The House of the Scissors

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THE HOUSE OF THE SCISSORS

Isobel Chace

 

The only women who interested Lucien Manners, they told Arabella, were long-dead ones—like Cleopatra and Dido and Sappho—none of whom had anything in common with an empty-headed model girl, far too young for her age, whom Lucien had described as a “street arab”.

Arabella had better just stop thinking about him...

 

 

Madakaya nyambaya zisahani Sasa ivalalive wanaya nyuni.

Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches Now wild birds nestle their fledglings.

A Swahili poet, referring to the vanished glories of Pate, one of the ruined cities of the East African coast, in 1815.

 

CHAPTER ONE

ARABELLA BURNETT surveyed her grubby jeans and thin cotton shirt with a certain satisfaction. She had had enough of high fashion for a few hours. The day had been unbearably hot, without any sign of the cooling breeze that she had come to expect, blowing in off the Indian Ocean and stirring the steamy heat of the equatorial coast. All the girls had wilted in the crisp dresses they had been modelling and even the photographers, normally indifferent to anything but the picture in their lens, had said that the conditions were intolerable.

“Smile, Arab! Come on, girl! That’s the peach of a dress you’re wearing! Show it off, can’t you? No, I see you can’t! Duckie, you’ve only had it on ten minutes and you look as though you’ve slept in it! Haven’t you ever heard that ladies only glow? Well, you’re no lady, my pet! That dress is a mess!”

Arabella sighed. At least she didn’t have to care if her shirt was grimed with sweat. Her shirt was her own and not on show, to be photographed and demonstrated in any number of glossy brochures that advertised the latest off-the-peg fashions from some of the cheaper manufacturers.

“Cheer up, Arab, it may never happen!”

Arabella started and then smiled. “It already has! Every one of those dresses will have to be washed and ironed before tomorrow. Let’s hope the breeze is back then.”

“I don’t know,” her fellow model, a girl called Jill Henderson, muttered. “We have a glorious free afternoon on the strength of it!”

Arabella grinned, well pleased herself with the outcome. “What are you going to do with it?” she asked Jill.

“Nothing,” the other girl answered, surprised that she should ask. “I’m going to lie on my bed, with the air-conditioning going flat out, and preferably without one bit of flesh touching another, and I’m going to sleep the sleep of the just!”

Arabella chuckled. “You’re too lazy to be true!” she accused Jill mildly.

“And you’re too scruffy to be true!” Jill retorted. “Where are you going, dressed like that?”

“Out,” Arab said briefly. “I’m going for a drive in the Mini-Moke. We’ve barely had time to see anything since we’ve been here. I can hardly believe that we’re really here, so I’m off to convince myself by seeing all the local sights!”

“I’d come with you,” Jill offered, yawning, “but I can hardly stay awake. You’ll have to tell me all about it tonight. Don’t get lost, honey! And, whatever you do, don’t get yourself kidnapped by the slave trade!”

Arab grinned happily. “I don’t suppose I shall,” she murmured amiably. “Such horrors have long since faded away into oblivion—”

“If you say so!” Jill drawled. “But I shall stay close to the hotel and the people I know!”

Arab didn’t mind in the least being on her own. She was never lonely. She enjoyed her work, but she knew she would never hit the heights in modelling. She had the figure for it; she even had a quaint, piquant beauty that the cameras picked up; but she had no burning ambition and she was quite incapable of taking fashion seriously enough for it to be the most important thing in the world for her. She liked the bantering, jealous, even petty atmosphere that surrounded her, but she had always reserved areas of her time and personality for other things, private things, that consisted of dreams of what she would eventually do with her life and filling her head with innumerable pieces of useless information about anything and everything that appealed to her.

She came out of the hotel and crossed the road to where the cars were parked. There was nobody about except for two African women, naked to the waist, surrounded by their numerous children. They sat in the shade of a mango tree, idly gossiping the afternoon away. One of them lifted a hand in greeting as they saw Arab coming towards them. “
Jambo
!” they said in unison, and giggled shyly at their own impertinence.


Jambo
,” Arab repeated. So much for fashion, she thought, as one of the women stood up, stretched herself, re-knotting her
kanga
more tightly about her, with an easy, loose-limbed movement that made their efforts of the morning seem positively inhibited as well as unnecessary.

Arab liked driving the Mini-Moke. She sat on the side and swung her long legs in, swivelling her bottom on to the driving seat as she switched on the ignition key. The engine came to life at a touch, and she reversed easily, wondering whether to turn right and explore the small town of Malindi itself, or to turn left and see what lay beyond the river that she had caught sight of previously. The call of the unknown won, and she turned left, away from Malindi, and headed up the coast in search of adventure.

It was scarcely a week since she had hurried home from the agency, hugging herself with glee, because she had been one of the models chosen to go to the tropical coastline of East Africa, which someone had decided would make a suitable backdrop for that year’s summer fashions. Mombasa had been considered and rejected for some unknown reason, and the powers that be had selected Malindi as the best place for the unit to stay and work.

On arrival, they had found that Malindi was a natural harbour because of the break in the coral reef that ran up alongside the coast. It meant that, whereas almost everywhere else there were miles of silver sands and calm blue seas, at Malindi itself the sand was muddied by the unchecked ocean and the sediment brought down from the interior by the river. The fishing was good, but the photography sessions had had to be held a few miles down the coast, off Casuarina Point, where the magnificent coral gardens are now part of a maritime national park, and where the scenery was so gorgeous that everyone had sighed with satisfaction and pronounced it worth the thousands of miles they had come to find it.

But the three-mile daily journey had made it necessary to hire a fleet of cars to transport them and their luggage back and forth from the hotel and, because the company was a pleasant one to work for, doing all that it could to make the trip an enjoyable as well as profitable one, the cars had been made available for them all to use when they weren’t working, provided they paid for the petrol they used and didn’t race them up and down the Malindi-Mombasa highway, the only good road round about.

Actually the metal surface went a little way beyond Malindi, as far as the modern bridge that crossed the river, looking as though it had been built from a huge Meccano set. It was only after that that it fell into ruts and finally the surface gave out altogether to be replaced by corrugated, sunbaked mud, covered by a thin layer of dust that rose and fell every time a vehicle passed along it.

Arab hesitated on the bridge, looking down at the brown waters of the river below. She could imagine the crocodiles that she knew lived there snapping at her heels in an unguarded moment and shivered involuntarily. She preferred the dry land, the fields of cotton, the huge dark mango trees, the bright green of the banana trees, and the citrus trees. Best of all, she liked the eccentric shape of the pawpaw trees, with their long, thin trunks crowned by a fringe of leaves.

She had not gone much farther when she caught sight of an Arab town, below the road, that enticed her to go and take a closer look at it. The signpost told her that this was Mambrui, a town known to the Portuguese as Quilimanci. Intrigued, she followed the road down the hill and through the narrow streets that divided the small, square brown houses from one another, and out again to a space beside the sea. Immediately, half a dozen boys surrounded the Mini-Moke, all of them with broad grins that broke up the smooth blackness of their faces.

“Deutsch? English?” they asked her. “
Memsahib
, I speak English very well! Please,
memsahib,
I will show you Mambrui?”

Arab chose one of the older boys to the noisy disapproval of all the others, but he looked more reliable than the others, some of whom could barely have been in their teens.

“I am very good guide,” her chosen boy informed her complacently. “I show you everything! Many tourists come here to see our town. Have you been here before?”

Arab shook her head. “I was in England last week,” she told him.

He was suitably impressed. “This town has only a thousand people here now,” he began in a sing-song voice. “It is a wholly Muslim town—very conservative, you understand? These are the streets. That is a shop where you can buy tea and sugar.” He paused in the doorway to allow her to peer in through the door. “Do you wish to see the mosque?”

She did, so he led her there next. It turned out to be a delightful piece of Arab-rococo architecture, and she remembered having seen the minaret from the road. Now she was nearer to it, she could see the way it was decorated with cut-outs of the crescent moon and the stars, and covered with painted verses from the Koran in the free-flowing Arabic script that lends itself so well to decoration. Next door to the mosque was the Koranic school, where the children learned to recite their scriptures by heart, as well as all the legal and moral precepts laid down by the Prophet.

“Do you like Mambrui better than Malindi?” the boy asked her.

“I like them both,” she answered pacifically.

“We are more religious in Mambrui,” he stated unanswerably. He hesitated, obviously assessing her in his mind. “We have a holy man buried here,” he said. “Do you want to see?”

Arab tried to look enthusiastic. She did not much want to see the tomb, but nor did she want to bring to an end their stroll through the streets of this romantic, if rather run-down, little town. She was enjoying looking at the people as they strolled along, the men in long white robes, their heads covered with red or white skull-caps, the women totally hidden by their all-enveloping black veils. Only the children, in their ragged Western dress, looked wholly African. Their elders had taken on the mannerisms as well as the attitudes of their medieval conquerors. They spoke Swahili, but their thoughts were moulded to the Arabic cadences of the Koran.

They passed an old man sitting on his doorstep, telling his beads, and Arab smiled at him hopefully. The old man frowned and shouted something to the boy at her side. The boy jerked his head and shrugged his shoulders, his lower lip jutting sulkily.

“What did he say?” Arab asked him.

“Nothing. He is a fool. He doesn’t like visitors coming to Mambrui. We all know him well!”

Arab looked back to where the old man was sitting. “I shouldn’t like to offend anyone,” she began. “Perhaps I ought to go away?”

“Oh no,
memsahib
! I have told you, he is an old man. Nobody pays any attention to him these days!”

Arab wondered again what the old man had called out, but she soon forgot him as they reached a building, more elaborate than most of the ones she had seen, which housed the tomb of the holy man. There was no glass in the windows and she was able to look inside to where the elaborately carved wooden coffin was laid. The workmanship was superb and she wanted to go closer to see it the better.

“May one go in?” she asked.

The boy nodded eagerly, giving her an impatient push through the door. “Go in, go in!” he echoed.

,The door swung open at her touch and she took a step into the cool interior, looking about her eagerly. No sooner had she done so than it seemed that a whole crowd of people had gathered in the doorway, led by the old man, who was shouting angrily at her guide. Arab came hastily out again and was annoyed when the old man seized her by the arm, pointing ferociously at her feet.

Arab pulled her arm away from him, rubbing the place where he had held her.

“What’s the matter? What have I done wrong?” she asked of anyone who would listen. Nobody did.

She watched with horror as the boy who had been her guide threw a punch at another boy and, before she could say anything at all, everyone was doing battle with everyone else, while the old man shouted imprecations at the lot of them.

“Psst!”

Arab shot round to face whoever had addressed her. A tow-headed European child, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, beckoned imperiously to her.

“Come away
—quick
!” the child commanded.

“But I can’t just leave them to it!” Arab objected.

“You’d better!” the child advised grimly. “Come on, or we’ll both get into trouble. Lucien will be absolutely furious!”

Arab felt a small hand on her arm that tugged her away from the scene of battle with surprising strength. A look over her shoulder convinced her that there was nothing she could do to stop the fighting, so she took to her heels and ran after the child as fast as she could go. They tore through the narrow streets and round the edge of the town by the sea. The child took a gigantic leap off a wall, landing in the dry sand, which was too high up for the sea to ever reach. The child sat down hard and collapsed into giggles.

“Oh, that was fun!” she claimed. “You ought to have seen your face!”

Arab stood on the edge of the beach, feeling dejected. “I don’t know what went wrong!” she wailed.

The child grinned up at her. “Don’t you? Don’t you, really?”

Arab shook her head. She sat down beside the child, wondering if it were a boy or a girl. Perhaps the child’s name would tell her.

“Do you live here?” she asked tentatively.

The child threw a stone into the encroaching sea. A flick of the fingers took it feet farther than Arab could have thrown it A little boy, she decided.

“No,” the child said simply. “I live with Lucien.”

“Near here?” Arab prompted her.

The child stared at her thoughtfully. “Fairly near.” The eyes stayed on Arab’s face for a long moment without blinking. “I don’t want to tell you exactly because Lucien doesn’t like being interrupted when he’s working. I came on the bus and I don’t think he’d be very pleased if he knew.”

“I see,” Arab said gravely. “So we’re both in trouble.”

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