About two years ago, early 2014, I started my first attempt at a long story/short novel/novella; call it what you will. It is about 60000 words long, and its working title is The Orphans. The image on the left was my first bash at a cover. In a series of first attempts, here’s its blurb.
Max Matham is a self-employed freelance forensic accountant living in a quiet village in Buckinghamshire. Della Jont is a hard-nosed businesswoman who presses Max into working for her, investigating alleged financial irregularities at an orphanage in East Africa. Max soon finds that although the finances are okay, there are some disturbing things going on at the orphanage, and becomes involved in a set of intriguing events involving orphans, government agencies, witch-doctors, an old university chum and a multinational pharmaceutical company.
This is the first story involving Max Matham, but is unlikely to be the last!
During 2016, I shall, tentatively and with much trepidation, publish The Orphans here as a serial; one scene each Sunday. Get the link to the full list of scenes here
The Orphans. Chapter One, scene 2: Sent away
I came to in my own bed. After some minutes, I peered at my alarm clock. 3.50am. Had this been a dream? I checked the bedside table: first class, open return BA ticket, Heathrow to Nairobi, Kenya (at a cost of more than I paid for my car), Barclays Tanzania debit card, and a dossier of information and instructions. Clearly not a dream. I got up, dressed, packed, and waited for the driver to come to take me to Heathrow to catch my flight. While waiting, I penned a note to Sophie, my PA and best (okay, only) friend, telling her that I’d be away for a few days.
As the clock display changed from 05:59 to 06:00, a car horn sounded outside my cottage. I went out with my bags and saw a black Bentley waiting for me. I recognised it as the car that had stopped outside my house for directions the day before, and which, I assumed, had taken me to Della’s lair. The driver got out of the car and approached me.
“Fine morning, Miss Matham,” he said, as though we were old friends, “Let me take your luggage.” He took my case and placed it into the boot, which he had opened with a press of the car key fob.
“Have we met?” I asked, followed by, “Wait a minute; weren’t you in the car that picked me up yesterday?”
“Sorry about that, Miss,” he replied, “I’m Miss Jont’s driver, Andrews, but you can call me Andy. I shouldn’t say this, but Miss Jont has a real thing about nobody knowing where she lives. Dunno why, it’s not the kind of house you can hide.”
“Andy Andrews? What were your parents thinking?” I asked, in a vain attempt to lighten my mood.
“Not my real name, Miss. My Dad had some funny ideas; christened me Archibald. I hate the damned name.”
Unable to suppress a snigger, I simply replied “Andy it is, then.”
A little under ninety minutes later, just before 7.30am, Andy dropped me at Terminal 5 departures area. He got my luggage out of the boot of the Bentley, wished me bon voyage, and drove off with a toot of the horn and a wave.
The flight to Nairobi lasted a few minutes shy of eight and a half hours – eight and a half of the most luxurious hours of my life. I’d never flown first class before this. I could choose a meal from the à la carte menu, and eat it when I chose, not when it suited the aircrew. That was a novelty. So, too, was the seat that becomes a comfortable, full-length, flat bed.
In the air, I studied the files Della had given me. Della’s father had founded the orphanage in the 1970s, while living in East Africa. He had seen the plight of children orphaned by disease, accident or overt violence, and felt that he needed to do something to help. Della inherited the orphanage, along with the rest of his business empire, following his recent death. Della didn’t inherit her father’s philanthropic sentiments. That much was clear from the language used in the dossier. I didn’t know then how that would affect her relationship with the orphanage.
A young woman in a pale blue uniform and wearing a badge that announced her as a VIP Hostess met me in the arrivals concourse at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport, and guided me through customs and immigration. She then handed me over to an older man in chauffeur’s garb, who took me to Wilson domestic airport. From there, I was to fly to Songea, the main city of the Ruvuma region in the southwest of Tanzania. As I entered the terminal building, a tall European man with the look of a post-World War 2 fighter pilot, handlebar moustache and all, approached me.
“Maxine Matham?” he asked.
“Max,” I replied. “I take it you’re my pilot.”
“Spot on, old thing,” he said. “According to the rules, I’m supposed to say, ‘My name is Roger, and I’ll be your pilot today’. You’re honoured; Jont have ordered our best and newest plane for you.”
He took my case and beckoned me to follow him.
“All being well, we should reach Songea in a little over two and a half hours,” he said, “with a stop at Kili – Kilimanjaro International – for Tanzanian immigration and customs.”
“Is it just the two of us?” I asked as he walked with me toward the luxuriously appointed, twin-engined aircraft, “No co-pilot?”
“This thing practically flies itself, Max. Pilot’s only needed for take-off and landing. Even that’s all computer-controlled these days,” he replied, “you can take the stick in the air, if you want.”
I didn’t want. I prefer to leave that job to the professionals. I’m sure I could have pointed the thing in a straight line, but wouldn’t have known what to do if something went wrong.
“That’s alright,” I said, “I quite like being chauffeured.”
The first leg of the journey was without incident, and we made Kilimanjaro in good time. The airport is close to the mountain, 900 metres above sea level. Roger checked in with the Air Traffic Controllers, where he learned of extreme weather in the Songea area, that would prevent us landing there. We were cleared to land instead at a small airstrip on an old road construction site forty kilometres further north; one that had rarely been used for more than a quarter of a century. Roger phoned ahead from Kilimanjaro and arranged for a vehicle to take me from there to my destination, a remote settlement on the eastern shore of Lake Malawi. That meant an unscheduled overnight stop close to the landing strip, in the small town of Madaba, followed by a four hour drive to the orphanage.
The old airstrip looked as if it hadn’t been used for a long time; it was obviously tarmac at one time, but as we were approaching, it was clear that the surface had broken down and nature’s takeover bid was doing rather well.
“Making a couple of low passes over the strip to have a visual on its condition,” Roger informed me. After a couple of runs, he said, “A bit rough, might be bumpy, but looks safe enough to land. You okay with a touch of bouncy bouncy?”
“Roger, Roger,” I said in an attempt at humour, but reached for one of the bags provided, just in case. I’m not a bad flier, but I am used to sharing the experience with a couple of hundred other people, not just the one. As things turned out, the landing was fine, inasmuch as he got the wheels on the ground safely. Losing speed on that surface, however, felt rather like riding a bicycle down a long flight of stairs while simultaneously operating a pneumatic drill. When we came to rest at the top of the strip, a rusty old Land Cruiser chugged toward us, belching thick blue-black smoke out of its exhaust and backfiring furiously, eventually coming to a halt a couple of metres from our door. The whole vehicle seemed to breathe a heavy sigh of relief when its engine stopped. Its driver took my luggage from the plane and put it into the back of the vehicle, and I asked Roger if he’d be joining us.
“Not likely, old gal,” he said, “another job now; someone to pick up from Dar and take to Nairobi. Roger and out!” With that, he fired up the twin engines, turned the aircraft, and sped off down the runway. By the time it had sunk in that he had left me here; a woman alone in a strange country, knowing nothing of the local language or customs, and at the mercy of a man who appeared to be in his eighties but still probably younger than his vehicle; Roger was airborne.
I looked around, taking in my situation. Whichever way I turned, I could see only trees, red earth and yellow, lifeless grass. There were some distant mountains to the south, and a forested escarpment scarily close to the bottom of the landing strip. As I watched, Roger was pulling up and over the escarpment. It became clear that I was completely alone in a strange place, my only company being an ancient local man who had more teeth than he had spoken English words, and I could only see one tooth! My new friend opened the passenger door for me and muttered something in a language I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea what he said, but got in the car anyway. What else could I do?
That we couldn’t understand each other’s language wasn’t a hindrance on the short drive to the town; the incessant cacophony of squeaks, rattles and backfires made sure that no conversation was possible. We stopped outside what I took to be a hotel. The driver took my cases from the back of the jeep, carried them to the desk and said to the receptionist something that I was totally unable to understand. She, in turn, said something incomprehensible to me. I smiled. She shouted, “Miss Mattam.” I smiled again, which caused her to launch into a stream of words, none of which meant anything to me.
A priest whom I assumed, from his accent, to be Spanish said, “You are Miss Mattam?”
“Matham,” I replied, “yes, I am she.”
“Your driver will pick you up at three o’clock tomorrow morning, to take you to your destination,” he said.
“Three o’clock? That’s a bit early, isn’t it? Are you sure that’s what she said?” I asked.
“I explain it to you,” the priest replied, “Swahili time starts at 6am, so when he says 3 o’clock, he means 9am.”
“That’s better; thank you,” I said. “Can you tell me what the time is now, please? My watch is still on UK time.”
The priest, who had the appearance of a man in his mid- to late-forties, told me the current local time, after which he said that he runs the local parish and has a seminary and mission close by. In turn, I told him of my purpose in visiting the area.
“Will you be here very long?” I asked.
“My Land Rover is in the garage for repair,” he said, “I will spend the night here.”
“Then let me buy you dinner, to thank you for helping me.”
“That is kind. And I can tell you some things it will help you to know about this country before you visit your orphanage.”
My impressions on arriving here were up and down like a yo-yo. First I was abandoned, by a gung-ho pilot, to an unknown driver in a tatty vehicle, after being forced to land at a disused airfield that was possibly not fit for use; next I met a most kind man who was prepared to spend an entire evening briefing me, and yet expected nothing in return.
Over dinner, I learned that the priest’s given name was Manuel, though since an early age, everyone has called him Manolo. He gave me a potted history of the region, explained the meaning of some of its culture and taught me a few useful phrases. I retired with my head still buzzing, but a with little more confidence than I had felt on arriving at this hotel. I slept fitfully. All manner of scenarios went through my head; some pleasant, some less so; but what would the morrow bring?