Round the Bend: Pages 81 through 88
ROUND the BEND
Nevil Shute, 1951
```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)
"I don't know," I said. "I only met him yesterday. What sort of ways?"
"He's got some mighty strange ideas for an engineer," said Schafter. "It's a thing you ought to know about, since you're taking him on. About religion, and all that."
I nodded slowly. Connie always had been one for going to odd churches, and he had the look of a priest. It was a pity. "Does it affect his work?" I asked.
"I'll say it does. It makes his work a whole lot better."
I glanced at this American gun-runner in enquiry. It wasn't quite the answer that I had expected.
"I've been away a lot of the time," he said. "I don't know all of what's been going on at Damrey Phong. He's got a statue of a Buddha set up in a little sort of a pagoda just by where we park the aircraft. One of these painted clay Buddhas, you know, like you see in the villages. He has a sort of a prayer meeting there each day before they start work on the machines, and after they knock off."
I blinked at him.
"That's right. He runs a sort of Buddhist prayer meeting, all in Chinese or Siamese or something. He's got both the other engineers coming to it, and the local labour, and the girls—they come along, too. See them all kneeling down in front of this Buddha with flowers in their hands, saying their prayers, every morning. Then up they get, and straight off to start work on the machines. And the same thing, as soon as they knock off. Down they go on their knees before that painted image, and pray for about ten minutes. Then off they go."
"Is that usual with ground staff in this part of the world?" I asked.
"I'll say it's not. I've never seen it done before."
"Did Shaklin start it, then?"
"I think he did. I think he must have."
"Did you ask him why he did it?"
"I never had much time," he said. "I've always been flying. I did say something once, and all he said was something like, men worked better if they prayed." He grinned. "Just like a preacher back in Indiana. But I will say this, those boys at
Damrey Phong did a good job for me. Most Asiatic engineers, you know—you just can't trust a thing they do. They mean all right, but they're not responsible. Well, these boys weren't like that. They'd look you right in the eye and tell you when they'd done a job on the aircraft that wasn't quite so hot. Like using copper wire for locking instead of steel because they were out of steel wire, or putting gasket cement on an old washer to make it tight because there weren't any new ones. Things like that. They'd just come and tell you. Like as if they were as good as you, and weren't afraid of being bawled out." He paused. "I never knew Asiatic engineers like that before," he said. "It's always been the other way." He glanced at me. "Pack of lying, crawling rats, mostly. You know."
I knew it only too well. "I don't know the East," I said. "I worked in Egypt in the war, but this is my first time out here. I've never met an Asiatic engineer I'd like to trust. Except Shaklin, of course, and he's really British."
"I'll be interested to hear how you made out with him one day," said Schafter. "Maybe there's something in this religion business after all. I wouldn't know." He hesitated. "My co-pilot—he's an Asiatic, he used to go to these prayer meetings in front of the Buddha, regular. See him kneeling there with all the others, with a gladiola blossom in his hands. Funny, to see a pilot doing that. . . ."
I smiled. "You didn't go yourself?"
"I did once," he said unexpectedly. "The morning we were taking off in the C-47 for this last trip here." He hesitated. "I guess I was kind of worried, or I wouldn't have done a thing like that. I reckoned that the artillery must be in action by that time and the Dutchmen, they'd be hopping mad, 'n we might meet more opposition than we'd had till then. And when I came out of the john that morning there was nobody around, no girls or anyone, and there they all were praying at the Buddha. So I didn't want to be snooty, see? I went and picked a flower and knelt down with them, too. I couldn't understand what Shak Lin and the rest were saying, and I got to thinking about the white wooden church at home with all the cars parked outside, and the minister preaching, and the sun coming in through the stained glass, back home
in Shelbyville where I was raised, in Indiana." He paused. "I guess it does you good to have a quiet time to think, like that, before you take off on a dicey trip."
I would have liked to have stayed and talked to him longer, but my load would be arriving at the airport, and I had to get off that day. I said good-bye to him, and left the hospital, and went back to the hotel and paid the bill and picked up Connie and drove out to Kermajoran. Two hours later we were in the air in the Airtruck, on our way north to Palembang.
We stayed there for the night. I sent a cable to Gujar Singh in Bahrein telling him to drop everything and come by airline to Bangkok at once to meet us there, and told him to cable me care of the Flying Control at Don Muang to say when he would arrive. Next day we made an early start and got to Songkhla in the south of Siam after landing to refuel at Singapore and at Kuantan. We landed at Bangkok about midday next day.
I saw very little of Connie in the two days that we waited at Bangkok for Gujar Singh. I had a room at the Trocadero Hotel, but he wouldn't stay there with me. He said that he had Asiatic friends who wanted to put him up, and I found later that he was staying in a Buddhist monastery just by the Wat Cheng pagoda. He came along to the hotel each morning and evening to find out the form and when I wanted him; then he would go off and I wouldn't see him again. I got a guide to take me round some of the pagodas, the loveliest sort of churches that I ever saw in all my life. I sent a lot of picture postcards of them to Dad and Mum, back home in Southampton, between the gasworks and the docks. I wanted to make them understand, if possible.
While I was waiting in Bangkok I made a few enquiries about the formalities of flying in and out of Indo-China from Siam. At that time there was no very settled government in Saigon, and the French, who were in power by virtue of their army, probably had no idea that Dwight Schafter's Cornell Carrier was in the country at all. It seemed somewhat superfluous in those circumstances to seek for a permission to take it out of Indo-China, but if I did not do that, could I bring it into Siam without getting it taken from me by the Siamese?
I mentioned this worry to Connie when he came to see me on
the morning of the second day. He went, I think, to the Siamese Airways manager at Don Muang, and together they went to some department of the government about it. Dwight Schafter's prestige amongst the Asiatics was high, and the Siamese would put no obstacle in Connie's way as the agent of Dwight Schafter in the disposal of his assets. By the time Gujar Singh arrived, Connie was able to assure us that we had leave to fly in and out of Don Muang with no questions asked. For the sake of the record, when we left for Indo-China in the Airtruck we cleared for Hua Hin, a Siamese seaside resort about a hundred miles to the south.
I unloaded my cargo of radio apparatus for Holland from the Airtruck before taking off and left it in the bonded store at Don Muang; if anything should happen to the Airtruck in Indo-China, I didn't want to lose the cargo. I took off from Don Muang early one morning with Connie and Gujar squatting on their bags behind me in the empty cabin. Three hours later I was coming in to land upon the strip at Damrey Phong.
That strip was very beautiful. There was a mountain about two thousand feet high just to the north of it which made things a bit awkward on the circuit, but this mountain was covered in flowering trees, the Flame of the Forest, and these trees were all in bloom, so that the side of the mountain was covered with orange-red splashes on the jungle green. The little atap village was just by the strip, and there were flowers everywhere, bougainvillia and hibiscus and frangipani all over the houses and the little streets. Beyond the village was the river, and a flat plain with hills again in the blue distance beyond. It was a quiet, happy, beautiful little place. Nothing had ever happened there before the airstrip came, and now that Dwight Schafter had passed on, probably nothing would ever happen there again.
The Cornell Carrier was parked just off the middle of the strip by the two European houses. I put the Airtruck down and taxied to park her by the Carrier; as I did so men and women came streaming from the village. I swung the Airtruck quickly into the parking position and stopped the propellers in case the natives came crowding round, but they formed a sort of circle round the aircraft at a safe distance, waiting for us to get out.
I turned in my seat, and said to Connie, "It's a pretty little place."
He smiled. "I am glad to see the Carrier still here. I was worried that some war lord might have gone off with it."
We got out of the machine, and he introduced us to his two mechanics, U Myin, the Burmese lad, and Chai Tai Foong, the Chinese from Hong Kong. U Myin spoke no English and seemed a bit dumb generally, but Tai Foong could make himself understood in English and seemed brighter all round.
We went at once to have a look at the Carrier. The people parted to let us through; they were mostly men and children, some of the men very old. Such young women as were there were, I think, the mistresses or housekeepers of the engineers. Relations were evidently very good with these people. They paid little attention to me or to Gujar, but when Connie spoke to any of them, or even when he turned his head, they touched the right hand to the forehead and bowed to him.
The Carrier was in very good order. She was only four or five months old, of course, and she had only done about three hundred hours flying—nothing in the life of a machine like that. In the cabin, or hold, where the load was carried, she had had rough usage, but externally the paint was hardly scratched, and in the pilot's cockpit everything looked new. She had been very carefully maintained by Connie and his boys; in the cockpit everything was spotlessly clean, the windscreens newly polished, the safety belts folded neatly across each seat as if for an inspection. I was amazed that fortune should have brought so fine an aeroplane into my hands. The only thing now was—could I fly her?
She was only half full of fuel, which suited me for a first solo. We had a meal of rice and little side dishes of curried fish and chillies, served by the girls in the house of the two engineers, and then Connie and I went out to the Carrier to try my luck. We spent about an hour on the machine together, mostly in the cockpit, till I knew all the controls by heart. Then, with Connie by my side in the co-pilot's seat, I started up the engines, ran her warm and ran them up to power for the engine check. Then I throttled back to idling and eased the brakes, and taxied out on to the strip.
A queer thought came to me then as I taxied down to the
far end, in that lovely place. I leaned over to Connie by my side in the wide cockpit. "We've come a long way since we used to drive that Ford in Gretna Green, in Cobham's circus," I said. I had not sat beside him since, that I could recollect.
He smiled. "Those were good days."
I turned the machine at the end and the strip lay stretched out before us; there was little or no wind. I was in no hurry. I sat there for a few minutes doing the final cockpit check and getting comfortable; then when I was ready to go I raised my head and had a good look round. About half the people, including Gujar Singh and the two engineers, were standing watching under the shade of the wing of the Airtruck, but the rest were kneeling in front of the Buddha on his throne under a little palm thatch roof. It was all very bright and colourful upon that aerodrome.
I said to Connie, "What are they doing there? Praying?"
"Yes," he said.
"For me, that I'm not going to make a muck of this?"
He laughed. "For us both. Probably more for me than for you."
"Well," I said, "it's nice to know somebody cares." And with that I pushed the throttles open and we took off down the strip.
As Connie had said, she handled just like any other aeroplane, except that she had better manners than most. I climbed her slowly, straight out over the sea to about five thousand feet, then turned and came back over Damrey Phong. I played about with her up there for twenty minutes till I had the feel of her with engines on or throttled, flaps up or down, and then I brought her down and did a circuit and made a long approach. The landing went all right; the undercarriage was so good it didn't seem to matter how you put her down. I took her off again; in all I did four landings on her without incident. When I taxied in beside the Airtruck I was very pleased with myself. I could fly that thing.
Fuelling at Damrey Phong was quite a business. The petrol was in forty-gallon drums in a store down by the river, and these drums had to be rolled up by hand to the machine, a distance of about half a mile. We needed about six hundred gallons to put into the Carrier, and about twenty-five more drums to load into the cabin to be taken with us on the flight. There was a small portable motor pump to lift the fuel from the drums twenty feet up into
the wing tanks, but even with this help the work was severe and lengthy. Damrey Phong, though healthy, is a humid place, and we were all sweating in torrents before long.
We could not get it done that evening. As the sun went down I told Connie to knock off the men; we would finish in the morning. I had an idea that he would want some daylight for his worshipping before the Buddha, and we couldn't go on working after dark, anyway. I walked across to the house that had been occupied by Dwight Schafter and his co-pilot Seriot, which was where I was to sleep, and threw off my wet shirt and trousers, and stood under the kerosene-tin shower, and put on dry clothes.
When I came out, it was evening. There was still a golden sunlight on the big hill by the strip, but overhead the sky was getting blue, and the light was going. I had guessed correctly about Connie. He was standing in front and to one side of the Buddha, and all the people were kneeling in front of it, with flowers in their hands, as Dwight Schafter had said.
I strolled up closer to see what was going on. I could not understand what he was saying, but it was clear that he was leading them in prayer. One phrase of four words was continually repeated, as in a litany. Connie would say a sentence or two, facing the statue, and the rest of them would then repeat this phrase with him, very reverently.
It was with something of a shock that I saw Gujar Singh kneeling there amongst them, his turban on his head, a flower in his hands beneath his great black beard. I was the only one who was not praying, the only one from the West in Damrey Phong.
Perhaps, like Dwight Schafter, I didn't want to be snooty. Perhaps it was that I couldn't bear to be left out. It couldn't do any harm, in any case. I went forward and went down upon my knees in the last row; I couldn't understand what it was all about, but that didn't seem to matter. There was an Asiatic by me, a coolie who had been rolling barrels all the afternoon; he had a sheaf of gladiola blossoms in his hand. Quietly he parted them, and gave me two to hold.
Beryl had put her head in the gas oven because I had been proud, and righteous in the eyes of other people, and unkind. That had set my life upon the course that in the end had brought
me to this place, far from Southampton docks and my own people, worshipping with natives in an Eastern village. Beryl had died because I was proud and unkind. How many other people should I kill like that before I died too?
Presently I realized that Connie was speaking in English. He had not altered his posture or his tone, but he was saying, "It is written in the Dhammapada, You yourself must make the effort. Buddhas only show the way. Cut down the love of self as one cuts the lotus in the autumn. Give yourself to following the Path of Peace.' " And then he repeated, and the others with him, the phrase that I had noticed before, Om Mani Padme Hum.
I stayed there on my knees with them till it was nearly dark.