way at home, but nobody ever listened to him. I don't mean that he got up and preached. He never did that, although there's plenty of people in California who do. No, he just had ideas. But nobody paid any attention to them, back at home."

    "We wouldn't pay any attention to them in England," I remarked. "But they seem to fit in out here."

    She sat in silence for a minute. Then she said, "Have you seen the way they treat him in the souk?"

    I shook my head. "How do they?"