‘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 taken very seriously indeed, and there were times when there seemed to be no takers. Kindly, but in a head-throwing-back fashion, my father laughed and my mother laughed. Nanny and May laughed in a particularly belittling sort of way. Ahmed laughed without restraint, getting every ounce out of it, holding his sides, and Ismaïn laughed derisively, showing the gaps in his teeth, or, more accurately, the rare teeth in his gaps, shaking his head from side to side, as he stopped up a leak in the hose with his extremely dexterous bare feet. Mohammed was a stand-by; dignified, silent and grave. But even his benign chocolate-coloured countenance divided sometimes in amusement around the brilliant whiteness of his teeth.

When I was three my brother William, omniscient already at the age of five, told me that the world was round, and I was impressed with the splendid improbability of this idea. He omitted to mention that we lived on the outside of it, so for many years I dwelt happily in a goldfish bowl with the blue Egyptian sky arched overhead. Others, told the same tale, have thought of it as a huge penny, or the outside of a saucer. The rugged common sense of infancy rejects the notion that we can all be scrambling about on the outside of an orange. To live on the hollow inside of a round world was less improbable and very much cosier. In any case, one was plumb in the middle of the universe, which had no other purpose but to revolve kindly and devotedly around one. Even the ginger biscuits for supper had my initials on them. Wrong way round, but it showed people were trying, had at any rate the right idea.

I learned letters unintentionally, eavesdropping at William’s morning lessons, which my mother gave him out of Reading Without Tears. Leaning on a small table in the drawing-room, he would contemplate a rather blotchy picture which said that P was a man with a load on his back. Letters felt to be there already somewhere inside one, waiting to be nudged into life, whilst figures obstinately eluded me. I read the letters out loud off a hoarding near the Kasr-el-Nil bridge on a pram walk, R-O-L-L-E-R S-K-A-T-I-N-G R-I-N-K, was aware of a thrill of approbation, of Nanny telling the other nannies that I wasn’t two-and-a-half yet. A bright glow settled in my stomach and I repeated the performance; somehow it went down less well a second time. ‘That’s enough now,’ Nanny said, ‘or there’ll be tears before nightfall.’ Importance and grown-upness, briefly held, floated away once again. Babyhood is a happy state from which with tireless energy one battles to be free. It waits all the while to get one back into its sticky clutches. The heaven lying about us in our infancy seems, at the time, more like a treacle well.

Even the things which appear, while one is alone doing them, to be perfectly grown-up, turn out, under adult scrutiny, contrarily. There was that unsettling misunderstanding over the eggs. Coming from a farm near Hanka, four dozen at a time, they sat in a large basket on the hall table. I knew very well what grown-ups did with eggs. They broke them and cooked them and turned them into unpalatable yellow stuff that no sensible person could want to eat. In the vandal world of the kitchen their beautiful roundness and smoothness meant nothing. I took four eggs, and after a happy half hour spent arranging them and rearranging them and rolling them about on cushions, I hid them in a neat row under the sofa in the outer hall for future use. There were hundreds more. Why should anybody miss them?

But they did. Kindly enquiries were made when William and I came down after lunch next day.

‘It doesn’t matter, darling, but there were four eggs short and we want to know if the farm sent too few. Did you by any chance take some? Tell Mother if you did.’

I could have told her, perhaps, if we had been quite alone. But my father was there, and William; and Ahmed, taking away the pudding plates, and Mohammed, handing round the cheese, and they would quite certainly, some of them, have laughed. I should be revealed before all these as a babyish character who liked playing with eggs, whereas really I was quite different, deeply mature and wise and purposeful. ‘No,’ I said, hopping from pattern to pattern on the carpet with careless skill. ‘No. I didn’t.’

Extract from Chapter I, A Late Beginner
© The Estate of Priscilla Napier 1966


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