Bill's Diary 1951 (Part 4)
First edition: 2017
Publisher: EB Society
Illustrator: not illustrated
Category: Bill's Diary 1951
Type: Continuation Books
Publisher: EB Society
Illustrator: not illustrated
Category: Bill's Diary 1951
Type: Continuation Books
On This Page...
Allie and I woke and lay in bed for a while listening to the sound of exotic birds in a tree on the bank. Gave Allie a rough, lightly censored account of last night's foray and then we joined the kids at our breakfast table. Dinah, thinking presumably that the snake had been discarded sat down completely unaware that down beside the table was a small basket with Philip's rolled up pullover in it, and on that pullover was Philip's latest pet - a genuine bargua snake. During breakfast the unsuspecting girl happened to look down at basket placed innocently beside Philip and a scream much louder and more intense than Kiki's policeman whistle erupted. Dinah's leap would easily have done justice to an Olympian high-jump competitor and when she had put a safe distance between herself and Philip's latest acquisition, the battle raged.
"PHILIP! MUM! BILL! What on earth? PHILIP! Get rid of it! Throw that creature into the river. NOW!"
More-or-less what I had said earlier, and looking at it from Dinah's point of view: absolutely 'No Way' would Philip be allowed to posses a dangerous poisonous snake. 'NO WAY!'
"Tell me again how much I'm enjoying our holiday Allie."
She smiled at me and took my hand.
"Bill, you're really and truly enjoying the assignment ... it's just the children who might be spoiling it for us."
Jack looked at her with concern.
"Aunt Allie, you don't mean that? I'd hate to think we were causing you any upset."
Allie smiled at him.
"Jack, I couldn't be happier. It's just that at this moment we have an incident."
We did indeed. Dinah stood by the railing looking with horror at the beast that Philip had now picked up and was actually cuddling. The girl knew probably better than any of us of her brother's uncanny powers so that particular facet wasn't in question; she wouldn't be attacked or anything and that had to be a surety but the pervading factor of course, was the thought of a snake - a poisonous snake at that - being in her space. A hairy tarantula might not be in any way aggressive but the inherent fear of creepy crawlies would no doubt cause an arachnophobe to blow his or her mind just being aware it was nearby. Suddenly, an unexpected intervention caught our notice - Lucy-Ann walked up to Philip and actually patted the snake, no doubt trying to show Dinah that she needn't be scared. This young girl is astounding at times; she can do things that take courage yet, looking at her, one wouldn't see a particularly brave personality emanating from her. Lucy-Ann's character is that of timidity, yet there are times when she is anything but timid. Furthermore, she seems to do exactly the right thing in tricky situations so I decided that if she can stomach a pet snake, then bold brave Dinah could also follow suit and I prepared myself for what was to happen next.
Announcement: Dinah will exit the launch and return to Barira if Philip is allowed to keep his snake. That's what she said. Be a bit of a nuisance should this actually come to pass but I suppose Tala could accompany her on the trek ... and it would be a trek because I wasn't sure if any taxis were available, and if they were, the driver would probably charge we English tourists a goodly sum for a seven or eight hour trip.
I was confident Dinah's bluff could be called ... being fairly sure it was a bluff.
"OK, Dinah. Sorry about this but I you know Philip's calling; most of his pets have been harmless, if not all. He had a fox once and no one suffered - same goes for his rats. He's kept any spiders to himself more-or-less, and you must realise this particular snake, despite the breed's reputation, is harmless. You know it is however, tell you what I'll do because you're entitled to peace of mind. I can't leave everyone else here by themselves but if a taxi is available from the village I'll send you and Tala back with a note for Tariq, and Tala can return once you're safely delivered. You'll be able to relax and read the English papers - I noticed a Reader's Digest in the lounge and one or two old papers left by some of our compatriots so you shouldn't be too bored. Also, Tariq was telling me a couple of English artists are due at his hotel shortly and I'm sure you'd welcome them seeing you always get good marks in art class. How about that?"
Dinah looked at with horror emanating from her face and I noticed she was studying my features very closely to see if I was kidding her, but I'm a reasonable actor when duty calls. 'Would I really let her go back?' She obviously hadn't expected such an answer and I was fairly sure of the outcome. The others looked at us both with interest.
I went on unabashedly.
"Mind you, I don't envy you your trip back Dinah ... bumping across the plains for what could be a day or more, but at least you'll have no worries about snakes, unless you encounter one hiding in the car of course."
For some reason I thought back to past episodes where Philip and his sister had come to blows over Phil's urge to collect creatures large and small. I recalled Jack telling me that Philip had once given Dinah a terrible fright by thrusting a giant starfish under her nose and then later on, he'd actually placed it on her arm. Not a nice thing to do to anyone with starfish-phobia and if I'd been there, Philip would probably have received a lecture; however that was a long time ago and, although Dinah's got a little more used to her brother's pet collecting habits, she still reacts whenever a new one is presented for comment.
As I'd thought, Dinah admitted defeat.
"You wouldn't really let me go back, would you Bill?"
"You never know Dinah. I just want to preserve the harmony and if you're unhappy about something, I only want to assist in any way possible."
I'm sure my eyes were twinkling as she took this in. She smiled suddenly and I'm sure everyone breathed a sigh of relief. A few resolutions were made and one required me to threaten Philip under 'pain of death.'
"None of your idiotic pranks, Philip old chap!"
Dinah's not the only child who's gained more sense over the passing of years and I knew we'd have no worries from Philip on that score, so passing onto other things we now had to decide what we were going to do with the little Syrian boy that had adopted Philip as his 'Master.' We discussed the problem and whereas my solution seemed the most practical, the others felt a little more softly inclined toward the rapscallion and their thoughts involved my allowing him to stay even if it was only to feed him up a little. Admittedly we all felt the lad needed a degree of protection from the many assaults he must have endured over his short time on this planet and in the end, rather than adopting my original idea of handing over some money and sending him back to 'Sinny' or Cine Town, we decided to keep him for the time being. Surprisingly, Dinah agreed to the general plan even though Oola had brought the snake aboard but as Philip would be instructed to keep the animal somewhere around his body or out of sight, the problem didn't seem insurmountable. Our newest addition was quite filthy but the problem was easily solved with Allie taking charge of that department; I called Oola and explained that he could stay for the time being but also relayed Allie's dictum that he must submit to a fairly extensive scrubbing. He could also borrow a pair of the boys' shorts whilst his single item of clothing was being washed and Jack obliged by offering a spare item of his own clothing seeing Philip had been a little careless with his packing and found he was a little short in the shorts department; besides he wore a slightly larger size than Jack anyway. Tala was instructed that Oola would help him with the general work after he'd received a jolly good wash and brush-up. Tala didn't seem all that happy about having to supervise the urchin but at least Oola's presence would make his own duties a little easier, and I'm sure he'd make full use of that particular factor.
After he'd disappeared with Tala to be rubbed and scrubbed, Oola was allowed to change into his 'new' raiment and we watched him strutting proudly around the deck in his new duds (or dud) always moving as near to Philip as he could until Tala claimed him for his own once again. Must keep an eye out just in case our boat operator mistreats the new crew member - Tala, according to his culture, might have slightly harsher ideas on how to manage boys of his own race.
Allie and the children listened to a further, fairly scanty, account of what had happened last evening. Nothing of much substance had been achieved and Allie suggested our next major port of call might offer something more concrete. Might indeed, after all Raya Uma uses this very river to get around in his own boat so it's possible that his shady deals take place reasonably nearby. I sent Jack off to instruct Tala and his new helpmate that we were moving.
It was time to go.
Tala started the boat and steered us away more or less in a southerly direction. He was keeping his helper busy after making the native boy submit to a thorough scrubbing. A spare loincloth had also been found for him - Tala had acquired the garment from a native trader positioned by the river near a small settlement. He'd stopped the boat momentarily and the vendor's s son had waded into the river a little way to hand up the item in exchange for a few coins. By all counts, Tala was taking an interest in the boy. Further on we reached a border crossing at a point in the river down from Ala-ou-iya where an official in a scruffy uniform motioned at us to stop. A lackey boarded the launch, examined our papers, gave Kiki a dubious look, said something to us which we didn't understand, and then climbed back down to the jetty whilst his boss waved us on.
It was an enjoyable voyage along sparkling waters and it was interesting to see the odd character toiling in a field or perhaps we'd spot a dark-skinned woman strolling along with a pannier on her head and a child in tow. We passed timeless stone buildings coloured a kind of pink that were no doubt meeting places, churches, or mosques, and a few tumbledown huts were also manifest although they looked to be mainly storage buildings. There were also some small settlements fairly close the river for obvious reasons and the natives waved to us as we passed by in our vessel. I relaxed in a deck chair still a little sore after my encounter last night. Allie knew about it but didn't comment, as we wanted my temporary discomfort kept from the kids, otherwise Lucy-Ann might have become a little emotional. Every now and again Allie would leave the children who were lined up against the deck railing and ask if there was anything I needed. She's a good girl no doubt about that and apart from asking for an orange, I desired nothing else. Tala steered the craft with a sure eye and Oola appeared occasionally as Philip's slave and then suddenly disappeared when the helmsman discovered his helper wasn't around and started called out to him in a very threatening manner. Kiki left Jack's shoulder every now and again to fly over the curious locals and they jabbered to her as she flew up to a nearby roof or tree to perch briefly before flapping round them calling out various odd-sounding words she'd memorized. This made the villagers look up in wonder - " ... a bird talking in a strange language." Some of the older natives looked quite scared and sounded as if they were reciting prayers to their God asking for advice on how to confront this strange manifestation.
The kids seem eager to locate 'water people' that inhabit the reedy marshes somewhere near Al Qurnah who, according to our 'Know-All,' are called Marsh Arabs or more accurately Madan (with an apostrophe somewhere I think). Our local guidebook told us they might be discoverable if we manage to get down as far as a place called Al Seeba.
After a few more hours I ordered Tala to stop in the shelter of some trees when we came to a nondescript place entitled Abd al Khalaf. The sun was hot and we all felt like a siesta before partaking of a late afternoon tea - cool juice and biscuits were the fare. Tala had some shuteye as well and upon waking, he yelled to Oola who'd skived off to be with his 'Lord and Master.' We heard his angry voice berating Oola (presumably) in their common language for daring to leave him all alone in the cabin.
'Abd al Khalaf' ... the traveller's route to the Mediterranean and the focal point for a dam rumoured to be built round these parts in coming years. I looked at the map again and could see that Ullabaid was pencilled in so we could use that if we any locals crossed our path - it'll show them we're up with the play. It was getting on to 14:00 hours and seeing Allie was in a mood to sort out and repair some items of clothing I decided to let the kids come with me on a little reconnoitre. We jumped off the boat leaving Tala and Oola behind us although I suspect they both wanted to come ashore - but if they did, Allie would be by herself and I didn't want that to be the case. We crossed from the bank to a track that took us down a long way past rows of small whitewashed dwellings that opened out so the passer-by could see sparsely furnished interiors often with balconies above. Palm trees and smaller bushes with very green leaves were very much in evidence and, as usual, we attracted a trail of native children who looked upon us with fascination although, as usual again, they reserved their most intense gazes for Kiki who always knows when she's the centre of attention. To the natives' delight, Jack got Kiki to perform her little trick. I hadn't seen Kiki do it for ages but we could all remember it from the time Jack taught her the routine when they were holidaying in Scotland. Jack made a sound under his breath and Kiki immediately gave her excellent version of a sneeze.
"Where's your hanky, where's your hanky?" she squawked and then took a proffered handkerchief from Jack's hand.
The children, looked on in amazement and then when Kiki started chattering away in a mixture of English and Arabic, the boys - it was mainly boys in the retinue - seemed puzzled by the words that fell from her beak; a fearful scattering of the group took place when a loud screech sounded.
"Stop it, Kiki," Jack said patting her back and craning his neck round to look at her sternly in the eye.
Kiki slunk her head momentarily and then rubbed up against Jack's cheek.
"Cooee, cooee, cooee," she whispered, giving a fairly good imitation of an Australian lad who'd joined the boys' school temporarily whilst his parents were conducting business in Britain. Following a note I'd made, we turned a corner and came upon a clearing where there was a fairly large and sturdy building coloured in standard pink and grey tones with windows that arched into points. The sign was in Arabic but I knew it was the local place of learning so we entered and hailed the first person we saw indicating 'take me to your leader.' He led us to a staircase and waved us up with a couple of unintelligible words. We ascended to the first floor where halfway down there was a door, which we took to be the head's office. I knocked and almost immediately it was opened by a kindly looking, middle-aged native with a wrinkled face, greyish beard, rheumy eyes and a tooth missing although it turned out not to be just a blackened spot on his molar. He was dressed in a robe with Arabic covering on his head and when he set eyes on me, I noticed him start which wasn't too surprising seeing we 'foreigners' cause double-takes wherever we go; come to think of it, I suppose the locals must have set eyes on plenty of our breed so it's probably the colourful bird sitting on Jack's shoulder that makes them 'start.' I knew the chap spoke English because Del had clued me up so I handed the man my card whereby he pointed to himself and said his name was Saad.
"Saad mean luck," he said smiling and standing aside to let me in. I told the kids they could buzz off to have a look round if they wanted to so they made off after I'd instructed them not to approach anyone and to make their way back to the boat before it got dark. Saad led me inside and down a passage to a small sitting room with a desk, couple of chairs, a cupboard and several adornments on the walls as well as three pictures featuring bright images of Eastern cities. He waved me to a chair and once I'd gotten used to his hesitant way of speaking English it was fairly easy to understand what he said.
Yes, he knew Raya Uma well. The man reeked of suspicious activities but on a one to one basis he was full of interesting anecdotes connected with his various activities and he was currently engaged in some fairly extensive excavations located in these parts. Uma appears not to know all that much about the more intricate details of archeology despite his authoritative reputation but he seems intent on finding out everything possible about old buildings - especially temples. He's also intelligent and well versed in the technique of buttering up officials who hold sway in the villages.
During our talk, Saad got up and went to brew us both up a cup of yellowish tea, which he told me was made from hibiscus flowers. Wasn't bad, although just a bit sweet. It was relaxing also and I listened to Saad telling me more of what he knew about our man although his facts may have been a little out of date because he hadn't seen Uma for a while. A few hours slipped by and dusk appeared without my noticing. When it was well after 18:30 I thought it time to go and after thanking the man for his help he got up and saw me politely to the door, saying in Arabic what sounded like 'Masala' which signified "Goodbye."
Made my way back to the river where our launch was lit up in the dusk and looking quite cosy. Voices could be heard on the air as I strode up the ramp and entered the covered section where everyone was gathered. Moving Lucy-Ann from her cushion, I sat down next to Allie and gave her a hug when she asked why I'd been away such a long time. Explained to her and the kids that Saad, our Yard informant, had been an absorbing interviewee despite the fact he hadn't been able to produce all that much new in the facts department. Uma's a bit of a will-o-the-wisp it would seem.
Jack gave an account of what he and the others had been up to on their exploratory wander. Apparently they'd visited a temple and experienced an altercation with some of the native children who'd attached themselves to the foursome but run off after catching sight of Philip's snake. They'd also become lost but fortunately for them, Oola had left the ship without Tala's permission in order to locate his idol and had actually managed to track them down. I didn't feel like reprimanding the boy seeing he'd led the children back to safety but, no doubt, Tala would have dressed him down. I resolved to reward Oola in my own time.
Pleasant surprise! This evening we found that Tala has talent in the cooking department. He produced a meal fit for the Queen of Sheba - fried fish and vegetables. Smelt great and I wondered if it was all kosher - you never know with these native concoctions and I managed to cause a reaction from Dinah and Allie after suggesting the sauce may have been made from crushed insects. People do eat them in some countries but not we British obviously because Dinah immediately spat out her sauce and Allie wasn't too happy with my comment.
I gave her a kiss on the cheek and she couldn't help smiling. She knows me and I know her but I suppose my remark was not appropriate for the tea table. I actually dared to ask Tala how he'd concocted the sauce and there was a moment of tension until he explained it was composed of quite normal ingredients, if one considers tree-bark a normal ingredient. It contained something else mashed (or crushed I suppose) but it wasn't insects.
Dinah was very relieved as invery relieved. Oola brought in a dish of fruit which was an enjoyable 'after' and later we lounged about under starry skies with everyone offering answers to one of Lucy-Ann's store of philosophical questions - why don't birds and animals need passports? Colourful lights could be seen on the shore amongst the trees. Later, on hearing the purr of a boat I got up and looked out onto the river where a craft, smaller than ours, was pulling up on the other side of the jetty. A man could be seen emerging from the cabin and springing up onto the landing. He hailed us.
I answered, wondering who on earth could be visiting us in this god-forsaken place other than Lou perhaps, and it was quite a bolt from the blue after I'd requested a name, the visitor yelled out,
"UMA. RAYA UMA!"
Such an unexpected response caught me off balance but fortunately I recovered my equilibrium quite rapidly and decided to take things purely as they came. The man yelled out again and I motioned him to come aboard, telling the others to remain with me so that he could see us all as a family group and nothing more. Tala went down with a light and led Raya Uma up the gangplank and over to where we were gathered underneath the awning.
Raya Uma! The man himself. He resembled one or two photographs I'd seen of him undisguised and his mediocre appearance surprised me - I'd thought he would have been much taller. He was of average build, very slightly on the plump side and was dressed as one would expect an English tourist to dress - open light-coloured shirt, sleeveless pullover and trousers all of a good cut. The small trim beard and dark glasses were features that had stood out in one or two mug shots seen back at the department and the floppy hat he wore completed the picture. No arm scar was visible but by his own admission, he was the genuine article. Uma's manner was genial which was projected by a rather wide mouth that was smiling but there was a kind of sinister atmosphere about him that reminded me of a person I'd seen in a movie once - he kept grinning even when his henchmen were eliminating one of the 'goodies.' A sense of wariness descended upon us all.
Raya Uma shook hands with Allie and myself and acknowledged the children who were looking at him curiously while Allie informed him as to why we were here - namely a recuperative holiday for the kids. Philip introduced himself and the others followed with a performance from Kiki who always has to be included. That bird knows how to get the attention she craves. Raya and I lit up cigarettes and choosing our words carefully we made small talk whilst carefully skirting round more intimate subjects. It was natural we'd be aware of each other's existence despite not having met before because strangers are singled out in any foreign community and the explanation for our knowledge of each other was more-or-less attributed to 'news getting round.'
Raya Uma was open about his interest in archeology and, having established our own cover story, we talked a few more trivialities for the first few minutes with Allie and the kids eventually joining in. It appears Uma is genuinely interested in uncovering old ruins although he told us it can be very expensive. I told him I was interested in writing and may even produce a book of my life experiences, which at least was a true statement. After a little more 'sounding each other out, we received an unexpected surprise. Allie and I were invited to dinner.
Just like that!
I had wanted to locate Uma and he'd actually appeared on our doorstep. Now he'd even invited us to dinner at his place and when I asked him whereabouts he bedded down I was told he has one or two hidey-holes in these parts for instance a hotel room that he leases permanently, but he's also got a cabin further along the river. I thought it could be advantageous to accept his offer so it was arranged that we'd visit for dinner at 19:00 tomorrow and Uma, smiling all over his face, and declining a drink, turned to go. Unfortunately Oola, who was crouching nearby in the darkness, no doubt waiting for an audience with his 'Lord and Master,' almost tripped Uma up whereupon he received a kick from our stumbling visitor. Uma had unintentionally revealed a little of his true character but recovering his pose quickly, he bid us all goodbye. I took him to the gangplank and watched him disappear in the direction of his launch with Tala holding the lamp for him.
Whether or not Oola is like a dog that knows instinctively if someone is an unsavoury character, is anyone's guess and when I pulled him up for hanging round in the shadows he told us in his broken English that Uma was a "bad man." That may be but he still shouldn't have been skulking round us in the dark and I sent him off to Tala who may have not been a 'Lord' but he was currently Oola's 'Master.'
Bad man indeed? Well, I think we're already aware of that and I went over our conversation to see if anything had been let slip while the sound of Uma's motorboat came over the air as it chugged away. Rejoining the mob, I asked them what they thought of Uma and learnt what was expected ... no one seemed drawn to him at all; and neither did I. The general consensus seems to be that Uma is probably up to shady deals with his Cine-Town connection - perhaps evading tariffs or something and in that respect the British constabulary has better things to do than pursuing tax-dodgers. Allie thinks the archeology angle may be a cover-up for other interests that may border legality - only just.
We were all tired especially Lucy-Ann who kept punctuating the conversation with loud yawns so Allie put her arm round the girl and took her off to where the beds were made up. The others followed. Remaining where I was for a quiet fag and a mull, I came to the conclusion there was no outward sign that Uma was into activities that had come to the attention of authorities. No sign that he was smuggling weapons to newly formed regimes, and there was also no news from the border customs of any forbidden items being supplied by anyone in particular. There'd also been no signs from the Iraqi Secret Service dealing with information being transferred to unfriendly governments so the best thing to do at present was simply wait and see. In the meantime I'll find out whatever there is to be found out tomorrow evening. Got up to join Allie and noticed that Oola had crept over to Philip's corner and curled himself up at the foot of his mattress like a family dog. I let him stay there and after having a quick wash in the tin container, lay down beside Allie and was just about to say something when I realised she was already asleep. (Approx. 22:55 - written up at 07.25 on the 17th)
Tala got the boat moving fairly early and took it easy as we were in no hurry to reach our next port of call which is known locally as Chaldo but the Geographical Society have done their work and labelled it Abu Sakhair. As we lounged aft taking in the sights that passed us by, the kids became quite fascinated by my tales of archeological excavations and the rewards available to those who have the finance for such endeavours. I hadn't thought they'd be so impressed seeing they're representatives of a fairly rare breed - namely those who have actually discovered 'real' treasure as occurs in movies and novels. I thought of the remarkable jewel and coin collections they'd stumbled upon in their travels - that place near Kaprun, and also the period we were in the Greek islands. Real treasure from olden times that consisted of swords with jewelled handles, shields, priceless goblets and a trillionaire's fortune in currency. I can remember Matt announcing that the archeologists who've been analysing and recording this particular cache have found what they call a 'remarkable and puzzling' duplicate of the 5th century Babylonian Map. The original was apparently discovered in the Abu Habbah region which coincidentally, is some fifteen miles or so from Tala's Sinny Town.
Allie, my own treasure, who always seems to be doing something for our benefit was in the cabin preparing a snack for us. Kiki flew onto my shoulder just then and started nibbling at a piece of cake - a present from my sweetheart. Allie also gave her a piece of lettuce leaf and the parrot mumbled away between bites and sounded as if she was saying "Caw Polly! Caw-Caw Polly!"
"I thought back to that old building the Mannerings had occupied some years ago. That was where I first met them and having being introduced to the original 'Polly,' I could understand 'Poor Polly' but why was she saying 'Caw Polly?' Jack, who appeared just then, knew the answer to that of course and he explained in his clear and concise fashion when I put the question to him.
"Kiki used to say 'Polly' a lot because many parrots are called Polly so she'd have heard the word plenty of times before she was actually introduced to Philip's Aunt Polly who'd been quite impressed by Kiki squawking 'Poor Polly' even though the 'Polly' referred to wasn't actually Aunt Polly."
"Clear as mud!"
Jack looked at me and seeing a twinkle in my eye, went on.
"It was heads or tails whether Lucy-Ann and myself would be able to stay at Craggy Tops when we first arrived straight out of the blue as it were, and we all believe that Kiki played an important part in our being allowed to remain, by endearing herself to our host."
"So it wasn't your own likeableness," I said (jokingly of course).
Jack eyed me again.
"Bill, I'm sure it wasn't JUST Kiki. Having another creature in the house meant more bother for Aunt Polly whose work was already cut out for her. What with their lack of funds and Philip's other pets, not to mention having to look after Jocelyn who never lifted a finger to help with anything, I'm sure she was thankful for the extra hands to help with chores."
"Understood of course, but what about the Caw?"
"Kiki often mixes up her phrases and no doubt you'll remember when we were holidaying in Scotland, Philip and I went on nature walks every so often. Over on the south side of the hill was a rookery.'
"Say no more."
"That's it," said Jack putting his arm out for Kiki but the parrot, instead of flying over inadvertently dropped her lettuce leaf and had to swoop down with a squawk to retrieve it. Interesting how she's taken so easily to our new environment but I suppose it's not all that difficult to understand - as long as she's with Jack, the bird's happy.
There followed a rather lively talk about ancient ruins and buried treasure and the odds of finding any. Lucy-Ann, as she does, became a little sensitive to the briefness of life when she envisioned civilizations rising and falling and springing up yet again with millions of human beings moulding themselves to whatever culture was in vogue. She has a philosophical bent has our youngest. Philip's snake was allowed to squirm around when the deck was temporarily Dinah-less; she'd disappeared but shortly reappeared with Oola who was bearing a tray of lime juice, balancing the jug and glasses quite expertly. He'd even brought small serviettes for us to use - something I think Allie would be responsible for. She joined us just then and we had an early English afternoon tea whilst sailing down the river ensconced in a faraway land.
A little later an interesting experience occurred.
Whilst we were tucking in, a creature suddenly appeared on the side of our launch. A visitor that immediately attracted Jack's attention because it was large, feathered, and with a hooked beak. It looked at us with extremely piercing eyes.
Lucy-Ann got behind me.
"Bill, it's an eagle, isn't it?" she whispered almost as if scared the bird would hear and launch an attack.
"Lucy-Ann," Jack said shocked "Surely you know what eagles look like after living with them up in Glenfinnan."
I put my arm round the frightened girl.
"Not big enough to be an eagle, Lucy-Ann. Probably a hawk."
"It might be a young eagle."
"Lucy-Ann!" Jack said. "Look at its wings, anyone can see it's a hawk."
"I wasn't sure myself," Dinah remarked, " ... but it's certainly a beautiful looking bird. What kind of hawk is it Bill?"
"My ornithological knowledge just tells me it's a hawk," I said smiling at her and wishing I knew.
The 'Fount-of-Knowledge' spoke.
"Eurasian Sparrow hawk, that's what it'll be."
Allie took up a piece of sandwich and threw it over to where the bird was perched and it swooped down to claim the gift. Kiki, rooted to Jack's shoulder, eyed the newcomer intently without a peep, which was quite unusual. She flew up to the cabin roof as Jack began moving slowly towards the visitor that flew up to the rail again having tossed the scrap down its gullet; then it looked at the boy with head on one side, watching Jack creeping slowly towards it. The hawk looked as if it was going to launch itself into the air but, changing its mind, the creature just stood very still and actually allowed Jack to stretch out his hand and lightly touch it on the wing. Shuddering slightly the bird looked directly into Jack's eyes and then actually allowed him to pat it very lightly.
Jack turned and motioned to him and we all watched with the proverbial 'bated breath' as Philip crept slowly towards Jack. The bird turned its head and looked with interest at this second person approaching and then did an extraordinary thing; as Philip got closer the bird placed it's beak against Philip's arm, and appeared to be nuzzling him.
Jack had to admit that despite his expertise and empathy with birds of all kinds, Philip had that extra quality entitled, for want of a better word, 'magic!' Just then, the bird caught sight of something moving on the shore whereupon it gave a squawk, rose into the air with powerful wings, and flew off towards a copse of trees.
An interesting experience indeed.
On our way to Chaldo we passed a reasonably sized city named 'Ramadi' beyond which lies a body of water that the boys said was discussed in one of their geography classes. The name 'Ramadi' brings back an instance from the very early forties when it was mentioned in dispatches. I can remember Pete handling a case that involved a villain who'd removed himself from our shores and showed up in this out-of-the-way location. He was never heard of again and the rumour is that he was killed in a battle with the Iraq constabulary. Pete shad showed me a cablegram but I may have the name wrong and, as Allie will read this tomorrow (yes, I know you sneak a look), I'm sure she'll quiz me about it as she always does when I mention something of interest. That'll be an excuse for a nice long 'confrontation' if she knows what I mean ... and I think she does.
We didn't stop but continued on down the river being treated to vistas of waving trees and picture book landscapes. Stopped briefly so the kids could have a splash in the water and clean themselves up a bit. I took the opportunity to sort out a few papers dealing with the case of Mr. Uma seeing I'm on a working holiday and have to be earning my money. Allie watched the kids whilst comforting Kiki who was looking a little left out of the action, as she always is when the kids indulge in one of their favourite pastimes. Oola didn't join them but sat on the deck with Philip's pet draped round his shoulders, watching with fascination as they splashed around thoroughly enjoying themselves. Having been out-manouvered in the decision as to whether or not Philip could keep the bargua, Dinah's accepting the situation and her modus operandi is to steer clear of whosoever might be nursing the creature ... usually Philip. Fortunately for her, when they're on the boat her brother generally places the snake in a sunny, enclosed section of the deck and left to its own devices.
Pulled into Chaldo round half six. Didn't feel like going out this evening but we'd made the commitment and besides, duty called seeing we were about to visit the main character in our current drama. More palm trees and one of two of the dun coloured buildings looked as if the architect had been Spanish. We'd taken well over four hours to get here from Ullabaid. After gazing out from the deck to familiarize ourselves with the new location, Allie and I had a wash and change of clothes to make us reasonably presentable, and then after the kids and Tala had been given a few instructions Allie and I were ready. Just after the half past seven mark as the kids were in the middle of a card game that entails loud comments and accusations of cheating when anyone wins, a boat was heard nearby and shortly our host suddenly appeared with an accompanying native who bore a lantern that lit up the jetty where they were standing. His boat was moored nearby
Uma called up to us and as we joined him he suggested the children might like to visit the aftermath of a wedding in the next village. 'The costumes would be colourful and there'd be dancing in the streets,' he told us. I knew the kids would be disappointed when Allie and myself declined the suggestion. They're a sensible lot but the thought of their attending an event in a place such as this at night, signalled a dangerous note even if Tala accompanied them. They waved to us from the deck and Kiki flew down to land on Allie's shoulder briefly, cackling to us both before shooting back into the air and flying down to perch on the awning. Looking down on us all, she screeched something unintelligible before flying back to Jack.
Uma was at his smiling best as he made conversation with us whilst we followed him down the narrow road to a wide clearing where two cars were stationed in the dusk. Uma motioned us into the back seat of a large black car and left momentarily to have a word with a man who was sitting in the driver's seat of the other vehicle; he was accompanied by an associate who looked of Latin extraction and before getting into the other car I noticed the chap had a noticeable scar near his chin. Uma addressed the driver with a name that sounded like 'Kovar,' and the man's eyes, lit up by Uma's lantern, looked deep set and dark but that may just have been the shadows accentuating his features. He didn't look the kind of person who's return a dropped £5 note to anyone but then he was his bosses' aide and no doubt of the same stock. Raya Uma whispered something to the native who'd accompanied us and the chap made off rapidly back the way we'd come.
"Jallie is going to prepare the boat for tomorrow's trip up the river," he announced as he joined us in the car and started it up.
Thinking I'd better say something I asked him if he was currently engaged in excavations, remembering that I had to find out anything I could about his operations. Rather than being evasive, Uma answered quite expansively telling Allie and I that tomorrow he would be calling into oversee a project taking place back on the outskirts of a town called Al Jaarah. He had all the permits needed and was just waiting for the arrival of a bulldozer to arrive from one of his other diggings.
"Heavy work. Lot of rocks to clear," he told us, not being able to disguise the pride in his voice. The question was whether or not the pride was connected with legitimate excavations or illegitimate ones. His demeanour suggested the latter because my studies with Pete at the psychological centre where we'd spent six weeks in Maidstone last year, told me Mr. Uma was not necessarily telling us the truth when he spoke of his work and commented on various aspects. He touched his nose a lot when making statements as we drove along the dusty road that widened considerably as we passed a small settlement.
I changed the subject and with Allie chipping in every now and again, we asked about the various things that came to our attention as the car sped past a hodge-podge of Eastern sights - goats wandering along the roadside herded by a small, wizened faced boy wearing a jersey full of holes, more huts and walls bordering large sandy sections with scattered palms, groves of bushes, and bearded men riding past us on motorcycles - hardly any had lights. We saw rubbish piled in the gutters and open stalls with lights strung up showing various wares, and the odd woman or two appeared now and again with baskets in their hands. They were dressed in long black robes not dissimilar to those of nuns and often their faces were covered. They view the world through slits. Allie asked Uma how prospective suitors knew whether or not they were courting a comely looking lady but he didn't seem to know, in fact he'd begun to clam up and I started feeling edgy. The atmosphere tightened. I felt for Allie's hand and held it tightly as a thought struck me - why hadn't I been seated in the front with Uma?
Our host suddenly slowed down and, turning round to glance quickly at us, he said we had to return to the river because he'd forgotten to take some important documents that he'd left in Jallie's care. This sounded weird and wasn't at all convincing but we just sat there as he turned the car and headed off back down the river road again. Reaching the clearing where the second car had been, we noticed it was gone and the scarred man was now standing there alone. He made an impressive sight - at least six foot four and seeing him properly for the first time we couldn't help noticing how ruthless he looked. A suitable bodyguard for Mr. Raya Uma. He approached the car, and joining Uma in the front, he pulled out a gun, turned round and then levelled it at Allie and I whilst Uma accelerated and drove fast towards the river sending up clouds of dust.
This was it! My sense of duty had more-or-less blotted out the facts I'd learnt about Uma and his associates. I hadn't thought he'd start anything untoward at this stage of the game though. Surely he wanted to learn more about us over dinner but, too late; I decided his sudden blatancy meant there had either been a leak concerning my mission here, or else he wanted to finish up his current operation before time.
When we reached the track's end I noticed Uma's other car was already parked there with 'Kovar' standing beside it, holding a revolver. The native stood behind him. Uma stopped and told us to get out fast. Allie kept close to me as we climbed out and watched Uma's ruffians place themselves behind us.
Our boat was there but it looked empty. Where were the kids? Where were Tala and Oola? I turned to Uma and asked him but he simply waved away the question and went to fetch something from one of the cars. Allie looked so distraught that I suggested the children must have gone to the town after all despite our instructions. Right now I hoped and prayed they had disobeyed us.
It was no use trying anything dramatic but I called out to Uma demanding that we be told what on earth was happening. It was merely a token attempt though because I knew the odds more-or-less. Raya Uma was reverting to form although I hadn't thought it would happen this way because we'd been fairly sure he wouldn't want to draw any attention to himself seeing he'd almost spun out of the orbit as far as British Intelligence goes. However, my presence must have told him that he was still being pursued and my sham hadn't fooled him. He had known who I was right from the start and a plan must have evolved to put me out of action so that he could carry on his illegal activities until the current project had ended. Then he'd disappear somewhere ... possibly South America or perhaps an Island somewhere in the Bahamas. We knew he'd conducted some of his operations from those places.
After saying something to one of his men, Uma turned and coming over, he filled us in on our status. All the false friendliness had disappeared and he looked at us with his eyes going from me to Allie and back to me. We had been tumbled in exactly the same way the British Secret Service had pinned him down and this aspect was achieved with 'pure intelligence.' Explaining to us with what seemed like pride in his voice, Uma explained that his spies were well represented in the border points that admitted diplomatic personnel, security agents, and everyday visitors be they men, women or children. After letting on that we were completely disposable, he explained how his organisation had spent three years installing one of their spies into a key Whitehall position which had benefitted them to the extent that photographic records had found their way out of various high officials' offices and branches of law enforcement. Uma's agents, some of whom frequented entry points, were trained in recognizing people whose looks belied their overall appearance. Dark glasses were a giveaway and attracted a more detailed examination of the person's gait and general disposition. Most people, Uma explained to us, altered their facial characteristics but didn't bother too much about changing hand colouration or perhaps their disguise was of a slightly older individual whose body kinetics didn't quite fit in with their persona. He looked at us shrewdly.
"Your branch has been a thorn in our sides for some years, Cunningham and that thorn is about to be drawn. I am sorry but your attractive wife will have to suffer whatever fate that may befall you."
"How do you mean?" I asked.
"Simple. You will both be eliminated after our work ends in this area."
Allie's arm was around me and I felt her start when Uma referred to us as if he was about to swat a couple of annoying flies.
"Look here, Uma," I said. "You're on the radar, they know I'm here. They'll put two and two together and before you know it ..."
"No!" he rasped. "You won't be found ... there'll be no corpus delecti. You'll simply vanish. We have people on our team who specialize in disposing of and agent who might threaten our operations, especially police officers, and those persons also take care of any legal connections. Sorry Cunningham old chap but you're too dangerous to be allowed freedom and as for your children, they too will be hunted down and disposed of."
I looked at him aghast.
"What do you mean 'disposed of?' You're not telling me you'd assassinate kids?"
Uma suddenly looked quite mad. He gazed at us both, but his eyes went over our heads as he drawled,
"I leave no loose ends whatsoever. It's the only way to survive."
I was about to ask him exactly what he had in mind for our precious children but couldn't bring myself to put the question. Allie clung to me and started sobbing quietly; I stroked her hair trying to convey whatever confidence I could muster up whilst recalling every fact available that could possibly help us escape this madman. We stood there while Jallie approached us and tied our hands with lengths of rope. As this was going on I could swear there was someone else nearby because muffled sounds seemed to be coming from further over where there were clumps of bushes. Had Tala or Oola been discovered by Uma's men and put out of action? Whether or not this was the case didn't really matter because we could do nothing. Any planning was useless until we found out where we were to be held between now and the date Uma sewed up his operations.
Allie and I were prodded into our own launch by Kovar and shoved in the cabin with a threat: if we tried escaping, the men wouldn't hesitate to shoot. There was nothing we could do but sit on the padded bench that ran round one of the walls. Allie looked at me, studying my face to see if I was about to do something remarkable but, right now, that was out of the question.
"Nothing!" I answered to her unspoken question. "We'll just have to wait Allie until l know exactly where we're going and what kind of place it'll be. If we're locked up somewhere there's a chance Uma won't place a guard with us because he has only three others with him at present."
By now I was mad as a hornet and promised her there and then we'd escape somehow - I had to make reassurances because she looked so scared.
"If we're locked up Allie, I'll get us out don't you worry."
The slightest relief passed over her face when she heard me say that. After all the chances might be that if we were secured in a room or shed, I'd be able to use concealed picks to break out although I didn't let on that, as I was such hot property, they might decide to keep a guard outside wherever we might be imprisoned.
Why were they taking our boat? We wondered about that and decided Uma wanted to get rid of any connecting evidence so that it wouldn't feature in any future investigation. After a discussion of sorts, the mooring ropes were untied, the engine started up, and soon we were heading off down the river, possibly heading towards a place I'd heard Uma mention a few times to one of his men - 'Wooti.' There was nothing to do at the present moment but wait and it was an extremely uncomfortable wait with our hands still tied. I'd asked Uma to at least undo the binding round Allie's hands, adding that she wouldn't release mine at all but he'd just given a sinister laugh as we were shoved into the cabin. Looking out of the window we watched small lit-up settlements gliding past us. The study I'd made of our maps gave a fair indication that one place we passed was probably Suq Al-Shuyukh or 'Hoa' as it's known locally. I figured that Wooti would be a two or three hour journey at least, so informing Allie of my calculation we settled ourselves as comfortably as possible and actually managed to doze in fits.
By and by the motor noise lessened and looking out of the porthole we could see a jetty with pools of light as we drifted slowly towards a bank. Shouts were heard and then the door opened with a crash. Kovar and the scarred man rushed in and grabbed us both - literally - dragging us along the narrow passage to the deck. If I'd been able to get my hands free I would have knocked the chap who was handling Allie so roughly - into the middle of next week. She hardly murmured though and I think she didn't want to give the man any satisfaction that he'd bruised her. We were dragged onto the jetty and then pushed along a narrow track to where another car was waiting. Uma was nowhere to be seen. He'd organised our successful capture and had now disappeared; Uma is a highly organized criminal, which is probably why he's been so successful. We were stuffed into the car's back seat and once Uma's henchmen had climbed in the auto started up with a powerful roar and next moment we were speeding down the track that opened out onto a slightly wider roadway. One or two post lights allowed us to glimpse shacks, dilapidated houses and the odd building as we raced along. There was no traffic coming the other way although it wasn't surprising seeing the natives generally keep off the streets after dark. Couldn't see my watch so had to estimate that it was about two, or perhaps three in the morning.
I leaned against Allie and dispensed as much comfort as could possibly be given in the back of a car speeding to an unimaginable destiny.
Allie whispered in my ear.
"Bill. I keep thinking of the children. They'll be waiting for us. What will they think when they find we've disappeared? What can they do?"
I put my face close to her and dispensed whatever comfort I could summon up from past experiences."
"Allie. I've been thinking about that and possibilities exist but we'll talk them over when we get to wherever they're putting us. The car's slowing down," I observed.
It was indeed and as we cut speed there was some bumping and then hardly had we stopped when the door was wrenched open and we were ordered to get out and follow our captors down a nearby cart track. Stumbling along between them we eventually reached a fairly deserted clearing where a small solidly built shack loomed up in front of us. The door was opened, a switch activated, and we were thrust inside but not before I'd peered around and noticed the lit windows of a larger building standing in the distance behind a line of trees. One of the men cut our bonds whilst the other held his gun on us. If they hadn't have been armed I would have taken great pleasure in strangling both of them and I could have done that quite easily. Allie's brave, and she didn't let out a whimper as her bonds were removed. We rubbed our wrists and looked at the men.
The one named Kovar spoke in his accented voice,
"You stay here."
He looked closely at us both then shook his head, whatever that was supposed to mean. Perhaps it was his way of conveying we were soon to be proved expendable.
"Later may bring food - if you no trouble."
He moved outside and shut the door. As we stood there, the sound of a bolt could be heard sliding into its socket.
We looked at our surroundings - a wide couch with one or two blankets on it, a bench on which there was just an aluminum container, a cup, a tin of something, and several cloths or towels - all filthy. There were some rusty fittings above a metal sink that included a dirty tap and a thin pipe that ran up the wall to a fitting in which a single bulb was attached. The single decoration - a picture featuring some Eastern city, possibly Baghdad, had fallen to the floor and lay there with the glass smashed. Altogether, not a pretty sight.
We sat down on the couch and I rubbed Allie's arms vigorously, then after we'd spent a few minutes examining each other for bruises and cuts and generally tidying ourselves up, she put her arms round me and we sat there thinking to ourselves for a few moments, before she brought up what I'd previously said.
"Bill. What did you mean about 'possibilities' when we were in the car?"
It had been a desperate attempt to supply a little hope and as her eyes searched my face, I explained to her what had come to mind.
"Allie, think back. According to Uma, the children are still free so what's going to happen? We haven't returned so the guess would have been that we were going to be late back so, after waiting up for a while, they'd have gone off to bed. Today they'll have discovered we still haven't come back so what'll they do?"
Allie's face clouded a little when she thought of the kids' reaction to being alone once again in a strange country.
"They're never short of ideas, Bill. They're resourceful and maybe, just maybe, they'd rely on their own abilities first before searching out some official whom, one never knows, could be in the pay of Uma and his cronies."
"Right on, Allie. They've relied on their noses and intuition before today so the chances of them also being wary towards any official are high - in fact, when we were Sinny-Town I heard Philip telling the others that a policeman he'd happened to catch a glimpse of looked like a Mafia chieftain."
Just then we heard what sounded like a door being banged in the distance and guessed the men who'd brought us here were staying in the house overnight. Perhaps Uma would be joining them later on. After our appraisal of the children's capabilities, Allie looked much happier and she snuggled up to me while I continued telling her what I thought might happen. She definitely relaxed more when listening to something positive.
"If they rule out any police intervention for the present, what will they do?" I asked.
"Search for us?"
"My bet is - that's exactly what they'll do, Allie. Besides they owe me one."
"How do you mean?"
Momentarily, Allie's thoughts were distracted from the dire position we were in ... and it was dire. I believed Uma's announcement - he'd snuff us both out just as one swats a mosquito and, if he could locate the kids, there'd no compunctions about eliminating them as well. I remembered back to the contents of a file I'd read on Mr. Raya Uma and some of the info was strictly 'not nice.'
"Allie, I've been involved in rescuing them from situations before and my count would be at least three."
Allie considered this statement, frowning as she remembered back to earlier times. Right at this moment it was more as if we were at home discussing a crossword puzzle clue and that's what I wanted - to take her mind away from the present.
"When you met them?"
"Yep. They became involved, and ended up in trouble when my assignment and their holiday together with the children's natural curiosity, crossed paths. I had to extricate them from a dangerous situation although at the end it was our sheer good luck we managed to exit those mines on the island we visited."
"You were with them."
"Actually, it wasn't so much a rescue from 'yours truly,' but you know what I mean."
"Of course Bill, and that time in Scotland was definitely a rescue. Also we can't overlook their adventure in Wales.
"Capel Curig! Definitely a rescue, and then again - what about the time they were kidnapped and taken to that principality in Romania?"
"What was its name?"
Allie asked the question as if we were holding a quiz with the kids.
"Hessia. See Allie, they owe me one, or two, or more."
"They rescued you from that awful Cosmo Loukas and his associates. Those gun-runners, remember?"
How could I forget? That was a priceless period in our lives and for the thousandth time I thought back to the selflessness of our four kids.
"Lucy-Ann. Little faint-hearted Lucy-Ann right in there with them all ..."
" ... and remember what they told us about how she volunteered to be literally thrown out of a plane in order to protect Philip?" Allie said.
"Back to Wales! No ... definitely can't forget that Allie, and going on those past episodes if they're still free we can be more than sure to hear from them somehow, somewhere."
Allie nodded, and cheered up some more. She speculated ...
"Philip leading a retinue of snakes."
"Why not? Or perhaps Jack and a colony of eagles swooping down from above to harass and disorientate our enemies."
" ... and there's always Kiki."
"Allie, when you think back to how often Kiki has got those kids out of a mess, our faith in them has to grow that much stronger."
Perhaps we were jousting at windmills but at least Allie's attention had been momentarily diverted from whatever fate might await us.
More light-hearted banter was traded and we began feeling more confident that tomorrow would bring along an opportunity or two that might help us to escape. We were lying down now, embracing each other when suddenly I noticed Allie was asleep. We were both tired out and shortly after, I fell into a doze as well.