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Authors: Agatha writing as Mary Westmacott Christie

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BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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Poor Blanche, thought Joan as she undressed, neatly laying and folding her clothes, putting out a fresh pair of stockings for the morning. Poor Blanche. It's really too tragic.

She slipped into her pyjamas and started to brush her hair.

Poor Blanche. Looking so awful and so coarse.

She was ready for bed now, but paused irresolutely before getting in.

One didn't, of course, say one's prayers every night. In fact it was quite a long time since Joan had said a prayer of any kind. And she didn't even go to church very often.

But one did, of course,
believe
.

And she had a sudden odd desire to kneel down now by the side of this rather uncomfortable looking bed (such nasty cotton sheets, thank goodness she had got her own soft pillow with her) and well – say them properly – like a child.

The thought made her feel rather shy and uncomfortable.

She got quickly into bed and pulled up the covers. She picked up the book that she had laid on the little table by the bed head,
The Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart
– really most entertainingly written – a very witty account of mid-Victorian times.

She read a line or two but found she could not concentrate.

I'm too tired, she thought.

She laid down the book and switched off the light.

Again the thought of prayer came to her. What was it that Blanche had said so outrageously – ‘that cuts you off from prayer.' Really, what did she mean?

Joan formed a prayer quickly in her mind – a prayer of isolated words strung together.

God – thank thee – poor Blanche – thank thee that
I
am not like that – great mercies – all my blessings – and especially not like poor Blanche – poor Blanche – really dreadful. Her own fault of course – dreadful – quite a shock – thank God – I am different – poor Blanche …

Joan fell asleep.

Chapter Two

It was raining when Joan Scudamore left the rest house the following morning, a fine gentle rain that seemed somehow incongruous in this part of the world.

She found that she was the only passenger going west – a sufficiently uncommon occurrence, it appeared, although there was not much traffic this time of year. There had been a large convoy on the preceding Friday.

A battered looking touring car was waiting with a European driver and a native relief driver. The manager of the rest house was on the steps in the grey dawn of the morning to hand Joan in, yell at
the Arabs until they adjusted the baggage to his satisfaction, and to wish Mademoiselle, as he called all his lady guests, a safe and comfortable journey. He bowed magnificently and handed her a small cardboard container in which was her lunch.

The driver yelled out cheerily:

‘Bye bye, Satan, see you tomorrow night or next week – and it looks more like next week.'

The car started off. It wound through the streets of the oriental city with its grotesque and unexpected blocks of occidental architecture. The horn blared, donkeys swerved aside, children ran. They drove out through the western gate and on to a broad, unequally paved road that looked important enough to run to the world's end.

Actually it petered out abruptly after two kilometres and an irregular track took its place.

In good weather it was, Joan knew, about seven hours' run to Tell Abu Hamid which was the present terminus of the Turkish railway. The train from Stamboul arrived there this morning and would go back again at eight-thirty this evening. There was a small rest house at Tell Abu Hamid for the convenience of travellers, where they were served with what meals they might need. They should meet the convoy coming east about half-way along the track.

The going was now very uneven. The car leapt and jumped and Joan was thrown up and down in her seat.

The driver called back that he hoped she was all right. It was a bumpy bit of track but he wanted to hurry as much as possible in case he had difficulty crossing the two wadis they had to negotiate.

From time to time he looked anxiously up at the sky.

The rain began to fall faster and the car began to do a series of skids, zigzagging to and fro and making Joan feel slightly sick.

They reached the first wadi about eleven. There was water in it, but they got across and after a slight peril of sticking on the hill up the other side drew out of it successfully. About two kilometres farther on they ran into soft ground and stuck there.

Joan slipped on her mackintosh coat and got out, opening her box of lunch and eating as she walked up and down and watched the two men working, digging with spades, flinging jacks at each other, putting boards they had brought with them under the wheels. They swore and toiled and the wheels spun angrily in the air. It seemed to Joan an impossible task, but the driver assured her that it
wasn't a bad place at all. Finally, with unnerving suddenness the wheels bit and roared, and the car quivered forward on to drier ground.

A little farther on they encountered two cars coming in the opposite direction. All three stopped and the drivers held a consultation, giving each other recommendations and advice.

In the other cars were a woman and a baby, a young French officer, an elderly Armenian and two commercial looking Englishmen.

Presently they went on. They stuck twice more and again the long, laborious business of jacking up and digging out had to be undertaken. The second wadi was more difficult of negotiation than the first one. It was dusk when they came to it and the water was rushing through it.

Joan asked anxiously:

‘Will the train wait?'

‘They usually give an hour's grace. They can make up that on the run, but they won't delay beyond nine-thirty. However the track gets better from now on. Different kind of ground – more open desert.'

They had a bad time clearing the wadi – the farther bank was sheer slippery mud. It was dark when the car at last reached dry ground. From then on, the going was better but when they got to Tell Abu Hamid it was a quarter past ten and the train to Stamboul had gone.

Joan was so completely done up that she hardly noticed her surroundings.

She stumbled into the rest house dining-room with its trestle tables, refused food but asked for tea and then went straight to the dimly lit, bleak room with its three iron beds and taking out bare necessaries, she tumbled into bed and slept like a log.

She awoke the next morning her usual cool competent self. She sat up in bed and looked at her watch. It was half past nine. She got up, dressed and came out into the dining-room. An Indian with an artistic turban wrapped round his head appeared and she ordered breakfast. Then she strolled to the door and looked out.

With a slight humorous grimace she acknowledged to herself that she had indeed arrived at the middle of nowhere.

This time, she reflected, it looked like taking about double the time.

On her journey out she had flown from Cairo to Baghdad. This route was new to her. It was actually seven days from Baghdad to London – three days in the train from London to Stamboul, two days on to Aleppo, another night to the end of the railway at Tell Abu Hamid, then a day's motoring, a night in a rest house and another motor drive to Kirkuk and on by train to Baghdad.

There was no sign of rain this morning. The sky was blue and cloudless, and all around was even coloured golden brown sandy dust. From the rest house itself a tangle of barbed wire enclosed a refuse dump of tins and a space where some skinny chickens ran about squawking loudly. Clouds of flies had settled on such tins as had recently contained nourishment. Something that looked like a bundle of dirty rags suddenly got up and proved to be an Arab boy.

A little distance away, across another tangle of barbed wire was a squat building that was evidently the station with something that Joan took to be either an artesian well or a big water tank beside it. On the far horizon to the north was the faint outline of a range of hills.

Apart from that, nothing. No landmarks, no buildings, no vegetation, no human kind.

A station, a railway track, some hens, what seemed to be a disproportionate amount of barbed wire – and that was all.

Really, Joan thought, it was very amusing. Such an odd place to be held up.

The Indian servant came out and said that the Memsahib's breakfast was ready.

Joan turned and went in. The characteristic atmosphere of a rest house, gloom, mutton fat, paraffin and Flit greeted her with a sense of rather distasteful familiarity.

There was coffee and milk (tinned milk), a whole dish of fried eggs, some hard little rounds of toast, a dish of jam, and some rather doubtful looking stewed prunes.

Joan ate with a good appetite. And presently the Indian reappeared and asked what time the Memsahib would like lunch.

Joan said not for a long time – and it was agreed that half past one would be a satisfactory hour.

The trains, as she knew, went three days a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It was Tuesday morning, so she would not be able to leave until tomorrow night. She spoke to the man asking if that was correct.

‘That right, Memsahib. Miss train last night. Very unfortunate. Track very bad, rain very heavy in night. That means no cars can go to and fro from here to Mosul for some days.'

‘But the trains will be all right?'

Joan was not interested in the Mosul track.

‘Oh yes, train come all right tomorrow morning. Go back tomorrow night.'

Joan nodded. She asked about the car which had brought her.

‘Go off this morning early. Driver hope get through. But I think not. I think him stick one, two days on way there.'

Again without much interest Joan thought it highly probable.

The man went on giving information.

‘That station, Memsahib, over there.'

Joan said that she had thought, somehow, that it might be the station.

‘Turkish station. Station in Turkey. Railway Turkish. Other side of wire, see. That wire frontier.'

Joan looked respectfully at the frontier and thought what very odd things frontiers were.

The Indian said happily:

‘Lunch one-thirty exactly,' and went back into the rest house. A minute or two later she heard him screaming in a high angry voice from somewhere at the back of it. Two other voices chimed in. A spate of high, excited Arabic filled the air.

Joan wondered why it was always Indians who seemed to be in charge of rest houses like this one. Perhaps they had had experience of European ways. Oh well, it didn't much matter.

What should she do with herself this morning? She might go on with the amusing
Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart
. Or she might write some letters. She could post them when the train got to Aleppo. She had a writing pad and some envelopes with her. She hesitated on the threshold of the rest house. It was so dark inside and it smelt so. Perhaps she would go for a walk.

She fetched her thick double felt hat – not that the sun was really dangerous at this time of year, still it was better to be careful. She put on her dark glasses and slipped the writing pad and her fountain pen into her bag.

Then she set out, past the refuse dump and the tins, in the opposite direction to the railway station, since there might, possibly, be international complications if she tried to cross the frontier.

She thought to herself, How curious it is walking like this … there's nowhere to walk
to
.

It was a novel and rather interesting idea. Walking on the downs, on moorland, on a beach, down a road – there was always some objective in view. Over that hill, to that clump of trees, to that patch of heather, down this lane to the farm, along the high road to the next town, by the side of the waves to the next cove.

But here it was
from
– not to. Away from the rest house – that was all. Right hand, left hand, straight ahead – just bare dun-coloured horizon.

She strolled along not too briskly. The air was pleasant. It was hot, but not too hot. A thermometer, she thought, would have registered seventy. And there was a faint, a very faint breeze.

She walked for about ten minutes before turning her head.

The rest house and its sordid accompaniments had receded in a very accommodating manner. From here it looked quite pleasant. Beyond it, the station looked like a little cairn of stones.

Joan smiled and strolled on. Really the air was delicious! There was a purity in it, a freshness. No staleness here, no taint of humanity or civilization. Sun and sky and sandy earth, that was all. Something a little intoxicating in its quality. Joan took deep breaths into her lungs. She was enjoying herself. Really this was quite an adventure! A most welcome break in the monotony of existence. She was quite glad she had missed the train. Twenty-four hours of absolute quiet and peace would be good for her. It was not as though there were any absolute urgency in her return. She could wire to Rodney from Stamboul explaining the delay.

Dear old Rodney! She wondered what he was doing now. Not, really, that there was anything to wonder about, because she knew. He would be sitting in his office at Alderman, Scudamore and Witney's – quite a nice room on the first floor looking out over the Market Square. He had moved into it when old Mr Witney died. He liked that room – She remembered how she had come in one day to see him and had found him standing by the window staring out at the market (it was market day) and at a herd of cattle that was being driven in. ‘Nice lot of shorthorns – those,' he had said. (Or perhaps it wasn't shorthorns – Joan wasn't very good at farming terms – but something like that, anyway.) And she had said, ‘About the new boiler for the central heating, I think Galbraith's estimate is far too high. Shall I see what Chamberlain would charge?'

She remembered the slow way Rodney had turned, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes and looking at her in an absent faraway manner as though he didn't really see her, and the way he had said ‘
boiler
?' as though it was some difficult and remote subject he had never heard of, and then saying – really rather stupidly, ‘I believe Hoddesdon's selling that young bull of his. Wants the money, I suppose.'

BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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