In 1965 my then wife and I went to live in London for a while and we travelled by ship because it was cheaper than flying at that time. Not only was the fare much less but we could sometimes spend a couple of days or even three in an exotic place without paying for a hotel overnight or even buying lunch, breakfast or dinner if we didn’t want to. Mostly we ate at least one meal ashore, but we came back to the ship to sleep of course and often for dinner before heading back into town. Not only that, but we saw squadrons of flying fish – a kind of gurnard – skimming the waves for remarkable distances as we sailed into equatorial latitudes. If I liked I could do nothing all day but read and write in the library and stroll the deck. I saw a couple of tropical islands, and a fishing junk far, far from land which began pitching on the flat blue sea as our bow wave hit them. Also I could swim in the pool with my wife and then we might make languid love in the cabin, watching our young highly attractive selves in the mirror, in which we could also see the porthole and a blue disc of sky. Do I regret not looking like that any more? Not usually, but I unearthed a photo of us yesterday. It was a blow that has only just passed. Why didn’t I revel in it more? That would not have stopped time.
Because the Suez Canal was blockaded by Egypt’s president Abdul Nasser from 1967 to 1975 we sailed around Africa on the way back home, stopping at Dakar in Senegal where our barely toddling boy played with some black children in the dusk while we watched, sitting companiably with three magnificent black mothers in turbans and bright robes. Stopping also at Durban and Cape Town in South Africa. On this route the ocean was much more turbulent. Indeed it was mountainous at times. On the way round the Cape I played table tennis every day with a German-born farmer returning to Australia from a holiday abroad. The sea was up and those games presented unique challenges.
Sometimes the other end of the table rose precipitously until it seemed practically vertical. At that point, if the ball had hit the table before your end dropped you could give everything to a tremendous smash, knowing that you could not miss that rising green wall. Conversely, the problem you faced when your end of the table began rising and the other end dropped away just as the ball presented itself to you, was pretty much insurmountable. A phenomenal amount of top spin would rarely swoop down on the falling table edge, but mostly you would miss by a mile and curse loudly, myself in English only. Sideways rolling of the ship was another matter altogether. Everyone else had long given up the table tennis by this time, but quite a few watched us. At first they watched what they took to be insane behaviour, but they soon began to laugh uproariously. Finally I was sure that they regarded us as mythical heroes. We certainly did. Few ping pong matches have ever presented such a spectacle.
Back to the trip to England, when we could have sailed through the desert along the Suez but decided to take a bus into Cairo instead, wander around the city all day, rejoin the bus and board the ship at Port Said in the night. While waiting at the wharf I was able to listen to the music of an Egyptian wedding and watch the dancing through a hotel window. No one else was interested. No doubt we had missed one of the fabled experiences, and most significant rites, for the young Aussie sailing up the globe at that time to discover the old world, but Cairo was everything we could have asked for in a Middle Eastern city. The light blazing back off facets and walls, the strength of primary colours in that light, the light-absorbing mystery and strangeness of unexpected maroons, the black shadows in colonnades left over from Empire, the shock of women in black veils (still felt though we had seen more of them at Aden) and the feeling of absorption in thronging life through markets and along covered lanes. Not to mention the Cairo museum and the blue Nile itself, nor even the exceptional local cigarette – called predictably yet fantastically enough Sphinx – with tobacco almost as dark as Gauloises. Hold your fire, I no longer smoke but intend to start again when I am in my eighties.
Two things happened and I have long ago forgotten the order in which they occurred, but I feel like telling you this one first. We had either just come back from Giza and the pyramids and Sphinx, or we were just about to set out. Whichever, we were in an outer suburb near the edge of the Libyan desert, and here we went into a great shed that was also a shop that resembled a giant jumble sale. Against one wall I found a box of broken stone figures that seemed to have come in out of the desert. The faces on many were eroded away and most of the others had no heads. Limbs tapered down to nothing, like the handless arms and feetless legs of corpses burnt for some time in a fire, and many were missing. Nevertheless I rummaged through them thinking that if I found one that was more or less intact I would buy it as a souvenir. I would put it on my writing desk in London, when and if I acquired one.
At that point I noticed that one of the shop assistants was showing my wife a series of ball gowns and floral patterned dresses from a rack. They were all quite new but in style of an era when my mother was young, or even before that. He held them up to her gaze and she shook her head in some bemusement, slightly amused and slightly annoyed. Mmm, she certainly was a looker. He might have been the manager – a large, slightly plump fellow with slicked down hair, wearing a western business shirt and trousers with polished leather shoes. I went back to my rummaging.
After a while my wife called, ‘John?’
‘Yes?’ I said idly, rummaging away.
‘John, can we get out of here?’
‘Oh, sure. What…?
‘I’ll tell you outside.’
He had begun holding these bizarre garments up against her, crowding her against the wall and ramming her enthusiastically through the fabric with his erection. While the absent minded professor bumbled around in his box of worthless figures.
‘Jesus!’ I said.
‘John, don’t do anything, will you?’
‘No, no, I won’t… I can’t believe it.’
Suddenly we both burst out laughing.
Now, before or after this we went by bus with a number of other tourists to see the necropolis at Giza, where we would find the Great Pyramid and a number of lesser ones, plus the Great Sphinx. What did we think? I can only remember a very generalised feeling. Half a million blocks of stone, each weighing just under two and a half tons, laid plumb to within hundredths of an inch. For nearly five thousand years the tallest building in the world. This was the Great Pyramid. Yet one hundred years earlier the Egyptians were still building in mud brick. I can’t remember how much we knew about this. At various times all things Egyptian had fascinated me, and at times I forgot the lot. We were tourists.
Well, there it was, the Sphinx out in advance of the pyramids. It is often photographed from an angle that made it look as if one of the pyramids was being carried on its back, but of course all these structures were well separated and the Sphinx was big but nothing so stupendous as that. There were other buses there on an asphalt area before the pyramids, but in spite of the indications of ‘tourist destination’ a strange and powerful feeling hung in the air. What was it? It was not unlike the cold draft you felt waiting in a silent corridor to be called into the headmaster’s office, perhaps to be told of your expulsion. A shadow on the heart is the ancient phrase that comes to mind. What was it? The sheer mass of stone before us? The weight of invasions, deaths and subjugations in this region that has been called the anvil of civilization? The eerie futility of sending off mummified bodies, useless as my broken figures in the shop, to be occupied in the after life.
A little later we learned that a tourist had climbed to the top of the Great Pyramid (the once-smooth face had been stripped of its limestone and gilt by nomadic tribes) and started jumping down from one projection after another until he developed an irresistible momentum, and then began to tumble, arriving at the bottom, dead.
Apparently the ambulance had taken him away just before we arrived. We must have passed him. Or had we been sold a story? I think not. Why? It was a European who had told us. Something had happened here, very recently. Incidentally, we went up diagonally along a tunnel into the great Pyramid itself and stood up in a chamber where we could see the perfection of the huge polished stones in the walls and overhead. I am one of those people who will imagine that after thousands of years such a structure will choose this moment to collapse and squash me flat. Riding a camel afterward was a relief, but it had its moments. The owner, who looked to me like an Arab rather than an Egyptian, urged the camels on to greater speed while demanding more money from the outraged but scared tourists, who shelled out. Except me. I had ridden horses as a boy, but the camel’s gait was much more complicated. The desert, which I took to be the Sahara, lay before me. Still, I reasoned that I would fall, if fall I did, on sand, and if the camel looked like riding beyond sight of the pyramids I would fall deliberately. After calling down curses on my head – Egyptian or Arab curses I knew not – he gave up and I was briefly a hero.
But I was not altogether happy with this status. All the tourists, except me and my wife, had expressed deep loathing of everyone we had encountered from Aden onward. They hated the Italians at Naples too. Especially did they hate the hawkers and imitated their high voices, ‘I give you good price! I give you very good price!’ Yet they seemed to relish the squabbling and haggling even as they were enraged by it. They haggled in the voices of their tormentors. It was as if – having been brought up in a calm, ordered and uncrowded suburbia where prices were set and you went to another store if you thought you could do better – they had secretly longed for hysteria and rage. This was true of the Aussies and of the disgruntled Assisted Passage pommies returning home. These groups hated each other too. Yes, a certain amount of hate and hysteria raged around my wife and I as we sailed through blue seas of Tranquility and of Eros.