Running desperately down the palm-shaded
street, Helen heard the baying of the mob behind her, the mob that had pursued
her all the way from the burning pyre that once had been the biggest of the
luxury tourist hotels. The recollection
of the screams of their victims and the roar of flames still filled her mind
with panic. Sweat ran down her back and
flanks, though her short skirt and sleeveless top made a suitable enough
costume in which to run for her life.
She had kicked off her high-heeled sandals right from the first and now,
mindful of her bare feet, had to keep swerving to avoid broken glass that had
spread from the frontage of wrecked hotels along the street.
Ahead of her she saw disaster looming, yet another mob of looters welling
out from shattered doors and into the street, threatening to trap her between
the two terrors. The rising ululation of female voices from
the excited women hanging on the fringes of the mob like flapping black crows
told Helen that she had no hope of sneaking past, her scant clothing and light
hair had made her instantly identifiable. Taken up with a deeper note by the savage
voices of men, the menace of the converging mobs spurred a desperate desire for
concealment; the open street was a death trap. She swerved instinctively to make for the
nearest cover, scrambling over a waist-high steel railing and plunging into the
ornamental shrubbery that divided the line of tourist hotels from the
riverside. The thick growth turned out
to be largely composed of thorny bushes masking a steep drop and the thorns caught at
flesh and clothing as she forced her way through, plunging perilously faster as
the slope fell away from under her feet.
Coming to the bottom
she burst into the open with a rush, frantically collapsing onto hands and
knees atop a vertical revetment wall.
Below her and between the wall and the river stretched a multi-lane
highway, wide but empty, for under wartime conditions there was no petrol for
any but government or military use. On
the far side, beyond a safety barrier, lay the embanked
margin of the river with the tall triangular sails of a few river craft visible above
it. There could
be no going back. She could hear the
sound of noisy threshing upon all sides as pursuers, better equipped, smashed
their way through the bushes in search of her.
saw at a glance that the wall wasn’t impossibly high, only about her own height
above the tarmac.
She slid over the
edge, dropped to the road surface and broke into a run again, bare thighs flashing,
clutching one arm across her breasts. In
her precipitous passage the thin cotton of her top had been ripped open and her
bra had torn loose, while her skirt was held together only by the depth of the
waistband. Hanging on to the remains of her bra, she ran a little way along the side of the
roadside of the road.
Hearing the renewed outbreak of triumphant male yells with despair, she
risked a scared glance behind her. Men
and boys were straggling out of the bushes and spilling down into the roadway
and then, as she looked ahead, spreading out there too, to encircle her both
before and behind.
Suddenly, from a distance, she heard the noise of an approaching car and, as it
was her only prospect of rescue, ran out into the road. A big black limousine came round a curve and
into the crowd behind her. It hardly
slowed at all but merely scattered them, sending them leaping and yelling out
its path. Helen ceased her efforts to
hold her rags about her in favour of frantic signals, waving her arms wildly,
hardly caring what sort of figure she made.
For a despairing
moment she thought that the car would run her down too, but suddenly it braked
hard, slewing a little with a shriek of tires as it came to a stop alongside
her and the doors front and rear flew open.
A man in a dark suit sprang from the front. In one hand he brandished a short stubby gun
of some kind, with the other he grabbed Helen by the arm and
thrust her towards the rear door.
female figure whose pale youthful face seemed strangely familiar to her, peered
open-mouthed at Helen from the interior.
Helen was given a vigorous push in the back and sent flying across the
female legs. Another male hand reached out to yank her
inwards. The door slammed shut behind
her. The man from outside landed heavily
in the front seat and that door slammed too, the car accelerating away even
before it was shut.
For a moment or two
the men in the car yelled what sounded like angry curses at one another, the
car swerving violently this way and that, while from the front came bursts of
automatic fire that made Helen shudder in further horror. Then all at once the men relaxed, their
voices suddenly jovial and the car settling to a steadier progress. Helen was still on her hands and knees in the
well of the car between the passengers’ legs and the back of the front
seats. The man who had thrown her into
the car leaned over from his seat beside the driver and took a grip on her
hair, lifting her face towards the female passenger and asking a question of
the girl in impatient tones.
The girl ignored
him. “It is Miss Pearson, isn’t it? How did you get here? Why was that dreadful mob chasing you?”
Helen knew then where
she had seen the face before. The girl
was Leila Ghaddoui whom she had taught for a while in a London school. She was
the daughter of a rich family whose father had filled some important position
in his country’s embassy. Perhaps she
had found a potential protector as well as a rescuer!
“Why you brought her here, I don’t understand… Think of your father’s
position… She should go to an internment
camp…” Madame Ghaddoui, Leila’s mother, was tall, dark and elegant. Helen had met her once at a parents’ meeting
at the school but Madame Ghaddoui actually seemed inclined to be doubtful of
to admit any connection. She regarded the bedraggled and nearly naked
female whom her teenage daughter had rescued from the mob as impatiently as if
the girl had returned with a stray cat of doubtful provenance.
“Mama, that hotel was
being used to house interned foreigners.
She only just escaped with her life.
The other camps are probably just as dangerous and it would be difficult
to deliver her to one, these days anyway.”
Leila eyed Helen meaningfully.
Her former teacher had reacted with terror to
the same suggestion when Leila had made it in the car. Helen’s experience of internment to date and
in supposedly privileged conditions didn’t inspire confidence in the safety of
the remoter camps. In the desperate state
the war had reached, she suspected there would be few soldiers available to
protect them. After consulting with her
bodyguards Leila had admitted that she knew of no internment camps within easy
reach, since most of them were out in the desert, situated far from urban
centres. She made the same points to her
“I thought she could work for us here
instead,” the girl suggested. “You know
we’ve needed a new maidservant ever since Asfa went back to her people. Father
always said that the internees should be made to be of use, not just sitting
out there in the desert being fed and protected.”
“Oh Madame Ghaddoui!
I would do anything!” Helen begged fervently, shivering in the cool interior
hall, her nakedness and general grime compared to the smart dresses and high
heels of the Ghaddouis making her feel like the stray cat that Madame seemed to
envisage. She had jumped at such a
solution when Leila had first suggested it, though she had expected Leila’s mother
to be more sympathetic to the idea, remembering her as quite Westernised in
style. Evidently the Ghaddouis, like
many others lately, had undergone a sudden drastic conversion to the prevailing
With horror, Helen saw herself now as a liability who might be shrugged
off. The requisitioned hotel had been intended as
a particularly luxurious place of internment during what was expected to be a
short war. The mob had been otherwise
Madame Ghaddoui stared down a thin nose at her.
“Of course it could only be upon the strictest terms. We couldn’t possibly be thought simply to be
protecting a runaway. An experiment in
corrective training, perhaps? Redeeming a handmaid
of Satan from ignorant wickedness? That
would do as an explanation.” She looked
Helen coolly up and down. “You
understand you will be employed merely as a servant. You will have to get used to your new
position very quickly. No impudence or
indiscipline from you, or out you will go!
Do you understand that?”
“Yes Madame Ghaddoui.” Helen said meekly, only too relieved that she was
not to be ejected into the terrors of the world outside.
Yet being a servant
was to prove more painful than Helen expected.
Madame Ghaddoui made no concessions and Leila
seemed to think that she had done more than was required of her.
Helen was to sleep in
a tiny cubby-hole in the kitchen which was presided over by a big black
Sudanese woman cook called Sulima who was to be in charge of her. It was as well
that she wasn’t claustrophobic, for her bed was in a sort of cupboard just long
enough to lie flat and not high enough to stand upright. The black shift dresses she was given to wear
as uniform were those left behind by the departed Afsa, who seemed to have been
a much shorter girl. They were tight
across the bust and showed a good deal of bare thigh.
Sulima seemed jolly enough at first acquaintance, but she
had soon proved
to have a primitive idea of discipline. Since neither of them had any language in
common, Helen was frequently in error and Sulima evidently assumed that her incomprehensible orders would be made more effective by the vigorous
application of a wooden spoon to her subordinate’s rear.
The first time she had just whisked Helen’s short skirt up and given her
a couple of smart cracks on her seat. The
handed down uniforms hadn’t included underwear and Helen had to make do
with worn out bras and skimpy knickers discarded by Leila or one of her younger
sisters. The skimpiness of the knickers
in particular left the cheeks of Helen’s bottom painfully exposed to the hard
round end of the spoon.
Helen soon learnt to spot an impending strike and skip nimbly out of reach.
After one or two such brushes, however, she had carelessly put away what
she thought was an unused kitchen pot, without noticing there were traces of
burnt food in the seams. That time she
hadn’t been given a chance to dodge.
Gripping the novice maidservant firmly by one ear, the big black woman
hooked a stool out from beneath the kitchen table with her foot and, thrusting
Helen across her broad lap with a brawny arm, whisked up her skirt and pulled down
her knickers with a speed that precluded resistance. This time the wooden spoon was
applied hard and flat to Helen’s bare bottom.
The sound of the resounding smacks almost drowned out Helen’s indignant
squeals and protests. She squirmed to
little avail in the cook’s evidently practised grasp, then after the first few
smacks, tried to protect herself with her hands. This only resulted in her discovery that the
impact of the spoon on her fingers hurt even worse than on her behind. Soon she was making so much noise that the
younger Ghaddoui girls came to see what was going on, though only to giggle at
Red-faced and nursing her stinging rear with numbed hands, Helen fled
from the kitchen as soon as she was released from the cook’s grip and rushed at
once to confront her employer, only to be ordered by that lady to make an immediate
return to the kitchen and apologize to Sulima, which Helen refused tearfully
but indignantly to do.
“You have already been discourteous to Sulima who was
put in charge of you and now you dare to defy me!” Madame stormed. “I said I wouldn’t tolerate any
impudence! You must submit to rightful
punishment! Leila, Aissa! Get hold of her and make her bend over!”
Flustered and taken aback, Helen first let the girls take hold of her,
then with a sudden rise of spirit, changed her mind and fought to shake them
“Our servant girls
have always been beaten if they disobey!” Leila panted, gripping one of Helen’s
arms. “You aren’t any different now!”
On the other side, Aissa, the other daughter, squealed angrily as Helen
flung her to and fro and then all three Ghaddouis milled about her, shrieking
indignantly while Helen tried shrilly to defy or reason with them by
turns. Behind her she heard the ominous sound of a
door opening and gathered herself for fresh effort, though expecting hopelessly
that it heralded the imminent intervention of the cook to overwhelm her with
intervention of an angry male voice cut through this female squawking and
brought sudden silence. The dominant
male in this female milieu, Ali Akbar Ghaddoui, towered over them physically
and authoritatively, tall and broad shouldered in a tight turban and long
starched white gown. Hawk nosed and dark
eyed with a close trimmed black beard, he was the supreme masculine presence
about whom this household of females revolved by tradition and instinct. The girls faded deferentially into the
background. Even Helen had absorbed
enough of this milieu to be affected.
Madame fluttered uncharacteristically.
“My dear, I’m sorry
you should have been disturbed by such a minor domestic matter,” she said, as
if soothing a dangerous animal of uncertain temper. Faced by this panicky anticipation of
masculine wrath, Helen’s posture of defiance instantly deflated.
“Nothing that we need
bother you with, my dear. Just the new
girl being foolish.” Madame brandished
the little cane she had produced, as if to display that the matter was under
control. “I’m sure Helen will not want
to annoy you further.”
Ghaddoui reached out to take Helen’s chin in strong brown fingers, tilting her
face up towards him, his dark eyes seeming indifferent at first, taking on a
hint of interested cruelty as he looked into her blue ones.
“My wife is fully
responsible for your conduct and discipline and while you are in my household,
I expect you to be obedient and submissive.
Do you understand?” Helen
swallowed, conscious of his overpowering masculinity, deciding rapidly that she
did not want to risk this masculine intervention going any further.
“Yes sir,” she
“I am sure that
Helen will not resist proper discipline, will you, girl?” Madame asked, closing
her lips firmly and smoothing the little cane between her long fingers.
“Yes Madame. I mean … No Madame!” Helen said nervously.