Life, for Royal Engineers in the Western Desert could be active, noisy and short.

We had to think on our feet, make quick decisions, and so learned the importance of priorities. What demands immediate attention, and why?

The occasional leave in Cairo was a blissful relief, especially for me, for I had been befriended by an English lady who occasionally served as a volunteer in a Services Canteen in the centre of the City; a Mrs Bryant.

One day chatting idly with her while she was on duty, I was surprised when she invited me to tea the following day at her home on Gezerah Island, in the Nile. Why me, a mere sergeant? For Gezerah was the City's ultimate enclave of the social elite, with a sporting club offering everything from ping-pong to polo - for the right people.

So the next day, neat, clean and sober I presented myself at her house where I was introduced to her sixteen year old daughter, Daphne. I was then almost shocked by my hostess's total disregard for military protocol, when she introduced me to another tea-time guest: - a major, also from the 8th Army, also on leave.

In England, Mrs Bryant would probably have been labelled a society hostess; but in Cairo she merely had a wide circle of friends whom she and her husband chose to entertain, whatever their status and whatever anyone else might care to think.

Thereafter, I was invited to use her house whenever I was at a loose-end while on leave. If none of the family were at home her Egyptian suffragi (house servant), would serve me a glass of cold milk and a slice of ginger cake, while I played gramophone records or read English newspapers and magazines.What a blissful haven that proved to be.

Occasionally I would be invited to stay for dinner, always well attended. On one occasion I found myself sitting between a brigadier and a titled major, while opposite sat the Anglican Bishop of Cairo. Conversation was always general, sometimes edging towards the philosophical; usually highly entertaining and often quite hilarious, but rigidly avoiding any mention of war, in the Western Desert or events in Europe. Here was strict neutral territory and with Mrs Bryant's social skills she seemed to be successful with her eclectic mix of guests, both military and civilian, which always gelled successfully.

Although only a sergeant and heavily outgunned, any opinions I might venture to contribute, and believe me, they were cautiously few, were considered seriously and I was always treated with the utmost courtesy by all.

Fortunately, I could at times be useful and partly repay the family's generous hospitality; escorting Daphne around the City, visiting friends or cinemas, since Cairo, full of many robust Allied troops of mixed nationalities might have proved hazardous for a solitary, attractive English girl.

On one occasion Daphne took me to a family friend near the Pyramids who bred Arabian racing stallions. Here we were given two magnificent greys and invited to go for a ride. Ride? Daphne had other ideas.

"Come on, Bob," she cried, once I was mounted, "I'll race you to the Sphinx," and away she went. My horse probably wanting some exercise needed no urging, for off it sped like the wind in pursuit, while I clung to its mane and have never been so terrified in my life. I arrived at the Sphinx with my heart in my mouth and my feet out of the stirrups, to Daphne's hilarious laughter. I have never ventured on a horse since.

One of Mrs Bryant's frequent guests was Professor Englebeck, the Swiss Curator of the Cairo Museum. One evening after dinner he said, "Bob, with Rommel's tanks getting so close, we're moving some of our more valuable treasures to caves, some ten miles away outside the City. If you'd like to come around tomorrow afternoon, I'd be glad to show you the Tukentahmen Collection before we crate it up." Wow! What a chance in a million.

Think fast Bob, I told myself. Priorities. Priorities ...!

"Good heavens," I managed to gasp at last, "I'd love to, Professor," my face bursting with enthusiasm for such a God-given opportunity. "But tomorrow I've promised our sergeant major to help him organize the stores and transport we'll need for our return to the Desert on Saturday. So I'm terribly afraid I'm essential to him..."

Untrue, I regret. For I badly needed a laugh and intended seeing a Laurel and Hardy film the following day.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007