FLUTE OF FANCY
"How Is anyone supposed to sleep with that noise going on?" Jean sat up in bed and pulled the sheet tightly around her. Her husband did not stir. Jean did not know which was more irritating - the noise that kept her awake, or the fact that he could sleep through it!
She had had a very tiring day, clearing ground for rice-planting in the village. She was not used to manual work, and the open countryside had afforded little shelter from the blistering sun. They had returned to the hotel ready for a cool shower and an early night. But for Jean, that was not to be. No sooner had her head hit the pillow than the beating of drums had started again right outside their window.
Jean leaned against the cool wall and thought back over the past few days. They had stepped out of the 'plane onto African soil expecting a blanket of heat to envelop them; but the sky had been grey with rain clouds and a blustery wind had buffeted them as they walked across the tarmac. Having left England in the middle of a heat-wave, Jean was disappointed to think she might have got a better tan in their own back garden!
The air terminal had been reminiscent of a cattle market. Everyone had been herded together in a small building before filtering through a single passport control. Once safely passed that, they had stood and watched helplessly as their cases were thrown down off a truck on to the hard, dusty earth. Eventually, the 'corral' gate had been opened and everyone had stampeded to grab their luggage before the native porters could charge an exorbitant fee for just a few yards' assistance. Once safely on board the coaches, the tourists had left the airport compound behind and had driven off down the sun-baked road.
Jean lay down again, pulling a blanket up over her ears. She knew this would make her even hotter, but the sense of security was worth the sweat. The incessant drumming outside was beyond a joke. Pounding to a crescendo of frenzied rhythms, it invaded the room until every cell in her brain seemed to pulsate with the beat.
Scenes from old 'Tarzan' movies flashed through her mind: Jungle tom-toms transmitting the news from village to village that white men had been seen in the bush; witch doctors chanting their mumbo-jumbo as they danced around waiting cauldrons of boiling water. Jean shuddered and forced her mind back to the present. She reminded herself that as they had driven through the villages on their way to the hotel, people had actually smiled and waved at them. After all, tourism was the main source of income for this small country. The poverty and squalor were all too apparent; men and women squatted on the dirt or on upturned boxes; huts were covered with rusty corrugated iron; flies swarmed on rotting scraps of food; dogs with open sores ran wild.
She had felt panic almost as soon as they had left the airport. "I want to go home!" The silent scream had risen up inside until she thought it would escape from her lips: "I want to turn straight back to the airport and get on that 'plane home. I can't live like this for two weeks. I want to go home!"
Their arrival at the hotel compound had brought some consolation. Once through the gates, they had found themselves in an oasis of trim, green lawns running right down to the ocean. Exotic flower-beds surrounded the swimming pool and restaurant. However, for Jean relief had soon turned to uneasy guilt. Somehow this luxury seemed indecent when compared with conditions outside the hotel walls.
"If only we had shut the windows and bedroom door," Jean muttered as she turned over for the hundredth time. With the humidity of the rainy season, Jean's husband had discovered that the only way to create air circulation through the apartment meant having to leave all the available apertures wide open. While a fine mesh kept mosquitoes at bay, that was of little comfort to Jean. What security was mesh? She crept out of bed and shut the door. Heat or no heat, she was going to get some sleep if it killed her. That thought was no comfort at all.
Suddenly, inexplicably, there was silence. Jean lay very still, wondering what was happening outside in the inky blackness. Why had the drums stopped so abruptly? What was going on out there? As the seconds ticked slowly by she braced herself, her imagination running riot. At any minute she expected to hear footsteps running up the stairs and along the balcony to their apartment. The handful of men posted as security guards would certainly be no match for a band of hyped-up warriors, and Jean feared she could easily be dragged from her bed and carried off into the night without her husband even missing a snore. She strained her ears for any hint of a noise, but the only sounds were of rustling palm leaves and crashing waves.
She flicked on her travel clock light. 2.00 a.m. Frustrated and angry, she finally dared to close her eyes and allow sleep to conquer her imagination.
What seemed a matter of minutes later, she was wide awake again, all her senses alert. She rolled onto her back and froze. Floating on the night air was a strange, ghostly whistling. Jean hardly dared breathe as the eerie wail rose higher, then fell to a low moaning, swirling round and round the room until it was impossible to tell where it was coming from.
Cold sweat trickled down Jean's body like myriads of tiny insects crawling over her flesh. The mournful flute continued to haunt her. She had never felt so petrified in her life. Who was this sorcerer invoking the forces of darkness? And what did they want from her? An icy chill ran down her spine and she found herself mumbling, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil....".
Through a chink in the curtains Jean could see black shadows dancing and whirling; she forced her mind to acknowledge that they were palm branches silhouetted against the moon.
"Why ever did I agree to come to this forsaken place?" she cried inwardly. She knew why. Yes, she had come to do something useful for once in her life before it was too late. But she had also come so that she could say she'd 'been there' - seen it, done it, got the Tee-shirt....
"Serves me right for having such selfish motives," she groaned, self-pity setting in. Tears trickled onto her pillow. Her mind wandered back to her lovely home, her carpeted floors, her well-equipped kitchen. She even had a dishwasher. What had she got to gripe about compared with the women who lived here?
"I'll never moan again!" she promised. Choking back the sobs, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and looked at the clock again. 4.00 a.m. She'd be fit for nothing if she didn't get to sleep; but she might be fit for nothing if she did.
Determined not to be overwhelmed by the flute's lament, she fixed her thoughts on safer issues. How was her son coping on his own? She remembered the mountain of food she had left for him in the 'fridge and freezer. It would have fed a whole family for at least a month out here, rather than satisfying the appetite of one teenager for a week back in the U.K. Beef-burgers and pizza's swam around her mind until consciousness finally drifted into fitful sleep.
"It's 8 o'clock." The aroma of coffee wafted across the room, heralding the illusion of home comforts. Once awake, however, the memory of the night's terror made her shiver, despite the unbearable heat.
"Come on or we'll be late," her husband called from the kitchen.
Jean swallowed her coffee and stretched, then froze. Beyond the curtains the beating of drums began - the same throbbing rhythms Jean had endured for most of the night. Her heart beat faster.
"What's the matter?" her husband asked, mystified by her silence.
"Those blessed drums," she laughed nervously; "They were beating half the night."
"Were they?" he laughed, "I didn't hear a thing." He wandered over to the window and peered out.
"Oh, look," he smiled wickedly; "It's the local witch doctor."
"That's not funny!" Jean struggled to stay calm, not knowing whether to believe him or not.
"It is," he laughed, pointing down to the lawn below. "Come and see for yourself if you don't believe me."
Jean hesitated, then slowly crossed the room and peeped round her husband, gripping his arm tightly to keep herself steady.
Down among the palm trees a young American musician, surrounded by students, was demonstrating African drum rhythms. On the ground by her feet lay her wooden flute.
Jean tiptoed into the bathroom to hide her embarrassment. Under the warmth of the African sky, it was all too clear that she needed to learn not to let her imagination run away with her in future!
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