2 - The Best Life Anyone Has Ever Lived

The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard and the impressions of her seven year old daughter Robin.

Ahmadi, Kuwait, May 1967

The air becomes visible, even inside the house. A mist, then a yellow light. The sand invades the house, pushing past the wet towels lining the rattling windows and doors. We force smiles in case the children are scared. But there is something exciting about it. It’s out of the ordinary. We could never have dreamed this. Like everything about our life in Ahmadi. The sandstorm passes, the dust subsides, the sky is blue. Everyday life begins again.

I love the word ‘shamaal’ and I like the way it fills everything – nothing happens just the sound of the sand and the wind on the house. It’s dark in the day, a funny yellow dark. The air tastes weird. We all go very quiet, and sit by ourselves. I curl up and read and there is nothing else. It bugs me after when there is sand everywhere, and everyone is cross, but Mummy and Connie sort it out quickly. Daddy says there are different kinds of sandstorms and they have different names, but we always call it a shamaal. I like the rain too, it's a bit the same, the noise everywhere, but you can go out and be in the rain together. It hardly ever rains and it seems as if Ingrid is always here with me when it does, and we run outside and laugh and dance on the concrete by the side of the house and splash in the puddles and put our faces up and try to drink the rain, and we are all rain and the world is all rain. And Mummy and Auntie Gloria-Jane sigh and tut at us, but they are laughing too.

And how did we spend the days?  

We didn't have to clean our houses.
We couldn't get jobs.
Our children walked to school or went in the yellow bus.
Our meals were cooked for us.
Our houses were tidied and cleaned for us.
The men had Important Time-Consuming work.
We had money like we had never imagined.

British 30-somethings in an American town in the middle of the Middle East, a town built for oil, and for us, in a desert by the sea.

Life was simple for the men – work then play. But without a job I needed friends to entertain me, to define, support, lean on me. Friendship is a dangerous enterprise; if your friend knows too much about you you’re in her power. If you love her too much her loss breaks up your world. Make sure you have a good supply, and never get dependent.  My first friend was Gloria-Jane, whose middle-aged parents had chosen the flamboyant ‘Gloria’ in the happy delirium of her birth and added ‘Jane’ to tone it down as caution returned. She was loud, flirtatious, and soon fled from the quiet household in the quiet Scottish village for a teenage marriage to marvellous mad Melvin Tuttle.

I was named for ambition and for delight - Cleopatra, the queen bee. But was ‘Peggy’ to my husband. Gloria-Jane and Cleopatra / Peggy – a match from the first.

We collected more friends as the months and years went by – Gretchen, Joan, and Clara, our only unmarried friend. We lost friends too – to Home, to other oil countries, to illness, accident, death.

We played bridge and ranked ourselves by intelligence. We arranged flowers and ranked ourselves by creativity. We supervised the houses and gardens and food and servants.

We shopped.

We went to the clubs the company had set up to keep us happy, and the clubs we set up to keep us busy. We prepared our older children for the flight Home to England for each school term; we longed for their return. We made alcohol in the stills that filled the showers in our bathrooms. We wrote letters in tiny writing on flimsy blue aerogrammes; we longed for the replies. We sent off films and got slides and Super 8 reels back in brown cardboard boxes, which we looked at on click-in plastic slide boxes or whirring projectors and pull-up white screens in hot darkened rooms.

We talked.  

At the weekends, Thursday and Friday, the men were around and choice was endless. We went to the Yacht Club, to the cinema, to the desert for picnics, to the islands for boat trips, to each other’s houses for parties. The photographs and films are of those times, the times when the men were with us. Because the cameras belonged to the men, because the men took the photographs and because we never thought of documenting our life in between.

We viewed our lives through the lens of our friendships, shaping events into anecdotes as we lived them. Telling and re-telling. Building the mythology of friendship to replace the dull history of families so far away. We were happy to forget our straightened suburban 1940s childhoods, our austere 1950s adolescences and our earnest early years of marriage. We had never dreamed that our unsurprising husbands would bring us to this most surprising life.

I had first seen Genevieve a week before her visit to our house. I'd wanted a little talk with Robin’s new teacher Miss Cardinal about the ridiculous process of times table learning they were grinding through. I imagined our conversation.

     'Yes, I agree that my daughter does not know her tables, but is there anyone else in the class who can do the sums quicker? I rest my case.'

But Miss Cardinal was too busy; I'd forgotten she had other children to teach. Looking through the glass panel on the classroom door as the officious receptionist practically manhandled me out, or tried to, I saw she seemed preoccupied with a pretty little oriental boy I’d never seen before. I'm not an interfering mother, but I do make it my business to know all the children in Robin’s class and a little bit about their backgrounds. It's one of the things that's difficult for me about Richard being at boarding school - I only know what he chooses to tell me about his classmates.

Robin came home from school wondering what I had been doing gesticulating outside the door. So I told her about the times tables and asked about the boy. She said he had just arrived that day and none of them knew if he was staying. Name of Bergan, she claimed. Father working for those cowboys who ride into town (or rather into the oil field or the tank farm) to put out fires. The oil industry has a very rural vocabulary.

I remembered the things Robin had told me about Miss Cardinal,

‘She’s so beautiful.’

‘We think she looks sad sometimes.’

‘Glenn says she stays in the classroom for hours after we’ve gone.’

A lovely young woman devoting herself to young people at the expense of her own social life, perhaps even her love life. I asked Robin. It turned out the children had also wondered at the lonely situation of their adorable new teacher. They had asked many subtle and not-so-subtle questions, including the complicated,

‘If you had a boyfriend, what would you like his name to be?’

And the blunt,

‘Why does no-one like you?'

From Robin's report it was clear that this question had flustered poor Miss Cardinal, and provoked chaos, as the children clamoured around her, explaining in shrill voices that they, at least, liked her very much.

And that's why I invited her round. I needed a new friend, and she obviously did too. But now that I'd spent the afternoon with her at home and at the Club, I wondered. She had a job she seemed to love. She had no husband or children. How much could we have in common? Genevieve was 21 years old, a young 21. She was gorgeous, she was fun. But was she a mistake?

1 - The Artemesia Club

The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard 
and the impressions of her 7 year old daughter Robin.

The Artemisia Club

I needed a new friend. I chose Robin’s new teacher.

I sent Robin in with a note inviting Miss Cardinal to pop round after school. She was surprised to see Gloria-Jane.
‘Mrs Stewart, this is so kind of you. And Mrs Tuttle...'
‘Cleo and Gloria-Jane.’
‘Cleo... Gloria-Jane....’
‘Tea, or Pink Lady? Gloria-Jane and I are having Pink Lady. Come out to the veranda, it’s nice and shady.’

Our Pink Lady sounded and looked innocuous but it was based on the alcohol we called Flash and distilled in our showers. I'd added 7up (the lemonade we got from the Company souk), condensed milk and some red colouring. The stills were mostly produced in one of the contractor's workshops. I was having my Pink Lady without Flash - I like a clear head.

The sprinkler was throwing water out in scintillating inviting parabolas. The girls, having had squash and treats, had changed into swimming costumes and were running through it shrieking. Miss Cardinal assumed a professional demeanour and began,
‘Robin and Ingrid are wonderful girls, and certainly at the very highest achievement level of the class. I gather you have been concerned, Mrs Stewart, about the times table situation, but I really wouldn't worry. A girl of Robin’s intelligence - ’
‘No, Genevieve – it is alright if we call you Genevieve?’
‘Of course.’
'No, don’t worry about that. We just thought we’d like to get to know you.’

I had caught a glimpse of the three of us in the big mirror over the mantelpiece as we crossed the sitting room. My English Rose thing, blonde hair teased in rolling waves around my head, Gloria-Jane with her glossy complicated brunette up-do, and Genevieve with her deep red hair, brushed forward over her shoulders, resting comfortably on her breasts and stopping at nipple-height. It had clearly been ironed to within an inch of its life, and fell to frame her face from a centre parting. I was wearing pinky-orange lipstick and pale blue eye shadow. Gloria-Jane was inch-deep in foundation and all the rest. I never wear foundation, it’s so uncomfortable, especially in the heat, and I’m very lucky with my skin. Genevieve wore no make-up at all. We looked good together.

To relax Genevieve, we poured out information about our mothers and husbands and love lives. We kept her tumbler full. A girl needed liquid in that heat. Ingrid and Robin had carried the sprinkler over to the edge of the garden by the big swing. Genevieve was rattling off gossip and even doing little impressions of the children and their parents. She was grateful for our attention.
‘How old are you Genevieve, if you don’t mind.’
‘Well, I always mean to say that I'm 24 because I think that sounds better, but in fact I'm going to be 23 next month.’

Surprisingly, just as she finished this sentence, she leapt from her blue and white woven plastic chair and flew down the veranda steps onto the lawn. Robin had come off the swing at the height of its forward motion. Genevieve had seen her let go of the chains and not realised it was part of the game – to fly through the spray. The girls were always falling and jumping off things, usually deliberately, and usually with a dead-pan reaction – this too was part of the game. Genevieve ended up in the spray trying to rescue a surprised Robin. Ingrid and Robin were puzzled but pleased to see their damp teacher, and in no time were teaching her the joys of that moment at the top of a really good swing when the chains go limp for a second. A moment out of time.

I went into the house and got a towel ready for her return. She was rather sheepish and had sobered up somewhat.
‘Would you like to come to the Artemesia Club with us and have a swim Genevieve, since you’re wet already? I'll lend you a costume and some clothes. I bet you’re not such a different size to me.’
We soon got Genevieve kitted out in my black bikini. It was slightly too small for her hourglass figure so her perfect creamy curves were bursting out of it. We put one of my towelling cover-ups on top, Gloria-Jane borrowed a red bikini, I took my pale green one and we bundled the girls into the car.

Gloria-Jane and I had always drawn attention, but add Genevieve to the mix and no-one could take their eyes off us as we swanned around the pool in the bikinis. We settled on one of the terraces; chairs, tables and a tree for shade. 

One of my favourite things is sitting with our legs swinging off the second diving board with Ingrid. When we are there no-one can hear what we are saying. It’s wide and doesn't bounce and when someone else does come up we just roll forward and fall off the edge. Sometimes we get up and do a standing rolling falling dive. The only thing we don’t like is the stuff on it is rough, like a doormat, that’s to stop it being slippery. So if we’re going to be a long time we bring a towel to sit on, and then when we have to go home one of us falls into the pool and gets out and the one on the board tries to drop the towel on top of her like a capture net.

When we get too hot or tired of talking we play the falling in games. One is, you walk along the board with your eyes closed till you fall in. Another is, you run along with your eyes closed till you fall in. Another is, you talk and walk or run like someone we know (till you fall in) and you have to be the person while you’re falling too, just like you have to keep walking or running while you’re falling. 

Genevieve loved the “hole in the wall” – a food kiosk next to the pool selling drinks and snacks including small plates of chips. A plate cost 50 fils and came with a generous portion of tomato ketchup. The children found it almost magical. Most adults were less interested, but we were beginning to be aware there was something child-like about Genevieve. She couldn't swim, she had told us, and having used our Company number to get chips and wolfed them down, was sitting on the side in the the water sprays which helped to keep the pool cool, laughing at the girls fooling around on the second board. I dropped off my chair to lie on my towel.

Gloria-Jane exclaimed,

‘Eyes right!’

I pushed myself up onto my elbows. One of those crazily triangle shaped men was bounding up the steps to the top board. He stood, poised against the sun, balancing just on his toes, lifted his ridiculous arms, smiled so that his teeth flashed once and then, bending his knees ready to spring, toppled off sideways, turned, flailing, in the air and hit the water flat in a belly flop so noisy that even the largest of the teenagers would have lost to him in a dive bomb competition. Gloria-Jane and I gasped, partly worried for his health, partly worried for his dignity, partly impressed by his bravado and very impressed by his body, which was now drifting lifeless on the disturbed surface of the water.

We were rooted to the spot, but Genevieve’s caring side sprang into action once again, and she leapt into the pool to help. She had forgotten she couldn't swim and within a few yards began to flounder. Triangle man, coming round after the initial shock of impact, zipped into action at the sight of the gorgeous drowning woman. Forgetting the smart of embarrassment and the smack of the water he flipped Genevieve onto her back and towed her smoothly to the side, his hand under her chin, her body thrashing on his as he steered himself swiftly backwards. His head connected with a crunch to the concrete wall of the pool. Again the tables were turned and it was he who needed help from her. 

Dazed and confused they finally heaved and dragged each other out onto the side and collapsed. Exhausted and flat out, their body language was that of basking sealions, their appearance of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition front cover models. I propped myself up higher to witness the next stage of the encounter. They were laughing and looking intently at each other, deeply relaxed. Then they quietened and got to their feet, turning away. Genevieve came back to the grass terrace, and the man watched her walk up, then went down the pool to the shallow end, where he hopped in, swinging his weight round one hand placed on the poolside. Beautiful. I had a feeling he needed the water to cover his confusion.

Genevieve had reached us.
‘He’s Bill Kirkwood, he’s in charge of the putting out fires people. I've met him of course, but you know, I didn't really realise exactly. He told me he was Dynamite.’
‘Not very modest’ said Gloria-Jane, ‘but I can quite believe it. These firefighting cowboys are often quite something, and I believe they get a lot of practice.’
‘Not very modest, to tell you he’s dynamite.’
‘Ah no, the fire guys call him Dynamite, because he’s in charge of it...’
‘Ah’, replied Gloria-Jane, ‘they put the fires out with dynamite. But that one seems more likely to light a fire. Absolute dynamite. Goodness, what couldn't I do with that? Seems like a nice boy though. Look at him playing with that little mite.’

Bill ‘Dynamite’ Kirkwood was flinging a little boy high, whooshing him through the water and up. Richard used to throw Robin into the air like that when they were playing in the pool. She’d loved it but I wasn't completely convinced that the little boy’s squeals were all of joy.

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