Today we welcome guest blogger and writer, Jeniann who spent her childhood in Africa and has agreed to share her memories here, whilst she writes her novel. A child in Egypt is the first part in the series.
I’m surprised at how hard it has been for me to remember my time in Cairo. I have disconnected images that snap and crackle in the mind’s eye like Space Dust on my tongue. After of weekend of working through them and coming up with almost nothing, I suddenly had a strong image of my mother. She was sitting on a veranda or terrace in Groppis, her beautiful nails tapping impatiently on the table top as she waited to be served. Since my little sister and I were merely baggage on my parent’s journey, I’ll follow them and see where they lead me.
Just before Christmas 1955, my parents left my sister and me with neighbours and vanished for a couple of days. We were mystified, but knew better than to ask. Just before they returned my friend told me that they went to London to talk about going to Egypt. We were sitting on the floor of her parent’s sitting room with colouring books and rubber stamps. In my hand I had a stamp with a picture of a palm tree and a camel. This was Egypt! Pyramids! Camels! Sand! It was the land of Wilson, Keppel and Betty. WOW! I erupted into a bizarre sand dance and soon all of us were screaming in excited delight.
The next memory is flying over the Nile with Daddy leaning over me to explain how every year the river flooded and fed the land. I wasn’t listening; I’d just seen a crocodile. “Look, look!” I screamed. “A crocodile.”
“There! It’s got its mouth wide open”. The stewardess chuckled; Dad roared out loud, I’d mistaken a felucca’s masts for a croc’s open jaws. I had to live with that observation for a very long time. “You’re seeing crocodiles again”. My father would say.
We stepped out of the aircraft into blazing sunshine. It was January, quite cool but so bright the buildings looked cut out and pasted onto the view. There was sand everywhere. Not the golden beach sand I was used to but dusty grey stuff that stung your eyes and drifted into corners. Where were Wilson, Keppel and Betty? The airport was peopled by smart business men and elegant Arabs in Tarbooshes and galabeyas. I felt a sharp slap on my arm. “Don’t stare.”
I imagine the Carlton hotel must have been pretty scruffy. The mutters of discontent from my parents started a familiar roiling in my tummy. Up to that minute I thought the hotel was marvellous. It had tall pillars, cool marble floors, people who bowed and called me little missy. No I still thought it was marvellous. I made a small run and and a long skid towards the staircase. I fondled the wide banister rail that curved up and round, and up and round, seemingly forever. What a slide! The concierge handed my sister and I, a lemon drink. With an anxious tut my mother hastily handed them back. “Naturally the water is boiled and filtered Madam”. The Manager looked frostily over his spectacles. I had never tasted anything quite so delicious. With a bustle, a bow and the clink of coins we were deposited in our rooms.
Our suite seemed to me to be enormous. The drawing room which separated the two bedrooms had low divans with bright coloured silk cushions. Our bedroom has two huge beds with ruffles and bows and little cupboards and a writing desk. In minutes, the postcards, the pens and the writing paper having been examined and argued over was drifting to the floor. Our bathroom was magnificent and it had its own little balcony. I bet even the Queen didn’t live like this. There were two lavatories side by side. I quickly pulled down my pants and claimed the taller one, my sister perched on the other one. “No!” My mother said. “That’s not to wee in.” Forstalling the following question she said “Maybe weeing will be alright but nothing else, and run the taps properly.”
We ventured out onto the balcony and the flat roofs of Cairo lay beneath. Some children were playing on the roof across the street and I could see people inside roughly built shanties. When they looked up, we waved. Immediately they started to cry and rub their tummies. They are beggars Mummy explained, they built their houses anywhere they can. My sister and I threw our sweets down, then the contents of a large bowl of fruit and still they wailed. Then a big man came out and screamed at us. He was also rubbing his tummy and holding his hands up, but he was angry as well and he looked as if he could kill us. We fled to the safety of the drawing room. Daddy said the world is full of people like that. “In fact there are more of them than there are of us”. I started to cry. My world was full of people like me, not hungry people in rags. “Why can’t we share?” I asked. “Good Lord.” My mother said. “If it weren’t for people like us there wouldn’t be people like that.” “I think”, said my father, “you might want to rephrase that.” We crept away to the bedroom balcony to watch the taxis dropping people off at the hotel. The bickering in the drawing room rumbled on into our dreams
The week or so it took for our parents to find an apartment they felt they could live in seemed to go on forever. We climbed miles of stairs and ascended shadowy vaults in rackety lifts with no doors. We examined small rooms and faded mausoleums and we visited an unending amount of bathrooms with rusty plumbing and ancient loos. At last Dad managed to bypass Mummy’s dreams of grandeur and we settled for a small two bedroom apartment in a brand new block in Heliopolis. Two days later we moved in. It was a bit bare; the hired furniture had been thoroughly sprayed with a flit gun and for weeks Dad swore viciously when the oily insecticide stained his trousers
Heliopolis in those days was sprawling, full of villas and wide open spaces. At the front of our building we looked over a Syrian Coptic church opposite, and to the left the street petered out to small buildings and dusty wasteland. Slightly to the right of the church was a huge orange orchard which seemed to spread for thousands of metres. Beyond that was the English school where we were destined to attend as soon as possible. First though we had to be interviewed.
Obviously my mother thought that the fact that she could actually see the school from the apartment meant we should walk. While my mother could walk for miles around Bath on a shopping trip, I’d never see her walk in a straight line for more than a hundred yards. By the time we were halfway through the orchard, we all had blisters. I had managed to tear my frock and our socks and newly whitened sandals were filthy. Mummy’s smart shoes were ruined and her carefully pinned up hair fell around her face. Slowly we turned round and limped for home. I can’t remember if we ever got to go for an interview, but we spent nine months in glorious freedom and school to my knowledge was never mentioned again.