The heat ratchet up relentlessly as news from Afghanistan turned dire. Our puppet shah was a joke. The bribes to the warlords turned into a hemorrhaging of monies ‘John Company’ could not afford. Yet if the bribes were cut then the British in Kabul would be attacked. No ifs, ands, and buts! The Kyber Pass was precarious. Tribes along the Kyber on both sides charged ‘tolls’ for using it. If you did not pay the ‘toll’ you were murdered in the steep winding turns of the river gorge that formed the infamous pass. And Afghans were a foul people. The warlords fought everyone. War and feuds and thuggery was the entire economy. Period. That did not speak much for British success. And every report said no Russians were anywhere! So much for our only reason for being there!
The monsoon season approached with weeks of thunder in the sky, or else electrical storms as lighting flashed and blazed across the sky. There was a tension in the air as the unsufferable heat turned static and the air crackled with static electricity. Every night, most of the day too unbelievably hot move in, we pour dirt into sandbags and built up the cantonment in preparation for the monsoons. Then suddenly one night the wind howled like a banshee. Then bang! Pouring rains! In only one hour the whole cantonment was almost a river! The sandbags saved my bungalow. Ditto every other building. By now sandbagging was a fine art. And the cantonment had been built on a slight hill!
Dried up streams turned into roaring rivers. Flash floods roared over the landscape. Dirt dikes and a crude canal dug two years ago and augmented this last cold season saved us but several native villages were devastated. That surprised me. I assumed the natives had all sorts of traditional knowledge against monsoon floods and we would be washed away. But they took a fatalistic approach to life. Reincarnation meant lives were expendable. ‘One born’ Brits like myself treated our ‘Once Born’ lives more dearly.
After the initial floods, the monsoon season settled in for two months of humid, relentless rains off and on night and day. We toiled away perpetually damp. I thought the monsoon would cool things down but it was just humid wet and humid hot now. Some people took the perpetual rain badly the way other people became depressed in oppressive fogs or the long darkness of winter. Queenie was chipper. “Oh well. At least this year I don’t have to worry about fires!” But as Sept approached she became oddly depressed. “I fear Sept 13″ she explained . “I always have. I don’t know why. I just always have.”
Sept 13 came damp and humid. I entertained Queenie and Bobby to an Indian Tea. My Indian Sister cooked elaborate tea sandwiches, curries, and Indian sweets as Son # 1 paraded about in a new cut down tunic from my trunk while my Indian Mother dressed up my room of the bungalow with paper chains I spent an evening manufacturing out of used paper and elaborate paper cutouts cut by my Indian Sister that looked like paper lace. My Indian Uncle sewed a new mock vest for my fancy tunic and my Indian Father tied a handsome turban. When I tied turbans they always came out as Jats with the short end flopping on top and the long end trailing behind on the back of my neck. I never used a kulla under the turban. My Indian Brother played his hand cranked organ. My folding table boasted a white linen tablecloth. I borrowed tea silver from my commanding officer’s memsahib. After all of this time she treated ‘Waterloo’ as an ironic joke. “Well Nicholson! At least when you are around one is never bored!”
The tea went very well. I felt oddly as if I was entertaining as small child. Perhaps it was the paper chains that festooned the tea table. But as twilight came Queenie appeared more and more wane. It was so unlike Queenie. Queenie was always so chipper. Bobby was worried. He still acted like a newlywed when they had been married for two years. “But Queenie. Last year was an accident. The fire I mean. It was just an accident….”
I walked back with Bobby and Queenie, everyone welding umbrellas and stayed with Bobby in his tiny study as Queenie, suddenly complaining of a headache, went to bed. I drank gingered and quinine tonic seltzer as Bobby drank a whisky. “What is Queenie worried about Bobby?” I asked finally. Thunder rumbled outside and lighting flashed through the window tatties. Finally he told me.
“Every single year, every Sept 13, without fail, a fire breaks out. Believe it or not.”
“Hard to say that is mere chance” I replied.
“Queenie’s family claimed to have a family ghost. No one knows what or why or how —- only when. Sept 13. It happened when I was courting her. And odd fire happened in the pantry. It was how they all acted. I could tell there was something going on. They fobbed my questions off. Her family. Her father and mother and younger brother. Naturally! A dowery that includes a ghost! But last month Queenie confessed it to me.”
“Ghosts usually haunt locations and poltergeists haunt persons.”
“Oh. Really. I didn’t know….” Bobby said as he drank his whisky.
“If it is a family ghost then it will not come across the black water to India to haunt Queenie and….do you smell ….smoke?” We jumped up and rushed into the other part of the bungalow. The window tatties were one fire. Bobby rushed into the tiny bedroom and swept up Queenie and carried her out as the servants and I attacked the tatties. I grabbed the fireplace tongs and ran outside and yanked the tatties down as the servants grabbed pans and kettles and poured water on them. They were soon smoldering on the outside veranda in a sodden mess.
“Had to be a strike of lighting!” Bobby shouted without much conviction.
Queenie was crying in Bobby’s arms. He had been holding her outside in the rain. They were both soaking wet. But she was more scared of coming back into the bungalow. Bobby finally got her back inside and she wept. “I don’t know why it happens! Every year! Every Sept 13. Something catches fire! Someday someone will catch fire!”