Sunset Over CairobyAlexis Haines©
Sunset Over Cairo
A black kite wails through the cooling air as evening falls over the great plain of Gizeh. Beneath the sinking sun, the dull dirt landscape glows in momentary splendor. Shadows lengthen as the black kite plunges, and a tiny shriek of death goes unnoticed on the plain.
To the east in Cairo's old quarter, Masr al-Qadima, a clear-eyed muadhdhin prepares to climb the winding stairs of a golden minaret. Shadows snap to black in an instant as the sun finally dies, leaving behind soft kisses of purple and champagne. From Amr Ibn al-Aas, the Crown of Mosques, the oldest mosque built upon Egypt's ancient land, the soulful cry of the muadhdhin calls to the faithful.
Cerulean blue deepens to indigo as the last echoes of the sunset fade, and the silt-brown flowing waters of the Nile are quiet. In the middle of the river sits the flat, broadly tapering island of Gezirat Boulaq. The island sits between Gizeh and Masr al-Qadima, between the death dealing talons of the black kite and the life summons of the muadhdhin. As the divided river gently caresses the island's sides, lights appear from inside the Gezira Sporting Club. In 1922, its patrons are in palm-decked twilight, precariously suspended between death and life, in Cairo's divided worlds.
Frances Shanley strode easily beside her husband along tree lined Avenue Zamalek. She was happy, despite two minor irritations. Her fashionable, short-brimmed cloche hat sat so low over her forehead it was impossible to look across the street discreetly; and Allan insisted on walking on the 'outside'. So she had to lean backwards, raise her chin, and peer down her nose to take in the view. There were two reactions; the first was a fierce glare from the dark skinned sentry outside the high-walled building. The second was Allan's firm hand between her shoulder blades pushing her upright. He, of course, kept his eyes forward.
"The reason for the high walls is that the Sirdar does not like people peering in."
"The Sirdar. Hmm. Major-General Sir Oliver Fitzmorris (Lee) Stack, governor-general of the Sudan and commander-general of the Egyptian army."
"So who is Major Parker Jones?"
"Bertie's a friend of father's; retired from the Army now. He has a sinecure with the Egyptian State Railway. Old boy's rather high up, you know; not quite Cabinet level, but pretty damn close. He's an interesting chap. Built rail all over Indian and Burma. Give him half a chance, and he'll tell you the whole history of the Royal Engineers."
"Oh." Three minor irritations. Allan and Frances were on their way to meet the Major and his wife for lunch. "So, how do we get to Shepheard's Hotel? Do we walk the whole way? I'm getting hungry."
"There's a tram stop just past the Sirdaria. Frances, please stop looking. And do be nice to Bertie and Edith for me. Bertie pulled strings to get us the villa, and Edith is dying to meet you. She's the club matriarch; let her take you under her wing, and you'll be settled in no time. You'll see."
Frances had loved Villa Zohria on sight. Her new semi-detached home on Shagaret el-Dor Street was modern, bright, and well maintained. It had the lushest garden she had ever seen, a boon to her English heart. Thanks to his father's connections, Allan had acquired the lease three weeks ago, shortly after he arrived; this was Frances' second day in Cairo, and her first outing. Her only connection was Allan, if she didn't count the children next door.
The adjoining residence, also called Villa Zohria, was leased by a Swiss couple from Lausanne. Dr. Georg Veillon and his wife, Margrit, had been quick to welcome Allan when he first moved in. Their three boisterous children had likewise wasted no time in getting to meet Frances. They had introduced themselves that morning through the time honored expedient of an errant ball lobbed over the boxwood hedge. If the immaculate streets and the Veillons were anything to go by, the Gezira suburb would do nicely.
She would have preferred to have spent the day alone with her husband; Allan would report to the Ministry of Finance in just three short days. But she understood. They could not snub an old friend of 'pater' and the doyenne of ex-patriot society. Frances grimaced as she remembered her mother's parting words at Southampton docks, just a few short days before: "Best foot forward, Frances; don't let the side down".
She had told her the same thing on her first morning with the Red Cross, during the Great War. She had been 18 when she volunteered. Sheltered and over socialized, like all the daughters of the upper class before the war, Frances had taken heart from her mother's words. Six years later, the sights and sounds of the wounded and dying were still with her. Slow circling teaspoons would bring back memories of winding bandages around fetid stumps of limbs, and any high sound would recall the torturous screams that echoed through the wards. In her dreams, sometimes, the screams were her own.
Frances often told herself she was happy, despite the minor irritations; but since the war, she had never again taken heart from her mother's favorite expression.
Nicolas Phillipides sat in unaffected ease in a fine grey suit and matching trilby, on the most famous terrace in Cairo. Overlooking Ibrahim Pasha Street, the Shepheard's Hotel terrace spread broadly for its languishing guests. Potted palms, white wicker, and scrolling iron made an elegant setting for the Europeans who gathered there, to see and be seen. Along the terrace front, the city's best-kept carriages and horses waited patiently on their bidding. A few blunt-nosed cars chugged past the neat line of gharrys. Boys in white turbans kept up a practiced chatter as they polished the soft leather slippers of men in light blue, nightshirt galabeyahs, brown western-style jackets, and red flowerpot tarbush hats. Expecting to be shooed away at any moment, they worked quickly for their few piastres.
There were nine, wide steps between the sidewalk and the top of the terrace. Nine steps between two very separate worlds. To most of the inhabitants of those two worlds, the distance the steps traversed was immeasurable; but not to Nicolas Phillipides.
Nicolas had an acute grasp of measurement. Commodities prices, tonnage and the capacity of ships' holds, distances and times of delivery; they were all pieces of a puzzle, and he could fit them together like none other of his time. When the pieces fit, his company made money.
The Phillipides had a lot of money; they were part of the protoklassatoi, the old money families of the Greek community. Nicolas' grandfather had started the company as an Alexandrian dragoman, when Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire. Stratis Phillipides had been a guide, a man of many languages with an almost miraculous ability to procure anything, at any time, for and from anyone. Many of the old-time dragomans made enough money to go into the hotel business. Stratis Phillipides went into shipping.
At 34, Nicolas had developed all of his grandfather's talents. From his father, he had inherited the wealth and ships of the Alexandrian Traders Company. It was in his father's time, when the American Civil War blockades brought the British to the Egyptian cotton market, that the Phillipides had expanded.
The ability to read the writing on the wall had helped secure their success. Sensing the coming shift of power from the Ottoman pashas to the British lords, they had grabbed a few of the latter for their own. And so it was that Nicolas sat patiently sipping coffee on the terrace of Shepheard's Hotel, while he waited for Lord Cecil Ashton. Lord Cecil was the company's current British front who, with his title and little else, helped smooth the way through British hegemony.
"Dashed sorry I'm late, Nic. How about a brandy and soda?" Lord Cecil dropped into a white wicker chair beside Nicolas and disinterestedly surveyed the carriages and passing traffic on the street. A sofragi in a long white galabeyah, black cummerbund, cropped black jacket and red tarbush appeared at their table. He waited with blank eyes for the lord's pleasure. Lord Cecil ignored him.
"A brandy and soda for my guest, min fadlak." Nicolas added his 'please' quietly, addressing it to the sofragi's cummerbund before looking up into his dark, impassive face. Nicolas saw the flash in the waiter's eyes. He would remember his face. Men, too, he could measure.
With an inner sigh, he turned his attention to the business at hand. Lord Cecil did little for his twenty percent, but he was not yet indispensable. Nicolas knew the time was coming when the Egyptian national assembly, the Wafd, would win their country's independence. The recent, hard won concessions were the beginning of the end for the British. By the time the occupation was truly over, his company would have its new allegiances in place. Nicolas would dispose of his British board members when the time was right. This one would be the first to go.
In the meantime, let the ingrate believe he was the superior man. Even the waiter knew the truth.
"…and you must let Bertie put you up for membership! You will, won't you Bertie?"
"Rather! You play croquet, Frances? The club's lawns are excellent. No rowing teams for you, Allan, old boy. Too many damned feluccas and barges. Your father told me you almost made the Oxford rowing list?"
"Didn't quite get my blue, Sir, but I did row for Christ Church during Eight's Week. That was when I met Frances." Allan took hold of his wife's hand under the table and gave it a squeeze. The Major and his wife had been talking non-stop, almost all of it addressed to Allan.
"Do you know, this lad got a first in Modern Greats, Edith! And you came highly recommended by the Home Office, I understand. Good show! You'll go far here, my boy," pronounced the Major.
"A sign of the highest talent and application, young man. Your mother must be very proud."
'I, on the other hand, just nursed the dying' thought Frances. Evidently Allan's academic study and three years pushing paper for the Home Office far outweighed her slice of life.
Feeling invisible, she tilted her head back and peered across the terrace; and caught a foreigner looking at her. He was tanned, clean shaven, with thick, black eyebrows above deep set, intensely dark eyes. She guessed he was Greek, from his sensuous mouth and slightly broad nose, with perhaps some Coptic ancestry in the fine boned hands. He lifted his hat in recognition of her interest. Two shanks of thick, shining black hair fell forward over his brow. The frank acknowledgment startled her; in response to which, his mouth spread in an almost imperceptible smile. She turned away quickly.
"…and I gained a substantive knowledge of contemporary politics and economics. What I hope will be useful is my training in data analysis and problem solving. There are complex social issues here. I would be glad of any advice you would care to give me, Major."
"Social issues, eh? I could tell you a few stories about those."
Frances was finally interested, and grateful for the distraction. "What happened in 1919, Major? The general strike and the riots, I mean."
Edith jumped in immediately. "Oh now, Frances, you mustn't worry. That was just a spot of trouble and it's all blown over now, hasn't it Bertie?"
"Oh Lord, yes! Lord Allenby's got 'em by the short and curlies." Frances kept a straight face for Edith's sake, but she liked the simile.
"Damn fine High Commissioner, Allenby. Wingate was Commissioner then; exiled that nationalist crew. Upstarts wanted to send a delegation to London! Powers-that-be decided exhile was the sensible thing; packed 'em off to Malta. A few disruptive elements got the gyppies all lathered up over that. Poor old Wingate couldn't hold it."
Major Parker Jones shook his craggy head and pursed his lips in disapproval of the inconveniences the "disruptive elements" had caused.
"Edith's quite right," he continued, "all over now. They're an easy-going lot usually. The truth is your average fellah is quite content if he has his coffee and a little hashish. No, I'm sorry the Foreign Office recalled Wingate, but I like the new man. The old boy's got horse sense; he won't stand for any riot nonsense! Egypt may be a monarchy now but, you mark my words, everyone knows who holds the real power."
"So, if we have the real power still, doesn't that make King Faud a puppet?"
Allan looked at his wife, astonished. Edith Parker Jones was visibly shocked. Surely the girl wasn't politically inclined? One heard such odd news about the 'bright young things'; holding radical views and drinking cocktails in London's West End clubs. She looked modern, but nothing outré. A little boyish, perhaps, and the painted lips and nails were rather bold. But there was a quiet, refined air about the girl.
Edith decided the girl was probably just trying to show an interest in her new home. Laudable. But even so, a few of the Egyptian elite were regular visitors to the club. They weren't members, of course; but one still had to know what to say around them. No, Frances Shanley would need a little guidance, but she would do.
Having made her assessment, Edith appraised the terrace guests. "Oh look, Bertie, Lord Cecil! He's with that Greek of his, what's his name? Philip? I've seen that fellow at the club a few times. I don't know who signs him in. Would Lord Cecil sign him in, Bertie?"
"Not sure. Could be just about anyone; chap seems well connected. Bit of a dark horse, if you ask me. Look out, they're coming over."
A tall, crumpled-looking Englishman was approaching their table. To Frances' astonishment, the foreigner with the dark eyes was with him.
"Major! Edith! Jolly good to see you both!"
"Cecil, old boy! How have you been? Haven't seen you since the Continental's last ball! You're looking well, old chap. Allow me to introduce Allan Shanley."
The younger man jumped to his feet. "Good afternoon, Lord Cecil."
The rules of etiquette were followed in a round of handshakes and the mystery of the Greek chap's name was finally resolved. However, since a lady was never presented to a man, Nicolas had not yet achieved the purpose for which he and Lord Cecil had come.
Conviviality being the Major's nature, Lord Cecil and Nicolas were immediately invited to join them. Discretely leaving the three Englishmen to gossip over the affairs of state, Nicolas took a seat beside the large, blousy Edith who was immediately taken with his charm.
"I want to tell you I have long admired your dedication to the Gezira community, Mrs. Parker Jones. You have an impressive civic spirit, if I may say so. Gezira is indebted to you."
"Oh! Well, I do think one should guide the less experienced, particularly the new arrivals. It does so make a difference to how they settle in."
"Very true; indeed, so many difficulties can be avoided with a little care from one's friends."
"And in what way do you care for your friends, Mr. Phillipides?" Frances had been inundated with charm in her debutante year, and had been suspicious of it ever since.
Nicolas' eyes took in her wedding band and gleamed. "I fear the ways in which I am able to assist would be of little interest to you, Mrs. Shanley; and I would be a poor showing beside Mrs. Parker Jones."
Edith beamed delightedly at Nicolas as he nonchalantly sipped his Vichy water, but it was too evasive an answer for Frances.
"And why would I, my husband and I, not be interested in your help, Mr. Phillipides?"
Nicolas leaned forward and answered her seriously. "Perhaps you would be interested, Mrs. Shanley, in time. And if such a time should come, I would be glad to be of assistance to both Mr. Shanley and yourself. But my business takes me far from places of immediate interest to newcomers."
"You mean, off the tourist track?" Her arch tone was gone.
"Far off the tourist track." He leaned back and continued in a lighter tone. "However the pyramids and Ezbekieh Gardens are wonderful, and I would highly recommend the Museum, wouldn't you, Mrs. Parker Jones?"
"Oh, Frances, I'll round up some of the ladies and we'll have our own grand tour! Won't that be fun?"
Frances. Her eyes met his and held them, as she considered how best to answer Edith. Again, that faint smile played around his mouth. In the end, all she could do was dubiously assure Edith that she thought it would be wonderful, and thank her. A sideways glance at Allan told her his conversation was coming to a close, and she made a display of placing her napkin on the table.
All stood to make the final round of handshakes. Edith's eyes sparkled as Nicolas bent low over her plump hand. Allan's eyes were questioning but his manner was warm as Nicolas gave him his card and assured him, should he ever need his help, he had but to ask. As the chattering group moved to the terrace steps, Nicolas deftly took Frances' hand and treated her to the same courtly bow. But as he straightened, he held her back and spoke low.
"Mrs. Shanley, your social calendar will be a whirl of lunches, dinners, balls and club functions. You will be introduced to the finest European couturiers, and taken on regular shopping expeditions to Tiring's department store. You will listen to endless conversations about the fashions of the elite, and the lives of families back home; people you do not know, and will never meet. There will be croquet, tennis, and tea in the pavilions."
"When you have tired of all that, and you will tire of it, Frances, then you will come to me. And then, I promise you, I will show you Cairo."
Bidding a cheerful good day to the rest of the group, Nicolas Phillipides lightly descended the steps between his worlds, leapt into the nearest carriage, and was gone.
Frances Shanley stared after him feeling suddenly, unaccountably, alone.
"You look tired, mon ami. Is there anything I can do?"
"You can help me eat this lemon cake and let me pour you another cup of tea. Oh, and you can ask Dr. Georg if he has anything I can slip Edith to slow her down. Honestly, I can't keep up with her!"
Margrit smiled as she cut them both a slice of cake. Her experience of living on Gezira was different from her young neighbor's. Not for the first time, she counted her blessings. While the small Anglo-American Hospital was demanding of their time, it offered the Veillons a way to share their life. Dr. Veillon was a resident, and his steady, level-headed wife volunteered while the children were at school. Besides being a worthy cause, it also offered Margrit an alternative scene to the club. For that alone, Margrit was thankful.
When she first learnt of Frances' years with the Red Cross, she had tried to enlist her as a volunteer. The panic in the young woman's eyes told her it would never happen, and she could guess why. Families had hidden the ignominy, but she knew there had been nervous breakdowns amongst the Red Cross' more sensitive volunteers. She had never raised the subject again, and had been careful to show Frances the Veillons bore no grudge. Regular morning tea in Frances' well-loved garden had been the result.
"I think it is wonderful, what you have done."
"What Edith has done, you mean."
"Hah! I do not believe Edith will have all of the credit. Everyone knows how hard you worked. Yesterday, one of the twitterings told me all of society will be there. I can not imagine how many invitations you sent."
"Twitterings" was Margrit's word for the club gossips. She delighted Frances every time she used it.
"The twittering was right; it's going to be the charity ball of the season. But the best of it is, we're going to raise a very handsome sum for the Anglo." Frances stared pensively at the restful greenery beyond the patio. "I'm dreading it."