This is one of a series of Life Junctions posts. Each tells a story from my life that illustrates a wider human issue. This tale concerns trust and security. If you’re interested in writing or publishing stories from your own experiences or from family and friends, I can help you. Just get in touch.
I only knew George for about a year before he died but he was a good friend.
On my second day in Egypt I left Cairo and headed north, surrounded by the unfamiliar language and people and flat lush Delta scenery. I had my luggage for the year and travelled alone by train, ahead of the other students by a week or so. Emerging from the huge white-domed station, I got a taxi to Army Street and sought out the man whose name I’d been given as a contact. Ahmed, smart and friendly, worked at a busy language school and immediately said I had to meet George, another teacher at the school.
That afternoon Ahmed introduced me to a tall, skinny, slightly nervous man in his late twenties, wearing threadbare clothes and living out of a suitcase in a nearby apartment. I was surprised to meet an Englishman but it turned out he had made the mistake of not buying a return ticket the previous year so stayed in Egypt when his group of students flew back to England. It felt like an inheritance. He showed me a photo of an army group with a familiar backdrop but unfamiliar faces and it turned out his brother had joined the same part of the army exactly a year after me. He was an orphan and his brother his sole relative.
When the others arrived we made eight students in Tanta, and with George we were the only nine Westerners in a teeming city of nearly a million. Foreigners were so unusual in Tanta that Ahmed told how, when the others arrived, his 3-year old niece had gushed excitedly, “The rabbits are coming; the rabbits are coming”. el-aranib ga’in, el-aranib ga’in. She had muddled aranib with the word for foreigners aganib, but what an image she conjured of rabbits hopping around Tanta station.
Yet we real aganib would all find it stifling in the city that year to be so scrutinised and gossiped-about; so circumspect and circumscribed. George and Ahmed helped fix us up three apartments in different parts of town (girls separate as society dictated); and George and I became flatmates. He knew lots of people, but we suspected many of them befriended us to get introductions to the girls. George started dating one of the girls, the beautiful Rhona, and they made lovely flatmates.
I escaped from the crushing city as often as possible, physically by travelling the length and breadth of Egypt by train, especially to spend weekends with an old friend in Alexandria; and mentally by getting high on Parkinol too often. Our English university offered us no support. The incompetence of the British government lost us all one-third of our money just after we arrived, as the British pound plummetted against the Egyptian pound. The course at Tanta University was a sad waste of time and resources despite everyone’s best efforts. The only way of phoning home was by going to the central telephone exchange and booking an international call in a booth. At times we were so poor we only had bread and molasses to eat. Throughout it all George was inventive and full of life. We pooled our receipts to help him get his visa up to date. He was also more diplomatic than me in our deteriorating relationship with our landlord, who was under pressure from his relatives to put our rent up and withhold our deposit.
I left earlier than the others to stay in Cairo for my last month before returning to England. I was surprised not to see George there, although we had offered him a plane ticket. He came fully a year later just before I left to work in Cairo, so I arranged for him to stay at my house while he studied. He seemed glad to be back.
One evening in November I phoned home from Heliopolis to find out that poor George had suffered an epileptic fit in my house and died, not quite 30, and our mutual friend Simon had found his body and calmly sorted out the awful aftermath. There was a large turn-out from the university for his funeral on a bleak Yorkshire day.
That year in Tanta was difficult but it would have been impossible without George’s vitality. I lost touch with the other students so have never reminisced about that intense year or about George with anyone. Yes, I mourn his loss and wonder what would have happened if he had lived but I celebrate his life and am glad I met the guy, and he lives on in my memory and on these pages. Concentrating on a person’s life rather than their absence, on their vitality rather than their mortality, has stood me in good stead for other bereavements over the years. Death is a normal part of life, even when it comes prematurely.
Whenever the news reports an earthquake somewhere, I recall the afternoon of the 1992 earthquake that sent shockwaves through Egypt. I was reading a book on the sofa, felt the tremors and noticed the glasses clinking in the flat. In other flats there was panic, with people on balconies and in stairwells trying to get out of their buildings. Afterwards George, who was in his room with Rhona and noticed the wardrobe tapping against the wall, simply joked, “I thought it was Rhona: she’s a big girl you know.”
This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.