The Lies We Shared - Excerpt

Beneath my crossed legs, the spongy length of the airmat and the down folds of the sleeping bag I have laid over it take up most of the floor space. Neatly stacked to the right of the zipped hemisphere of the opening are my gas camping stove, Leatherman knife, matches and enamel crockery, next to a flaming stub of candle protected in a metal bowl. Along one orange canvas wall, my empty backpack under a layer of shorts and T-shirts hauled from the back of my London cupboard. At the top end of the tent, beside my pillow, Mother’s vanity case, its vinyl sides as cool as the Nairobi night air.

In the arrivals hall of Jomo Kenyatta International there was the antiseptic, neutral feeling of all airports; green filing cabinets, green linoleum floor. Lines of Muslim men in white robes, women in burqas, suited African businessmen, a handful of backpackers. At the wooden counter the official stamped a visa into my passport and I pushed through the opaque-panelled swing doors to the luggage carousel. Waiting for my backpack to be trundled past, I leafed through the Lonely Planet guide I had bought at Heathrow, looking for a campsite. I found this place, Upper Hills, a youth hostel off the Ngong Road with a watered green lawn. By the time the taxi dropped me off it was nearly midnight. The guard scraped the metal rectangle of the security gate back against the gravel and waved me through sleepily.

In the middle of the lawn is an acacia tree. I pared off the end of a candle, wedged it in a fork of the tree and put the tent up by its flickering light. Camping: my rawest and most acute form of happiness, with its simple precisions, its return to a lost rhythm of attention to daylight and season. But now the automatic action of raising the tent seemed strangely unfamiliar because I hadn’t done it for so long, and I had to stop and think for a moment about the arrangement of pegs and poles. The last time was two years ago, making a brief safari to the Matopos with friends before all the trouble. At the end of the weekend I tucked my camping things back into their pockets and slots ready for the next trip, and there they stayed, untouched. Tonight, in a side pocket of my backpack, I found an old receipt for fifteen Zimbabwe dollars – the entry ticket to the game reserve – and stamped in a fading blue oval of ink on the stub Concession Fee for Zimbabwean Citizen. When I eased the tent from its snug sleeve and shook it out, there were crusts of mud on the base of the polyester groundsheet. It had rained on the last night of the safari, and I had meant to hose down the tent when I got back to Harare but I put it off for a few days, and then I forgot.

It still smells musty inside. I unzip the opening to let the tent air, although the gnats will come while the candle burns. Then I take my torch and direct the beam on to the copy of the Ol Lokop webpage that I asked the travel agent to print out for me. I’ll give the ranch a call in the morning. I fold the page up and store it in one of the tent pockets.

Dawn in London this morning was icy and northern. I dragged my backpack from under my bed and added the clothes I needed. The light colourful cottons made a flimsy and unlikely contrast to the dense blackness beyond the window. Once the backpack was ready I snapped the buckles in place and leant it up against the door. The vanity case on the table in the alcove formed a dark silhouette against the blue-black streaks of the strip blinds. I made sure the lock was secure and slipped the key into the zip pocket of my wallet. On the near-empty tube to Heathrow I rested the backpack between my legs, balanced the vanity case on my lap, abstractly stroking its vinyl gloss. 

I’m bone-weary now but still buzzing with that feverish onward momentum one has at the end of a long journey. I open the case up and lay the contents out on my pillow. The photographs, the deed of sale, the district commissioner’s report, Chadwick’s letters and cap badge and lock of hair. I touch the hard metal edge of one of the eagle’s outspread wings, and then the still-soft strands of hair. Chadwick peers back at me from a photograph, with his flat post-war parting, his broad disarming grin. This journey is my homage and farewell to Mother but, although I never knew him, Chadwick is in my thoughts too. Because Mother loved him. ‘I don’t think we ever had a row. We were two peas in a pod.’ And he loved Mother. You will always smell of wild mint and mangoes and clear river water to me. And he died childless, so who knows how he was mourned. It is a bad thing to die without being properly mourned. The dead need to be honoured. Otherwise they don’t settle well into the afterlife and become wandering ghosts, hanging around to bother those who denied them their burial rites. That’s what the Shona believe anyway, and there’s no point in taking chances. It’s why Dickie must take Mother’s ashes back to Glencoe and the lucky bean trees, to a traditional place of burial for our family.

I phoned Dickie from Heathrow this morning, managing to get through to him at the friends he is staying with in Harare before he makes the journey to Glencoe.

‘Dad – I’m going to Kenya. And guess what? Ol Lokop – it’s a guest farm now. They’ve got bandas you can hire. I’m going to try and visit.’

There was a silence on the end of the phone.

‘I’ll tell you about it when I get back.’

He grunted.

‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come with you to Zim, Dad. I did try.’

‘Just look after yourself.’

He hadn’t asked me anything about Ol Lokop. I felt suddenly guilty because perhaps it seemed insensitive to him for me to make a trip to Mother’s childhood home so soon after her death.

‘You don’t mind do you, Dad? About my going there?’

‘Where?’

‘To Ol Lokop. What I was just telling you.’

‘It’s got nothing to do with me.’

In retrospect, the whole tone of that exchange was strange. Of course he was tired from his overnight flight, but I still feel as if I may have been clumsy with his feelings.

Of course he’s vulnerable. Apart from the shock of everything changing yet again, Mother’s death must bring him face to face with the fact that some day he will die too. My throat tightens. I put all the objects back into the vanity case, lock it and blow out the candle.

The odour of must has dissipated now, and the night air at this altitude is cool and fresh. There is a scent of kikuyu grass, a faint dustiness, and a strong, almost narcotic release of perfume from the ghostly trumpets of a moonflower tree that stands against the back wall of the garden. I can hear the distant roar of a lorry in the city streets, the whirring clamour of the crickets, the first subdued rising-falling chirps of a European nightjar, fled from winter like me. In a few hours the sun will rise, fierce, insistent, and the crickets will hush.

I draw a long breath, tasting the relieving air.

I am home.