I nearly dropped my phone. Mary’s words fizzed like a firework through my mind.
You fathered Jane.
What a complete lot of bollocks. She was on the pill.
‘Charles, you hear me? I don’t care how inconvenient it is, I want you back here by this evening. Or else.’
‘What’s that mean...?’ I listened to a dead phone. The witch had flown, but I was intrigued.
Could it be true? And if so, why threaten to reveal it now?
What did she want?
My hangover eased, but my thoughts weren’t sharp enough to play guessing games. Anyway, I would find out soon enough when I returned with Hannah.
Right into a pile of pent-up poop, no doubt, from all angles.
As if on cue, Hannah opened the door. She was smiling — a good sign that all was well with the baby.
‘We go now, Meester Charles. Mama take care Louise.’
I figured the most obvious place to open up a bank account would be back in Medan — the largest city in Sumatra with over two million inhabitants, plus countless Aid workers passing through. And with an infrastructure unaffected by the tsunami; a no-brainer.
‘We have money?’ I said.
Hannah nodded. She reached into her bag and showed me a padded envelope. ‘Madam give me salary.’
I wasn’t going to count it. In fact, I felt humbled by this young girl who trusted me to take care of her. Enough to give me all she had.
‘What about Mama and Louise,’ I said. ‘They have money?’
Hannah smiled. ‘We have God and many chicken. And you, Meester Charles.’
A God or a chicken? My choice.
I smiled back and picked up my bag. We said our farewells to Mama White-Witch and a bright-faced Louise who looked well on her way to recovery, and walked the short distance to the nearest bus stop. Two people were standing there. A man and a woman both wearing light cotton shirts with batik sarongs — the woman had a scarf tied around her head, and a large bag resided at her feet. Both looked bored.
‘What was wrong with Louise? I said, while we waited with them.
‘She okay,’ said Hannah. ‘Doctor give medicine.’
She was reluctant to talk about it. Or maybe her English failed her. So we stood in silence until a bus rumbled into view. It was going to Medan, arriving mid-afternoon, and it was virtually empty inside.
We climbed aboard and sat down near the back where there was plenty of legroom. I stretched out, closed my eyes, and relaxed.
Until the bus came to a shuddering halt half way up a mountain. While the view of Lake Toba could have been magnificent, it was shrouded by black fumes emanating from somewhere under the bus.
Under my seat.
Bollocks. What next?
While we clambered off in double quick time, I cursed my luck, but when we found ourselves safely outside perched on a small hillock some distance away I sniffed the fresh air and smiled at Hannah. Life wasn’t so bad after all.
It started to rain.
And here we were, stranded miles away from Medan our first port of call. We wouldn’t be back at the House that day, despite Mary’s threat. As the first drops leaked off the trees above us, Hannah unzipped her case, pulled out an umbrella, and opened it.
Suffice to say, it didn’t afford much protection for two adults in a persistent downpour, and I peered at the bus with a forlorn hope that we might be permitted to shelter inside until the storm passed.
The bus driver appeared to have the same view. He was talking on his phone and, between scratching his head and gesticulating at the now diminished smoke screen, becoming more and more animated.
I touched Hannah’s arm, nodded towards the driver who was now taking a closer shuftie at the burnt-out area. ‘Let’s go and ask him what’s happening.’
While I didn’t hold out much prospect of a relief bus rushing to the scene, it gave me something to do — and if it turned out to be a forlorn hope, put plan B in place.
We were not the only ones with the same idea. Already, other passengers gathered around the poor man and were shouting at him while he shook his head.
‘Forget it,’ I said. ‘This is the main road back to Medan. There’s bound to be another bus we can catch.’
The others thought the same according to what Hannah overheard, but fortunately we only numbered ten, plus luggage. Any bus or minivan could accommodate us, and I hadn’t ruled out commandeering a taxi.
A minivan it was.
If you could call a rust-heap a serviceable mode of transport. And then the haggling. Our bus driver resisted giving us our money back — not that it mattered to me, but the other passengers protested at length until he caved in. In the event all of us, soaked through and cramped into the back, hoped we’d make it to Medan in one piece.
If I thought the outward trip a nightmare, the return made me pray that Father Angelo had seen fit to ask God for our safe passage. After half-a dozen near misses with our luggage bumping around, and potential crashes into concrete poles, stray animals, and speeding motorbikes, I gripped Hannah’s hand and closed my eyes.
And opened them again when the van slithered to a stop in a traffic jam near Medan. My thoughts wavered between two extremes. On the one hand, relief at avoiding disaster on route, on the other, the prospect of another lengthy delay peppered with dangerous lane switching.
By the time we disembarked at the minibus station right in the middle of the evening rush hour, I’d had enough. And Hannah felt the same. But more out of relief and compassion towards my fellow beings, I tipped the driver with my last few rupiah and, although the grinning maniac didn’t understand me, wished him well in the next life.
I never wanted to set eyes on him again.
Fifteen minutes later we were standing at reception in the Bel-Air. I’d purposely returned there in the slim hope that I could confront Tanya, and at least have her booted out of the hotel. That’s of course if she plied her trade between Bangkok and Medan on a regular basis.
While I contemplated my revenge, I sensed that Hannah was becoming agitated. She was on her knees, her bag and most contents piled on the floor. She pulled at my leg.
‘Meester Charles. Money lose away.’