By Les Hooper
Do not stand in a place of danger trusting in miracles – Arab proverb
The British Crown Colony of Aden clinging to the edge of the Arabian peninsular like a window cleaner on The Empire State building in New York, is featured in the Guinness Book Of Records as the nearest place to hell in the Universe. If it isn’t, it should be. That day in 1965, the close humidity clung to the skin like sticking plaster.
I crawled out of bed at 6.30 like a lazy sloth and peered out the window. The scorching sun already crept up the clear sky. Weather is deceitful. It can hypnotise you into believing that the day is perfect. Terrorism ruled Aden and cruise ships and angels avoided it like the plague. Abdul Kebab-Kebab needed careful watching and I needed a rest. I showered and shaved and dressed in my travelling clothes, which is my everyday clothes as well. I didn’t care. I kissed my wife goodbye and she thought I’d had a brain hemorrhage.
As Warrant Officer in Charge of the Middle East Special Investigation Section, I booked a visit to our Detachment in Bahrain, the island kingdom on the Persian Gulf to the north. It wasn’t too far north so I didn’t pack snowshoes. I would enjoy lazing around free of care, except where my next beer was coming from. I can’t remember the last time I felt at ease. It was too long ago.
Muslim Bahrain was a British Protectorate, gaining independence in 1971. The gallant British didn’t exactly conquer the islands. They saw it as an ideal spot for package holidays, marched in and promised the Al Khalifa ruling family that we’d stop all those pushy Germans from hogging the sunbeds by confiscating their towels. Well, you get the idea. This was around 1860.
Travel between Aden and Bahrain was by air with a couple of fuel and supply stops on the way. Around 8am I boarded an Argosy, nicknamed The Whistling Wheelbarrow, at RAF Khormaksar. While waiting I took a shufti at the aircraft. I couldn’t see any gun turrets. Still, it had wings and four engines and assuming the funny shape with twin booms was necessary, crossed my fingers and climbed the gangplank like a Shanghaied sailor. Khormaksar was the RAF’s busiest airfield at the time. I had no ticket. I told a Movements bod my name and it worked. Either I was a big cheese or that was the way it was done.
It was fitted out to carry parachutists, with hard bench seats and a mysterious net hanging behind each position. I was happy to have an inside seat. I complained I had no parachute and the RAF Loadmaster laughed like a drain. Why did he think that funny?
I didn’t really know the difference between an Argosy and a sausage roll. I asked, “Is this an express train?” The Loadmaster looked as if he had his underpants on backwards.
A robotic voice barking like a bloodhound with flu crackled through the plane explaining that we were on a RAF Argosy en route to Bahrain and giving other worthless information that the passengers already knew. I know I’m on the right airplane.
The flight continued. A bright young WRAF corporal popped up like a cherub on a bishop’s birthday cake. She was a knockout but I didn’t notice. All the male passengers woke up. A couple of young Marine Commandos, going on R&R after sniping Arabs in Crater, rolled on their backs with their paws in the air. I haven’t the faintest idea where the goddess came from. There aren’t many hiding places on a sausage roll. All I could think of was the orlop deck, if they have them on aircraft.
Anyway her task included handing out goodies, like a charity shop raffle. Curly sandwiches from an Irish navvy’s lunch box arrived with fillings reminding me of something I saw squashed on the road to the airport. She carefully tipped embalming fluid into cracked mugs as if that was the most important job she had to do that day. I dread to think what pudding was. It didn’t matter. There wasn’t any. Why was she hiding the melons?
I cracked, “I ordered the seasoned chicken breasts stuffed with herbs and garlic.”
She was quick. “Sorry, sir, stuffed chicken’s off.” Her voice sounded like a cream slice, and her eyes matched the cerulean blue of the heavens I could see through the narrow windows. She had neat service hair and neat service hands.
“What’s for breakfast?”
I’ve never received the correct answer to that question. She wore a cool expression and dropped a counterfeit sandwich in my lap. Warding off impertinence must be like spraying mosquitos to her. As she drifted away like gossamer in a breeze, I caught her glancing back at me. I was a man. She could handle a man. I raised my eyebrows and threw her a grin.
I think Miss WRAF liked me. And why not?
The Loader, a.k.a. flight comedian, butted in with, “I thought you’d like a bag of nails to chew.” Ha, ha!
Nothing but sandy desert spread out far below. Dream girl disappeared as mysteriously as she arrived. Out of harm’s way. Women are always loping off to strange places. I ban wicked thoughts. I spend holidays in a monastery.
The Loader funnyman invited me to the cockpit, where the driver, a squadron leader who looked like Douglas Bader and had eyes that lit up like 1000-watt bulbs, entertained me. He could see in the dark with his eyes shut. A mustachioed RAF officer alongside him, facing an identical group of dials and levers looked like he was carved out of wood. Perhaps he was wood. He never moved.
I wondered why Douglas wasn’t wearing flying helmet and goggles and didn’t want him to think I was a fruitcake by asking. He explained that the large expanse of nothing below was the Empty Quarter of Arabia. I estimated it contained nearly as much sand as Blackpool beach. Not a solitary donkey, or camel, could be seen. Nor deckchairs.
I noticed he was driving no-hands but he didn’t seem bothered so I needn’t worry too much. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to know. Well, how to make a million would help but guessed he meant flying.
“Show me a loop-the-loop.”
He was a good-natured fellow. He pinned me in his twin beams and chuckled. “We only do that in air shows. Passengers don’t like it.”
“How about dropping me off at Stansted?
More chuckles. “We don’t carry enough fuel to get there”
It must be a long way. Then I remembered that Bader was a Spitfire driver.
After returning to my parachutist’s seat my fear quotient increased. The Argosy banked and turned in a sweeping curve. I’m no expert on flying but I recognised sand dunes we had already flown over. If you’ve seen one sand dune you’ve seen them all. So what? We were now retracing our path. Why?
The Loader came along to reassure nervous passengers that all was well and a minor technical fault forced us to return to Aden. I thought, “Minor technical fault, my foot!” The Loader overcooked the apology. We might be flying but his explanation wasn’t and the strained faces around me said others also knew it was bullshit. Still, I suppose a little white lie is better than someone strolling through the cabin with a sandwich board warning THE END IS NIGH.
The worried expression on my friend’s face didn’t help dispel the impression that everything was far from kosher. What really bothered me, he was handing round will forms. Also I caught a glimpse of one of the crew up front strapping on a parachute. I hope Douglas is up to the mark.
I asked my Loader friend, “Did the driver forget to fill up with petrol?”
I knew I’d got something wrong.
He never even twitched and no one laughed. He bent over to whisper that a suspect packet was on board. That must be what the sandwiches were in.
I placed my hands over my ears.
“Why are you doing that?”
“I can’t stand loud bangs,” I replied in a strained voice.
He tried to smile but his mouth merely cracked.
It wasn’t funny. Just a couple weeks ago terrorists blew up one of the last remaining RAF Dakotas on the ground at Khormaksar. I prayed I wasn’t on the first Argosy to meet the same fate and began to think that a parachute might be handy after all. A cold chill ran up my spine. It’s blight on the RAF that alcohol is banned on flights. A stiff whisky would go down well.
The four Rolls Royce Dart turboprop engines droned on and I couldn’t hear any ticking sounds above the noise. Thirty minutes of heightened tension later, passengers stopped biting their nails and we dipped down over the smooth waters of Front Bay. At the BP oil refinery in Little Aden black smoke drifted from burning oil storage tanks blown up by terrorists. The undercarriage rumbled, the wheels hit the runway and the Argosy’s tyres squealed like squabbling pigs, back on the smooth tarmac of RAF Khormaksar. The plane rolled safely to a stop without spilling a sick bag. We didn’t have a puncture either and I was still alive.
A waddle of RAF police penguins shuffled on board and the passengers, feeling reprieved, deplaned and told to wait in the reception area for we would be taking off again shortly. The Argosy taxied to a remote corner of the airfield escorted by fire appliances like a mother duck with young. I wanted to cheer the driver – pilot – but everyone else wore stony faces. I was quite proud of myself; my underwear remained unsoiled.
“Shortly” stretched into three hours. No ticking packages were found and we filed back on board and took off again. There wasn’t a lot of chat. My Loader friend promised, “This time we’ll get there without a hitch.”
I asked, “Who’s taking the bets?”
We touched down three hours or so later without further frights or murky tea and stale sandwiches. It took a long time to get here. I could have walked it faster. There was no one at Arrivals holding up a card saying ‘Welcome Les Hooper’. There was a large sign that read BAHRAIN البحرين. So Douglas Bader had found the right place okay. The place was typical Mid East – sand. Why do they get locust plagues? There’s nothing for them to eat.
The SIB Detachment in the capital Manama occupied an office at District Headquarters that was nearly as big as a broom cupboard. One man – Tom Broderick, ruled this empire and always looks as if he would be happier holding a tin cup outside King’s Cross Railway Station. He didn’t look rich. He could wear a thousand-quid Savile Row suit and make it look like a dustman’s cast off. Twice while I was there cleaning ladies with shawls on their heads entered his emporium looking for brush and dustpan.
You could swing a cat in the room, if the cat didn’t mind being banged against the walls. A desk, a couple of chairs and a battered filing cabinet stared at each other across a scarred wooden floor. That doesn’t mean the room was any bigger. It hadn’t changed since Queen Victoria’s jubilee. A piece of cardboard propped on the untidy desk had WOII BRODERICK scrawled on it with a black marker. Handy when forgot his name.
Tom was around five-ten without socks and built like a stick of celery without leaves. His skin looked like half-baked pastry, white and sickly. He held the best job going in the SIB and enjoyed more freedom to act than John Wayne. Otherwise he did less than a cook in a bankrupt cafe. We didn’t bond well. I wouldn’t go to Sunday School with him. He was snug, content and as clever as his shabby briefcase.
I don’t believe he disliked me. That’s impossible, isn’t it? I don’t pretend to be God’s gift, but I have fewer blemishes than a five-pound note, which my brilliance overshadows.
I asked him, “What do you do with all your spare time. Build sand castles?” I think he was a little put out. A faint glare in his deep eyes was at the end of a long foggy corridor.
He dredged up a sort of smile, slower than weighing the Queen Mary’s anchor, and asked in a toneless voice, “Why have you come here?” He sounded like a suspicious tax inspector. He wasn’t jumping for joy at the prospect of my inspirational company.
“For sunshine and sand.”
“You get that in Aden.”
Brother, this guy sure is a smart cookie.
I told him, “By the way, I’m expecting an income tax rebate,” but he looked as if I’d blown my mind, or his, so I didn’t work his head further.
Something nagged him like a Jack Russell gnawing ankles and his nose wrinkled as if it encountered a nasty smell, “Is there anything in particular you want to do here?” Leave.
“Learn to yodel.”
‘You need Switzerland for that.” He is smart. He could be a stand-in for Sherlock Holmes’s deerstalker.
“How far is it?”
He sniffed carefully as if searching for buttercups then peered closer for signs that I was cuckoo. Perhaps I underestimated our Tom. He wanted to know, “What’s it like in Aden now?”
“Sunshine and sand.”
“Sunshine,” he said thoughtfully. “Sunshine and sand.”
One purpose of my visit was to let him know that he wasn’t bottom of the pile and to reassure him that he always had full backing for the excellent work he almost did. A sort of morale boosting exercise. I kept it a secret. I think I failed anyway. One drawback was he usually walked when he had to go somewhere. He had no transport and sniffed at my solution that he hires a donkey.
“Sunshine and sand,” he muttered. “We’ve got a lot of that here.”
I smiled but he didn’t say what he thought my smile added up to. I let it drift. His brain was currently exercised enquiring into the death an army officer who drowned while dingy racing. Nothing mysterious, just a tragic accident to do with trapezes. A sailing thing.
His face had the texture of sandpaper. He forgot sunshine. “I want to clear it up. I got a week’s leave owed me.”
“You’ve earned it with all the hard work you do,” I said.
Tom Broderick, bursting with the energy of a swatted fly, was next off to test the depth of water the poor chap drowned in. He said. He didn’t have a bucket and spade and I’m sure he didn’t intend skinny-dipping, so was probably being truthful. I didn’t bother to ask how it would help. He probably knew something I didn’t. Very rare.
I queried, “Will you report the officer for carelessness?”
He looked at my left ear. “He’s dead.”
Like Tom’s sense of humour.
His head wobbled like a Kokeshi doll. I told him, “Had I known what you’re up to I would’ve brought my cossie and joined you.” No I wouldn’t.
His eyes took a break. Thinking hurt his bunion. He replied, “I’m not on holiday.”
His unmasked hostility stuck out like the goiter on cousin Mildred’s neck. I first suspected animosity weeks ago when he sent me a letter bomb. There was a time when superiors got up my nose. The tide has turned and I’ve joined the hang-em-from-the-lamppost class. Life is a bitch.
Mind you, Tom wasn’t a bad guy – well, he was but no different than many others. For instance blustering Staff Sergeant Ken Williams in Aden who was as pleasant as yellow fever. He dreamed of a crown on his sleeve and blamed me for hitting the glass ceiling. Bullshit. Even a crazy person wouldn’t volunteer to serve in cesspit Aden. But I digress.
To move around Tom usually scrounged lifts from Bahrain HQ or the Provost Section. He kindly arranged a tour for me and persuaded the Intelligence Corps to loan a Landrover and a corporal driver as guide. I should have been wary of his motive. That’s enough about Tom.
I’ve lost my notes and the names of places visited remain as mystical as the moai on Easter Island. Also how the devil did the Intelligence people catch spies in Bahrain, where everyone wore white nightgowns? Many smartly attired Arabs must be on home leave from London’s West End.
At least here in peaceful Bahrain I had a couple of days free from crime and wrongdoers, let alone Abdul eager to blow me to pieces. Right? What could spoil it? Don’t ask.
I departed for my misnamed pleasure tour in the Landrover and kept a beady eye on city traffic but couldn’t detect any vehicles or camels intent on following us. The driver showed no sign of extra alertness. Remember, I was riding in a marked Intelligence vehicle. There again, maybe Bahrain didn’t harbour enemy agents or saboteurs
We left the city and my paranoia behind and drove along dusty tracks over the flat and arid land, the highest point being Jabal ad Dukhan (the Mountain of Smoke), all of 400 feet. A desert is as quiet as the mid-Atlantic. A nice place to be if you want to be alone. I felt a little edgy, stuck in the middle of a barren yellow waste with not a friendly face in sight and no gun. The island measured only 34ml by 11ml but the sand went on forever. Beyond the world.
I said, “I take it we’ll be stopping for tea at an oasis.”
Camel trails roamed the sand, going nowhere. Small villages were wildly scattered throughout the desert like anthills in the Pampas and we drove through a couple without incident. They were decrepit one-horse villages – whoops, one-camel villages, none of them big enough to boast a railway station. The driver whizzed through them, ignoring traffic lights. Mostly because there weren’t any. Now and then men in suits appeared amongst the gowns and looked as if they didn’t belong. We had no tail.
I said, “I never realised there was so much sand in Bahamas.”
“This is Bahrain.”
“Damn! I told Movements I had the wrong ticket. Let’s visit the pyramids.”
He sighed, a sound like escaping steam. “They’re in Egypt.”
“Oh! We haven’t enough time to go there, I suppose.” I failed geography at infant school.
Corporal Brains chose to ignore me, again.
Hobbled camels and nodding donkeys pumping oil were everywhere you looked. No, the camels weren’t pumping oil. They were placid and had the hump. Sorry! I wanted to watch an ostrich bury its head in the sand but it seems they live elsewhere. Flamingoes flew over, low like a flight of RAF Hawker Hunters shooting up a Yemeni village. Where did they come from? Only they knew where they were going. We didn’t hit an oasis.
Haphazard miles of pipelines crisscrossed the sand like a map of the Underground. A profound thought entered my head without too much pain – the country never suffered a petrol crisis. I wondered how ostriches breathed with their heads buried. I hope it never rained heavily. There were no drains. Now and then a lonely palm tree appeared, like a stranded traveller waiting for a bus that never arrived.
A very narrow lane twisted and turned through one ramshackle village called Al-Muki or something and my driver slowed down to pick his way between the huts and hovels. The single-room homes doubled up as goat stables.
Long faced locals hung around munching dates and khat and spitting, waiting for camel milking time. They looked as harmless as the flamingoes. If this were Dorset they would be chewing straws. One spat at a yelping mongrel. I swear another bearded gent was Noah. It must have been the word ARK on a plank next to him. Oh, I forgot the children and goats. They made up the numbers.
Camels gazed at us tight-lipped like critical maiden aunts. Arabs always look as if they are having a wake. Smiling is punished by flogging. A cloying smell was strong enough to build a mosque on. A million flies enjoyed happy hour. None of them begged a lift. The only interest we attracted came from a goat that looked up and waved.
The village was nearly behind us when suddenly without warning a group of ragged young men and boys dashed out from a side alley screaming like a tribe of chimps and began lobbing stones, and they weren’t playing hopscotch. Did they not know we came to their country to do them a favour?
It may seem paltry but an attack by kids raining bricks can still hurt. And I didn’t wear a steel helmet. The driver drooped like an empty sack. His knuckles on the steering wheel looked like stripped bone. He tried to bottle hidden anguish. He knew he’d made a big mistake. For an 18-year-old he looked sixty. However, the little monsters vanished quickly in the cloud of dust the Landrover laid down behind us like a smokescreen.
The driver said, “Sorry about that. Some people round here don’t like us.”
I replied, “I can’t understand why. I’ve never met them before. For Christ’s sake don’t run out of petrol.”
He smiled like a drowning duck and said, “I heard you can be cynical.”
I’ll add rat to Broderick’s personal records.
Brains somehow managed to dodge any further trouble from missile throwers and we continued our sightseeing tour of sand and rocks that possessed all the thrills of watching paint dry. The place isn’t a dead loss, for it has the famous and miraculous Tree of Life that’s lived in the desert for 400 years. Why didn’t it make my pulse race? All right, there are places of historic and cultural interest, like the Arad Fort, the Grand Mosque and the camel abattoir.
I managed to spawn some interest in the Ruler’s palace, a large wedding cake of pink walls and towers that dominated the landscape. Ornamental trees stood in obedient lines and had more grooming than a Derby winner. The Ruler at the time was HH Sheikh Isa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, which is a mouthful from any direction. My Arabic equals my Mongolian. He had great powers. He wasn’t God. But he might be.
All I could think of were sultans and harems. My wife once told me the reason for such thinking but I didn’t listen. Wives know everything.
We stopped near the palace and the “I” corporal enlightened me, “That place is more secure than Dartmoor.”
“Is it really?” I added, “And there’s me believing that most of Dartmoor is public land.”
The corporal rolled his eyes and gave me a look as if I’d just been born, then studied the bright blue ceiling like John Constable at his easel. He said, “The prison, sir, not the bloody moor.”
I grabbed my camera and clambered out of the Landrover to do my David Bailey impersonation, careful to avoid camel shit. As I did so the crack of gunshots splintered the air, quickly followed by the “I” Corps corporal screaming like an old lady on a roller coaster. “Get back in. Let’s fly.” I didn’t actually hear the buzz of bullets whizzing past my nose but I imagined it.
Man in a thawb
As I jumped in I gave the surroundings a raking glance. I was drawn to an Arab draped in a thawb near an ornate gateway that would have let in a herd of buffalo. Hard eyes like black grapes were placed strategically either side of an eagle’s nose in a dark bearded face. It would pay to have him as a friend. He wasn’t bigger than a Sherman tank. He looked as clean and trim as a Burton’s dummy. He could be a sheikh himself. A rifle aimed towards us like an evil finger. He might be a sportsman shooting buzzards. But I didn’t think so.
A shout bounced over wind-ribbed sand sounding like a town crier outside the Town Hall. “Clearorf, yalla imshee, yous nosseyeengliz or bullet upzeeass.” No bell. Perhaps I imagined that. I didn’t imagine feeling as shaky as pensioner outside a locked toilet.
We couldn’t clearorf fast enough. I wondered if the Ministry of Tourism advertised palace visits. We were in a barrel. I was piqued that Tom Broderick never suggested wearing a bulletproof vest. Must have slipped his mind.
I was shaking like a wet dog. Pure terror does that to me. We weren’t stopping for tea. Gasping like an asthmatic mule I ducked instinctively. I have the courage of a half-chewed jelly baby but don’t broadcast it. I tried to light a cigarette but couldn’t hold it steady. Brains gave the motor a big kick, swerved round an astonished camel, and tyres spurted angry sand as we shot away like Jackie Stewart late for a dinner date. Whose idea was this?
I leaned out and stuck two trembling fingers up at the Sherman. Not really. Being clever, I had another idea. He wanted to invite me to dine with Sheikh What’s-His-Name – sheep’s eyes main course. But I didn’t want to risk being wrong. On the other hand, maybe the Sheikh wanted me as another jewel for his charm bracelet. My guesses were as flimsy as the heat waves floating off the desert.
The desert returned to its quiet state. When bullets had missed the bull’s eye and my stomach was back on the oche, the palace was a blip on the horizon. The corporal’s teeth gleamed in a tight smile. Too late he explained that the Sheikh disapproved of people clicking cameras at his shack.
I remarked, “Incredible! You mean a couple of simple snaps makes him choke on his camel’s milk – and you knew that?”
“I forgot,” he answered sheepishly and blurted, “Good news. Don’t worry. He was only taunting us.”
Good news? Taunting us?
I wouldn’t bet a week’s beer money on that. Famous last words sprang to mind.
I asked, ”Is he your uncle?”
“You never know.”
I like a man who can laugh at a kick in the goolies.
He added, “We got lucky.”
I told him, “I carry a rabbit’s foot.”
He said, “The rabbit wasn’t so lucky.”
OMG. Thank you, Bruce Forsyth.
I said, “No, but it tasted good in a fricassee.”
He wanted me to know, “That’s the first time I’ve been shot at here.”
“Me too.” Where’s Beau Geste when he’s needed?
The corporal wondered, “I can’t understand Arabs. What’s wrong with them?
“They’re Arabs.” Then I added, “Don’t you carry a Security pass?”
“Why didn’t you show it to him?”
He almost smiled but it was more like biting a lemon. He thought I was unbalanced. My cheerleaders increased by one.
We weren’t dead and no longer in danger. I hope. But my ego capsized like the drowned officer’s dingy. I had a knotted stomach popular at Confidential Report time. I carried out a visual around the Landrover without mission success. Just like on the Argosy, you can never get a stiff whisky when you need one.
The Charlie with the rifle was either a poor shot or the driver was right and merely intended to chase us off. I convinced myself it was the latter. Almost. Another theory. Perhaps we were fired on because I was riding in an “I” Corps Landrover. Right? After all, they’re a sneaky lot.
In any case, he succeeded in scaring us off. An unaccustomed sense of anxiety was tinged with annoyance at being treated like a plastic duck in a shooting gallery. Not that I could get my own back. As I said, the Sheikh and cohorts couldn’t be touched. Surviving bullets is a wonderful sensation and a couple of cool beers later took the sting out of any resentment. And, given a choice, I’d pick having a few stones chucked at me to being shot.
The same thing happened to me in Mombasa, Kenya, where a twitchy armed sentry outside Jomo Kenyatta’s mansion’s gates thought my Box Brownie was projecting evil spirits. I was as nervous then as a mouse in a cattery. I survived that, too, else I would be sleeping with worms. Believe it or not, I was also in an Intelligence vehicle at the time. I’ll give riding with spooks the thumbs down in future.
However, I patted the “I” corporal on the back for giving me the fright of my life and said, “That’s one of best sightseeing tours I’ve ever been on.” Only sights were lacking.
I pleased him more by promising, “I’ll recommend you for a driving job with the Mafia. Benissimo?”
I admired his sarcasm and thought any promotion for him would be a long time in coming. I can get my knickers in a twist over the Intelligence plonkers but they do a pretty good job and the driver, despite slip-ups, rescued Margaret Hooper from early widowhood.
A RAF Intelligence-wallah in Aden received a medal for dodging a hand grenade. On that basis I expected nothing less than a knighthood. Something tells me I’m barking up a date palm.
Silence hung like smog as we drove back to Headquarters. I’d rather go to the airport. I had an impression the corporal regarded me a poor talisman, despite my rabbit’s foot.
Before we parted I said, “I’ve got some good advice for you.”
He looked like a pointer dog. “Go on, sir.”
“Next time you take a desert ride, wear a sun hat.”
He didn’t laugh at first but gurgled like a blocked drain and said, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
“I’m the king,” I said through tears of laughter. ‘Have you caught any spies yet?”
He said, “I’m only a dogsbody.”
I said, “Same here. It’s hell.”
We laughed together. And I never knew Brain’s real name.
Once back, après fear, I tucked into a meal of camel stew. Or was it goat? Or. . . . I’m glad we had no Detachment in Paris. I hate frogs. On second thoughts, it tasted like warmed up tinned Meat and Veg. What more could I ask for? The food was nearly nice, with salt and pepper and smothered with a gallon of ketchup. The beers that followed were very nice, but made me yearn for a real meal. Later I intend to get therapeutically drunker than a paratroopers reunion. It beats counselling. Self-respect can go to the church hall.
I did wonder if one of the Ruler’s aides might complain about us intruding upon his property – if we did. But I never heard anything afterwards. Trespassers are shot like quail in season. How many are planted among palms around the palace walls? I made that up.
My adventures reminded me: The SIB Handbook I’m rewriting needs more editing.
I had kidded myself that a couple of days relaxing in Bahrain would be better than drinking Pimms on a Florida beach and a pleasant change from the bombs and bullets of Aden. But my bubble burst. I should’ve gone building sandcastles with Tom Broderick. On that subject he avoided drowning while depth testing and looked as sad as a Labrador with fleas because I survived my desert trip intact. I could be wrong.
I picked up my suitcase and he asked me, “What d’you think of Bahrain then?”
“Where is it?”
His eyes narrowed and his voice came from a freezer. “You pretend to be stupid to fool people – but you don’t fool me.”
I told you I underestimated our Tom
I said, “The two weeks I’ve been here feels like a year.”
His forehead tram-lined. “You’ve only been here two days.” Whoops!
He’s right. He can’t be fooled.
I said, “That officer who drowned – “
“The trapeze snapped, I believe.”
“It’s a long wire attached to the top of the mast and hooked to the sailor’s belt.”
He nodded again.
“It shouldn’t break accidentally, should it?”
Silence. He didn’t nod. He looked as stiff as if he’d just been excavated from a pyramid and his face paled as if he’d seen the devil appear.
But I blew him a kiss anyway and pronounced, “As-salaam alaikum,” an Arabic motto, “Enjoy your pork chops.” No, it can’t be. I had the joy of a Scunthorpe goalkeeper as I waved goodbye. I’d certainly had a whale of a time. While I re-ran all that had happened like a Pathe News reel my thoughts jumped around like a mating frog, It had nothing to do with detective work. I was the crime. I felt as helpless as a hobbled camel. I thought of WRAF girls. I thought of Arabs viewing me through rifle sights. I thought of Tom Broderick and drowned sailors. I had a hundred thoughts. God! How my head ached.
The Argosy flight back to Aden proved as exciting as shopping at Tescos on a Sunday. I knew I was in for a safe flight. The squadron leader had ginger hair and wore golden slippers like he was going to bed. I wish I wore slippers. As he slid into the cockpit he softly sang Show Me The Way To Go Home without anyone pointing the way. He did not carry a parachute and I hope he knows the way and doesn’t fall asleep. There was also a different WRAF girl on the flight. Not quite as Hollywood at the last one. But not to be sneezed at though.
Before take-off Tom looked like the Cheshire cat with piles and handed me a farewell present that didn’t explode – a stuffed camel a bit smaller than a live one. It had a tiny hole in its forehead. Tom had been playing with a pellet gun and pretended it was me. I gave it to a happy WRAF girl. She had legs that could raise Casanova from the dead. I think she liked me. Why not? Afterwards I regretted giving her the three-eyed camel. I should’ve kept it and given it to broken Ken Williams. The voodoo spell might work.
If there was a ticking parcel on board, thankfully the carrier forgot to set the timer. Should I get an urge to tour Bahrain again – God forbid! – I’ll wrap a towel round my head and hire a camel. I nearly collected a shroud this time but so what? As I’ve already admitted, I’m still breathing. Life in the SIB is a crazy ride.
After flying on an aircraft carrying a suspected bomb, fed E.coli sandwiches, stoned by kids, shot at by an idiot and being the target of a voodoo plot, I flew back to Aden without icy fingers crawling over my skin. I felt safer there.
I walked indoors and said to my wife, “Remember me? I left you a hundred years ago.” She says I’m mentally impaired. I recalled a quote by Mary Douglas: Expectations are dashed. What can I say?
I crossed Bahrain off my holiday list.