We are a family group en route to the near continent travelling by first class train to London. It’s November and the English countryside is touched by frost and gentle mist. As we head south, first class fills and second becomes ‘standing only in the vestibule’ class.
Surprisingly there is also standing in first class. This can only mean one thing, some of our fellow travellers are going to buy a first class ticket from the guard, on the train, on the day. The most expensive journey since that Queen set off with all those sacks of diamonds with little hope of ever getting them back to Sheba.
Appropriately our companions in question were three Arab looking people of a Muslamic appearance, a father, mother and daughter. Father was a grumpy looking chap, (like your author), who doesn’t speak (likewise). Mother was short, stout, covered according to their tradition, spoke good English and was good humoured. Mrs AWS helped her with her luggage which broke the ice. Their teenaged daughter was covered too, from ankles to cuffs and with only a fringe of hair showing, but in a western style of modern branded clothes. She answered to a Muslim girl’s name, most popular in the Arab peninsular itself. Let’s call her ‘Haif’.
My number three son is keen on phones and brands. Before you sneer, it motivates him to work and earn and he has also become competent at ad hoc consultancy for his nosey dad. He went through the girl’s attire, baffling his old fashioned father with bizarre names and styles and astonishing him with the prices. She had two phones, an expensive but battered one which she used to text and call and a very expensive pristine one, that she pretended to use to text and call, in between genuine texts and calls.
During the last stop before London there was a slight shuffle about which allowed our new friends to find seats.
We were still less than half way to the capital, which allowed a long non-stop run, perfect for serving lunch and for people watching. Excellent.
The father was now out of sight, down the carriage, but his wife and Haif were to my right, three rows ahead, facing. I often have to lip read these days and can do so at reasonable distances even without staring. Perfection.
The mother fell into conversation with someone opposite, hidden from me by the back of a seat. Rather than name a particular country she said she was from the Middle East. Perhaps somewhere embarrassingly controversial? Saudi Arabia? They were travelling to London for a funeral.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and extrapolating from it more so but your author needed to harmlessly pass the time on a long journey.
I imagined a call relaying the sad news to a sun baked compound. Then a dash across the desert to the airport for a last minute flight for a funeral the very next day, as is their custom. Nothing to Heathrow, so English regional.
Haif grabbing clothes in duty free, money no object, dashing to the comfort room on takeoff, queuing with the other girls, stuffing her hijab in a thousand dollar accessory bag and returning to her seat suited, booted and branded.
Gasping in the cold, taxi to the nearest railway station, board the expensive end of the first train to London (Price? A trivial after thought). And all this to set a reminiscing old bore’s grey cells on fire.
Meanwhile Haif was looking at me. And it was more than just a glance. We stared at each other. When girls are used to being covered they have to express so much through their eyes. Dynasties start or crumble, jealousies rise or evaporate, vendettas crash through the generations. All on the flutter of an eyelash or a twitch of a brow or a look held for too long or too quickly avoided.
She was distracted by the guard. Yes, she would buy tickets both for herself and for her parents. She handed over a bank card and, during a slight delay, offered to pay in cash. She reached for a small fabric hand bag, unzipped it, but before she could take out the thousand pounds, the guard showed her the panel on the ticket machine at which she nodded and her tickets and receipt began to print out.
We went back to staring at each other. I was surprised at my own curiosity and was puzzled at what she might be wondering of me while I tried to read those eyes.
When I had hair, teeth and twenty twenty vision (and could hear more than just hissing noises), I looked like a famous footballer. So much so that, when I was in the North East of England, I occasionally had the chance to charge small children 50p for an autograph. Myself and the footballer also looked like a famous comedian who, being genuinely funny and never political, disappeared from the screens long ago.
These days, since I wear black tops and jeans, I look a bit like Steve Jobs, and am even the same age that he was when he died. However, if taken seriously ill, unlike the great man, I’ll do as the doctor says rather than assume I can cure myself with lime juice.
Perhaps Haif just liked my blue eyes, or found them a novelty? Perhaps every middle aged man would rather look at pretty girl than the back of a seat?
In the tropics the whole face was habitually available to carry expression. Although modestly dressed, the face was always shown, by the Muslim girls too, although their hair would be covered.
A friend, new to the archipelago, not only had a novelty value but was a bit eccentric to start with, and therefor seemed the ideal type to be a judge in a beauty contest. What could go wrong? To the uninitiated all the girls looked exactly the same, that’s what could go wrong. When he read out his (randomly guessed at) scores, pandemonium broke out. The natives could be very hot tempered. Most unfortunately, for that naïve judge, they could also gamble large amounts of very hard earned money on everything, especially on provincial heats of the Miss Beautiful Girl competition. Imagine a boxing judge, in front of a tough crowd, scoring a title fight with numbers he’d just made up, some of which included a couple of decimal places and even a comma or two. Dear God.
Myself and Haif continued to stare at each other and then the penny dropped. I smiled and winked at her and then went back to looking out of the window. Now aware of what she reminded me of, I was preoccupied with pen, paper and miner’s helmet. Let me explain.
The Arab peninsular is not really my part of the world and I can’t recall much of interest about it. Before all this nonsense with giant sky scrapers, palm frond condominiums reclaimed from the sea and hyper tube trains along the coast, there was oil, and yes there was money, lots of it, an airport,(ordinary except that duty free sold Rolls Royces, or were they the lottery prizes?) and a container port (small). There was fanciful talk of building a seven star hotel shaped like a sail but in real life the buildings in the township around the creek were still bungalows by todays standards. Boys still dived for pearls and dhows did a roaring trade taking washing machines to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. There was camel racing with, it being only an hour by air from Karachi, Pakistani boy jockeys. To be blunt it was rather dull.
Entertainment was provided by unknowing Western girls, especially ones with blonde hair, who were mercilessly pawed by the local men. I was often befriended, only to be used rather like a mosquito wallah in the Raj (whose job it was to attract the biting insects away from the sleeping white woman).
I enjoyed excellent paid for nights out or sight seeing or shopping, accompanied by a hint of a promise of much more, but this always ended with me sleeping on a floor beside a bed, or in the bath, or even propped against a locked and bolted door in a hotel corridor. Such is life, and the boredom and disappointment was soon forgotten when I left the Gulf.
But then, unexpectedly, back in England, the Gulf came to me.
I know you don’t read the comments but if you did you might realise that some of your fellow readers like to hear traveller’s tales of the rich and famous who have crossed, however briefly, a humble and unworthy author’s path. May I oblige?
To be continued …..
© Always Worth Saying 2019