Sunday, 15 May 2016

Early Morning Run in...'The Sponge'


It began raining in Freetown on Friday, June 13th.
As Supertramp once sang, "It's Raining Again." Unlucky for some. Unlucky for us. The rain came through the ill-fitting windows and the ill-fitting doors and the ill-fitting floor and the ill-fitting roof, and most unbelievably through the walls. The rain would swirl up through the hills and hammer our residence at all angles.
I rented ‘The Sponge' in April 2012. The house sat majestically at the mouth of a meandering valley in the undulating hills of Hill Station, Freetown, Sierra Leone. We quickly discovered this was a one season house. Dry season.
Lukulay House. The owner was Mr Lukulay. The road was Lukulay Drive. The drive was off Fadika Drive. The most prominent house on this drive was Mr Fadika's. He had a life-size grey paper mache elephant in his garden. His house was called Fadika House. Both my birthday cards took six months to arrive that year.
‘The Sponge' had five bedrooms. I lived upstairs in one, the others were guest rooms for visitors from North America. Downstairs was office space.
Mr Lukulay, much to his ultimate horror, had hired a cowboy project manager. Let's call him ‘The Fox'. The house was 70% complete when we signed up. ‘The Fox' was to finish the build after payment of half of the two years rent in advance. The balance to be settled when the House passed a third party safety audit. Check the electrics and the plumbing? Does the roof leak? The possibility of being fried in the shower? A fire risk with a fuse box the size of an ashtray? The generator?
My Divas visited the site regularly and quickly realised ‘The Fox' was a well-meaning amateur. Mr Lukulay lived in America and worked a long-distance trust with his project manager. ‘The Fox' when in doubt painted everything and everywhere. The place was becoming thicker by the day.
After much to and fro around the findings of the audit, we eventually moved in 3 months late. We had been waiting for the washing machine to arrive. ‘The Fox' informed us the ship bringing it from the UK had sunk in a storm, all cargo lost, including our washing machine. ‘The Fox' would tell us funny stories most days and at every deadline. Then he'd shout at the painter to slap on more paint.
‘The Fox' wore red socks and red braces and was an amiable bandit. I liked him. He cut down on building materials by diverting or 'stealing' bags of cement to other projects, simultaneously billing the absent landlord the correct quantities. No wonder rain was penetrating the walls. This skullduggery can be common in parts of Africa. I know this now. This can lead to structural collapses or buildings being washed away due to short cuts in concrete and steel and regulators being paid off.
After we moved in we had two floods and a fire and a break-in and two snakes in the compound in the first three months. I renamed the house ‘UnLukulay House' which now sat on UnLukulay Drive. ‘The Fox' kept himself engaged applying waterproof paint to the walls. I thanked him for his wisdom and inquired further of the sunken vessel, which somehow had escaped the news. My wardrobe was taking a pounding on a vintage wooden washboard. My ‘unshrinkable' Rohan trousers were slowly moving up my leg.
A geologist came to stay. I could see Charles was nervous about the house. We all were. The evening before Charles arrived a group of bad boys had visited in the middle of the night and made off with a brand new flat screen TV and a DVD player and two sheets and the remote control for the air conditioning unit, and more importantly my ‘Little House on the Prairie' box set.
Fortunately, the bad boys only made access into one bedroom, or it could have been a house clearance. I slept right through, apparently along with my three security guards...
Charles came with his Texan manager to help settle him in. Geologist's always travelling in pairs, like lawyers. His boss enquired of the living arrangements.
"Come on, let's go upstairs," I said. "Charles, this is your room. We had a minor burglary last night, nothing to worry about."
"What happened?"
When providing comfort repeat the name; "Charlie, some thieves cut through the razor wire from next door, dropped 8 feet to the ground. Charlie, they sawed through the metal bars in a downstairs window but couldn't make access."
"I see, what about the security guards?"
I continued, "Don't worry; they're all fine. Charlie, then they cut through the bars on your window with a saw, came into your room and stole your TV and your DVD player and your sheets and the remote control for your air conditioner. They climbed back out and scaled the 8-foot wall into next door carrying their swag Charlie." I said nothing of the box set; didn't want to alarm him.
Charlie appeared in the morning; I didn't know if he'd slept well. I was instantly distracted by his outsized purple footwear. He was wearing a smart shirt and tailored trousers. He looked every inch the professional he was. But what about those purple monstrosities on his feet.
"Charlie, what are those?"
"Er… Crocs."
"Charlie, the only people who should wear crocs, are children under 5 and folk who work in hospitals."
"I've just got to pop upstairs."
Charlie came back down 5 minutes later wearing a pair of solid brown brogues. I felt bad…
"Charlie, only kidding, wear whatever you like in the office. How did you sleep by the way? Please don't worry about security; the old guards have been fired, the new ones doubled."
As my old Drill Sergeant used to say, if in doubt, double the guard.
Charlie Chuckles grinned, laughter didn't come quickly. Might have been nerves.
Four things we never witnessed again. Break-ins. Purple Crocs. The washing machine. And, ‘The Fox', Mr UnLukualy fired him.
A fire? The staff covered in foam and water from errant hoses somehow managed to extinguish the flames. The Freetown Fire Brigade turned up the next day.
'Charlie Drakes' hissing around in the garden? Two of them, a long thin bootlace one and a proper fat black snake. The Divas shrieked in hysteria. Meanwhile, the gardener and security and the cook and the drivers and the house boy would chase around in circles, with whatever came to hand.
Looking back ‘The Sponge' was a particular time, my welcome to Sierra Leone, the memories come flooding back (excuse the pun)...
With special thanks to the cast. Charles, you had a baptism of fire (forgive the pun), and you came through brilliantly like a real professional. And you did laugh, in the end. The Divas, what can I say, don't worry, most people are scared of snakes. 'The Fox' has bounced back and is now the Director of Air Traffic Control at Heathrow. And, last but not least, Mr UnLukulay. We lived in your fine house for 18 months. You've since restored order, and the house is now once again officially Lukulay House on Lukulay Drive. I look forward to seeing you soon...