4 - The Flinders' Barbeque

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, Wednesday 17th May 1967

The barbeque was bustling when we arrived – meat covering the huge grill plate on an oil drum cut in half. A group of men were clustered round it advising the host Daniel on the proper procedure. Like all the men in Kuwait, Spencer is an authority on cooking meat over a fire, so he joined them. Robin ran off into a corner of the garden with a gaggle of friends from her class, Vaughn Flinders tagging after them. He was in their class too, but he didn’t seem to fit in. Once the adults had finished the serious cooking of the evening the older children would take over, with a supply of marshmallows. I’d never tried it but my son Richard had told me that grilling a marshmallow requires a great deal of skill; leave it too long and it burns and falls in, take it off too quickly and the inside doesn’t melt.

There were waiters popping up everywhere – you don't really need them for a barbeque but Gretchen wanted enough matching plates and the waiters can bring all that kind of stuff with them from the Company Guest House when you employ them for the evening. They kept picking up plates and glasses and carrying them off to the kitchen whenever you put them down.

After admiring Gretchen's kaftan and making a quick social sweep of the people I hadn’t seen for a while I settled into a good long catch-up with Gloria-Jane and Joan. I tried to talk about Spencer's work obsession. The tank farm extension, fresh discoveries in the oil fields, the jetty services... But Joan interrupted to tell us her latest health worry. Honestly, her family looked as if you could see through them – I blame it on the disinfectant they ended up eating off their plastic plates, soaked in Dettol before every meal. Their eggs were stored in Dettol. Her twins Mary and Sandra seemed to have about half the life in them combined that Robin did. Until I met them I thought twins were more interesting than ordinary people.

Gloria-Jane wanted to complain about her funny eager husband Melvin. He grew a different style of facial hair every year - beginning at Christmas and shaving it off at the first shamaal of the summer holiday. It was particularly unattractive in 1967 – enormous ugly curly side burns – good job (or bad job I suppose) he worked in the field – they didn't allow beards, moustaches or side burns in any of the offices. Gloria-Jane said his drinking was particularly unattractive too; he always seemed the same to me. 

Vaughn Flinders was bothering a group of small children, bow and arrow in hand, always some kind of threat. His parents never seemed to be concerned about his annoying behaviour. Personally I do not know why they didn’t just get something done about those ears. I know some people would say it doesn’t matter as much on a boy as a girl, but then again a girl could cover them up with some kind of hairstyle. He’s so pale, and when the sun shines through them they positively glow, a most unfortunate effect.

I took the weapon off him.

‘Heavens Vaughn, leave those poor little boys alone, they don’t want to play bows and arrows. Go and get a drink for the children, they are your guests.’

Gretchen doesn't keep him occupied enough. I’ve often heard him whining about being bored. Robin and Richard are never bored, and if they were I’d get them to tidy their rooms or help Constance.

I went into the house to get some orange squash. There was a door just a crack open into another room and I saw Vaughn looking at some papers. Then he suddenly sat down, right on the floor. He looked really ill. I took him some water, like Connie does when I get dizzy. He was angry and then told me what happened. He found something in Uncle Daniel’s old attaché case which said he’s adopted. He thought there was something wrong but he wasn’t sure what. He noticed his parents don’t seem to like him much. I wondered if it would help to say nobody likes him much and say he could try to be nicer. He said he’s never going to talk to the people who are not his parents again. I don’t like Vaughn, but it’s good to be nice to someone who has suffered such a disaster, when my life is so nice. Auntie Gretchen, who isn’t his mother after all, is fat, and she wears stupid kaftans. She teaches us French and gives sweets to the people who get it right and Vaughn never gets it right. I offered to lend him some of my best books.

Once I’d got rid of Vaughn, we got back to talking.

‘Spencer's worried about something new that came in by telex. He makes such a fuss about this work stuff.’

The company communicated by telexes; if Spencer sent a telex to London Head Office the reply usually came overnight. This was the conversation I wanted to pursue, but no-one else did, so I ended up solving their problems.

‘Joan, just don’t worry. The dogs never get into the house and you never walk outside. You can’t get injections for everything. If a dog does bite one of you, that’s the time to consider a rabies jab. It was no trouble that time Robin got bitten on the way to school.’

Always a new worry, with Joan. I was glad I’d been able to clear that one up.

‘Gloria-Jane, don’t you think you should just give him an ultimatum? You know, either he shapes up, gives up the daytime drinking or no more, you know, favours.’

According to Gloria-Jane, they had sex at least every other day, with a selection of what she called "favours" on a rotating basis. I refused to let her tell me what the favours were, which was perhaps a mistake, as I didn't know how far what I was imagining differed from what went on. I regularly suggested the withdrawal of sex or favours, but she said she wanted to stay married and anyway she’d miss it as much as he would.

Gretchen soon joined us, although she ought to have been supervising the food, drink and guests. After a while we eased off the chairs onto the lawn. Gretchen's kaftan made it easy for her to lounge and retain her dignity, while my short shift dress wasn't quite so easy to stay decent in. 

Gretchen had news.

'When Clara phoned to say she couldn't come this evening she told me Delbert's nephew Boyd is going to be the new Artemesia Club manager. Apparently he has been having some kind of problem with his previous work.'

Although I was annoyed at this proof of my slipping friendship with Clara when only a few weeks before I had known everything that went on in her life, it was good to imagine that someone with some sense would be running the Club.

The four of us settled into a tight group on the grass. We talked about a plan we had to go shopping. Ahmadi’s company-built souk was our
everyday stop for food and drink and toys and cleaning equipment. We liked
shopping together at the tailors in Fahaheel where camels shuffled, kicking up the dust in the middle of the deeply rutted street, between the chipped concrete fronts of the shops. The buildings and the sand were off-white and grey while the dark blue sea glittered at the bottom of the hill and the advertisements plastered on the walls and the signs over the windows sang out in bright colours. 

Best were our excited rare expeditions to the riches of Kuwait town where it seemed that every day a street was being transformed – more water pipes installed, each new building taller than the last. Until 1962 water had been delivered in lorries so the changes were extraordinary. We accumulated stuff to add to the stuff we had brought from England. Mine was cool, contemporary, American, properly 1960s. Gloria-Jane’s house was full of gadgets and novelties. I was always looking for up-to-date objects, clothes and furniture, Gloria-Jane for something funny, something time-saving, Joan for magical new germ-repelling substances. Gretchen liked to come with us but she never shopped. She already had everything she needed.

We stayed until dusk fell; one of those long friendship-filled evenings. We all talked for hours to our friends, and were full of news on the way home. We'd arranged to pick up Ingrid on our way to the Yacht Club in the morning. Robin mentioned her worries about times tables again, then fell asleep just as we arrived, and Spencer carried her in, hanging out of his arms like a sailbag.

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3 - Spencer

The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard.

Ahmadi, Kuwait, Wednesday 17th May 1967

I was at the door to meet Spencer as he swung through the porch into the bungalow.

'Hello Peggy.'

‘Ow. I wish you’d put down your attaché case before you hug me. You've hit me on the back again. Nice cup of tea darling?’  

He put the case neatly by the door, ready for the morning. Constance would bring tea out to the veranda. Most people had ‘gin and tonic’ when the husbands got home - the Americans brought something from the US for mixing into home-made Flash which was supposed to make it taste like gin. Spencer and I avoided this vile stuff whenever possible, preferring fruit punch - Flash with juice, lemonade or other soft drink, and chopped-up fruit. In any case we never drank alcohol when we were at home and had no guests. Before we’d moved to Kuwait in 1963 Spencer had visited a few times and been horrified by how much the ex-pats drank. We’d decided to stick to tea, as his parents had always done. In my parents' circles it seemed impossible to eat without wine, to end a day without pontificating over a whisky or brandy.

I ran our home-distilling on a day-to-day basis, but Spencer oversaw the process. The element at the base of the still was over-heating and Spencer thought we should embed it in heat-diffusing material.

He dropped his jacket on the settee and we went outside. Constance set the tea down - we sat and admired the sprinkler-maintained miracle of our green lawn. 

'Change and decay in all around I see' Spencer said, for no reason. 'How was your day?'

‘Strange. I went to the Club with Gloria-Jane and Robin's teacher Miss Cardinal. Her name is Genevieve! And I went to the toyshop this morning. It was so funny. I said “A gross of marbles please” and the shop keeper didn't turn a hair, but while he was boxing them up one of the Palestinian operators from the refinery came in, I'm not sure which one but I know I've met him with you. He said “Good morning, Mrs Stewart. Whatever are you buying so many marbles for, if I may ask?”. Well I went bright red. I said I was buying them for the children to play with. He must have guessed it wasn't - do other people use marbles for their stills?’

‘No, all my idea. Those hours in Stockport Grammar and the labs at Cambridge weren't totally wasted. I wonder who it was. Did he have glasses?' He sipped his tea. 'Most of the Palestinian operators seem to have quite a western view of alcohol.'

He took off his tie and put it on the table. I enjoy the unsmartening of Spencer in the minutes after he comes home.

‘You've remembered we've got the Flinders' barbeque?’

He sighed, deeply, and undid the top button of his white work shirt.

‘Oh, Peggy, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can face it. I'm bushed.’

‘It's Wednesday. You're always tired at the end of the week. But going out does you good.’

‘Oh, this is different. I mustn't tell you about it. But when I got in there was a telex that had come overnight...’

I cut in.

‘Oh? Well, we obviously might as well go out, if you’re not going to talk to me in any case. Everyone will be there. Well, not Clara and Delbert – she said it was too far to come in from the embassy. I miss her.’

‘Gretchen Flinders never invited Clara before she married Delbert and the embassy and went up in the world. You were the only one who thought an unmarried school secretary was worth inviting.’

‘I almost regret getting Delbert and Clara together, it has been very much my loss. What will I do when I need to make up numbers for a dinner party now?’

‘I'm not sure that Delbert and Clara owe their entire relationship to you, Peggy, though I know you think you masterminded the whole thing.’

‘Goodness, it was all me - constantly arranging for them to meet, inventing sweet things the other had been saying about them. Anyway, about this evening, Gretchen and Daniel will be thrilled if we turn up – I told her we might not, as you’re so bothered by work recently.’

Spencer squeaked, in a rather unmanly way. And sighed, and asked,

‘Can we take Robin?’

‘Heavens. I wasn't planning to, but OK, why not? It’s Thursday tomorrow, so it's the weekend, no school. It would be a treat for her, and I'm sure there’ll be a whole gang there, half of them seem to schlep their children round everywhere.’

‘Not everyone is lucky enough to have a Connie, are they Connie?’ Spencer asked Constance as she bustled onto the veranda to see if we'd finished our tea.

Constance was our Indian live-in ayah. The houses were planned with a courtyard joining on to the kitchen, and around the courtyard there were rooms for storage and for staff. Gloria-Jane’s Indian cook Philip had found Constance for me in my first month.

After she'd gone back to the kitchen I replied, ‘Well, it is true that Constance is unusually trustworthy.’

‘I think she loves Robin as much as she does her own son.’

Well, since her son was far off in Bombay, that wasn't saying much. Constance showed Robin off to her friends as her own, it seemed to me, but I am not a possessive woman (unlike some) so I was pretty relaxed about that. I hated it when Constance grabbed Robin’s cheek between her thumb and forefinger and shook Robin’s head till it looked as if it was rattling on its neck. I think she was showing off how much flesh Robin had on her. Made me a little queasy. Robin's diet’s not fantastic and she does incline to puppy fat. I don’t know where she gets it from – I have never gained a pound in my adult life, and Spencer is as thin as a stick – rather wish he wasn't, actually.

I went into the kitchen to tell Robin about the evening and found Philip with Constance watching Robin eat. He wasn't that happy at Gloria-Jane’s and I was fine with him visiting Constance. Robin was finishing her boiled egg and bacon tea. She ate the same thing every meal - ridiculous, but Constance couldn't say no to her. Constance got pudding out of the freezer compartment.

‘My little Arctic Roll!’

And she gave Robin an enormous slice of Arctic Roll.

'Would you like to come with Daddy and me to Auntie Gretchen and Uncle Daniel’s?’

‘Oh', Robin looked up with ice cream and jam on her face. 'Connie and Philip were going to teach me a new card game and listen to my times tables.’

‘Well, Daddy would like you to come.’

Robin gobbled down the Arctic Roll and leapt up.

‘Alright then! Do I need to get changed?’

‘Yes, darling, you certainly can’t go like that.’ She was wearing an old dress of mine that came down to her ankles and was falling off her shoulders. Anything I didn't use any more went into the dressing up box in her room and was liable to make appearances unexpectedly. There was a strict rule that these clothes did not go outside the house and garden.

‘What shall I wear?’

‘Let’s go and look.’

‘Is it a party? Shall I wear my new party dress? What are you going to wear? Shall we look at your clothes first?’

I love it when Robin gets interested in clothes. After all those boring years with Richard – mostly grey shorts, white shirts, a tie for a special occasion – it’s heaven. We chose almost matching yellow dresses, mine plain and hers with swirls of orange and pink. I was wearing the gold dhow round my neck as I almost always do – Gloria-Jane gave it to me for our first Christmas. She knew how much I loved the boat-building area just out of Kuwait town – it’s a little bit of the past still here. The old boats have almost gone now, and they all have engines – you hardly ever see them with their sails up like mine. It has sails on one side and you can see the tiny gold rigging on the other. Robin wore some plastic beads and bangles and to please her I wore a bangle too. 

Spencer had changed into his red T-shirt and khaki trousers. He held out a crumpled piece of paper. 

'I thought you might like to look at the telex after all Peggy.'

'Oh goodness, we really should rush. Later darling.'

He dropped it onto the coffee table.  

'Mine eyes have seen the glory' he growled in his bass baritone voice and smiled as we drove off in the Chevrolet, Robin sitting in the middle of the back and clinging to the backs of our seats to press herself forward between them and into our conversation.  It was hard to turn round because we were pinned by our seat belts - we got them soon after Spencer had been called in to identify a friend who had been killed when his car rolled off the road between Ahmadi and Kuwait town. He’d never told me what that was like, and we always wore the belts.

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