The Italian

Sir William Saint Thomas Houghton decided against entering the pyramid. He knew the interior as well as any man on the planet and therefore had no desire to venture into the low passageways to walk, inelegantly stooped, in an atmosphere created from five thousand years of pointedly human odours that had permeated the walls of Cheops. Instead he remained outside, taking shelter from the Cairo Sun under a low awning over the dusty tables of the Café Giza, where he could sip cold beer and enjoy the doubtful benefit of a cigarette.

Shear luck had brought him to this point he reflected. A routine trip to Cairo, to keep an eye on whoever it was The Ministry of the Interior and Culture Affairs was keeping an eye on, could not reasonably have been expected to plop Absalom McMahon, currently Hessnie Mazou, into his grateful lap, but it did. There was old Absalom, bold as brass, wandering into the lobby of the Cairo Hilton just as he was checking in himself and, if he was not mistaken, with a wary eye on the same pretty little person who had his own immediate attention. Well, well, well, he had muttered to himself, what a delightful dilemma before me. Should I get a lock on old Absalom, or check out the dark haired young woman with the olive skin and unforgettable green eyes. My, my, is that a family likeness I see before me? Could this be the long lost daughter; the first of Absalom’s family to surface after disappearing so inconveniently over nine years ago? If it is, best keep tabs on her – daddy will never be far away. If it is not, it could take a while to find the old boy again.

In the event he was able to do both. Absalom stayed long enough to see the young woman check into the hotel, then, after only a brief period of quietly watching the lobby, he slipped unobtrusively into the street where he made three complete circuits of the hotel block before hailing a cab. A nice try, Sir William thought, but somewhat amateur. Whoever Absalom was on the lookout for it was not a rather incongruous European in a classic English summer suit – something to be said for being too obvious. He never came closer to his quarry than a city block, and cleverly saved himself considerable expense of effort by letting Absalom circumnavigate the hotel block all by himself. He had only to wait at the opposite corners to see the little charade unfold, and once in a cab he somewhat disappointingly made no attempt to check for anyone following.

How very manageable of Absalom to go straight home to his little house in Misr El-Qadima without all the devious nonsense of back tracking, and diving into alleyways, so popular with the criminal classes, and the young woman did even better. It was extremely unlikely that she had wandered around in the night because the tiny wooden marker he placed at her door before retiring was still there at seven in the morning. Which left him free to enjoy a leisurely breakfast while skimming all the way through the local rag before she appeared. Fresh and bright as a well-watered lettuce, he thought, and the dead spit of the old boy. Well, well, well, what luck.

Meira remained stock still: her breathing slowing after the initial gasps at seeing a man’s body dangling from the inside of the pyramid wall. She concentrated on regaining her composure: on gathering her wits. Then he moved, not much, just one foot but enough to tell her he was not actually dead: not yet anyway. She moved closer: curiosity overcoming her fear of the unknown in this strange, confining, place.

“Hey, are you all right?” She called at the lump on the wall. No response. She moved closer. “Are you okay?” He remained face down in what she could now see was a square hole going deep into the wall; his arms were fully extended into it. It was her Italian man. Well not hers really, in fact not hers at all and she didn’t even know if he was Italian. Remembering his preoccupation with his instruments on the bus she wondered if she should just leave him to it. Maybe he was intent on carving out a bit of rock for himself, a little souvenir perhaps. She tried one last time, “What you doing down in there? Is everything all right?”

This time he reacted: raising his head quickly and brushing a mop of wild, curly, black hair against the roof of the hole as he extricated himself from its depths bringing a cloud of grey pyramid dust that started to settle on his back. She stepped back. He looked over his shoulder at her, smiled a huge white grin, “Un momento, un momento signora.”

He was Italian. She congratulated herself. Years of people watching, for lack of anything else to do in her student days, had not been completely wasted.

He lowered his head again to concentrate on whatever it was inside the hole. She watched as he grunted, rolled slightly to one side, then paused, his breathing clearly audible as he took long controlled breaths through his nose. Turning to face into the hole again he said, “Bah,” or that is what she thought he said. He could have said, “Hah,” or, “Pah,” but she thought it was “Bah.” Then he pulled his upper torso out of the hole and squatted with his knees up under himself. “Mi scusi signora, mi puo aiutare per favore?” She was unsure, trying to understand, but her Italian was negligible. He continued, “Scusi, my apologies. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, yes I speak English.”

“Would you mind very much to help me please? I do not want to lose my instruments.”

She moved closer again, looking over his shoulder and into the hole. “Sure. What do you want me to do?”

“Closer please. You have to kneel down here.” She moved next to him, knelt, and peered in past his arms. He was muscular and smelled of cologne and sweat mixed with the dead dust of the pyramid, “See, down the bottom on my right ‘and.” He dropped the aich beautifully. “See. See that instrument in my right ‘and? I am about to drop it. It will not come back if I do. Can you get it? My arms are too big to go in there. Can you get it?”

She leaned lower, reaching tentatively past him, her arms and shoulders pushing against his but she could not reach the shiny steel thing that looked like a small watch. “I can’t quite …” she stretched.

“Never mind,” he said. “Thank you for trying.”

“No, no. Wait a minute. Don’t let go.” She adjusted her position until she was laying flat on the floor of what was almost a tunnel, her breasts flat against the hard stone: her blouse probably filthy now. Reaching in and down her fingers felt his as she took hold of the instrument. “I have it. Let go, I have it.”

He withdrew and sat up beside her. She remained kneeling on the floor. Gently he slipped his hands under her shoulders and raised her to a standing position. She leaned back against the wall, grinning at her success and opening her hand for him to take the little watch. “Grazie signorina. Molte grazie. I am in your debt.” She followed his eyes to her blouse and started brushing away the dirt. “You must let me pay for your cleaning,” he said. “And for lunch. I insist on returning your kindness. You have saved me from a great loss. My instruments are expensive, and mean much to me.”

“So I can see. But what were you doing in there? I am not used to finding men hanging out of holes in the walls of ancient buildings. Do you do this sort of thing often?”

“Si, si, signorina I do. I am a strange person. Always I am hanging out of tunnels, or laying around the floor of ancient buildings with my head down a hole. It is what I do.”

“As a hobby, or as a job? ”

“It’s my job. I am an engineer. I was measuring the hole.”

“Oh, well,” she said dismissively. “That explains everything.”

“Si, si, I will explain everything. There is no secret. But not here. Over lunch I insist. I am Luca, Luca Morello,” he offered his hand, which seemed rather silly after the intimate contact they had just enjoyed. “Please, I insist, let me take you to lunch and all will be made clear.” She followed him out into the bright Egyptian Sun.

 

Her phone rang at seven, right on the dot. Luca Morello was a punctual, and persistent, man. She had turned down his lunch invitation because she was hoping to do some investigating: she had, after all, come here to find her father. This was not a vacation, and it definitely was not a time for romantic involvement, though lunch could hardly be construed that way. Still, she wanted to remain focused.

Once back at the hotel she felt tired again so allowed herself, only for a few moments, to flop on the bed. By the time she had awoken the afternoon Sun was already low in the sky. She cursed herself for wasting the entire afternoon. Jet lag? Sure, a little, but to sleep for the entire afternoon? And after such an easy morning? She was still feeling useless – dammit, she had things to do.

When the phone rang she was not as irritated as she thought she might have been, in fact she welcomed it to break her from this lethargy. Returning in the tour bus that morning Luca had pressed invitations on her all the way to the hotel, but never lost his patient charm. Finally she matched his grace by agreeing to meet him for drinks in the early evening, and there he was, sound as bell: she grinned. Picking up the phone she stifled a yawn, paced herself to tell him she would be down in a few minutes all the while assessing her face in the in the mirror and deciding what had to be done. A quick makeup job she decided, a brush and polish of the hair, a cloud of the Amuoage Gold she picked up in the Bangkok duty free, and she would be ready. She pulled out an orange sundress from her suitcase, shook out the creases, and slipped it over her head.

It was a ten-minute ride by taxi to the restaurant but it seemed like only two. She had been expecting drinks in the hotel, or at a nearby café, but Luca insisted that she see a little more of the city and it was hard, after resisting all his lunch overtures, to refuse his boyish pleas. The ride was effortless with Luca content to make all the conversation: waving his arms at buildings and monuments he thought she might find of interest, while his rumpled white shirt became more wrinkled by the efforts and the humidity in the cab. He smelled of a familiar men’s cologne she could not identify, but thanked her god that the previous sweat, and pyramid dust, was just a memory.

The taxi stopped beside the Nile, just below El Manial Bridge, from where it was a short walk to the floating restaurant. “I hope you do not mind the smell,” he said, apologising as if it were something over which he had control, and then went on, as if he had to explain, “boats with food always create strong smells, don’t you think?”

She had noticed neither the smell, nor the trend abut which he was talking, but she had noticed the lights: the reflections on the glass and silverware and on the mirror behind the bar. She had noticed the moonlight on the water, and on El Manial Palace, and the glittering tower block of the Gezira Sheraton further up river. She had noticed the candle-lit boats hovering nearby with couples dining at private tables, and the tour boats sliding by all a-glitter with pearl strings of multicoloured bulbs, but she had not noticed the tendency for food boats to smell badly. In fact, now he mentioned it, she did notice a smell: a smell sweeter than the deathly stale smell of the pyramids, or the dusty smell of the Cairo streets, or the dank smell of the air conditioned dankness of her hotel room. She noticed now that the row upon row of baskets of orchids hanging over the boat’s safety rails had a smell sweeter by far than anything she experienced since leaving Brisbane.

“It is beautiful,” she said. “Absolutely beautiful. You must know Cairo well.”

He smiled graciously and indicated to the hovering maître d’ that he wanted a table on the river side of the restaurant. Over a cocktail he stayed away from interrogating questions, concentrating instead on light banter about travel, airlines, restaurants, and the problems of Cairo.

“But you want to know why I had my head in a hole in the wall of Cheops upper chamber?”

She smiled encouragingly.

“Si, I will tell you. But first you must tell me something.” She smiled, conceded. He paused to watch her face, then continued. “Are you unhappy?”

“No,” she said quite confidently.

“Sad perhaps.”

“Not really. No, I would not say I was sad. Why would you think I was?”

“You are young, some years from thirty I think, vibrant, alive and curious.” Again he paused, measuring her expression, then finished the thought, “and on a mission, a lone mission in Cairo.”

There was no hiding from that. He had pressed the right button but she was loathed to reveal her plans to a stranger. Certainly she was not going to talk of Roger and Hong Kong. That was all firmly behind her; there was no need to revisit the slamming doors, the violent outbursts, the deceit: the bloody humiliating damned deceit. Shit, he was spoiling the evening. Or was she just letting him. She had not turned from his gaze and was determined not to. She held his eyes: his soft brown eyes. “I see more sadness in you than I feel in my own heart. Perhaps I should be asking you such questions.” He broke the gaze with a blink, dismissing the moment with a smile that lit his whole face.

“Si, priego. Did you notice anything special about the hole?”

For half a second she was fazed by the quick change of topic. “Oh, in the pyramid? Well, it looked long.”

“Yes, very deep. I don’t know how deep, more important though, it was perfect.”

“Perfect?”

“Si. It is perfectly straight. The walls are perfectly flat, and it is perfectly horizontal. Straight. That hole is dead straight.”

She thought about it, but was unsure of the significance. “Is that what you were measuring. How straight it was … is?”

“Yes. And the floor of the upper chamber, that is also straight, perfectly flat. The hole runs perfectly square to the wall, and the wall perfectly square to the floor. Perpendicular I think in English.”

“Yes, at ninety degrees.”

“Si, si, at ninety degrees to the vertical as far as my laser could see. Maybe more than one ‘undred feet.”

“You could see a hundred feet?”

“No. It is a small laser. It cannot see anymore than seventy, maybe eighty.”

“Is it a new hole?”

“No, no. It is as old as the pyramid. It was built that way.”

She paused only for a second. “Oh, the Egyptians had instruments as good as your laser?” She was teasing him now.

He leaned forward, his elbows on the table, one hand grasping his drink, and answered with unconcealed enthusiasm, “It does mean that. It means that the Egyptians could measure to within hundredths of millimetres. It means that all the traditional theories that they used hammers, string soaked in acids, or wedging to cut their building blocks was stupid. Nonsense I think.”

She nodded: a little surprised at the rising passion in his voice. He took a sip from his drink. She did the same with hers. His behaviour reminded her of father’s when he was extolling his theories. Come to that, she was listening as she used to listen to her father. Would she also use Luca’s own words later to dispute his theories as she did with her father. Luca continued, “How do you think they made that beautiful hole? How do you think these people, who where supposed to be limited to bronze and brass, could make tools to cut perfectly straight holes through granite and basalt? How could that be?” She had not given it a thought. She had no idea but suspected he was about to offer one. “These people had Sun technology,” he declared. “These people could control light beams – like lasers.”

Meira now had her arms crossed on the table, giving Luca a quizzical, ‘you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me,’ look.

“ Si, si, they could. I am not crazy, they could. They did, you only have to look at the hole, they did it. And if they did not have high-speed diamond tipped cutters and grinders guided by laser beams, how did they do it? With wedges and ice fissures? I do not think so.”

“I suppose they could have melted the stone,” she said, calling on her jewellery expertise. “You can melt stone with laser light. Jewellers do it. People who synthesize stones use laser beams.”

“Ah, you know these things. Good. Si, you can cut stone with a light bulb if you have the right mirror. They do that. They did that at the Bureau of Mines, in the Twin Cities Research Centre in America. A scientist, David Lindroth, I think, he showed that a 100 watts of light energy focused to a tiny circle, about 2 millimetre, can cut any rock. The harder the rock the easier it gets because quartzite spalls very easily, while a rock like basalt does not spall, but melts.” He had lost her. Around about the 100 watt light bulb she drifted off. Undeterred, he paused only to wipe his mouth using his shirt cuff as a serviette: his mind far from the romantic supper on the Nile. “In Machu Picchu they have the same. The blocks are cut so exactly you could not put paper between them. And they had a golden mirror there, two man across they say, but the Conquistadores cut it up and melted it … of course …they could not allow anything to threaten the church.”

She smiled at his bubbling enthusiasm: quietly enjoying his passion. “I think we are going to need more wine for this. Please let me buy a bottle?”

“Of course I will let you, provided you let me pay for it.” He called the waiter and ordered before she could object. “I hope you are hungry. Excitement makes you hungry, yes? And this is exciting, yes?”

“Yes, I guess it is. If you’re saying that all the historians up until now have been talking nonsense, then it definitely is.” Her history was pretty good: especially middle-eastern history, early Bible works, and the creation of the Koran. If he was going to spout on about ancient Egyptians and their Sun gods all evening, she was going to indulge herself in some decent wine.

“Ancient people had a much higher technology than you would believe possible, much higher than we have been led to believe. That is what I think.”

The bottle arrived.

In the early morning they were still talking about the pyramids. He had ventured into the area of his wife, and the life he lived with her before he left her and their son, but Meira cut him short. She did not want that part of him. She did not want to share his past anymore than she wanted him to share hers. She wanted only the current bit, her bit, of him. Her own past was heavy enough for her at the moment.

Despite his tendency toward boring over the early part of dinner, Lucca had moved on to more charming topics as the wine went down. About his fellow airline passengers he was particularly funny, and his assessment of the individuals in the tour bus had her laughing through most of the second bottle. Maybe he was just what she needed to shake off Hong Kong. At the door to her room he did not let up; his banter continued unabated until she kissed him, and allowed him in, and gave herself up to him in heady relief. No one had made to love to her more easily, simply, uncomplicatedly … and he was warm, and kind; his big brown eyes hardly left her face, so she just relaxed and enjoyed him in soft, gentle orgasms into the small hours, and thence to sleep in absolute peace.

 

Over breakfast on her veranda he returned to his curiosity for the ancients which, in itself was fascinating. The subject was fascinating, but to see the fire in his eyes, and hear the power in his voice, was also fascinating. Given another time she might have, if not matched, then at least shared, his interest. For now though, it was dull stuff. It was the dusty stuff of her schooldays: of people long since turned to ash by time, and was definitely of little interest to someone who lived so intensely in the immediate. She doubted she could develop his passion for the Pharaohs, and the early Greeks, and the wandering tales of Herodotus. Nor could she gather much concern for the early Britons, the builders of Stonehenge, and the strange constructions in Ireland, but it added up to something special to Luca. If she was following the thread of his excitements correctly, Luca was absolutely convinced that mankind was travelling in the wrong direction: that because we are burning irreplaceable fossilized fuel we are on a path to the destruction of the planet. Not just because of the pollution, but because of the wars it creates. Wars, according to Luca, were all based on the mightiest nation’s need to take all the Earth’s resources for itself. It was not an uncommon conclusion. Many people thought that way. Many stood on soapboxes and lectured to passing strangers in parks all over the world of the end being nigh: of the wrath of the gods, of the coming of the day of judgement. It all smacked of the sixties, of hippies and ban-the-bomb marchers, and she would have dropped it. She would have dropped Luca after this one date for fear of his theories becoming repetitive, or worse, and would sully that she wanted to keep as beautiful romantic memory except something strange happened.

It was after breakfast, while Luca was in the shower, that she was glancing through the morning paper over the last of the coffee when she became aware of someone in her room. She could hardly believe it. What appeared to be an Egyptian, in a blue suit, was opening cupboards and drawers and moving about in her room as if he were alone. Her heart thumped out a scream. Adrenalin was pumping panic and fear; she froze for a second, maybe two, while reason kicked in and she considered what to do. The urge to shout at him, to demand who he was and what he was doing, welled up in her but she held back as her thoughts turned to the consequences of whether or not he might be armed and would come at her in his own fear of being caught. She froze in a limbo of indecision

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