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Round the Bend: Pages 51 through 60

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 51 through 60

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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



    using the people of the countries that I want to do business with. That's bound to make things easier."

    Taverner chipped in then, and we went over my prospective overheads in the light of the payments I would have to make for Asiatic staff, and the sum naturally came out a good bit better. They left me then to go off and have a talk about it by themselves, and when they came back they said, fifteen hundred down and the machine was mine. I stuck my heels in and refused to pay a penny more than twelve hundred, and when I left the works that evening the machine was mine for delivery in about ten days, subject to the completion of all the formalities.

    I went to Southampton that night, and got home at about nine o'clock. There was no telephone at home, of course; I'd sent a telegram from the works to say that I was coming, but it was nearly six o'clock when we telephoned it and after delivery hours, so Ma hadn't got it. I walked in at the street door and put my bag down. Ma was in the scullery, and when she heard the door go she called out, "That you, Alf?" She thought it was Dad.

    I said, "It's me, Ma—Tom!" She came rushing out and put her arms round me and kissed me, and ticked me off for not letting them know which day I was coming. And then she said, "My, Tom, you do look brown. How long have you got at home?"

    "Only a week or two," I said. "I'm getting a bigger aeroplane, and flying out again as soon as it's ready."

    "Not bust yet?" she asked.

    "Not quite," I said. "Where's Dad?"

    "He stepped out to the Lion for his game of darts," she said. "He should be back now, any minute."

    "Mind if I go down there and fetch him, Ma?"

    She nodded. "He'll like you to meet his friends, Bert Topp and Harry Burke, and Chandler. Don't be more'n a quarter of an hour, Tom. I'll start getting supper now."

    I went down to the pub, and there was Dad playing darts with Harry Burke. I said, "How do, Dad," and he said, "How do, Tom," and I told him I'd been home, and he told the barman to give me a pint, and went on with his game. The barman said, "Been out in the sun?" and I said, "Persian Gulf," and he said, "Persian Gulf," and he said, "Uh-huh," and I sat and watched Dad going for the double at the


    finish of the game. It was just as if I'd never been away at all, as if Bahrein and Gujar Singh, and Sharjah, and Yas Island were places and people I'd read about in a book.

    I walked home with Dad when he'd finished the game, and told him something about what I'd been doing on the way. Back home when we sat down to the light supper that they had before going to bed, Ma asked me, "What's it like out where you're working, Tom? What does it all look like?" She paused. "Is it all palm trees and dates and that?"

    "Not in the country," I said. "Nothing grows outside the towns, because of the water. There's no water at all. The land is desert—great flat stretches of sandy sort of earth, with maybe rocky hills or mountains here and there. All yellow and dried up under the sun. You get groves of date palms and greenery outside Bahrein and outside most towns, where they irrigate with water from wells."

    Dad said, "Sounds a bad sort of country."

    "I rather like it, Dad," I said. "It gets hold of you, after a bit. It's good for people—you don't get any of the pansy boys out there. It can be lovely when you're flying, too. Some places and in some lights, the desert goes a sort of rosy pink, all over, and then if you're flying up a coast the sea can be a brilliant emerald green, or else a brilliant blue, with a strip of white surf all along the edge
    like a girl's slip showing."

    "Ever had a forced landing in it and got stranded?" Dad asked,

    I shook my head. "Not yet, and I don't want one. I had to put down once because of a sandstorm, and sit it out in the cabin for five or six hours; then it got better and I took off and went on. I always take a petrol can of water in the aircraft."

    Ma said, "My . . ."

    They wanted to know if I'd got anyone to help me, and I told them about Gujar Singh and Tarik. It was difficult, of course, to make them understand, however hard I was trying, however much they wanted to. Dad said,

    "Like niggers, I suppose they'd be?"

    I shook my head. "No, not like niggers. Gujar Singh's an Indian."


    "Lascars are Indians, I think," Dad said. He only knew the types he'd seen about the docks, of course.

    "That's right," I said. "But this is a different sort of Indian. A better sort than lascars, more of an Army officer type." I went on to describe what Gujar looked like, but I don't know that a description of him really helped me in describing what I had come to feel; that our minds ran on similar tracks.

    Ma said, "They'd be heathens, I suppose?"

    The question worried me a bit, because I wanted her to like them. I wanted her to understand. "I don't know," I said slowly. "Both of them believe in God—just one God, not a lot of Gods. I suppose you'd call them heathens. They don't believe in Jesus Christ as God—the Moslems think He was a prophet, just like Moses. But I must say, they seem to say their prayers very regular, which is more'n we do."

    Ma was trying her best. "They don't go to church, I suppose?" she asked. "Just have heathen temples, like?"

    "They've got their own places where they go to pray," I said. "Friday is the big day, like our Sunday, when they all go to the mosque. Most businesses shut up shop on Friday, and the offices and the banks shut on Friday, too. We don't work on Fridays, but we work on Sundays. They're very particular about Fridays, and then of course, they're always at their prayers. I told young Tarik after the first day, I said, 'You do your praying in the lunch hour and after we knock off, lad—not in the time I pay you for.' A chap in the radio set-up put me wise to that one. They'll swing it on you if you let them. But then on your side, you've got to be reasonable and fix the hours of work so they can get their praying in.

    "Do you mean they go off to the mosque on a working day?" Dad asked.

    I shook my head. "They can do it on any quiet little bit of ground, it seems. A Moslem has to say his prayers five times a day. What young Tarik does, he goes out on a little bit of flat ground just beside the hangar and he faces west, about in the direction of Mecca. That's their holy city, where they go for pilgrimages. He takes off his shoes and stands up straight, and puts both hands up to his ears, and prays. Then he stands with his


    arms folded in front of him and prays. Then he bends forwards with both hands on his knees, and prays. Then he goes down on hands and knees and puts his head on the ground, and prays. Then he sits down for a bit and thinks about it all, and then starts in and goes through it all again. He goes on like that for about ten minutes, like doing physical jerks. Only you can't laugh about it, Dad, when you see them at it. They take it all so serious, just like us in church. It means a lot to them."

    "Five times a day they go through all that?"

    "That's right,"
    I said. "Young Tarik's hours are sort of fluid 'cause there's only just him there at present. He's supposed to start at seven in the morning, and I must say he's usually there on time. He works till nine, and then gets a break for a cup of tea or a bit to eat, and prayers. Starts again at nine-thirty and works till twelve, and gets an hour then for his dinner and prayers. Works from one to four-thirty, and knocks off for prayers. That makes an eight hour day. If he works over, then I give him a bit more at the end of the month."

    Ma said, "Seems like they're not heathens at all, if they say their prayers that much."

    "They're not Christians, Ma," I said. "But honestly, I don't think you could call them heathens, either. They believe in God all right."

    Dad asked about the aeroplanes, and I told him about the Airtruck, and got out a picture of it from my case to show him. He asked how much it cost, and I told him, and then I told him about the money that I'd made, and that was all going back into the business. Dad and Ma were so pleased, it was just fine; they thought far more of my little success, and took more pleasure in it, than ever I did. It was worth that six months of heat and work and sweat and fright, to see the pleasure they got out of it.

    They asked what I was going to do and how long I could stay, and I told them that I'd have to go for a week to Air Service Training Ltd at Hamble and get a radio operator's licence; that was only six miles out of Southampton, so I could live at home and go out on the bus each day.

    Young Ted had gone off to do his military service so Dad and


    Ma were all alone at home. Ma asked where I'd like to sleep, upstairs or down, and I said down in the big room where we'd all slept together as kids. I lay there for a while that night thinking all sorts of things, of the Airtruck, of my radio licence, of Bahrein and the Persian Gulf country, of the last time I came to sleep there in the misery of Beryl's death. If Beryl had lived my life would have been a very different one, I knew. She wouldn't have fitted in at Bahrein, and she'd have hated it. But then, I'd never have got out there if she'd lived.

    I got up with Dad and Ma next morning and had breakfast at seven with Dad before he went off to the docks. I hung around then and helped Ma with the washing up, because there was no point in getting out to Hamble before ten. As we were drying the dishes Ma said, "Ted brought ever such a nice girl home last week-end, Tom. Lily Clarke, her name is. Her folks live at Fareham. Father's a petty officer in the Navy."

    "Starting young," I said.

    "Mm. Met her at a dance. I don't know if there's anything in it."

    "Better wait till he gets through his service and in a proper job," I said. "Besides, he's only just nineteen."

    "Your Pa was only twenty when we got married, Tom. I had Elsie when I was nineteen."

    I grinned at her. "Ought to be ashamed of yourself, Ma, and Dad too."

    "Well, I don't know. It worked out all right with us. I often wish you'd married young, Tom, but you were always so stuck into books."

    "I know," I said quietly. "I got around to it too late."

    "There's always another chance. You didn't meet anybody out there?"

    I shook my head, smiling a little. "It's not that sort of a place, Ma. You get more snowstorms in the Persian Gulf than unmarried white girls."

    She sighed. "I wish you didn't have to work in a place like that. Will you ever come back and work in England, Tom?"

    "I expect I will some day," I replied. "The trouble is, I rather


    like it in the East. I'd like to go farther if I get a chance, into India and Burma, and on past those."

    "Well anyway," she said, "it's not as if you had to be out there for ever. Being in the air business, you do seem to be able to get home now and then."

    She kept on trying, Ma did. I went out that day and fixed up my course at Air Service Training, and got them to start me off next day on account of the urgency. Two nights later I came back to tea about six, and there was a girl in to tea with Ma, Doris Waters, daughter of old Waters the plumber. She was a pretty kid and quite intelligent, about twenty-two or twenty-three years old; she taught in a school. If I'd been different to what I was, things might have been different, too. But I wasn't, and they weren't. I was sorry for Ma.

    With all the examinations for the radio operator's licence and the B licence, and the renewal of my ground engineer's licences, I was busy in a maze of paper work for the next three weeks. I had to go three times to London, and then in the middle of it all the August Bank Holiday came and everything stopped dead for about four days. I finally got away from England in the Airtruck on August the 22nd having been in England nearly a month. Dad and Mum came out to see the machine, as they had done before with the Fox-Moth. But this was a bigger and a better aircraft altogether. I had about three hundredweight of spares and tools with me, and quite a bit of luggage, and it made a little heap in one corner of the big cabin that you'd hardly notice.

    The Airtruck was faster than the Fox-Moth, and better equipped, and so much easier to fly. Having two engines I took the sea crossing from Cannes to Rome direct, and then over the top of the Apennines through cloud to Brindisi instead of going round the coast. Short cuts like that made a lot of difference to the time, and with the greater range of the Airtruck I didn't have to land so often for fuel. I got to Bahrein in five days from England, and as I turned downwind on the circuit I saw the Fox-Moth standing in front of the hangar, and Gujar Singh and Tarik standing by it looking up at the Airtruck and waving to me. They hadn't broken the Fox, which took a load off my mind. As I came in to the runway on the final and put her down, I felt


    like I was coming home again. The wide, bare, sandy field under the blazing sun, the blue sea beside, the shimmer from the tarmac, the white houses with their windtowers—these were the things that pleased me; this was where I wanted to be.

    Gujar and Tarik came up to the machine as I switched off in front of the hangar, and they opened the door, and came in to greet me as I sat quiet in the cockpit for a few minutes, tired after a long day of flying from Damascus via Baghdad and Basra, writing up the journey log book on my knee. They were very much impressed with the Airtruck. "There will be a great deal of work to be done with this," said Gujar, "once the oil companies get to know that it is here."

    I found that evening that he had done quite well in my absence with the Fox-Moth. He had had a job to do most days, and the bank account, which was two hundred pounds when I went away, was now over seven hundred. There were a good few bills outstanding because I hadn't left him power to draw cheques, but so far as I could see he had made a profit of over three hundred pounds in the month or so that I had been away. I was very pleased with that, and I told him so. It meant that I could go away on jobs myself without the feeling that everything was going to collapse.

    I got Evans of the Arabia-Sumatran Petroleum Company to come down and have a look at the new machine next day, with one or two from the other companies. The response was good, and by the end of a week the Airtruck was going hard every day. Spare parts for motor transport was one of our big, constant loads. The oil companies have a great number of trucks in various parts of the Arabian deserts in connection with the oil wells and pipelines and docks. These trucks give continuous trouble; however ruggedly they may be built a country that has no roads and a lot of sand is hard on things mechanical. We could fly in spare back axles, wheels complete with tyres, drums of oil, or engine parts to stranded trucks, and it's extraordinary how many stranded trucks there are. Apart from that, we took surveying parties and all their gear about the place continuously, and cases of tinned foods—all sorts of stuff. From time to time we took quite big loads of people, employees going in and out of some inaccessible place; I had no


    seats for the Airtruck and took them sitting or squatting on the floor. Presently, of course, the inevitable official popped up and told me that was illegal because they all ought to have a safety belt.

    After a time I decided I should have to have another aeroplane. Gujar Singh was used to flying the Airtruck by that time, though I did most of the work on it myself and let him fly the Fox-Moth. Now things were piling up on us. There was still far more work than we could tackle, and the Fox-Moth was due for its annual overhaul for the Certificate of Airworthiness. I had engaged an Iraqui ground engineer with A and C licences called Selim, but I didn't trust him much and anyway he wasn't licensed for complete overhauls; I should have to do that myself. I wanted another Airtruck, and that meant another pilot.

    I was up to date with my payments on the first Airtruck and had about two thousand pounds' profit again in hand. I wrote to Harry Ford and told him how I stood and sent him the accounts, and said, what about another Airtruck on the Never-Never? I think they must have had a lot of trouble selling them, because he wrote back at once and said, come and get it. It wasn't very suitable for ordinary charter operators, perhaps, but it fitted my work like a glove.

    I had a talk with Gujar Singh about another pilot then. He didn't himself know of another Sikh pilot. In ten days' time, however, we had to take a load to Karachi, a trip which I proposed to do myself in the Airtruck. He suggested that he should come with me; he knew Karachi very well of course. We went together and stayed for a couple of days. At the end of that time we found quite a good pilot called Arjan Singh, with another big black beard and another iron bangle just like Gujar; he had been instructing on Harvards at Bangalore in the war and had done a bit of time on Dominies. I took him on and put up Gujar's salary to three hundred rupees, and we all went back to Bahrein together. I started Arjan on the Fox-Moth and turned over the Airtruck to Gujar, and went back to England in a chartered Halton that had taken a ship's propeller shaft out to Singapore and was on its way back with a load of silk goods.


    I was only home about four days that time, because the second Airtruck was all ready and waiting for me on Basingstoke aerodrome. In fact there were eleven of them standing in a row, unsold; I kicked myself that I'd got to have credit and so had to pay full price. However, it was better to have it so than to get outside money in; I wanted to keep the show in my own hands. I still wasn't a company, and I didn't see any reason why I should become one, for the time being. There's no income tax in Bahrein.

    I stayed three of the four days with Dad and Ma as usual, and took them up for a joyride in the Airtruck. Then I was off again back to Bahrein. I was getting to know the route by that time, and I was a much better pilot than when I went out first with the Fox-Moth.

    When I got back to Bahrein I started in to put the business on a proper basis. With the two Airtrucks flying all day long and the Fox in for overhaul for its Certificate of Airworthiness, I had to take on a good bit more staff. I got another ground engineer, an Egyptian who'd been with me at Almaza, and two more Arab boys under Tarik, who was shaping quite well; these boys worked as loaders when we wanted labour. Sometimes we parachuted loads down instead of landing if the ground was bad, especially to stranded trucks, and these boys went along then in the aircraft to put the stuff out of the door frame; for those jobs we flew without the door.

    I had to start an office going, too. I found a young Bengali clerk called Dunu who could work a typewriter and keep books; he came from Calcutta and was working in a shipping office in the town. I managed to lease a disused hutment from the R.A.F. on a strictly temporary basis, and I set the office up in that.

    From that time onward my own work began to change. I had to spend more time on the ground, because I was the only ground engineer in the show who was licensed for aircraft overhauls; I couldn't be away all day piloting while a machine was in for its annual overhaul, and with three machines coming up for annual overhaul in turn it was clear that I should have to spend a lot more time in the hangar. Having to do that, I was able to attend more to the bookkeeping and costs, and it was about that time I set to work to get the prices down. It had been


    all very well to charge a high figure for my transport in the early days, but I knew that if I went on doing that the oil companies would start to kick and either get their own aircraft or else, much worse, encourage someone else to start up at Bahrein in competition with me. Within a month of my return with the second Airtruck I cut my own prices by twenty-five per cent, and let them all know what I'd done, and why I'd done it.

    I still did all of what one might describe as the pioneering flying. Whenever we had to make a landing at a place we hadn't used before, I used to take the machine myself if possible, sometimes with Gujar or Arian with me in the machine so that they could see it and get the gen. That was the position some months after I got back to Bahrein, at the end of November, when Evans of the Arabia-Sumatran rang me up and asked if I could quote for taking a load of fifteen hundred pounds of scientific instruments and one passenger from Bahrein to Diento, in Sumatra, where they had another refinery.

    Diento is in the south of Sumatra, about four hundred miles south of Singapore, not very far from Batavia in Java. It was by far the longest haul that had come my way, and I regarded it as something of a compliment and as a sign of confidence in me that they had asked me to quote. It meant a flight of about five thousand miles all through the East, across India and Burma, through Siam and down Malaya, into Sumatra and past Palembang to this place Diento. I knew I could do it in an Airtruck and I was determined to go myself, of course, for an important job like that. I had a lot of difficulty with the quotation, though.

    The trouble was in finding a return load. If I charged him for the double journey the figure came out so high that it frightened me; I wanted to do the job very badly, but I wasn't going to do it and lose money. In the end I took my figures to him and put the cards on the table. I told him he would have to guarantee payment for the return journey to Bahrein, and I suggested he should put his Sumatran organisation to work to find me a return load either from their own requirements or else from Batavia; in that case we would set off anything that we could get for the return load against his invoice, with appropriate mileage adjustments if the return load was to a destination off my direct