This was my first attempt at a novella. 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. Another first: 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 am publishing The Orphans here as a serial in 59 parts; one scene each Sunday.
The full list of scenes so far published is here
The Orphans. Chapter Eight, scene one: Hannice cheers up.
The following morning, as soon as I was up and dressed, I checked that everything was still working: phone, internet, lights, water. I stopped and pulled myself short. I, Max Matham; rational, logical, clear-thinking, if slightly dull forensic accountant; was becoming paranoid. What was this business, or this place, doing to me?
Kanene brought breakfast and coffee, which helped. I checked my email as I was eating breakfast. Nothing spectacular, just the usual garbage: offers of credit, offers to improve my manhood and invitations to join dating sites. Whatever drives these spam sites clearly assumes me to be male. Only one email was actually worth looking at; an enquiry from a business I’d done some work for a few years before. They were giving advance notice of tender for IT and accounting security audits in their branches in Singapore and Australia the following year. In the hope that my involvement here wouldn’t last too long, I replied to say that I was interested. It wasn’t until I’d hit send, that it occurred to me that Della might not like me taking on this work. That’s a bridge that could be crossed at a later date, as is the fact that I was currently on Hannice’s payroll as acting CEO of his firm here.
After breakfast, I messaged Della on the private web site she uses, to give her the latest situation here; also to notify her officially of what I described as my informal arrangement with Hannice. How she reacted to that would give me an indication of her attitude to my taking on outside commitments. I was hoping she would be okay with it – not because of the implied threat to my life; okay, largely because of that; but also because I rather enjoyed my current level of income, and didn’t relish going back to the uncertainties that were the stuff of my life before Della. And I was rather concerned by her ‘if you don’t work for me, you don’t work for anyone.’ She never explained what that meant, but that was a threat, right?
I wanted to make a video call to Hannice, but it was only 6am in London, and I didn’t think he’d appreciate a call that early. That left me with three hours to kill. Time for a change of pace. I had been working on a novel for more than five years. It concerned the development of a restaurant by a husband and wife team. Barry Scratchpole is a chartered accountant and MBA, his wife Ottavia is a classically trained Italian chef. The restaurant bore Ottavia’s maiden name, Gambino’s. Building a successful business when one partner is an avant-garde creative chef and the other an OCD accountant gives plenty of highs, lows and conflicts. In a number of ways, their personalities and their relationship mirrored mine and Sophie’s. Writing the book and exploring their developing relationship as business partners helped me to keep a perspective on my and Sophie’s situation. It helped me to see things from a viewpoint close to Sophie’s and so to accept and cope with the times when everything in me wants to fly off the handle at her.
The point at which I had last left the book was when they had just failed the local government inspection because of a lack of key food safety equipment that Barry thought to have been an unnecessary expense. That didn’t ring true with me. I called Sophie, knowing her to be an early riser:
“Morning, Sophie,” I said. “It’s Max. I didn’t get you out of bed, did I?”
Ever the joker, Sophie replied, “No, Max. I had to get up anyway, the phone was ringing.”
“How can I help?” she asked.
“Need a bit of research for my book,” I explained. “Can you find out for me the most common reasons restaurants fail food safety inspections, please? Limit yourself to problems that could be solved or avoided by spending a small amount of money.”
“Have you got old Catchpenny, or whatever he’s called, scrimping on essential supplies again?”
“Scratchpole, Sophie; and yes, I have.”
“Okay boss, I’m on it. I’ll call you later with what I find.” She hung up, leaving me looking helplessly at the phone.
I had great faith in Sophie. She could be frustratingly flippant at times, but she really excelled at this kind of research; she applied the same zeal to digging out obscure facts like these as she did when she helped me follow a trail through a complex set of accounts. If I were to lose her to Hannice, I would miss her. A lot.
While Sophie was digging out that information, I moved to another scene that I had under development. In this scene, Gambino’s had two key visits in one day: a food critic and a VAT inspector. Barry and Ottavia were nervous that day, although they were both convinced that they had nothing to worry about. Things were complicated by the fact that the VAT inspector was a loud, brash man with clothes to match, whereas the food critic was an unassuming, quiet, soberly dressed man. Of course, the VAT inspector was treated to the very best fare Gambino’s could offer, which played to his suspicious nature – no-one wines and dines him unless they are trying to draw his attention away from something. At the same time, Barry explained the financial workings of the restaurant in detail to the food inspector, which served only to confuse him.
I had just finished that when the phone rang. It was Sophie. She gave me the answer I needed. The previous inspection had highlighted the need for a second hand-washing sink near the servery for use by waiting staff. Barry could see no reason why the waiting staff shouldn’t use the same sink as the kitchen staff. Ottavia had pointed out that the waiting staff would not be welcomed in the kitchen during busy times, but Barry had insisted. Now they had failed the inspection. Excellent.
I took a break from writing and called Hannice on the video link. He was more positive and cheerful than I had seen him since the accident.
“Been doing some thinking, Max,” he said. “After uni, I had a nice summer in Oxfordshire with my old pals Julian and Finlay; not sure if you know them; then Papa packed me off to Dar to run his business. Been doing it ever since. And you know what, Max? Don’t want to do it any more. Yes, I know I have responsibilities; I know when Papa croaks the whole empire will be mine, but hell, I can hire managers to do the day-to-day stuff. I should be able to slope off to do things that I want to do, things that will give me some level of satisfaction, of fulfilment. I don’t need to micromanage every aspect of the business.”
Somewhat taken aback by this turn of events, I asked, “What do you have in mind, Hannice?”
“Don’t know,” he said, “and that’s the best thing about it. Won’t have my every move mapped out for me by the need to control the minutiae of the business. I can do what makes me feel good about myself, while still staying in overall charge.”
“Good for you, Hannice. Don’t ask me to be permanent here, though; I have other interests, few of which can be serviced from Tanzania.”
He frowned briefly. “Can we talk about that another time?” he asked, “I’m not expecting you to run it permanently, but I need to be clear in my own mind what I want to do. Then I can consider how my plans affect other people. How’s your book going, by the way?”
“Fancy asking me about that. Apart from mentioning it to you in passing before your accident, I haven’t given it a thought. I picked it up again this morning; first time for months.”
“No mystery,” he said. “Just having a chat with Sophie; she mentioned that you asked her to do some research.”
Clearly, the relationship between Hannice and Sophie was developing more deeply and at a faster rate than I had realised. I could see that the risk of losing her was increasing daily.
“You seem to be getting on very well with Sophie,” I suggested.
“Indeed. We were bound to be close; she is my personal physiotherapist, so I spend almost an hour with her every day, just on that. She is also helping me with some other, shall we say, more personal items, until I get the hang of doing it myself. It turns out that we think alike on a number of issues, and Sophie is a most affable companion. It is not unlikely, that whatever I decide to do in the future, she will be a part of. Have to be, anyway, or I’ll need to find a new physio.”
I wasn’t sure whether Hannice was explaining, justifying or rationalising. I decided to play with his head a little. “A thought just occurred,” I said, “you know Sophie’s surname, don’t you?”
“Yes, it’s Deigh,” he said. Then, after a pause, “I see where you’re going with this. What a partnership – Knight and Deigh!”
“It certainly has a better ring than Matham and Deigh, but can you afford the transfer fee?”
At that, the video image froze and Hannice’s speech became juddery. A director of IT told me in the 1980s that communication was the black art of computing. Some things never change.