Roy and his wife settled in Kenya in the 1920s. They met and married in India where their respective British parents worked with the Indian civil administration.
When I meet Roy he is eighty seven, I am in my twenties, Argentina has invaded the Falkland Islands, AID’s has just been identified, and the East African low veldt is in drought.
But it still rains in the high veldt where we live on a coffee plantation in Kiambu, on the central escarpment north of Nairobi, Kenya. The untidy green hills strewn with weedy banana plants, and the muddy red dirt roads still conjure the smell of damp fecundity along with the crisp high-altitude air shot through with brilliant equatorial sunlight. Endless people with bicycles and carts, hug the side of the road as we pass in our Mercedes four by four, courtesy of the engineering company for whom my husband works.
His job is to oversee multiple civil works across Kenya and Sudan. Where he goes, I go exploring places that for me are full of fable and fascination. This trip we are heading for Malindi, but will stop on the way to visit a friend of a friend who lives near Voi, on a ranch located west of the Nairobi to Mombasa road.
We seldom travel through Mombasa to get to Malindi, but turn off passed Voi to take the winding dusty roads through the vast lowland thorn scrub of the Tsavo East National Park. Drought claims this region as its own. Dust lies in drifts at the base of leafless thorn scrub. How animals survive here baffles me, but they are still abundant and easily spotted in the bush or crossing deserted dirt tracks. It is the attraction for taking the rutted torturous route.
We are warned to beware of poachers, who will not hesitate to kill. They say they are mostly Somali, hungry and ruthless. It’s as if the Kenyan’s would never stoop to poaching, which I am sure is not the truth although perhaps I malign them. My husband is unconcerned so I stop worrying.
As I gaze out the window I muse why animals choose such dry, difficult terrain when the rain soaked richness of Tsavo West rises into cool green mountains just across the highway. My husband laughs and says I am anthropomorphising, and anyway it’s not usually this dry.
On this trip we turn off to the west a few kilometres before our usual plunge into the dust stricken ruts of Tsava East, and travel a short distance to a farm we have been invited to visit. The sprawling homestead nestles into the side of a hill looking east across the vast thorn scrub beyond the highway. It’s high here and catches the prevailing breeze, making the whole place more bearable than the furnace of the surrounding plain. The house is magically evocative of the great British Raj, its wide pillared verandas overlooking tree shaded gardens.
In the distance a river bed meanders east across the plains, showing small pools of stagnant water that glint in the dusty landscape as it waits breathlessly for rain. Small dark dots move along its banks. Through binoculars one can make out herds of Eland, Cape buffalo and elephant.
As we pull up in the driveway, two men step off the veranda to greet us. Roy is dressed in a kikoy, a kind of Kenyan sarong, striped and tasselled that traditionally men wear, along with white shirt, sleeves rolled up his forearms, collar unbuttoned. Despite his age he is still fit and healthy, stocky and grizzled with fly away hair and a wide girth.
His son is perhaps sixty, tall and bronzed. He removes his hat with a courtly sweep, revealing light brown hair plastered to his head by his hatband. His eyes crinkle into welcoming creases, radiating against years of scorching light as he shakes my husband’s hand. He manages the farm for his Dad and lives a short distance away with his wife in a smaller more modern house.
He swings up into an old Land Rover and heads towards his farming duties as we follow the old man up steps to a broad veranda that leads seamlessly into a sitting room. There isn’t any demarcation between veranda and sitting room except for the layout of furniture. Two comfy old sofas face each other over a coffee table, bookending a fireplace.
It’s hard to believe a fire could ever be warranted in this place, but winter nights are cool. I glance up at the walls of shelving that flanks both sides of the chimney flue to create a dividing wall between the sitting room and the rest of the house. They are chock-a-block with books piled higgledy piggledy, and I long to browse.
Roy rings a small hand bell, and a servant wearing a red fez and flowing white jellabiya, brings tea. I pour as is expected, and we sit back making desultory small talk. He offers cigarettes and we accept. My husband walks over to the veranda and gazes out across the plains. I can read his nostalgia. He would give a world of ambition to own this place. Wild Africa is in his soul.
My cigarette burns down, and cupping my hand under it, I look for an ashtray but there is none. ‘Do you have an ashtray?’ I ask.
‘Just flick the ash on the floor, the breeze will blow it away,’ Roy says.
I look askance, and he explains.
‘My wife and I built this place when we first arrived. The external walls were made of hessian. If you dampen the cloth the breeze cools the house you see. We only built a few internal walls to hold up the roof, and for privacy in certain parts. My wife sewed all the walls herself.’
He smiles at my surprise. To me the words sewing walls doesn’t sound right.
He continues. ‘When she died twenty years ago, the cloth fell into disrepair. I couldn’t bare another person touching them, even for maintenance. Anyway what use are walls, they just trap dust.’
I am amused and smile. I love this man. ‘Where did you come from?’
‘I lived in India as a young man.’ He pauses as if gathering his memory. ‘My parents were there as British expats. It’s where I met my wife. After we married in the late ‘20s, we moved here. In India the writing was already scrawled across the country’s future, the place was changing rapidly. Unrest was increasing, and we were no longer welcome. My parents encouraged us to settle in Kenya so here we journeyed, and we didn’t regret one minute of it, although this country is changing too. Come my dear, if you are interested I will show you around.’
I follow him through a doorway to a dining room, also without outside walls, then into the kitchen. Surprisingly the kitchen has external walls and a window.
‘To keep the hyena’s out,’ he says.
A long electrical lead snakes cross the kitchen floor and exits an open back door. He follows it and I follow him.
He glances back at me. ‘I will just give these chappies a chivvy along. If I leave them too it, they will hang about all afternoon and nothing gets done.’
Outside a group of African men squat on their haunches, some in khaki shorts, some in jellabiyas hoisted up and bunched between their thighs. They stare intently at a television parked on an old oil drum in the middle of a swept dirt courtyard.
I stand on the kitchen steps and watch as he speaks rapid Swahili, too fast for my limited understanding to catch more than a few dozen words. The TV’s volume hurts my ears until one of the men reluctantly rises to switch it off. The men disperse in various directions to their farm chores, leaving the television on the drum, alone and silent.
‘It’s the only place that has reception,’ Roy explains.
I nod as if I understand.
‘They are obsessed, and will watch anything, all day if they can get away with it. I wish I never bought the blasted thing.’ He pauses a moment and then adds, ‘I thought I was buying a wireless.’
I laugh. ‘How…?’ I realise it might be rude to interrogate and I taper off.
He reads my curiosity and says, ‘I don’t go to town myself anymore.’ He looks down ruefully at his kikoy. ‘Haven’t any trousers,’ his hands sweep down across his thighs. ‘Cook runs errands for me when he goes to buy supplies. He’s the culprit who tricked me into buying this monstrosity. I told him to take it back but as you see we still have it.’ He chuckles.
‘When did you last go to town?’
‘A long time ago my dear—too long for me to remember. I rely on lovely people like you to bring me news. My son refuses, says I should get out, but what for? After my wife died I couldn’t see the point anymore. Anyway, I got too fat to wear my trousers so in the end I just didn’t bother. Now… well, one can’t be seen out and about without one’s trousers.’ He smiles at me.
‘But you could get more trousers made, couldn’t you?’
‘Yes I suppose I could, perhaps I will one day.’ He points across the dusty yard, changing the subject. ‘You see that kopje over there.’
I look up at the monolith flanking the back garden. It rises up shading the house from the western sun. Its high and I tilt my head back to gaze at its summit. ‘Ja,’ I say.
‘There used to be a troop of baboons living up there. They were a bloody nuisance. Since the law stopping us shooting any game, even these bastards, they have become even bolder and more belligerent.’
‘Where are they now?’ I ask knowing how scary an aggressive troop can be. The memory is still fresh. A few weeks ago, I was lost in a forested river gully near our house in Kiambu, trapped from retracing my steps by baboons. Their grunts and screams terrified me as I floundered through the bush, their spiteful shifty eyes watching me from the cliff tops as they tracked me for miles. I shudder.
He chuckles again. ‘They ran away.’
‘What did you do?’
‘It was cook’s idea really, ingenious. Bloody ingenious!’
I wait, watching him smile at the memory.
‘First we set bait and let them take it the first few evenings. Then they became bold and the troop’s leader would saunter up nightly to take the offerings. That’s when we set the trap.’
Despite my dislike of the creatures, I’m not sure I want to hear anymore, but I am too polite to say anything. The old man sees my expression.
‘No my dear, we didn’t do anything to harm them, just caught the leader. He wasn’t happy about that, but wasn’t hurt.’
‘What then?’ I shake my head wondering at the point of it all.
‘We dunked him in a barrel of white wash. He didn’t like that much.’
Bemused I ask, ‘why?’
‘Baboon troops don’t like strangers. They stick to their own family groups and won’t tolerate other baboons joining them. The one we caught was a big bastard, the dominant male so he would be pretty scary to a family group who weren’t his own.’
I don’t understand and shake my head.
He looks at me and purses his mouth. Lines radiate out from his bottom lip and down his chin with deep groves bracketing his mouth and nose as he recalls the incident. ‘Once he was freed of his confines, he bolted back to his troop. He was pretty furious, but desperate to get away. We watched him climb the kopje there.’ He points at the sheer rock wall. ‘The rest of the baboons were at the top, also watching him, but they didn’t recognise the strange white creature closing in on their territory. As he got closer they backed away, until they turned and fled, with him running after them. To my knowledge they are still running.’
I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not, but he was too busy laughing to care what I thought.
Roy insists we stay the night. He has a guest cottage across the garden where we can sleep, and he orders the servants to make it up. Over dinner I am besotted by his stories of the old days; on safari to the Rift Valley lakes, hunting in the Northern Frontier District, scandalous behaviour at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. He is a wonderful host and plies us with memories, and gin before dinner, wine at dinner and whisky after dinner in the correct order of the day.
His farm is lion-country-central. Now that he’s no longer allowed to shoot predatory game, he’s contemplating swapping cattle ranching for sisal, and has an experimental crop in the ground. He still maintains a sizable herd of cattle, but says lions take on average two head a week. They are eating his profits, but he is philosophical.
At bed time I don’t notice much about my surroundings as I weave behind my husband towards the guest cottage. I awake a few hours later with a raging thirst. I am in a single bed, my husband in its twin a metre away. We sleep under mosquito nets teepee’d over each bed. In the moonlight I can see that the guest house, like the main house, has no external walls. The moonlight creates dark shapes in the shrubbery beyond the roof line.
My husband snores deep in an alcohol induced slumber, and unperturbed by the cackling hyenas in the distance. An owl whistles as it hunts its prey. I contemplate getting up to go to the bathroom to get a drink of water. Then I hear another sound, one I have heard before, and my blood stops in my veins. It’s a snarling cough, then a rumbling purr rising to a growl followed by another cough.
It’s the terrifying sound only a lion makes. It’s distant, I know because I have heard their call close up before, outside a door-less hut in Dinder National Park on the Sudanese, Eritrean boarder, but that’s another story. This lion is at least half a kilometre away, but still too close for comfort.
I call out to my husband but he doesn’t wake. I lie rigid, my ears straining against the night, my eyes scanning the shadowy garden. Was that a movement? I stare but can’t be sure. I am holding my breath and gasp for air, trying to breathe normally, but the more I try, the more my lungs’ rhythm goes out of whack. I call my husband again but it’s pointless. I know from experience he won’t wake.
I tell myself not to be stupid. After all no self respecting lion will come near the house. Memories of humans with guns are still fresh. Anyway Roy has lived here for years without walls. He hasn’t been eaten by a lion. Suitably scalded for my fancifulness I try to sleep, but every sound jolts me to wide-eyed wakefulness.
Then its dawn, and relieved I go to the bathroom to quench my thirst, and hydrate my hangover. When I walk out from the bathroom, my husband is sitting on the side of his bed.
‘Did you hear the lions last night?’ I ask climbing into my jeans.
‘No.’ Surprised he looks at me. ‘Why didn’t you wake me?’
After breakfast Roy takes my husband to show him the sisal plantation but I stay behind. I scan the bookshelves and a title catches my eye; The Kings African Rifle Regiment. I pull out the book and sit down on the sofa, flicking through it, reading snippets but searching the photo plates for the unfamiliar face of my father whom I haven’t seen since I was a child of about eight. Somehow the Kings African Rifles rings a bell. I am sure my father was an officer in that Regiment during the war. An hour goes by in a flash.
I am so engrossed I don’t hear them return and look up as Roy says, ‘interested in my old Regiment are you?’
I look at him hopefully. ‘I think my father was in the Kings African Rifles in the war.’
‘Is that so?’ He looks interested. ‘What is his name?’
I say his name and he smiles. ‘Good grief yes. Percy.’
‘No, Philip, he hated being called Percy,’ I say, remembering an incident when I was a child. Someone called him Percy and he didn’t answer. I asked him why when it wasn’t his name, and he muttered some profanity under his breath.
Roy looks thoughtful. ‘Yes I remember that. I think it’s why the fellows persisted. Gave us no end of sport.’ He pauses searching his memory. ‘He used to walk a lot. Fanatical walker.’
‘Yes. That sounds like him.’
‘Yes, yes. Young red haired chappie; made captain before he was demobbed. Had a bicycle too I think.’
‘I don’t know about a bicycle,’ I say, disappointed I can’t confirm this piece of information. I remember the colour of the hairs on his arms though. They were curly and gleamed golden in sunlight. They fascinated me. Whenever I could I would touch them, feeling their texture with my finger tips, unraveling their curl to their full length, plucking at them until he protested. But I can’t remember the colour of the hair on his head; grey and balding probably for he was middle aged when I was born.
‘Good chap. I liked him a lot. Very amusing and the girls love him. He was a charmer.’
Now I knew it was my Dad. No one could lay on the charm like he did when confronted by a pretty face; perhaps with the exception of my husband. I guess that’s why I married him—my husband that is.
I felt a warm glow, knowing someone knew my Dad and spoke about him fondly. It made him real to me somehow. Before that he was a distant and indistinct memory.
‘Is there a photo in the book?’ I ask, holding out the volume.
‘No my dear. He only joined up at the outbreak of the war. That volume predates his time.’