I drained the last golden drops of Teachers whiskey from my glass and folded the copy of last week’s Sunday Times that had been delivered to the British Embassy only yesterday. I had been reading and unsuccessfully struggling with the crossword – unsuccessful to the point of boredom which resulted in my attention being diverted to drawing spectacles, moustaches and hairy warts on the faces of attractive female models in the adjacent advertisements for hair and facial restoration products.
My unbuckled sandals lay discarded under my rattan chair. I moved my feet down from the low veranda wall where I hade been resting them whilst studying the newspaper and enjoying my after-dinner drink. I slipped my feet into the sandals and stood up.
The year was 1959, the month was June – summer in the Middle East.
We were a group of five engineers - seconded by the British Government and the Ministry of Defence to the Sudanese government to assist them in the upgrading of their developing armed forces. Armament (that’s me) - medium build, prematurely thinning on top with a neat moustache and mild sunburn. Telephonic, that’s Rob Gordon, a tea-total, red bearded Glaswegian (goodness knows how he stands the heat in that thing).
Electrical, that’s Paul Greasley, a short stout Scouser who had recently flown in from UK. Radar, Roger Kirbridge from the Isle of Man was a tall, thin bespectacled chap, know affectionately as The Prof. And airfield construction; Harry Elliot was built like a bulldog but could probably bump-start centurion tanks if asked.
‘Right’ I announced with a positive air; The Prof looked up from his paperback novel. ‘I’m going to hit the sack – see you in the morning’
It was only just past nine o’clock and the sun had been swallowed by the horizon some three hours ago, almost on the strike of six as though some ethereal majesty had flicked off a light switch. The night was warm and still. In the distance, across the low roofs of the city, the bright floodlights shone on the golden dome of the Mahdi’s Tomb in the centre of Khartoum making it glow like a huge light bulb in the otherwise black night which enveloped the surrounding desert.
This large, old Victorian Rahj-style bungalow had been my home for the past six months and my after-dinner routine had become almost predictable. I strolled slowly to the door of my room on the corner of the building at the far end of the veranda, enjoying the sweet musty smell of the Canna flowers, the ceaseless chirping of crickets and the chalky feel of the roughly whitewashed concrete of the walls. These familiar aspects of the bungalow deeply penetrated my senses and I can remember them now as though I was still there.
The door to my room – well, I suppose you could call it a suite as it had a sitting room, bedroom and en-suite bathroom – was the same as all the rest in the house and typical of the design: dark brown varnished louvers in a heavy hard-wood frame, secured with a Yale lock and bolt on the inside (this is significant). I unlocked my door, the only access to my room, closed, locked and bolted it behind me to deter unwelcome visits from “clefti-wallahs” (opportunist thieves), usually unemployed locals who would steel anything attractive – not necessarily valuable – I’m not sure that they had a sense of value, I believe they saw items as a child or a magpie might see them; being attracted more to shiny items that could be easily carried and concealed.
The two small windows to my room were similarly protected by louvered shutters; I opened the double casements which hinged inwards, closed and bolted the shutters to allow what little night-time breeze to enter and be circulated by the large electric ceiling fan. I turned on my bedside light knowing that it would attract the insects but knowing also that they would be prevented from entering the room by the fine mesh screen over the inside of the louvers, which also deterred thin, nimble fingers from slipping the security bolts.
I stripped off, showered and, wearing a light cotton footah around my lower half I sat at the large, roll-front bureau and finished writing an airmail letter form to my wife back in England. The bureau was typical of the furniture throughout the house, extremely heavy mahogany of Victorian design and age which I am sure had not been moved since the day the items were originally placed in the appropriate rooms. Each morning, after we had departed for our various places of work, a team of house boys would descend on each room to remake the beds, clean the bathroom and brush the previous day’s accumulation of sand from the tiled floors and wooden ledges with their soft mare’s-tail reed brushes; but the dark corners of the severely static furniture made interesting habitats for the largest of camel spiders, with bodies the size of a walnut and legs to match the span of a man’s hand. We would take sport in shooting at them with air guns – a messy but totally satisfying pastime.
Having finished my letter, I sealed down the edge flaps of the light blue sheet laid it on the little table by the door so that I would not forget to post it when I went into the British Embassy in the morning. I lay on the huge double bed, tucked in the mosquito net under the mattress all around the bed – evening gymnastics it was called – and settled back to read another chapter of Neville Shute’s “On the Beach”. In time my eyelids became heavy and once again Morpheus had beaten me before I could reach the end of my chapter. I set the book aside, switched off the light and slept comfortably, soundly and undisturbed until about six o’clock the following morning.
As I opened my eyes to another clear bright morning, there beside my bed stood a person that I assumed to be Neffi, one of the kitchen boys bringing me a cup of tea. He was tall and slim with jet black skin, his narrow face displayed the scars of tribal markings, and his long face was topped with short crinkly black hair greying at the temples. He was dressed in a long white galabeyah tied at the waist with a red sash andwore nothing on his broad calloused feet, the archetypal Sudanese.
‘Neffi’ I said drowsily as he turned away from the bed and walked through the archway into my sitting room, ‘You know that I don’t take tea in the mornings’ then it dawned on me, where did he go? Come to think of it and more to the point, where did he come from? Suddenly fully awake, I saw that there was no cup of tea but I knew I wasn’t dreaming when I saw the disarray of my room.
My large bed, with me in it, had been pulled out to the centre of the room; the huge four door “gentleman’s” wardrobe had been moved six feet away from the wall so that it’s doors were tight up against the foot of my bed (it took four house boys to move it back to its original position after emptying it) and the six foot long mirror-backed dressing table was across the bathroom doorway.