Wednesday, November 10, 2010

32. Rabbit and Bed Bugs

We still had to repay the C.O.s loan, which I was determined to do quickly so that the money could be lent to someone else in need. I shopped in the Egyptian market where tomatoes and cucumbers and fruit were cheap, and bought huge Australian rabbits at the Cold Storage Commission, which I managed to convince Tom was chicken, and I saved money that way. That was before myxomatosis was introduced into Australia and did the culinary world a disservice. These rabbits I roasted, stewed, made into pies and ate hot or cold. Of course we did not have a deep freeze, or even a refrigerator, but we did have an ice box in which to keep the food fresh, and an ice allowance of about 5 pence a day. The ice man brought large blocks of ice every other day, carrying them up the four flights of stairs to our flat. Cooking on paraffin was not a problem, I had done it before, and the veranda was so hot it acted as a warming drawer. And talking of cooking, our kitchen window and one living room door opened out onto a well, formed by three other buildings all occupied by Egyptians and Greeks. At meal times I had to get wet bath towels to block up as much area as possible to keep out the stink of garlic and onion fumes!

Unfortunately the flat was on the wrong side of the Sweet Water Canal. All the buses and military transport ran along the opposite side to us and so we did not have access to it. This meant that I could not become involved in any of the social functions that took place on the station and without a doubt, the posting to Egypt was the loneliest time of my life. Tom was either on Police duty or on bar duty, and came home very late at night. I could only go to places within walking distance, and walking in the Egyptian heat was exhausting. Most families, who were not living on bases in married quarters, lived in an area called Arashia, which was on the other side of the town and certainly not within walking distance from our flat.

There was a very nice park in town and sometimes Tommy and I would spend an hour or two there or, when I felt very energetic, we would walk to Lake Timsah where there was a lovely sandy beach on which Tommy could play. To get there we had to cross the Sweet Water Canal over a little bridge which was raised when the feluccas needed to sail through, but the Sweet Water Canal was anything but sweet. The Egyptians used it for their own ablutions as well as those of their animals, and Tom would never eat water melon because the traders would soak the melons in the canal to make them fresher and fuller, or so he said. When Tommy was big enough I stood him on the wall so that he could see the feluccas passing by. One day he said “Look mummy, meat!” I looked down and saw a dead water buffalo floating through. No, the water was far from sweet!

There were some magnificent houses in Ismailia set in beautiful gardens, which were well kept and watered because there was no shortage of water or cheap labour. In fact labour was so cheap that for a short while I had a boy working for me once a week. I will not forget the time I asked him to bring me a chicken from the market, which he did, taking it into the kitchen to pluck. After a while a terrible sound of chicken squawks came from the kitchen. I rushed in there to find that Abdul was plucking the chicken while it was still alive! He explained that chickens were plucked more easily while they were still warm. When he had brought it in I had assumed that it was already dead. I told him to dispatch the poor, half naked, bird as quickly as possible. That was one roast chicken I really did not enjoy. At least rabbits didn’t squawk.

Tommy was a remarkably intelligent child and one day we were walking through town and on the other side of the road there was a motor car showroom. He pointed to it and said “That’s a Tatraplan”. I could not understand what he was saying so I crossed the road and sure enough there, in the window, stood a Tatraplan. I had never heard of one before, so how he knew about it at two years of age I do not know. Tom would sit the little chap on his knee and draw shapes, and then see how many lines he had to draw before Tommy said CAR or RADIO or CHAIR! And the men in the police patrol unit loved to take Tommy  out with them because he would name all the cars on the road.

Bed bugs thrived in Egypt and I found some in our bed. At first I didn’t know what they were, they looked a bit like flattened lady birds, so I took a couple in a box up to the Medical Centre where I was told that they were bed bugs, which horrified me. I put Tommy out on the veranda in his cot, put an improvised mask on my face and drenched everything in the flat with insect killer. I made just one mistake. I had not looked in the cot, which I had bought second hand, and that was where the little blighters were breeding. We gave the bed and cot to the houseboy, who thought we were completely mad, and we bought new. I said I would never have another second hand bed but a few years ago a friend, who was selling up and moving back to England, gave me a pretty little single bed for our spare room. Later I found bed bugs in Tom’s bed and in my bed which had come from this gift, but this time I paid fumigators to come and sort it out. I read that bed bugs will walk a mile to find a source! Worked out on a ratio of leg length, I wonder how far that is in man miles.

Tom was not in favour of me having another baby, but I didn’t want Tommy to be an only child, nor did I want the age difference between the two children to be more than two and a half years and so, as usual, I got my way. Being pregnant in a hot climate was difficult, one problem was that of “prickly heat”, a type of rash, but the little spots get septic heads that itch like crazy. I was six months pregnant when this rash covered my body and I just longed to lie in a cool bath, but the area must not be washed. We would go into town early to do the shopping and then, as soon as we reached home, I would strip off all my clothes and wrap myself up in a damp, cool sheet. It was while I was thus robed that little Tommy dragged a stool over to where I was sitting and said “Here you are, mummy, put your poor old dogs up”.

Tommy became ill with infective hepatitis and it was difficult trying to feed a two year old a totally fat free diet. Then I became infected and, as I was almost full term with Jeni, the medics carted me off to hospital leaving Tommy to his father’s very inexpert care. As the ambulance drove away, Tommy complained to his father that I had been taken in a Bedford and not a Chevrolet! I was so ill and so weak that when Jeni was born, two weeks later, I hardly went into labour and she arrived in the general ward while everyone was asleep. It was a very painless episode, but we were both as yellow as canaries and had to stay in hospital for a week longer than usual. On being discharged I was told that, in order for the liver to recover, I had to rest for six months. Ha blooming ha! I will tell you how the next six months went.

First of all, a couple of days after arriving back home I heard shooting in the streets around our flat. The Squadron Leader’s wife came rushing upstairs to say that there was rioting in the town, and she was going to look for her two girls who attended a convent school there, and would I please look after her little boy. The four of us hid under the bed, I suppose as shelter from the gunfire. I cannot remember how long the shooting lasted, but a while after it stopped. I crawled out on to the balcony to see what was going on, and I had a good birds eye view. There were smoke clouds in the distance which I later learned came from the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute - a 'supermarket' for the armed forces serving overseas), which had been set alight while Service wives were inside shopping, but I don’t think there were any casualties. The Service men on the bases were desperate to get out to their families but were not allowed to leave until the local authorities asked the military for help, and, like the other husbands, Tom was confined to camp. Outside was chaotic, but sometimes funny. The looted goods from the NAAFI were being carried into Arab Town and one small boy, carrying a tea chest on his head, had just made it to the border when an Arab, much larger than him, grabbed the chest and ran off with it. The boy threw himself on the ground, screaming with rage and banging his fists on the ground. Another man had a crate of Scotch, which would have been of no use since the Muslims did not drink alcohol. We heard that those who stole salad cream did not know what it was for and tried to use it on their hair. There was more shooting and I was so relieved, a little later, to see a British soldier standing outside the entrance to our building, holding a rifle.

In Arashia there was looting, raping and plunder, and the families living there had a very frightening time; furniture was thrown out of windows and flats were set on fire. For once, I was grateful that we were living right on the border of Arab Town and the rioters were not looking for English people there. The following day we were instructed to pack a suitcase each and be ready for evacuation within a few days. Did we have somewhere to go to in the U.K.? I should have said no and then they would have been forced to find us some sort of transit accommodation, but I gave my parents address because they now owned a big house in the seaside town of Westcliffe, where they catered for bed and breakfast accommodation. October was “off season”, they had plenty of empty rooms and I knew mother would love to have us stay there. Besides the suitcase each I was allowed to take Jeni’s pram. Our hard bought furniture and other personal stuff had to be abandoned, even my original tea chest, and we never received any compensation.

About a week later we were taken in a convoy of army busses to a small harbour outside Port Said, where the SS Oranje would anchor off shore and take us aboard. The busses had to return to base before dark, and we were left to wait for the ship at the landing sight where there was a NAAFI canteen, but although we were allowed to shelter there, the place was closed and there was no food available. Jeni was not breast fed and there was no boiling water with which to make up her formula. The children were hungry and frightened, and we sat there through the night waiting for the ship. Although his tour of duty was actually over, we had been held back because of Jeni’s birth; Tom was not allowed to come with us, even though Jeni was only three weeks old, so we were separated again and I had to manage alone.

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