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The White Umbrella

By Brian Sewell

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It was when, still in the centre of the city, Mr B asked to be directed to the road into Persia that he realised how alone he was and how far he had to go, for no one seemed to understand him until the fifth or sixth man whom he asked, and he it was who roared with laughter at the question – though not unkindly.

‘Persia,’ he said, ‘is five hundred miles away and you would be wiser to ask for the first town or village on the road. Of a stranger standing in Trafalgar Square would you ask the way to Edinburgh?’

Mr B, astonished to encounter in the middle of nowhere (as astonished people say) a man who, in perfect English, spoke to him of home, murmured an apology and then added, ‘But I really need to know.’ Given the direction and, for good measure, the information that in a straight line he and Pavlova were still as far from London as they had been in Peshawar, Mr B again recognised how alone he was, how much he had to do and how long it would take if Pavlova could walk only five miles in a day. This was only the fifth day since he had stood in the middle of the traffic in Peshawar with his arm about her neck, a terrified and trembling donkey foal, yet he felt that he had been with her for weeks, the bond between them quite unbreakable; yet he also felt, now that there was no Farooq to guide him further on his way, that he had been an impulsive fool. When he saw a bus destined for Karachi, Pakistan’s chief seaport, where he could so easily take a plane to London, the impulse to board it and leave Pavlova where she stood with her saddlebags and sheepskin was, for a moment, irresistible.

Then his fond madness suddenly returned. He looked at Pavlova, her pretty eyelashes, her pale and silken coat, her long and knobbly legs, faintly ridiculous with her ears poking through her straw hat, and he had no doubt that he must at least attempt to achieve his original intention to take her back to London. With reinforced resolve he opened his big white umbrella and, with Pavlova’s lead shortened, bringing her very close to his side, sharing the shade, they set off towards the west and the Persian border, a hundred days away if Farooq was right about the five mile daily limit on Pavlova’s walking.

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