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31 August 2022

From the NS archive: The blocked jet

7 January 1928: A short story set in the Nile Valley.

By ER Morrough

In this short story by ER Morrough, who often wrote under the pen name Abu Nadaar, Mr Smith and his wife are travelling through the Nile Valley. It is 1928, six years since Egypt gained recognition as an independent sovereign state, and Britain had granted itself “reserved” powers in areas such as foreign policy – to which the Egyptian government did not consent. This semi-autonomous state meant that many Egyptian nationalists held grievances against the UK, and rising tensions leading to violent clashes would continue for decades. The Smiths travel on country roads that are “little more than the width of one car”, passing water-buffaloes and camels that “swung their hindquarters solemnly and absent-mindedly”, until they approach a village where tragedy strikes.

“Funny thing happened to me coming back from Cairo yesterday,” said young Mr Smith. “The old car suddenly stopped in a very rotten place and I couldn’t start her again. I thought she must have run out of petrol, so I pushed in my spare two gallons. She started up like a bird. When I got home I measured what I had left and it was all of two gallons. How the deuce do you account for that?”

“Dirty jets,” said the experienced Mr Prewitt without hesitation, “or dirt in the carburettor somewhere. You know, you ought to have the carburettor down every week or so.”

“All very well for you people who love messing about with the guts of a car,” returned young Mr Smith. “I don’t. Apart from filling up the old car with water and so on once in a while I prefer to go on driving it till something jolly well refuses to function.”

“Ah, you don’t know how to treat a car,” said Mr Prewitt. “Now I…” and the verandah of the club resounded with a well-worn theme.

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Young Mrs Smith was soft and fluffy, and she was feeling the heat. “Come for a run down to El Ghamr after tea?” suggested her husband.

So they took the worn mud road leading up the Nile Valley. With the north wind behind them it was still very hot and stuffy. A flood of light from the westering sun poured in under the hood, and every now and then when the road ran along the bank of the river a fierce reflected light and heat flamed up at them from the surface of the muddy water. The road, like all other Egyptian country roads, called for heedful driving. It was carried along on a bank with a ten-foot drop on one side into a canal bottomed with sticky black mud, and on the other into an endless succession of unfenced irrigated fields. The width of the road varied greatly and its edges were much broken. A man really had to watch both sides of the road at once.

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They passed through two or three villages. Following the custom of the country, the width of the road at these spots was reduced to little more than the width of one car, and upon the resultant narrow cleft between mud buildings, the doorways of houses and yards debouched. At frequent intervals a donkey or cow would emerge and lurch amiably across the road, causing young Mrs Smith to clutch her husband’s arm with a nervous exclamation. The villages were not a pretty sight. Grey walls of mudbrick are so unlovely in themselves that hardly any trick of celestial lighting at dawn or sunset is capable of redeeming them. And the inhabitants within these walls were equally depressing to a civilised mind: mangy dogs which snapped at the car, chickens nearly naked with feather-eating, small filthy children with rosettes of flies round their eyes and nostrils, who shouted for baksheesh. Also as they passed through these human ant-heaps they were assailed by a terrible latrine-smell from the over-populated ground never washed by rain from one year’s end to the next.

“Ugh!” said young Mrs Smith, who had, as the books say, been delicately nurtured.

The animals were coming home in the evening light and adding to the difficulties of the road. Mr Smith edged his way past flock after flock of sheep and goats, mingling his cloud of dust with theirs. Water-buffaloes tore themselves from the small children in charge of them, and either plunged down the bank into the fields or careered along in panic. Camels swung their hindquarters solemnly and absent-mindedly across the road in front of the car. “Great invention, four-wheel brakes,” said Mr Smith.

They had turned and were coming home. Far away on their right hand the high clean scarp of the desert shone in the last rays of the sun like an old pink wall. They entered one of the villages, and all wide prospects and bright, clean things were suddenly as if they had never been.

“Look out!” screamed Mrs Smith. As she opened her mouth a little boy darted out from a doorway within a few feet of them. Her husband jammed on the brakes.

“Pulled up in three yards,” he said with satisfaction. But nothing on Earth could have saved the child.

Mrs Smith sat back feeling very sick. Even while her husband was getting out to see what damage had been done the street seemed to fill with people from one side to the other. A solid mass formed up before and behind. “Killed instantaneously I should think,” said Mr Smith, reseating himself at the wheel. “I don’t think there is anything at all we can do. Of course, I must report it at the Sahel police post.”

The crowd was standing quite still and talking, telling itself what had happened. It was a curious crowd, not an angry crowd. It was fingering the headlights and the pretty little honey-combings of the radiator. A woman came out of one of the holes in the wall and began to cry in a strained nerve-racking voice. The crowd shifted uneasily on its feet like a bunch of steers.

A big fellah in a faded blue galabeya pushed his way up to the running-board. He was a powerful man, beautifully muscled, with a fass on his shoulder. He thrust his formidable head close to young Mr Smith’s.

“Money,” he said. “His mother wants money. You killed her son.”

“It was not my fault,” answered Mr Smith. Before his eyes he could see very clearly the injunction on his insurance policy: “Admit no liability.” “Admit no liability.” He had no intention of doing so. The child had committed suicide.

“Money,” said the big fellah again. “You killed her son.”

“I tell you,” said young Mr Smith as well as his Arabic would allow him, “no one could have avoided hitting that child. I’m very sorry indeed that it has happened. If you saw it you had better come with me in the car to make a statement to the police.”

“You killed her son,” said the big fellah. “Is it not so?”

“I can’t stop here all night,” said young Mr Smith. “Get in if you’re coming.” He blew his horn several times and the crowd in front of his radiator began to press very slowly back towards the sides of the road. It was so narrow that they hardly had room to move.

At that moment a wail came from his wife: “Oh George, drive on. I can’t stand it another minute. This dreadful man.”

Preoccupied with his big fellah Smith had not been paying any attention to the other side of the car and the person who was begging there. No wonder his wife shrank up against him with wide-open eyes of horror, away from the groping hands. The man was in the last stages of syphilis. Young Mr Smith’s patience gave out with a rush.

“Oh – God damn you, go away!” he shouted. The hands still implored. The half-blind eyes peered.

Baksheesh!” said the croaking voice.

“George, drive on! Drive on! They’ll give way when you start… George! This man! The smell! I shall be sick or go crazy.”

At the urgency in his wife’s voice Mr Smith’s nerve suddenly snapped. He stamped on the self-starter. The engine sprang into life. He hooted wildly and ploughed forward. The people tried to fall back on either side, but they could not be quick enough. Two went down. He could have got through to the open road beyond the village if he could have increased his speed. But the engine coughed and spluttered a little and then died with finality. The two men he had knocked down were yelling. Someone waved a naboot and there was a rush for the running boards. Immediately the entire car was covered with a mass of assailants like an injured wasp attacked by ants.

Two days later the police found in a field of sugar-cane a battered thing which might once have been young Mr Smith. Nothing which might have passed for Mrs Smith was ever found at all. Perhaps her remains were burnt in the great fire which consumed half the houses in the village on the night of the tragedy. The people had been busy burning the wreck of the car when an explosion had set light to the dry maize-stalks on the roof of a house.

“Now I ask you,” said Mr Prewitt in subsequent discussion at the club, “why didn’t he drive on and get through somehow? He couldn’t have been out of petrol or his tank wouldn’t have exploded afterwards. I’ll bet you he hadn’t taken the trouble to clean his jets. Now I…”

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).