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 3: At the orphanage
The following morning, just before 9am, I took my bags downstairs to checkout – hoping that last night’s Good Samaritan would be there to help me with the language. He wasn’t. The only person in the foyer, apart from the receptionist, was a rather well turned-out man who looked to be in his thirties.
“I. Need. To. Check. Out,” I said to the receptionist, using the tried and tested British method of speaking loudly and slowly whilst employing a range of totally inappropriate gestures.
“Are you Miss Mattam?” the young man behind me asked.
“I am Miss Matham, yes,” I replied, “why do you ask?”
“I am Thomas, your driver, Miss Mattam,” he replied. “I will take you to your orphanage.”
“What happened to the old man from yesterday?” I asked.
“That was Evaristo,” he explained, “His son owns this firm. He came out to collect you in his own gari because all the drivers were busy.”
“Sorry, Miss Mattam, I used our local word. I should say ‘car’.”
“So we’re not going to the orphanage in that ancient Land Cruiser, then?”
“Not at all,” he said with a chuckle. “For someone as important as you, Miss Mattam, we use our best vehicle.”
Thomas then spoke to the receptionist in what I then knew to be Swahili and completed my checkout, charging the cost to the air charter company, who had an account with them. Unsurprisingly, this kind of weather-related problem is common at certain times of the year. The old landing strip, Thomas told me, is used at least once every four to five weeks, and the grass is kept down by a band of machete-wielding villagers before each use. Who knew?
We set off in a splendid air-conditioned Range Rover that Thomas told me was not yet three years old, and headed for the orphanage. Although the road was not the best, the Range Rover was in such good condition and so well driven that conversation between Thomas and me flowed easily. All along the road he pointed out villages and small towns as well as natural features, and told me a little about each of them. A few times he stopped and handed me a pair of binoculars as he indicated particular sights and wildlife that he thought I’d like to see. Along one high stretch of the road, he had me look down into the valley to see a large bird with forward-cast wings and a very short tail, quartering the sparsely wooded land below us. He told me it was a Bateleur Eagle, and that once I had seen one, I would never forget its shape. In all, the journey took the promised four hours, and we arrived at our destination a little after 1pm. Thomas remained with the vehicle, in case I needed to return straight away.
Although I had no idea what to expect, I was surprised to see in a large clearing in the scrub, an orphanage building that looked more like something I would expect to find in an affluent part of the UK, than in this relatively impoverished area of East Africa. Its appearance was akin to a school building from the 1960s, a concrete and glass affair, with the lettering “Jont Orphanage” over the main door.
I could hear children’s voices coming from behind the building. The chatter, laughter, and occasional excited scream gave the impression that play time here was much as at any primary school anywhere in the world. There was a communication panel by the main door; I pressed the button and waited.
“Yes?” The matronly voice sounded harsh.
“Good morning.” Best to be polite, I thought, “My name is Max Matham. I think you’re expecting me.”
“We are not expecting visitors and no-one can come without a prior appointment.” [Click]
I pressed the button again.
“What is it now?”
In as calm a manner as I could muster, I said: “I have come a very long way to visit this orphanage. Can I at least speak with the principal, please?”
After a silence of almost a full minute, she said, “You’d better come in.” [buzz… click]
Inside, the building looked bright and airy; magnolia walls with dark blue wainscoting, detailing and doors, and matching carpet tiles, which looked as though they had seen better days. A lot of them. Better days, that is, not carpet tiles. I walked past the reception desk, where the owner of the voice looked as she sounded; a formidable, matronly woman. I had dealt with her sort before. Not a problem, you just have to know how to handle them. Her accent sounded similar to Thomas’s, but she didn’t look like a country girl. “That door,” she said brusquely, pointing to the second door.
The first door bore the familiar silhouetted duo of male and female; on the second was a brass plate bearing the words ‘Jont Orphanage, Kitwana Nchimbi PhD, Principal’ in letters that I felt to be a little larger than necessary. I knocked on the door.
Dr Nchimbi’s office was of moderate size and very businesslike. He was seated in a sumptuously stuffed, red leather chair behind a massive, dark oak desk that was empty, save for a red leather-edged blotter and a brass inkwell with a large quill pen resting in it. He rose from his chair, and came to greet me.
Looking down at me, this giant of a man spoke with a deep, booming voice that matched his frame, “Max Matham, is it? I suppose her Ladyship sent you.” No point in pretending to be a potential donor, then.
“If by ‘her Ladyship’, you mean your benefactor, Della Jont, then yes, she did.” I had studied my instructions well, and knew what the gorgeous Della wanted me to look out for. I also needed to show that I was not intimidated by Dr Nchimbi’s towering presence.
“Through her company, Miss Jont puts a lot of money into this orphanage; she wants to be sure that it is being well spent.”
In the conversation that followed, I discovered that Dr Nchimbi was not as formidable as his physical appearance would suggest. We looked at the orphanage’s books, which looked fine to me, and discussed its situation, catchment area and challenges.
“We look after around 200 children here,” he told me, “more than half of them lost their parents to AIDS, and many of them are, themselves, HIV-positive. As well as looking after the children, my medical staff go into the villages to provide AIDS/HIV screening and to offer advice to local village populations.”
“Is that something Miss Jont has approved?” I asked.
“It is not in the sponsor’s brief for the orphanage,” he admitted, “but we consider it our duty to the people of the area, and hope that it will help reduce the number of children orphaned each year.”
Dr Nchimbi called his receptionist and told her to have Thomas bring my luggage in, after which she should dismiss him. He then left me alone, so I could go through the rest of his records, which revealed nothing to suggest anything was amiss financially or procedurally. An hour or so later, the door behind me opened, and Dr Nchimbi came in with two sturdily built and serious-looking men.
“These men are Richard and Sunday, long-standing colleagues whom I trust implicitly,” Dr Nchimbi said, “Go with them; they have things to tell you, on my behalf, that shouldn’t be said where junior staff or children, or anyone else, could overhear.”