Monday 23 April 2007

Funeral Season

I first noticed yesterday afternoon. Perched on the side of my bed, the laptop on the desk, a position I adopt every day for hours, I was suddenly uncomfortable. I arched my back to stretch my spine and felt old. Transferring my concentration from the interminable reports I was writing, I did a mental systems check. Spine? It aches…sort of. Head? Not a headache, exactly, but a wooliness, a slight pressure in the temples and behind the eyes; like a hangover but not. Muscles? I can’t identify an individual muscle or group that hurts, I can stick my finger into my thigh and it causes no discomfort but, taken as a whole, they just don’t feel right. Temperature? Seems normal or is it a little bit warmer than it should be? My skin is cool, but it is also clammy and I am sweating even though the air conditioning is on and I feel chilly.

I must be tired, I guess. Six months ago, this site was a junkyard. The portion of the Railway Company of Luanda marshalling yard that was never used except for dumping its ferrous and, unfortunately, organic waste. Now it is a small power station producing 30 Megawatts, 20% of the capital’s overall requirement. To get production on line by the client’s target date, we worked the final 72 hours without sleep and stood there, dirty, bedraggled, sweaty and stinky as the cameras rolled and the Minister witnessed the switches being pulled for the first time. But that was over three months ago. I cannot still be feeling the effects of that. I have had plenty of sleep since then.

I came to this job straight from Uganda, already riddled with Bilharzia. Its debilitating effects are well documented but I received the treatment via DHL from Belgium over a week ago. Since then I have been feeling great. Can’t be that then.

I am being audited for the first time by head office. Operations, HSE and Finance, these three areas are being examined, picked over and dissected in detail. The tone of the final report will be a comment on my ability as a manager. Must be stress then. But the auditor is an ex project manager himself, very experienced. He has been all over the world. Instead of criticising how much money I have spent building and subsequently running the site, he is encouraging me to spend more. Apparently I need more computers, more vehicles, this is a hardship posting so we should all be entitled to more allowances. Every criticism (I have had a couple of diesel spills and the client has had loads) has been fair and well considered and immediately followed by a suggested solution. This is quite unlike any other auditor I have ever known. I always thought that auditors were the people that came along after the battle and bayoneted the survivors. This guy, a dyed in the wool, pragmatic Gordie who has seen and done it all, only seems to want to help me. I have, therefore, no reason to be stressed.

The auditor fancied prawns for dinner. It was Sunday and everywhere was closed but Marcia, my girlfriend, managed to find some and I cooked. The prawns looked, and by all accounts tasted, delicious but I had no appetite so after serving the crew, I went to my room to read.

I was woken by the shrill tone of my phone. I was fully dressed and stretched out on my bed. I fumbled for my glasses but by the time I had them positioned on my face and had the phone located, it had stopped ringing. Eleven missed calls. I looked at my watch, bleary eyed and aching all over. The watch swam in and out of focus. Three minutes to six in the morning I read. I checked the call register. Marcia had been ringing. But if it was already morning, where the hell did she sleep last night? I tried to return the call but got unavailable. Perhaps by now her phone battery was dead. Oddly, I did not care. The fact that she never came home should have worried me. The fact that she had tried to phone so many times should have worried me. The fact that I could not get through to her should have worried me even more. Instead, I realised that I was freezing and I switched off the aircon.

In an hour, I would have to get up to be ready for the auditor. The portion of my clothes that had been sandwiched between my body and the bed were soaked with sweat, as were the sheets and pillow. My teeth started to chatter. The pillow felt like a block of wood and the mattress was suddenly transformed into a mass of uncomfortable lumps. The sheets seemed gritty, as if I had eaten toast and carelessly contaminated the bed. I was thirsty but the water I drank from the fridge was too cold and tasted foul. My throat hurt as I tried to drink it. A painful spasm gripped my stomach and I headed for the toilet.

Locked in my own private cubicle of misery, I heard the container door open and Marcia call out.

‘I’m in here’ I gasped and for the first time wondered where she had been all night. Selfishly, I was more worried about the car. With the intimacy and frankness that only comes with living in close confinement with someone for years, she wrenched the toilet door open and looked at me with pity. ‘Still bad?’ a reference to the long running but, as I had assumed, now cured Bilharzia, ‘can I put a film on? Sorry I’m so late, I just wanted to see my Mum to bed’ she continued.

Of course, she had gone to her Aunt’s funeral but a film, at this time? Wasn’t she tired? I asked. Apparently not. I resigned myself to the fact that I had lost my last hour of rest and slumped down onto the bed.

‘How did it go?’

‘It was OK but Mummy is a bit upset’

‘I’m sorry about that, really I am’, and I did feel bad. Mai Ines is a very nice, if sometimes abrasive person but I do like her a lot, and felt for her at that moment. Let’s face it, there cannot be many men who can boast a mother-in-law who, when her daughter kicks up, suggests that the son-in-law is at fault becuase he doesn't beat her enough. I do not beat Marcia at all which is probably why her father thinks I am a softie.

Without taking her eyes off the screen she said, ‘you have malaria again’. An unconcerned, matter of fact observation, delivered in the same manner that a wife in UK would note that her husband is coming down with a cold.

Of course, the same, all too familiar symptoms. It’s getting to the end of the rainy season so there are large standing pools of water and the little bastards have had time to breed and are now looking for the blood they need to continue the species. It was malaria alright and I felt dreadful. Even if I took the pills immediately, they would take hours to kick in and, I looked at my watch, I had just six hours until I was expected to be on my feet and ready to go through the finances.

I looked at my watch again. Midnight. Midnight? But when I woke up it was a few minutes to six. Or, it dawned on me even if the sun wasn’t about to, around half past eleven if myopic eyes confuse the position of the hands of the watch. Bollocks.

I was awake now, the anaesthetic effect of sleep lost to me and Marcia’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, deeply disturbing to a fevered and obviously confused mind.

And that is the thing about malaria. Its onset is insipient and easily confused with any number of other ailments or even just fatigue. Yet not treated quickly and effectively it kills more people in Africa than anything else including famine and all the brutal wars that characterise the continent. I at least can afford to have a bottle of Sulphate of Quinine handy, the sugar coated kind not the cheap locally available brands. I do not even have to endure the bitter taste that in a few days will return me to rude health. If, though, I have contracted malaria living as I do in an air-conditioned container, well fed and with access to knock down sprays and repellents, how many of my immediate neighbours living beyond the security fence in abject poverty, surrounded by green, stinking larvae infested lakes have succumbed? These, the very people most at risk and least able to afford to quickly treat the illness like I can?

When the pools left by torrential downpours dry out enough between showers, the neighbourhood kids set up bits of old scrap as goal posts in front of my site and play football, girls mixed in with boys. They run this way and that, charging barefoot after the stuffed and bound ball of plastic shopping bags which does for a football, laughing and shrieking and if a goal is scored, both sides jump up and down with the joy of innocent play and of life. I have seen their games so many times they are all but invisible to me now. Like the rest of the world then, by the end of this year's malaria season I can hardly be expected to notice that one or two of those bright eyed, shining little faces aren’t there anymore.

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