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.
Beginning on 10 January 2016, I shall publish The Orphans here as a serial; one scene each Sunday.
The full list of scenes so far published is here
The Orphans. Chapter Ten, scene one: Max and her mum.
For the second time recently, the insistent ringing of my bedside telephone woke me in the middle of the night. It was Sophie.
“Sorry to wake you, Max,” she said, “but I’ve just had a call from your mum’s home. They said she’s taken a turn for the worse and is going downhill fast. How soon can you get there?”
“It’s half past one now. I’ll see if I can get a seat on an early flight,” I said, thumbing my mobile phone as I did so, “if I can, I should be able to be there sometime this evening. I’ll let you know as soon as I have a confirmed seat.”
A Kenya Airways flight was leaving Dar-es-Salaam at 05:10. With changes in Nairobi and Amsterdam, the schedule showed arrival at Heathrow at 17:10. I bought a return ticket, arranged a hire car and called Sophie to let her know. Take-off was in three hours. That left me enough time to throw a few things into a cabin bag and make my way to the airport.
Traffic was light at that time in the morning, and the taxi made the journey in what must have been near-record time. This was a good time to travel; queues at check-in were almost non-existent, and I passed through all the formalities more quickly than I could remember having done before. I was in the departure lounge by 4am, and occupied myself observing my fellow travellers and making notes of dress, mannerisms and peculiarities in the character-development section of my author’s notebook. One woman in particular caught my attention. Dressed in a style that could pass for 1920s flapper fashion, she was very excitable, speaking rather loudly and gesticulating flamboyantly to the rest of her group, all of whom had the earnest air of between-the-wars students on the Grand Tour. I was visualising a scene involving these contradictory characters when my flight was called.
I adore travel. It educates, informs, entertains and empowers. It gives access to new cultures, new languages, new customs and new ways of looking at things.
I hate travelling. It’s time-consuming, complicated, boring and thoroughly annoying. There should be a way of getting from a house in Dar-es-Salaam to a cottage in Buckinghamshire that doesn’t involve six hours in airports, eleven hours in planes and three hours in cars, not to mention exit and immigration controls, customs checks and the handing of personal information to bodies that treat it with as much respect as my cats treat a mouse.
Twenty hours after leaving Nocturne, at 8pm local time, I arrived at my mother’s care home. Somewhat frazzled, I asked the receptionist how my mother was.
“It says here that she’s had quite a good day, considering; but that she’s not well. Do you want to speak to one of the medical staff?” she asked.
I said that I would, at which she paged the on-call doctor.
Dr Jones, as he introduced himself, was a disarmingly young man with a confident bearing.
“Your mother is comfortable and not experiencing any pain,” he told me, “but I’m afraid that, whatever we do, her body is starting to shut down. She’s been asking for you a lot over the past couple of days, and I think she’s only holding on because she needs to see you before she goes.”
“Is there nothing more you can do?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not,” he said, “she wants to see you; there is possibly something she needs to say to you. It’s not unusual at this time for the patient to be looking to their loved ones for permission to die. I gather you are her only living relative.”
“That’s right, Doctor. My father died of bowel cancer two years ago, and I’m an only child. As far as I know, Mum doesn’t have any other relatives living.”
“Go and see her,” Dr Jones advised me. “It often happens that there is something the patient has wanted to say for some time, but never had the ‘right’ opportunity. If that’s the case, whatever it is she wants to say, don’t act surprised. Just take it for what it is. Can you do that?”
“I think so. Anything else you want to tell me?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “she may well indicate; not in words, but by attitudes and actions; that she is ready to go. If she does, you need to signal approval; whether you feel it or not. Don’t, under any circumstances, give voice to that approval. A reassuring touch or even a look, will be enough to let her know that you are ready to say goodbye.”
“And if I can’t do that?”
“If you can’t do that, she will still die, but she will die with a heavy heart.”
He led me in to Mum’s room. Although my last visit had only been a few weeks before, the difference in Mum’s condition was nothing less than shocking. Her face, once plump, was drawn and hollowed, her eyes sunk into their sockets. All colour had drained from her, leaving her with a yellowish-grey complexion. The most noticeable thing, though, was the odour in her room. It was the unmistakable smell of death. Death has a distinctive scent to it, at once sweet and cloying, yet shockingly acrid. It’s an aroma that stays with you once you’ve experienced it.
Mum looked at me. The sparkle had gone from her eyes; they looked empty, expressionless. I had to strain to hear her when she spoke.
“Is that you, Max?” she asked.
“Yes, Mum, it’s me,” I replied, fighting to hold back my tears. Words couldn’t describe my feelings at seeing my mother, the woman who gave life to me and devoted so much of her life to my upbringing, in such a state. It went way beyond heartbreaking; it was mortifying.
“Max,” she said, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
“I’m listening, Mum,” I reassured her.
“It’s about your father. I know you idolised him, worshipped the ground he walked on, but he wasn’t all good, no-one is.”
“What are you saying?” I was confused. Never in my life had I heard my mother say a single word against my father. She had always defended him to the uttermost.
“When your father was working for the Jonts, he did some terrible things. Terrible things. No-one ever found out, but those Jonts, especially the daughter, made him fiddle the books many a time. If it had been found out, it would have been your father in trouble, not the Jonts. He was responsible for the books, you see.”
“And you’ve known this all long, and said nothing?”
“How could I say anything? How could I tell a little girl who adored her father, who thought he was perfect in every way, that he was a crook; that he had been illegally cooking the books for years? No, it had to be my secret.”
“So why are you telling me now?”
“Because I can’t take a secret like that with me to the grave. Besides, your father’s been gone for a couple of years, so he can’t be hurt by it, and it’s important that you know the truth – especially the truth about those Jont scum.”
I didn’t dare tell her that I was working for Della, but I would certainly have something to say about this, when I next saw her!
I took my mother’s frail hand in mine, and stroked it gently. “Thank you for telling me, Mum,” I said, looking into her eyes; eyes that seemed to soften and, I like to think, briefly smile. I gave her hand a gentle squeeze, “It’s out in the open now, Mum, and everything’s okay.”
She smiled. She really did. Then she closed her eyes and breathed her last.
I hadn’t cried in I don’t know how long. I cried then. I sobbed long and deeply, crying tears that I had held back for years. Tears, not only for Mum, but also for Dad. Tears for those poor orphans in Tanzania, and tears for the suffering of albino people in Africa. Tears for the hurt I had unwittingly visited on Hannice, and tears over being on the point of losing Sophie to Hannice. And maybe, just maybe, some of the tears were for me. All the bad stuff from the past few years had suddenly welled up and demanded an outlet. It was as though I had broken through and cast off the shell I had worn for far too long.
I had to stay in England then, at least until after Mum’s funeral. The care home had an arrangement with a firm of funeral directors and set up an initial meeting for me. I arranged that, and decided a surprise visit to Ms Della Jont would be in order.