What not to wear – In the den of the weasel – Persuasion – Breaking and entering – Down the White Nile
When travelling in inhospitable places, dangers can be classified as either environmental, natural, or man-made. Environmental hazards include prevailing weather, terrain, obstacles. One can prepare for these at home, by doing the research and availing oneself of the appropriate equipment. Natural hazards include wild animals, poisonous vegetation, air-borne diseases, insects. Even when prepared, one still needs to watch for these while travelling. Man-made dangers are worse, because they actively try to prevent one from noticing them, and will display considerable intelligence in doing so. To shield oneself from these, one needs to match that intelligence with one’s own.
Woman-made dangers, I am proud to say, are the worst of all. Do not bother trying to prepare for them. If you are in her sights, you are doomed.
— Alexandra Tennant, The young lady’s adventuring guide
I retired to my cabin to change into the only outfit I had that would be suitable to influence uncooperative civil servants. Since this was my blue dress and corset, I was less than enthusiastic. Nonetheless, I strapped myself into this device that, I am sure, is meant specifically to keep women from breathing properly. I found my small case of rouge, lip colour, eyebrow pencils, powder, nail varnish, and all the other things a woman needs to make herself suitable to the public gaze. I have seen other women apply these things at an incredible speed, like a veteran soldier straps on his armour and loads his weapon. I am not one of these women, since I seldom bother. I looked at myself in the mirror. Carl, I am sure, would have removed an imaginary hat, bowed deep, and offered me his arm, calling me ‘Milady’. Carl was one of the few men I would suffer to call me that. He was also one of the few to call me Alex. Even Father always called me by my full name. I suppose he was the one who gave it to me.
As I stood in front of the small mirror, to see that all was in order, there was a loud knock on the door, a knock not expecting to be kept waiting. I opened the door to find Riley there. He looked me over once from top to bottom, then looked back into my eyes.
“Take that off,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You ain’t coming with me dressed like that. I’ve got clothes for you. You go out into Kharthoum like that, you ain’t coming home. People here like their women to dress decent.”
“And are you implying that I am not? I’ll have you know that in England…”
“We’re not in England, even the London Underground don’t reach here. You go out here with your hair in plain sight, your waist all tucked in, your tits and ass sticking out, and your face painted like that, men are going to think you’re a whore, and treat you as such.”
He gave me a bundle of dark cloth that turned out to be a long shapeless black dress, and a head scarf.
“Put this on. Wear the head scarf, leave off the veil, I want him to see how sad you look. This is what decent women wear here.” He grinned in a most unpleasant way. “Unless you want them to rape you. This place. Woman gets raped in England, and everyone is all over her with sympathy and cups of tea while the lynch mob gets ready to cut the guy’s balls off. Here? She gets a hundred lashes and then is put to death for having sex outside of marriage.”
“You have obviously never been to England,” I said. “If a woman is assaulted there, you cannot hear yourself for the men claiming that she probably asked for it. In connection with which, I am about to remove my clothes, so get the hell out of my cabin.”
I slammed the door in front of him, and threw the dress on my bed. Then I removed my corset, so I could seethe properly. Insufferable man. I went to the sink and washed my face, looked at my reflection in the mirror. I opened my trunk, folded up and stowed the blue dress that apparently made me look like a prostitute. I got out my all-environment suit instead. The first time I put it on, I swore I would never take it off again. It is a skin-tight over-all suit, the colour of a moonless night. It keeps me warm even in the snow, and cool even in an African jungle. It is amazingly comfortable. I have worn it when climbing mountains, when walking through deserts, and once even while swimming. It didn’t keep me dry, but when I got out of the Scottish loch I found myself in for reasons unnecessary to mention, it took only half an hour to dry. This suit was, is my armour. I always feel stronger, more capable, wearing it. Perhaps there was something in that fool Riley’s comment on underwear, but frills don’t inspire me.
I picked up the black dress and looked at it. It covered me from head to toe, and it had a hood and a veil. Only a woman’s eyes would show when wearing it, to keep her away from the gaze of men, so they would not be tempted by her. I felt an old familiar anger, one that is with me at all times, in the background of my thoughts. I channel it in times of trouble, and it never fails to drive me. I put on the dress, pulled the hood over my hair and, just to see, put on the veil as well. I looked at myself in the mirror, shook my head, dropped the veil on the bed, and stepped out of my cabin door to join Riley.
Riley took me to one of the diplomatic areas of Khartoum, but instead of walking to the front of one of the large buildings, he went round the back, and knocked on a door that had the feeling about it of the artist’s entrance of a theatre. It was opened by a woman wearing the same kind of dress I was wearing. Riley barked an order at her, and she turned round. The woman led us to one of the doors, knocked. A voice inside answered in Arabic. The woman walked away and Riley opened the door. I followed him into a small, untidy office where a fat man sat at a desk littered with papers. He put down his tea and grinned at Riley.
“Al salam wo alukom, Riley,” said the man.
“Wo alukom al salam, Samir,” said Riley. “Kaf al shogol?”
“Tamam al tamam,” said the man named Samir.
I am fluent enough in Arabic to understand the pleasantries Riley was exchanging with this man, but they were speaking a local variant that I found hard to follow, and after a minute or so I gave up. I caught the word Achu meaning Brother, and Yumès for Mother. After that it turned into a meaningless wall of sound.
Carl was a few years older than I, and together we went through the evolutionary phases of being absolute horrors to each other, then the possessive where you take exception to anyone else tormenting your sibling, then on to an uneasy cease-fire, and finally uniting against the world. More or less at that time, Father’s work turned from the theoretical to the practical, and he set out to chart West African settlements and architecture, hoping to prove that Africans had crossed the Atlantic before even the journey of Leif Eriksson, a theory that one of his elder colleagues had advanced, but had been unable to substantiate. Father and Mother pulled us out of school, put us on board of a ship bound for the Côte d’Ivoire, and continued our education under way. It is quite something to be taught adding up by a university professor, history from one of the leading experts, biology from none other than the ‘least intelligent’ of Charles Darwin’s children, or as we called him, Uncle Leonard. The darker events of those days, the bloodshed, the wars, mostly passed us by as we sailed along the beautiful coast of Africa, that the Europeans and English had given names such as “Gold coast”, “Ivory Coast”, and more sinister, “Slave coast”, after the goods that could be obtained there. Thankfully, those names have now been abandoned, but still, we should remember them.
It was an age of enlightenment as well as an age of turmoil. For a pair of children in their early teens, there could not be a greater adventure, and we travelled with Father and Mother for several years. As soon as we were able, Father gave us jobs to do. Carl was taught how to navigate and draw charts, an apprentice to the ship’s navigator. I was taught the correct way to load and unload our ship, and soon could see without measuring where to put crates and barrels with the greatest efficiency. Both Carl and I learnt to perform repairs on our barque, both to the sails and to the woodwork. I vividly remember hanging over the sides in bosun’s chairs painting the hull of the ship and heartily singing along with the sailors. The actual meaning of the songs went completely over our heads. To Carl and me, this was paradise.
The apple of knowledge of good and evil came to us on a trek into Angola, where our expedition was attacked by bandits. We managed to drive them off with superior firepower and sheer determination, but Mother received a gunshot wound. Despite our best efforts, the wound became infected, and she succumbed to fever a week later. Her bones lie in an unmarked grave somewhere along the Kasai river. We could not carry her body back to our ship, and we were still being pursued.
When our ship finally set sail to the South, Father stood at the railing, silent. The next morning he told us we would be travelling back to England on the next ship going our way. He explained to us that to put Carl or me in danger again would be more than his conscience would allow him.
We travelled back to England, and entered a respectable boarding school, until we were old enough to set out on our own. Carl soon followed in Father’s footsteps, producing many accounts of the people along the East coast of Africa. I went with him as often as not, but this time not as a young girl, but as a fully-fledged explorer. At school, I had joined the rifle club and learnt to put a bullet into any object up to a mile away. I did not go with Carl on all his expeditions, only the ones that involved studying indigenous people. Geological expeditions such as Hammond’s only bored me, and were usually among the least dangerous.
The events in Angola had robbed us of our naive good trust in our fellow humans. Carl and other members of the expedition would walk into a new village while I stayed back, ready with my rifle. Generally, Africans are kind, friendly, generous people. How many English people would invite total strangers, with unfamiliar faces, into their home and share their meals with them?
We ran into the other kind only twice. Once, I could scare them away by shooting out one of their lanterns. The other time, I had to kill a man who had Carl at gunpoint. It scared me how easy it was to pull the trigger and watch the man’s head explode. I expected to feel remorse. I expected to break down in tears, but nothing of the sort ever happened. My greatest fear was that the man would pull the trigger in a muscle reflex and kill Carl. I felt a strange emotional detachment from the question whether he would have pulled the trigger, or not. Whether he needed to die. I thought he did, and that was that.
The Hammond expedition was supposed to be a boring one. Endless digging for various kinds of rock, little or no involvement with the locals. I would have been reduced to a simple guard. And now, the expedition had vanished. Spirited away into the African jungle. Though there was no way I could have known, I was not there to watch over my big brother. I was not looking over his shoulder, crosshairs on the face of the man who might or might not try to kill him. I might never see him again. Many expeditions have vanished without a trace in the uncharted wilderness of Africa, but why did it have to be his? And why was I not there to protect him?
I blinked, and focused on Riley and his friend. They were looking at me. For a moment, I wished I had put on the veil after all, but then I steeled myself and looked at the functionary. I knew better than to speak. He turned to Riley, and whispered something in his ear. Riley gave a small nod. I noticed his hand on the table, pushing a brown, thick envelope underneath a stack of papers. He looked at me, jerked his head in the direction of the door. In my role of meek female, I pulled my hood further over my face and got up. He put his hand on my back, as if pushing me out of the door. A few moments later, we were outside again.
“Well done, my girl, well done. You played the role of a bereaved sister very well. For a beginner.”
I looked at him. “I was not acting,” I said. “I really don’t know where my brother is, and whether he is alive or dead.”
“If you say so,” said Riley. “But you aren’t as feeble as you make yourself out to be. Give me some time, and I’ll turn you into a first-class actor.”
“That would no doubt get me many roles in the Ipswich Shakespearean Society.”
“Oh damn those amateurs on the stage. If they mess up a job, they get peanuts thrown at them. If I mess up, I get shot. If I’m lucky. If I’d play Hamlet there, I’d scare the bejesus out of them.”
“Oh I don’t know,” I said. “I rather fancy you in the role of Yorick.”
Riley laughed. “High praise, Milady.”
“You do know who Yorick is, don’t you?”
“You said ‘I rather fancy you’, and then I stopped listening.”
“My gorge rims at it,” I said.
We walked down an alley, and went to a public bath house. We sat down at a table in a small tea house, watching the exit.
“We’re looking for a woman in a dark dress,” said Riley, a small smile on his face.
“Obviously,” I said.
“But this woman will be accompanied by a short fat little man wearing a fez, and a purple suit. She’ll be arriving in one of those showy carts. When she does, you will follow her into the bath house.”
“Do I follow her into the bath?”
“You can if you want to. Some of those masseuses are very good at their jobs.” The look in his eyes made my stomach turn. “But your job is to tell this woman that Riley wants a word with her. Tell her to meet me in the back of the tea room. Don’t follow her in here, or she’ll bolt.”
I turned my eyes to the entrance of the bath house. “Who is she?”
“She is the young wife of Mr. Bouzid Moghadam’s son. My friend Samir told me they have our trunk in their cellar. Our girl is going to leave a window open so we can get into Moghadam’s mansion and get what we need.”
“Why would she do a thing like that?”
Riley laughed quietly. “Because I can tell her husband that she has a desert rose tattooed on the inside of her thigh. He’s not going to appreciate it if he ain’t the only one to know that.”
I frowned. “Tattoos are haram to a Muslim. Not done. How come she has one?”
“She became a Muslim to marry young Mr. Moghadam. You don’t have to remove them if you already had them. Probably a sign of purity or some of that nonsense. Well, she ain’t as pure as she likes to be anymore.”
I felt a chill along my spine, looking at Riley’s face. He frowned.
“Not me, you stupid girl. Got dragged into an alley by two guys. I happened by and heard her screaming. Lucky thing I did.”
“Leapt to her rescue, did you?”
“Hell yeah. Shot them both. Cleaned the blood off her and covered her up. Cutthroats you can get a nickel a piece here, but diplomat’s wives are… special.”
“So unless she does what you say…”
“Yep,” said Riley, “you’re catching my drift. She’ll be in the dog house. In the bowls.”
“You are a loathsome toad,” I said. “I’ll have no part in this. Go find her yourself.”
“Me? Go into a women’s bath house? And besides.” He lowered his voice. “You want to see your brother again, don’t you? Then get on with it.”
I glared at him, but he was right. He pointed across the street.
“There she is. Get going.”
I followed the woman into the bath house. There were several large rectangular baths with steps to get in. Steam was rising from them, and I could smell traces of sulphur. These baths were probably fed by an underground spring. I watched the woman walk up to an unoccupied bath and disrobe. She was very beautiful, perhaps twenty-five years old, slender, with a deep brown skin and long black hair, which she wore in a thick plait. She took off a heavy gold necklace and gold bracelets, which she placed on a small table. Before she walked up the steps, and lowered herself into the bath, she looked round carefully, without taking much notice of me. She closed her eyes, and leaned back her head. I walked up behind her.
“Ma’am,” I said, in Arabic. “Someone wishes to speak with you, in the tea house across the street. His name is Riley.”
As I mentioned the name, she gasped, and hunched her shoulders in fear. She kept her eyes closed, not wanting to see me.
“Will you be there?” I said.
She nodded quickly, and I walked away. I swallowed away the bad taste in my mouth. We would not ask her to do anything to harm her family. All we wanted were the papers in the trunk. All I wanted was to find Carl. What had happened to her? What exactly had Riley done to her? There was no way to tell. I walked across the street, and nodded at Riley, who went inside to wait for Mrs. Moghadam. I sat down at another table, back to the street, and had another glass of tea. A little while later, I looked over my shoulder to see the woman walk into the tea house. Only a few minutes passed, and she came out again, found her servant with her cart and left. Riley walked up to my table.
“All set up. God, she’s pretty isn’t she? Maybe when this trip is done, I’ll set myself up here for a while. See if she has a sister or something.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Are we done here?”
Riley briefly looked into my eyes, then looked away.
“Yeah. Let’s get back to Boreas.”
Captain Gaskin walked into the forward lounge carrying a wooden trunk bound with iron. He dropped it on the floor with a thud that made everyone wince, loaded as it was with explosives.
“As you can see, Ladies and Gentlemen, these trunks won’t blow up if you just drop ’em.”
He produced a key and unlocked the trunk. Then, he pointed at one of the rivets.
“Take a good look at that, Miss Tennant. Second from the top. Press it and hold it down until the lid is all the way open. If you don’t…”
“Boom,” I said.
“Exactly. One of Professor Pabodie’s undergrads forgot it once. Only once. Now inside, there’s an attache case that will contain the papers we need. I’m not expecting anything else in there. Once you’re done, close it again. You re-arm the explosives by keeping that same rivet pressed down while you close the lid, but in the interest of not blowing up the Governor’s mansion, I suggest you just close it.” He handed me a key. “That’ll open Hammond’s trunk. Which rivet are you going to press?”
I pointed. “That one.”
“Good. It’s almost dark. Time to get going.”
Nazeem stepped forward, bowed to us.
“You will have need of the powers of Nazeem. This, it was given me to know. Nazeem will go with you, and aid you as he can.”
Before we left, Riley came to my cabin with a map of the mansion. I was to climb up the wall to an unused bedroom, down two flights of stairs, and the trunk would be in the cellar, waiting for me.
“Think you can do that? I’d come with, but I ain’t as nimble as I used to be.”
“I think I can,” I said.
Riley handed me a small revolver. “Don’t be afraid to use this. You don’t want to get caught.”
Riley looked at me with a cold look in his eyes. “You’ve got five bullets. Save the last one for yourself. Can’t escape, bite down on that barrel and pull the trigger. I’m not kidding.”
“Trust me, I am not planning on getting caught.”
“Damn it, girl. If you get caught, they’ll throw you into one of their cellars and torture you in ways so depraved they make even me sick. Then when they’ve wrung every bit of information and entertainment out of you, they’ll either stone you to death in public or drown you in acid.”
“You have a vivid imagination, Mr. Riley.”
“I’ve seen them do it! They shackled her hands behind her back, because ropes dissolve too fast. Then they dropped her in a big urn filled with sulphuric acid. She stopped screaming after five minutes, stopped struggling after thirty. Stopped moving after an hour, and then they pushed her under with a metal pole to finish her. That happen to you, dive under and drink deep, is what their torturer told me.”
“And you didn’t lift a finger to help her,” I said.
“Why? I caught her. Don’t get caught. Don’t get caught alive.”
Mr. Moghadam’s mansion was a bit away from the noise of the city, and it was huge. There was a high wall round it. I took a little run-up, and jumped up, grabbing the top of the wall with metal hooks, just in case these nice people had embedded broken glass in the top. I dropped a rope ladder down on the other side of the wall, then climbed down. I hid in the shadows cast by the light of the moon. A few moments later, Riley and Nazeem joined me. Riley turned to Nazeem.
“You stay back here and keep watch. The lady and I go up to the house. We’ll be back in thirty minutes.”
“As you wish,” said Nazeem. He sat down with his back against the wall, and all but disappeared in the shadow.
Riley and I ran towards the mansion, then round a corner till we came to window that was almost completely closed. Riley jerked his head up. I gave him a nod, stretched, looked for handholds, then made my way up. The window opened easily and without a noise, and I made my way inside, closing the window behind me.
“Al salam wo alukom,” said a female voice behind me.
I whirled round, groping for my revolver. I stopped. In a chair in the dark sat the wife of Mr. Moghadam’s son.
“Aleikum Salam,” I said, finally.
“You are very pretty,” said the woman. “Are you Riley’s whore?” She spoke English, with only a slight accent.
“I assure you. I’m not Riley’s whore.”
“Don’t be offended,” she said. “I am. What he says, I must do. Riley has many whores. Men and women.”
“He’s only helping me find my brother,” I said.
In the dark, I could just see her smile. “He is very helpful, is he not? Soon, you will wonder how you ever got along without him. You are in grave danger.”
“Are you going to raise the alarm?”
She shook her head. “No. I don’t want you taken. You may know things that could hurt me. Beware of James Riley. He is not a good man.”
“I know,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” she said. “What is it that you want?”
“Hammond’s expedition chest. It may lead us to my brother.”
“Ah. It’s in the basement. The cellar door is never locked. Take your papers, and get out of my home. May you find your brother safe and well. Family is important.”
“Thank you,” I said.
There were only a few oil lanterns casting a dim light throughout the house. I had expected guards, but I didn’t see any. Nothing stirred. I found the cellar. The door was open, and inside, I found the chest. It all seemed too, too easy, but there was nothing to do but open it, get the papers, get out again. I unlocked the trunk, and opened it carefully. Inside were rock samples, and several small statues made of silver. I took one out, and looked at it a moment. It was a hunter figure with a long spear, stylised, beautifully made. Bastards, I thought. I opened the briefcase, took out the papers and put them inside my suit. I closed the trunk, and after a moment’s hesitation, didn’t lock it. They should be able to reclaim their property.
I walked up the stairs, and opened the cellar door, slipped out, and made for the bedroom through which I’d entered. As I was halfway up the stairs, I heard a sudden loud voice shouting at me in Arabic. I ran up the stairs, pulling out my revolver. If the man at the bottom of the stairs had a weapon, I was done for, but I made the top of the stairs. I ran into the bedroom through which I’d entered. The woman was gone, and I made a run for the window, when someone strong grabbed me from behind. I raised my revolver and fired into the air with a frightful bang. The man let go and leapt behind the bed. I vaulted through the window, and landed on the grass in the courtyard, rolled over once and was back on my feet. As I ran for the wall, there was a shot behind me and the vicious buzz of a bullet passing some two yards to my right. As I watched, Riley pulled out his own revolver, aimed, and fired several rounds. More people came running out of the house. I could hear Riley running behind me, but I reached Nazeem and the rope ladder first. I clambered up. Riley climbed up behind me. Nazeem’s voice rang out.
“Go to the ship. Nazeem will delay our enemies, and join you there. Take the ladder and go.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but Riley pulled up the ladder and dropped it on the floor.
“Come on, go! Boreas will leave when we’re on board.”
“What about Nazeem?” I said.
“Either he’s dead or he’s working for them. Run!”
Riley and I ran side by side through the streets of Khartoum to the harbour. Boreas had dropped one of its cables, and we had to run to catch the rope ladder. As I was half way up, I looked over my shoulder to see a dark figure running towards us, with a curious gait.
“Nazeem!” I shouted.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Riley.
Nazeem reached the ladder and with an enormous effort pulled himself up. In the streets behind, several men came running. Boreas‘ propellers started to spin, hydrogen hissed through the pipes and we were pulled aloft, and away. We all climbed up and were pulled inside by a dozen hands.
Nazeem lay flat on his back, his brown skin almost grey, breathing deep. He looked up.
“Nazeem has put forth all the strength of his spirit. He must rest now.”
Riley looked at me. “Got the stuff?”
“Then Nazeem can have a nap.”
I was sitting in the observation lounge, nursing a large gin and tonic with Professor Enderby. Beneath me, gleaming in the light of the moon, ran the White Nile. The papers I’d given Captain Gaskin did contain Hammond’s last known location, some fifty miles east of a place called Kodok. Our next stop. We had looked behind us for a while, but we were not being pursued, and anyway, Boreas was faster than most dirigibles. I thought of the young woman back in Khartoum, and silently raised my glass to her.
“Be well,” I said, quietly.
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.