The first thing I saw when I got off the plane was the armed guards, their guns at ease, but dark brown eyes alert. Not the usual package holiday greeting, far more exciting. This was a last-minute deal; Pete got it from the Internet. He says his colleagues spend at least ten per cent of their working day trawling the net for bargain holidays, more fun than reading their latest mission statements or forming working committees to discuss what should be done and who should do it. Pete says his boss could save sixty thousand, four hundred euro a year by giving each employee a free holiday, and he should know, he’s the accountant.
By the time we’d got off the plane and into the customs area Pete had worked out how much it was costing the Egyptian government to protect visitors from terrorists. As we watched our bags being loaded onto the coach he announced the net cost to the tourist industry by deducting the army costs from the gross something or other. My memory is not exact because by then I’d noticed an extremely handsome soldier looking at my cleavage and I must confess I enjoyed revealing another few inches as I bent down to check the strength of the handle on my suitcase. Bad of me, I know.
Our room was spacious and air-conditioned, with two large beds, both clean and pure with white cotton sheets. The balcony, looked beyond the main road with its beautiful flowerbeds and rickety looking Papyrus Museum to the still water of the River Nile. Despite our romantic setting, we wasted our first night on the sumptuous bed by falling asleep straight away. The ten-hour flight had been exhausting, especially for Pete who had been busy working out the costs per passenger to the airline and arriving at the net profit, just as the stewardess served our food. After the small plastic dinner it became necessary for him to adjust the net profit; the meal had contained only one small piece of meat, therefore reducing costs and increasing profit, plus he had forgotten to adjust for local meat prices. Must be the time zones, he’d said as if he needed to apologise for getting his sums wrong to someone who had never once gotten them right.
Pete likes things organised, set times for everything, nothing left to chance or risk and so the first thing we did next day was take a highly organised boat trip down the Nile. As we stood waiting at a small, dusty dock in forty-three degree heat, the sun burned a neat line down the centre parting of my hair.
There was a small pool on the boat. Not much bigger than a child’s paddling pool but big enough to entice two blonde women to disrobe and climb in. Topless and almost bottomless in their thongs they splashed each other and giggled. The crew and waiters took turns to watch. The women watched them watching. When their audience looked like waning the women climbed out and balanced their wet bodies on the narrow rim of the pool and began to apply suntan oil to each other, slowly stroking each other’s backs, allowing the oil to drip downwards, towards their buttocks. Next they turned their attention to their breasts and they rubbed and stroked with the greatest of care.
They were far from amateurs in the game of tease. Their apparent innocence of the effect their actions were having on the Muslim crew was impossible to believe, I’m afraid. No woman could be that innocent. They knew. I knew.
The poolside show apart, the trip was everything that was promised and as the boat moved slowly down river we were treated to bite-size slices of Third World life, where black-clad women washed clothes in the river and thin-armed children grew excited at the sight of us and waved and shouted as they ran along the shore trying to follow. The other tourists on the boat were excited too: ‘Look,’ they exclaimed, ‘barefoot children!’ ‘Washing in the river!’ ‘Mud-huts!’ They all took pictures. So did I.
The boat stopped at Crocodile Island to allow us to attend what was billed as an Egyptian feast in a Bedouin tent. I suppose I had a romantic idea, seeing myself sitting on hand-woven mats in a cool tent, a gentle breeze playing at my back, eating finger food from silver platters, served by handsome waiters, one of whom might spill a little wine on my arm, then insist on gently mopping it up with a crisp linen cloth while accidentally running his fingertip along my bare skin.
The reality laughed at my fantasy. The tent was as big as a wedding marquee. Filled with paper covered tables and low wooden benches, it reminded me of a school hall on jumble-sale day. The benches were packed solid with wilting tourists, earlier arrivals, many of whom seemed in the early stages of heatstroke as they used their napkins to fan themselves. The waiters were indeed handsome but were rushed off their feet fetching water for their desperately thirsty guests and they certainly didn’t seem to notice me or my slinky pink top which was inclined to fall off my left and most shapely shoulder when I moved from sitting to standing, which I did several times in order to reach across the table to help myself to rolls, butter, then salt. This wasn’t a deliberately provocative action but a considerate one. The woman opposite was elderly, obviously overcome by the heat as she sat holding her head, dabbing at her dripping forehead, certainly incapable of passing the salt.
Despite the constant whirring of his battery-operated fan Pete too felt somewhat overcome and his immediate action on reaching our hotel room was to throw off his shirt and lie down. ‘Shall I join you, Pete?’ I asked while allowing my pink top to slink slowly down my shoulders, revealing pretty red bra straps. He didn’t notice, replying only that he was overheated and that I should lie down on the other bed to allow him space to cool. ‘Would you like some water?’ I asked, concerned. He didn’t answer; he had fallen asleep. He was still wearing his trousers, the blue ones, described as cotton casuals on the label he’d forgotten to remove. This is why I love Pete, he thinks he is so cool, so calm, so organised, yet the forgetting of little things like labels contradicts all this, makes him vulnerable, makes him real. I wouldn’t have loved him at all if he’d been really cool and calm. I love Pete like he was then, lying splay-legged on the huge Egyptian bed with his damp bare chest inviting me to touch but his sleepy noises telling me to wait.
I did wait but my patience, like my red bra and the sumptuous bed, went to waste. Pete didn’t rise at all and so I showered and changed. I wasn’t at all sleepy so I decided not to let another balmy Egyptian night slip by unexplored. I walked slowly into the huge reception area of the hotel and gave my key to the night manager. He had seen us arrive back at the hotel after the feast and had noticed the slow, shambling walk of poor dizzy Pete as he’d walked towards the lift.
‘Many people too hot today, many of you Irish people sick,’ he said smiling and gesturing towards his mouth with his hand.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘we’re not used to this heat, it rains a lot in Ireland.’
‘Your husband is a lucky man, lots of rain and lots of you,’ he said, running a finger along the length of my key before hanging it on a small brass hook behind him.
Pausing on the steps, I could taste the heat on the air. Just beyond the hotel entrance were seven cars and four horse -drawn carriages. A man stood at the door of each, some wearing traditional loose robes and others in jeans and T-shirts. Twenty-two brown eyes stared at me, waiting for me to continue my journey down the steps. I took a single step, and watched as they moved forward an inch or two in unison. I waited, they waited. There were only three steps and I felt strongly tempted to take one step back towards the hotel, just to see their reaction, but I recognised my own badness and stopped myself. I’m not sure if my foot had even left the last step when they all lurched towards me, shouting ‘Taxi, taxi, taxi,’ ignoring my polite ‘No thank you’ as though it would be unbelievable that I would actually choose to put one foot in front of the other and walk.
I did walk, though it felt nearly impossible with this posse of men surrounding me, almost tripping me up, each shouting ‘Ten Egyptian pounds’ then ‘Nine Egyptian pounds’ decreasing the price as we walked. They gave up when they reached ‘Five Egyptian pounds’ and sadly returned to their positions at the front of the hotel.
I walked very slowly so not to allow the heat to get to me the way it got to Pete, but then it wasn’t me who was carrying a little extra weight these days. Along the way I stopped at a market stall, a small wooden construction with a striped canopy top. It could have been anywhere—Bray, Blackpool even— were it not for the fact that it only seemed to sell bottled water and cigarettes. The stallholder was the first Egyptian woman I’d seen without the full encasement of the traditional black bhurka. Instead she was wearing several blouses, each of differing lengths, the longest one reaching her ankles, which were hidden beneath the baggiest of baggy trousers. On her head she wore a long-fringed scarf, which far from being pulled tightly across her face was loose, very loose actually, leaving her entire face on view. She eyed me carefully and slowly, like she was reading a book and storing the information. She obviously thought my make-up, my bare legs and arms, the tops of my breasts clearly visible in my low-necked shirt gave her license to stare and so she did without once returning my friendly smile. I bought some water, said my thanks and goodbyes but the woman just silently stared at my pearly pink lips. I felt an urge to reach in my bag and give her my lipstick but I knew she would have greeted such a gift by throwing it into the Nile while treating me to a contemptuous glare and who could blame her?
Leaving the stall behind I walked a little further, passing beds of well-tended flowers and shrubs. I sat down to rest on a bench. I thought about Pete, how a year ago he would have sat with me on this bench, our bodies as close as we could get them in public. That was Pete before the party, the Christmas party of course. The one where he got so drunk he allowed the receptionist to photocopy his buttocks then reciprocated by doing the same for her. Photocopiers see more action at Christmas than at any other time of year. Sometimes one thing leads to another. This was one of those times. I have done it myself, though I did take care to shred the evidence later. This was different, the evidence wasn’t destroyed, it grew. It became a baby. The baby. A baby she kept.
I have forgiven him, forgiven her. Everything. Forgiven.
Who hasn’t woken up with a vague memory of an outrageous act? Which of us hasn’t been saved by a stroke of luck? Pete just didn’t get that stroke of luck. He was caught. Pete being Pete, took full responsibility and set up a direct debit for maintenance and a fund to cover future expenses, like college, wedding and home for the tiny bundle that is Kim, his baby, his daughter. He says that the only thing you can do after doing the wrong thing is the right thing. I agree. This is why I forgave him and why I wait for him to forgive himself. His guilt has made him feel unworthy of me, or, unworthy of my love, as he says. This will change in time. Everything changes in time. I will wait.
‘Hello beautiful blue-eyes,’ said a voice. I looked up to see a man looking down at me from high on his horse and carriage. ‘I will take you for a trip,’ he said.
I was about to say no but his eyes were kind and his shoulders broad. ‘Come. Come. I take you,’ he said.
I allowed him to take my hand and pull me up on to the carriage.
He didn’t ask me where I wanted to go and I offered no destination. A trip is a trip. With the horse trotting at a moderate pace we travelled along the straight road for some ten minutes. It was pleasant, gentle, restful, all those things. Suddenly he stopped and looked at me. ‘Brother’s house for tea, you come,’ he said, before swiftly turning right and journeying through some dusty roads where the houses were roofless and crumbling and skinny grey cats darted from door to door.
His brother’s house was completely empty of furniture and did not seem to have been occupied for some time. However, there was a cardboard box containing a small primus type stove, a kettle, cups, bottled water and some Lipton’s tea bags. Rolled up in the corner was a small rug. He spread it on the floor and beckoned me to sit.
He served the tea, no milk, no sugar and we drank in silence. I had no curiosity about why he had brought me here. I knew, he knew. Why waste words when we had so few in common. Just drink the tea. He stood up to remove the cups. He stayed behind me and I listened to the gentle rattle as he carefully placed everything back in the cardboard box, an organiser, like Pete. When finished he stayed behind me, as though afraid to approach me face to face. The first tentative touch was my hair. As this raised no objection he allowed his finger to stroke the back of my neck, creeping slowly under the rim of my shirt to gently touch the top of my back. I could hear him breathing, no rasping gasps of lust, just slow and deliberate breaths. Dignity.
Without moving to face me, he moved his hands further down. He was feeling more confident now, progressing from fingertips to full hand contact, testing me by keeping his hands flat on my sides for a full minute before slowly moving them towards my front where they arrived thumb first, to test me again. I made no comment and thus reassured he placed his hands fully upon my breasts. I didn’t move.
I looked down and watched as he opened the buttons on my blouse; his fingers seemed quite relaxed as they worked and I could still not hear urgency in his breathing. He continued to undress me, pausing to run his hands over each newly discovered place. He was content to stay behind me, only occasionally glancing over my shoulder to check his progress. I remained still and silent, no pressure to do anything other than sit.
When the last of my clothes were gone, he folded them neatly and placed them in a small pile on the mat. He stood in front of me, one hand clasping a small instant camera. I stood up so our eyes were level.
‘Yes,’ I answered and stood still until I heard the click. He looked pleased as he returned the camera to his pocket and watched me dress.
It was a long walk back to the hotel but I ignored the offers of taxis from the many who stopped. It was boiling hot. I felt sweaty and a little dizzy; I wanted to feel like that. When I reached the market stall, I stopped. The woman was there counting money, packing up her cigarettes and water. She looked up, saw me and lifted her chin. She pointed to her mouth triumphantly. She was wearing pearly pink lipstick.
Pete was awake. ‘Sorry for nodding off,’ he said. ‘Where did you go?’
‘I went for a walk, took a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, had a cup of tea with the driver then let him take off all my clothes and photograph me naked in his brother’s house,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ he answered quietly.
I stepped onto the balcony. A uniformed man was using a hose to water the flowerbed that stood just in front of the Papyrus Museum. Pete joined me on the balcony. The uniformed man continued to hose what must have been gallons of water into the flowerbed, before moving to attend to the next. An old man in a thin robe appeared from behind a tree and bent down to the flowerbed as if to breathe its scent. We watched in silence as he cupped his hands, retrieved some water and drank.
‘Scarce resources,’ said Pete, and began to calculate. ‘It probably costs at least…’
I placed my finger on his lips. ‘Stop,’ I said and kissed him gently on his lower lip, took his hand and led him inside.
He lay down on the bed and looked at me. ‘Sorry I didn’t come with you, it was the heat, it got to me,’ he said.
‘Me too,’ I said and lay on the bed beside him, my head on his damp chest.