Uncle Kevork

First broadcast on the B.B.C’s Third Programme. Published in Ten Miles From Anywhere (London: Jonathan Cape, 1958).
2,644 words 10 minute read.

A long time ago now there was an Armenian shoemaker of Alexandria, Kevork Hamamdjian, who left his modest business to his nephew and assistant Georges, his only relation in the world, on the one condition that Georges would see to it that he was buried in the family vault in the Armenian cemetery in Cairo. As soon as the old man made his wishes known Georges got in touch with the railway company and asked them how much it would cost to send his uncle, suitably enclosed in a coffin, to Cairo. It would be twenty pounds. This figure so staggered Georges (it was as much as he earned in a year) that he became unusually apprehensive about his uncle’s health and took to following the doddering old man about the streets of Alexandria on the rare occasions when he went out for a walk. Georges felt that he could not afford to let him out of his sight. This exaggerated watchfulness was not due to any desire to prolong the old man’s life. Georges just wanted to be on hand when Uncle Kevork died. His plan, in a warm climate, would not allow of a moment’s delay.

He was particularly lucky in that his uncle died without fuss in his eighty-third year at four o’clock one January morning. The first train for Cairo left at five and at this time of the day he could be reasonably sure of finding an empty compartment. With some considerable difficulty he dressed his uncle in his best clothes, made him wear a black tie as being more respectful and rushed him off to the station in a horse cab, telling the driver that his uncle was suffering from a fit from which he could only be cured by the family doctor who lived in Cairo. The cab driver was very sympathetic and held Uncle up at the barrier while Georges went to the ticket office and bought a couple of second-class tickets for Cairo. He gave the cab driver a five-piastre tip for helping him carry Uncle to an empty compartment, and there they propped him in the window corner. Georges was lucky. When the train pulled out of Alexandria station he and Uncle still had the compartment to themselves. After a moment’s thought Georges opened the window wide so that Uncle sat in a gale of wind.

At Damanhour a very heavily built Egyptian in European clothes got into the compartment, said ‘Good morning’ to Georges and his uncle and settled himself comfortably in the opposite corner. For the moment Georges was apprehensive, but when he saw the Egyptian settle down to read Al Aliram, apparently assuming that the old man opposite was fast asleep (Georges had closed the eyes), he breathed more easily. He was now beginning to remember that he had come away without having breakfast. It was a corridor train and he knew there was a restaurant car. The question was whether he could afford to leave Uncle alone with the Egyptian. The smell of coffee wafted along the corridor. Georges decided to risk it.

To his dismay he was only half way through his breakfast of bread and hard-boiled eggs when the train pulled into Tanta. He did not, however, lose his head. He knew that if any more passengers got into the compartment with the Egyptian and his uncle and anyone started commenting on the extraordinary immobility of the old gentleman in the corner, Georges could always bring out his story of the fit. ‘Had them on and off for years now. Just goes as stiff as a stone.’ When Georges returned to the compartment he found that the only occupant was the heavily built Egyptian still reading Al Ahram. Uncle was missing! Georges’ first thought was that he had mistaken the compartment and that the Egyptian had moved. He walked up and down the corridor but he could not see Uncle anywhere. He returned to his place next to the Egyptian and recognized by the photographs, one of the Temple at Luxor and another of the Colossi of Memnon, that this was undoubtedly the compartment into which he had brought his uncle that morning at Alexandria.

After a while he opened conversation with the Egyptian.

‘Good morning, sir. Peace be with you. Was there not an old man making the journey with us in this compartment?’

‘There was an old man,’ answered the Egyptian, carrying on with his paper but speaking, nevertheless, in a perfectly friendly tone. ‘But he got out at the last station.’ Noticing that Georges still remained silent the Egyptian put down his newspaper.

‘Why, was he a friend of yours?’

‘No, answered Georges. ‘Of course not. I have never seen him in my life before.’

‘Otherwise,’ continued the Egyptian, ‘it would have been impolite of him to leave without a parting word. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Abdul Ramadan and I am the champion boxer of Egypt in the heavyweight class. Possibly I shall be the heavyweight champion of the world. You will never guess what I eat when I am training. Well, why don’t you try and guess? In order to help you I will tell you what foods give the greatest strength. First there is gamoose liver, eaten raw. Then there is sheep’s brains, boiled with black beans. However, you will never guess what I eat during training. I eat bananas in the most enormous quantities. They give strength to the bones. If you like, I will show you some photographs of myself and also press cuttings.’

While the Egyptian had been talking Georges’ indignation had been growing. Undoubtedly his uncle had practised a most shameless deception upon him. ‘There,’ said the Egyptian. He produced photographs of Abdul Ramadan in a variety of fighting poses, crouching, springing, pawing the air, shadow boxing. ‘Here are some extremely interesting cuttings,’ he said, opening another envelope.

‘The old gentleman who got out at Tanta,’ said Georges, ‘he didn’t say anything before going? I mean, he seemed normal, not in a hurry, not flustered?’ ‘No, he didn’t say anything except to wish me a good journey. Now this is what Al Abram said about my last fight. “Ramadan the Tiger, Ramadan the Lily of our country, Ramadan the Perfume, knocked Rezzim the Syrian through the ropes at an open-air contest at Abbassia yesterday. The Son of the Nile overcomes the Son of the Dog”.’ Ramadan spluttered over this joke. ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘the Dog river is in Syria. Son of the Nile, Son of the Dog. You see what a lovely thing it is. These journalists are so clever.’

Yet Georges wished to be fair to his uncle. There was quite a possibility that the old man had not deliberately deceived him; that, in fact, he may have had a stroke from which he had suddenly recovered. In spite of being startled out of his wits to find himself in a train well on the way to Cairo he had been sufficiently self-possessed to jump out of the train at Tanta. Yes, that is probably what had happened. What irked Georges was that the old man had had the effrontery to say ‘Good morning’ to Ramadan. It was a little too pert for a man just restored to the living!

‘Believe me,’ said Ramadan, laying two enormous hands on his knees, ‘I must be one of the most remarkable men now living. Those to whom God gives great physical strength He rarely endows with brains. I, on the contrary, am extremely intelligent. My misfortune is that I am constantly being deceived. I am surrounded by rogues. My manager runs off with my purse. One of my sparring partners sells one of my best pails of boxing-gloves. Do you,’ asked Ramadan seriously, ‘think that in the whole length and breadth of this land there is one honest man, one whom I could trust, even if I paid him well – say, five pounds a month?’

Georges thought that his chances of inheriting his uncle’s business were now very poor. Uncle Kevork would have no gratitude for the way Georges had saved his life. Perhaps it had been a little indelicate to dress the old man up in his best clothes and attempt to smuggle him to Cairo as an ordinary passenger instead of laying him in a coffin and paying the twenty pounds. Uncle Kevork would be furious at this last insult to his honour. ‘Mr Ramadan,’ said Georges, taking part in the conversation for the first time, coming alive, really looking around him, really weighing the Egyptian boxer up, ‘it is wrong to have such a distrust of human nature. There are many good and honest men in the world and in order to prove it to you, this is what I shall do. I am at the moment on the way to Cairo to take up a remunerative post as chief secretary to an insurance company. But it so much distresses me to hear a man like you talk of his deceptions that I am prepared to work for you at, say, ten pounds a month, and you will see that human nature has beauties you had not suspected.’ ‘You mean you are prepared to come and work for me?’

‘It is wrong that a man like you, so gifted, so strong, should have such a poor opinion of human nature. Yes, for ten pounds a month I am prepared to be your manager, secretary, or whatever it is.’

‘Five,’ said Ramadan.

‘Not a pound less than ten.’

‘All right, six.’

Eventually they fixed on eight pounds a month and Georges could hardly believe his ears. It was four times as much as he had earned working for his uncle. Earning eight pounds a month a man could almost afford to have a dead uncle properly carried in coffin to Cairo.

‘But,’ said Ramadan in a more solemn manner than he had previously affected, ‘although I have all these great gifts of which I have spoken there is one terrible defect in my character. You will notice that I am a truthful man. I should not like to deceive you. Listen to me, then. I am a man of the most violent temper.’

‘I cannot believe it,’ said Georges. ‘However, I shall make a point of keeping out of your way when I see that you are angry.’

‘It is worse than that,’ said Ramadan. ‘When I am angry I do not know what I am doing. I have been known to kill people with my bare hands.’

‘Your other good qualities,’ said Georges, ‘are so great that I am sure that this small defect will not be noticed.’

Ramadan seemed sad. ‘There have been men whom I have killed merely by shouting at them, such is the power of my voice.’

‘I feel that I owe a duty to mankind,’ said Georges politely. ‘You have been deceived by men and I wish to restore your faith. There can be no more noble thing than restoring faith to men.’

‘I will tell you something,’ said Ramadan as the train rattled over a bridge and they caught a glimpse of the Nile. ‘You remember that old man who was sharing the compartment with us? I killed him by shouting at him. You may well be amazed. You may well sound shocked. But this is how it fell out. You will remember that we were travelling with the window down. I asked this old man, very politely, if he would mind if I closed the window. There was no answer. He was not asleep. I can always tell when a man is asleep and when he is pretending to be asleep. So, in order to scare him, as I thought, I raised my voice and shouted at him, at the top of my voice, ‘I want to shut the window.’ Then, immediately, I noticed that there was a curious stillness about him. I took his hand. It was limp. I touched his knee. It was stiff. In brief, the man was dead. He was, as you noticed, an old man and undoubtedly my shouting so took effect on him that he had a seizure and died immediately. So, I threw him out of the window. You may well appear shocked but what else could I do? His presence there would have embarrassed me. There would have been awkward questions on arriving at Cairo. I knew that we were on the point of crossing the Nile, just as we crossed it a little while ago, so I chose my moment carefully and threw him from the window as we were going over the bridge. I am a very strong man. Well,’ said Ramadan, leaning back and producing a cigarette from his breast pocket, ‘perhaps now you should like to reconsider your offer to work for me. I am a man of short temper and capable of violence.’

By now the train had reached the Cairo suburbs. Mokattam was beginning to rise up on the left hand and, away in the distance on the right, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the Pyramids. A fine, clean, clear, winter morning.

‘O Ramadan,’ said Georges, ‘do not let your fear that you have a violent temper prevent you from allowing me to accomplish my mission of revealing the goodness of human nature to you. I am determined to help you. But first let me make a confession. The first of my duties in serving you is to free your conscience of the burden of a murder. That old man was already dead. He was my uncle.’

Ramadan did not move. He drew on his Cigarette and looked calmly at the photograph of the Colossi of Memnon.

‘It was my uncle. A poor, kind old man who died only this morning and I was taking him to Cairo to bury him in the Armenian cemetery. It costs twenty pounds to take a special compartment for a coffin.’

As Ramadan still made no move or comment, Georges thought that he had not understood and began, once more, to explain rapidly. ‘Stop!’ said Ramadan as the train rolled into Cairo station. ‘O unnatural nephew of an unhappy man. Stand aside and let me pass. You have disgusted me. A man should have respect for his kin. You have treated him like a dog, like a piece of meat, like offal. It horrifies me to think that I have been talking to you so long, revealing so much of myself to you.’

‘But the job you offered me?’ cried Georges.

Ramadan was already out in the corridor, walking along to the carriage door. ‘Unnatural, foul creature,’ he called over his shoulder.

Georges was in desperation. He followed the Egyptian down the platform, having to trot to keep up with him.

‘All right, I’ll do the job for seven pounds.’

Ramadan ignored him. The monstrous deed had distressed him.

An idea struck Georges. ‘Believe me, I am quite sure that even if my uncle had not been dead the force of your voice would have killed him.’ Ramadan was not appeased.

‘Seven pounds, six pounds. All right, I’ll do it for five.’

Ramadan was already on the other side of the barrier.

‘I’ll do it for four pounds. That’s my last offer,’ cried Georges in desperation. He had great difficulty in finding his ticket. When at last he was past the barrier Ramadan had been swallowed up in the crowd and for some time Georges ran here and there looking for him.

‘Oh, what a monster to throw a dead man out of a window,’ he said at last. ‘I should not have been happy working for him at five pounds a month, no, not even at ten pounds a month.’

P.H. Newby

P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

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Detail from The Picnic at Sakkara cover design, Davies Bailey, 1955.