Run After, Run Away
by Mohan Pandey
“Dubai flight landed?” A hurried Joseph Pictet was trying to engage the attention of the clerk at a rickety information desk.
“Yes, 9.30,” he replied without raising his head, remaining focused at the airline manifests spread on his table.
Sulemaniah had a small makeshift airport serving a small place and small populace. It had been used by the military decades in the past. The old structure serving as the terminal building was uninviting and drab. A few delapidated, discolored chairs lay behind a small unmanned check-in counter by the side of a weighing scale. Half a dozen wobbly ceiling fans made rattling sound. Except for a few arriving passengers on their way out, the place was devoid of much human activity. Hopeful eyes of a few cab drivers peeked from the exit gate scouting for any passenger wishing to go to the town.
Joseph dashed to the immigration gate. A senior field executive of Orient Energy, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, he had come to receive his old friend and senior colleague, Brandon Smith, the regional director overseeing the company’s field operations. An experienced geologist, Brandon was on a two-year assignment to speed up the exploration of the hydrocarbon deposits in the newly acquired blocks in the north of Iraq.
Sulemaniah, a small city in the hilly Kurdish autonomous province in northern Iraq, was sandwiched between Iran, Turkey and Syria. Though still a Third-World developing place, its rising oil wealth was propelling it to catch up with the developed economies and, in 1993, it entered into a joint exploration venture with the petroleum giant Orient Energy. However, the people in this isolated region remained contentedly cocooned in their religious and social orthodoxy, comfortable with their customary lifestyle in line with the prevailing myths.
Smith had briefed the senior management on how the declining production in over half a dozen oil wells located in different countries was the sign of the fast depleting reserves. Their priority now was to speed up the prospecting in the new areas in the Middle East where seismic data showed promising deposits.
“Brandon,” Joseph greeted him and Brandon’s wife Celia as they emerged from the immigration exit. In his late fifties, immaculately dressed, Brandon was an imposing personality, six feet plus with broad shoulders, graying hair that was thinning out and a round tanned face of a veteran expatriate.
“Celia,” Joe warmly shook her hands. She was in her mid-fifties, average height, dark brown hair cascading down her shoulders, her dark blue outfit on a shapely figure and a light tote bag hanging from her left shoulder. Her gentle smile gave no sign of travel fatigue.
“How is the Kazakh project coming along?” Joseph asked Brandon on their way to the hotel.
“The well casing has been completed, and production should start in the next quarter,” Brandon replied. After pausing for a moment, he added, “On the Kurdish front, all indicators point to a huge oil-bearing potential; it should not require very deep drilling.”
Joseph smiled and said, “I’m hopeful it would be as large as those North African oil fields where you pushed hard despite the disappointing initial tests, and what a rich find we ultimately made.”
“Yes, that was huge,” Brandon sighed, “but here the commercial viability will depend on the size of the oil-bearing capacity and the sulfur content, a chancy venture right up till the end.”
“I’ve lined up the technical support team. The civil works are nearing completion despite occasional hiccups.” Joseph then turned to Celia, who was listening.
“I believe the traditional life here is colorful and fascinating,” she said in her cool soft voice.
“Your interest as a travel writer,” Brandon smiled.
While taking leave of them after they checked in at the hotel, Joseph said, “A popular downtown restaurant specializes in authentic Middle Eastern cuisine. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience in the evening.”
“Look forward to it.”
“I shall pick you up at seven.”
Later, Joseph took them to his favorite restaurant, Al Ishta’ar. A bachelor, Joseph frequented Al Ishta’ar regularly for its Middle Eastern fare. It was small, no glitzy colorful signs, no pretentious appearance. The high-beamed ceiling, low-hanging, pale, dim lights and the wooden carvings hung on the bare walls gave it the look of a medieval-era eatery with a laid-back ambience. While being seated in the mid-size dining hall, Celia enjoyed a whiff of the spicy grilled mutton kebabs.
“Good food,” Brandon said. Celia nodded.
Brandon asked for the coffee at the end and lighted his cigar, leaning back on his chair to listen to Joseph.
“I have short-listed two good houses, quite big, traditional in style, sprawling lawns, unoccupied for long because not many people left around can afford them. The furniture and the fixtures are in the traditional flashy style but do not deserve the high rentals. However, your hotel’s facilities being what they are, shifting to a house would be more convenient.”
“Yes, I’d prefer to move in early,” Celia said, looking at Brandon.
* * *
Driving them to see the properties the next day, Joseph explained, “Good houses here are huge. People admire anything that is big in size, grand in style and awesome if it flaunts an aura of power and influence or mystique.”
They entered a three-storied large house perched at a high ground just on the outskirts of the city. A stately house, it was nearly half a century old, yet its grandeur endured. The interior was brandished with artistic ornamentation with wood and stone carving. With high-arched front doors, it consisted of the main living area on the first floor that was accessed through a large reception and holding area, and a dozen rooms on the second and third floors in a state of disuse.
Another large, two-storied house was a majestic villa, long abandoned but still picturesque. The front had a high monumental façade, a mini-scale palatial architecture in Arabic style, thick brick walls, lime plaster, multiple layer of terracotta tiles roofing, marble flooring in geometrical pattern in the living area.
“Though a bit secluded and a weather-beaten exterior, the big house we saw first, is more appealing. Its lush green area and grand layout is gorgeous,” Celia said looking to her husband.
“Looks fine,” he said. “I think we can replace the obsolete furniture and the worn-out rugs. The bedrooms on the upper floors are in a state of neglect, but we mightn’t have any use for them.”
“The estate agent Rashid will have it all fixed up as soon as we confirm our choice,” Joseph assured.
Driving Brandon and Celia back to the hotel, Joseph said, “A local friend told me yesterday that this house is a landmark address in the city, though caught up in a web of tales, as happens often with long-abandoned houses in this part of the world.”
“Let’s get into this landmark address then,” Brandon smiled.
They moved out of the hotel the next day. Not satisfied with the sloppy finish inside the house, Celia decided to take charge of its refurbishing and redecorating.
At least five empty rooms on the second and third floors, Celia learned, had not been opened for years since the last owner moved out. Loose electrical fixtures didn’t work. Thick layers of dust had settled in every nook and corner. Peeling wall plaster, rusted frames of steel chairs and discarded furniture were covered by cobwebs that would greet anyone daring to open their doors, and they extended to the fixtures and the ceilings. The firmly shut windows, jammed at the hinges, were not easy to open. The dark green velvety drapes were discolored with clotted dirt. Celia felt a revolting stir inside when she peeped into them.
Brandon advised Celia, “The sheikh who built the house was used to the traditional lifestyle of a tribal chief, but we needn’t go in for restoring the whole place immediately, at least for the present.”
The first few days kept Brandon busy with the inspection of the site and the meetings and Celia, with replacing the furnishings and the decoration work. She was keen to get rid of the old furniture and the discolored dark curtains, which she thought added to the mystical aura of the house.
* * *
It was the second weekend for Brandon and Celia in the new place when Joseph planned a welcome party for them. The guests were local vendors, state officials and expatriates overseeing the operations of foreign businesses.
Brandon was happy to meet them, for he expected to interact frequently with them, but Celia looked subdued in her initial socialization.
After the guests lined up to leave, Brandon took Joseph aside. “There is a tricky situation we’re facing, it’s so bizarre ...” Brandon sat down with Joseph at a far side corner table. Sensing his troubled disposition, Joseph moved closer to him.
“It’s about Celia. Or, I don’t know, the new house.”
Crushing the remaining stub of his cigar in the ashtray, Brandon spoke in a hushed tone, “Everything was fine in the house in the beginning. Celia took great pains to redecorate it, put new rugs, local artifacts and so on.
“After we found plenty of space in the unused hall and rooms on the second and third floors, Celia decided to dump the discarded stuff and the furniture there. She worked hard. The gardener, the housemaid and a worker also helped the whole day. However, the same evening she felt something inexplicably wrong in the house. She took a quick bath to refresh herself and retired to bed early.
“The next morning, her eyes were red, and she couldn’t explain why she felt restless at night. We conjectured that moving the dust-laden furniture and objects might have brought her in contact with an allergen. She admitted that pushing open the doors of the run-down rooms did give her a creepy, unwelcome feeling. She is very sensitive, but I had hoped she would soon get used to the new surroundings.”
Looking at Joseph, listening attentively, Brandon resumed: “It also puzzled us that the gardener and the house maid we had hired on good terms didn’t turn up the next day. The same night, Celia felt disturbed again; her sleep was gone. She switched on the light and held her head in both hands.
“I got up and asked if she was all right. She merely said: ‘A bit uneasy. I can’t explain.’
“Asking her to relax, I hugged her for comfort. Soon I sensed something moving around in the house. There was no one I could see, but I clearly heard steps running up the dark stairs and the moving sound dying out. In the returning silence, I waited for a while, but nothing further happened. It gave an odd feeling, but soon we fell asleep.”
“No telltale sign of any kind?” Joseph asked, trying to digest the story.
“No. In the morning, Celia and I looked into every nook and corner, the closets, the lobby upstairs. I opened the closed rooms but found only the furniture and other stuff that had been stored there.”
“Strange.” Joseph was mildly astonished.
Brandon concluded: “Celia was not her usual self today, but I persuaded her to come with me and meet people. Let me see how this goes tonight. As a rationalist, I find it incomprehensible.”
Finding it odd, Joseph said, “It could be quite disturbing. I feel sorry for Celia, she must have been looking forward to a better experience to write about this place. Ever since I came here, I’ve kept hearing ghostly narratives, but haven’t come face to face with an experience of this sort.”
“I plan to keep a vigil after Celia goes to sleep tonight.” Brandon got up and thanked Joseph for the party. He didn’t want to leave Celia alone after she finished talking to the wives of some expatriates.
Joseph was shocked but determined: such an incident would be disturbing to any one coming to a new place. “I will get to the bottom of it,” he said. “I know the people, wise and old, living here for generations.’ He became increasingly concerned.
* * *
Finishing his morning coffee in office, Joseph left a message for Kassim to meet him. Kassim, a senior supervisor working at the site, was an experienced civil engineer. He was native to the place and often recycled its free-floating gossip.
Joseph also wanted to check with the real estate man on the previous owner or the tenants of the house. “Assalaam walekum, Rashid. Joseph from Orient Energy. Can we meet today, just some house issues?”
Rashid promised to drop in the late afternoon.
In the evening, Joseph called Brandon. “How is Celia doing?”
“I came home early to keep her comfortable with my presence and, meanwhile, clear up the pending briefs lying with me. She is better, attending to the chores in the kitchen, has reminded me that we’re to be on the look-out for a good housemaid and a gardener who can speak English, if possible.”
“Sure, you’ll have them soon. I had a talk with Rashid this afternoon; quite interesting. Will go over it with you tomorrow.”
Joseph didn’t want to disturb him late in the day. Both Rashid and Kassim had taken his whole afternoon with long narration of the tales and gossips surrounding the abandoned properties, including the palace of a former emir and the house leased for Brandon. While leaving his office after finishing the mysterious stories he shared with Joseph, Kassim had repeated his counsel, “There is truth in the story that the spirits of the disappeared woman in emir’s harem and Mustapha’s first wife have a link.”
“Jesus, what a crazy place; can’t believe what these people tend to believe as part of their history, which is shrouded more in invented stories and myths. Why do they relish fabrications more than the real past?” He was uncomfortable realizing that no one seemed to care for the facts, and the past composed of illusory tales had evolved into an integral way to live by.
* * *
In the evening, Celia made tea for herself. After Brandon told her the backlog of paperwork on his hands, she went to sleep. Brandon finished with the papers but remained alert, determined to learn about the strange happening.
Finding Celia no longer shifting in bed and sound asleep, he looked around for other reading material while lying in wait. He rummaged through the booklets and journals on Celia’s desk. She had collected them as resource material to write her travel account of the new place.
Leafing through the brochures on the heritage sites in the city, his attention was drawn to a story. It related to a former tribal ruler’s palace built in early 50’s at a hill top not far from the city. It housed his big harem. At some point in time, tales circulated that a beautiful young woman had disappeared from his harem soon after she was brought in against her wishes as some would believe.
Subsequent stories suggested that the sudden death of the tribal chief after he went insane and behaved frighteningly was linked to the curse of a young man who was seen crying outside the palace that his woman had been killed and buried in the palace yard. More stories surfaced over the years while the palace stood abandoned. As a striking symbol of the medieval architecture, the city government took it over and turned it into a heritage building. However, the past of the building continued to be shrouded in the mystical tales.
Brandon didn’t realize when the deep sleep came over him. Getting up in the morning, he found Celia already up.
“Slept well?” Brandon asked her in the kitchen. She nodded with a smile. No disturbance, Brandon was relieved.
“Last night, I was glancing through the brochures that you’ve collected to consult while writing. The one that attracted my attention carries a folktale. You might use it when you write on this place, will make interesting reading.”
“Sure, but what does it mention?” Celia’s curiosity as a travel writer was evident.
Brandon brought the brochure to show her.
“Yeah... very interesting.” Celia said while Brandon was trying to read her face. The story stuck her. “I’ll search for more; the curse on the emir would be attention-grabbing.”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Mohan Pandey