AIR CONDITIONED RESPITE

He was back at Khaur and seeking a way to employ his always active inclinations as he became re-integrated back into the community he had left just over a year ago. This time he decided to take a greater interest in the surroundings all around the settlement. His great friend Riff was still his companion, a shadow remaining close to him night and day.They went together on walks into the Punjab countryside, meeting occasionally a villager, but they kept away from the villages, as here were concentrated the mangy pie dogs, infested with fleas and ticks and distemper, and sometimes even rabies. He had no wish to be bitten again and so have to repeat the unforgettable doses of anti-rabies serum injected into his stomach.

They came sometimes to a water hole with water buffaloes snorting and wallowing to cool off in the heat of the day. Once they disturbed a flock of predator buzzards cleaning out the entrails of a dead beast; these hopped in a hesitant but menacing manner off the track at B and Riff’s approach, with grisly bits of red innards still clutched in their scimitar-like beaks, and their awful hooded, calculating eyes fixed on B as if to measure his flesh for the next meal. They would lurch an inch or two away at each shout or gesture from him, but abandon their prey, never. Even Riff forbode to bark at these repulsive carrion eaters. Their height was nearly to his waist and he pondered on the potential power of the pack if they ever were of one mind to attack live flesh rather than the recent dead. They were everywhere in the land and protected for being sanitary scavengers. At Balkassar he could bring them above him as dots, high in the sky, circling expectantly, whenever he lay down to sun bathe.

But now it was the hot season and one didn’t stay out in the sun under any circumstances. At night, even with the ceiling punkah rotating above him, the heat was oppressive so he could take his charpoy out on to the drive and sleep under the canopy of stars always in the sky. It was on one such night that a herd of hyenas had crashed through his compound and Riff had followed them with terrible results (BLOG – RAMADAN IN THE PUNJAB).

Now he and Wally Whitmore were in Harry and Edna’s bungalow for breakfast and Riff was with the vet in Rawalpindi recovering from his ordeal with the hyenas. And he had no inclination to carry on with the walks alone. ‘You know Ollie’s been called back to Switzerland?’ said Wally. He didn’t wait for any confirmation, it was less a question than a statement and a preparation for a further announcement. ‘He’s left me the keys of his bungalow and said I could sleep there whilst he’s away.’ It was well known that Ollie de Coulon, the Schulmberger employee, under contract to the Attock Oil Company was the only person at Khaur to have air conditioning in his bungalow.This was news indeed. ‘You can get your charpoy, Billie boy and join me if you want to.’ If he wanted to!

He had slept in air conditioned rooms at some of the more developed staging posts along the routes in those long ago days in Transport Command and knew only too well what a difference this made in the quality of one’s sleep. Some Europeans began to look wan and drawn after a long period of the summer heat they had in the Punjab. It was a dry heat though and, because of that, more tolerable than the enervating, humid heat of places on the coast like Calcutta. But the skin did need some moisture and the scouring dryness of this air could bring out such symptoms as prickly heat, dhobi itch or other plagues that kept one awake tossing restlessly at night under a revolving ceiling punkah that only moved hot air around.

There followed nights of sleep within a cocoon of coolness. Like an airlock within a furnace as the days followed of oppressive heat, B found himself thinking of that room in Ollie’s bungalow during the day and anticipating sloughing off the heavy languor at the end of work when, returning to the borrowed bungalow, the extremities of the body’s nerves would begin to come to life enveloped as they were by an invigorating freshness. A different sort of sleep would creep over the weary frame and in the mornings the waking was brighter and more energised. They were able to enjoy a blissful week of restful sleep before the temporariness asserted itself.

It was on the day they had gone to Rawalpindi for the monthly liquor rations that the Europeans living in this country and certain privileged Pakistanis were permitted to buy after they had signed a form implying that they were alcoholic addicts and needed to drink for their well-being. On the return journey they had come to one of the main rivers where the bridge, weakened by the incessant spates of previous monsoons, had collapsed. A section had slid under causing movement to the piers which had dragged down other sections until the whole bridge was now in broken pieces. This must have happened within the past hours because they had crossed over the same bridge on their way to ‘Pindi that morning. A few villagers were standing about and, because of the low level of the river in this dry season, it was possible to wade across with the water reaching no higher than the arm pits, but it was not possible for a three ton lorry to pass.

Walhi Khan, the driver, drove back to the nearest town, Fatehjang, to telephone the Khaur garage and when he returned the three sat in the shade of the lorry waiting. It was dark when flashing lights on the other side of the river indicated the arrival of a relief lorry. Harry Froggatt, the head of transport, had arrived with a driver and two coolies. The transference of the gunney sacks containing the local Murree beer and the crates of spirits was carried over on the coolies heads and all Wally and B had to do was to get themselves across. When all had been transferred Wahli Khan would have to make the return journey to Khaur of several hundred miles which would take him the best part of the night. B re-called having had to do this on another occasion with another bridge collapse when bringing back the Company wages.

Back at Khaur the cargo was unloaded at B’s bungalow whilst Wally went to his bungalow to change and have a meal. B was sitting down to his late meal when the mosquito net door from the varandah was flung open and an agitated Wally pushed into the room. ‘Here, here, here, come and have a look.’ ‘Can’t it wait? I’m just going to eat.’ ‘Never mind that; come and see for yourself.’ His tone was so urgent; this was no spoof. B followed him outside to the garden access and along to Ollie’s bungalow and stood aside at the open door then grabbed B’s arm as he sought to enter. Inside the room was just a heap of rubble. The bungalow they had left that morning was unrecognisable with heavy wooden beams and adobe sections in place of the normal furnishings.Looking upwards he could see the stars in the sky. The roof had fallen in. ‘My God; we could have been under that!’ They looked at each other. The time of the collapsing roof on the same day as the collapsing bridge might have been an omen of protection for them. If the broken bridge had not delayed their return they might have been asleep in the beds when the whole lot came tumbling down. These adobe sections were of baked mud nearly a foot thick and laid across heavy half dressed wooden beams. There was almost certain death or mutilation for anyone caught under a fall like that. They noticed that every thing was wet. ‘We’d better phone Braund.’ They went to Harry and Edna’s bungalow to phone.

Braund was at first annoyed they had been using a Company bungalow without some sort of authority. This was the bureaucratic side coming out; but he did not persist long with this line as the import of the roofs collapse became apparent. All the bungalows were of a similar design. Adobe walls and flat adobe roofs with parapets around the side and a system of run-offs for the rainwater. This is essential in a monsoon country. It was known that these rainwater outlets had to be kept free from obstructions but the responsibility was uncertain. A blocked roof meant a build up of water and an increased load for the flat roof to bear. This is what happened to Ollie’s bungalow and the roof had not been able to withstand the weight of the water.

But this was no time to argue about responsibilities, it was action that was required and Braund was just the man for that. Hendricks was contacted and given instructions to get a gang together and check every bungalow roof that night. When this had been done they were to clear out the rubble from Ollie’s bungalow and cover the gaping hole with a canvas protection then lock it up for later inspection. Memos and instructions for future action would fly around, but only on the following day. Meanwhile, chastened, Wally and B returned to their respective bungalows, their nights of sweet, deep sleep were to be no more. It had been marvellous while it lasted but better where they were now than under that pile of collapsed roof.

1950