I must stop playing these old tapes or I will never finish this history. I was on my way out of Everest, having just got my photocopies and now in search of a portable typewriter. The contact list still lay unsent and untyped in my Greek bag, which hung from my shoulder. I had been sent towards the bus quarter of Cairo, a section completely unknown to me, and after wandering around asking various passers-by the street name I had on my piece of paper (in Arabic), I gave up in vain and sat in a cafe to ponder my next move. An ocean tide of humanity was rushing past me in the street and a one-eyed waiter nervously attended me. Perhaps he might know this address? The patch over his right eye couldn't stop winking at me as he spluttered out his instructions towards a quarter I'd never been to before. He called a legless infant who was sitting in the gutter to take me to the typewriter repair shop. To my horror the child also had no arms, but moved by way of a crutch strapped under his slightly longer left stump, which pushed the wide skateboard on which he sat along the gutter. This improbable victim of yet another probable pharma disaster turned out to be astonishingly fluent in English.
In fact he was not at all the child I had taken him to be but rather a mature and intelligent youth. En route to our destination he quizzed me about my real purpose in Cairo. Of course, this I could not divulge, even to a limbless street urchin. But why, he asked, do I stay in such a hole as the Everest? His mother had a very nice pension not far from this quarter were I might find cheaper and much cleaner rooms. With free breakfast and many other hinted at extras. I pointed out that, as I was leaving the next day, it would be pointless to move accommodation, but if he had a card or could write his mother's address......Too late I realised my faux pas. But my diminutive roller skating friend merely laughed. No he could not write, but would dictate to me the name and address of her hostelry. This he did, being careful to spell out the words with perfect English intonation. He signalled our arrival at the store for old and delinquent typewriters, whose window was a 50's museum of picture advertisements for ancient machines. My friend rolled off with a faintly ironic Arabic salutation.
Inside was stifling and poorly lit, but a young woman in a surprisingly modern costume - something between a white boiler suit and a frou frou skirt with blue stockings - promptly offered her services in broken but plausible English. Behind her head was a large pigeon-holed rack of lugubrious second-hand typewriters which covered the whole side wall as it ran into the distant gothic shadings of the back of the shop. Each machine was in gleaming condition despite its age, and the overall effect was one of a huge orchestra of strange instruments waiting to strike up their letters in a cacophony of frenzied tappings. Business was obviously good despite the proximity of the computer age, for there were at least five assistants dealing with a questioning throng of small businessmen.
“Do you have anything smaller?” I ventured, nodding towards the great rack behind the counter, “I really need the smallest of portables for my travels.”
“Oh yes no problem, follow me.”
We passed towards the back of the shop, up a short flight of stairs and into a wide workroom where more than ten young boys of teenage years laboured away in their dirty white djellebiahs. The benches at which they worked were strewn with the insides of machines great and small, revealing themselves rather like the miniaturised inners of gutted grand pianos. This constant act of surgery and repair was being carried out at high speed, yet without a conductor or master worker. The crescent lights from the heavily shaded light bulbs splashed across the benches picking out odd letters and dismembered arms, yet high above was a heavy darkness that seemed to wear down upon us all. My Egyptian Princess of Type motioned me to the very back of the complex, where she pulled out the draw of an incredibly heavy filing cabinet to reveal a series of portable machines, strung there like a set of hanging files.
“We have a model which might be fitting your specific needs sir” she said, pulling out a thin grey gun-metal box and laying it on the table. I did not recognise it at all as a typewriter, for it was just 5 cms. wide, and only the ivory handle, tucked into the corner of the metal, revealed it as something portable. Otherwise it more resembled an anonymous grey box, a cousin, probably, to the black ones looked for after every air disaster. Suddenly she pushed a button somewhere invisible to me, and swang back the lid, which in turn made the inners of the machine sit up in readiness for the users touch. Astonished, I automatically stroked the miniature smoke grey polished keyboard, and admired the intricacy of the lustreless arms of the individual letter types. It appeared perfect for my needs - not too heavy despite its all metal construction; compact; and, above all, strong enough to withstand the hazards of my journeys across two continents. When I learnt that the the make was French or Belgian - the name “de Rooy” stood sign written on the cover - it sealed my love for the new contraption which was just about to enter my life, and luggage stocks. This, despite the fact that there was the disturbing presence of letters such as é, à, and ç. To my inquiry the woman assured me that everything worked perfectly well on the machine as it had just been restored and checked by the senior repair expert. Furthermore the price, at 90 Egyptian shillings was extremely reasonable. In fact, it was well within my budget, and despite my slight misgivings that I might find a seventh piece of luggage the proverbial straw etc. etc., I paid up immediately and left to return to my room in the skies. I could not wait to attack my contact list with my new found toy.
When I finally settled to type the precious thing I discovered that some of the levers that swang the letter types onto the paper were slightly bent, resulting in words that looked rather seasick. No matter how hard I tried to straighten them the letters would still not strike the paper neatly and vertically. In fact they became more easily stuck and often intertwined around one another. Even worse there was a sticking “p” that always led to overwritten letters on top of it - a rather interesting foible that slowed my progress with the list even further. But I had no time to return to the shop to complain about these faults, and in any case my love for this crazy machine was increased by these rather intriguing imperfections. Here is a reproduction of my first contact list:
the interests of truth, and also as a guide to some of my past
destinations I am forced to divulge these addresses at this point. I
have no wish to betray the confidences of my fellow workers, but I
cite them here as witnesses to my own demise and that of my luggage.
Some of them were witnesses to the piecemeal and tragic loss of my
life work. The task we were trying to achieve we may seem to have
failed in at this moment of time - largely due to the bewildering
reactions and machinations of the authorities at large. However I do
admit some of this result is down to my own errors, and, that
sometimes representatives of some authorities showed a receptive ear,
and more rarely, a willing hand, even if they had to hide their
actions from their ultimate superiors. Despite our abject failure, I
do believe we planted seeds for the future - it may be a long time,
but there will be others who will take our place, fired by the
knowledge of what we set out to do. A new network will rise up with
similar aims, and the saving of the human race will again become its
priority. In this way I’m sure, The
History of My Luggage will
not have been written in vain. Sad that there is not enough time to
plan what I need to say and place it in its proper context and order.
Sad also that due to the crossings and re-crossings of my route the
memory of precise dates and places is sometimes a little hazy.
Yes I spent most of the rest of that day typing up then sending out this list to our members. At last I had completed the circle after four months non-stop travel and meetings all across Europe between September 1991 and now. With it I sent a letter and a recorded tape, explaining briefly some of my harassments, and my plans in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. I promised them I would return within two months with the answer to our prayers, or, even better, the man who could provide it.
Unknown to me at the time, this would be almost the last time I used the typewriter. At least for its primary purpose. But nevertheless I dragged it across two and a half continents and back again. It was so solid and unmistakably unlike my other luggage items that it never became detached from me, though several custom officers would like to have tried to do so, suspecting I guess that it might have been some kind of terrorist bomb.