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Round the Bend: Pages 303 through 310

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 303 through 310

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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

    CHAPTER TEN

    His speech is a burning fire;
    With his lips he travaileth; In his heart is a blind desire,
    In his eyes foreknowledge of death.
    He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
    Sows, and he shall not reap; His life is a watch or a vision
    Between a sleep and a sleep.
    A. C. SWINBURNE
    303
    FOR A NUMBER of reasons, I worked to a slower schedule than normal on the homeward flight. Work upon the aircraft was not finished, for one thing, so that a dawn start was out of the question, and for another I had promised Nadezna that she and Connie should revisit the scenes of their childhood in Penang, so that I planned to get there early in the afternoon and stop there for the night. Accordingly, we took off from Bali about ten o'clock in the morning and made a short day of it to Diento, arriving there about three o'clock in the afternoon and stopping over for the night; next morning we went on at dawn and stopped for the night at Penang at about midday, to the surprise and delight of our passengers who had no objection to an afternoon in Penang at their company's expense.

    I had sent a cable from Diento to reserve accommodation for my passengers and crew, and since the passengers were all European I had reserved it at the best hotel in the town, the European and Oriental. Penang is a bit of a holiday place that planters come to when their isolation becomes unbearable, and everything

    304

    in this hotel was of the best. It suited my passengers down to the ground but it didn't suit Connie or Nadezna half so well, and I was out of tune with its luxury myself. They were going down to the Chinese quarter together. They suggested that I should join them down there later for a Chinese meal, and after some discussion about meeting we settled that I should meet them at six o'clock at the convent school that Nadezna had been to as a child, the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

    I found it was a big place, with a school and an orphanage attached to it, down in the lower and less fashionable part of the town. Children played in the crowded streets all round it and the telephone wires overhead were tangled with their kites, and the streets were full of young women in flowered cotton pyjamas and old women in black pyjamas and young men in vests and shorts. The door was opened to me by an old sister in a coarse white cotton habit who showed me into a bare waiting-room, embarrassingly clean and scantily furnished.

    Nadezna and Connie came very soon, and with them was the Mother Superior and a couple more sisters. Connie introduced the Mother to me, who was evidently Irish, and then they were saying good-bye to her. She wished Connie a good recovery from his illness. To Nadezna she said, "Remember that we deal in orphans here. If at any time you feel you have no home, come back and see us."

    She said, "That's very kind of you, Mother."

    When we were out in the street I asked her, "Did they remember you?"

    She nodded. "They remembered us both. The one you saw, Mother Mary Immaculate, she used to teach me in the kindergarten. She looks just the same as she did then. Connie sometimes used to come to take me home. She knew both our names, before I told her."

    She paused. "They're so stable, those sisters," she said quietly. "Whatever else may change, whatever gets upset, you feel that they'll be going on there just the same, taking in orphans and bringing them up and putting them out into the world. Teaching the children . . ."

    I told my passengers when I got back to the hotel that night

    305

    that I wasn't going to tire Shak Lin by flying very long stages. We took off at about nine o'clock next morning and stopped for the night at Calcutta. On the following evening we landed at Karachi. As usual, when we landed there a crowd of engineers was waiting on the tarmac to see Connie. I kept him in the aircraft and got out myself to find out what arrangements had been made. There was an ambulance from the hospital waiting for us; I got this backed up to the aircraft and got him into it and away while Hosein held the crowd off and answered questions.

    Nadezna stayed in Karachi to be near her brother in the hospital, and I went on with the Tramp next morning to Bahrein.

    The specialist from Paris, M. Serilaud, got to Karachi about the time that the Tramp went through again on its way down to Bali some days later. I had sent Arjan Singh this time, and I told him to night-stop at Karachi and go into town to see Nadezna, and then write me by air mail before flying on, to tell me what he thought about it all.

    His letter came a couple of days later, and in the same mail there was one from Nadezna. And it wasn't very good news.

    There is no known cure for leukaemia, only palliative treatments, and none of these are of great value. The disease is a sort of cancer of the blood-forming organs, and once you've got it medical science can't do a lot for you. Medical science, of course, is reluctant to admit this; the disease is a rare one and human guinea pigs with it are not so plentiful, so that medical science has plenty of new suggestions for treatment when a case appears. There is not much evidence that anybody's life has been prolonged by such experiments, and no record of a cure.

    Nadezna said as much to me in her letter. She said that Connie had agreed to a short course of X-ray therapy, not because he had any faith in it but because it would take a few days that he would have to spend in Karachi anyway. He wanted to come to Bahrein to see me, and he proposed to leave the hospital and travel to Bahrein on the Tramp with Arjan Singh on his return from Bali. Nadezna said that she had come to the conclusion that his time was limited, and as he had things on his mind that he wanted very badly to do, it would be best to let him do them.

    Arjan Singh's letter was to the same effect. He made the point

    306

    that a first-class ground engineer, accustomed to diagnosing the ailments of the most complicated aircraft engines and instruments from an examination of the symptoms, had little difficulty in mastering the functions of so crude and inefficient a mechanism as the human body. He said that the Teacher knew all about the prospect before him and he was not distressed. He wanted very much to come back to Bahrein for a short time, and Arjan proposed to bring him back on his return from Bali. In the meantime the Teacher was quite happy to rest in hospital, and let the doctors have their fun.

    I saw Captain Morrison with these letters. He was pleased that Connie was willing to come back for a short time, and he sat down there and then and wrote a short personal letter to him to welcome him back to Bahrein; we got that off to him that night by air mail.

    As I was going away, he said, "Let me know when you expect him to arrive, Cutter. I'd like to come out to the aerodrome and meet the machine."

    I smiled, a little bitterly. "Shall I see if I can find a bit of red carpet?"

    "We all make mistakes," he said quietly. "I'd like to come and meet him, if you'd let me know." I was sorry then that I'd said that, because after all, the mistake had not been his.

    The Tramp came in late one afternoon. I had got Gujar Singh to fix up Connie and Nadezna in the same rooms that they had occupied before in the house of Mutluq bin Aamir, the silk merchant; Nadezna had retained her room, I think, but someone had to be turned out of Connie's, which was done with great despatch. This of course put the news that he was coming back to Bahrein all around the souk, and when the Tramp landed there were close on a thousand people waiting by the hangar to see it touch down. Morrison knew about this, and he had laid on a few policemen to keep the crowd behind the rope barrier that I had set up, and when the Tramp taxied to a standstill Morrison went forward to meet Connie as he got out of the machine. Connie was bareheaded and dressed in khaki shirt and stained khaki drill slacks, and Morrison shook hands with him in front of all the crowd. It was good of him to do that.

    307

    Connie wasn't very tired, though I think he was paler than when I had seen him a fortnight before. He wanted to join in the sunset Rakats, and as there was half an hour to go I took him round the hangar with Tai Foong and showed him what was going on in the shop. When it was time for prayer, he went out to the vacant ground with the Imam, and the crowd trooped on to it when we took away the rope, and the engineers formed a solid phalanx around Connie so that he would not be crowded. Then the Imam stood up in front of them and called on Allah, and I went over to the office with Nadezna and gave her a cup of tea.

    After the prayers were over, Connie came into the office. I said, "I expect you'd better get down to the souk and rest." And I got out my keys and began putting the papers away and locking up my desk, because I was to drive him in the station wagon.

    He sat down on a chair and said, "One thing, Tom, if you've got a minute. I came back here because I wanted to see you."

    I stopped bustling around. "Of course," I said. "What's on your mind?"

    "I want an aeroplane," he said. "I haven't got any money for it, but I was wondering if you could let me have a Proctor for a month or two."

    I had two old Proctors. I had paid six hundred pounds for one and four hundred and fifty for the other; they were a fleabite in the total value of my aeroplanes, and both of them were pretty well written down in the accounts. "Of course," I said. "You can have a Proctor for as long as you like. What do you want to do with it?"

    "I'm going to die of this thing," he said practically. "They seem to think I've got about a year, and I shan't be a lot of good after the first six months. Well, that's all right; most of us don't get so much notice. I've always said what I believed in, in the hangar, anywhere. And now I've started something. I don't know if what I've started will endure or not, but if it does endure, I think it's quite a useful thing to have done. So many people now, in so many countries, on so many aerodromes, are talking about what I've said quite casually at some time, and repeating it, and writing it all down. And sometimes it's just hearsay—they're putting down things that I never said at all. Well, that's not right. If this thing's

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    going to die out with me, it doesn't matter. But if it's going to endure, I'd like it to be right."


    I smiled. "I see."

    "If I had a Proctor," he said, "I could go round all these airfields and spend a day or two on each, just talking to the chaps. I want to do that. I want them to see me as a real man, not as a kind of God. I sweat like they do, eat like they do; I get tired and hungry and sleepy as they do. And ill, perhaps. When I tell them what I think about things, I want to tell them as a first class G.E., not as a bloody preacher. I want to go into each shop and hangar and tell them. what I think of their routines and their inspection schedules, so that they'll remember me as someone who was good at their own job. Then if they like to pay attention to the things that I believe in, they'll be doing it on grounds of solid competence and fact, not just emotion."

    "If you're going to go round all the airfields in the East where men are talking about you," I said, "it's going to take you all your time. There must be a hundred at least—more than that."

    "I want to go on till I've got to stop," he said.

    "Well, you can have the Proctor." I thought for a minute. "You'd better have Yoke Uncle—the engine's got about three hundred hours to go in that. That ought to see you through. If you want any more time, bring it in, and swap it for Nan Oboe. Who's going to fly it for you?"

    He said, "Arjan Singh has offered to do that. He's coming in to see you in the morning. He wants you to give him leave without pay."

    I nodded slowly. I knew that Arjan was a believer in Shak Lin, and he was unmarried; he could probably work without pay for a time. He was a good man for the job, too, because Sikhs are known and somewhat feared all over India. Arjan Singh in his best clothes was both an imposing and a ferocious figure; it would be a bold Bengali or Madrassi who would try conclusions with him. With Arjan Singh to run the practical affairs of life, Connie would be in good hands.

    There would be no trouble about maintenance of the Proctor; at every aerodrome willing hands would seek to gain merit by servicing the Teacher's aircraft. "You'll have to have some money,

    309

    Connie," I said at last. "I don't think you need bother about insurance—it's very little, and it can go on under the existing cover. Spares—we can fit you up with anything you'll need from the stores. But you'll have to pay for petrol and oil, or someone will."

    "There's a chap called Noshirvan who lives in Bombay," he said. "A Parsee. He's a motor agent in a fairly big way. He came up to see me in Karachi. He wants to pay for the petrol and oil. I said I'd let him know if I could get the aircraft, and he'll take out a Shell carnet."

    "We'd better get a cable off to him tonight," I said.

    Next day I took Yoke Uncle off the list of operational aircraft and allocated her to Connie. He started in at once to do the fifty-hour maintenance schedules on her, working with Tarik. Arjan Singh came to see me and I fixed him up with unpaid leave for as long as he liked; I told him I'd be glad to see him back in the business whenever he was able to come. He said he did not know when that would be; as long as the Teacher wanted a pilot, he said, he would like to serve him in that way. He said that he had no home ties that would prevent him from devoting his life to religion. He told me then a thing that I had not heard before in all the three years he had been with me, that as a young man he had been married, and that his wife and son had died of fever while he was in the Royal Indian Air Force. Since then he had been unmarried. It takes an Asiatic a long time to get around to talking of his private life to a European.

    Arjan and Connie got their Proctor going a couple of days later, and flew it over to Baraka to see the old Sheikh, who now seldom left his bed. They came back on the following day, stayed the night, and left for Abadan.

    Nadezna and I stood in the shade of the hangar watching the thin line of the Proctor wing as it vanished into the haze to the north. Most of the other staff stood there with us, watching till it was out of sight.

    "I'm glad you let Arjan go, Tom," she said as we turned back to the office. "I think he's about the best man to look after Connie. He's so very practical."

    I nodded. "I told him to let me know at once by cable if he gets seriously ill."

    310

    She smiled. "I did that, too."

    Nothing much happened after that for a couple of months. When Connie and Arjan had been gone for about a fortnight, they appeared again from the north and stayed one night; they had been to Abadan, Baghdad, Mosul, Teheran, Basra, and Kuwait, and now they were on their way eastwards to Pakistan and India. Connie was tired, but not more than one would have expected from such a strenuous journey. They went on to spend a night at Sharjah, and from there to Jiwani and Karachi.

    About six weeks after they had gone through, Wazir Hussein came to my office in the maroon Hudson one afternoon. I got up to meet him and ordered coffee, and presently he came to the point.

    "My master feels that he is near his end," he said. "Before he dies, he wishes to speak to the Majlis. He has sent me to invite you to be present, and the Sister, and Captain Morrison. He has matters of importance to tell you."

    It was a very unusual summons, but everything about my relations with the Sheikh of Khulal was a bit unusual. "Of course," I said. "I should be very glad to come. When does your master wish to summon the Majlis?"

    "If it is possible, tomorrow,"
    he said. "I have seen Captain Morrison, and he is able to come tomorrow. He said that perhaps you would fly him over, with the Sister."

    I fixed that up, and fixed the time that we would take off in the morning, and rang up Morrison to let him know. Hussein would come with us, and as there were to be four people I took one of the Airtrucks. The Wazir did not say what it was all about and I didn't care to question him. Nadezna had no idea, but thought it had to do with Connie. As we were getting into the machine next morning I drew Morrison aside and asked if he knew anything.

    "It's his will," he said. "He's calling the full Majlis. Can't be anything else."


    We landed at Baratta an hour later, and drove to the palace in the Packard that came to the airstrip. Here we were shown into the same bare anteroom with the hard gilt chairs that I had been in before; this room was full of well-dressed Arabs, minor
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