“Would you like champagne?”
This was the beginning; an hour or so out from Heathrow. Already it felt further; watches moved on, a day in a life condensed to a scramble at a check-in desk, a walk to a departure gate; a day cut short and eclipsed, hurtling on into advancing night. And now the steward leaned over her, putting this question.
“I don’t think so.” They had already eaten; dinner, she supposed. So much smoked salmon is consumed on aircraft that it is a wonder there is any left to eat at ground level. The steward had just now whisked her tray from under her nose. “You could give me some brandy,” she said.
“Two to get you started?” Hand hovering over the trolley, he seemed to approve her choice; as if what lay ahead were something to brace yourself for, not to celebrate.
“And one of those nice plastic glasses,” Frances Shore said. “Please.”
Across the aisle grown men were getting drunk on Cointreau. One of them cocked an eyebrow at the steward. He leaned over them; his face, pale and seamy under the late-night lights, showed a kind of patient disgust. Drinks were free of course, but on the Saudi run this standard airline ploy had the status of charity work. His fingers, dispensing the miniature bottles, were as clean and careful as a bishop’s.
The businessmen had done their talking earlier; passed sales charts to each other. “I wonder how Fairfax is doing in Kowloon?” one of them asked.
His companion dug his plastic fork into a mille-feuille, and made no reply. “How long now?” he asked after a while.
“Keep the drinks going then.”
“Enjoy it, gentlemen,” the steward said. The woman held up her coffee cup. He swayed toward her with the pot. “Nondairy creamer, madam?”
“I always wonder about this stuff,” she said, accepting the foil packet. “It says what it isn’t, but not what it is.”
“That’s life,” the steward said. He moved away again. Dull clunk of ice cubes against plastic. Flimsy cushions flatten under head and back. Onward. The man with the tough mille-feuille stares at the dial of his watch, as if he could make the time go faster. Or hold it back.
Left alone, she closed her eyes. She was apprehensive, yes. She turned over the steward’s comment in her mind, because she was not one to let flippancies go unexamined; it paid to examine them, as there was so little, she always thought, in what people said when they were trying to be serious. You could only describe the future by exclusion; say what will not occur. Say what you will not be: an ice dancer, a cosmonaut, a mother of twelve. Much less easy to make a single positive prediction even for the coming week; much less easy to say what, in a month’s time, you will have become.
Andrew’s letters had been short, practical. They told her to bring flat sandals, British postage stamps, a bottle of Bovril. His voice on the phone had been hesitant. There had been the odd, expensive silence. He didn’t know how to describe Jeddah. She must, he said, see for herself.
She picked up the half cup of coffee: black, and almost cold now. When she moved her legs, newsprint rustled, a paperback slid from her lap onto the seat. She felt stiff, uncomfortable. She began to think of lurching along to the lavatory, braving the bleary stares.
When the steward came back she said to him, “There aren’t many women on this flight.”
“It’s not the time of year. Christmas and Easter, the wives fly out.”
“Why don’t they stay?”
“They can’t stick it. More coffee?” She shook her head. “It must be your first trip. Got a husband out there?”
“Visa all in order?”
“I hope so. But I don’t read Arabic.”
“Be waiting for you, will he?”
Again: “I hope so.”
“Been out there long?”
“Quick work,” the steward said. “To get you out so soon.”
“It’s the company who organized it. He says it’s not that easy, but they’ve been in Saudi for a while and they know how things are done.”
“We all know how things are done,” the steward said; he rubbed finger and thumb together, rustling an imaginary wad of notes. “What’s his line of country?”
“He’s a civil engineer. They’re putting up a big new building for one of the ministries.”
“Likes it all right, does he?”
“I don’t really know.” During those phone calls (direct dial, good clear line) she’d not inquired of Andrew, Are you happy? It would have meant another expensive silence, because he did not deal in that sort of question. He’d have found it strange from three paces, never mind three thousand miles. Could the man be right, she wondered, had someone been bribed on her behalf? It seemed such a small thing, obtaining a visa for one unimportant woman to join her unimportant husband, but she had once been assured, by a man called Jeff Pollard, who understood these things, that when corruption took root in a country it spread in no time at all from monarchs to tea boys, from ministers to filing clerks. She believed him, but did not feel herself a better person for the belief. She had been round and about southern Africa for five years, in regions where, by and large, the possibilities of corruption had not been fully explored. Andrew thought that, once, someone might have offered him a bribe; but through the other party’s ineptitude and poor English, and Andrew’s naivete, the occasion had passed without profit.
As this occasion will pass, she thought; and in time, this flight. “More brandy?” the steward inquired.
“Lived abroad before?”
“Yes.” He had a boring job, she supposed, and a right to people’s life stories. “Zambia for a bit, then Botswana.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” said the steward, animated now, but not impressed. “I’ve been to Botswana, the Holiday Inn, Gaborone. It’s a hole, Botswana. I went in the coffee shop and asked them for a toasted cheese sandwich, and do you know what they said?”
“‘Cheese it is finished’?”
“Right on. You must have been there.”
“Of course I’ve been there.”
“But no cheese in the whole place? I ask you. They could have sent out for some.”
“Look,” Frances said, “there are two kinds of cheese in Botswana, cheddar and sweetmilk. They are imported from South Africa, which makes any number of kinds of cheese, but they only import two; they realize that people must have cheese, but to have too much of it might seem to condone apartheid. You’re with me?”
“Never mind. So what kind of sandwich did you have?”
“I had ham.”
“Where would the ham be from?”
“Zimbabwe,” she said. “Was it called that when you were there?”
“I think it was still Rhodesia. They had sanctions.”
“But the ham got through.”
“Well, I take your word for it. But still, what a hole it is, Gaborone. Bunch of tarts sitting in the dust outside selling woolly hats. Sit by the pool, play the fruit machines, bugger all else to do.” He paused, the tirade halted by a scruple of politeness. “Was that where you lived?”
“Well no, actually, we lived in a much smaller place. We used to go up to Gaborone for a bit of excitement.”
“You poor things, that’s all I can say. And you were in Zambia too? I’ve been to Lusaka, done a couple of stopovers. They’re thieves in Lusaka. They’ll take the wheels off your hire-car as soon as look at you. This friend of mine went into a pharmacy for a drop of penicillin, he was planning, you know, on being a bit naughty that night, and he believed in dosing himself first; and he came out, and no bloody wheels.”
She smiled. “My friend wasn’t amused,” the steward said.
“No, I’m sure. It was very trying when they took your wheels off. It was quite common though. You could never plan on being anywhere by a set time.”
“And there was never any sugar. I take sugar, in coffee.”
“It’s true, there were a lot of shortages.”
“I’ve not been out that way for a while. They tell me it’s worse now.
“Oh, Africa’s always worse.”
“Quite the cynic.”
“No, not really,” she said. “I think I was just there for too long. I liked it, in a way. At least, I’m glad I went there. I wouldn’t have missed it.”
“I expect you’ll find your Saudi lifestyle very different.”
“Yes, I expect I will.”
He was hovering, waiting to tell her some horror stories. There were always stories out of the Middle East, and no doubt Jeff Pollard would have told her some, if he had not been so anxious to recruit Andrew for his building project. But her tone wrapped up the conversation. “Sure on that brandy?” the steward said; and moved away. The slightest encouragement, and he would have asked, “Do you remember that Helen Smith case?”
A dozen people had raised the question, in her two-month stay in England. It was strange how it had stuck in people’s minds, considering how little they usually remembered of what they read in the newspapers: young north-country girl, a nurse, found dead after an all-night party; nurse’s father, dogged ex-policeman, off out there to get at the truth. And then the inquests, and the coroner’s reports, and the hints of diplomatic cover-ups, and skulduggery in high places; the pleasures of moral censure, the frisson of violent death in faraway places. The press reports had left an image in people’s minds: of lazy, glitzy, transient lives, of hard liquor and easy money, of amoral people turned scared and sour. So now when you were off to Jeddah, people said, “Don’t fall off any balconies, will you?” It became monotonous. And their talk had left an image in her mind—which she did not like but could not now eradicate—the image of the broken body, still in its mortuary drawer.
A part of her, now, thought the persistence of the image sinister; a part of her said, things happen everywhere, and after all, she said, comforting herself, there’s only the world. Travel ends and routine begins and old habits which you thought you had left behind in one country catch up with you in the next, and old problems resurface, but if you are lucky you carry as part of your baggage the means of solving those problems and accommodating those habits, and you take with you an open mind, and discretion, and common sense; if you have those with you, you can manage anywhere. I make large claims for myself, she thought. She pushed up the window shade and looked out, into featureless darkness. There was no sensation of movement, no intimation that they were in flight. She closed her eyes. Sleep now, she coaxed herself. Tomorrow I will have people to meet and there will be a good deal to do. How pleased I will be, to do it; and to be there, at last.
It was at the Holiday Inn, Gaborone—but in the bar, not in the coffee shop—that Andrew had met Jeff Pollard. They had run into him once before, in Lusaka, and not liked him particularly; but now Pollard was offering a job, and Andrew needed one. His contract in Botswana was a month away from its termination date, and they were already packing and selling things off. The UK building trade had slumped into what seemed chronic recession; they didn’t know what they were going to do. They didn’t want to stay in Botswana, even if there had been the option. With the advent of the blacktop road across the South African border, life had changed for the worse, their severe small-town isolation ended, the single street full of new faces. It was true that you could go as far as Johannesburg now without steeling yourself for the journey over dirt roads; it ought to have been an advantage, but in fact it made life too easy. They were a direct connection on the string of dorps that ran across the Transvaal and over the frontier; the day would come soon when they would feel like a suburb.
At this point—one morning over breakfast—Andrew had said, “What about the Middle East?”
“Oh no,” she said. “I’d have to go around with a headscarf on all day. I couldn’t put up with that.”
“Fran,” he said, “we have to make some money. We haven’t made any here. I thought we would, but it’s not worked out. We have to get something behind us.”
“Yes. I suppose so.”
She had known he was serious; because he addressed her by her name. It had not escaped her notice that women were always using men’s Christian names, but that men only did it when there was something in the offing: a rebuke, a plea. Andrew had never been communicative, so it had been necessary to notice these things. He was a silent man, who never asked for anything, or set arrangements in train, or egged life on; instead he waited for what he wanted, with a powerful, active patience which seemed to surround him, like an aura: an aura of forbearance, of self-control. His patience was not like other people’s, a rather feeble virtue, which had, by its nature, to be its own reward; it was a virtue like a strong magnet, which drew solutions to problems. And now drew Jeff Pollard.
Jeff Pollard was a sometime employee of Turadup, William and Schaper, a firm known throughout the construction business as Throw’em Up, Bill’em and Scarper. Since the European Development Fund had decided to finance the building of the blacktop road, he had been in and out of southern Africa, weighing up prospects and buying people drinks. He was a man of thirty-five, unmarried, with a loose and dusty appearance and shifting eyes; he had a gray-white skin, but the back of his neck was at all times mysteriously and painfully sunburned. He had an unsparing fund of anecdote, a knowing, dirty laugh; a British passport, and a vaguely Australian accent. He wore his shirt open, and around his neck on a chain a small block of gold incised with the legend CREDIT SUISSE. When the Shores were leaving Africa there had been a lot of people like Jeff around, doing their recruiting in golf-club bars. They were cowboys, headhunters, entrepreneurs; anywhere they hung their hat was their domicile, for fiscal purposes.
Turadup had got a toehold in Zambia before the bottom dropped out of copper, putting up expatriate housing in Kabwe, the mining town that had once been known as Broken Hill; then when Zambia went down the drain they moved south a bit, putting in an unsuccessful tender for work on the new international airport at Gaborone; then picking up work around that city, piping water and building a clinic for a shanty town that had become permanent faute de mieux. They operated over the South African border too, putting up a much-needed casino in a bantustan. But since the early 1970s the Middle East had been what they called their major theater of operations. It happened that at the time when Andrew Shore was ready to move on, Turadup’s Saudi Arabian manager, a man called Eric Parsons, was in Johannesburg trawling for expertise. And on that day—always described by Andrew as “the day I ran slap-bang into Pollard”—the relevant phone number was handed over, and their future was set in train. “Give old Eric a call,” Jeff said. “You can’t lose by it.”
Andrew first poured himself a brandy; then he sat for some time and regarded the phone in their bungalow, like a man in a trance, or a man praying. Then he picked up the receiver; the lines were not down that day, and it was a mere ten minutes before he got an answer from the operator in Gaborone. He told her what he wanted: Johannesburg. There seemed to be a party going on in the background. He could hear women laughing, and what was perhaps crockery being smashed. The operator came back once or twice, bellowing in his ear, but she didn’t forget him entirely; in time she came up with what might be her best offer, a line to Mafeking. He took it. A guttural voice answered him in Afrikaans. Seconds later he was speaking to Eric Parsons, at his hotel. It was the Carlton, he noted; Turadup did not penny-pinch.
He did not suggest making the drive to Johannesburg, but waited until Parsons said, “I’ll come to you then, shall I?” He knew how he would employ the time, as he drove to Gaborone to meet Parsons: he pictured himself at the wheel of his truck, the empty road and the low brown hills unwinding before him, while his practiced eye was half alert for cattle and children, and his inner will concentrated, mile after mile, upon making Parsons offer him more money than he had ever dreamed of earning in his life. This, in due course, Parsons did.
The details were fixed up, at the President Hotel this time (there being, in Gaborone, a choice of two) over a tough T-bone steak and a glass of Lion lager. Andrew Shore shook hands with Eric Parsons, the Saudi man; Jeff Pollard, talking, conducted him down from the terrace and out into the street. Across the road, the nation’s only cinema was showing a double bill: a kung fu drama, and Mary Poppins. Andrew stood in the dusty thoroughfare known as the Mall, gazing into the window of the President Hotel’s gift shop: crocodile handbags, skin rugs, complete bushmen kits with arrows and ostrich shells, direct from the small factory in Palapye which had recently started turning them out. “I can hardly believe I’m finished in Africa,” he said.
When he arrived home late that afternoon, Frances was on the porch packing a tea chest, wrapping up their dinner service in pieces of the Mafeking Mail. “Well, did you do it?” she said. She straightened up and kissed his cheek.
“Yes, I did it, it’s all fixed. But we can’t go together—I have to be in the Kingdom before they’ll grant you a visa. When we finish up here I’m to fly to Nairobi, and pick up a businessman’s entry permit—then once I’m in, Turadup will fix it for me to stay. They’re in a hurry.”
“Why? Has someone quit without notice?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“I would have asked.”
“I didn’t think of it.”
“So you won’t even be coming to England first?”
“And stay with your mother?”
“It looks as if I’ll have to.”
“Well listen, Fran, we won’t be apart for long. And by the time you get out to Jeddah, we’ll be fixed up with a house, and everything will be ready for you.”
“I’d rather go with you. But I suppose they have their rules. Oh, look, am I to pack these?” She held out a candlestick, one of a pair from a local pottery, rough, heavy, unglazed.
“Sure,” he said. “Souvenir. Take those funny baskets as well, the ones that fall over.”
She began to wrap the candlestick, rolling it in her hands. “Are you sure that this is the right thing to do?” she said. “Is this what you want?”
“They’re doubling my salary,” he said flatly.
She turned away and bent over the tea chest again, cleanly stabbed by avarice, like a peach with a silver knife.
“We could be in and out within three years,” he said. “Your salary is paid in riyals, tax-free. All you need out of it is your day-to-day living expenses and you can bank the rest where you like, in any currency you like. Turadup are offering free housing, a car allowance, paid utilities, yearly leave ticket, school fees—though of course—”
“That would be plain greedy,” she said, “having children so that you could get their school fees paid.”
“Pollard did say—” He looked at her in slight anxiety. “He said that his only reservation was how you’d settle in. As you’ve been a working woman.”
“I won’t be able to work?”
“Unlikely, he thinks.”
“Well, if you’re going to earn all that money, I’m sure I can occupy myself. After all, it’s not forever, is it?”
“No, it’s not for ever. We should think of it as a chance for us, to build up some security—”
“Will you pass me those salad bowls?”
Andrew was silent. He passed them, one by one. Why, really, should she share his vision of their future? She had come to Africa at her own behest, a single woman, one of the few recruited for her line of work. She had lived alone before they met; for three nights in succession, he had sat by himself, seemingly disconsolate, on a corner stool in the bar of an expatriate club, not even looking her way, but concentrating hard; until she had asked him to go home with her. She had fed her dog, and then cooked eggs for them, and asked him what he wanted out of life. Later, in the sagging double bed with which her government bungalow was furnished, he had lain awake while she slept, wishing furiously for her to act and understand; and although it had taken a little time to work, within a matter of weeks she had turned to him and said, “We could get married if that’s what you want.”
So perhaps, too, he should have wished her into suggesting Saudi Arabia; then she would have known it was her own decision. But from what he had heard it was a part of the world in which women’s decisions did not operate. He made a leap of faith: it will be all right, I know it will. “Frances,” he said, “we won’t go unless you want to.”
She slotted a wrapped teacup into place. “I want to.”
It had been raining, earlier that day, and there was a heavy, animal scent of drenched earth and crushed flowers. In the kitchen their housemaid, Elizabeth, was washing glasses—pointless really as they would soon be crated up—and they could hear the separate clink that each one made as she put it down on the drain board. The dogs and cats were coming in to be fed, wandering to the back door to wait around, like the Victorian poor. “I really think we ought,” Andrew said.
“In point of fact, I don’t think we’ve anywhere else to go.” She picked up a broad felt marker and daubed their name on the side of the tea chest. SHORE. FRAGILE. GABORONE—LONDON.
“No,” Andrew said. “No point.”
She crossed out LONDON, wrote JEDDAH. Another pang stabbed her, as sharp as the first. She imagined herself already in Saudi, a discreet teetotal housewife, homesick for this place that was not home in another place that was not home. It was almost dark now; the air was cooling, the sun dipping behind the hill. “What was Jeff Pollard doing, recruiting you? I thought he was trying to persuade everybody what a grand life it was as a freelance consultant?”
“Well, it can’t be such a grand life, because he’s just signed up with Turadup himself. He’s going to manage their Jeddah business; he’s had experience out there, of course.”
“So you mean you’ll be working with him?”
“There is that tiny drawback.”
“I hope we don’t end up living near him as well.”
“They do pay for your housing, so it’s probably a case of taking what you’re given.”
“That’s fine,” she said, “but just try to ensure that what we’re given doesn’t include Pollard. Do you think they’ll all be like him?”
“He’s a type. You get them everywhere. But Parsons isn’t like that.”
“I suppose he’s another type.”
“Yes, you’d know the one. Genial old duffer. Safari suit, doing the African bit. Two sons at medical school, showed me their photographs. His wife’s called Daphne.”
“And did he show you a photograph of her?”
“He didn’t, come to think of it.”
“Perhaps he thought it would overexcite you.”
“When he asks you what you want to drink, he says, ‘Name your poison.’”
“I see. Weybridge abroad.”
“Melbourne, I think. He keeps a place in the Cotswolds though. He’s been with Turadup for twenty years. He’s a shareholder. Pollard says he’s a millionaire. Anyway, he seems very enthusiastic about this building. About the whole scene in Jeddah. He says it’s a very stimulating place to work if you’re in the construction business.” He paused. “I’ll tell you what he said exactly.”
Andrew bit his lip. “He said, ‘I have witnessed the biggest transportation of ready-mixed concrete in the history of the human race.
“I’d like to witness a large gin. Let’s celebrate.”
“We’re late,” said the man across the aisle. She jerked out of her doze; she’d not realized, at first, that he was speaking to her.
“Are we?” She consulted her watch.
“It’s always late,” the man said tetchily. “Of course, if you fly Saudia, they’re always late as well.”
“Do you go often to Jeddah?”
“Too often. The Saudia flight’s supposed to take off at twelve-thirty, but it never does. Not in my experience. I suppose the staff are having prayers. Bowing to Mecca, and so forth.”
“How long do prayers last?”
“As long as it takes to inconvenience you totally,” the man said. “I can tell you’ve never been in the Kingdom. Noon is movable, you see. Noon can very well be at twelve-thirty. Nothing’s what it says it is.”
Oh dear, a philosopher, she thought. She might as well put on her Walkman. She leaned down to inch out her bag from under the seat in front, and as she groped for it she felt his eyes on the back of her neck. “Nurse, are you?” he inquired.
“What are you doing out there then?”
“I’m going to join my husband.” She filled in the details again, aware that she was more polite in the air than she was on the ground: the six years in Africa, and now Turadup, and the new Ministry building; aware too that as soon as she had said “husband,” the slight interest he had taken in her had faded completely.
“Pity,” he said. “We,” he indicated his cohorts, “are stopping at the Marriot. I thought if you’d been a nurse we could have had dinner. Of course, I’m not sure if they let them out nowadays. I think they’ve got rules now that they all have to be locked in their own quarters by nine at night. It’s after that Helen Smith business.”
“It was a damn funny business, if you ask me. That Dr. Arnott, the chap that lived in the flat she fell out of … and that wife of his, Penny wasn’t it … and the British Embassy? You can’t tell me it wasn’t a cover-up.”
“I wouldn’t try, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
“You find a young girl dead outside a high-rise block, after a wild party—you ask yourself, did she fall or was she pushed? Take it from me, it’s a funny place, Jeddah. Nobody knows the half of what goes on. You work?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m a cartographer.”
“Oh well, you’re redundant. They don’t have maps.”
“They must have.”
“Too bloody secretive to have maps. Besides, the streets are never in the same place for more than a few weeks together.”
“They move the streets?”
“Certainly do. They’re always building, you see, money no object, but they don’t think ahead. They build a hospital and then decide to put a road through it. Fancy a new palace? Out with the bulldozer. A map would be out of date as soon as it was made. It would be wastepaper the day it was printed.”
“But in a way it must be quite … exhilarating?”
He gave her a withering look. “If you like that sort of thing.” He turned away, back to his companion. “Have you got those end-of-year projections?” he asked. “I really do wonder how Fairfax is doing in Kowloon, don’t you? I don’t believe they should ever have sent him. Trouble with Fairfax, he’s got no credibility. They treat him like some bit of a kid.”
Frances closed her eyes again. Drifting, she caught bits of their conversation: jargon, catchphrases. At home, at her widowed mother’s house in York, she had been reading books about her destination. Despite her skepticism, her better knowledge, their contrived images lingered in her mind: black tents at sunset, the call of the muezzin in clear desert air, the tang of cardamom, the burnish of sharp-snouted coffeepots, the heat of the sand. “We’re building up the infrastructure,” said the man who despised Fairfax. “Infrastructure” was a word she had heard on Andrew’s lips; he had grown fond of it. It seemed that when oil was discovered in the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia had no infrastructure, but that it had one now: roads, schools, hospitals, factories, mines, market gardens and chicken farms, airports and squash courts, telephones and filling stations, cold stores and police stations, take-away food shops, and the ten-pin bowling facilities at the Albilad Hotel. All this she knew from her reading, because after the romantic travelers’ tales came Jeddah: A Businessman’s Guide. The black tents of the Bedu have been replaced by aluminium shacks. Air-conditioning is universal. Gazelles are hunted from the backs of pickup trucks.
I must like it, she thought. I shall try to like it. When everyone is so negative about a place you begin to suspect it must have some virtues after all. “No alcohol!” people say, as if you’d die without it. “And women aren’t allowed to drive? That’s terrible.” There are lots of things more terrible, she thought, and even I have seen some of them. She dozed.
A touch on her arm woke her. It was the steward. “We’ll be beginning our descent in half an hour. I’m just doing a final drinks round. Another brandy?”
“Keep the young lady sober,” the businessman advised. “She’s got the customs to face, and it’s her first time. They go through everything,” he told her. “I hope you haven’t got anything in your suitcase that you shouldn’t have?”
“I haven’t got a bottle of whiskey or a shoulder of pork. What else will they be looking for?”
“Where do you buy your underwear?”
“Marks & Spencer, you see, they call them Zionists. You have to cut the labels out. Didn’t anybody tell you that? And they look at your books. This colleague of mine, when he was last in the Kingdom, he had his book of limericks confiscated. It had this drawing on the cover, a woman, you know.” He gestured in the air, describing half circles. “Naked, just a line drawing. Chap said he hadn’t noticed.”
“That seems unlikely,” she said. She added, to herself, “a friend of yours.”
“It’s all unlikely. Even when you’ve been coming in and out for years, you never know what they’re going to be looking for. Our rep in Riyadh, he lives there, he should know. But then last year when he was coming back after his summer holidays they took away his Test Match videos. All his recorded highlights. Oh, they said he could have them back, when the customs had had a careful look. But he never went for them. He couldn’t take the hassle.”
“You’ve not got any art books, have you? Rubens or anything? Because they can be very funny about art.”
“It’s un-Islamic,” Frances said, “to worship the human form. It’s idolatry.” The man stared at her.
“So I can’t tempt you?” the steward asked. He peered into his empty ice bucket. “Gentlemen, don’t leave any miniatures down the seat pockets, please, we don’t want our ground staff flogged.” He looked down at Frances. “We’re relinquishing this route next year,” he said. “Give it to British Caledonian and welcome, that’s what I say. No more to drink then?” He prepared to abandon her, move away. Sleeping executives stirred now, dribbling a little onto their airline blankets. There was a sound of subdued laughter; briefcases intruded into the aisles. The steward relented. He leaned over her seat. “Listen, if anything goes wrong, if by some mischance hubby’s not there, don’t hang about, don’t speak to anybody, get straight in our airline bus and come downtown with us to the Hyatt Regency. You check in, and I’ll look after you, and he can come and find you in the morning.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be there,” she said. Or someone will. Jeff Pollard. At least he’d be a familiar face. “I’ve got numbers to ring, in case anything goes wrong. And I could take a taxi.”
“You can’t take a taxi. They won’t carry you.”
She thought of that cheese, that people say French taxi drivers won’t let in their cabs. “What, really not?”
“It’s bad news, a man picking up a strange woman in a car. They can jail you for it.”
“But he’s a taxi driver,” she said. “That’s his job, picking up strange people.”
“But you’re a woman,” the steward said. “You’re a woman, aren’t you? You’re not a person anymore.” Doggedly, courteously, as if their conversation had never occurred, he reached for a glass from his trolley: “Would you like champagne?”
Soon, the crackle from the PA system: Ladies and gentlemen, we are now beginning our descent to King Abdul Aziz International Airport. Those seated on the left-hand side of the aircraft will see below you the lights of Jeddah … Kindly fasten … kindly extinguish … (And to the right, blackness, tilting, and a glow of red, the slow fires that seem to ring cities at night.) We hope you have enjoyed … we hope to have the pleasure … we hope … we hope … and please to remain seated until the aircraft is stationary …
Half an hour later she is inside the terminal building. The date is 2 Muharram, by the Hijra calendar, and the evening temperature is 88°F; the year is 1405.
EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET Copyright © 1988 by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel is the critically acclaimed author of eight novels, seven of which are available in paperback from Henry Holt. Winner of the Hawthornden Prize, she lives in England. Ms. Mantel reviews for The New York Times and the New York Review of Books.