It wasn’t supposed to finish up like this he thought gloomily as he watched the syringe empty its contents into his stomach. Walter Hakim, the new Company doctor, was nervous as he administered the anti-rabies vaccine and there was no comforting medical patter as they went through the process in his bungalow. One of fifteen of 30 cc considered necessary.

It was lonely and isolated at this new posting with the Oil Company and he missed the clubs and many friends at Khaur from where he had been recently posted so he had been glad to receive a call from Khaur saying that Bob Pringle and Haidar Jaffray would be coming to stay with him for a few weeks. They were two geologists; Bob trained at the Imperial College, London, and newly arrived with a recent input of, what Braund called, ‘fresh young blood,’ was a diffident and reserved character, like a guileless child, told by his parents, ‘if you don’t know what’s being said, just smile. And if pressed, say, no thank you.’ He was very much devoted to his geological specimens and field trips and had acquired a great friendly golden retriever which he took everywhere with him. The dog, Ben, had made friends with Riff, and this had brought their two owners together in friendship. Haidar, B did not know so well. He was a trainee Pakistani geologist working with Bob. His family had been landowners in India and had fled to the new Pakistan at the time of the recent Partition. They had been able to bring out some of their wealth with them but now, as a graduate, it was incumbent on him to earn his own living. He, like Bob, was a pacific character, though there was a hint of awareness about him that the World was not as good as it might be and, as someone who had grown up, albeit privileged, in a country occupied by foreigners, and when later it turned out not to be his country at all, he had the air sometimes of nearly getting to the root of the absurdity of life.

Bob and Haidar got on well together and they seemed to like B who felt almost crudely over-powerful in their company. He had sufficient sensitivity to make the necessary effort to tone down his strong manner and radical views when with them. And as he had a genuine interest in their work they enjoyed explaining to him what they were doing. The result was that the three of them had been able to get on well together when they were last with him for a few days. They had engaged in long philosophical and political discussions over glasses of beer when the supper dishes had been cleared away by Sher Mohammed. As two recently formed graduates Bob and Haidar could claim to have a certain mental training that B did not possess but, as an ex-service man, with a fertile, open mind and a wider knowledge of the World B could present his views of life to them for their rational assessment and subsequent debate, at the same time learning from their academic storehouses. It was a successful combination, so much so that the initial reserve with which the two had approached him, and any unbidden condescension on his part, were dissolved in a sense of good friendship.

It was the third day of this second visit and they had just returned from the usual evening walk with the two dogs. They scarcely noticed the surrounding dreary, scrub through which the dusty tracks ran in the direction away from the oil derricks as they talked and discussed among themselves and Riff and Ben ran ahead playing and bumping each other. Now, sitting together in the small room at the bungalow B asked, where are you off to tomorrow?’ ‘To a hole in the ground,’ answered Bob, ‘that the villagers nearby say is bottomless.’ ‘Couldn’t they shine a torch down it?’ asked B thinking this was a sort of joke. ‘We tried with a torch but it was too faint.’ ‘Drop a stone?’ ‘Done that too.’ ‘How wide is it?’ ‘About ten yards across.’ A brief consideration. ‘Wow! that’s enormous; you could lower someone on a rope.”That’s what we’re going to do,’ said Haidar. B thought for a moment. ‘If this isn’t some geologist joke, can I come with you?’ ‘Well, we’re only going to organise things tomorrow,’ said Bob, ‘why not wait until one of us goes down?’ ‘What do you mean – one of us – don’t you know who it’s to be yet?’ ‘Yes we do,’ said Haidar, ‘Bob’s going down, I don’t think I’d have the nerve.”Sensible lad. OK, will you let me know when you’re ready?

On the day they were up at dawn and after a hurried breakfast set off in the pick-up for the village which was five miles from Balkassar over scrub land. The equipment was stowed in the back and the three sat tightly packed in the front with Bob driving. ‘We’d better leave the dogs behind,’ he had said over the breakfast table, ‘they’ll only get in the way.’ This was a blow to B who always took Riff everywhere with him, but it was the geologist’s show so Ben and Riff had been locked in the bungalow before they left and instructions given to Sher Mohammad about their food and water. Bob drove away from the oil derricks on an ill defined track which only permitted a slow crawl. As they bumped along the mackeral cloud formation soon cleared to leave an empty sky for the sun to take centre stage, casting down its burning rays upon the land. By this time B had adapted totally to this sort of heat. he had soon found the sort of clothes that were suitable and so, fit, lean and tanned, he went everywhere in shorts, a bush jacket and open sandals; sometimes with a topee on his head, but often not.

At the site there were some villagers waiting, together with a group of children who, having heard of the enterprise, had left their lessons or field work to come along, the children playing and their elders clustered together in a loose group. A rope had already been secured to a metal pole which had been driven into the ground. from there it was wound around a heavy drum. At the edge of the hole a pulley had been secured and a rope-chair anchored ready for the intrepid occupant about to be lowered into it. ‘Won’t there be water at the bottom?’ B almost whispered as he stood within a yard of the rim, peering down into an abyss of
blackness. The enormous ten yard diameter hole, lying, unexplained in this sere landscape looked like nothing he had ever seen before. ‘They don’t know,’ said Haidar nearby but not too close. It must have been some atavism in action because no one seemed to want to stand close to anyone else near the edge of this fathomless pit. ‘They think it is man made, but aren’t sure.’ There wasn’t much to know at all about the hole. It was just there, and unexplainable, and Bob was going down to look at the geological formations at different depths.

Bob had been conferring with the headman and after checking the fixtures he wriggled his way into the rope chair. Strapped around his body were various tools, a torch and a sample bag. Tied to his harness was a cord for signalling by jerks for when he wanted to up, or down, or to stay motionless. As he sat on the edge the rope was tightened back to the pole, then at a signal between him and the headman he manoeuvred himself over the side and disappeared by degrees. The rope was let out in slow response to the jerks coming back on the trailing cord as Bob now out of sight going deeper and deeper into a supposedly bottomless pit. As Haidar and B stood together, side by side,, silently, there was a sudden frisson behind them from the villagers when a small, black dog came racing through the group. ‘Riff,’ yelled B ‘you naughty boy;’ He caught the flying body in his arms, enduring the slobbering licks of the panting dog, who must have broken out from the locked bungalow and followed the trail here. ‘You naughty, naughty, naughty boy,’ cuddling Riff in surprise and open amazement at this feat. The villagers stared at this display of open affection between man and dog which was alien to their culture. There were always dogs around villages, cowed, sleeping, emaciated creatures or bristling, snarling, crazy agressively defensive ones, who were best given a wide berth.

He retreated from the proximity of the hole and put Riff on the ground. ‘Now you sit there. Sit. Sit.’ His attention returned to the slowly moving rope taking Bob further and further away. The cord would jerk at time for the lowering to stop as he would chip away some piece of rock, label it and put it into the sample bag. How he did this having to hold a torch, a pencil, the chipping tool and the sample bag and keep secure hold of the signalling cord B could only wonder. Then other jerks would get the downwards movement started once more. The waiting became a mixture of boredom and tenseness as the sun rose higher and the air grew hotter. ‘Will it be hotter or colder down there?’ He asked Haidar, more for something to say than for an answer. They waited and waited, watching the moving rope making its way to the edge and over it, stopping at times and then continuing again. At one of these halts the headman said something to Haidar and began pulling in the rope faster than he had been letting it out, but not too fast. The jerking cord continued to demand this return until Bob’s face appeared at the rim and he could struggle over it on to the ground as a swimmer does from water. There was a movement of surprise from the villagers, Riff began to bark, and Bob rose shakily to his feet, his eyes blinking in the strong light. ‘The air was getting bad and I dropped the matches,’ was his laconic explanation. He had a bag full of rock samples and was taking a drink of water when the dog fight started.

One of the more agressive village dogs had made his way to the group near the hole; Riff’s barking had drawn his attention to the presence of a strange dog on his territory and he had hurled himself on to Riff, snapping, snarling to attack and drive away the stranger. The villagers merely watched as the two dogs circled each other hackles raised and teeth bared, lunging and tearing in a dreadful blur of agressive activity. ‘Riff,’ yelled B, ‘Riff, come here.’ But what could poor Riff do? Neither could break off and in their mutual hostility it seemed certain that Riff, half his attackers size, could get badly hurt. Impetuously, B rushed into the fight hoping to carry Riff away but they had each other’s flesh in their jaws. In a rage he began kicking the village dog to get him to release his hold. The two dogs released their holds simultaneously and launched themselves for a new attack with teeth bared. B’s kicking leg was suddenly covered in blood. Furious, he continued kicking and, in a brief separation was able to catch hold of Riff, still snapping and bristling while stones drove off the village dog.

Back at Balkassar removal of the caked blood showed several bite marks. They were deep and numerous. ‘Hadn’t you better get the Doc to put some antiseptic on it?’ Asked Bob. ‘yes, I suppose so.’ he hadn’t thought of that. The new Balkassar doctor, a brother of Dr Hakim at Khaur, had moved with his family into the empty bungalow next to B’s only a week earlier. Walter Hakim, like his brother was an Indian Christian but, whereas the Khaur Hakim was handsome with thick, dark, wavy hair and a cheerful, outgoing personality, Walter was almost completely bald, and a serious, uncertain introvert. So uncertain was he of treating his first European patient at his new post that he phoned his brother, Hasan, at Khaur. The news of the dog bite reached Philip MacCarthy, the Managing Director who insisted that B be given immediately a course of anti-rabies injections. The Morgah Refinery Doc Doyle and his young child had been bitten by their new puppy and both became infected with rabies and neither was expected to live. Hence Maccarthy’s decisive intervention. Walter Hakim was nervous and his nervousness transmitted itself to his first patient who came to dread the daily stomach injections, more so as the death of the Morgah two occurred in the middle of them.

JULY 1949