The large brass hinged, black stained wooden front door of the British Bank of the Middle East opened onto a litter strewn, dusty straight road. Hot wind had funnelled plastic cups and wrapping papers from the night’s kebab meals like tumbleweed along the curbs and drink tins had lodged themselves into the storm grates.
No matter how hard Ali Sharif brushed, the dust kept seeping under the door and shimmered over the banking hall, settling into corners. Shafts of thick sunlight sparkled like bubbling shallow rivers through slatted windows. The bank slowly awoke for the day’s business.
A few Indian clerks were talking together like chattering crows as they waited for the kettle and their sweet Chai tea, peppered with sugar spice. Then, clutching mugs, they made their way to the cheap light tan desks and started to sort mail, replace typewriter ribbons and press bells for the messengers to bring them files from the strong room, squinting through thick spectacles.
Jamie McPherson arrived early most days wearing a cream jacket, grey trousers, Regimental tie, crisp white shirt and drill polished shoes. He had always dressed like this for his work overseas since leaving the Army in Hong Kong after his National Service. He understood clearly that his position as the representative for the bank and the personal advisor to the now rather aged Sultan of Oman required this stance and dress code.
Ali Sharif stiffened as Jamie strode past. He dipped his head in salute, received a curt but friendly ‘good morning’ and then leaving the brush at the entrance scuttled to the tea room. He had to prepare the coffee and then try to wrestle the Times of Oman from the security guard for his boss.
Jamie waited at his desk, drumming his fingers and looked again at the secure telex from Head Office. His request for several thousand cancelled white five pound notes had been received in London and passed to the Note Office at the Bank of England. The message confirmed that subject to export permissions a consignment would arrive on the next diplomatic flight through RAF Masirah, the staging post on the way to Colombo and further east. He took in the implications and smiled to himself.
On the other side of Muscat, Sultan Saad bin Taimur was also drumming his fat fingers on an ornate desk. He was worried. News had reached the palace that his only son Qaboos was restless. Rising to his feet, the portly Arab wrapped his silken gold edged ‘bisht’ robe tightly around him and wobbled to the next room followed by his faithful slave Fahid. Fahid had been converted to Islam when presented as a gift by the Ruler of Zanzibar and had attended the Sultan since he was six and he barely knew his heritage.
Now aged seventy he still could stand straight with grey curled hair and a shiny ebony face that was etched with tribal scars, befitting his regal African background. He did not speak but stood silently and waited for the Sultan to indicate that it was time to pray. They walked slowly, Fahid taking his master’s arm towards the butler’s sink that had been filled earlier. They washed together, their rough hands playing in the water, smiling and pushing each other. Today like most days they would not tempt fate and try to bend and clean their feet. Their old backs creaked enough.
They moved to the prayer room and helping his master down, Fahid and the Sultan knelt. Both closed their eyes and murmured the supplications required by their religion. Still, and even after the peaceful few minutes of prayer, the Sultan was fretful and standing up, barked the order to summon his son, and today.
The operations room at the RAF base was quiet and hot. It was housed in a large khaki tent beside the breeze block control tower. The guy ropes were desert dry, bleached and stiff. Flapping papers were held down by pink coloured stones, their print rapidly fading and on a board the day’s flights were indicated. The Flight Sergeant, chewing on his cigarette, was adding another detail for later. It was odd he thought, a VIP flight with a request for security but that is the military for you he mused. ‘You aren’t told nothing,’ he said to himself and with a yellowed chalk that matched his teeth, scratched on the letters, RAF 788 (DIPLOMATIC) 06.50 a.m.
Dawn was breaking and sunlight steamed into the cockpit of the VC-10 of Transport Command, breaking into rainbows through the cracked and scar lined perspex windscreen and then as the old plane banked over the Persian Gulf the crew heard the rumble as the undercarriage came down. The worn black tires connected and spun on the hot tarmac. The whole plane screamed and wobbled in the thin air. Captain Baldwin, weary from his early start and not looking forward to the next leg to Ceylon jostled it to a manageable speed and nosed into the receiving bay. It had seen rough service and the controls were loose, but he knew that his flying days were not going to see him in fighters again. He was too old.
Airmen in shorts and without shirts, burnt nut-brown swarmed over the aircraft which was now creaking as the skin of the fuselage heated up and expanded in the direct sun. They started to manhandle the mail, cargo and diplomatic bags. One piece in particular, a green hessian sack was seemingly alone, propped up and chained to the side of the hold. Within minutes a military policeman had appeared and unlocking the padlock, beckoned with his head that this bag should be brought down before the others.
Two sweaty soldiers stood guard over it in the morning heat, unshaded but dutifully waited, resigned it seemed till a sand coloured open topped Land Rover came into view and slid to a halt. A red-faced fat soldier was in the passenger seat and jumping down drew his revolver. He stood, panting with sweat dripping from beneath his cap, looking with blood red eyes at the surrounding activity as the green sack was secured. He then heaved himself up, and pushing the driver on the shoulder they sped off, breaking the sand surface kicking up a dust that blew back into the tent, the open aircraft hold and the mouths of the soldiers.
Welcome to Masirah the crew thought, spitting out the fetid air that was combined with Avgas fumes, stale smoke and now grit.
Oman only had six miles of roads despite the wealth of the Ruler, almost no schools and was rife with malaria and venereal disease. Much of the walled city was out of bounds to troops, but the SAS had no time for the small ‘shabeens’ where Pakistani prostitutes chivvied young men for a handful of Rupees after a few minutes of pleasure. These special soldiers had a job of keeping the Communists at bay and rarely were seen in town.
The Land Rover bounced along the rutted road sending chickens and children to the sides. Veiled women looked out from dirt shabby houses, sitting on stone steps with brightly coloured doors fiercely shut against the world and black darkened windows. Inner courtyards were strung with laundry and cooking pots threw acrid smoke and steam into the air. A few dogs, too hot or lazy to move, twitched as flies settled on their drippy eyes. The smells of chicory, frying rice, hot oil and grilled lamb were infused into the damp clothes that were hanging lifeless like ghouls from the garish red plastic lines, ready for the next day.
Soon the road improved and the walled city came into view. Speeding through the gates and hooting at camels, goats and the slowly walking inhabitants on their way to the souk, the Land Rover moved on, its journey gradually slowing as the crowds thickened. The soldier was now standing, waving, shouting and gesticulating that he needed right of way.
After a few minutes with the side of the vehicle being bashed by wrapped fists the British Bank could be seen. Stopping outside they blew the horn and at that Ali Sharif appeared. He looked around and after signing a chit dragged the sack through the doors, into the banking hall and then to the top of the basement stairs. His short journey had ploughed a furrow in the dust through the building. He would have to sweep that up later. With little respect for the contents or knowledge of his precious cargo, he bumped the sack down the stairs and taking a well polished long metal key opened the strong room. Finding a space near the back he pushed the bag in and making sure no one was watching, swung the heavy door closed and listened as the lock clicked as he slowly locked it and secured the room. He had done as the boss had told him and no one else was to know.
Qaboos, as the Sultan’s only son was shown due deference as he drove through the Palace gates. He objected to being summoned and as he was enjoying a pleasant breakfast that morning with his cousin, had heard the familiar padding of Fahid in the corridor. Fahid was like a father to him, more so than his own and he bore him no ill. In fact, he had plans for him, but that would come later. He had recently returned from Sandhurst and had taken great interest in what England and a military exercise in Germany had shown him. There was another world outside and his father had little to show for progress and to his people after almost forty years on the throne. Qaboos knew that discontent was fermenting in the villages, and he feared for the future.
His Humber car, a gift from the British had no air conditioning but the limp breeze through the open window as he thundered along following a police motorcycle suited Qaboos. He rested his arm on the sill and lazily waved at the guards, rattling through to the entrance of the Royal Palace. The car stalled and back-fired. The noise broke the silence and elicited no response from the palace guard but a flock of pigeons rose startled themselves, circled and then returned to their pecking in the pebble strewn and very dusty courtyard.
Jamie stood up, pushed his chair back and turned to face the window. Outside the same beggar man from yesterday was sitting on the pavement, supposedly with one leg, waiting for alms from the bank’s customers. A couple of local traders were setting up their stalls selling Chinese calculators, razor blades, biros and envelopes. He heard the whirring of the fan, the click of typewriters and general office noise from the building. He was not going to be here long he thought. The loans were performing and although he would miss the tennis parties and drinks at the Embassy, he had more to offer. But today was different, Sultan Taimur was coming to count his money, the money that in reality existed only as a ledger entry but Jamie had arranged it to be shown as real. He knew the Sultan could not read, but was canny enough to know if things were not right.
The blue-black Rolls Royce purred and chugged towards the centre of Muscat along the Corniche with fishing dhows bobbing at anchor. The Sultan, driving with Fahid beside him knew the way. At the intersections cleared by two outriders he slowed to smile and nod at his Omani subjects who looked on bemused. It was rare that he ventured out and did not notice the lack of attention or indeed affection that was in their faces. Reaching the bank, he cut the engine and waited for Fahid to run over to open his door. Ali Sharif who had been warned and was standing to attention, shouldered his old .303 rifle. It still had a bullet case lodged in the breach from a few years back the wrong way round so would have been useless in an emergency. His eyes looked at the ground and he smelt the two men sweep past into the banking hall where Jamie McPherson was waiting.
‘Your Highness, Salaam Alaikum.’ Jamie stood rigid with pride and led the two men past the rows of desks with the clerks who started to stand, looking down at their feet. At the top of the basement stairs Ali Sharif held open the door. This was an honour for him and he knew a small reward would be given.
The Sultan was impatient, he could almost taste the dampness of the room now and between him and his money was a large steel door. He was trembling and his dark eyes focussed like lasers as Jamie slid the key into the lock, and slowly, so slowly turned it to the left. The mechanism made a metalic sound as the oiled spring released the bolts and like Aladin’s cave the old Sultan could see in the flickering light two chairs, a desk and beside that a sack.
Jamie spoke out to him as he moved forward, ‘Your Highness, this is the property of Sultan Taimur of Musact and Oman and on behalf of Her Majesty’s Treasury, I invite you to inspect your money.’
Fahid pulled out a chair and the Sultan settled, his tongue was on his lips and nodding to show he wanted to be alone, Jamie left the two men gazing at the sack. Fahid drew his large knife from his waistband and with an action he had preformed on many a sheep’s neck cut through the hessian and peeled the limp fabric back. The Sultan perched forward, hardly daring to believe that all this was his. His hand dipped in like a child with a Christmas stocking and he pulled out a crisp, neat bundle of freshly printed fifty pound notes, each bound with a stamped Bank of England paper band stating that the value was ten thousand pounds.
The weight of each packet felt good as he started to shove them into his volumous robes which were soon bulging awkwardly. He gave several packets to Fahid and now satisfied with the haul, managed to stand and with blazing eyes and a greedy smile swished out of the room and almost danced up the stairs.
Ali Sharif had instructions to inform the boss when they were leaving and was caught unawares and was still standing guard as the Sultan passed felt a packet of paper being thrust into his open necked shirt. His mouth remained open with horror as he realised that the Sultan was leaving. He ran towards the manager’s office dropping his rifle that clattered. A dented cartridge case spilled out and rolled under a desk.
Fahid made it to the Rolls-Royce first, opening the driver’s door. The Sultan barely noticing the stares of the crowd who had now gathered at the front of the bank, pulled away with the heavy wheels creating a dust cloud as the car with the number plate ‘1’ disappeared towards the Royal Palace.
Jamie felt sick and steadied himself against the desk in the strong room, putting a dirty mark on his trousers. Newly minted fifty pound notes lay strewn on the floor and he could not bring himself to look into the crumpled sack, he could imagine that half was gone. This was it, he knew the career would always be tainted. He would always be known as the the man who gave away the money.
Qaboos, in his majlis looked at the military plans for the coup and felt a pang of regret for what he was about to do. Flicking his gun belt he caught the buckle and tightened it and looking at the mirror was pleased with his bearing, white trimmed beard and fine camouflaged uniform Tomorrow he would be in charge, and had plans for Fahid, and hadn’t the bank manger been in his regiment? Yes he thought, he would get him as his adviser.