Cairo had become the City most frequently visited by the post-war Transport Service and B had found that, besides being the most lucrative place for trading the products he now regularly bought at other places along the route between the UK and Singapore, it was also the likeliest place for unexpected incidences.

Most of the crew he flew with found the pleasures of their transit location at Heliopolis, some distance from Cairo, sufficient to keep them at the facilities provided at the Palace Hotel or in the modern shopping areas and the generally cleaner, greener and fresher surrounds than was on offer at Cairo and so, after one token visit they preferred to stay at Heliopolis.
But the Flight Engineer, Johnny, was a kindred spirit, enjoying the unpredictability of exploring, what was to them, the unusual geographical and historical hinterland of the places they landed in and so was with B in the bar of Shepherd’s Hotel with a crowd of strangers all acting as though a group of celebrating old friends.

Cairo was hardly a beautiful City; to the newcomer it appeared as a confusion of smells, flies and noises, with Arabic music sounding from open-fronted buildings and the main thoroughfares crowded with persistent hawkers offering cigarettes, fly-whisks or pornographic pictures. There were beggars calling for alms and clutching sleeves, pedlars selling lottery tickets or hashish, musicians working the streets, accompanied by jugglers or acrobats.

The City had been founded in AD968, as the fourth Muslim Capital.In AD1176 Saladin had the Citadel and the City Walls built. Under the reign of the Marmeluke Sultans, Cairo prospered but in 1517 the Turks, under Sultan SeLim, overthrew the Marmeluke Dynasty and Egypt became a Province of the Ottoman Empire until 1798, when it was occupied by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte. Three years later, an Anglo-Ottoman force drove the French out of Egypt. In 1882, the British finally occupied Egypt which became the administrative headquarters of the Allied campaign in the Near East, during the First World War. It remained a British Protectorate under King Fuad 1 until his death in 1922, and subsequently, his son, King Farouk 1. It served as an important base and headquarters for the British during World War 11.

Mostly, the people are of Hamito-Semetic race, cousins of the rural fellahin, with oval faces, smooth, black hair and well formed features. There are the Nubians of mixed Arab Negro blood, sometimes with face markings etched on cheeks or brow, and one sees also the Bedouin who are the nomads from the desert. At the time there are, in addition to the British forces, over a quarter of a million foreigners in Egypt; Greeks, Italians, British, French, Syrians, Levantines, Persians and Jews. And there are, of course, the Copts, the native Christians who are the descendants of the ancient Egyptians.

On the crew’s first arrival in Egypt the previous year there had been much civil unrest against the British continual occupation and preparations were already underway to evacuate the country but maintain troops in the Suez Canal Zone. Symbolically, the British garrison in the historical 12th century Citadel had been handed over to Egyptian forces and the Union Jack flag lowered for the last time on 4th July 1946 but British advisers and a British influence continued to hold real power. (BLOG – THE SMUGGLER).

B and Johnny had caught the Tram-like train into Cairo and had made for the usual foreign watering hole of Shepherds’s bar before starting an exploration of the town. Johnny was good company; an open Northerner with a rare sense of humour that B could feed as well as respond to. They got on well together with a degree of camaraderie and a feeling of ease between them either in talking or in absorbed silences. A congenial atmosphere had developed in the company of their new found friends and as the afternoon passed, so did their idea of leaving to explore. By the time darkness fell, they were in a merry, buoyant mood. As the party started to break up and offers of subsequent meetings declined as they would be moving on the following day, the two airmen were left with a few die-hards. B went to the toilet and returning, found no one there, at all. The space their animated group had earlier occupied now looked very empty. He sat for a while expecting the few remainders to return, growing impatient when they did not. ‘They gone outside,’ said the barman with a flourish of his hand.

With an earlier experience in Cairo now coming to mind he immediately jumped to an unreasonable conclusion; Johnny had been lured away and could be in some danger. Paying for the last drinks he went outside on to the street. It was dark but there was still much movement in the pedestrian-thronged streets sharing the road with the anarchical traffic. He had no plan of action but just walked one way and then back again. It was when a patrol of British Military Police moving along one of the main roads caught his eye, that he decided to enlist their help. The Sergeant was co-operative, when he explained that Johnny had just vanished and the circumstances, and detached one of his patrol to accompany B to the red light district where a brothel patrol of two Military Police operated. ‘Come on Flight’ said the soldier, ‘if your mate’s with a woman there’s a good chance he’ll be taken there. Had he been drinking?’ Well, yes he had,’ replied B aware that he, himself, was floating on an alcoholic cloud of out-of-this earth detachment. ‘But he wasn’t sloshed.’

The next half hour was surrealistically dreamlike. Accompanied by the two Military Policemen he was led through a district they must have known well. There was no door they could not enter, no cubicle or backroom they could be prevented from rummaging through. They encountered half-dressed, wholly undressed or hastily dressing men and women who watched their intrusion with varying reactions, but almost always un-resisting. Some would cover up their nakedness and remain staring emotionless, others would scream or shout, obviously obscenities. Some would laugh or play-act teasingly. There were some opulently appointed rooms, heavily scented, oozing sensuality, but mostly the places were small and sparsely furnished. As they progressed into the area, moving down backstreets of tenements, where men and women sat outside on steps in open yards, talking or waiting. Everything seemed to be more wretched and dilapidated as they pushed through the groups waiting outside, into the buildings where there were girls sitting in rooms and waiting customers, playing cards, drinking tea or listening to the radio. In such places, many scarcely lifted their heads as the three uniformed men entered, as of right, scanning faces, and either proceeding upstairs or questioning whoever seemed to be in charge.

These exchanges were either in English or basic Arabic. There would be a slow shaking of the head and no attempt to meet eye contact or otherwise engage. They would leave such places under the indifferent eyes of men and women who had spent a lifetime shaking their heads at corrupt policemen, grasping bureaucrats, spies, informers and occupying soldiers. Their world was a different one from the foreign soldiers, and this blunt intrusion by the present military power could have been enacted many different times previously, even as far back as the Pharaohs, with precious little variation except, perhaps, in the degree in the roughness of the approach.

At one place a strong, largely built woman, dressed in striking robes of primary reds, fixed her round, mobile, fearless eyes on them and addressed one of the MP’s in quite good English, offering the facilities of the Establishment to British soldiers in general, at the best rates in Cairo. Obviously a very shrewd Madame seeking to turn the event into a furtherance of her business. There is something about the use of a dominant personality in poised, harmonious measures, which can tilt the balance of a situation from the controlling force to the advantage of the supposedly weaker side. Of all the reactions experienced on this nocturnal trawl of the seamy underworld of Cairo, that of the meeting with this striking, unusual Madame, made the most impact on the group.

There followed after this a loss of momentum in the movements of the three for, when rejecting the woman’s enticements, the lead MP acted awkwardly, seeming to lose some authority and, in attempting to regain it, left abruptly, followed uncertainly by the other two, under the Madame’s magnetic aura. Composure was soon recovered and the patrol moved on into the night through the surrounding fleshpots.

There was no climax at all to the evening. The two MP’s with B in tow reached an intersection. ‘You had better report the details of your missing friend at Heliopolis if he hasn’t turned up there,’ said the Corporal.’ ‘We’ll enter the matter in our detail report.’ B thanked the two and headed back to Shepherd’s Hotel from where he had set out on this bizarre search an hour or so earlier. Johnny was sitting at the bar. ‘Where the bloody hell did you get to?’ Shouted a relieved and furious B. It was clear that if Johnny had been merely merry when last seen at the bar, he was thoroughly sloshed by this time. ‘Don’t be mad. Come and have a drink.’ ‘Where – have – you – been?’ This enunciated in individually, explosive syllables. ‘Well, where did you get to?’ slurred Johnny, aggrieved. ‘Looking for you all over Cairo.’ ‘And now you’ve found me. Have a drink.’

There was no sense to be got out of Johnny, neither that evening nor ever afterwards. He claimed next day that his mind was a blank. He couldn’t even remember things that had occurred before the party broke up. B was left wondering. Not displeased, in some ways, that he had toured the Cairo dens of vice on a conducted tour, courtesy of His Majesty’s Services, and was not ever likely to repeat the experience again.