A grumbling bus hungrily received the bottleneck of men swarming out of the Maadi station gate.
“C’mon chaps,” urged one of William’s companions. “Let’s join the queue.”
“If you don’t mind,” William resisted, “I might walk. It is not far.”
Although the bus fare was only 1 piastre, seats were rapidly filling from the influx of men disembarking his train and he knew that there was no limit to the number of passengers who were allowed to board. Rather than being jammed in like fish in a can, or having to sit on the mudguards as he has seen people do, he chose to enjoy the coolness of late afternoon and walk the short distance to the camp. He waved his friends goodbye and turned right along Road 9.
A rabble of voices flowed from Blume’s Tavern that sat conveniently next to the station. Normally, William might be tempted to join the rowdy patrons, but after a long day of sitting on hard wooden seats of Egyptian trains and fighting his way through the noisy chaos of large stations like Cairo’s Bab al Louk, he could only contemplate rest. The heat of the day was rapidly cooling so he put on the coat that was folded over his arm. Then, allowing the excitement of the Tavern to wait for another day, he began to walk down Road 9 towards the intersection of Road 84.
William was amazed that following an absence of one year, he needed no directions to the camp. He had only spent three months at Maadi at the beginning of 1915, but he was familiar with its leafy streets lined with multi storey villas which beamed with European grandeur. The peculiarity of such houses in the Egyptian desert, seemed to amplify the divide between the rich and the poor. On the streets, the vendors worked hard to scratch a living. They conned thousands of hapless soldiers who were only too willing to part with their cash for what they believed to be genuine pieces of antiquity. Despite earning a lucrative income from peddling locally made replicas, the villas of Maadi were well out of reach for them.
Maadi was a relatively new town, populated by expat Brits and Europeans who held diplomatic or government posts. Their homes, that reflected their stature in the local community, were a pleasant sight for a soldier’s dusty eyes. Like an oasis in the desert, the town with its lush green gardens that were watered by the River Nile, stood against the backdrop of Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza.
The shady eucalyptus trees that lined Road 9, greeted him with waving arms, reminding William of his family who he had not seen for more than a year. The few villas that resided along the road stood glowing in the golden afternoon light, proudly towering from their sprawling tropical gardens of glossy palms, leafy sycamores and flaming bougainvillea. For a moment, he forgot about the war; he was walking down the lane from Minehan Siding to his home of Fontenoy, or ‘the jungle’, as he called it.
Thoughts of home were interrupted by a mule carrying two veiled ladies in black robes, clip clopping by, like a dark ominous shadow against the fading light of the sky. They were accompanied by a dark figure cloaked in a billowing striped galabieh who passed William without acknowledgement. Street vendors who had packed up their little carts of wares were also rumbling home along the metal surface of the road. Knowing that they relied on foreigners for their livelihood , they offered their turbaned heads, with leering smiles of tobacco stained teeth, and greetings of, “Good evening sahib,” before continuing on their way.
William could have chosen to cross the railway lines at the station and taken a shortcut across the desert to the camp. For most of the day, a five minute walk along Road 9 would end up a long winded treacherous journey trying to evade the many villagers who were all clamouring for their share of our “baksheesh”. Disembarking from a train carriage was a dangerous affair where one was attacked from all sides by locals pouncing on their opportunity of financial gain. However, the fading sun also saw the dwindling of peddlers from the streets and a time to stroll at leisure without being noticed or accosted.
Reaching the intersection of Road 84, he turned south towards the desert which by now glowed a soft warm yellow and the undulating rolling dunes stretched across the horizon in ribbons of sunset splendour. Once he rose to the top of a short rise, the orderly rows of tents of the Light Horse camp painted the desert sands.
Standing for a moment, he watched the tent city with its signposted streets, sprawl before the almighty pyramids and towering minarets of Cairo. Then the lines of horses caught his eye. He felt a twinge of excitement, listening to their whinnying, knowing he would soon be reunited with his best friend. They have been apart since May the previous year. Would they know each other? More pressing however, was his eagerness to reunite with his regiment, to see those who have survived the traumas of the previous year.