‘Tombs, dear. Where’s your other sock?’

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One of the day nursery windows faced south-west across the Nile, over fields of sugar-cane and berseem stretching to the line of the desert hills upon which, an enormous triangle, stood the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Two other pyramids, barely visible, but known to be there, were ranged behind it. Standing there twelve miles away, half in shade, half shining in the morning sun, as one struggled into one’s vest or fed the silkworms on their breakfast of mulberry leaves, it gave, if anyone in the nursery had thought on those lines, a sense of continuity to human endeavour. Do very small children have thoughts? What remains in the memory is feeling. Passionate surges of delight, anger, grief, affection, terror and surprise imprint on the memory a series of small highly-coloured photographs with blurred edges; brief incidental exposures without before or after. The Great Pyramid was always there, part of the backcloth of the photographs, an impressive solidity that was for ever in the tail of one’s eye.

No one told me that the pyramids had been one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but they were certainly the primal wonder of mine. From early on they exercised an oddly persistent fascination. They could not, it seemed, be taken for granted, like hills and trees and houses. Approached along the pyramid road they got larger and larger and larger until they filled up one half of the sky. It took a long while to ride lurchingly round the Great Pyramid on a camel, and from no angle could their stupendousness be made a thing of nought. They were made of square yellow blocks, exactly like sugar lumps, but higher than I was. Even after the ride, swimming naked in the clear green water of the Mena House swimming bath, they seemed, excitingly, to dominate the scene. And back at home, hours later, there they still were, black against the sunset, which was as usual turning the whole western sky to a bright orange.

‘What are they for, Nanny?’

‘Tombs, dear. Where’s your other sock?’

‘Who put them there?’

‘The Pharaohs did.’

The Fairoes. Some sort of boy fairies, perhaps? Better not say so and provoke that undignifying adult laughter once again.

‘What Fairoes?’

‘The Pharaohs, dear. The old kings of Egypt, as you’d know if you’d listened while the master was telling William on the picnic.’

‘But what are they for, Nanny?’ This was a formal question, employed to keep the ball in play. The pyramids had been put there, of course, expressly for my amusement and edification, just as someone had put the stag and the fox and the lamb and the china cottage over the nursery fireplace.

‘I’ve told you before, for the Pharaohs when they died to be buried in.’

‘Waiting for the Last Trump?’

‘Yes,’ Nanny said, knowing better than to hesitate. ‘Your other sock is in the doll’s bed, and that it got there by itself I beg leave to doubt.’

People were too often, in the kindest manner, scaling one down to size, and laughter was the biggest shot in their locker. The sound of it dented, very slightly, the ruthlessly egocentric world in which, as a two- and three-year-old, one lives. I was, of course, the most important thing that had ever happened. My dignity and independence, my whole separate being and essence, could hardly have mattered more enormously. Other people were shadows, were laps for my sitting on, were arms to pick me up when I was tired, were shoulders for me to rub my bumped head upon. But when they laughed one had a disconcerting impression that people had moments of not sharing this view. I wanted with all my heart to be

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