This was my first attempt at a long story/short novel. Its working title is The Orphans. It is mostly set in the rural Tanzania I remember from the early 1980s, but some of the technologies used are much more recent. To that extent, it is anachronistic. Don’t forget, though; it is fictional, made up, lies. All of it.
The image on the left was my first bash at a cover. In a series of firsts, 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 some disturbing things are 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.
From 10 January 2016, I will publish The Orphans here as a serial in 59 parts; one scene each Sunday.
The full list of scenes published is here
The Orphans. Chapter Three, scene three: Dar-es-Salaam
I left Heathrow at 2.50pm and, after a smooth connection in Nairobi, arrived in Dar-es-Salaam just after 9.30am on Sunday. Hannice’s driver, who introduced himself as David, met me and took me to his boss’s villa just outside the city. I knew from previous correspondence that Hannice had named his villa ‘Nocturne’, a play on his surname.
The climate in Tanzania divides nicely into four distinct seasons. The ‘long rains’ run from March to May, and are followed by the long dry period, which lasts until October. The last two months of the year make up the second rainy period, the ‘short rains’, which fall less reliably, and lead to the short dry period. April is right in the middle of the long rains, when the daytime temperature rarely exceeds 30°C, and almost every afternoon sees a tropical downpour, particularly on the coast. The leaden sky had an oppressive feel to it as the driver navigated his way through the surprisingly heavy Sunday-morning traffic.
I hadn’t seen Hannice for almost two decades. The years were beginning to show on him; his medium-length, light ginger hair was a little thinner than I recalled, and showing some grey. He was somewhat tanned, a result of having lived in East Africa for most of the past twenty years. He was carrying some extra weight, too. Rather a lot of it, if I’m honest. I didn’t remark on any of this, for fear it might prompt him to remark on any changes he may have noticed in my appearance.
“Max,” he said, showing me into his lounge, “welcome to my pied-à-terre en Afrique, Nocturne. Do you realise, this is the first time we’ve been face-to-face in twenty years. You have gained some weight since I last saw you, but I always thought that being a bit short, skinny wasn’t a good look. You are well balanced now; you look … comfortable. Prefer the hair colour. Brown suits you better than blonde.”
“Thank you, Hannice, though I prefer dark auburn to brown. You haven’t changed either,” I lied, “you are just as I remember you at our last meeting. I stopped bleaching my hair shortly after uni. It’s all down to priorities. My work means more to me than anything else, and I soon learned that people would take me more seriously if I looked the part. Hence no make-up, a simple, short hairstyle and practical dress, appropriate for where I am and what I’m doing. Men treat me more as a person and less as a potential love-interest, and women respect me more and don’t see me as competition.”
He had commented on my appearance, but remembering that he sometimes had a short fuse, and not knowing how he would take it, I didn’t mention his weight gain and hair loss.
“You never married, Max?”
“No, Hannice. Not yet, anyway. Don’t think there haven’t been offers, because there haven’t. I’m happy on my own, though. Sophie, my PA, is also my housekeeper and looks after my cat while I am away. She’s a qualified physiotherapist too, and her massages are to die for. Apart from that, I have my books, my work and my writing. I don’t need complications.”
“Do you still, you know, play those games we used to play?” He said the word games with some emphasis. I knew he was referring to the experiments some of us indulged in; we tried using many types of equipment and techniques to enhance our bodily pleasures: bondage, hypnosis, alcohol, even some drugs – not that I ever went that far.
“No, Hannice, I don’t” I said, trying not to sound too indignant. “That was just a bunch of kids pushing the boundaries. I doubt anyone even gave it a thought once we had finished at uni.”
“Quite,” he said, with what sounded like a nervous clearing of his throat. “Anyway; from one loner to another, then, welcome to Dar-es-Salaam.”
“Thank you, Hannice. I’m grateful.”
“London didn’t tell me the reason for your visit, Max. Care to fill me in?”
I told him all that I knew; from the first kidnapping to the most recent meeting with Della.
“You have the devil of a dilemma there,” he said, “Jaxson’s question; real catch-22 stuff. Is it better to want the orphans to die with dignity, or to want them not to die at all? Easy on the face of it; of course, better they don’t die; but when you throw in the methods… Hell of a question. Not one I’d care to attempt to answer. Merit on both sides. Hope you aren’t here expecting me to provide the answer, Max — it’s well outside my area of competence. Don’t know of anyone who would dare to attempt a definitive answer.”
“No, Hannice. Intellectually, logically and unemotionally, I can appreciate and understand Paul Jaxson’s position. My heart, my upbringing and my beliefs, though, lead me to reject it totally.” Fifteen years earlier, this would have been a point at which I would have reached for a cigarette. I could really have done with some kind of prop, some distraction to create a pause, to conceal the fact that I had no words to say; no wisdom to fill the gap and no way to state my position in a meaningful and definitive way.
Hannice walked to the corner of the lounge and pressed a button on the wall. Almost immediately, a young African woman appeared.
Turning to the girl, he made his request, “Tea for two please, Kanene.”
“Make yourself comfortable, Max. Kanene, my house-girl, will bring tea and biscuits shortly.” He guided me to the overstuffed sofa in the centre of the room. “Sherry, whilst we wait?”
“Sweet, as I recall.”
Twenty years – what a memory. He was right, of course.
He came back to me with a schooner in each hand. “Rich cream for you,” he said, handing the schooner of golden-brown liquid to me, “and for HK, a very dry fino.” He parked himself in the armchair opposite me and sat forward, his right elbow on his knee and his chin rested on that hand.
“So, Max, what do you want from me?” he asked.
“Mostly, somewhere to stay in Dar-es-Salaam, somewhere that’s not an impersonal hotel; a catch up with an old chum and, if you can stand it, a bouncing board to try to help me clarify my ideas. If I remember rightly, you were always able to get to the root of things, as well as to see both sides of an argument. Why you never went into politics remains one of life’s great unanswered questions.”
“As long as you’re not expecting me to validate your position,” he said, sitting back and crossing his arms; his expression more guarded.
“Far from it,” I assured him, “I don’t even know what my position is, yet. I’m hoping that your comments will help me to find it. We’ll worry about validating it later.”
The house-girl brought a silver tray bearing tea, milk and sugar. There was also a barrel of biscuits that are commonplace in England, but that are probably quite a rarity in this corner of Africa. Hannice thanked and dismissed her, after she had poured tea into two exquisite bone china cups.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reliving memories from two decades earlier, the carefree banter bouncing between us to a background of the monsoon-like rain drumming against the window-panes and the gentle rumble of distant thunder, our conversation occasionally interrupted by ear-splitting cracks when the thunder came closer.
When the rain eventually stopped, just before dark, Hannice and I ventured into the garden for a pre-dinner walk. The air was still heavy with humidity, but much of the surface water evaporated quickly in the early evening warmth. As we walked, the conversation turned back to my situation.
“Been thinking,” he said, “some people I can call on in Dar and in Government, if it’s any help.”
“What did you have in mind?” I asked.
“Seems to me, whether they admit it or not, Government knows all about this; big business knows all about it; in fact, every Tom, Dick and Harry probably knows all about it. Only the orphanages are in the dark. At least, if the orphanages had the information, they could throw in their thoughts, too. I’ll talk to some chums at the health ministry, social care ministry and churches, and make sure all interested parties are singing from the same song sheet. If nothing else, we can start a debate; get it out in the open.”
At that, Kanene appeared in the garden, coughed gently into her hand and said, “Dinner ready, Bwana Knight.”
Hannice thanked her and ushered me into the dining room, where the table was laid out with a splendid-looking array of roast beef and vegetables.
“You surprise me, Hannice,” I said. “I expected, after twenty years, to see your table covered in East African delicacies.”
“No such thing,” he replied. “Can’t stand the stuff. Have the odd curry, but Kanene knows better than to offer me or my guests any of the local swill.”
The meal was excellent: spring vegetable soup, home made with what Hannice described as ‘proper European vegetables’ grown on the premises, roast beef with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables, and followed by fruit and cheese. I was disappointed, though, that there was no local fare on offer.
We said our good-nights after dinner, and I retired to his guest room. The room was as luxurious and well-equipped as I would have expected of him. I was not yet ready for sleep, so sat at the mahogany desk, plugged my laptop in to charge its battery, and settled down to re-read Della’s somewhat puzzling briefing document.
Among a lot of other detail, it said that I was now on the board of TanzCap as nominee Chairman, with Della’s power of attorney. That meant, she said, that I could over-rule any decision made by the board, or any member of it. The document made it very clear what she needed me to do. First job the following morning would be to make contact with the other board members, whose particulars were included in the dossier.