A WEEKEND

He and Charlie were out on the Salt Range on Charlie’s motor-bike, a far more practical vehicle  for this terrain than Burridge’s car. They had come out for a day’s map-reading, and with Charlie everything had to be organised. There were picnic packs and thermos flasks of cool lemon drink. They had left the bike and the provisions in the shade of a gully and with the aid of a good map had scaled the high points, checking hill and contour as they went. It was so unlike the previous visit here when he and Burridge had been effectively lost all of the time. Now, with the map they could see exactly where they were, even in the most remote and desolate spots. They had returned to the gully, tired, hungry and thirsty and had eaten their way through the contents of the picnic packs before stretching out to enjoy the relaxation. ‘How did you enjoy your holiday in Murree?’ Asked Charlie. ‘It was alright, but a bit lonely on my own.’ So was mine in Lahore. What are you doing this year?’ ‘Don’t really know. Any ideas?’ ‘I thought of walking in the hills in the Murree area. Interested?’ ‘Yes. That sounds terrific.’ ‘We could walk anywhere with these Indian Survey maps, and do some photography.’ Charlie had been teaching B the basics of how to take a good photo, and B was becoming very keen. ‘Of course. Are you going to ‘Pindi for the party?’ Settle one thing and move on to the next; B always liked to push the action ever onwards. ‘No, there’ll be too many Steel’s people about.’ ‘Oh, come on Charlie!’ expostulated B in part exaggeration at Charlie’s general dislike of the Management and partly pleased that he was considered an exception. He knew that Charlie, as an engineer, only respected people who used their hands as well as their brains at work. Administrators he called, ‘pen-pushers’ and mistrusted their outlook on life. He and B recognised in each other, independent souls, and generally left it at that. ‘Are you trying to tell me they’re not pompous twits?’ ‘What about Blair?’ ‘Exceptions don’t make rules.’ ‘They’re people and no different in their own ways than your honest, manual, toiling colleagues. You just don’t want to admit it.’ ‘That you’re in a useless job.’ This sort of argument was always going on at Khaur. When attacked, albeit humorously, Blair was usually the Steel’s spokesman. A memorable riposte of his at one such club wrangle had been, ‘as soon as some people can bend an iron bar, they call themselves engineers.’ That had raised both smiles and frowns. ‘Running other peoples’ jobs down is just a way of boosting one’s own low self-esteem,’ was all B could come back with on this occasion. ‘You’re an idealist Bill. Shall we go back?’

There was a full social week-end ahead and Charlie was determined to miss it all. B had organised a regular weekend run for the small European community at the isolated Oil Field at Balkassar in the Punjab to the larger Station of Khaur, seventy miles away. Some ‘Balkassarites’ stayed the weekend with friends at Khaur while others availed themselves of the Company transport going from Khaur to the Capital at Rawalpindi at the weekends. First into the converted bus came Ken and Doreen Watson; they were new arrivals at Balkassar. Ken was a newly qualified geologist and was filling a full time requirement  in the ‘sticks’ after a few initial months spent at Khaur. ‘I didn’t think you would miss the fun,’ said Doreen to B. She was a large, dark-haired jolly young woman who came from Manchester but had spent time in the South of England and was able, as she said,  to speak, ‘reet Lancashur like,’ or, ‘very posh, don’t you know.’ This, as with many other of her jokey comments, was followed by a peal of infectious laughter. She always brought a sense of fun and liveliness with her, yet had a Northerner’s common sense and down-to-earth shrewdness with it. Ken was fair and handsome in a college-boy style, but not dashing as one might suspect, but slow and deliberate in word and act. They seemed to be a well matched couple. Bob Sinton, the Chief Engineer, came next with a cheery greeting, although Bob usually only answered to conversation, rarely initiating it. He was a friendly Scot. Jumbo and Molly arrived with their two children and took their seats. Jumbo was a driller. There were still a few minutes remaining. ‘Are there anymore coming?’asked Doreen. ‘Willie said he would be coming,’ replied Bob. B went to the driver’s seat and gave the horn a hoot; this brought Willie Wilson out of his bungalow. Willie was another engineer, short and breezy and a solitary drinker. Shortly afterwards Angie Hakim came out of hers. ‘Come along you slow-coaches, called out Ken, we nearly went without you.’ There was animation and some laughter as the two climbed on board to other remarks. Willie  went to sit with Bob and Angie took the empty seat next to B. ‘Where’re the doctor and the children, Angie?’ Asked Doreen. ‘They are all coming later by car.’ Well, Bill will look after you, won’t you luv?’ B waited tensely, but smiling, for any note of ironic laughter.

The driver started the engine. He felt the whole side of Angie’e thigh pressed against his own with mixed feelings. Angie had pursued him. She took incredible risks, creeping into his bedroom at night, waking him to say the doctor had been called out and they had half an hour together He found that his rectitude far out-weighed hers. On one of these nights, both Bob and Haidar were sleeping in the next room as his guests and he had tried to send her away. A fierce, whispered dialogue had ensued, finished with her in tears, and claiming that he didn’t really care for her. He discovered then how important is the mood when making love. In the wrong mood he felt mechanical and detached as she sated her passion. She would send him notes by her servant, passionate, lovesick epistles, saying that she was becoming ill because she believed him indifferent to her, that he was her prince, her lover, her life. The affair had all the ingredients of high drama and its intensity, as developed by her was beginning to leave him wondering where it was all going to end. At times he felt that everyone in the camp must know of their liaison, and he became increasingly more cautious and defensive. With his loss of spontaneity her passion became more and more vibrant, and her risk taking even more reckless. She had even arranged a day out with Charlie and B , her family and two nieces to a lake in some hills. With Charlie as a shield he had enjoyed that day. Now, seated side by side in the bus, on the long journey to Khaur he was a passive receptor of her warm-blooded, clandestine lovemaking, amongst a crowd of his colleagues and friends. It was totally ludicrous, embarrassing, hilarious. He felt like a favoured fly seeing the spider approach, on a Balzacian web.

At Khaur there was a re-staging to be done and he headed for Wally’s bungalow to await the arrival of one of the various cars going into Rawalpindi for the party at the Departmental Club. They were going in convoy because some Pathan guerrillas had been seen recently as far south as Fatehjang, which lay on the road they would be travelling. These tribemen had rallied to the Pakistani cause after the Indian take-over of Kashmir, and had been engaged in fighting deep inside Kashmiri territory. Since a temporary cease-fire had been negotiated, groups of the tribesmen had wandered south to test out the possibilities for looting and extortion. And now they were loose in the Punjab.

The cars taking Burridge, Blair, Tudor Davies, the Herriots, the Munns and several others picked up Wally and B. There was much news to be gleaned on the journey and the time passed quickly. At Rawalpindi they saw that many of the Pathan tribesmen had already arrived in town. Rugged fighters with fine, but stern, immobile faces, they paraded in single file through the bazaars with their slung rifles and bandoleers, accepting the offer of a few coins from each store-keeper, which kept them moving. Here, seemed to be an easing of law and order and the beginning of protection racketeering. But B was already beginning to learn that in daily life there is more going on which lies below the surface, than that which appears on it. What these simple, primitive tribesmen were doing, for the law, and all the world to see, was what is practised, day in and day out, legally or illegally, within the depths of every society.

The band was already in full swing when they arrived and couples were on the dance floor. There was a bigger crowd around the bar, as there were significantly more men than women. For backwoodsmen like the Attock group this was the glittering heights of social partying. The group B was in made for the area where tables were set out in an open space, drinks were ordered and they let themselves be absorbed by the surrounding mood. Sometimes dancing, meeting and talking with some of their town acquaintances, borne away in simple pleasure by the company, the music, the resonance of voices, the lights, the intake of alcohol; all these combined to weave an atmosphere which only came their way infrequently, out of their normal isolated environment. For B the evening passed all too quickly when, in the early hours of the morning, some people were deciding to leave and return to Khaur. Others were staying in ‘Pindi.’ He found himself in the Bentley with his boss Harold Braund and his wife Maxine and also Wally. There was no return convoy this time. He was already asleep in the soft comfort of the seat when the car’s stopping awakened him. Khaki Jan, the driver, was outside in the dark looking at the engine and came to report to Braund that the fan belt was broken. They would have to wait for another car.

It was a time when night and day contest the skies. All around was an utter stillness. There was no settlement or habitation near. Because the air outside was chilly, they stayed in the car, warm and silent. A line of ox-carts loaded up with produce passed, going towards Rawalpindi; the creak of the wheels and the sound of the different tone bells around  the oxens’ necks, made a rustic symphony as a dawn chorus. The shadowed outlines passed within inches of the car window and he could see, looking out, that only one front driver was awake. The others slumbered in their carts, tied one to the other with guidelines. When they had passed the silence surged back again. The drowsiness of sleep was on them soon enough when a volley of shots in the distance caused everyone to become alert. There was a tenseness in the car replacing the dull sense of warm ease and well-being, as this evidence of the tribesmen in the vicinity spelled out potential danger to them in their stranded state. The noise of  firing continued but grew fainter so it seemed that if this was a raid, it was not coming their way. From attentiveness to relaxation was an easy transformation for him and he was wakened for the second time by the sound of voices. The lights of two vehicles shone in the now near dawn light. The cars had stopped, one was Tudor Davies, the other Malik Mustapha Khan, returning together for safety. Room was made for all the Bentley passengers in the two cars, and Khaki Jan was left with the Bentley until a spare belt could be sent out to him from Khaur.

It was after midday when B awoke in Wally’s bungalow, a cold cup of tea by his bedside. There was not much time to be lost, the tennis tournament was scheduled to begin at half two and both he and Wally were entered in it. Over by the swimming pool the tennis courts had newly painted lines. Cane chairs lined the sides and when they arrived there were already some spectators seated and waiting for the first game to begin. He saw Angie and her family together with her husband’s brother’s family. They exchanged covert glances. The two Hakim brothers were favourites in the tournament, both being strong and skilful players. B was considered to have an outside chance, having taken up tennis at the same time he began bridge, never seeming to have enough of either game. He had arranged for a court to be built in Balkassar, but there were few players there and none with any much ability.

He had drawn against Jumbo States in the first round and won their game easily. The Hakim brothers reached the semi-final without much trouble. Surprisingly, Wally was the third to qualify and shortly afterwards B joined the other three by winning his match against Ken Watson. Wally was drawn against Hassan Hakim and against all the odds, by playing sheer,dogged tennis, won the match. This was a complete upset to the expected form and introduced an aspect of uncertainty into the results. B faced Walter Hakim across the net and, as a decided outsider, would normally have fought to a losing result in such a contest. He decided before the first ball was played that he did not wish to win this match and would not make a fight of it. As the game took shape he developed a loose and off-hand style instead of playing his strong, but cautious and constrained strokes. He returned his opponent’s strong deliveries with untypical abandon, trying to make it look as though he was attacking, while expecting these forceful shots to either carry long or be netted. As the game progressed he began to realise that his tactics, rather than achieving the expected results, were winning him game after game. This new style of playing, drawn from the other side of his nature, took over his game to the extent that he either did not want to change it, or could not. A last smash into an undefended corner of the court, and he heard the umpire call, ‘game, set and match, Bill Mason.’ He found himself at the net shaking the doctor’s hand while applause sounded from the seated spectators

The chokra ball boys collected up the tennis balls, trays of lemonade drinks were circulating, and he saw Wally’s grinning face , waiting for him. ‘Well played, Billy boy.’ ‘Well played yourself, Wal, shall we toss for winner and call it a day?’ ‘With you hitting that form, it’s a rash offer.’ ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to play that way again.’ ‘Well, that’s my case too.’ Certainly, B was now the odds on favourite, as Wally had never beaten him in the many games they had played against one another. After a fifteen minutes cooling off they went on to the court. B was confident and played to win. To his surprise he found himself playing his usual game and it was Wally who was putting on the pressure. He tried to revert to the looser, couldn’t-care less game he had played against the doctor, but neither style now served him well and, alternating between the two left him falling behind, just at the time his opponent struck a consistent rhythm which, combined with his powerful shots, left B wrong-footed, time and time again. Attempting to assert his usual dominance made him produce a greater number of errors, and it began to look as if no combination he could find would stem the slight lead that Wally had managed to build up. He fought up to the final contested exchange, losing it and the Fields 1950 tennis championship, but to no one he would rather have lost it to. ‘A great game, Wally.’ Shaking the victor’s hand. Wally was delighted with his success as he acknowledged the applause.

‘Well done, Witters, bad luck Bill.’ said Blair, coming up. ‘If you had played the game you played against your Hakim, you would have slaughtered him.’ ‘Not a hope,’ replied B, watching their faces, ‘the Major had my measure today, and there was nothing I could do about it.’ ‘Is that the Balkassar Hakim’s wife over there?’ asked Blair, nodding in her direction. ‘Erm, yes.’ ‘A nice looking number.’ Blair fancied himself as a connoisseur on women. ‘She must be quite an asset to you jungly wallahs out there.’ ‘If only she could play bridge.’ B sensed dangerous ground. ‘I don’t think it was bridge she was thinking about when she watched you play against her husband.’ ‘You played that last match like a crippled cart horse,’ Burridge joined them, a glass with pink gin in his hand, inserting his bulk between Blair and Wally, addressing himself to B. ‘You should have thrashed Whitmore.’ ‘And the Doc should have thrashed me; that’s tennis.’

Wally, who normally wasn’t slow to cross swords with Burridge, moved away to more generous acclaim and the talk turned to the supper dance at Khaur that was to follow the prize giving. A new tune was running through B’s head, one that the band had played the night before at the Departmental Club dance, ‘The Tennessee Waltz.’ It awoke the open, diffused yearnings of an emotionally repressed nature, when he was never sure where the lines between love and sex were drawn, or indeed, if there were any such divisions; when one could be cynical about sex and disingenuous about love; or whether it was easier to live with sex, or without it. Well, he and Blair had noticed each other watching a pert Anglo-Indian girl at the dance last night, and made wry faces of acknowledgement, of males stalking the female. B had done no more than look; Blair had danced, propositioned and gone home with her. ‘Why is it,’ he was saying now, ‘I never go to bed with an ugly woman, yet often wake up with one?’ This, B thought, was witty and perceptive as many of Blair’s observations were and yet there was an element of cruelty too.

There was no ‘Tennessee Waltz played at the Khaur dance, the records were old ones, war time favourites and still popular for dancing. Last year he had been responsible, as club secretary, for the organisation but this year, as an out-station member, he was free to enjoy himself. The dances with the younger wives were subtle affairs, where the bachelors could hold so close, but no closer, where the whirling dance steps could develop into only so much gaiety and abandon, while the non-dancing husbands at the bar looked on, trying to nod and smile tolerantly, until the wife, flushed and breathless, would be escorted back, bowed to and released. The dances heated, the drinks went down while that strange, floating, out-of-this-world feeling stole easily on to the scene, as atmosphere and imagery merged to create a surrealistic kaleidoscope that buoyed up a high pitch to newer realms of pleasure. Words spoken were less profound and seemed more humorous, familiar faces blurred into luminous eyes, drinks were left unfinished and new ones ordered, or accepted. Dancing now seemed like giddy whirling until a point was reached for him to accept he had drunk enough, or better, too much, and remove himself to a corner table. for aimless and endless discussion with similar feeling participants.

The inevitable enquiries began about the return to Balkassar well after midnight. Jumbo and Molly had left their two children sleeping in a friend’s bungalow. The question, once asked, needed to be answered, so a round-up of opinion was carried out and the time to set off was agreed upon. Half an hour more at half-past one. A messenger was sent to inform the driver, and he came back with the news that the driver was ill with fever and unable to turn out. Harry Froggatt, the transport officer was intercepted on the dance floor and asked about a relief driver. There was none, and Braund was then consulted. He was in the middle of demonstrating some tap dancing steps to a few unsteady drinkers, and interrupted his efforts briefly, to say, ‘you had better drive it back, Mason.’ Right,’ said B. It seemed the obvious solution at the time, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t drive.

A slight qualification. He had driven before but always with unusual consequences. The first occasion was, when in his ‘teens, he had tried to reverse his father’s Alvis car out of the driveway, and had crumpled a rear mud-guard against a stone pillar. Years later, at a second attempt to drive here in Khaur, trying out a weapons carrier from the transport fleet on the road out of the settlement and finding he was unable to stop, had driven it into a bank to stall it. When he started the engine again he realised that he couldn’t reverse and so had to walk back for help. Later the Attock Oil Company had assembled half a dozen old Chevrolet cars to sell to a local contractor and as he and Burridge were working late on Saturday, Burridge suggested they used one of the cars to get back to their bungalows instead of the half mile walk. ‘Can you drive?’ he asked. B thought he could; lack of confidence was wasn’t one of his failings. He knew how to start a car and drive it, but was still shaky about braking and gear changing, but if you could start and drive, the other skills were bound to follow, was his line of thought. The idea of asking a driver to take him through the procedures never occurred to him, and would have been dismissed had the thought entered his head.

The two got into one of the Chevrolets and B started the engine, engaged the gear and put the car in motion. They moved slowly down the hill from the Godown at a slow speed. ‘Can’t you go faster?’ from Burridge. It was an ill-fated question. B could and did. At the bottom of the hill the road turned sharp right. Straight ahead were the Company ‘lines’ – accommodation built for the local employees. A stand-pipe stuck out of the ground beyond the margin of the road. Gathering speed when turning a sharp corner is not the best way to go about this manoeuvre. The car went into a wide curve and ran over the stand-pipe, fracturing it and promptly stalling. A spout of water shot out as they leapt from their seats, but they were not quick enough to escape a drenching. The Chevrolet lay athwart the broken stand-pipe with a jet of water shooting up by its side and cascading down. A crowd from the ‘lines’ began to collect as the two left the scene to call the transport section and and the maintenance foreman.

Strangely, the two episodes seemed not to have branded B as a danger and a menace near any vehicle so, inevitably, there was a third occurrence. Before his transfer from Khaur to Balkassar he had been secretary of the Khaur Club when he had use of the Chief Technologist, Tudor Davies’s car for carrying out certain Club functions. By this time he had studied the methods of sufficient drivers to be sure that he now had a good theoretical knowledge of changing gears and stopping. The only gap in his range of theoretic control was the one he had first used to smash the rear bumper of his Pa’s car all those years ago so he resolved to always take good care to leave any future car he might be driving positioned so he wouldn’t have to reverse it until this too had been learned. The driveway to his bungalow was circular, so there was no problem anticipated here. As he drove from the Club to his bungalow he was agreeably surprised to find himself changing gear without any difficulty. He stopped once to test his control of clutch and brake, and this too worked successfully. Whooping with exhilaration of achievement he accelerated, sure now of his car handling abilities, swung into the driveway and hit the far side post with the front left-hand mudguard. The noise of the smashed metal changed his soaring euphoria abruptly. Such volte-faces can seem comical to an observer, but he felt annoyed, nervous, upset and enraged, all at the same time. This was going to be his final failure in driving, he vowed. He loaded what he needed and returned to the club. ‘There’s a bit of a dent in your mudguard,’ he said, offhandedly to Tudor as he returned the keys.

Now, here was the great challenge. He had drunk too much. It was dark. He had not driven a vehicle, ever before, without causing some damage and he was being entrusted with the safety of a dozen people on a rural road he had never driven on, that ran across gullies and ranges with sheer drops down one side. One positive aspect was that the road was unlikely to have any traffic on it. Although, if anything happened, that might not be such a plus point.

As he drew away from the Club he heard the strains of the song, ‘The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.’ The all-pervading American influence still steadily surging up to the European shoreline. Sitting up front he felt calm and confident. The passengers behind him were speaking in undertones because of the two sleepy children. The dim pin-pricks of light along the road by the Company compound receded and they were in darkness; but a darkness relieved by the open sky and a myriad stars that the city dweller never sees. The steady hum of the engine relaxed the buoyant spirits of both driver and passengers; the talking behind him became more desultory as, one by one, they made comfortable positions for themselves and drifted off to sleep. With his night vision he watched the landscape plunged in a faint iridescent shine that, like an old print, picked out the soft shadows and the silver light of the surrounding land, the weathered rocks and splinters of the outcrops straggling the line of the road. It was hypnotic. The silent world about them, the silence of the sleepers behind, and the muted throb of the engine. He felt he was on a magic ride through an ancient, celestial creation.

Once or twice, in the long journey, there occurred chinks of doubt in the armoury of his confidence. ‘What am I doing here with the lives of these people in my hands, when I can’t really drive at all?’ But he was never short of self-justification for his wild acts. ‘Nonsense, I am driving.’ As far as he was concerned the journey could have gone on forever. This sleeping world, with its peace and harmony would, at times, be animated when some wild animal would spring out of the roadside and race across, or alongside the bus, soon to be gone in the depths of the darkness, outside the range of the obtrusive lights. Flecks of dawn were in the sky as he drove slowly along the track towards the darkened bungalows and stopped smoothly. The passengers stirred. ‘We’ve arrived,’ he said softly. It took some time as they stretched and muttered, before the general wakening. ‘Here already,’ grumbled Ken Watson. ‘I must have dropped off,’ said a voice. ‘Have we left Khaur yet?’ asked Doreen. The children started talking to their mother. ‘Goodnight, goodnight,’ as they dispersed to their bungalows, stiff and unsteady in their movements. Good morning, rather.

He sat for some time, alone in the bus. It was his personal triumph and he was reluctant to leave the place of its achievement. The streaks of light in the sky were widening. He was tired and now felt it, but relaxed at the same time, not wanting to let go. It had been a long week-end and now he wanted this moment to go on forever. Somewhere in the bungalow Riff must have heard a noise, or sensed his presence nearby. His familiar high-pitched howl sounded, calling to B, and B called back in the quiet dawn, ‘OK Riff, here I am, old boy.’

June 1950