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Round the Bend: Pages 41 through 50

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  • Round the Bend: Pages 41 through 50

    ROUND the BEND
    Nevil Shute, 1951

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



    round his head out of sight and fastened with a comb. He wore a plain iron bangle on his wrist, and beneath his jacket he wore a ceremonial dagger belted round his waist. He didn't smoke or drink, because of his religion.

    Gujar Singh was always pleasant when I met him in the bank; he was a smiling, soft-spoken, friendly young man in spite of his fierce appearance. He was reserved and discreet; he was evidently interested in me and in my business, but he never asked questions. Once he did ask me what the weather had been like the day before, when I had been down to Yas Island or somewhere, and afterwards the remark stuck in my mind, because it had been a thundery sort of day and something in the words he used were well informed for a bank clerk. He seemed to speak my language.

    My whole life at that time centred round my work. If I had had more time I think I should have been very lonely. I lived with the four radio operators but I wasn't one of them, and I was never one for lying on the charpoy reading or sleeping, as they did in their spare time. The memory of Beryl was never very far from my mind; whenever I had leisure I was moody and depressed, so that it's a good thing in a way that I had little leisure. I must have been bad company in the chummery. Perhaps it was this moodiness and loneliness that made me interested in the Sikh cashier at the bank, and when next I went there I asked him where he learned to speak such very good English.

    He smiled. "I was educated in Lahore," he said. "I went to Lahore College. But apart from that, my father was a captain in the Army. We often spoke English at home."

    "I wish I could speak Arabic as well as you speak English," I said. "It'ld make things a lot easier. Were you in the Indian Army in the war?"

    He smiled again. "I was in the Royal Indian Air Force. I did about three hundred hours on Hurricanes."

    I struck up quite a friendship with Gujar after that. He told me all about his squadron and what they had done in the Burmese War against japan; he showed me his pilot's log book one day and I found that he'd done about four hundred and fifty hours in all, with only one minor crash upon a Tiger Moth in the early days of his training, He was deeply interested in my venture, not only


    because it had to do with flying but because it was apparent from the bank account that it was very profitable.

    He came down to the aerodrome several times in the evenings after that, and I found that he was quite willing to take his coat off and give me a hand with the maintenance. Once a man has had to do with aeroplanes it gets into the blood, whether he is Western or Asiatic, and Gujar Singh used to potter about with me from time to time cleaning the filters and draining the sumps and checking the tyre pressures of the Fox-Moth. Presently, one evening in the hangar, he asked me to remember him if ever I wanted another pilot.

    The thought had been in my own mind for a week or two. I had been at Bahrein about four months when that happened, and clearly if I got another aeroplane I'd have to have another pilot. This gentle, ferocious-looking Sikh was certainly a possibility. I said,

    "What about the bank, Gujar? You want to think a bit before giving up a steady job like that. I may go bust at any time."

    He smiled. "It may be a breach of confidence, but of necessity I know the balance of your account, what it was when you came here and what it is now. I am prepared to take the chance."

    I liked Gujar. He was modest and careful. It did not seem to me that he was likely to crash an aircraft. I knew nothing of him as a navigator, or how steady he would be in an emergency. But in these things one has to trust one's judgment, and my whole instinct now was to give this a trial.

    "Tell me," I said. "Are you married? I don't want to pry into your affairs, but I'd like to know that."

    "I am married," he said. "My wife is a Sikh also. I have three children. I live at the northwest side of the souk."

    I knew that part. It was in a part of the town where only Asiatics live, a part where there are no made roads, just alleys between the houses. Probably he lived in one room, or at the most in two.

    "How much money would you want?" I asked.

    "I will tell you," he said. "At the bank I am paid two hundred and fifty rupees a month, and I can increase that by ten rupees a month for every year of service." He smiled. "Our needs are less


    than yours, and we are quite comfortable on that. I would come to fly for you for the same money as I am getting at the bank, but if you should take on another pilot under me I should expect promotion."

    That was fair enough, of course. I always have to translate rupees into English money in my mind, because most of the aircraft costs and contracts are in terms of sterling. Two hundred and fifty rupees a month, which he was getting in the bank, was about two hundred and twenty pounds a year, less than the wage of a farm labourer in England. On that he was quite happy with a wife and three children. If I were to get an English pilot out from England to fill this job I should have to pay at least a thousand a year, more than four times the wage that Gujar Singh wanted. The balance would pay for a good many minor crashes if my judgment proved to be wrong. But I didn't think it was.

    "Look, Gujar," I said. "We'd both better think this over for a bit. Until I've got another aeroplane I don't want another pilot. It'll be three months or so before the thing becomes acute. But I'll certainly bear it in mind."

    "That is all I want," he said. "Just keep it in your mind. I would rather work for you than continue to work in the bank. What sort of aeroplane do you think that you will buy?"

    "There's a new thing just out called a Basing Airtruck," I said. "That's what we want out here. High wing, two of these engines, and a great big cabin for a ton of freight. I've got the specification in my room, if you'd like to come in and see it."

    I had a good many talks with Gujar after that, and I confirmed the good opinion I had formed of him. His knowledge of aircraft wasn't very deep, but then it didn't have to be. He hadn't got a licence of any sort, of course, but I had little doubt that he could get a B licence in the lowest category, making it legal for him to carry passengers in the Fox-Moth.

    That spring the Air Ministry sent an R.A.F. Tiger Moth to Bahrein, an old instructional type that was used for ab initio training in the war. They were evidently getting worried that morale would suffer if flying officers were stationed there indefinitely with nothing to fly, and a large R.A.F. aerodrome with no aeroplanes at all looks rather odd to foreigners. The Tiger Moth is a small


    open two-seater with dual control, and for a time this thing was in the air all day, mostly inverted. When the rush for it subsided a bit, I asked the C.O. if one of the officers might give Gujar a run round in it and check up on his flying for me. It wasn't strictly according to King's Regulations, of course, but I have always found the R.A.F. to be quite helpful, and Allen and Gujar went off and did circuits and bumps in this thing for an hour one evening while I watched the landings from the shade of the hangar. When they came in, Allen told me he was all right. Gujar was as pleased as a dog with two tails.

    That evening I told him he could give his notice in to the bank and start as soon as he liked.

    I had his licence to negotiate then. I had been given a provisional B licence for myself which had to be renewed each month, and was only given on the understanding that I went to England very soon to take it properly. I started in to battle then for another provisional licence for Gujar Singh so that he could carry on in the Fox-Moth while I was in England. Officialdom came back at once and asked who was going to maintain the Fox-Moth and sign it out while I was in England, and I threw back the ball that Flight Sergeant Harrison had A and C ground engineer's licences and would do it in the evenings. Officialdom replied that Flight Sergeant Harrison was licensed for Dakotas, it was true, but not for a Fox-Moth, and I replied that, surely to God if he could sign for a Dakota he could sign for a pipsqueak thing like a Fox-Moth. So it went on.

    Presently it came out that Gujar Singh was an Indian subject, and we found that he could get a B licence with the greatest of ease in Karachi. There was a York of R.A.F. Transport Command going through to Mauripur the week that he joined me, and the C.O. very kindly gave him a passage in that. He was back three days later in a Dakota of Orient Airways that was going through to Baghdad, and he had a brand new B licence, valid for six months. I wished I was an Indian.

    The way was clear then for me to go to England. I sent Gujar off in the Fox-Moth for a couple of charter trips and he came back all right from those; I turned over the books to him and told him to do the best he could with the business while I was


    away, and transferred most of the cash in the account to London. When I'd left sufficient for him to carry on with safely in my absence, I found that I'd got two thousand two hundred pounds to transfer—not bad for six months' work with one little aeroplane. But I'd had to work for it.

    I left Bahrein six months and two days after I landed there. I got a cheap ride as far as Rome on a Norwegian Skymaster that had taken a load of Italian emigrants to Australia and was on its way back to pick up another lot. There was nothing going to England from Rome except regular services which would have charged me the full fare, so I took a second-class ticket by rail. It took me longer to get from Rome to London than it had to get from Bahrein to Rome, and when finally I got out of the train at Victoria Station I was thankful that, if all went well, I should be going out by air in a week or two.

    I got on the Underground and went to the same hotel near Euston that I always stayed at because it was cheap. I had written to Basing Aircraft from Bahrein on my cheap notepaper, and they had sent me out details of the Airtruck. I rang up their sales manager, a Mr. Harry Ford, first thing next morning and said that I was coming down to see them right away. He told me a train and said he'd send a car to meet me. I drove from Basingstoke Station to the works behind a chauffeur like a lord, the first time I'd ever been to an aircraft works like that. It felt very odd.

    Harry Ford was quite a decent chap, but I could see he didn't quite know what to make of me. He'd been in aviation a long time; I knew of him, though I had never met him. I think he knew a little about me. He gave me a cigarette, and then he said,

    "We got your letters, Mr. Cutter. What did you think of the stuff about the Airtruck we sent you?"

    "Looks all right, for what I'm doing," I said. "I'd like to have a look at one in the shop."

    "We'll go.out in a moment," he replied. "There are just one or two things I'd like to clear up first. What's the name of your company?"

    "I haven't got a company," I said. "There's nobody in this but me."


    He was a little taken aback, I think. "You mean, you're trading as an individual?"

    "That's right."

    "You're doing charter work?"

    "That's right," I said. "I've got a Fox-Moth, but I want something a bit bigger now."

    "Just one Fox-Moth?" He was smiling, but in quite a nice sort of way.

    "Just one Fox-Moth," I said firmly. "Maybe you'd think more of me if I'd got fifty thousand pounds of other people's money, and a dozen disposals Haltons, and a staff of three hundred, and a company, and a thumping loss. As it is, I've got just one Fox-Moth and a thumping profit. Show you my accounts if you like."

    "Have you got them here?"

    I pulled the envelope from my pocket, and unfolded the various papers; the accounts certified by the Iraqui accountant in Bahrein up to three days before I left, together with the complete schedule of the jobs I'd done, the hours flown on each, and the payments received to balance with the income side of the accounts. "I'm showing you these," I said, "because I want to buy an Airtruck if it's the aeroplane I think it is, and I've not got enough money to pay for it."

    "Fine," lie said. "I wish some of my other clients came to the point so quickly."

    He ran his eye over my papers, and I saw his eyebrows rise once or twice. He did not take more than a couple of minutes over it; it was clear that he was very well accustomed to this sort of thing. "On the face of it, that's a very good showing, Mr. Cutter," he said. "I don't suppose many Fox-Moth operators can show profits like that."

    "I don't suppose many Fox-Moth operators work as hard as I've worked," I said.

    "You do all the maintenance yourself, as well as the piloting and the business?"

    "That's right."

    "I see." He thought for a minute. "I take it that if you bought an Airtruck you would want credit."


    I nodded. "I'd want a hire purchase agreement, over a year."

    "Could you find anyone to guarantee your payments?"

    "No," I said firmly. "I've got no rich friends. I've got the record there of what I do, and that shows I can keep up the payments. If we can't do business for an Airtruck upon those terms I'll have to go elsewhere, and buy a cheaper aeroplane."

    "I see." He took up the papers. "We'll go outside and you can have a look at an Airtruck, and talk to our test pilots, Mr. Cutter. They'll be interested to hear about your operations in the Persian Gulf. While we're doing that, would you mind if our secretary has a look at these figures of yours?"

    "Not a bit," I said, "so long as they're kept confidential. I wouldn't want any other operator to see them."

    He left me for a time and took my papers out of the room with him; when he came back we went out to see the Airtruck. He took me through the works; there were a lot of Airtrucks there on an assembly line, and there were two or three new ones in the flight hangar, unsold. They could give delivery at once. If I'd been able to pay cash I'd have got one at a discount off list price, I'm sure.

    I spent a couple of hours going over the machine from nose to tail, and had a short flight in one with a test pilot. When I had finished, I knew that that was the machine I wanted for the Gulf. It had a big, wide cabin with low loading, high wing which would keep the cabin cool upon the ground in the tropical sun, and full blind-flying instruments. With the addition of a small V.H.F. radio set it made an aeroplane that would take a ton of load anywhere, and very cheaply. I knew that I could make money with that out in the Gulf, and I knew that I could learn to fly it without much difficulty. I was very pleased, although I did my best not to show it.

    We went back to the office to talk turkey. Harry Ford got the secretary to come along to his office, a lean Scotsman called Taverner. He had been through my figures and gave the papers back to me, and then we talked about a hire purchase deal.

    "How much could you pay in the way of a deposit, Mr. Cutter?" the secretary asked.

    "A thousand pounds," I said.


    "That's only twenty per cent of the cost of the aircraft. From the profits you show, you should be able to do better than that."

    "I've got to keep some liquid capital in the business," I said. "The cost of flying out the Airtruck to Bahrein is one thing. I don't think I can do more than that."

    "Mm. I think that leaves too much for your business to carry. Ye can't pay off four thousand pounds in a year."

    "Why not? You see what I can make with just a Fox-Moth."

    "Aye," Mr. Taverner said. "Ye've done very well, but you won't go on like that. You're paying no insurance for a start. Maybe that's wise with just the Fox-Moth, and in any case, you've got away with it. But if we give you credit terms upon this Airtruck, you'll have to insure it with a policy that we approve. That's a bit off your profits."

    He paused. "But the big difference is going to be that from now on you've got to employ pilots and ground engineers. Up till now you've been doing everything yourself, and you've made close on two-thousand-five-hundred-pounds' profit in six months. But you've taken no pay yourself. I'll guess that you've been working like a horse and you've been making money at the rate of five thousand a year, and maybe you're worth it. But it's going to be different from now on."

    He turned to Ford. "What will he have to pay a pilot, working from Bahrein?"

    "A thousand to twelve hundred."

    "And a ground engineer?"

    "About eight hundred."

    The secretary turned to me. "Ye've got to have staff now, Mr. Cutter, with two aeroplanes, and that's going to alter the whole picture. Put in the wages of yourself at fifteen hundred, and a pilot at twelve hundred, and a ground engineer at eight hundred, and there's three thousand five hundred pounds added to your overhead expenses right away. I'm not saying that there'll be no profit left, but I doubt, I doubt very much, if you can pay off four thousand pounds on an Airtruck within a year on the work you'll do with it. It does not seem possible to me, or in two years either." He paused. "Ye'll not get the utilization with the larger aeroplane that you get with your Fox-Moth."


    "I agree," said Ford. "All operators find the same thing. When you're operating just one aeroplane, a charter service can look very promising. Directly you have to start in and employ a staff, the whole thing alters and the costs go leaping up. I've seen it happen over and over again."

    There was a pause.

    "That may be," I said. "This thing of mine is different."

    They smiled. "In what way?" Ford asked.

    "If other operators go on the way you say, they must all be bloody well daft," I said. "I can't afford to go paying pilots twelve hundred a year. I've got a pilot flying the Fox-Moth for me now while I'm away, a darned good pilot, running the business side as well. Do you know what I'm paying him?"


    "Two hundred and fifty rupees a month," I said. "That's two hundred and twenty pounds a year."

    They stared at me. "With flying pay?"

    I laughed shortly. "No. Two hundred and twenty pounds a year, fiat." I paused. "I've got a boy of sixteen cleaning down the aircraft. He'll work up and be a ground engineer one day. Do you know what he gets? Thirty bob a month." I snorted. "I'm not surprised that charter operators go broke right and left if they pay the wages that you say."

    They sat staring at me. Then Ford said, "Are these natives?"

    "That's right," I said. "The pilot's a Sikh. The boy's an Arab."

    "Oh. Would you propose that this native pilot should fly the Airtruck?"

    "I don't see why not."

    "We'd have to think about that one, if you're going to want credit terms on the sale. We should have an interest in the machine."

    "Think all you like," I said, "so long as you do it quick. This Sikh I've got is an ex-officer of the Royal Indian Air Force, and he's done over three, hundred hours on Hurricanes without an accident, much of it operational flying. If your Airtruck's so bloody difficult to fly that he's not safe on it, I don't know that we can go any further."

    Ford laughed. "You know I don't mean that. Anybody could


    fly an Airtruck. The proposal to employ a native pilot is a bit of a novelty, you know."

    I shrugged my shoulders. "You've got to go on the record. If he's got a record of safe flying and if he's got a B licence, that's good enough for me."

    "I suppose so. If the business grows, would you propose to employ more than one?"

    "I'll answer that in six months' time," I said. "If Gujar Singh is the success I think he will be, he'll be the chief pilot, under me. In that case, any other pilots I take on may very well be Sikhs. I don't see that there'd be any place in a set-up like that for British pilots at a thousand a year."

    Taverner asked, "What about the ground staff? Would you use Asiatic ground engineers for your maintenance?"

    "I don't know," I said frankly. "That's much more difficult than the pilots. I'm fully licensed as a ground engineer myself, A, B, C, and D. I can use Asiatic labour for a time, under my supervision. Then we'll have to see. But I think by the time I need them Asiatics will turn up. I had some working under me in Egypt during the war. They were all right."

    Harry Ford laughed. "You're planning an air service staffed entirely by Wogs!"

    I was a bit angry at that. "I call them Asiatics," I replied. "If you want to sell an Airtruck you can quit calling my staff Wogs."

    "No offence meant, Mr. Cutter," he said. "One uses these slang phrases. . . . I take it that the point you're making is that by the use of native staff you can reduce your overheads to the point when you can bear the hire purchase cost of eighty per cent of an Airtruck spread over a year."

    I nodded. "That's right. I can pay off the aircraft in a year, and still make money." I thought for a moment. "I don't want you to think that a native staff is solely a question of money," I said slowly. "If I extend my operations, it will be in the direction of India, not towards Europe. Europe's crowded out with charter operators already, all going broke together. There's more scope for charter work as you go east. If I develop eastwards, then by using Asiatic pilots and ground engineers exclusively, I shall be