Ancient Egypt story

‘I thought you’d have a cat.’

‘Hmm?’ Roy stirred from his daydream. ‘What did you say?’

The gardener cleared his throat and spoke again. ‘I figured,’ he said, ‘since you’re an Egyptologist and all, that you’d have a cat.’

‘A cat? Why would I have a cat?’

‘Didn’t the pharaohs worship them?’ the gardener said, sighing. There was something wrong with the older man today; his mind was elsewhere.

Roy smiled. ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right…’

The gardener waited a few seconds to see if he would say anything else, then gave up and went out to the garden.

Roy travelled a much greater distance. In his mind, he was a young man again, and had set foot in Cairo for the very first time. He was standing right outside the airport, smiling and looking left and right. He took a deep breath, intending to fill his lungs with the scent of the ancient land, but instead invited dust into his nostrils and sneezed four times in succession, crinkling his nose before each outburst.

When he regained control of his nose, he saw a taxi in front of him. ‘Hotel?’ the driver asked, having lowered his window.

‘Um, yes,’ he answered. ‘The Ritz-Carlton, please. The one on the Nile.’

The driver smiled as he opened his door and placed Roy’s luggage inside the trunk. He returned to the driver’s seat, shifted the car to first gear and accelerated. ‘First time in Cairo?’ he asked.

‘Yes. Yes, that’s right.’ Roy stopped. And then something compelled him to say more. ‘I’m going to work at the museum, with the mummies… well, not with them, but—’

The driver cut him off: ‘You know, my father was the one who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb. He was just a water boy for Carter and the others. And one day, when he was walking back to his house, he came across the stairs to the tomb by chance.’

The driver went on talking, and Roy drifted in and out of the whole story. He had a bigger issue on his mind – the driver’s tale had reminded him that he had to telephone his father. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

‘We are here,’ the driver suddenly said, slowing the car to a stop. He looked back at the young man eagerly, and Roy realised that he was supposed to pay him extra for the interesting titbit about his father. And so he did, even though he was absolutely certain that it was a fabricated tale. It was confirmed as such when he told the hotel receptionist about it.

‘Oh, yes,’ she laughed. ‘More than half of the city’s taxi drivers will tell you that their father was the water boy. I hope he didn’t ask you to pay him more for the story.’

‘Of course not,’ he replied uneasily, and then asked her the directions to his room.

Once inside, he sat down on the bed and picked up the telephone on the bedside table. He sighed; he really did not want to do this. But his fingers continued to dial the numbers in resignation.

‘Hello?’ a faint voice on the other end asked after a few rings.

‘I’ve landed, I’m in Cairo,’ Roy said, wiping his forehead.

‘Good,’ was the only response. His father was waiting for him to say more.

‘I think I’m going to visit the museum today, just to see what it’s like on the inside,’ Roy said.

‘Why don’t you rest for a while?’ his father said. ‘I’ve booked the room for a week; just rest tonight. You can go to the museum tomorrow. Oh, and remember to take a look at the flat the museum has allotted you as well. If you don’t like it…’

And off he went, talking about all sorts of things. When Roy drifted back into the conversation, his father had neared the end of his monologue. ‘But the most important thing,’ he was saying, ‘is to never tell them about your dreams. You haven’t seen him again, have you?’

‘No, I haven’t,’ Roy replied. He had been dreading this moment; he wondered if his father would catch the lie. ‘I was probably just excited about this job, you know? They were nothing.’

He himself didn’t think that the dreams were dangerous; what really scared him was that his father might think him insane and ask him to see a psychiatrist. He wished he had kept his mouth shut about those early dreams of Ramesses II. Why did he have to tell his father about them?

On the telephone, his father didn’t say anything for a few seconds. ‘Just be careful,’ he said at last, ‘and let me know if you have any problems.’

After replacing the receiver, Roy let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding. He knew if they had been face-to-face, his father would have known instantly that he’d had another one of his dreams.

‘So this is an aeroplane?’ a voice had said in his dream, an hour after take-off. It was a deep baritone, one he had heard quite a few times since he got the job offer from the Egyptian Museum.

Roy looked to his right and saw Ramesses II sitting by his side, middle-aged and kohl-eyed, his seatbelt clicked on and a warm overcoat over his regal clothes. ‘It’s cold,’ the Egyptian king said, noticing Roy’s glance at his attire. The pharaoh looked around, fascinated by everything, but when he spoke there was a hint of disdain in his tone. ‘My burial chamber was bigger than this. Don’t you feel suffocated in this metallic sarcophagus?’

‘Always. You reminding me isn’t helping my anxiety,’ Roy replied, just as the plane shook terribly. ‘Aren’t you glad you’re not alive?’ he added.

The king grinned. ‘Even in your dream you are thinking about turbulence. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Horus is in a good mood today so this plane won’t crash.’

He took off his seatbelt, stood up and shrugged off the coat to place it on his seat. He looked around the plane again as Roy looked at what the king was wearing: the khepresh crown with a uraeus at the brow, a dark robe over a short kilt with a central flap, and light brown sandals.

Ramesses II’s gaze returned to meet Roy’s. His eyes were glowing, which meant the dream was coming to an end, when he said, ‘It appears that I was wrong in my earlier assessment. This plane is quite spacious; I could easily fit my 200 wives and concubines in here, probably my children too.’ He walked into the aisle and turned to look at him one more time. ‘Goodbye and good luck,’ he said, and Roy opened his eyes.

The rest of the flight was uneventful – there wasn’t even any turbulence, for which he thanked Horus – and once he was on the ground things went off just as smoothly. At immigration, Roy kept thinking that they would find some reason to turn him back, but they didn’t. His other major fear, of losing his luggage, also didn’t come true. He didn’t even have to waste time looking for a taxi, and was at his hotel in under an hour.

He finally allowed himself a smile, having come out of the call with his father unscathed, and went into the bathroom to take a quick shower. When he came out, he pulled the covers off the bed and crept inside. ‘Just a small nap,’ he told himself, then went on to sleep for ten hours straight.

When he woke, it was 8am. The museum would be opening in an hour, so he rushed to take a shower and have his breakfast. He was outside the museum director’s office by 9.30am.

‘Please come in,’ said a voice from within.

He entered what seemed at first to be an empty room. Then he noticed that the director, an old man with greying hair, was standing in front of a large window to Roy’s right.

‘I can’t decide where to place you,’ he said, turning around.

‘Well,’ Roy said, trying to sound confident. ‘I did my thesis on the New Kingdom, and I am particularly interested in the nineteenth dynasty…’

‘So you wrote in your letter,’ the director interrupted. He was looking at Roy intently. Something must have clicked in his head, because he moved away from the window and sat down on his chair. Gesturing for Roy to sit down as well, he said in a soft voice: ‘You look tired. Have you been sleeping well?’

Roy widened his eyes before he could control his expression. ‘Ye-yes, of course,’ he managed to say. Did the director know about Ramesses II’s visits? Should he say something about them? Should he not? Roy couldn’t decide what to do. The dead king had never told him that something like this might happen.

Before Roy’s mind could take him into all sorts of scenarios – he was seriously considering just running away – the director got up and stood next to him. His mouth was moving but he didn’t seem agitated. No, his posture seemed friendly. ‘…worry too much,’ he was saying. ‘Everything will be alright. I’m placing you in the Preservation department, because there is a certain nineteenth-dynasty pharaoh who needs your help right now. Our preliminary tests seem to suggest that bacteria might be at fault, but we need to be sure. In fact, why don’t you go up to the department’s room right now? I’ll call and tell them that you’ll be coming over.’

The director shook hands with him then, smiling all the while, and went behind his desk to pick up the telephone. Roy, slightly dazed from the entire exchange, turned his back and moved towards the door. He was just about to open it when the director said: ‘And Roy, give my best to the pharaoh, won’t you?’

‘To whom?’ Roy asked, turning his head.

‘Ramesses the Great,’ the director replied, smiling. ‘You’ll be meeting him very soon.’

A few nights later, Roy found himself in a park, sitting on the ground, surrounded by puppies. He felt someone’s presence behind him, turned around and looked up into the smiling face of Ramesses II.

The dead king sat down as well and started petting a dog. ‘Most of you think that we loved cats and worshipped them, and that is true. We did. But I’ve personally always been fonder of dogs. I don’t know if you know about this, but I had fifty dogs during my reign, mostly Basenjis and Greyhounds… Have you ever domesticated a dog?’

‘No,’ Roy replied. ‘My father never let me, but I had a friendly neighbour who had two dogs. I often went to her place to play with them.’

All of a sudden, Ramesses II turned his head and looked at him. ‘Did you have a happy childhood, Roy?’

‘I did, yes,’ he replied, feeling the same amount of scrutiny that his father subjected him to. ‘My father was strict – he still is. But I know he means well.’

‘That’s good,’ the dead king said, pausing to tickle a puppy’s belly. ‘How was the director? Was he well?’

‘Yes,’ Roy replied. ‘Did you… did you visit him as well?’

‘I used to, years ago,’ the pharaoh said, as a puppy tried to topple his crown. ‘He was a cautious one. He will probably never directly ask you about me; he doesn’t want to risk a situation where other people might find out about this arrangement,’ he said, touching his right index finger to Roy’s head and then to his.

Roy nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘So what do I have to do next?’

The museum director might be on his side, the dead king told him, but there were still protocols to be followed. He had to convince a lot of people – others in the department as well as specialists in France – to have the mummy temporarily moved to Paris. ‘Only the French can save my remains: that is what the annals of my afterlife say,’ Ramesses II told him, before adding with a twinkle in his eye: ‘But for that to happen, I’ll have to fly.’

It proved to be quite an ordeal, convincing his peers to transport a 3000-year-old mummy to another country by plane, but Roy managed it in the end. He personally took care of the passport issue as well.

‘I can’t say I like this portrait of mine,’ Ramesses II said a month later, when Roy showed him an image of the passport as best he could conjure it up from memory.*

They were walking in the Valley of Kings, for Roy had taken to imagining himself as an ancient Egyptian in his past few dreams. Roy laughed. ‘I know what you mean,’ he said. ‘We were a bit perplexed at first when the French told us that everyone, dead or alive, needs to have valid identification documents in order to legally enter their country. But I think we managed it quite well – wouldn’t you agree?’

The dead king nodded and sat down on a stone slab, motioning for Roy to do the same. ‘Do you remember the first time I visited you?’ he asked. ‘You were so scared, so worried that you wouldn’t be able to help me. You have come a long way since then, Roy. You’ve become the person I always knew you were, and I am proud of you.’

Roy smiled sadly. The pharaoh’s words seemed awfully like goodbye.

‘It is,’ Ramesses II said, reading his mind. ‘I wish we could have had more time together. But this is how it’s meant to be. You have your own life to lead now, and I have my afterlife to take care of.’

He stood up and looked down at Roy. His eyes were glowing.

‘Will you visit me again?’ the younger man asked.

‘No, my friend,’ he replied, fading away. ‘Goodbye – and good luck.’

As the years went by, Roy often thought of the great king. And when he became director of the museum, he made extra precautions to ensure that Ramesses II’s mummy was kept in good condition. Even now, after retirement, he kept tabs on him. He was always looking out for news about his mummy or his legacy. But there was nothing.

That is, until today, when he’d opened the newspaper and seen that an eight-metre statue of the pharaoh had been found in a Cairo slum. It was near the ruins of his temple in Heliopolis. He wondered whose head Ramesses II had got into. Was it someone at the museum again? But before he could think any further about it, he realised that somebody was calling his name.

‘Roy? Roy? I’ve watered the plants, I’m heading home,’ the gardener was saying.

‘What?’ Roy said, then added, ‘Oh. Okay. Thank you.’

‘When is your wife coming back? She’s visiting your second daughter, isn’t she?’ the gardener asked.

‘That’s right. And she’ll be back by tomorrow. It’s an early morning flight,’ he answered, before forming an ‘O’ with his lips and whistling in two short bursts, waking up his pet dog, a red Basenji, who had been sleeping since lunch.

The dog got up gingerly, stretched his back legs and sniffed the air. All seemed right, so he ambled onwards to the drawing room. His master was sitting on a rocking chair, talking to the gardener. The red Basenji first licked his master’s hand, then walked up to the other man and sniffed his trousers and shoes.

‘Can I ask you a question?’ the gardener asked as he patted the dog. ‘I’ve never heard you play any Black Sabbath in the house. Not even your daughters. So how come—?’

Roy laughed, signalling to the dog to come to him. ‘Oh no, that’s a common misconception. You’re thinking of the wrong man. Tell me, have you ever read any of Shelley’s poetry?’

‘In school, probably. But I can’t recall any poems right now,’ the other man replied.

Roy started scratching the dog behind his ears. ‘Well, there’s a famous sonnet of his,’ he said. ‘It’s largely about how every great ruler is destined to die and decline. It’s not a very complimentary poem about such a great pharaoh, perhaps. But I quite like his Greek name. Shelley must have liked it too, since he used it for the title of his poem.’

‘What is it?’ the gardener asked.

‘Ozymandias,’ the old man said, and the red Basenji turned his head to look at him. Roy noticed for the first time that the dog had kohl-like rings around his eyes, just like his namesake.

In the background, the gardener was laughing. ‘Ozzy here thinks you’re talking about him,’ he said, ‘when you actually mean—’

‘Ramesses II,’ Roy finished for him, still staring at Ozzy as if searching for something in the dog’s eyes. But the next moment he shook himself, chuckled softly, and looked up at the gardener. ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I was entrusted with taking care of his mummy?’ he asked.




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