Beryl Clutterbuck had taxied her Dragon Rapide almost to the gates of the little Arab Legion fort. She was taking coffee with a gathering of Desert Patrol soldiers beneath an awning outside the walls. Their camels grumbled nearby and they chatted irrepressibly, switching without effort into English when Beryl’s Arabic proved inadequate. Shining black Bedouin curls peeped from under their scarlet keffiyahs, rakishly held in place by the cords of the agal. Their flamboyant uniform robes tumbled about them, long white sleeves turned back from the wrists.
Beryl spun round at the sudden sound of giggling, to see four youngsters running gaily by. In the lead were two barefooted lads, their grubby thawbs flapping around their shins. A girl in a cotton frock, with a tiny flower print, and a worn thin cardigan lagged closely behind and was overtaken by a skittering lamb that bleated in time with their laughter. The self-absorbed coterie rounded the corner of the fort and was lost to view.
The Desert Patrol sergeant took Beryl’s tiny cup and refilled it from a traditional brass coffee pot with an unnecessarily prominent beak like spout. The hot liquid was thick, dark and bitter.
“The lad, Abdulla, will be along in a moment. He will take you there.”
Beryl nodded her thanks.
She had barely started to sip the latest serving of coffee when a battered, white Toyota pick-up drew to a halt with a short skid, scattering loose stones. A young, cream coloured camel sat placidly in the back. The wiry youth who clambered down from the cab was unusually dark, with a mass of unkempt black hair and dazzling white teeth. His blue-grey shirt was buttoned at the wrists and up to the neck and tucked into baggy cargo pants. Dusty toes protruded from leather sandals. The sergeant approached him and they spoke for a while, glancing occasionally towards Beryl. When they came over the lad was grinning, his face in shadow and only those teeth and the whites of his eyes distinguishable against the ebony skin.
“Madam, I will gladly take you to that place. If we might go straight away you will have plenty of time before it gets dark.”
The Toyota sped across the wide, flat wadi floor, twitching off half buried rocks and trailing a long cloud of dust. The blistering heat was sticking Beryl’s sweat drenched bush shirt to her back as she braced herself in the seat next to Abdulla, his expert hands dominating the jerking steering wheel, as he concentrated on keeping to the rough contours of their track. Ahead towered a lonely outcrop of rock, never seemingly any closer for all their speed.
In time, however, they were at the foot of the rock cliff and parked in its shade.
“First I must attend to Zenobia.” Abdulla dropped the tailgate of the truck and set his camel free, but hobbled, to graze on the sparse, coarse vegetation. Then, signalling Beryl to follow, he led her into a deep cleft in the rock. The chasm was barely wider than her shoulders and irregular under foot. In places she could see scratches or drawings on the vertical walls, but they were too weathered to make out. It was cooler now, deep within the outcrop. After what must have been fifty yards or more the narrow gorge opened out into a grotto enclosing a still, deep pool. On the walls were pictographs – abstract circles, dots and triangles by the entrance, but deeper inside lively oryx, ibex and flocks of wild birds populated the rock and reflected in the water.
“I will go and prepare tea,” said Abdulla. “Be free, and enjoy yourself.”
Alone in a magic space, Beryl untied her laces, put the desert boots to one side and removed a very sweaty pair of socks. She discarded her bush shirt, dropped her knee-length khaki shorts and, unhooking a plain white cotton bra, she dipped a slender foot into the pool. The water was satisfyingly cool. Casting off a delicately lacy pair of Brazilian knickers she sank, naked, into the cistern. The silky water caressed her tanned, dry skin. Floating on her back, weightless, golden hair fanning out around her head, gentle ripples tantalising those intimate areas that had been imprisoned within too much perspiration soaked clothing for too many days, was exquisite. Without moving she studied the wall paintings. Among the desert animals there were cattle too, and a giraffe. When was there ever giraffe in this region? There were also stylised human figures in red-brown ochre. They were depicted floating horizontally in space, matchstick men with exaggerated erect penises. Anonymous and faceless they had extended arms and flexed knees as if they were swimming.
Beryl closed her eyes and allowed her long-tense muscles to relax, stress fleeing from her body as the calming stillness penetrated her being, visualising the brown bodied swimmers silently drifting around her.
She could have lain like this for several hours, or it may have been only minutes; she could not guess. But when she opened her eyes the boy was watching her from the pool’s edge. He was motionless except for the subtle rise and fall of his breast – statuesque, remote. He studied her with a detached curiosity, his eyes betraying no hint of lust. Yet, under his gaze Beryl felt her nipples respond. There was a stirring across the surface of the pool.
“You must come in,” she spoke in his native tongue, “the water is wonderful.”