Authors: James Hamilton-Paterson
Ann, Shelley, Matthew and Alice Masters
It is unreliably reported that the Cynic philosopher Chimerides, whose dates are unknown and whose very existence is doubted, was exiled to the salt marshes of Meddo (Asia Minor) for the excessive venom of his political criticisms. There he is believed to have written a series of essays which he sent home to a friend in Athens under the title
This was a sarcastic reference to (
the unremitting flatness of Meddo and its environs and (
the nickname of his own philosophic school, members of which were decried as snarling fault-finders. The essays were obviously written in defiance of his judges and detractors, the implication being that, no matter where he might be obliged to live, his very contumely would always afford him a lofty view.
It is a great loss that these essays of Chimerides survive only in fragments quoted by contemporaries â a perverse sentence here, a surly phrase there. He must certainly have been more than a sublime curmudgeon, estimable though that would be. His acrid reproof, âBelief is merely a failure of doubt: beware', is justly celebrated for its elegant scepticism, and this centuries before Pascal, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, to say nothing of Wilde.
Precisely because of modern scholarly opinion to the contrary, I am more than ever convinced that Chimerides existed. Faint whiffs come down to us of the awe in which his brilliant crabbiness was held: difficult people may become legends but they do not become myths. Whatever the case, one or two of the stories in this volume were written in the foothills of Mount Dog, whose summit stands ever before me as inspiration and challenge. Naturally, the higher I climb the more I shall come to doubt Chimerides ever lived. But even if he did not I honour his putative memory, worthless though it is. Or, rather, my own memory of his memory, now failing.
His Most Serene Highness Sultan Yussuf Masood Ammar had enjoyed quite a lot of his state visit to Britain. He knew perfectly well that occasions of this sort were intended to be politically useful before they were pleasurable, not least because there is generally more agreement between culturally dissimilar nations about what is of mutual advantage than about what constitutes pleasure. Nonetheless, there had been several moments when he was grateful that members of his entourage – notably the Royal Photographer and the Royal Diarist – were present to click and scribble the records which on their return to Jibnah would be worked up into a scrap-book bound in green kid. He had watched a racehorse he was told he owned win the Derby; he had shamelessly overeaten at various banquets; he had been graciously permitted to blow up a mouse-coloured tank on Salisbury Plain.
But what had made the Sultan’s visit were the trains. There were alas no railways in his country which, thanks to the provision by a munificent Deity of vast mineral wealth beneath its sands, had recently moved from caravans to state airline more or less overnight. Accordingly advisers and senior diplomats had made sure in advance of his trip that the Sultan would spend plenty of time on trains, and the highlight of the entire visit was the granting of his special request that he might be allowed to sit with the driver of the night express to Edinburgh.
After that, little in the last week of the visit made much impression on him with the single exception of an informal afternoon spent at Buckingham Palace at the Queen’s personal insistence. The Sultan vaguely perceived that unlike his own Palace of a Thousand and One Rooms the Queen’s palace was not very sybaritic – an impression reinforced by taking tea with her in a drawing room full of family photographs, a portly dog asleep on a cushion, plates of sponge cake and back numbers of
However, he did notice a table covered with the day’s newspapers, and his attention was further caught by a three-inch headline reading ‘Queen Hosts Despot’. During tea the wife he used for state visits, an ex-air hostess from Harrogate, engaged the Queen in lively if one-sided conversation while he edged back towards the table and surreptitiously read some more. Under the guise of looking out of the window at a very orderly garden full of guards disguised as gardeners and gardeners hoping to be mistaken by photographers for guards, the Sultan put his cup of tea down on the newspaper in question and, by squinting sideways and downwards and taking frequent sips of tea, read an article about himself describing some sort of desert Yahoo rolling in money and wallowing in gore. The Sultan was far too exalted to feel hurt and far too pragmatic not to be quite certain that the gore of usurpers and pretenders was always much better spilt than one’s own. He did, however, feel a little jab of apprehension, something to do with the way the domestic press of another country could print such things as gospel while back home the idea of calumnies like that even leaving somebody’s typewriter, still less being set up by compositors, was unthinkable. Was he, then, two people? Was he simultaneously beloved shepherd of his desert flock and pariah-sovereign of the international community?
Thoughtfully he dropped a half-scone buttered side down on the page and, holding the bottom of the scone, turned the page with it. Here the headlined article which had begun with banners and continued with trumpets fizzled out in two column inches. Idly the Sultan’s eyes drifted on past the buttery transparent stain spreading from the other side down to an article about the double of the lady behind him. He read in astonishment, bent now over the open page, all pretence at looking through the window gone. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Here was a woman, a commoner, a nobody, capitalising on
what the newspaper claimed was a close likeness to her Monarch. Well, he thought, things were certainly organised rather differently back home. The physical characteristics of his own family were pronounced, the Ammar nose being striking in itself but in combination with the Masood chin unmistakable. Occasionally in some desert village a child would appear whose features bore a peculiar resemblance, but in such cases an exquisitely wrought damascene blade would fall regretfully but not over-apologetically and the child’s family be presented with a lame white camel in traditional acknowledgement.
‘Your Majesty,’ said the Sultan, turning to interrupt an account by his wife of the dowry system in Yorkshire.
‘Your Highness,’ said the Queen gratefully. ‘More tea?’
‘Thank you, but I am puzzled by an article in this newspaper. This may come as a shock to you but there seems to be a woman daring to impersonate you. Can this be true?’
‘So it would appear, although we are assured it is not impersonation as such.’
‘You do not
‘It’s not clear there’s a great deal one could do about it even if one did. It is peculiar, isn’t it, since you mention it. Apparently the lady in question is always being asked to open fêtes and that kind of thing, despite everybody’s knowing she is not myself and her insistence that she would never pretend to be. Don’t you think that’s interesting? It implies, does it not, that if one’s parish priest happened to resemble the Archbishop of Canterbury there would be more cachet in being married by him than if he merely looked like everybody else’s parish priest?’
‘Exactly,’ said the Sultan uncertainly.
‘Or suppose,’ said the Queen, warming to her thesis, ‘suppose one had an imitation Rolls-Royce made by, well, a Japanese company, for instance, a vehicle which
a real Rolls-Royce but which had on the radiator a badge declaring it to be a Honda.’ The hush which traditionally fell whenever the Queen spoke took on an attentive edge at this bizarre fancy. ‘The question is, would it be accorded the same degree of
as if it were the genuine article?’
Everyone pondered this for a moment before a crusted old equerry ventured an opinion, it being tea-time and the moment of the day usually reserved for informal conversation of a democratic variety when almost anyone might lay claim to having had a thought.
‘That would depend on whether Ma’am were in it or not.’
This excited a murmur of agreement. Even the Sultan found himself nodding, although, truth be told, he was completely lost by the conversation’s sudden philosophic turn.
‘An excellent point, Bertram,’ conceded the Queen. ‘One had overlooked that. Very well, then’ – a mischievously speculative look came into her eye – ‘supposing, supposing it was not one
inside the vehicle but the lady who resembles one? Now, then.’ She sat back in triumph and took a large bite of sponge cake.
‘Humpf,’ said the equerry, emboldened by the intellectual cut and thrust. ‘A fake Queen in a fake Rolls, y’mean?’
‘Not exactly,’ said a clear voice. ‘They’re not
fakes, are they? It’s not Her Majesty because this lady doesn’t claim to be, and it’s not a Rolls because it plainly says “Honda” on the front. Or am I being stupid?’ – and the Sultana giggled a little, just as she once had whenever facing a hundred and twenty strangers wearing a yellow lifejacket and miming the automatic fall of oxygen masks in the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure. ‘That’s not proper deceit, is it?’
Other voices began to join in. Forgotten wedges of sponge cake punctured the air to make debating points.
‘I say, now, hold on,’ said a plain-clothes detective masquerading as a page boy. ‘If that’s not deceitful, what is, I should like to know? It’s like this painter fellow comes up to you and says, “Here, cop a look at this picture I’ve just done of my girlfriend. It’s pure coincidence she happens to be the spitting image of the Mona Lisa.” To my mind he’s being deceitful on two counts.’ He held up two fingers and knocked each down with his other hand. ‘One, he’s pretending his portrait’s original when it was da Vinci’s idea all along and, two – most important of all – he’s pretending his girlfriend’s as beautiful as the Mona Lisa.’
The discussion continued in this lively vein for nearly twenty minutes before the Sultan’s own private secretary managed to divert the company’s attention back to the forgotten monarch who was sitting on a spindly gold chair, gold-trimmed white robes about his feet, the Masood chin on his chest. From the moment he left this palace until the moment he once more set foot in his own he was observed to be thoughtful. After the long flight home and once in the Royal Bath-Chamber, however, letting the residues of travel soak off his body in a huge glass chalice filled with his favourite mixture of rose-water and
Harrods bath salts, he began taking decisions. His first was to summon the Minister for State Planning, who arrived down below within half an hour in an air-conditioned Cadillac and was ushered into the royal presence.
‘I want a railway,’ announced the Sultan without preamble. ‘It should go from here in Jibnah down to Hafoos. Later we might make a branch line to Rifa’aq.’ He swished some greenish foam decisively. It became apparent that he wore all his rings in the bath, for they clicked on the glass sides of the chalice.
‘Certainly, Highness. It is a wonderful idea. Do you wish this project to fall within the portfolio of my own humble ministry?’
‘No,’ said the Sultan. ‘Excellent as you no doubt are where overall planning is concerned, railways are highly specialised affairs. We need a Minister in charge who really understands trains. I recommend a man named Reg Burnshaw. You’ll find him in England. He is an absolute authority on the line between London and Edinburgh.’
The Sultan dismissed his Minister, changed into a magnificently embroidered robe with a gold-handled ornamental dagger at his waist and roamed thoughtfully through the royal apartments trailing a confused scent of roses and verbena. Night had fallen. Beyond the windows designed by a firm of Italian architects to imitate the shape of the opening in a Bedouin tent lay the small desert capital of Jibnah, neat avenues of mature date-palms (transplanted by airlift from an oasis three hundred miles away) radiating from in front of the Palace. The beacon revolving on the control tower of the newly built international airport some distance away intermittently lit one corner of the night sky, and the Sultan knew that if he went and looked through the windows at the back of the Palace he would see another corner of the sky suffused with the flickering orange glow of the burn-off flares at the Zabul gas-fields sixty miles away over the horizon. He stepped out on to the balcony breathing in the smell of mimosa, baked earth, urine, freshly cut grass and petroleum fractions. It was the unmistakable smell of his Sultanate; it was good to be home.
But a thought was troubling him somewhere at the back of his mind. Some days ago a doubt had been sown by a phrase. ‘Queen Hosts Despot’, indeed. Still, one could never be too careful. He took another decision and rang for his personal servant.
‘Do we have any old robes in the Palace, Mehdi?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Certain, Highness. There is nothing old in this palace, Highness, except the traditions of your subjects and the allegiance we owe you.’ He said this very gracefully with his nose touching the rug.
‘I see. Then bring me a camel-driver.’
‘A camel-driver, Highness.’ It was a flat repetition.
‘Well?’ said the Sultan, sensing difficulty.
‘More or less. About my size.’
‘But young, of course,’ said the prostrate Mehdi, ‘and fair of countenance.’
‘Not necessary at all,’ the Sultan said impatiently. ‘I don’t care what he looks like as long as he looks like a camel-driver.’
‘Highness, I hear. Now, this instant. But’, came the voice as it retreated slowly over the priceless half-million knots, ‘it may not be easy.’
‘Why not? It is a simple enough order.’
‘If Mehdi dare presume, Highness, it is your Highness’s own fault in being so prompt to make manifest the gifts of Allah the Bountiful to all men that today camels are a rarity in the city. Now, if you had asked for a
there are a thousand at this moment sitting in their ranks with the air-conditioning on, reading Egyptian paperbacks.’
‘A camel-driver, Mehdi, at once.’
He reappeared forty minutes later escorting a magnificent old man whose lined and hawk-like face the Sultan barely glimpsed on its way down to the rug. Around him on the floor lay a spreading puddle of tattered brown robes. The peculiar scent of camels became apparent. The Sultan looked at him speculatively for a moment, but then his heart failed. His own power was such that at his behest damascene blades lifted and fell; but all of a sudden he had not got it in him to make this dignified old man stand up and take his robe off. He could not even dismiss him to another room and likewise order the clothes off his back, not even if they were immediately exchanged for the most sumptuous in his own private wardrobe. In all probability the camel-driver had never removed his robe since the day he put it on. How long ago? the Sultan wondered. Three years? Five? How often
camel-drivers change their garments? And, anyway,
how did they do it? He could not imagine a naked camel-driver but he did remember a boyhood visit to the Gulf where he had had hermit crabs explained to him by an English tutor. Perhaps camel-drivers were the same. When the time approached for a change of outer wear maybe they looked around for something suitable and then, under cover of darkness and when they were sure no one was watching, quickly slipped out of the old and into the new. The Sultan experienced a brief imaginative flash of something coiled and tender and pink and then came back to earth.
‘A thousand greetings, O loyal camel-driver,’ he said. ‘I wished merely to see again something familiar from before the day when Allah opened his riches to us. Go with peace and a suitable gift which Mehdi here will be glad to bestow on you.’
His subjects retired; the Sultan fell to brooding. The newspaper articles he had read in Britain had given him various ideas, all of them fuelled by a growing sense that in these turbulent times he ought to be better in touch with things outside the Palace. There had been one or two awful reminders lately of what happened to rulers who went on living feudally in a world where yesterday’s illiterate Bedouin now read inflammatory Egyptian paperbacks. All that talk in London about disguises had reminded him of the old stories they used to tell of kings dressed as beggars and even of beggars dressed as kings. He had lately heard that one or two modern rulers had resorted to such things the better to guide their people’s destiny. It had been the plan, therefore, of His Most Serene Highness Sultan Yussuf Masood Ammar secretly to don a humble disguise and prowl the streets of his capital incognito. Yet it was turning out to be infernally difficult. The embarrassment he had experienced at the thought of ordering an old man to undress had extended itself to the explanations necessary to stop Mehdi gossiping, the Palace guards shooting, the general uproar on discovering what purported to be an unescorted camel-driver smelling of roses and verbena trying to leave the Royal Apartments. It was hopeless. How
they do it in the stories?
The difficulty in even finding a camel-driver was also significant. If they were now that rare, it would scarcely be an act of self-concealment to slink in rags about streets busy with air-conditioned limousines and pedestrians who did their shopping in Bond Street and Saks Fifth Avenue. And where did one go nowadays to hear the murmurs of discontent, the
ranklings of ingrates? The Sultan had no idea but he suspected there might not be any cafés and souks left, having been transmogrified by Divine Will into drugstore soda fountains and hypermarkets. Truly the whole thing needed thought.
A year or so passed in which the wealth of the Sultanate increased while the spirits of its ruler declined. Pragmatic he may have been in straightforward matters involving damascene blades, but the Sultan was rapidly wearying. He was not an old man by any means – somewhat under fifty – but he was finding the relentless pace at which everything changed confusing and exhausting. Each evening when he stood on his balcony sniffing the familiar breeze he thought Jibnah had grown a little. How could he ever have been so foolish as to imagine he could find a camel-driver in this city? he wondered. It seemed years since he had even seen a camel. Now there were endless Daihatsu showrooms and Lear Jet shops. In his boyhood and youth – well, until only a few years ago, now he came to think about it – camel-meat was on sale everywhere and very good it was, too, hanging up on hooks in the markets so that you could see what you were buying. Now, he gathered, there were only air-conditioned supermarkets whose meat counters sold Australian mutton, Argentine beef and unnaturally huge, tasteless chickens, all of it bundled up in plastic film and stiff with ice.
The burdens of State, though, were really getting him down. His days, albeit ever shorter on ceremony, were ever longer on being pestered for decisions and having to meet excruciatingly boring foreigners claiming to represent excruciatingly boring corporations. Awesomely keen to help the Sultanate develop, they were, as if they had just discovered within themselves gushing wells of altruism. To these the Sultan preserved a grave and passive demeanour except that he was unable to stop himself smiling as each of them inevitably said: ‘It is clearly in the interests of the country, Your Highness.’ They flew in on Concorde and stayed in the Jibnah Otani or the Oberoi or the Meridien, drove madly around ministries the next day, like as not seeing close relatives of his and leaving behind a spoor of glossy brochures full of half-truths written in a quaint businessman’s dialect; and then, full of mint tea and self-esteem, they would roar away the day after that heading for Jeddah, Tokyo, Frankfurt and Los Angeles on their restless mission to help countries develop.
One morning the Sultan cracked. It was bound to happen and it was just plain bad luck for his visitor to have had his name
down in the Royal appointments-book on that particular day. He was the Sales Director of a vast and prestigious West German corporation which produced water desalination plants and he had just made a glowing pitch to install one at Manduri on the coast.
The Sultan had listened abstractedly.
‘Tell me, Herr … er, Schönau, did you fly in last night on Concorde?’ he asked when it was over.
‘I did, Your Highness.’
‘I see. Well, you woke me up,’ the Sultan told him simply, ‘so I don’t want your water thing.’ His guest fought for words. ‘Besides,’ the monarch went on, ‘have you been to Manduri?’
‘Oh, yes, Your Highness. It is quite undeveloped, ideal for—’
‘I used to go there as a boy to collect shells. I had by far the best shell collection in the country, did you know that? No; well, even today it forms the core of the collection in our National Museum here in Jibnah. My English tutor taught me how to classify them, and we did it together. It was fun,’ he added, staring reminiscently at a little flag on his desk. ‘We lived in tents. Lots and lots of tents, all different colours. Tents for me and my brothers, tents for the Scottish nannies, tents for servants and guards and everyone. That was at Manduri. And now you want to build a huge water factory all over it? Well, you shall not. Today I give the order to make Manduri a National Conchology Reserve. And next time, Herr Schönau,’ the Sultan added in what might have been a whimsical attempt to soften the blow, ‘I suggest you fly Lufthansa. They have no Concordes.’
This sudden impatience with businessmen coincided with an equally complete exasperation with politicians, be they local ones, visiting Arab heads of state or – in particular – American Congressmen. Sometimes it seemed as though he had spent much of his adult life kissing hairy cheeks and being lectured on the Sudan question, the Egyptian impasse, the Libyan dilemma, or the Syrian problem. Increasingly the hard-edged world of his youth was dissolving into an international slurry of détente, vetoes, UN votes, peace initiatives, OPEC summits and Gulf crises. What was it all for? he wondered. Why couldn’t people be a bit calmer and quieter as they had been before God was so good to his little Sultanate? It was wonderful indeed that the sands of the desert concealed a commodity which other people wanted, but why should that be any different from having a
racing camel that somebody wanted, or a daughter, come to that? If they offered a good price and you were willing to sell, then that was that; you sold. If not, you hung on to your camel or daughter until someone happened by prepared to offer more. That surely was the essence of all business, always had been, and he couldn’t for the life of him work out why something so simple should be inflated into matters of such hopeless complexity…. He began leaving meetings early complaining of indigestion; then he took to avoiding them entirely, nominating Prince Bisfah and Prince Ashur as his proxies. Not that he had much confidence in his two eldest sons. Bisfah was seemingly unable to drive his red Italian cars along even the most deserted road without careering off among the dunes in search of the only boulder for miles to crash into, and Ashur…. Well, Ashur. The Sultan had once discovered that Ashur’s nickname at Harrow had been ‘The Queen of Sheba’ and that was not something a father forgot. He wondered if the Queen of England had known when they had last met. Hadn’t one of her own sons gone to Harrow? If so, he might well have told her. The Sultan’s cheeks burned. Maybe she had known all along and even as she had so graciously presided over the sponge cake she had been thinking
The one thing which cheered the Sultan up was his new railway. Having to contend with none of the traditional obstacles to progress such as shortage of funds and recalcitrant labour, it had progressed rapidly and there was now a regular high-speed train service between Jibnah and Hafoos, a small provincial town at the foot of the Jebel Ahmar, that great escarpment of red sandstone which leads to the stony and waterless high plateau, one glimpse of which through a helicopter’s tinted and juddering windows makes oilmen wonder how on earth their mortgages can be taking so long to pay off. As often as he could, which was nothing like often enough, the Sultan would sit high up in the driver’s compartment of the giant French-built locomotive and thunder across the desert at a hundred and eighty miles an hour. Beside him sat his Minister of Railways, still keeping in practice as the Sultanate’s premier engine-driver. Since Reg Burnshaw’s bewildering translation from British Rail locoman to Minister and private engine-driver to His Most Serene Highness Sultan Yussuf Masood Ammar the two men had become very close and
the Englishman was proud of his pupil. He now allowed the Sultan to take the handle for the tricky banked section – a miracle of engineering, incidentally – at Wadi Shaduf, and the time was not far off when the monarch would be able to start practising shunting. The only thing which secretly troubled Reg Burnshaw was the lack of passengers. He had endless rolling stock at his disposal: elegant dining cars, sleeping cars, couchettes and carriages, all of them air-conditioned and all of them practically empty. The Sultanate’s population – barely two hundred thousand people – preferred either their Cadillacs or their Cessnas for travel. Rail was somehow not very chic unless one could commandeer an entire train for one’s family, and the choice of route was so restricted it seemed hardly worth it.
‘You wait till we get the branch line going,’ said the Sultan happily. The branch line as projected was to climb slowly up the escarpment for sixty miles in a series of breathtaking panoramic curves before reaching the plateau. Then there was to be a single flat-out straight all the one hundred and fifteen miles to Rifa’aq, a tiny oasis not far from the border. There was nothing in Rifa’aq, certainly nothing worth building a railway to; but there again, as the Sultan reflected, it’s not the destination but the journey which counts. He remembered his old English tutor telling him that, and he had been absolutely right; the man had obviously been a genius, and if he were still alive there was no honour and dignity his ex-pupil would not have heaped on him.
Apart from the railway, however, there was not much nowadays to brighten the Sultan’s eye. He began indulging in an activity which more than almost any other must be the mark of civilised and melancholic man: he took to spending long hours in the bath. Lying there in his capacious glass chalice, big toe comfortingly inserted into the hole of one of the gold taps, he was struck one day with an amazing realisation.
That couldn’t be right. He poured some more bath salts in and swirled them around with his brown beringed hands. Not fed up with
Sultan exactly, just fed up with having to
Sultan. It was then he recalled something else from that tea-party in Buckingham Palace over a year ago. That woman in the newspaper…. Well, why not?
It was difficult. Indeed, to anyone without his limitless financial resources it would have been almost impossible. The rise and fall of the damascene blade in small villages over the last decades had scarcely helped, but a cadet branch of the
family was unearthed in South Yemen. Arrangements were made with the finest plastic surgeons money could procure. The secrecy was awesome, the threats terrifying, the results astonishing. One afternoon the Sultan’s private Boeing landed at an airport in Italy and taxied to a remote corner of the field. A car with smoked windows drew up and a man wearing dark glasses hurried up the steps of the plane. The Boeing immediately took off and sped southwards. Once it was over the Mediterranean the Sultan was introduced to his double.
He had expected to find it uncanny, instead of which he found it absurd. Since he was quite certain he was himself he could see little resemblance in the man standing opposite him. He looked like any other handsome Middle Easterner with a sensibly shaped nose and chin. It further annoyed him that everybody else thought it was hard to tell them apart. The fellow was clearly an impostor, and for a moment he wondered whether to call the entire thing off and bring Faroukh el Damm, the Sultan’s private executioner, out of semi-retirement to keep his hand in. It would, after all, never do to get the public executioner to do it in the Maidan: from a distance the crowd might easily mistake the victim and it could trigger off an unseemly power struggle. But then fresh memories came to him of meetings with businessmen, of Islamic fundamentalists with bushy beards and wild eyes, of OPEC ministers talking about quotas, and his resolve hardened.
To his surprise the ploy was extraordinarily successful. After several months’ indoctrination – a tedious period for the Sultan when his double traipsed around the Palace of a Thousand and One Rooms aping the way he walked and repeating everything he said – the subterfuge was subjected to limited public gaze when the pseudo-Sultan took his place on a reviewing stand. All the man had to do was hold himself gravely at the salute while a succession of dun-coloured land-rovers bowled past, but he did it beautifully. He even fooled the Sultan’s High Command, who all privately agreed afterwards that they had not found him so alert and well informed for years. The Sultan himself remained in his bath and began drawing up the first National Railway timetable. It did occur to him, though, that it would be safer if both he and his double were not to live in the same palace. An irreducible number of essential people was in the know, of course, but sooner or later the Sultan’s apparent ability to be in two of the thousand and one rooms at once would arouse
comment. He commissioned plans for a summer palace to which he could retreat, and in a remarkably short time a simple white pavilion was standing exactly in the middle of the site where a German corporation had once had vision of building a desalination plant. To this secluded coastal residence the Sultan moved one night with a skeleton staff and a concubine. At some point in the previous months his Yorkshire wife had become confused and was still paying visits to the Royal Bedchamber far away in Jibnah; there seemed no reason to suggest she stop.
This moving away from the capital, this abandonment of the Palace marked a turning-point in the Sultan’s life. He became far less anxious, less preoccupied; he put on a little weight. He had commandeered a generous slice of the National Conchology Reserve for his new private residence and in it he lived a life of such freedom as he had not enjoyed for years. Screened from the eyes of Manduri’s tiny population by quick-growing conifers and slow-chewing sentries the Sultan began to enjoy himself. He sent back to Jibnah and spent a happy morning unpacking all his old shell-books. He sat on the floor of his bedroom in a pair of khaki shorts smelling the pages in wonderment that the grains of sand which fell out of them were from that very shore beyond the verandah and had lain in fragrant darkness since his own boy’s feet had scuffed them there and his own boy’s hands had shut them in. He stared at his large jewelled fingers and thought about time and Mr Munson and Nannie MacWhirter and sighed. Well, from now on he was going to have a lot more fun.
He still had to go back to Jibnah now and then, of course. There were things involving the family which could not be left to an outsider (remarkably few things, he noticed) and likewise things involving the State for which he was reluctant to delegate responsibility. For most daily purposes, though, the fake Sultan drove about Jibnah in a perfectly genuine Rolls-Royce exciting quite unfeigned obeisance. Both of them thought about this and each in his own way marvelled.
Another year passed in which the pseudo-Sultan took over almost all executive power and had grown so familiar with the role he was playing that for days on end he could forget it was a role. To all intents and purposes he
the Sultan, and the irony pleased him. So did his new life-style, which was a great improvement on what he had been used to in South Yemen. He liked the perks and trappings, the sumptuous robes, the arcane
protocols, the guards with scimitars in their belts and Berettas under their embroidered tunics. He enjoyed the parades with camels wearing kettledrums slung from their humps, he liked bugles and jet aircraft in formation overhead. He liked banquets a lot and he loved concubines very much indeed. In the early days he was even quite amused by playing monarch with the jet-set businessmen and politicians. Many of his decisions were fairly arbitrary; several were positively quirky. He unexpectedly welcomed a delegation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, gave them full permission to build a large and costly Kingdom Hall in Jibnah and, when it was finished, confiscated it without compensation. He gave the Witnesses a day to leave the Sultanate and converted their Hall into a braille school for blind Imams. People openly thanked God that the Sultan had regained his old spiritedness.
But abuses of power may herald a growing disenchantment with it as much as a craving for more of it, and so it was in the case of the pseudo-Sultan. After making sure that nobody in his own family could ever conceivably lack for the odd ten million dollars and after indulging himself royally at – apparently – nobody’s expense he, too, began to grow restless. The real trouble was that life in Jibnah was dull. Whatever he wanted,
whatever he wanted, would instantly be brought him; but that was not the same as being able to wander around the world looking for nothing in particular but indulging his fancies with somebody else’s platinum American Express card. Jibnah was the conservative and provincial little capital of a conservative and provincial little sultanate, and the pseudo-Sultan felt himself inhibited from asking for certain things he quite wished to toy with. For example, he dearly wanted to try cocaine ever since talking to the American ambassador’s son, but he was far too embarrassed to ask. He also longed to learn how to waterski, but the idea of having to flounder about in front of lickspittle aides pretending to be overwhelmed by His Most Serene Highness’s God-given skill was enough to deter him. Why could he not practise in private with just a single motor-boat driver who could instantly be rendered headless at the slightest suspicion of a snigger? But he couldn’t: security was obsessive and Court protocols inflexible. Besides, vague memories came to him of
pictures from the fifties, grainy black-and-white photos of playboy monarchs such as King Faroukh being towed around behind boats in places like Monaco wearing dark
glasses and looking like portly beetles. That was not the figure the pseudo-Sultan wished to cut for himself.
After sunset he would often stand on the Palace balcony as the Sultan had before him, made introspective by the evening breeze, which seemed nightly to contain less mimosa and more exhaust-fumes. The city, until so recently a shady little oasis scattered with flocks and tents and houses like whitewashed cubes, had grown so that one of the shopping malls now ended abruptly at the airport’s perimeter. Bad planning there, he thought and wondered if the odd head shouldn’t roll, but then his attention was redistracted by the sight of listless knots of European
making their way slowly up the boulevards in front of the Palace, sweeping the drifts of crumpled petrodollars into little piles and setting fire to them. A great sense of unease and thwart came upon him.
It was inevitable, of course, that he should have hit on the same solution and that it should then have seemed so obvious. No need to tell the Sultan; much better not, in fact, since he was by all accounts becoming more and more reclusive and would now only talk with any interest about cowries and winkles. Using the same methods by which he had himself been so successfully recruited, the pseudo-Sultan quietly introduced a second pseudo-Sultan into the Palace of a Thousand and One Rooms. It might have been thought such a move would lead to complexities unimagined since the death of Feydeau. Not a bit of it. Most of the Palace staff were desert fathers who had been retainers to the Sultan’s family since birth and tended towards age and forgetfulness. A few of the more alert ones below sixty wondered at their monarch’s extraordinary energy and slight departures from habit and custom but reflected that the Masood Ammar boys always had been headstrong and gave it no more thought. The Sultana from Harrogate marvelled at the efficacy of the tablets compounded of ginseng and dried scorpion venom which her husband had begun taking. Even the Sultan, when he paid a surprise visit to the Palace to look for a scrapbook he had once made, noticed nothing on running into his second double. His original double, fortuitously out of town for an important meeting with the son of the American ambassador, heaved a sigh of relief when he heard. That was one of the really wonderful things about conservatism, he reflected: it never wanted to
anything. Just as long as things looked right, with the correctly dressed people coming
through the right doors at the right time of day and uttering the same prescribed formulas, things
right. What did it matter whether somebody were actually the person he purported to be? As long as whoever it was acted in character and looked the part there would never be any end to the motorcades and the cheering crowds. With all that dead weight of conditioned reflex working in one’s favour the only real enemy was one’s own disenchantment, the deadly tedium of the puppetry, the awareness of dwindling days.
At the last count there were eleven Sultans. This figure happens to beat by three the present number of Queens of England but is one fewer than the Presidents of the United States. They are easily outnumbered by the twenty-seven current Popes. All the Popes are interchangeable, as are the Presidents and the Queens; but one of the Sultans loves driving trains.
Nobody could remember how it had started – least of all Anding whose leg it was – since it had been with him so long. It had been named over the years: ‘varicose ulcer’ or ‘that time the chip of wood flew off and stuck in when Clody was chopping’. The health worker called it ‘a chronic sore’, but by none of these terms could Anding recognise an old friend. When he thought about it with the near-affection due to the utterly familiar he could imagine he had been born with it. Not exactly as it was at this moment, of course, since its appearance changed from time to time. Its phases were varied: sometimes it wept, sometimes it bled, sometimes it shrank to a dry pucker surrounding a black borehole, and now and again it rotted a bit and smelt as at present. Essentially, though, it was resident as this hole on the outside of his right leg about three inches below the knee. In so far as it had to be allowed for at all times, but chiefly when negotiating public transport or the bamboo settles at home, Anding thought of it as he would any of his limbs: somewhere between an appendage and an inhabitant, something whose absence in other people he had begun to notice.
‘I can’t sleep with that smell in the house,’ his wife told him. ‘It’s disgusting. It attracts flies and keeps people away. Haven’t you noticed how few of our friends actually come into the house nowadays? They hang around the doors but they won’t come inside because of the stink. That leg of yours has taken over my whole house.’
‘I can’t smell anything,’ said Anding truthfully, ‘although he certainly looks as though he’s coming up for one of his wormy times.’
At fairly long intervals there would recur a period lasting anything up to a month when the presence of small creamy maggots could be noticed as they burrowed around in the necrotic hole. Tatang Petring up the track, who was by far the best barefoot doctor in the area, had told him this was an excellent sign since it meant all the green stuff was being eaten up and only clean uninfected tissue would be left whereupon the wound would quickly become smaller. And it was true the maggots came and went beneath the papaya poultices which Tatang Petring applied, but so, too, did callers at the house come and go. Anding was a fair man and came to think his wife was probably right. Certainly there were a lot of flies about.
What did not go was the wound itself, undoubtedly a black miracle, a medical mystery. Although often enlarging and deepening to the point where the bone could actually be seen by anybody interested enough to look (mainly small children and Tatang Petring himself), the wound appeared to be self-limiting in some way. The maggots did their bit, the wound grew huge and deep but quite neat: a light pinkish-grey smooth wet crater with bone at the bottom and with a slightly raised crusty rim – and anyone who knew anything about Western-style medicine or Eastern-style ways of death predicted that Anding would soon run a tremendous fever and his leg swell up and go glossy black, and at that point unless it were cut off entirely he would be done for. Yet this never happened. The health worker would procure some unmarked capsules in a twist of paper, and Tatang Petring would leave off the papaya poultices and instead apply grated palm-heart tinctured with ordinary kerosene, and within a week the wound would be half its previous size, the skin around it a glowing healthy brown.
At this point Anding used to worry about its disappearing entirely and would stop taking the capsules. It would be like murder, doing away with a companion as constant yet as varied as this one. His friend did not in the least incapacitate him but merely made him courteous when dealing with furniture or dogs (which were fascinated by the smell) or those small children always apt to bang into legs. Little boys particularly were wont to dash off suddenly in pursuit of their chafers, which instead of droning in tight circles above their heads at the
end of lengths of thread would somehow escape and blunder away, trailing their moorings. Only the other day a child had smacked into the leg, bounced off and plunged away through the goats rooting among the banana plants at the side of the track.
‘You smegma!’ Anding shouted half-heartedly after him and wondered if he hadn’t heard a faint ‘sorry, sir’ amid the crashing of sticks and goat-bleats. For it was on behalf of his friend that Anding felt annoyance: it was no way to treat a companion. The question of pain never entered into it.
And that was one more extraordinary thing. Almost regardless of which phase it was in or what was done to it Anding scarcely ever experienced his wound as painful. Occasionally his whole leg would ache but, then, so did everyone else’s after about forty; it was called arthritis and was an unbidden but not unexpected guest who would come one day and take up residence in someone’s body and not leave until that person was dead. That was the thing about wounds and diseases: they, too, had lives of their own which they had to live, and it was in their nature to have to depend on the bodies of people and animals in order to do so. Tatang Petring had told him that years ago, and Anding had long since had enough experience to confirm its truth. Sometimes one of these visitors might be accompanied by a companion of its own – it might be fever or pain. Such happened not to be the case with his own wound, which had turned up all by itself (perhaps on that wood-chopping day, perhaps not) and required a home. True, it had had certain consequences: discomfort when lying on the floor at night, inconvenience in that he always had to be on the lookout for stuff that would serve as bandaging to hold Tatang Petring’s treatments in place and, if Lerma were to be believed, a disgusting smell at the wormy periods which messed up their social life. But never actual pain.
‘He’s not going to go away, is he?’ Anding asked Tatang Petring one day.
The doctor considered silently.
‘No. He wants to stay. He likes you. Sometimes it looks as though he’s going to take over more of you and sometimes as though he might move out altogether. But he never does either, does he?’
‘It’s strange,’ said Anding, who was still then thinking in terms of his wound’s apparent indecisiveness.
‘Not a bit,’ Tatang Petring told him. ‘Look at the moon. That comes and goes at seemingly odd intervals, all the time on the wax or on the wane, but you couldn’t say the moon was vague, could you? It’s always in exactly the right place. It’s just a question of understanding its habits. When you understand things as they properly are they almost always turn out to be regular in some way. Look at women’s periods; or better’ – Tatang Petring hurriedly skipped over one of the greater mysteries whose very irregularity accounted for a large percentage of his patients’ visits – ‘the tides.’
‘They’re both connected to the moon,’ said Anding. ‘Everyone knows that.’
‘Perhaps your leg is, too. We don’t know.’
Both men contemplated this possibility.
is,’ pursued Tatang Petring, ‘why not wounds? It doesn’t matter if it’s your spirit that’s wounded or your leg. Perhaps everything’s connected with the moon in some way. Meanwhile, how is he?’ He began unwrapping the strip of old T-shirt which this week was tied about Anding’s leg. It had part of a legend printed on it in faded blue letters advertising a paint company. Underneath lay an amorphous lump of pus and poultice, and beneath that Anding’s old friend.
‘He’s going down a bit for food,’ the doctor said at length after close examination. ‘He’s growing now so he needs more nourishment.’
‘Ah.’ To study the outside of his leg Anding craned down and bobbed his knee inwards at the same time, a movement which in the early days had felt awkward and even slightly painful when prolonged but which now had become an entirely natural posture like squatting or bowing or kneeling or any of the other contortions human beings ritually adopt from place to place; there was indeed an element of obeisance in his gesture. ‘And then?’
‘Well, what do you do when you eat a lot?’
‘Fart, usually. Sleep?’
a lot. Eat a lot, shit a lot; it’s natural. So he’s going to shit a lot of this greenish stuff. That’s when the worms come along to clear it away.’
‘That’s the bit Lerma says is smelly.’
‘Of course,’ said Tatang Petring. ‘Did you ever have shit that wasn’t? Though wound-shit doesn’t smell quite the same as ours.’
‘By all accounts it’s a lot worse.’
‘Depends on your point of view. Think how bad your own shit might smell to him.’
They both looked at the wound.
‘I hadn’t thought of that, certainly,’ said Anding. Then he asked: ‘So what are you – or we – actually
‘You mean to the wound?’
‘Exactly. If he’s living his own life in his own time, why are we treating him at all? Why all these leaves and herbs and things?’
Tatang Petring looked up at him in surprise. ‘Isn’t that obvious? I’d have thought that was obvious, myself.’
‘Not completely,’ said Anding humbly.
‘When you have guests in your house … in the
days when you used to have people who stayed overnight, did you ignore them and just leave them to fend for themselves?’
Anding studied the palms of his hands very closely. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I see now.’
‘Well, just as when friends stay we can never be sure we’re giving them exactly what they want most at any moment because there are codes of politeness for guests as well as for hosts, nor can I be quite certain that I’m making him’ – he indicated the wound – ‘as comfortable as I can. We can only try. I sometimes worry about the flies, though.’
‘Occasionally my dressings make it quite difficult for them to reach the wound. Suppose, now, that those flies are
‘Goodness…. We’re driving away his friends just as Lerma says I’m driving away ours.’
‘I’m not saying we are. I’m just saying we might be. Medicine’s extremely difficult; there’s so much we don’t know yet.’
For a long time afterwards Anding had brooded about this conversation and had come to a barely identifiable conclusion that somewhere, in a way which he did not at all understand, there was definitely a suggestion of lightness about it all. Once you had grasped the essential correctness of things the only course which remained was learning how to live with them as they were. Viewpoints. The more viewpoints you saw things from the more sense they made … well, the less they seemed open to the slightest change.
So now when Lerma was complaining about his friend’s smell
he was patient. Quite truthfully he did not himself notice it, and when from under the edge of leaf or bandage a maggot would rumple itself aimlessly away across the brown bumpy expanse of his calf Anding would tuck it back underneath with an offhand solicitude, an abstracted courteousness which quite precisely was unable to notice the reaction of wives, houseguests, casual passers-by. Dogs, small children and Tatang Petring were, Anding did comprehend, about the only creatures yet able to see how interesting and proper the notion of a body-guest was.
‘Let them wait,’ he said of the others to himself while going to and fro about his business, chopping firewood here, feeding the pigs there and walking up the track to chat with Tatang Petring daily. ‘Sooner or later somebody will call on them.’ And spotting the piercing yellow of an oriole looping up to its nest in the crown of a coconut-tree felt a blaze of happiness which made him chuckle at a point a few inches above the head of a passing child.