Sandflower, страница 1
Liz had not wanted to go to Tasghala. Her father's summons to join him at his desert posting was a punishment to Liz, indicating his disapproval of her London life-style. Then she realized the loneliness his life's work had forced upon him and determined to change all that. Dr. Roger Yate, her father's friend, might question her sincerity, for it was obvious he didn't like her. She didn't like him, either, but it became very important to prove him wrong...
Liz Shepard sighed as, from the absurd receptacle on the table before her, she took yet another clean handkerchief with which to wipe her palms and to dab ineffectually at her forehead and upper lip. Once so employed, the handkerchief became as damp a rag as its fellows and, discarding it, Liz felt newly ill-used by the intolerable heat, by her fate in general and by the apparent callous indifference of the man in the seat opposite.
After all, he was a doctor, wasn’t he? And nominally in charge of her on this last leg of a journey she was hating, had never wanted to take?
She wasn’t unreasonable. She hadn’t expected that a flight from Marseilles to the fringes of the Sahara in a comparatively small aircraft would repeat yesterday’s temperate, smooth passage south from London by Viscount. But last night in that strange hotel she had hardly slept at all; she hadn’t fully understood the air steward’s announcement at takeoff that the passenger cabin would not be pressurized, and at least that man could pretend to care what she was suffering while that incredible sun climbed up the sky, draining it of all color, turning it white with heat.
What if he was so used to darting between Europe and North Africa that he could actually doze away the journey as he was doing now? And he was asleep, she supposed. His breathing was maddeningly regular and his eyes were tightly shut—a fact that at least afforded her the very small satisfaction of being able to study his appearance while he could not do the same to her. Which didn’t mean she would find a study of him attractive. It was simply a way of passing the time...
At Marseilles Airport this morning she had recognized him at once from the description her father had given her to enable them to make their rendezvous. “In his middle thirties. Tallish chap that his best friend wouldn’t call handsome. Blunt sort of chin, I mean, and an aggressive nose. Strong-boned face. Can’t miss his eyebrows—lion-colored eaves, no less. Always bareheaded, even in the desert, and wears good clothes as if he knew he could afford to forget ’em.” Yes, taking him now, feature by feature and foot by foot of his long body, Liz decided that did just about sum up the looks of Dr. Roger Yate. As for the little she knew of his character, she might have something scathing to say of an escort who promptly fell asleep on the job.
She went on to wonder with grudging interest just what details, given to him by her father, had enabled him to recognize her. How did fathers describe their nineteen-year-old daughters to other men, if not with a vague, male description of their clothes? What, for instance, might dada have made of the new slimness that had so gratifyingly banished her schoolgirl puppy fat? Of her reasonable height; of her straight fair hair (expertly petal cut for the last time for goodness knew how long); or even of the smoky dark gray eyes, which were incongruous with the rest of her coloring but which, dada said, had come to her straight from mama?
At any rate, in the departure lounge this morning there had been only a moment between their first exchange of glances and his swift stride toward her, hand outstretched. Stating the fact, not asking her, he had said, “You are Andrew Shepard’s ‘Liz.’ I’m Yate, as you’ll have guessed—” and then, without anything more personal, had gone on to see that her travel papers were in order and to getting her baggage weighed.
She had an idea that he hadn’t approved of the amount of excess weight for which she had to pay, and she knew he had glanced briefly at the seaside bucket that was slung from her wrist and that, when he seemed studiedly to ignore it, she had flaunted rather ostentatiously at him. When they had boarded their flight she had put it on the table between them, transferring to it from her overnight case those necessary handkerchiefs and a makeup kit. She couldn’t believe he wasn’t curious as to why she should tote a bucket and handily attached spade from London to the Sahara. If he would ask her about it, at least it would make an opening gambit for conversation. But he had still said nothing and instead, not long after takeoff, had calmly settled himself to sleep!
As, Liz noticed, withdrawing her attention from him, most of the scatter of their fellow passengers had also done.
Among them there was a French airman, two white-coiffed Sisters of Mercy and a young mother, her hand, relaxed but still protective, across the Moses basket on the seat beside her. And everyone of them was dozing. Everyone, in fact—even the invisible baby—appeared as peaceful and collected in this—this melting pot as if they lay coolly in their beds! Liz enviously surveyed each of them in turn before returning her glance to Roger Yate, she found him awake and watching her.
“You’ve been asleep,” she said, not much caring that her tone held accusation.
He said, “Yes—why not?” and flexed a muscle or two with the ease of a cat before adding, “You should have tried to get a nap yourself. It’s the best way of getting through the hours.”
“I couldn’t possibly sleep in this heat!”
“No, you’re feeling it, aren’t you?” She was conscious of his critical glance at her damp, flushed face. But he reached to adjust the air vent above her seat and buzzed for the steward to come to them.
“Would you like tea, or something iced?” he asked, and while they waited for the latter, he offered cigarettes and lit hers.
She saw him look again at the bucket, and when he bent to read the “Dig the desert, Liz!” in garish red lettering on its side, she volunteered defensively, “It’s rather silly, I suppose. But it was only a joke. Some of my friends threw a party for me at London Airport yesterday, and when I left they gave it to me.” Turning it around, she showed him the amateurish daub of a camel on the other side.
He studied the camel dispassionately. “You must have some very young friends,” he said.
Liz bit her lip. She had guessed he would be superior about it! “They’re all just about my age, as a matter of fact. So if you mean ‘infantile,’ why don’t you say so!”
“I said ‘young,’ ” he reminded her. “And that goes for you, too. I hope it was a good party?”
Mollified, she muttered “Yes,” and wondered why the hilarious presentation of the bucket had seemed so funny at the time and so faraway and childish now. It was odd, too, that she could hardly remember now who had made up the laughing, noisy crowd—only that, at parting, they had all insisted on kissing her in turn, and that she had kissed them. All of them, that is, except Robin. He had been there, all right. But so had Marta Gethin. So Robin had merely tweaked her hair, muttered, “Stay as sweet as you are, Liz,” and hadn’t even stayed till the very end.
At the thought of Robin, of the aunts’ cool apartment that overlooked the park and of London evenings, gray blue and friendly, her mouth drooped at the corners and her spirits touched zero. She thought fiercely, I won’t howl in front of him, and sat up with a defiant squaring of her shoulders to see him glance at his watch and to hear him telling her, “Cheer up. We’re over the worst of the journey. Less than an hour from Tasghala now.”
Liz sighed. “I don’t know that I could care less—if it’s going to be as hot as this when we do get there.”
“It can be hotter, I’m afraid. We sometimes touch a centigrade high of forty degrees. That’s a hundred and four degrees in the shade to you.”
“How awful! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything over ninety degrees in England. And if it’s as bad as this..
“Well, it isn’t entirely. By that I mean that in Tasghala, as in any oasis township, it’s possible to come to terms with the climate and to live with it without fighting it all the time.”
Liz brightened slightly. “Oh—you mean there’s air conditioning and all that?”
He replied dryly, “No air conditioning yet, I’m afraid. Tasghala has been there for centuries, but it’s still pretty young as a European settlement. Thanks to the French pioneers, we’ve got electricity and artesian wells. But so far we have to get by on electric fans, cold showers and knowing how and when to shut down our houses against the heat. And against sandstorms, of course. Anyway, you’ll learn by experience to leave going ‘out in the midday sun’ to mad dogs and the Englishmen who must be out in it. At your age, you should be able to take the rest in your stride.”
If only, instead of lecturing me, he showed a vestige of sympathy, thought Liz. Fleetingly she wondered whether he had a bedside manner at all, and toyed with the idea of testing his reactions by appearing more distressed—feigning airsickness or something—than she really was. Rejecting the temptation, she summoned enough interest to ask, “But is Tasghala a proper town—as we know towns in England, I mean?”
“Of course.” He looked surprised at the question. “There’s a local administration—that’s French, though the oil concession belongs to us. Naturally, there’s the hospital—where I work—and a school, both run by the Soeurs Blanches, a religious order. You know there’s a hotel. There’s also a kind of country club; the airstrip; not many shops by European standards—people do their daily shopping in the market and have the rest sent out. ” He paused. “ I don’t understand. You must have heard all this already from your father?”
His tone sounded accusing, and Liz flushed. “No, not really. That is, I haven’t asked him.”
“You haven’t had even that much common curiosity about a place that’s to be your home? Or did you see it as a cross between, say, the Arabian Nights and The Garden of Allah in a private dream that you didn’t want disturbed?”
“No, of course not. I didn’t want to come out to Tasghala at all!”
“Then why did you come?”
“You know why,” she retorted crossly. “You’re a friend of dada’s, aren’t you? You agreed to see me out from Marseilles when he couldn’t wait for me. You can’t claim he didn’t talk to you about me, tell you why he was making me come!”
“Yes, well—” Roger Yate looked up at her from under those eavelike brows “—of course I had his version. But I’d rather like yours, too.”
“I wasn’t allowed a ‘version’!” exploded Liz. “Dada and the aunts cooked it up between them and presented it to me as an accomplished fact. So you can take it that what you’ve heard is all there is to know. That I’m being punished for—for daring to enjoy myself with my own set in London, for spending an allowance that the aunts said was mine to spend as I pleased, and finally for—well, for falling a bit in love! And what’s so horribly criminal about any of that? If you know, you tell me—I’d be delighted to hear!”
Roger Yate met her indignant eyes. “Do you know, I’ve a notion that that is your version,” he commented mildly. “At any rate, it doesn’t entirely tie in with the one I had from your father, who is to be relied on for the truth, I’ve always thought. As I had it, he was worried that you seemed to have a lot of acquaintances but no real friends among your ‘set,’ as you call it, in London. Also that the extent to which your aunts were supplementing his allowance to you was depriving you of any idea of the value of money. He didn’t give me the impression you were being punished for anything—only that he was ending a state of affairs that he didn’t intend should continue. There was nothing he could do about it if he left you in London. So he thought it would do you no harm to bring you out to Tasghala until you’d made up your mind about a career.”
“But I had a job in London! At least, a kind of job. It wasn’t full-time and I wasn’t being paid yet. A girl I knew opened an espresso bar, and I helped her with it. And that’s where quite a lot of my last quarter’s allowance went—to buy fittings and things for it, you know.”
“Hmm. Well, you can hardly blame Andrew for regarding that as a form of charity, rather than a career. And as for your other grievance, you mustn’t suppose he betrayed any confidence about that.”
Liz looked blank. “My other grievance? Oh—you mean Robin? My affair with him?”
“How could I have meant Robin—whoever he is—when I’d never heard of the man? Is he the chap you fell in love with ‘a bit’?”
“More than a bit. But it wasn’t all on my side,” added Liz with a spurt of pride. “He wanted us to get engaged.”
“A project to which your father said ‘No’?”
Liz shook her head. “Not exactly. In a way, it was—well, coming apart—before dada came home on leave. It was because of a girl called Marta Gethin, really. You see, Robin was talented. He painted and he wrote a bit. But he hadn’t any money of his own, and Marta Gethin had.”
“Well, of course she used it—being rich, I mean—to take him away from me. And all dada could say was that if Robin went as willingly as all that, I was well rid of him. And that it made him all the more determined to get me away from London, as I was sure to forget Robin in time.”
“But you are convinced that you won’t?”
“I know,” said Liz with conviction, “that ‘Time heals everything’ is just one of the things parents think they ought to say. Whereas I’m certain that if I’d stayed around, Robin would have—well, he did love me—he said so. But what chance have I got of competing with Marta Gethin from a thousand or so miles away?”
Roger Yate shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, I’m afraid. I daresay it depends on the young man’s conception of fidelity. There’s one thing, though—as long as you are looking back over your shoulder at him, at least no one could accuse you of approaching Tasghala in any hunting spirit.”
“Mmm. Husband hunting. An outpost like Tasghala is a man’s world, and a certain type of girl might imagine that it offers boundless opportunities. In fact, the conditions of the actual oil site—it’s fifty kilometers out, and its housing consists of a score or so of prefabricated huts—would daunt any woman’s heart. And Tasghala itself mostly has use for women only in their functional capacity, as wives, young mothers, teachers, nurses—”
“But does that mean that there’s no social life? I thought you said there was a country club?”
“Oh, there is, and it’s used a lot. For instance, the men on the site work a fortnight shift on around-the-clock duty and then get a week off. Most of them spend their leave in Tasghala. The hotel is run mainly for their benefit and for people passing through on the Trans-Sahara route, so there are always some of them around and at the club. I only meant that for purely idle dalliance there isn’t very much scope.”
“It all sounds rather dreary and awfully earnest,” sighed Liz, and resented the sharpness with which he retorted.
“I suppose your generation can damn anything by calling it ‘earnest’! But I’m afraid, you know, that you’re not going to be able to take Tasghala at all unless you’re prepared to accept that, whatever else it may not be, it is worthwhile.”
He nodded. “Infinitely so. In fact, to the men who believe in it and places like it, it’s all the future, no less. And not only theirs, but yours and mine, young woman. Because, besides oil, things like copper and natural gas and uranium are going to matter to you, whether you ever give them a passing thought or not. And while it’s somewhere near certainty that the Sahara has them all, meanwhile—”
“Meanwhile,” she parried the implied rebuke in his tone, “I’m to have them thrust down my throat, so to speak, while I’m forced to sit around meekly in Tasghala, twiddling my thumbs!”
She was not prepared for the belittling effect of his d
At a sarcasm she felt she had not merited, Liz flushed. “Well, I did think we were just discussing me,” she said defensively. “It was you who said I couldn’t ‘take’ Tasghala unless I went all dewy-eyed with enthusiasm for what it stands for. Frankly, I don’t believe I can, and I would like to know what I’m going to do while I’m trying!”
“In that spirit, I gather you won’t try very hard. And if you don’t mean to, need you worry over being forced to twiddle your thumbs for any longer than it takes you to decide on a career? Once you’ve made up your mind about that, is there any reason why you shouldn’t be off on the first northbound plane?”
“I could, I suppose,” she hesitated. “Except that I don’t really know what I want to do.”
“No aptitudes? No talents? No dreams?”
“Oh—dreams! Who hasn’t?” Without enlarging on her own, she added, “I don’t know that I’ve any particular bent, though—only that I need to work with people, not merely with things.”
“For example, you’d rather nurse than type, or sell, rather than produce the goods?”
Liz considered the point. “Yes, something like that. Only I hadn’t got as far as comparing one job with another in quite that way.”
“No? Well then, if your plans are still so fluid, would you accept the suggestion that there could be a career for you in Tasghala? Granted, not one that entirely precludes ‘things,’ but a job that you could probably do better than anyone else for the benefit of just one person?”