14th December 1871, Egypt
Lily and I leaned over the ship’s rail as the SS Australia nosed her way alongside the wharf. It was only just after sunrise but I could already feel the sun warming my face. Behind us lay the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, in front of us was spread out the new bustling city of Port Said, which Papa had told us guarded the mouth of the brand new Suez Canal.
We had left Southampton docks on a freezing, grey afternoon, just two weeks ago. Now we were in Egypt and a whole new world of low flat-roofed houses and palm trees. Everywhere I looked colours glowed, rich and clear, even the row of white and yellow warehouses opposite glimmered in the soft morning light.
The wharf below us was crowded with people. Everyone seemed to be shouting. Officers in smart blue uniforms were shouting orders at the sailors securing the mooring ropes. Arabs in flowing robes, and turbans on their heads, were shouting for passengers to buy everything from drinks and oranges to strings of coloured beads. Even the water around the ship was crowded with small, bobbing boats full of yet more arabs, all shouting up at us to buy their wares.
‘Isn’t this just the most brilliant place in the whole, wide world?’ I said glancing at Lily.
She didn’t reply at once. Instead she adjusted her hat so that its brim shaded her face, patted her ringlets into place, and smoothed out an invisible wrinkle in her skirt. ‘It looks rather dusty down there,’ she said at last.
‘Dusty?’ I repeated, but I wasn’t surprised, not really. Lily is my older sister, but not by much. Just twenty minutes actually, and she’s not just my sister, we’re twins. We’re fourteen, and we both have shoulder length copper-red hair, pale skin, freckles, which we hate, and mud-green eyes. There are a lot of things, which are the same about us, but there are a lot of things, which are different too. One of those things is that Lily minds about dust and getting her clothes dirty, and I don’t.
Lily always manages to stay as neat and clean as a new pin. At least that’s what Mama says. That day was no different. Her cream skirt and lace blouse looked like they had just come fresh from the laundry, while my skirt and blouse looked like they couldn’t wait to get back into it. And our hair is different as well. Lily’s hair is always twisted into smooth, shining ringlets. Mine is completely straight; I refuse to spend ages twisting my hair round rags at bed time, just to get curls in the morning.
We watched as a gangplank was lowered. It was immediately surrounded by a swarm of boys of all ages. These were dressed differently from the arabs and wore simple ankle length tunics, which Papa had told us were galabayas, and their heads were bare. They were each holding a rope at the other end of which was a small, long-eared donkey wearing a brightly coloured harness.
Just then a tall, thin man in a tweed suit, with a mop of grey hair and round spectacles, hurried down the gangplank. As soon as he reached the wharf he was swamped by the donkey boys. He began gesticulating furiously at them.
‘Look Lily, isn’t that Mr Baxter?’
Lily peered over the railing. ‘And it seems like he’s in a hurry.’
One of the taller boys was nodding at Mr Baxter who immediately mounted the boy’s donkey; his legs were so long that his feet almost touched the ground. He urged the donkey forward. It didn’t move. The boy pulled the lead rope but the animal’s hooves were planted squarely in the dirt and its ears were back. It wasn’t going anywhere. Mr Baxter raised his hand, and I realised he was holding his silver-topped walking cane. The cane came down hard on the donkey’s back. The donkey brayed, and flicked its back hooves high into the air. Then it set off at a gallop, with Mr Baxter hanging on tight to the saddle, his elbows and legs flapping like a pull-along toy. The donkey and its rider disappeared in a cloud of dust, with the donkey boy in hot pursuit.
Lily and I stared after them.
‘He didn’t have to hit it, did he?’ I said.
Lily shook her head. ‘No, he didn’t.’
‘I hope he doesn’t come back. Ever.’
‘You hope who’s not coming back?’ Papa’s voice behind us made us jump.
He was looking very smart in his lightweight tweed suit and waistcoat. His moustache and side-burns were freshly trimmed and his hair combed smooth and neatly parted.
‘Mr Baxter,’ said Lily, ‘has vanished on the back of a donkey.’
‘Really?’ said Papa,‘he wouldn’t have had his luggage with him then. Not much room for luggage on a donkey.’
‘No luggage,’ I agreed.
‘Well then, he will be back before the ship leaves.’
I sighed. ‘I hope he isn’t. He hit the donkey with his cane.’ That was just one reason I didn’t want him to come back. There was another.
Papa raised an eyebrow. ‘Donkeys can be very stubborn. Sometimes that’s the only way to get them moving.’
I glared at him.
He shook his head ‘I’m sorry. I’m afraid not everyone is as concerned about animals as you both are. For many people here in Egypt life is hard. It is not surprising that their animals have a hard life too.’
I knew he was right. It was hard for many people in London too. I had seen horses like skeletons, struggling to pull their heavy loads through the streets. I hated it.
‘But Mr Baxter isn’t poor,’ I said, ‘he’s travelling First Class like us. And it’s not just because he hit the donkey that I hope he’s gone. He follows us, Lily and me, all the time. Wherever we are on the ship, there he is.’
Papa frowned. ‘That’s quite enough of your nonsense, Rose. Why on earth would he be the slightest bit interested in either of you?’
I shrugged. ‘ I don’t know, but he is.’
Papa shook his head, ‘Your imagination will get you into real trouble one day, young lady.’ He pulled out his pocket watch and studied it. ‘Now I must go or I will be late for my meeting ashore. Coaling is about to begin, and it’s a dirty, dusty business so your mama wants you back in the cabin with her before it starts.’
‘But Papa,’ I protested, ‘there’s so much to see up here on deck.’
‘I suppose,’ said Papa with just the hint of a smile, ‘just a few more minutes won’t hurt. But the moment they start carrying the coal on board, you go to your mama. She wants you to read to her for a while. I will see you later.’ His gaze rested on Lily, ‘and you in particular must be careful about not breathing dust.’ He turned and made his way along the deck towards the stairs leading down to the bottom deck and the gangplank.
Lily pulled a face. ‘I wish he wouldn’t fuss. I’m always careful. He knows that.’
‘Well, at least they mind about you,’ I said, and stared down at the wharf below.