13 - Fire and Air, and Other Elements

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, Sunday 4th June 1967

The morning after the well fire visit, Robin complained of a poorly tummy (I hated that baby talk she did with Constance). She was clearly just over-stimulated, so I got her off to school. I would see her when I taught Sunday School later.

In the school corridor I saw an unlikely figure sauntering away from Robin's classroom. Jeans and a denim shirt, sleeves rolled up. Oh heavens. Crew cut just growing out. Tanned. Muscles all over. Dynamite - he’d been visiting Genevieve, I guessed, checking if she was ok after the attack at the well fire. I rushed to the car park without him seeing me, zipping my keys into my coin purse, and crawled partly under my car. This was quite an attention grabbing manoeuvre in a tight shift dress, and his attention was grabbed when he came out.

'Cleo, can I help?'

He was addressing my bottom, wriggling as I pretended to search for keys. I pretended to jump with surprise and actually was quite surprised that he recognised me so easily. I hit my head under the car. He was upset at having caused my injury. What a dear. He helped me as I crawled out backwards, perhaps a little more hands on than the situation strictly demanded. Tearfully I explained that I had lost my keys in the car park. I was taking a leaf out of Genevieve’s damsel in distress book. He insisted that he look while we waited to see whether I had concussion and he searched methodically, flattening himself under each car in turn. 

I watched. I was still lit up with the heat his touch had ignited at the well fire the night before. I needed to touch him again. 
When he scrambled back to his feet empty handed I was the picture of despair.

'I’ll have to phone my husband from the school. He’ll be so angry.'

I swallowed a sob or two, conjuring a highly imaginary furious Spencer. A beat or two, and...

‘Come on – I’ll drive you home – you’ve got a spare key, right?'

I was prostrate with gratitude. 

He heaved me up into the passenger seat of the lorry.

'Cleo, Cleopatra.' I chirruped, almost to myself 'I am fire and air, my other elements I give to baser life.'

'I like that' Dynamite said, and echoed it. I explained it came from Shakespeare's play 'Anthony and Cleopatra'. 

'I'm an oil fire man. It’s all about fire and air. Starve the fire of air, and you’re done. Stopping the fire, it’s been my whole life – born to it. That's why they call me Dynamite. The dynamite starves the fire of air.'

An explosion, and silence, peace, the restoration of order.

'Any other reason for the name? Temper?'


'Not willing to discuss any further?'

‘Nope. What about your name?'

'Parents romantically involved with Shakespeare I suppose. I was born with dark hair. That didn't last long.'

'Natural blonde now then?

'That is none of your business Bill.'

'That’s nice.'


'Bill. Guy gets awful tired of ‘Dynamite’ all day, as if there ain’t enough of the stuff around. More coming in today.'

'Oh, goodness, have you got time...'

'Always time for you, Cleopatra.'

And off we went, happy as Larry. I was squirming in my seat.

'It’s awful hot for someone with no pants.'

He studied my legs. I tugged at the hem of my dress.

'I'm not used to not having a seat cover.'

'Crazy things.'

We all had them, multi-coloured beads you sat on for ventilation – without them even in air conditioned cars by the time the cool air kicked in legs would be welded painfully to the seat, as mine would have been, if I weren't shifting about so often. The seat covers left your thighs covered with patterned indentations. 

'I should be teaching the Sunday School, but I'm such a wreck. They'll manage without me. Constance, you know, our ayah, she is out all day Sunday. Robin won't be back till after Sunday School.'

'Give a hot guy a cold drink?'

My whole body was alight with anticipation. Fire and air. And baser life. 

A few days before, I was walking home and I was by myself and I came to one of those holes between the houses where there is thin sand and thin bushes and Brian Flinders, who isn’t Auntie Gretchen’s son, he stepped out and he said Stop and I said No and he said Yes You Will, You Will Do What I Say and I said NO I’m not stopping and he said stop and lie down and I’m going to rape you and I said No and What’s that and he said It’s like kissing but lying down and I said No (because I only like to kiss Ben Davies and Glenn) and what’s it about anyway. So he said Yes you will and I pushed him and he fell over and I ran home and I didn’t want to tell my mother about it. 

I asked Ingrid but she didn’t know so we had a bath because we had sand in our hair and we played Open Sesame, so funny, we laughed so much Uncle Melvin came to ask what we were laughing about but we wouldn’t tell him. Then we dressed up and played gipsy husband and wife and Ingrid was husband because she is taller and her hair is short. But I did tell Miss Cardinal, Genevieve. And she said it needed sorting out. 

And so I thought about it when I came home when Mummy didn't come to Sunday School and heard the man in my parents room, and I asked her if the man was raping her. The man shouted from the bathroom.

'Cleopatra, Cleopatra, I'm on fire and up in the air, and life.'

I walked away, very quietly, trying not to disturb anything. 

Robin wouldn't say anything, I was pretty sure. I was so angry about Spencer's absences, his excuses, his preoccupation with work, with the war that might come, angry about Candida, about Genevieve. But we had to live together, and Dynamite was just something to get out of my system. Spencer was obviously going elsewhere, so why shouldn't I? I felt better for my revenge. I felt triumphant. I had won, over Genevieve, over Spencer. 

The barber arrived that evening. This strange man had followed the British from the Indian hill stations to Kuwait, cycling round the houses in the late afternoon with his sheet, razor, scissors and hesitant, insistent, head shaking offer.

'Sahib needs a haircut, yes indeed, very good, not expensive.'

In the barber came, and out to the veranda.

'It looks just dreadful. Make sure you cut enough this time.'

I urged him on until Spencer looked almost American, pretty much crew-cut. He’d never had so little hair, and was left with white fringes of skin here and there where the sun had never reached before. The barber looked a little disconcerted, but he claimed to be pleased with an excellent job. Constance cleared up after his clearing up, huffing away about the enormous quantities of hair she claimed he’d left behind.

Spencer was expansive:

'Ah, so much better, great to get the hair right off your neck.'

I told him I'd missed Sunday School and Robin had come home early, because we'd both felt ill. I explained that was why Dynamite had given me a lift home; someone was bound to have noticed that. And Spencer talked about the war, and how it was definitely going to happen.

Goodness knows everyone else seemed to think so too.

Spencer's excuse about the party night was that he had taken a phone call from the tank farm (a place to store oil and stuff, not like it makes me think, a place to grow armoured vehicles) and needed to check on security. I hadn't asked any more questions, and had been changing into my most capacious and unattractive nightgown in the bathroom and sticking rigidly to the edge of my side of the bed. I'd been waiting for him to make a dramatic move; he owed me something. Now I felt ready to be nice again. The Dynamite thing had helped. Everyone thought Dynamite went for Genevieve, but I knew better. The barber thing had helped. 

On Monday 5th June Spencer phoned from the office. My elevated mood was not disturbed by his gloomy news. 

'It's begun. Israel got a jump on the Arabs.'

'What? You said they were going to attack Israel.'

'Yeah, looked that way. More and more Arab troops getting ready, but in the end the Israelis launched an air attack. It's chaos here. The American contractors on the tank farm extension are packing up and leaving, everything unfinished, pretty dangerous as it is, so I've got to get it all tied up. Cable and pipe, total mess. Then we'll shut down the extension site.'

'Do I know them?'

'No, they've been living in Kuwait town, came without their families.'

As soon as I put the phone down, it rang. It was Gloria-Jane.

'What do you know? What has Spencer told you? I'm coming over. My American neighbour says she's leaving tomorrow. The American Company men have to stay, but they all want their wives and children off home. She says she's not afraid, she doesn't believe anything will happen to the expats, or to anyone in Kuwait, but she's going anyway.' 

All day my phone and doorbell rang - my friends and even some women I didn't know. I don’t know why. I felt proud that they had chosen to come to me. Constance provided a stream of refreshments, out-doing herself, as she always did under pressure, and I provided a stream of reassurance based on the things Spencer had told me.

'The government needs the Company - they won't let it or us come to any harm.'  

I felt wonderful, invincible, glowing, and I suppose my confidence came across. We had a strange uneasy moment when the sweeper arrived to do the garden. He was from Persia, as the sweepers all were, I think, but to us he looked Arab and his looks caused alarm amongst my unexpected guests, so I thought it better for Constance to ask him to go and give him some money. Not a full day's pay.

After school most of the women collected their children and brought them to ours. Genevieve came too, taking the whole thing terribly seriously. I told her about the sweeper, and she missed the point completely. She was ridiculously worried about him.

'But where does he live? Do you know where they live?'


'Isn't that strange? There’s someone who works for you, who is in your house every day, and yet you have no idea where he goes to.'

'He’s not here every day, and he only works in the garden. Spencer will know.'

Spencer got home before the women left, and they were excited to see him, but he didn't know.

'I think the Company provides accommodation, but I'm not sure where it is.'

We had a few quiet minutes with Robin when the house emptied, and Spencer and I substituted Canada Dry and Flash for our usual tea. 

'Well done darling, you've done a great job with the Refugee Women, poor old things, they need someone to keep them calm.'

I did feel quite proud of myself. 

'How are people coping at the refinery?'

'The Arabs are in an awful situation – they're from all over the place, and some of their governments, some of their friends and family are fighting or at risk of being bombed. It's a nightmare for them. Some didn't come to work. We don't know where we are with security.'

We went to the Artemesia Club – the Aldertons' cocktail party in Kuwait town for their 16th wedding anniversary had been cancelled, somewhat unnecessarily. We had a hilarious evening. Even war can seem quite funny, if you're in the right mood. We’d all stoked up a little on alcohol.

'Melvin said he'd heard the Kuwait government is sending soldiers to guard the refinery and tank farm - is that right?' asked Gloria-Jane.

'Oh for god's sake, can you never keep your mouth shut.' Melvin was furious.

'It's ok, Melvin, yes, that's right. Just in case.' Spencer hadn't mentioned this to me. 

Looking back, nothing we said seems at all amusing, yet I remember we laughed all evening. 

Everyone gathered at the Club night after night exchanging news – a letter? A telex with a bit more information? I was the centre of the crowd, making a lot of effort with my appearance, but in that understated way that causes men to tell you in a surprised voice how well you’re looking. I wore my most restrained clothes and a paler lipstick than usualSpencer and I were always home in time for an early night, usually catching Ruby still reading before nesting into each other in our cool bedroom. I had forgotten all about Dynamite, and about fire and air. 

Every morning the phone rang and my house filled with Refugee Women – there was support, companionship and cake on offer. I enjoyed the week, enjoyed feeling that people were looking to me and that I was helping Spencer through the difficult time. We grew close again. Spencer was leaving for work early, but coming home at the usual time, and often encountered the Refugee Women. He reassured them even without saying much about the situation. They adored him. But they adored me too, so that was tolerable. 

Go to Chapter 14

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