Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Three

N.B. The first two parts of ‘Desert Places’ were published here and here on this blog.

Mrs. Stitch sipped from her cup of breakfast tea and gazed out of the dining room window. Opposite her, blocking the light, her husband sat hidden behind his morning newspaper. She felt sure that she had been meaning to ask him something for several days but couldn’t quite put her finger on whatever it was. Suddenly, she remembered.

‘What’s happening in the Arabian peninsula?’ said Mrs. Stitch.

Algernon Stitch grunted and lowered his newspaper.

‘Nothing as far as I know.’

He took a sip of tea and looked at his watch.

‘Is that the time? I’d better get a move on.’

Stitch placed his napkin on the table and stood. Mrs. Stitch returned her cup to its saucer and remained seated.

‘You said that there was a potential crisis in Al Mussab or somewhere like that.’

‘Did I? When?’

‘A few weeks ago. Something to do with oil and foreign powers.’

‘I don’t remember that. There was a bit of a situation in El Mahreb last month but it all blew over. The ruler’s brother wanted a bigger palace and some more wives, made a bit of a fuss and got them. A few shots fired, a few camels injured, that sort of thing. I suspect the Russians put him up to it. Anyway, El Mahreb’s in Africa not Arabia. At least I think it is. I’ll check when I get to the office.’

Mrs. Stitch was momentarily confused. Perhaps she ought to ask John Boot whether she had advised him to go to El Mahreb or Al Mussab. She also had a feeling that she may have mentioned El Mahreb to someone else.

By the time she had finished her breakfast, Mrs. Stitch had quite forgotten that she had mentioned anything to anyone at all.

****

In the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, William and Corker were indulging in afternoon tea.

“Let me get this right,” said Corker. “You say that Crown Prince Hassan has agreed to keep you informed of developments in Al Mussab’s foreign affairs provided that you set up and run a national squash ladder.”

“Well, up to a point,” said William, reaching for a second cucumber sandwich. “He’ll keep me up to date with family gossip about foreign affairs. There must be a lot of it though. Apparently, all of Al Mussab’s government ministers are related. That’s a coincidence, isn’t it?”

“And he’s happy for you to report this…er…gossip…” said Corker.

“A version of this gossip,” interposed William.

“…a version of this gossip,” echoed Corker, “to The Beast?”

“Definitely,” said William, spotting a macaroon on the third tier of the cake-stand.

“Oh, and to The Unnatural.” he added. “After all, we are supposed to be co-operating.”

Corker sipped at his Darjeeling which had gone cold.

“I was thinking,” continued William, pouring himself a third cup of Earl Grey. “I’m hopeless at all that reporting stuff. I don’t suppose you could file both our reports, could you?”

Corker sensed that things were hotting up. He raised his eyebrows and made an awkward attempt at a nod of agreement.

“Besides,” continued William, “from what Hassan says, I’m going to be jolly busy working on the squash ladder. There are lots of people he thinks will be interested; family members, foreign diplomats, oil magnates, business tycoons and so on.”

Corker imagined himself and William at the centre of an international network of important news sources.

“Oh, and I expect I’ll have to spend a lot of time listening to all of the gossip,” added William, having briefly forgotten why he was in Al Mussab in the first place.

Corker had visions of promotion at Universal News.

“I don’t suppose he let you in on any gossip last night, did he?”

“Well only something about a Soviet delegation arriving tomorrow,” said William, pouring more hot water into his teapot. “His father believes it’s a cover for espionage.”

Corker felt a story coming on.

****

It was late afternoon in London. Secretaries were carrying tea to the more leisured departments. In Mr. Salter’s office there was activity and excitement.

“Russians, spies, oil. This is dynamite,” said the Managing Editor sorting through a sheaf of telegrams. “Has anyone else seen this?”

“Not so far,” said Mr. Salter. “I thought I’d see what you thought before I go to the chief.”

“And you say it came from this Boot chap?” said the First Leader Writer. “What woke him up?”

“Perhaps it was that chap Corker from Universal News,” said Mr. Salter. “The Foreign Editor did say he had a way with words.”

“Well, the Foreign Office still isn’t saying anything about Al Mussab,” said the Managing Editor. “Do you think it’s genuine? After all, this Boot’s done nothing but report on the weather and camels since he got there.”

“Yes,” said the First Leader Writer, “but our competitors are still splashing the story. Maybe they know something we don’t.”

An hour later, Mr. Salter surveyed the front page of the evening edition of The Beast.

“SOVIET SPIES PLAN ARABIAN COUP”

After a brief telephone call, his counterpart at Universal News agreed to lead with:

“RUSSIANS IN DESERT ESPIONAGE PLOT”

It didn’t pay, thought Mr. Salter, to slavishly follow the competition.

****

In the Al Mussab desert, William and Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Rashid Al Nahmi sat cross-legged beside their camp fire in the Arabian night. Their camels and those of Abdullah’s bodyguards sat hobbled and grumbling somewhere in the darkness.

“I think that the squash ladder will be very exciting,” said Abdullah, selecting a fig from the fruit platter. “Very few visitors have come to Al Mussab up to now and even fewer have used the squash court. Perhaps now that there are more…”

William, whose thoughts were currently directed towards the Al Mussab desert and its wildlife, nodded.

“How many people did you say have joined so far?” said Abdullah.

“Thirty-seven,” answered William who had discovered that his ability to persuade squash players to participate in competitions was transferrable to foreign countries.

“No, thirty-eight,” he corrected himself, “but there must be at least three more in the Soviet delegation. I saw their racquet handles sticking out of their luggage when they arrived at the Intercontinental.”

Abdullah marvelled quietly at William’s dynamism.

“Which animals do you think we’ll be able to spot?” asked William.

“We are sure to see jackals,” said Abdullah. “They will be attracted by our fire and the smell of food. Just before dawn we may see a sand cat or a fox. Then tomorrow, oryx, ibex, gazelles perhaps.”

William pinched himself. He really was on safari in the Al Mussab desert with the son of Al Mussab’s Minister for the Environment. What could be more exciting?

“Mr. William?” said Abdullah, suddenly. “Did you know that my father is a great admirer of your writing?”

“I beg your pardon?” said William.

“Oh, yes,” continued Abdullah. “He reads your weekly column in The Beast. He told me it reminds him very much of the time he spent in the English countryside while he was a student at Oxford.”

“Are you sure?” asked William.

“Definitely,” replied Abdullah. “In fact, he asked me if you would consider writing something for him.”

****

In Fleet Street, Mr. Salter was ushered into Lord Copper’s office.

“Ah, Salter,” said Lord Copper. “I see that Boot has really got to grips with the situation in…”

“Al Mussab, Lord Copper?” suggested Mr. Salter helpfully.

“Precisely,” said Lord Copper. “I always knew he was the right man for the job.”

Mr. Salter nodded in agreement. A few weeks ago, he had thought that the Chief was losing his grip. But now, Boot’s reports were dynamite: Soviet plots, desert manoeuvres, secret meetings, vital British interests. The Chief had known best all along. How on earth had he spotted Boot?

“I don’t suppose we’ve got a photograph of him, have we?” asked Lord Copper.

“Up to a point, Lord Copper,” said Mr. Salter.

“Ring up his relatives,” said Lord Copper, “See if he’s got a girl. Someone must have a photograph of him.”

“I think they took one for his visa,” said Mr. Salter, “but I’m afraid it was a very poor likeness.”

“Pity,” said Lord Copper.

****

In Boot Magna, William’s mother, his sister, his Aunt Josephine and his three uncles were sitting around the table in the dining room. They had finished eating and had remained seated, as they often did for an hour or so, doing nothing at all. William’s grandmother had retired to her armchair in the sitting room to sleep.

“Did anybody open that telegram?” said William’s mother.

“Which telegram?” asked Uncle Roderick.

“The one that arrived yesterday.”

Nobody admitted to knowing about a telegram. After a search, Uncle Theodore found it behind the chest next to the coat rack in the hall where William’s mother had dropped it. He returned to the dining room and opened it.

“It’s from William.”

“STAYING AL MUSSAB ORGANISE INTERNATIONAL SQUASH LADDER WRITE DESERT PLACES COLUMN MINISTER ENVIRONMENT WILLIAM”

“What does it mean?” asked William’s mother.

“I think he’s staying in Al Mussab to organise an international squash ladder and write a column called Desert Places for the Minister of the Environment,” said Uncle Bernard.

William’s mother and sister burst into tears and were comforted by Uncle Roderick.

“Do you think it will be in The Beast?” asked Uncle Theodore.

“I should hope so,” said Uncle Bernard. “There hasn’t been anything interesting in it since William left.”

****

In the English countryside, where he had been hiding for some months from the American girl, John Boot found, amongst his forwarded bills, an official letter which read:

“I am instructed by the Prime Minister to inform you that your name has been forwarded to H.M. the King with the recommendation for your inclusion in the Order of Knights Commanders of the Bath.”

“Gosh,” said Boot, “it must be Julia.”

Despite it being barely eleven o’clock, he telephoned her at her house near St. James’s Palace.

“What do you think, Julia? They’re making me a Knight.”

“Who are?”

“The King and the Prime Minister, I expect. Was it anything to do with you?”

“Well…I may have played a small part,” replied Mrs. Stitch who knew nothing about it. “Are you pleased?”

“Very pleased,” replied Boot. “But what on earth is it for?”

“I expect it’s for writing books about all those adventures of yours,” said Mrs. Stitch who had never read any of them. “I suppose you’ll be able to go wherever you want now.”

She thought it wise not to mention the Al Mussab affair or the American girl.

Either way, John Boot was too grateful to care.

Sources

Evelyn Waugh‘s book ‘Scoop‘ was published in 1938. It is the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal. Remarkably, it’s a satire revered among successive generations of British hacks, the breed so mercilessly skewered in the book by Waugh, a one-time special correspondent for the Daily Mail.

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