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The Lesson by Patricia L Harrison

© Patricia L Harrison

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Edward checked his watch, groaned softly and threw off the thin cotton sheet. The tiled floor felt clammy beneath his bare feet as he moved across to the balcony windows and opened the full-length shutters. He looked down into the street from the first floor room and saw that the day's business had already begun for many, even at that ungodly hour. He raised his eyes to the river. A ferry, made lopsided by the crush of passengers, neared its docking point. A felucca drifted slowly in centre-stream, scarcely leaving a ripple to record its passage. On the far bank, a dark line of trees concealed the flat plain which lay beyond. Then, in the distance, rose the sepia wall of the Theban Hills marking the beginning of the desert.

Edward turned away. That expanse of sand was not something he cared to dwell on for too long; it was so alien to everything he knew, so hostile. When he and Dawn had visited the Pyramids at the start of their holiday, they had found themselves on the very edge of the site, beside one of the smaller pyramids. Relieved to have left behind the other tourists and the flock of Egyptians selling postcards and camel rides, they had climbed up onto the bottom step and sat down.

“Amazing,” he recalled Dawn saying.

Amazement, however, was not what Edward had experienced. As he had gazed out across the desert, his first sensation had been fear, then sadness. He had read that the sands stretched for thousands of miles, right across North Africa and, as he squinted towards the horizon, he found it easy to believe. In fact, the difficult thing to credit was that it had any boundary at all, any finite end. He found it easy to imagine himself alone out there. The thought of the heat during the day, pressing down like a physical weight, followed by the chilling cold of the night bothered him less than the terrible silence, as he pictured himself lying flat on his back, looking up at the stars and feeling such loneliness that it became an ache.

He moved back into the room and sat down in a worn leather armchair, relishing the coolness on his skin. Dawn was still sleeping and he considered wakening her. She looked even more beautiful than usual in the thick, dusty, early morning light, her body covered by the thin sheet, except for her left leg which had fought its way free.

He moved across to the side of her bed and bent his head close to hers. Her mouth was slightly open and he listened to the sigh of her breathing. He noticed the dampness of her brow which had trapped a few strands of hair. He stroked them aside and considered placing his lips on the spot where they had been, but decided against it. Instead he placed his hand on her shoulder and called her name quietly. She moaned softly.

"Wake up, love. It's time.”

Her eyes opened, blinked against the light a few times, then focused on his face. "What time is it?" she asked.

"Just after six."

She groaned again, more loudly this time.

At just before seven a.m. the two of them stood on the dusty, rutted track that led down to the dock. A ferry had recently arrived and they stood to one side as the press of people from the villages on the West bank of the Nile flooded into Luxor. There were fewer passengers going the other way, mainly tourists like themselves, clutching expensive looking cameras. It was already hot, and by midday it would be unbearable, hence the early start. On the two previous mornings they had made the same crossing, but, for various reasons, Edward felt less enthusiastic on this occasion.

* * *

They had met Akhmet on their first morning in Luxor. They were both tired after an overnight rail journey from Cairo and he had engaged them in conversation as they strolled by the Nile. A week in Cairo had prepared them for this sort of approach from some of the locals who looked to profit from tourists, although they did not see eye to eye with regard to the best way of dealing with it. Dawn considered Edward too soft, saying he encouraged them because he pretended to be interested in what they had to offer. She on the other hand dismissed them with a brusqueness that bordered on downright rudeness in Edward’s opinion. He argued that showing a little politeness to people who were simply trying to make a living did no harm. On that particular morning, however, she had tolerated Akhmet’s presence, and he had been permitted to stroll along beside them.

Akhmet’s face was the colour and texture of polished mahogany, and when he grinned, which was most of the time, he revealed a haphazard arrangement of stumps and gums. He was quick to inform them that he was sixty-eight years old and that he been working as a guide on the West bank for most of his life. His English was good and he chatted happily as he showed them the regulation batch of photos of himself taken with tourists for whom he had acted as guide. He even brought out a couple of letters of recommendation which Dawn declined to read.

They had been planning to visit the Valley of the Kings the following day, when they had recovered sufficiently from their journey, but had not decided on the means. When Akhmet mentioned the possibility of going on donkeys, Dawn's interest had increased considerably. He explained how he would meet them the following morning on the far bank with three donkeys and escort them up to the Valley of the Kings, where they could visit as many tombs as they wished. Then he would bring them back over the top of the hills to visit Hatshepsut’s Temple. The price he asked was ridiculously cheap and, after a brief discussion, they accepted.

Making their way to the ferry that following morning, they had both been slightly nervous. Dawn distrusted strangers, especially foreigners, convinced that they were all intent on relieving her of her money, if not her life. As a result the barriers came down - hard. On these occasions, Edward stood aside and tried to avoid eye contact with her latest victim. Woe betide Akhmet if he let them down.

They had boarded the ferry and gone up to the top deck where Dawn flicked at the seat with her sun hat before sitting down. She took a pair of sunglasses out of her bag and put them on.

"He’d better be waiting for us over there, that's all I can say," she warned.

"I'm sure he will be," Edward replied, attempting to placate her. He just wished she could relax a little and let things take their course.

"You shouldn’t have given him any money, all the same,” she persisted.

"It seemed reasonable. A kind of deposit. After all, we might not have turned up and left him with the cost of hiring three donkeys."

Her fears had proven unfounded, however, as Akhmet was waiting for them on the far dock with three donkeys as promised plus his brother-in-law, Saeed, a youth of about fifteen. His age made them think they had misunderstood until Akhmet explained that his wife was very much younger than himself and that, in fact, their youngest child was only three. Edward wondered whether these details of Akhmet’s private life would enhance or diminish Dawn's opinion of him.

Things had begun well as they set off at a trot along the road towards the hills. The sight of Edward teetering precariously on his donkey, as he bounced up and down with his feet almost touching the floor, caused Dawn to laugh so much she had trouble staying aboard her own donkey. Edward was relieved that she seemed to be enjoying herself at last.

In the course of that morning they had managed to take in the four or five most important tombs, including, of course, King Tut's. This had been followed by a spectacular ride over the hill to drop down into the valley where Hatshepsut's Temple stood. The heat had been fierce as they jog-trotted back to the river, making them glad of their early start. They had arranged for Akhmet to take them to a couple more sites on the West bank the following day.

"What a morning," Edward had ventured, as the ferry approached midstream.

"Yes, excellent." Her reply, however, had been distant and lacking in enthusiasm.

It was becoming increasingly obvious to Edward, as the holiday progressed, that Dawn was showing little interest in the wonders they were seeing. It was as though the real Dawn, the Dawn who loved new experiences and who experienced things with passion, was elsewhere, and he was travelling with some kind of proxy. It irritated him to reflect that, as a result, he had found it impossible to immerse himself fully into the spirit of the place. Normally he would have had no trouble transporting himself back in time, seeing the gravediggers hewing at the rock, the scribes and painters at work on the walls. But he was too firmly fixed in the present, too conscious of the woman who sauntered along in front of him, giving a cursory glance at the strings of hieroglyphs carved into the stone.

That second day had followed a similar pattern. Akhmet had been waiting with the donkeys, had guided them around some interesting sites and had delivered them back to the ferry before the heat had become too great. Edward had felt a similar detachment from the things he saw and sensed the same in Dawn.

As they had waited for the ferry, Saeed, asked about their plans for the following day. They had already decided to hire bicycles and explore the East bank. They had heard, for example, that a camel market was to held not far away and was worth visiting. Saeed offered to arrange the bicycle hire for them at good rates as he knew the owner of the bicycle shop on the West bank.

"How much?" Dawn asked.

"Four Egyptian pounds each. Very cheap. Everywhere else charge five, six pounds.”

Although it would mean a return trip on the ferry to collect the cycles in the morning and then again in the evening to return them, they had grown fond of Akhmet and Saeed and were keen to put business their way if they could. They agreed.

It had been later, on the way back to the hotel that Dawn's suspicion of foreigners surfaced again. "I think he's overcharging us for those bicycles," she said.

"It seemed a fair price to me. In any case we're hardly being robbed blind, are we?"

"That's not the point," she insisted. "I don't like being ripped off and if they get away with it, they'll go on doing it, pushing the price up and up."

Edward saw there was little point arguing.

"So what do you suggest we do?" he asked.

"We'll check it out. We'll go to a shop that rents cycles in the town and ask the rate."

He agreed reluctantly, hoping that Saeed would be proven innocent but suspecting that Dawn's instinct for these things would prevail. To him it hardly mattered if he could rent a cycle for less; everything in Egypt was comparatively cheap and he was more than happy to pay Saeed's price. He just wanted the day to be enjoyable and not to be marred by squabbles over a trivial amount of money.

Inquiries at the first cycle hire shop revealed that the going rate was three Egyptian pounds per day.

"I knew it. What did I tell you?" Dawn declared triumphantly.

Edward's heart sank.

* * *

So as they now approached the landing stage on the West bank, Edward could make out Saeed, in his pale blue galabia, waiting patiently with two bicycles.

"He's there,” he informed Dawn, who sat with her back to the dock and had made no attempt to turn and examine the crowd on the far shore.

"Of course, he is. What did you expect? He thinks it’s his lucky day, stumbling on two more gullible fools."

“Look, I wish we could just forget this. He's only a boy and what's a couple of pounds to us?"

"It's precisely because he is only a boy that he needs to be taught a lesson that he'll remember when he grows up.”

Dawn had already decided what form this lesson would take. They would tell Saeed that they could hire cycles for two pounds each in the town, so they would only pay him four pounds for the two cycles plus a tip of two pounds, even though he didn't deserve it for trying to cheat them. Assuming that he had hired the cycles for three pounds, his morning’s work would earn him nothing. He would have little choice but to accept, since, if he rejected these revised terms, he would be out of pocket with two cycles to pay for.

Edward hung back, barely able to watch, as Dawn renegotiated the deal. The boy was clearly embarrassed, although he protested his innocence. He recognised however, that he had little choice but to accept Dawn’s terms and six pounds changed hands. As Edward wheeled the bicycle back towards the ferry, he looked over his shoulder at Saeed and smiled as if to reassure him it was nothing personal. The boy stood perfectly still, the six pounds grasped in his hand, his face expressionless.

He sat next to Dawn as they re-crossed the river and realised that he was afraid of her, of what she could do to him. That was the reason he had never brought up the subject of the note he had found in her coat pocket some weeks before the trip. He had run out of cigarettes and had expected to find some in the pocket of Dawn's coat. Instead he had come across a note from someone called David. The contents were innocuous enough, a lunch date. The two crosses underneath the name were more difficult to explain away.

Dawn removed her sunglasses and looked at him.

"I think he'll learn something from that, don't you?" she asked.

Edward looked into her eyes and saw himself standing on the edge of a desert.

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