Dust on My Shoes - Extract

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The Baghdad Tin

Peter mid 1940's

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Marchand

Syria

Travelling out from Damascus, Syria along the pipeline, illegally, 1948

p.115 - 116 (selections)
Choking clouds of dust swirled up through the floor of the bus and settled in a peppery film on the Arab passengers. The interior was at oven heat from the burning rays of a brassy sun smiting the steel roof; the dust caked on sweating faces and moist hands, lay thickly and restlessly on the floor, and caught with tickling persistency in one's throat. The road led east.

For a time it was a good road, well surfaced and leading in a direct line east parallel to the pipeline. The long black pipeline one might have expected to see was buried two feet underground, insulated from the heat of the sun and presenting the minumum temptation to nomad riflemen, marked only by the surface mound and the long line of thin steel telphone poles. On all sides the desert spread to the horizon, a sea of shallow mounds and knolls, a stony arid monotony for hundreds of miles....

Throughout the day we floundered on east through the desert. The ridges an hillocks were left behind, and from the north a mountain range closed in as we rumbled drunkenly over a flat expanse of flinty stones and soft dust. The mountain range was of pink and brown and shadowed greys, old and crumbled, scored deeply by ages of wind-blown sand. Ramparts of rugged rock strata were exposed to the sun, deep clefts and steep hills rock-tipped....Climbing a low saddle we came abruptly on such a panorama as might tax the imagination of a city architect: the ruins, the scattered bones of fabled Palmyra....

The devastated walls and foundations of that once proud and thriving city stretched for many furlongs, a disordered graveyard yet colourful with clean-washed white and ivory-yellow against the pink of the range beyond; and the remaining upthrust colums of stone were graced with an aged dignity which spoke of past splendours and the making of history here in the heart of the Great Syrian Desert....

The sun was lowering behind us, washing the deset pink and flushing the sky with an extravagant display of warm soft colours, when the truck arrived at T-2.

Police halted the truck as it drew in at the gate; three of them presided over the duties of customs, immigration, and the C.I.D in a small hut by the entrance. A quarter of a mile outside the gates was a shabby Arab settlement. The police examined my passport with some care, but were not satisfied.
"Your carte d'identite, monsieur."
"Is my passport not enough?"
"You are an I.P.C man are you not?"
To answer "No" might mean arrest, so I said, "I am on my way to the head office at Baghdad. I have letters for the manager there."
My good friend had given me a letter of introduction.
"But your carte d'identite? All I.P.C men must have one."
"Mine I will not receive till I am in Baghdad, but of course my passport is in order."

He shrugged his shoulders, and took the passport into his office to stamp it with the exit endorsement. Then he returned it, and the truck dropped me at the club.

While seeking the manager I engaged in conversation with an officer of sour mien; he was old and pepperish, and did not receive the explanation of my presence kindly. He bristled, and snapped assertively, "But you know you have no right to come out here, don't you? Do the police know about it?
"Of course."
"It's all very well bludging your way around the Middle East at the expense of other people, but you're out of your depth along this pipeline. The police don't recognise this as an international route. Is anybody sponsoring you?"
"Not exactly. I had a talk with certain officials at Homs, and they said they hadn't any objection to my travelling this way, but that I could get no official support."

The officer looked choleric.
"They said what? What officials? What were their names?"
I sighed, wondering what ill fortune had put this man in my path. The night's comfort was in jeopardy.
"It is unnecessary to mention names, but that is what they said."
"The hell!" he exploded. "Listen to me, you damned young tramp. I happen to be Sid Manning; does that mean anything to you?"
I reflected a moment. "No."
"No! It doesn't eh? Well, let me enlighten you. I happen to be superintendent of the Homs branch of the IPC Savvy? And I know damn well that no one gave you any kind of sanction to come out here. And furthermore..."

[He is interupted by the T2 superintendant, who after hearing the story tells Peter to get out]
In his attitude and Manning's anger I read the futility of argument. There was nothing worth saying, so I said nothing, just turned about and walked out into the gathering shadows towards the gate. Manning must have alerted the police by phone, for at the gate I was pulled up, taken into the police hut, and my pasport was re-checked. The police, too, were angry.
"Why did you say you were an I.P.C man?"
"I did not. I merely mentioned I had a letter for the Baghdad manager. "
He wanted to open it, but I would not permit him.
"You have no right to be here. Tormorrow you will return to Homs." Outside, a heavy truck thundered belatedly in from the desert and halted at the gate with air brakes hissing.
"But why can I not continue? Iraq is the next stop, and after all my passport is in order. I am not trying to sneak any advantage."
"This road is not a legal thoroughfare for ordinary civilians. You will have to go back to Homs, and take a train from Aleppo or a Nairn bus from Damascus."

From the direction of the truck came the sound of voices raised in anger. Two of the police were out there protesting volubly.
"Then if I must return tomorow, have you any suggestions as to where I may sleep tonight?" I slid my passport into my pocket. The answer was interrupted by a bitter dispute outside the door. The two Syrian policement were arguing furiously with someone who was protesting loudly in Dutch and swearing fluently in German. The door was wrenched open, a tall and dusty traveller was pushed in and cannoned against a filing cabinet, spilling papers onto the floor.

Marchand had arrived.