A Parcel for Alexandria

Published in Ten Miles From Anywhere (London: Jonathan Cape, 1958).
3,219 words 12 minute read.

Spearing wore his hair long even in Egypt. He had the kind of complexion the sun fired to a demonic redness and, in contrast, the hair looked whiter and silkier than it does today. Everybody knew him, by sight if not by name. He never wore a hat. You can imagine how he stood out in a crowd of Egyptians because of this flouncing mop of hair. He was a marked man. Perhaps he felt that the extravagance of his appearance had to be matched in some way by an extravagance of conduct. In England, where he is naturally less conspicuous, Spearing has never made a lot of trouble.

Both of us were teaching at the University but I saw more of him than the rest of my colleagues did because we put up at the same pension. Accordingly, when I heard him shouting abuse in Cairo Post Office one hot afternoon I went over to see what the trouble was this time.

We were in the Parcels Department, a long dark cavern equipped with an unusually wide counter, a number of scales and a chute. Only one official seemed to be on duty that afternoon, a hard-faced little man with creased cheeks who closed his eyes when he spoke.

‘If you don’t put Alexandria,’ he said in English, ‘I won’t take it.’

Spearing was so angry that his hands visibly trembled when they gripped the edge of the counter. ‘Everybody knows where Sidi Gaber is, you coot! You know where Sidi Gaber is! I know where it is! He—’

The hand that was flung out in my direction turned suddenly into a claw. Spearing had recognized me. Seizing me by the lapel he stared into my face.

‘This awful bastard says he won’t take my parcel unless I write Alexandria on the bloody thing! You ever heard such insolence?’

The request was a bit fussy, perhaps, though not unreasonable. It was rather like asking for ‘Chelsea, London,’ instead of plain ‘Chelsea.’ But when the official picked the parcel up and threw it at Spearing I could see that neither man was in a rational state of mind. A hot wind had been blowing into Cairo for a week, withering everybody’s forbearance, and outbursts of rage were common. Accordingly I picked Spearing’s parcel up, caught him by the elbow, and contrived to steer him towards the door.

Do you remember that big café overlooking Opera Square? Spearing was so weakened by emotion that I was able to lead him to a table, parcel and all, and order coffee without another word from him. Anger had affected him like physical shock. In a curious, pinched way his nose seemed scarcely to belong to the rest of his face and his hair burned on top of his head like a great, white flame.

‘Who’s the parcel for, anyway?’ I asked, not meaning to be inquisitive, but frankly at a loss for something to say.

For a moment he stared at me as though I had spoken in a language he did not understand. When he looked down at the parcel I sensed that not only had he forgotten to whom it was addressed but also — so completely had he been carried away — he had forgotten the parcel’s very existence.

‘I’m going to write to the Minister of Communications,’ he said after he had drunk his black coffee. ‘Go back to the Post Office and buy a sheet of official paper. If I went into that place again I’d have somebody’s blood on my hands.’

In Egypt all letters to government departments have to be written on officially stamped paper. I assumed Spearing proposed writing to the Minister about the scene in the Parcels Department and made only a half-hearted attempt to dissuade him. After all, he would enjoy blowing off steam and it was most unlikely that anything would come of his complaint. When I returned with the official paper (luckily I didn’t have to go near the Parcels Department to buy it) Spearing had his fountain-pen ready. On the marble-topped café table he wrote a letter of protest to His Excellency the Minister which ended up by demanding the instant dismissal of the official concerned.

The letter, which he signed in his capacity of Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Arts, was posted at a branch post office near the pension (so was the parcel, now addressed to Alexandria) and as Spearing, sweating like a seal, bounced away through the torrid afternoon in the direction of Zamalek I thought the incident closed.

Judging by his alarm and embarrassment a week later so had Spearing. He threw open the Common Room door and said in a voice of anguish, ‘For God’s sake, Newby, come and give me support. He’s come!’

I was the sole occupant of the Common Room at that time of the morning and I could see no way of shuffling my responsibility on to other shoulders. ‘Who’s come?’ I asked.

‘That poor bastard from the Parcels Department! You remember, it’s no good saying you don’t! The Ministry have sent him along to apologize and they’ve told him that unless I accept his apology he’ll get the sack. Can you imagine anything more infamous?’

In Spearing’s room we found the man drinking the coffee Spearing had instantly offered him. He looked a sick man. The furrows in his cheeks seemed deeper and the whites of his eyes were discoloured. At our entry he stood up and cried quietly into a large spotted handkerchief.

Spearing snatched up a piece of paper and showed it to me. At this distance of time I can only remember that it bore a typed message in English which required Spearing to append his signature if the apology of Hussein Khamis was accepted; and if it was not accepted the Professor could be assured that Mr Khamis would be dismissed from the Post Office.

‘There’s no other word for it, Newby. It’s wicked! Treating one of their own people in this way. I don’t like people to be humiliated like this. It’s a bloody outrage, that’s what it is! Sending the poor blighter all the way to Gizeh, here, to apologize to a foreigner! To a foreigner! Mr Khamis, I want to know who sent you.’

‘Sign the paper, do,’ I said, ‘and let the fellow go.’

Mr Khamis was so yellow in the face I could only imagine that humiliation had affected his liver. ‘I have four little motherless children,’ he said. He did not wish to give the name of the official in the Ministry who had sent him.

‘We’ll take a taxi,’ Spearing shouted. ‘I’ll damn soon find out who the fellow was when I get to the Ministry. I’ll give him a piece of my mind! He’s obviously a dreadful bully.’

Mr Khamis and I were in great distress at the thought of Spearing visiting the Ministry of Communications but he was beyond the reach of reason. A farrash fetched a taxi and we set off — Spearing insisted on my presence — through the sunshine which cruelly contradicted the despair in Mr Khamis’s heart and the gloom in mine. During the journey Spearing lectured us on the sanctity of personal relations. If, in any community, personal relations were not good, then that community was rotten in its essentials. And what were personal relations but kindness and consideration for other people? There was no kindness in the Ministry of Communications if their treatment of Mr Khamis was anything to go by. That treatment was a symptom of the corruption of Egypt. And so on.

Khamis Effendi, as Spearing insisted on addressing him, was the first to leave the taxi on arrival at the Ministry. He did not stop. He turned sharply to the left and walked swiftly in the direction of Kasr-el-Aini.

Spearing looked after him in astonishment. ‘Khamis Effendi!’ he shouted. ‘That’s not the way to the Ministry.’

Khamis Effendi broke into a run. The heat was so intense we could see it rising in waves from the pavement. Everything more than thirty yards distant — palm trees, tram lines and Khamis Effendi — quivered in uncertainty. He did not so much disappear as evaporate.

‘Extraordinary’ said Spearing. ‘What d’you think made him clear off like that?’

‘Just sign that paper,’ I urged, ‘give it to one of these policemen on duty and let’s go and get some iced beer.’

Spearing had already discovered the name of the official who had sent Khamis Effendi out to the University. He showed the letter to one of the policemen who deciphered the signature and said we were to go to the second floor and ask for the office of Tartur Bey who was the most important man on that floor. There would, he said, be no mistaking the office. It would naturally be the one from which came the greatest noise.

What it is like in Egyptian government offices these days I have no idea but at that time, before the Revolution, there was no such thing as an ante-room. Everyone crowded round the great man’s desk, fighting for his attention while he, as often as not, conducted interminable conversations on the telephone.

‘Tartur Bey!’ Spearing pushed a policeman’s arm aside and stormed into the crowded room. ‘Did you write this infamous letter?’

An effect was made not so much by the volume of Spearing’s shout — there were others in the room making quite as much noise — as by the fact that it was in English. The foreign, hard sound cut into the more guttural babble. And then, of course, Spearing himself with his bulk and his crimson face and his white hair was quite sufficient to make any Egyptian fall silent at the very sight of him. Not only did the room become quiet. The crowd made way for us.

‘Did you write this wicked letter?’ Spearing was angrier than I would have believed possible after the lecture he had just given on the importance of good personal relations.

Tartur Bey was a middle-aged man of an obvious Turkish descent. He had a heavy, pear-shaped face and the large, baggy, dissipated eyes of a bloodhound. He was quietly drinking a cup of coffee and did not seem at all put out by Spearing’s rudeness. Without moving his head, the coffee cup poised at his lips, Tartur Bey read the letter which Spearing was holding in front of him and said, gently, ‘Yes, Professor. That is my letter.’

‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? How can you treat a man like that? It’s a wonder you didn’t order him to lick my boots! And me a foreigner too! Did you think of these things? I’ll tell you what you’ve done. You’ve destroyed the man’s self-respect!’

Tartur Bey was so bewildered that he looked at me as though for guidance.

‘Isn’t Professor Spearing satisfied with the man’s apology?’ he asked.

‘Satisfied?’ roared Spearing. ‘There’s only one apology I want to hear. That’s an apology from you to Khamis Effendi for the shocking way you’ve treated him!’

Tartur Bey’s secretary, a young man in a tarboosh, whispered in his master’s ear. Clearly, the situation was being explained more fully, and as the young man spoke so Tartur Bey changed colour. An almost girlish blush appeared on his cheeks, so tender and so inappropriate on that heavy countenance that a man on my right began chuckling and whispering behind his hand. Everyone in the room, with the exception of Tartur Bey, his secretary, Spearing and myself, gave way to laughter.

Tartur Bey jumped to his feet. He shouted in Arabic and the room was immediately silent. Querulous with rage he began speaking to Spearing. ‘You are uncivilized and uncultured! It is shameful for a man of your position to behave like this. You are a wicked man. You are evil and old. You have a devil!’

He screwed the letter up and threw it in Spearing’s face.

‘How dare you speak to me like that!’ Spearing said down his nose.

Tartur Bey rocked from side to side in his anger. The room which had already seemed unbearably full of people now became even more crowded. Policemen in cast-off army uniforms rushed in to wave truncheons in the air and push everyone about. I could see Tartur Bey standing on a chair and pointing at Spearing although by this time so much noise was going on it was quite impossible to hear what he was saying. Spearing himself was not so enraged that he was blind to the possibility of a crack on the head from a truncheon; he made little resistance when I took his arm to guide him to the door, though he called into my ear as we went, ‘I made my protest, anyway.’

So much confusion had been caused by the inrush of policemen that Spearing and I were able to escape and descend to the next floor without further molestation.

‘Newby, this is quite iniquitous! It has become impossible to step inside a post office or a government office without being insulted! Just what sort of a man do they think I am?’

He did a curious thing. He crouched with rage. So anxious was he to find a more vigorous cuss-word than any he had used before that he crouched as an aid to concentration. At least, that is what it looked like. The heat in those closed government offices was insupportable. Red-faced, sweating, swearing to himself, he crouched like a man at the beginning of a race.

‘Newby,’ he said savagely, ‘go to the entrance hall. You’ll find a man there in a little booth selling official notepaper. I want two sheets in case I spoil one.’

By this time I was feeling quite angry myself.

‘What do you want official notepaper for?’

The question exasperated him. He straightened up and looked at me with eyes that were very wide open, so wide open that the pupils were completely surrounded by white. ‘To write my complaint about Tartur Bey to the Minister of Communications, of course!’

I took him into a little alcove where some leather chairs were blistering in the sun. ‘What would you do,’ I asked, ‘if this time your letter did reach the Minister and he made Tartur Bey come all the way out to the University to apologize?’

‘Oh, he never would! Tartur Bey is much too important for that.’ Nevertheless, Spearing was considerably calmer.

‘There is no end to it, man. Anyway, I think you are in the wrong. You were very rude to Tartur Bey.’

‘Was I?’ He began sniffing and looking around him. ‘Can you smell it too? Why, bugs of course. Don’t tell me you don’t know the smell of bugs! They’re in these chairs.’

He stood up and began examining the chairs carefully but in a way that revealed he was not giving his mind to the matter.

‘You’re quite right!’ He dropped a chair with a thump. ‘I’m a fool! God, what a fool I am!’

He set off so quickly that I had to run to catch him up.

‘As an honourable man,’ he said, ‘there’s no other course but apology. I shall go back to Tartur Bey and apologize.’

Argument was simply not possible. I was tempted to run away like Khamis Effendi. As Spearing mounted the stairs and marched along the corridor towards Tartur Bey’s office there was little in his manner to reveal that this time his mission was peace. The white crest of hair stood up like a plume on a warrior’s helmet. At the sight of him the policemen rose hurriedly to their feet but Spearing scarcely saw them. He broke their line with a wave of the hand, probably thinking they were asking for backsheesh, and using precisely the same tactics as before drove hard for Tartur Bey’s desk.

‘Excellency!’ he shouted, ‘how can you forgive me? It is all my fault! Please don’t get up. Don’t disturb yourself. All I ask is that you should dine with me tonight.’ Spearing turned to me with a frown. ‘What’s the name of that excellent restaurant off Fouad 1st Street where they serve Egyptian food? You remember the place, the one with the roof-garden, and on the way up you pass the kitchen and you see them roasting kebab. El Hati! That’s the place! Tartur Bey, Mr Newby and I will regard it as a great privilege if you dine with us at El Hati’s tonight. Shall we say eight o’clock?’

Tartur Bey lay back in his chair with his eyes closed. He had closed them as soon as Spearing had burst upon him. A bead of perspiration collected at both corners of his mouth. But for the buzz of flies there was silence in the room. Tartur Bey opened his eyes suddenly and I could see by the way the corners of his mouth went down that he had hoped to find Spearing’s presence an illusion. He wiped the sweat off his chin with an index-finger and gave me a look of deep melancholy.

‘I accept your apology,’ he said to Spearing. ‘Now please go!’

Spearing was not satisfied. ‘How do I know you have forgiven me in your heart? Have dinner with us tonight and I really shall know.’

‘All right, Professor,’ said Tartur Bey with solemnity. ‘But I really have forgiven you. This khamseen makes us all short-tempered. Now you must go because I am busy.’

He even shook hands with us. He had to shout at the policemen before they allowed us to pass, so certain were they that we were dangerous criminals. The last we saw of Tartur Bey was as he sat, staring straight before him with an expression of great weariness on his face.

I say it was the last we saw of Tartur Bey because of course he did not turn up for the dinner. Spearing and I waited until nine o’clock before we began eating and during that time Spearing said, over and over again, ‘What a very nice man Tartur Bey is! You couldn’t wish to meet a nicer man. Such a strong face. So powerful. Like a Roman Emperor.’

We did not leave until ten. By this time Spearing had come round to the view that Tartur Bey had never intended to put in an appearance. His acceptance of the invitation had been quite insincere. That was the trouble with these Egyptians. You could never trust them. Never meant what they said.

‘Come to think of it,’ Spearing remarked, ‘I made a mistake in asking the blighter. I didn’t insult him half so much as I insulted Khamis Effendi, and he was humiliated by Tartur as well. Khamis Effendi is the man we ought to have invited. Well, I hope he doesn’t lose his job.’

For the remainder of Spearing’s stay in Cairo (and he was there two more years) he never entered the Parcels Department of Cairo Main Post Office. In fact, he never cared to hear the place mentioned.

‘If Khamis Bey was still there,’ he once brought himself to explain, ‘it would be embarrassing to run into him again. And if he weren’t — well, I’d feel sort of guilty.’

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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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