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The uniformed Afrika Korps never got farther east than El Alamein, but Neckerman Tours was now putting all that right. We came ashore, picking our way through sun-curled, fortnight-old copies of Der Spiegel, bottles of tanning lotion and acres of browning flesh. Rudi the Nazi carried the barracuda. He needed some status with the Neckerman crowd, having found it necessary to book into a somewhat less palatial establishment in the village, though he still used the hotel bar and my bath.
This particular day, though, the water was not quite as full of guests, nor was the hotel terrace. The mystery was solved inside, when the Neckerman courier stopped me as I picked up my key. "You want the special dinner?" she asked. "It is 50 piasters extra." I explained I wasn't Neckerman's, but that I'd love the special dinner, and they could put the 50 piasters on the bill.
"What's so special?" I asked. She told me. It was Christmas Eve.
I went upstairs with the boys, feeling old and sad. It's a sign of being grownup when you stop counting off the days to Christmas, but a sign of something else again when you forget it altogether. I'd had the foresight, a week previous, to arrange for the Christmas cables home to be sent from Cairo, and I couldn't make a long-distance call from Hurghada. Even so, I felt guilty. Rudi snapped me out of it by wanting to borrow one of my two remaining clean shirts. It was impossible to feel guilty when Rudi was there for comparison. I poured out the last of the duty-free airport Scotch. "Happy Christmas," said Rudi. Mr. Sabreez explained that the Coptic Christmas didn't take place for a few weeks yet, but felt that he should drink to my health.
"Who's having the Neckerman dinner?" I said. A negative shake from two heads.
"We will meet you in the bar later," said Rudi. "I have a small project for us." Yes, and I knew what that was, too. Rudi was having visa trouble. He wanted me to go with him to the chief of police and get it renewed.
I changed, locked the suitcase with my last shirt in it, and went downstairs. (Answer to query: I didn't send the shirts out to be laundered, since shirts have the same astronomical black-market value in Hurghada as color film. I had to last until Cairo.) In the bar Nick the Greek (his name was Nick and he was a Greek, I swear it) was mixing cocktails with the kind of flourish that has not been seen in the West since 1929. I had a Singapore gin sling. The place was swiftly filling up with Nurembergers in their best suits, smiling and laughing a lot. I'd forgotten that Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, gets the big production in Germany. One carried a tape recorder that he placed carefully down. Later it was to play a big part in the evening. For the moment we were getting West Side Story on Nick's record player. I was feeling lonelier than ever, an emotion experienced without too much difficulty among a large crowd of German-speaking Germans.
Then, suddenly, I heard a voice that cut right through the jolly German rhubarb, rhubarb—a plaintive, female, American voice.
"I told her and I told her," it said, "to leave the lettuce alone. Amoebic dysentery, that's what she took home with her." I turned to see two ladies, small ones, in their 50s maybe, deep in conference. I couldn't resist it. "You English?" I said.