He had always believed that his name predestined him to propitious luck. He had believed many other things throughout his life, but none had been so decisive as his faith in his own good fortune. It had always kept him from going, believing good things would come to him with no other effort than practicing a little patience. But Bentley Allenby did not even attain the dubious honor of being a dipsomaniac expatriate.
Slim, long and solid, as certain families pretend to be. Straw-blond hair, always a bit disheveled. The clothes in perpetual disagreement with him: they looked to be big or small on him, depending on what made him more inadequate in each situation. He had a whitish-prone-to-redness skin (as if always exhibiting some shame or discomfort). There was no way Bentley Allenby went unnoticed. A fact that he always interpreted was related to his main belief – and that, somehow, validated it; as one may take the diagnosis as the treatment.
He went abroad strictly because he thought he had to fulfil an irrevocable series of steps according to his perceived social standing: to be an expat in some colony – that fancy designation reserved for English and French emigrants – where, in addition, his position would guarantee him pecuniary benefits that would allow him to return to England with a new status, according, effectively, to his name. Egypt was his chosen destiny. Mainly, because he couldn’t afford a ticket anywhere further, and because he feared the inherent brutality of Africans, Middle Easterners and Asians. Cairo, he considered, was almost European – with an exotic touch of otherness.
By the way, Bently was educated thanks to the efforts of his parents – who subtly promoted and encouraged the belief -, in the best educational institutions: those who not only offer a good education but, above all, the contact with the elite; that is to say, the contacts for a future professional life. He obtained a degree in English Literature that proved to be completely useless. The few friendships he had made throughout high school and college were also of no use to him. Everyone went their own way too quickly – so much so that they seemed to have begun to pursue whatever they did pursue even before they had finished their studies.
So, suddenly Bentley found himself facing the world – or rather, his share of the world – with no tools other than his perennial family indulgence and his rapidly blurring knowledge of literature, that actually amounted to quotes and some learned witticisms. That was the first time he doubted – very slightly, and just as an unconscious process – the certainty attached to his name. How long was he to wait for his fortune to happen? – he asked himself. How would he recognize it? Some types of faith tend to turn the believer into a passive being for whom the only possible option is waiting.
While he waited, and without knowing it, he became a kind of mime of the most persistent conversations and gestures practiced in the cricket club or the country club in one or in the parties at houses of the most notorious family – he got himself invited through those old college or university colleagues who were still able to remember his name and the face adhered to it. After all, he could make up his own opinion on every matter of interest once the fortune to which he was entitled materialized. It was as if he were putting his own life on hold until it began in the way it corresponded to the name he had been given.
Some time later – too late for any changes or rectification; too late for anything, in fact – he wondered if he would have believed in that same faith if he had been called William or Thomas, and his surname had been Smith or any other vulgarity like that, or if he would have believed in any of the many other beliefs that we invented and that we obey more or less scrupulously.
So, at the time, he faced the onset of a doubt. Just briefly, because he compelled himself to think like an Allenby. After all, there is no worse inquisitor for one’s own hesitations or doubts than oneself. If nothing was moving in England, maybe it would be wise to think of going abroad, to one of the colonies. The idea had an unconscious side to him: there, unknown to everyone, the name and his educational biography could actually become favorably decisive. His unconscious was proving to be far more useful, handy and pragmatic than his consciousness – taken, as it was, by the imbecility of grandiloquent thinking.
Thus, he came to decide that he had to act according to his name, to his position, that’s exactly what he said to his parents, who nodded in admired agreement. And so, the idea of Egypt came to be– after evaluating and discarding India, Iraq, Rhodesia, Hong Kong. He got a position as a high-level clerk in the Protectorate from Stephen Astor Neville a fellow student that probably wouldn’t have remembered him had the request been made not even a year later.
He left for Egypt the 13th morning of April of 1919 without knowing the magnitude of the turmoil to which he was heading: a proper revolution against the British. A couple of friends went to say goodbye to Southampton. A farewell that none of them knew would be definitive. But then, who knows what’s a final action or what’s another in a chain of the futile actions that are deemed important, transcendent. The ship seemed like a premonition – or, more precisely, the obvious prologue – of what was inevitably to happen: the rust had already uncovered its true character of mediocrity – like so many others at the time -, naked of the makeup of pretended luxury and prestige that had managed to deceive many not that long ago, and Bentley even at the time. But then, he was willing to fall for any deception that would support of his belief, of his personal faith.
He was sea-sick the six days that the journey lasted, although the sea was calm as a puddle, and spent most of the time in his shared cabin – with a young archeologist from Leeds; but he suspected he was some kind of hustler-wannabe (one inevitably sees and judges in others what one refuses to see in oneself) – laying on the brief lower bed of the bunk, or in the stern of the ship. He couldn’t mingle with the passengers, to recreate that idea of socialization that was supposed to the ships: the nonconsequential small talks, the mild, almost innocent flirting, the dinner at the captain table, playing shuffleboard in the port deck.
The sail should have worked as some kind of wake-up call for Bentley regarding the imaginary of himself that he had put together – not so much with conscientiousness, but mainly with the negligent obedience of he who discovers that letting himself go is more comfortable and benevolent than effort and what reality has in stock for him.
If he’d only tried to adjust, to feel better, and not gave up so thoroughly to the seasickness and that state of resigned discomfort, he would have had a chance with Adelle Thomson, who was travelling with her parents and was willing to believe in a story just like Bentley’s in order to justify a brief romance and an alleged later disappointment. She had to had to settle for the most trivial and neglected history (evidently still in the process of elaboration) of Bentley’s cabin mate.
The weather was perfect the whole journey for everyone to play their part in what they thought was expected of them in such a situation and, at the same time, allow themselves certain licenses, improvisations, minimal spontaneities – which was none other than their real character taking advantage of the situation and carrying out their desires by benefiting of the state of stupor and carelessness that journeys produce, especially those by boat, where the sea air, the sun and the monotony of the landscape relaxed and at the same time constrict the passengers like a cell or a threat not yet to be worried about: always present the uncertainty about being able to conclude the journey.
It would be nice if the events had the delicacy or the benevolent gesture of rehearsing before those affected ahead or their occurrence; not with the idea of being able to modify anything at all, no, but just to let us get used, to inure us to its inevitability. But life happens like sudden blows – though many of them (although not the exact outcome, or the extent of them) can be partially discerned. No anticipation but the series of events (lame decisions, negligence, mistakes, etc.) that lead to them. And, besides, if we had that benefit, most of us would dismiss that anticipation as extravagant and alien vision. Bentley discarded every piece of evidence that suggested his creed was nothing but stubbornness and flight.
As he did later, when he was assigned to that dark little man that made him sign papers that, whenever he asked about their content, all he received was the same exasperated answer: mere bureaucracy that had to be done with quickly; no time to go around reading the tedious contents of those repeated documents, nor to go around asking the same questions all the time; in fact, from the way events were unfolding – and the man, that had halitosis (which probably played some role in Bentleys negligent compliance), would point through one of the tall windows, to the city -, there did not seem to be much time left at all.
He soon became disillusioned. He’s job was that of a clerk; his colleges were all lower-level civil servants. He wasn’t invited to anything remotely resembling one of the parties he had imagined: attended diplomats, businessmen, local bourgeoisie, and spiced up with political intrigue and the chance for an exotic romance. He spent his days under the crushing heat and mechanical task of signing and shredding (by the end, there was a lot of shredding and burning; unfortunately, not most of the papers he had signed – that was de idea, after all).
What we do is just mere approximations to what we wished, wanted, desired: a ruthless manifestation of our incompetence (or impotence) in the face of destiny, chaos, chance, life or whatever you want to call it. And sometimes, we do what other design for us. Whether it is consciously or not, there’s not much difference – maybe the useless consolation of having carried out a will: that that says that one at least tried something, and if that something had gone right, everything would be different now.
It must be said that Stephen Astor Neville didn’t know about the plans that Mark Spencer, the guy that got the position for Bentley, had for him. When Stephen called him, Mark knew he was been offered a solution for his problem on a silver platter. Or, at least, in one that looked pretty much like silver. And when he finally met Bentley the morning of the 21st of April, he knew that the it was definitely silver. Maybe, even gold. He told that little but useful worm that was his secretary to make Bentley sign the papers of all the transactions he had signed during those years. You know which ones, he said. Phillip knew very well what he meant. If he wasn’t so goddam misshapen, it’ll be probably me signing those documents right now and him securing the money outside Egypt.
If he’d only had extended or applied his belief in predestinations, and of those more or less tangible signs which certify them, the agonizing journey would had had to be interpreted as an indication, a hint that what would follow could do it under the ominous, the irremediably crooked fate of what had stared so ill. But the name was a faith, a certainty and, most of all, a mask that did not allow him to see beyond the desires created under that constraint, that censorship. Always sure that it was in his power to make every single desire come true; he only had to find the timing, like when you jump into the skipping rope.
He realized that whatever he thought was waiting for him wasn’t going to happen when his absolute solitude was violated by that other solitude composed by many anonymous, individual and boisterous solitudes (in a futile attempt to repudiate it, to pretend that the there is something like a collective will, desire) of Egyptians broke into the building and the leader of the mob said his name: Benteli Al -en-bi. In his hand, a paper; some kind of document. The man put it in front of Bentley. It was in Arabic, but he could read his name (a couple of times). What’s this, he asked, but he already knew, or, more precisely, he suspected. You corruption, said the man, and there was something more powerful than hate in his eyes: the calm of one who knows already what he has been looking for – it reminded Bentley of a university college that used to reveal he was ready to checkmate through that same look. That was the last thing his brain worked in.
© Marcelo Wio