Arabian nights

1995. It's now forty years since the opening of the Karen's baby eyes in Newmarket General Hospital. So much water under so many bridges since then. But we had by now found ourselves a good measure of that elusive thing called happiness. I was by now fully expatriated, earning our living almost entirely in the Middle East. Expatriates were not liable to pay UK taxes provided they spent no more than ninety days a year in the UK. Perhaps I stretched that ninety days a little bit but nobody other than myself and my accountant was counting. Some of us commute to work an hour or so daily down the road and others ten hours or so via Heathrow to Riyadh or Jeddah or Dharan or Bahrain or Dubai or Quatar. Wherever was the money.

The routine on landing at my destination was always to find and join the shortest interminable queue at immigration, be very patient and ultra polite to the officer, hire a car, exit the airport and find my way to my pre-booked hotel or, after I had set up a permanent residence, to my home from home. When in Saudi Arabia it was of course goodbye to the demon drink - unless I was invited to a friend's (native or expat) home for dinner. At a certain social and financial level some of the illegal hard stuff magically might become available.

One old friend now resident in Riyadh, I'll call him John, had worked alongside me through the early days of Sweetheart International. He had been production director when I was marketing. A thoroughly good, middle of the road Geordie business executive. But his was one of those stories that really are the stuff of a novel. His domestic life had not been of the happiest and, on leaving Sweetheart he had secured a high level job with a large, government owned company in Riyadh. After a while he became so content with life (and the money) out there that he was minded to make one last effort to save his marriage; perhaps then his family could be persuaded to come and join him? He flew his wife into Cairo and joined her for the legendarily romantic trip of several days and nights down the Suez canal to the ancient city of Luxor. Unfortunately on her first night off the plane in Cairo she fell foul of  the stomach complaint common to those adventurous enough to dine out in that city. After that and for several days and nights cruising down the canal she would be below in bed writhing around under medical care whilst he, John, would be out on the deck in the moonlight, leaning on the ship's rails watching the empty desert glide by, next to him a rather beautiful and as it transpired high born young Saudi lady. Inevitably they fell into conversation and then - or possibly later back in Riyadh where she lived, inevitably they fell in love. Now, everyone in 'The Kingdom' knows the extreme penalty under Shariah law for both male and female if found in unwed company with each other, especially inside a motor car, never mind in any bedroom type liaison. But in spite of all their efforts at ultra secrecy their affair was leaked, so my friend was called in to see his big boss, (a Prince of the realm), and presented with a first class ticket on the red-eye that very night back to London. You are crazy, he was told,  This woman was promised at birth to the son of  Sheikh xxxx.  If you are here in the morning you will be arrested.  Robin knew well that, even had he managed to get himself on board that flight, his young lady would be doomed - and I do mean doomed. If he stayed they were both doomed. No sir, I will not leave her, he responded. I wish to marry her.  The Prince recoiled in shock; Impossible, he was told; unless you convert to Sunni Islam straight away and wish to live here and behave in all ways in accord with the custom and the Law.

Well, by the time I re-met John in the mid-nineties he was a thoroughly remarried man and a Saudi in all but birthright. He spoke Arabic, knelt to pray five times daily, wore the  long tunic called a thawb and the traditional Saudi red-chequered headress called a keffiyah. He and his lady lived in a large and sumptuous apartment in central Riyadh. Several times I was invited to dine with them - the first and only times in my ten years working out there that I had the pleasure of a woman's company or even spoke to one. Saudi males on getting married are granted a piece of land by the king. John proudly indicated on a wall map his very own piece of the Saudi Arabian desert. The apartment looked down on to a beautiful private swimming pool. John chuckled. When xxxx has a party she invites all her lady friends, he said. The view from here is great. So far as I know my friend is still there with no desire at all to 'come home'. Sometimes there really are happy endings.

My visits to The Kingdom were not all work. By the mid nineties I had many friends there, both expats and 'local'. The expats almost always lived on a compound reserved for people of like race. These berths offered residents and visitors alike absolutely no hardship. Sid-fuelled parties seemed no different than similar get togethers at home even if most of the partygoers were male. Invariably someone would suggest a game of cards. I had to be sure of having plenty of Saudi riyals before joining in for these were highly paid executives, natural risk-takers. Well I guess my gains and losses, large as they seemed,  probably evened out over time.

I shall write about my experience of life with the locals on another occasion.

Back home we had closed our Winchester office in favour of setting up in a wing of Laundry Cottage as HQ for Bibs-industry. Jane Green had gone her own way and Delia was tending to the books and the bank and the VAT. One day I was with a client when she called me on my mobile* in a state of panic. I've just had a call from the VAT Inspector, she exclaimed. What shall I do? Knowing well how assiduous she was with her bookkeeping and how terrified she was if ever she thought she, I or we might have broken any law I said, do nothing, darling. Just calm down. Several hours later she called me back. How did it go? I asked. She laughed; well, this man came in and spent ninety percent of the time trying to convert me to Jehovah's Witness. He hardly looked at the books. On another occasion I was sitting in front of an extremely important Saudi - a potential client - when my mobile rang. A month earlier our new bitch, Mati, had come into season. She was too young for puppies and not wanting the pleasure of a litter of puppies running around, much to our dog Sorosh's evident disappointment we had taken him away to board with a friend in the West Country. I knew Dee was that day set to to bring him home after the normal twenty three days of Mati's 'heat'. What are we going to do, Dee wailed. As soon as I brought Sorosh home and into the kitchen I turned around and they were at it in a tie. They are still. Take her to the vet for the day after pill, I advised, to the evident surprise of the immaculate His Excellency. Problem solved.

* Yes, I bought my first mobile - the size of half a housebrick - as early as 1990. It cost us a fortune but was worth it to me. Many's the night drive across the desert when the boredom and incipient depression would be assuaged by those so very expensive conversations with my lady, all those miles away in Headbourne Worthy.

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