Round the Bend: Pages 101 through 110
ROUND the BEND
Nevil Shute, 1951
```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)
He smiled. "I do not think you have anything to worry about. I think it is a very good thing."
I hesitated. "One of the R.A.F. officers, Flight Lieutenant Allen, was saying the other day that he's getting talked about, in the souk. Do you think that's true?"
He said, "There is talk in the souk about him."
"Not going to make any trouble, is it?" I had in mind vague stories of religious riots and that sort of thing.
"I don't think so," he said. "You know that he is great friends with the Imam?"
"I didn't know that."
"Oh, yes," he told me. "They have long talks together, very frequently."
That was something, anyway; if the Imam knew what was going on in the hangar it was unlikely that there would be trouble with the orthodox Moslems. "What is he, Gujar?" I asked. "Is he a Moslem?"
He smiled. "He is not a Moslem. When I met him first I thought he was a Buddhist, at Damrey Phong. Now I don't know what he is."
I glanced at him. "I saw you praying with him there before the Buddha. I thought you were a Sikh."
He laughed. "I saw you, too, Mr. Cutter. I thought you were a Christian."
"Oh, well . . ." And then I stopped, a bit embarrassed. I was about to say that that was different, and then it seemed to me to be a bit silly to say that. I didn't know what to say. It was infinitely quiet and blue and peaceful in the desert night.
"Perhaps," said my chief pilot presently, "he is just an ordinary man like you and me, who has the power to make men see the advantage of turning to God. As you have power to make men see the advantage of sending new tracks for a bulldozer by air."
It seemed a funny sort of way to look at things. "Maybe," I said vaguely. "The part that concerns me, of course, is the maintenance, and I'm bound to say I think that's going a lot better since he came."
"I think it will do so," Gujar said. We strolled on together for
a while in silence. Presently he said, "People get into such bad habits when they start to learn the techniques of the West."
"Bad habits?" I said.
He struggled to express himself in English. "I am not trying to be rude. You English and Americans have your own way of life, which is different to ours. I know you have your own codes of behaviour which are based upon the Christian religion, and very good they are. But you are not religious people, as we understand it in the Asiatic countries. Few of you pray to God in public or in private even once a week." He paused. "But God, and prayer to God, is necessary to us.
"When one of our boys starts to learn an English or American technique like the maintenance of aircraft," he said, "he learns from men who are materialistic in their way of life. He learns that science is the ruling force in the world, that every effect has a certain cause. Only when men 'are old and wise can they begin to see the Power of God even behind these things of science, and our young men are neither old nor wise. They see that railways run and ships steam and aeroplanes fly without the help of God. So they abandon God and turn to Science, and then, because religion is necessary to us, they are bewildered."
He smiled. "I know what English pilots say about Asiatic ground engineers," he said. "I myself prefer to fly an aircraft serviced by a British engineer. With God taken from their way of life, our engineers become slovenly and irresponsible; they need a British or an American foreman who can check their work all the time if the aircraft are to be safe to fly. I think that Shak Lin understands this very well. He is showing your men that God is with them in the hangar, and making them turn to God for help in doing their work well. He is giving back to them the thing that has been taken from their lives. I think that you may find that in a year's time your ground engineers are as good or better than any English engineer." He laughed. "If that happens, you will have a maintenance staff that is unique in Asia, in more ways than one."
We went to bed soon after that. I let him go first, because in the cabin of the Carrier there was no privacy, and he had a lot to do with combing his long black hair, bandaging up his beard, and saying his prayers that did not seem to be any concern of mine. I
stood outside leaning against the tail of the aircraft, thinking about what he had said. I was starting to get an uneasy feeling that there was more in this business than operating the aircraft and cutting the costs and charging enough to show a decent profit. There were things going on that I didn't really understand, and though they seemed to be beneficent, I found them worrying.
They did not become less worrying as time went on. The three months' nominal hire of the Carrier came to an end and left me, of course, with a very substantial profit on its operation, for it was flying several hours every day. I had engaged in a protracted three-cornered negotiation to buy it in instalments, conducted by means of letters and cables to Dwight Schafter in prison in Batavia and to his attorney in Indianapolis. It wasn't an easy deal because they wanted dollars for it and I could only pay in blocked sterling; however, they weren't in any position to sell it in America while it was his property, which gave me some advantage. We finally settled on a price of twenty-four thousand pounds for it to be paid in equal instalments of a thousand pounds a month. At that it was a cheap aeroplane, and I was very well pleased.
In the hangar, after a month or two, there was a tendency for casual Arabs to drift in and sit about around the machines, especially in the afternoon when Connie was in the habit of talking to the men in the last hour of the day. Apparently these people came from Muharraq and even across the causeway from Bahrein for the sole purpose of listening to what was going on in the hangar and saying their prayers with the party afterwards. The aerodrome was an R.A.F. station and there was a guard on the road, but so many Arabs were employed about the camp that there was never any difficulty about getting in. There was the obvious danger that tools would be stolen, and apart from that the people were a nuisance to the work.
I had a talk with Connie about it in the office one day. "We'll have to keep them out," I said. "I don't want to be unreasonable, but we can't have all these bodies round the aircraft."
He nodded. "I quite agree. I'll get a notice put up on a board, in Arabic. Then we'll string a cord across the mouth of the hangar, and have one of the labourers on guard. But I'm afraid they'll
probably come all the same. You won't mind if they come and sit outside the hangar, behind the rope?"
"I don't mind what they do so long as they don't come into the hangar," I said. "What do they come for?"
"The engineers have been talking about the prayers we have after work," he said. "The people come to join in those."
"They walk all the way from Bahrein to say their prayers outside our hangar?"
"Yes," he said. "It's a bit of a novelty for them, you see."
"Well, it's all right with me," I told him, "so long as we keep them out of the hangar. I don't want the tools stolen."
He said, "Oh, they wouldn't do that."
"They wouldn't. All they want to do is to come here and pray. They wouldn't steal things from a mosque. I should be very much surprised if we lost anything."
"You mean, they come to our hangar as a mosque?"
"In a way."
"Well, I dunno," I said, a little at a loss. "Anyway, let's keep them out."
"I'll see to that." He got up to go, and then he said, "My mother died last week."
He had never mentioned his family to me at all; he was a queer, solitary man. "I say, I'm sorry about that," I said. "I'm very sorry indeed, Connie. Was that in San Diego?"
He nodded. "These things have to happen," he said quietly. "She had been ill for several months. My sister had been looking after her."
"I'm very sorry," I repeated. And then I said, "You've got just the one sister, haven't you?"
He nodded. "She lived with my mother."
One has to try and help one's staff when they are in trouble, and I had known Connie since I was a boy. "What's she going to do?" I asked. "Does she work there?"
He nodded. "She's got quite a good job. She's a secretary with
an American export firm—Collins and Sequoia Inc. She speaks and writes Chinese, you see."
"Too bad you've got to live on opposite sides of the world," I said. "If she'd like to join you here, I'll give her a tryout in the office for a couple of months. No hard words if she doesn't suit, though, and the job comes to an end after two months." I had never had a shorthand typist, and though the babu clerk was good up to a point, the correspondence was always on top of us. A semi-Asiatic girl might be the answer.
He said, "That's good of you, Tom. I don't know that she'd fit in here, but I'll certainly write and put it to her."
I nodded. "Do that, Connie. I'd like to help if I can. And I'm damn sorry about your mother. I really am."
The rope across the mouth of the hangar and the notice in Arabic did the trick all right. Most afternoons people used to collect outside the hangar at about four o'clock; they would squat down on their heels in the shade beside the rope and look at what was going on inside, and listen to what they could. On some afternoons there were as many as twenty of them, mostly elderly men. They were quite orderly and never made any trouble. For Moslems there is extra virtue in prayer as a congregation, and these chaps used to sit around until the engineers knocked off, and then they would all go together to the bit of vacant land beside the hangar and do their Rakats in a group, Connie kneeling a little way apart. The Chinese, Chai Tai Foong, took to coming to the prayer meeting after a bit; he was not a Moslem and he knelt apart behind Connie.
I used to keep an eye on what went on in the hangar in the afternoons because it all seemed a bit difficult to me; however much work I had on my desk on the days when I wasn't flying, I usually took a stroll down to the hangar about that time. I did this one afternoon about a month after the rope went up and found a big new Hudson saloon parked just by the rope and four very well-dressed Arabs squatting by the rope a little apart from the crowd, looking at what was going on inside. One of these men
was very old. I knew him and one of the others by sight; it was the Sheikh Abd el Kadir and his Wazir, Hussein.
There is a great big barren island by Bahrein which is the Sheikhdom of Khulal. It's practically all desert, with a few tiny hamlets scattered round the coasts where fishermen and pearl divers live. The place is about a hundred miles long and fifty or sixty across, but it is quite waterless and uninhabited in the middle. I suppose on the east coast in the one place that can be called a town, the capital, Baraka. There is an airstrip there marked out upon the desert with small cairns of stones painted white, and in Baraka Sheikh Abd el Kadir had his palace, about a hundred miles as the crow flies from Bahrein.
Khulal produces a little dried fish, a few pearls of poor quality, a negligible quantity of dates, and a vast amount of crude oil. The Arabia-Sumatran Company have a field of oil wells near the southwest corner of the island and a refinery at a place on the west side called Habban; there is a pier here to which the tankers come, and a town of modern, standardized houses where about a thousand Europeans live. They pay a royalty to the Sheikh for every barrel of his oil they take away, and I had heard various opinions of his income from this source. Some said he had an income of a million pounds a year, but others said that it was nothing like so much as that, not more than three hundred thousand. Whatever his financial position was, the old man had sufficient for his daily needs, considering that he paid no taxes whatsoever. He lived quite modestly in a small palace just outside Baraka, white and rococo, and surrounded by a grove of date palms. I had flown a new Packard to him in the Carrier a month or two before, and had met the Prime Minister, Hussein. Now there they all were, sitting gravely before the rope that kept them out of the hangar, trying to hear what was going on inside.
I didn't quite know what to do, but I walked, up to them and smiled at Hussein, who got up from the ground to meet me. The others looked up and rose too, even the old Sheikh. I said, "This is a great honour, Mr. Hussein. The rope wasn't meant to keep you out."
He smiled, and bowed, and then, speaking in Arabic, he introduced me to the Sheikh, who bowed to me. I said in my halting Arabic, "So many people come to hear what Shak Lin says to the engineers that we have had to put this rope, or the men could not work. But if you want to hear more, will you not come inside?"
The old man replied, but he was very old and he mumbled so that with my poor knowledge of Arabic I couldn't understand him. I said, "Forgive me, I speak Arabic so badly," which was one phrase that I knew by heart.
Hussein said in English, "The Sheikh wishes very greatly to hear the Teacher, but he is rather deaf. It is very kind of you."
I lifted the rope for them, and the four men moved majestically across the floor of the hangar, their long white skirts swishing with every step.
I could not take any part in their devotions or in their relations with Shak Lin. He was doing something with one of the engineers on the bench—checking the gap of a contact breaker, I think. I crossed to him and said, "Connie, this is the Sheikh of Khulal and his party. I've told them they can come into the hangar any time. Is that all right with you?"
He looked up. "I can deal with them."
"All right, then. I'll leave them with you." I took him forward with me and introduced him to the old Sheikh in my halting Arabic, and they bowed to each other, and then I said that I had a great deal of work waiting for me in my office, and went away. I felt at the time that it was cowardice, but it was a situation that I really couldn't cope with at all. When I looked out after the men had knocked off, there was the Sheikh and his party outside the hangar with the rest of them, going through the Rakats, but a little to one side of the crowd. Later they got into the Hudson and drove off.
They didn't come to the aerodrome again, that I know of, but Connie used to go to them, usually on Friday, which is the Moslem day of prayer. He made these visits to Baraka at irregular intervals, sometimes once a month and sometimes at less frequent intervals than that. Baraka, although only a hundred miles away, is pretty inaccessible; there is no post or telegraph service, and no
regular boat service or land transport. I always knew when he was going there because he came and booked the Fox-Moth and got one of the pilots to fly him over; he never learned to pilot a machine himself. I used to charge him the full rate for these trips, less ten per cent.
We went on steadily for some months after that, building up the business. I got a Proctor, a single-engined four-seat aircraft cheap in Egypt as a replacement for the Fox-Moth, which was really much too slow and too short in range for the work we put it to in the Persian Gulf. We kept the Fox-Moth in commission for short trips about Bahrein, and the two Airtrucks were working steadily, but the bulk of the turnover, of course, was done by the Carrier. I charged sixty pounds an hour for the Carrier which came to about a penny for every pound weight carried a hundred miles, and at that the machine was working practically to capacity all over the Persian Gulf and far beyond. In those months I took on another Sikh pilot, a chap called Kahan Singh.
I still did the longest trips upon the Carrier myself, though Gujar normally now flew it as chief pilot, with one of the others with him as co-pilot. We got a big job for the Carrier one day, to fly to Burma. The Arabia-Sumatran Petroleum Company had interests in the oil fields at Yenanyaung in central Burma and had a load of machinery to send there from Bahrein; the return load was to be a number of the European staff coming home on leave. These men were to ride home as far as Bahrein in the Carrier and would go on to England or to Holland by the normal airlines.
I took the Carrier upon this trip myself, with Arjan Singh; I wanted to see how Arjan carried on before approving him as the chief pilot of the Carrier in Gujar's absence. I used this as a training flight, in fact, and sat in the co-pilot's seat all the way, making Arjan act as captain of the aircraft as well as doing all the navigation and the radio. I only helped him when it was physically impossible for him to be doing two jobs at the same time. I made him do all the formalities upon the ground—the manifests, the customs clearances, the immigration formalities, the flight plans—everything. He got on all right, of course; he had, in fact, a good many more hours' flying experience than I had
myself, and on more types. But one likes to be certain, and he didn't know the route beyond Calcutta.
While cruising across Baluchistan and India upon this journey, in the long hours of sitting relatively idle in the co-pilot's seat while Arjan Singh did all the work, I had leisure to consider my business as a whole. The various oil companies in the Persian Gulf were growing accustomed to the use of a large freight aircraft in their daily work, and I was offering the service to them at an economic rate. It would not have paid them, individually, to keep such a large machine as a Carrier for their private use, but amongst the lot of them there was more than enough work for one such aeroplane. Much more. It was this aspect of the matter that was worrying me a bit. On this journey to Burma I was taking the Carrier away from the Gulf for a week; in that week the heavy air transport business would be at a standstill. Having accustomed them to the advantages of heavy air transport I could not expect them to tolerate that for long. I might, have to get another large aeroplane, or there would be competition cropping up.
Moreover, this journey to Yenanyaung was only to be the first of many. The Arabia-Sumatran people had made that fairly clear to me. They had these interests in Burma, and they had their big establishment at Diento in Sumatra, which I had visited in the Airtruck. In addition, they were starting to develop an oil field on the East Alligator River, about a hundred and fifty miles to the east of Darwin, in North Australia. These four oil centres formed a chain stretching from the Persian Gulf to Australia. Before the days of air transport each of these centres would have been equipped with the necessary scientific staff and laboratory and field scientific equipment for it to function entirely as a separate entity. With air transport, it was now becoming possible for the Arabia-Sumatran Company to transfer scientists and their equipment quickly and readily from one oil field to another, and this they were doing in an increasing degree. There were obvious economic advantages to them in doing so, and they were quite prepared to use my organization for the transport job. It meant, however, that if one large aeroplane was to be cruising most of its time between Australia and the Persian Gulf,
I should have to have another for the day to day business at Bahrein.
To buy another Cornell Carrier would be out of the question; I should never get an allocation of the dollars. It would have to be a British aeroplane, and the Plymouth Tramp was the obvious British counterpart. The Tramp was about the same size as the Carrier and had certain advantages in easy loading; I knew that I could use a Tramp very profitably if I could add one to my fleet. The trouble was the purely mechanical business of paying for it, always a bugbear.
A new Tramp cost about fifty-five thousand pounds, and of course I hadn't got a hope of raising such a sum. It was too much to expect that I should find another gun-runner operator of a Tramp on his way to prison, and though I could try for a secondhand Tramp I very much doubted if there were any on the market. I wasn't sure what sort of a reception I should get from the
Plymouth Aircraft Company if I went along as an individual, Tom Cutter, with very little money to put down upon the table, and asked for an expensive aeroplane upon hire purchase terms without any guarantees or backing whatsoever. The Plymouth Aircraft Company were a very large and powerful concern, full of the most important work, with no need to scratch for orders or to provide finance for small operators wanting to use their products. I had a notion that I should be shown the door pretty quick if I went to their sales department with the only sort of proposition I could offer.
All these matters occupied my mind as I sat idly in the co-pilot's seat from Bahrein to Rangoon. We left about midday one day and made Karachi in one hop, making a night landing there at about seven o'clock. We slept at the airport and flew on early next day across India to Calcutta, and on the morning of the third day we flew to Rangoon down the coast of Arakan and crossing the Arakan Yoma south of the island of Ramree. We landed at Mingladon airport about midday.
That day was a Saturday and there was trouble at Rangoon because all the Government's civil servants were on strike. This included the customs officers, and Mingladon airport was in confusion. The police were very active and there were two other