Tea was served every afternoon at four-thirty. This was when the Gezira Club garden never seemed to be crowded and the tables free as members drifted into the bar. The bul-bul birds with their black purple feathers skirmished through the palm leaves, snapping and twirling in the warm air. Cats, thin and skinny, exhausted by days of doing nothing lay stretched on the hot stones, barely opening their eyes but always on the ready to slink off if touched.
Thin legged girls in fierce white skirts laughed and swayed on their way back from the tennis courts. On the track called the ring that seemed to hold the club safe on its island in the Nile young British officers exercised polo ponies, thundering along and churning up the earth into dust.
James and Celia met here every Friday afternoon at the start of their weekend away from work in the cipher section at the Embassy. The routine of their Friday was as ever normal. She would take an early sun-bath, her auburn hair wrapped in a towel, have a swim and start into a novel that she knew she would never finish. He spent the morning investigating the souks and antique sellers for snippets of information that he would glean from contacts recruited throughout the bazaars.
The club servant Ahmed knew exactly when to bring out the tray of silver gilded pots and slightly chipped china cups just so the tea would be the right temperature for sipping. Celia took a slice of lemon in hers and so sitting in the planter chairs they gazed towards the pyramids. The sun was starting to set, throwing shadows over Cairo where the night lights twinkled. The evening call to prayer in unison from the many muezzins was soft and beguiling. It seemed almost sacrilegious to talk over the peaceful notes that floated towards them.
James took a cigarette from a silver case and tapped down the rich Turkish tobacco. He pinched the end to a swirl and with a vesta match the tube sparkled into life, the smoke a good defence against the tiny midges that buzzed and bit. He drank in the last of the day’s heat and called out to Ahmed for a peg of whiskey and soda.
‘I think something’s up,’ he said, ‘ I just have a feeling that not all is well. Ah, shukran Ahmed.’
Ahmed put the glass down on the wicker table. James glanced over to him and took a drink chit and a pound note from his wallet which he tucked into the outstretched hand, the fingers already curling. Ahmed bobbed his head and slipped away to the next table.
‘Darling James,’ Celia started, ‘I heard too on the telegraph that our friends,’ she lowered her voice, ‘our friends in Tel Aviv were planning something, maybe, you know an invasion?’
‘Yes that could be it, we are done for here if that happens, especially if we come in on their side,’ he said sighing, ‘and just when we were getting to know each other.’ He turned towards her and placed his hand over hers, twirling her wedding ring till it slipped into his palm.
‘Darling James don’t, I couldn’t bear packing up again, leaving you here, going back to goodness knows where the station will send me.’
Ahmed was watching from the next table and he hovered over to them, his eyes averted from their clasping hands, fingers intertwined. He stood, his red gallabia starched to a tee and from his pocket he took out a small book, a Koran.
‘It’s too late sir’ he said slowly, ‘you had better leave now, the Jews have landed in my country, the Sinai. But you sir have always been our friend. Go in peace.’
The carriage clock on the mantelpiece was silent. The old Colonel stood up, stretched his back straight. It had been that dream again and it was a comfort in his solitary days now.
He picked up the clock, shook it, encouraging it to life, and then satisfied that he could hear a familiar soft tick tick put it back carefully. It was getting late but he had time for just a small nightcap. He settled back to his chair and his evening routine.
From his pocket he took the three things he treasured most and laid them carefully on the side table. A well thumbed Koran, a faded picture of a lady in a sun hat and dark glasses and a wedding ring. He knew which verses he would read, the ones of love and tomorrow he would whisper them to Celia when he visited her in the care home.