Imagine a Parisian nun has an affair in the early 1900’s. She is excommunicated and flees the shame to reside in Alexandria, in northern Egypt, where she starts a language school. Whilst there she meets and marries a Greek diplomat and has several children. The husband unfortunately dies young leaving the widow to manage by herself. Her past catches up with her and her language school begins to fail. She moves to Cairo and opens another school. Subsequently the shame follows her and she moves yet again out of Egypt and tries to settle in Nairobi, Kenya. Struggling to survive with a still young family she marries off her fourteen year old daughter, Georgina. These became my grandparents, Georgina (Zina) Corroneo, who by now spoke six languages and Robert, an English newspaper editor.
They had seven children in Kenya over the next few years, three boys and four girls. My father was born more or less in the middle in 1925. He lived in Nairobi until his late teens when he joined the RAF and trained to be a pilot, eventually being posted after WWII to England where he met and married my mother. They both died several years ago but on the prompting of my mother my father wrote when in his late seventies a little of the story of his early life in Colonial Africa. What follows are his own words.
“Arnie – Arnie – Uncle Sam’s just fallen down the lavatory”, I shouted desperately as I burst into the living room where my older brother sat reading. He closed the book very deliberately and peered at me over the thick black rims of his spectacles. “Calm down”, he admonished impatiently. “What the heck are you talking about?” “It’s true”, I said, beside myself with worry. Someone’s left the door open, and in his hurry to hide from the shite-hawks, he fell down the hole”. Most households in Kenya in 1936 only had the use of a deep pit for normal bodily functions. However, if you were on the Governor’s staff or your relatives back in England were upper crust, you had the trappings that denoted your position in the colonial hierarchy. Next to a Rolls Royce or a Daimler, the most sought after status symbol was a flushing water closet.
We were not in that league, so our family of four girls and three boys had to make do with a wooden hut erected over a pit, which had been sunk about thirty yards from our stone-built, tin-roofed bungalow. Inside the hut was a box-like seat with a round hole cut in the top and a sheaf of torn newspapers hanging on a string. This could be rather frustrating because you could never finish an article without searching through all the other pieces. I hated going into that hut, it was dark and humid and all sorts of nasties lurked in the shadows just waiting to bite your bum.
We were living on the outskirts of Nairobi in the suburb of Groganville, so named after some hotshot pioneer from the old days who often walked down the main street firing six-guns in the air. Most of the pioneers were cracked anyway. He claimed to have done Capetown to Cairo on foot, but everyone knew he had a vivid imagination. Our area wasn’t as classy a district as Muthaiga where the exiled gentry lived, but we had the advantage of overlooking wild open country. Every night we heard the coughing grunt of the hunting lion and the rising note of the hyena’s call. Things were looking up however as we were having a new wing built onto our bungalow which would include a proper flush lavatory. The day the builders had contracted to complete the work happened to coincide with my eleventh birthday. Meanwhile, we had to manage with the old outside toilet.
This particular morning my mother had given me the job of testing some eggs in a bucket of water for freshness. The local African farmer insisted that they had been laid that very day. I had just rejected about the tenth one that had floated when I heard a commotion and saw what happened to Uncle Sam. I could see Arnie didn’t believe me when he started doing his cigarette lighting routine. I would normally sit and watch, fascinated, but this was an emergency. “Come on “, I urged, almost in tears. “Please help me get him out”. I couldn’t understand my brother’s attitude. After all, I assumed that everyone loved Uncle Sam in spite of his one big fault. Arnie cuffed the side of my head. “What’s all the hurry?” he said. “There‘s nowhere he can go. Besides, why does it have to be me who fishes him out? He’ll just have to wait. The craven fool got himself in there didn’t he?”
He produced a battered old tin, prised the lid open and took out a thin piece of paper and some wisps of tobacco. Much cursing and fumbling followed until he proudly displayed a ragged apology of a cigarette. Patting all his pockets, he eventually extracted a long-stemmed cigarette holder. He rammed in a little wad of cotton wool to filter out the nicotine and finally inserted the cigarette. He struck a match and lit it, but I knew there was more to come. Producing another small tin, he moistened the end of his forefinger, and with infinite care, extracted a few crystals of menthol, which he placed on the glowing end of his smoke. He waited until they had all melted and run down the paper, then with a grunt of satisfaction he inhaled a huge drag and blew it out in smoke rings, his mouth and pale cheeks gawping like a goldfish.
Funny thing about Arnie, although living in a tropical climate he never tanned. I spent so much time out in the sun that my skin was a permanent chocolate colour, but he walked in the shade whenever he could. His pale skin contrasted so sharply with his jet-black facial hair that he always appeared unshaven. He was into raw carrots and lettuce leaves and herbal tea. You should have seen him at meal times finicking away at the horticulture on his plate like an elderly maiden aunt while we slobbered over our roast beef and gravy. It must have done him some good though because he had more brains than the rest of us put together. He sat his Cambridge School Certificate when only fourteen, two or three years before the norm, and obtained such high grades in every subject that he qualified for university but was too young to be accepted. Not that it mattered because we had no such establishment out there at that time anyway and only wealthy people could afford to send their children back to England for higher education. So Arnie marked time for two years, the Headmaster of his old school using him to teach the juniors when any members of his staff were off sick or on holiday. As soon as he was old enough he joined the Colonial Service.
His peculiar fetishes didn’t bother me all that much until once when he contracted a severe bout of religious mania. He was on leave in England when he fell foul of some hot-gospeller in Hyde Park. He came home thoroughly brain-washed and started lay preaching and attempting to suppress his natural selfishness by immersing himself in good works. He kept on telling me I had to be saved, from what I never discovered. He would twist my arm behind my back and sit me down with a bible thrust under my nose. He would yawn me into a state of somnolence after making me read a couple of pages as he explained the deep inner meaning of it all.
He didn’t thrash me or do anything to mark my body if I resisted. He had a more refined and intelligent way to mete out punishment in that he exploited my penchant for not wearing shoes. Well, there was no need really. I only wore them when I had to, at school or when going into town. Living on the Equator at an altitude of five thousand feet the climate is ideal, the temperature being more or less constant between twenty and thirty degrees all year round. However, there was a snag to walking about with unshod feet, jiggers, flea-like insects that bore holes into your toes and lay their eggs under your skin. The itching becomes so intense that even frenetic scratching brings no relief and you end up with feet are raw and bleeding.
Our African gardener was an expert at extracting jiggers. He used a thorn plucked from our boundary hedge and probed around with the touch of a surgeon, carefully pushing skin and flesh aside and going deeper and deeper until he could winkle out the egg-sac. It was most important that he did not burst this sac because all the baby jiggers thus released would have soon turned my foot into a gangrenous rabbit warren. My mother then poured peroxide into the resulting hole in my toe to sterilise the wound where it bubbled and fizzed and burnt like hell.
When Arnie wanted to make me do something against my will or refuse to do as he wished, my unshod feet played right into his hands. He would propel me back and forth over our front lawn, which was heavily populated by huge hairy-legged spiders. It wasn’t as if you saw them very often, but just knowing they were there waiting in ambush in their holes in the ground was enough to make my guts churn. Naturally, Arnie always waited until our parents had gone out then derived great amusement at the sight of me leaping up and down like a crazed impala.
What particularly gave me the shivers, although I did it myself when older, was the way my brothers dug the spiders out for sport. They poured hot water down the holes to bring them up to the top, then thrust a panga (a type of machete) down at an angle into the ground and through the hole below the spider, thus cutting off his retreat. When they attacked a long stick they poked at him it was a simple matter to lift him out and drop him into a smooth-sided tin. They then invited some friends around after capturing a few to place bets in which huge spider would survive the longest in the ensuing fight to the death.
I took great care not to annoy Arnie as you can imagine, but when it came to the woman of his dreams - I really blew it! He was crazy about this scrawny girl called Aggie, a Sunday school teacher. She suggested one day that there could be some hope for me if I was to attend her classes, even though she had grave doubts, I heard her whisper to Arnie. Still, she looked forward to the challenge of making me a whole, fulfilled person she said. Arnie told me that her dedication to saving souls had overcome her dislike of me. The feeling was mutual. However I tried I just couldn’t take to her. It might have been her prominent front teeth with the green deposits in the spaces between or perhaps her halitosis, which equalled the pungency of her cloying body odour.
The thought of wasting a whole morning listening to Aggie pontificate filled me with dread. I spent half my weekly pocket money at the Saturday afternoon pictures and the other half at the Salisbury Hotel swimming pool all day Sunday. Damned if I was going to miss out on that. When Aggie had gone home I had to tap the deepest reserves of my courage to face up to Arnie. “The hell with her,” I said, trying to suppress the tremor in my voice. “My Sunday mornings are booked up already.” “I know what you’re thinking,” Arnie said, glowering. “It won’t do you any harm to miss our morning swimming session for a few weeks. You can still go after lunch. Besides, I’ve already promised Agatha that you’ll attend her classes. You know what will happen if you refuse,” he threatened, gazing menacingly at our front lawn.
I was hanging around outside the church hall come Sunday morning when someone volunteered the information that everyone was given a religious picture card to prove that they had attended. I smiled to myself, and as Aggie had not yet arrived, I hot-footed down the hill and through a coffee plantation to a dam that the missionaries had constructed in the valley below. I spent the next happy hour paddling around in a dugout canoe that my brother, Lance, had taken weeks to hack out of a log while he was supposed to be at school. I got back to the church hall just as all the children came streaming out. I grabbed the smallest one and forcibly expropriated his religious picture card. He cried and fisted his tearful eyes and screamed so loud that I had to do a jet-propelled getaway.
Arnie was waiting for me when I arrived home. “How did it go then?” he asked eagerly. “Oh, not so bad,” I said, shrugging unenthusiastically. He ignored my tone of voice. “I told you that you’d enjoy it, didn’t I? What did Agatha choose for the lesson this week?” he said, eyes glazed with devotion. Not having prepared myself for this particular question, I had to ram the old thinking box straight into top gear. “Er – oh yeah, she told us a smashing story about this bloke who belonged to a tribe called Samaritans, “ I volunteered hopefully, dredging the depths of my memory for the miniscule amount of information I had gleaned from bible class at school. That is of course, when I wasn’t either staring out of the window or flicking inky blotting paper at the blue-eyed swots on the front row.
“You just don’t pay attention,” Arnie said, black eyebrows screwing down to a menacing vee. “Or was it that you didn’t even go the …? “Aggie gave me this,” I interrupted hastily and showed him the religious card with the picture of a heavily bearded ancient carrying a shepherd’s crook and dressed in an ankle length smock. “Don’t call her Aggie,” he rebuked angrily as he shot one or two suspicious glances at me, but said nothing further.
Of course, the reckoning had to come sooner or later. I had climbed up one of our loquat trees to gorge myself on the clusters of exquisite yellow-gold fruit when I saw Aggie cycling up our driveway. Her skinny Olive Oil legs pumped up and down to reveal glimpses of her voluminous pink hand trappers every time her bony knees reached the top of their stroke. I watched Arnie come out of the house and plant a self-conscious kiss on her cheek and hoped I had not been seen. They stood talking for a minute, Aggie emphasising something with an occasional stamp of an irate foot, then she started walking towards me. I slithered down out of the tree and began to run, stooping low to take advantage of all available cover, but Arnie was too fast.
Twisting my shirt collar so that it nearly throttled me, he frog-marched me up to his beloved. “Agatha tells me she didn’t see you at Sunday school yesterday, “ he said accusingly, his facial expression denoting a singular lack of amusement. “And what makes it ten times worse – “screamed a convulsed Aggie, her voice pitched so high that it reached the maximum range of human hearing, “ – is that you stole a picture of Moses from a defenceless child – your odious little moron!” The blackheads on her aquiline nose stood out like soot on a gargoyle as she stood by and watched Arnie run me through the spider gauntlet. Well, if she’s an example of those who save souls, I thought, I’d rather she left mine alone.
Arnie took his time finishing his cigarette while I kept running anxiously to the lavatory and back to see if Uncle Sam had managed to extricate himself. “Yes, I can see him now,” Arnie said at last, shining his yard long torch down into the depths. “He’s just sitting there, “ he said thoughtfully, lines of concentration furrowing his forehead. He suddenly struck the side of his head with an open palmed hand. “Find me a piece of rope about ten feet long,” he instructed with a flash of inspiration. Not wishing to question his superior wisdom, I soon returned with one. He fashioned a sliding noose at one end and dropped it down the hole. “I’m going to lasso him around the body and then pull him up,” he said, as if only he could have thought of it.
By this time we had a disbelieving audience of the cook, the houseboy, the gardener and three of our sisters in various stages of curiosity or concern. As he manoeuvred the rope, Arnie’s shifts of position were interspersed by occasional gasps of ‘pooh’ until he uttered a sudden whoop of triumph. “I’ve got him,” he yelled, and started to pull the rope in. We all crowded round, hushed and expectant. Uncle Sam appeared, head lolling, eyes glazed, the rope tight round his neck and those beautiful iridescent feathers plastered in muck! One of my sisters sobbed quietly. Arnie’s lips moved as he whispered a short prayer. He released the rope and Uncle Sam fell back to his last refuge.
For several days after that I cried every time I thought about that lovable old Rhode Island Red rooster. I remembered how, when he had trodden all his harem of hens, he would stand proud and erect, gazing around for any he may have missed. I have even seen him stare at our tomcat with a queer look in his eye. Because of our high regard for him we had deliberately ignored his one big fault. Despite his regal posture, a craven coward was he. The expression ‘chickened out’ originated from him. Whenever the marauding shite-hawks rode the thermals in our neighbourhood, he would run for cover and leave his hens and chicks to fend for themselves.
We hadn’t the heart to continue raising chickens for the table after his untimely demise, much to the chagrin of our African domestics, we had always turned a blind eye to the occasional mysterious disappearance of one of our flock, but the desolate void left by Uncle Sam could never be filled again.
They came one day out of a clear blue sky and without the slightest hint of warning. A sombre sense of evil raised the hairs at the base of my neck as birds fell silent and insects ceased chirring. The sun dimmed and bathed everything in a sinister amber glow. A dark cloud appeared on the horizon, swelling as it swept upwards, the hot still atmosphere a menacing contradiction of its speed of advance. The glow rapidly darkened to a deep gloom as the cloud filled the sky. A dry rustling noise quickly became as loud and persistent as the winds that precede the approach of a cumulonimbus, and the beating of a myriad insect wings crescendoed into a rushing storm.
Then the locusts hit me, their shell-hard heads striking like horizontal hailstones driven by a force-ten gale. I ran for shelter, waving my arms in panic. They were all around me, in my clothes, my eyes, my hair. I stumbled, almost suffocating, insect bodies popping and bursting underfoot, green glutinous liquid spurting up my legs. I crashed into the house; wildly brushing off those that still clung to me, and slammed the door shut, shuddering with repugnance. I watched them through the window as they thundered into the panes and fell, stunned, to the ground, their giant grasshopper bodies, as long as a man’s forefinger, squirming and writhing in unison with the spasmodic kicking of their spiny, cantilevered rear legs. Their protruding expressionless eyes staring at me from their dome-shaped heads conjured feverish science fiction images in my brain.
Eventually taking courage from the rest of the family and our African staff who were banging tins and saucepans outside in the garden, I joined them, trying manfully to overcome a sickening revulsion. The locusts fluttered upwards as we advanced, then perversely settled down again behind us as we moved forward. We battled on for half an hour or so, seemingly getting nowhere, until as if some unseen leader had suddenly transmitted an imperious command, they rose in a single great mass and blotted out the sun once more. They thinned out and were gone, as fast as they had come.
That was last year. This year it was the turn of the rat-tails, ugly brown fruit-eating birds about the size of a thrush and with long narrow tails almost three times longer than their bodies. Those greedy feathered vandals just loved our four acre garden, which apart from having a tennis court and lawns and trees and flower beds, contained many different varieties of soft fruits, peaches, plums, nectarines, figs, loquats, papayas, granadillas, guavas, mangoes, mulberries, and many more. They all thrived in that fertile soil and perfect growing climate. The rat-tails gathered in the surroundings trees as each fruit ripened, twittering and sharpening their beaks in an ecstasy of anticipation. They could strip a tree of more than a hundred pounds of guavas between dawn and dusk, and that was just our local population.
Figs were my father’s all time favourite. He sensed just when to pick them and pointedly ignored my mother’s genteel clucks of disapproval the noise he made in the eating. He maintained that much sucking and slurping was necessary to really appreciate the fullest flavour. This had been a particularly good year for figs and he drooled every time he went out to assess their ripeness. A couple more days and they would be ready, and no grubs for once. Strangely, the rat-tails had kept their distance. It was as if they knew something we didn’t because they hadn’t yet indulged in their usual destructive habit of pecking away half of each fruit before moving on to the next.
They struck just after dawn one morning, the sheer weight of the thousands of little brown feathered bodies bending and snapping the branches of the fruit trees. My father ran outside still wearing his pyjamas, his benevolent rotundity shaking with indignation. The birds completely ignored his ranting and raving and continued unconcernedly with their raping and pillaging. He routed the whole family and all the Africans out of bed and had us running up and down banging tins and waving blankets as we had done with the locusts. Whereas they had only stayed half an hour, the rat-tails were not such efficient operators. They lacked the insect discipline and fought each other for the ripest fruits. We just could not scare them off so my father contacted the newspaper where he worked to tell them he would not be in that day.
We listened amazed. We had never known him to have a day off, even going in on Sunday mornings to check the maintenance on the presses. He never really liked having holidays although he took us for two weeks every year to a rented bungalow at Nyali beach on the coast near Mombasa. He pulled an irritable face at the thought of leaving his beloved manager’s office for even a few days. He liked to foster the impression that the East African Standard was as busy a newspaper as those depicted in Hollywood movies with cigar-chomping reporters screaming down telephones to hold the front page. The reality as a small town journal with somnolent staff bored to death with crop prices and the clothes Miss High Society wore yesterday to the Governor’s garden party.
(Last section for today. Difficult to find a point to stop at.)
All our efforts to frighten off the rat-tails proved to be useless. By mid-day they had devoured all the fruit until not one pip remained. Only then did they transfer their attention to our neighbours’ gardens. “There’s only one thing for it”, my father snapped out later that evening. “Damned if I don’t by you an air rifle tomorrow, then perhaps you’ll thin out those pestilential birds for me”. He raised a hand and angrily flattened the few remaining strands of hair that clung precariously to the top of his head.
This statement from him really took my breath. For one thing, I hardly ever heard him swear. Being blessed with a mild and tolerant nature he rarely found it necessary to use expletives. For another, he had always made it a strict rule that not one of his three sons was allowed a firearm before they had reached the age of twelve. I had pleaded many times for an airgun, but he had consistently refused. I gasped out a grateful thanks before he could change his mind and left him on the veranda mourning the loss of his beloved figs, a cigar in one hand and a whisky in the other.
All next day I feared that he had only promised me an airgun out of sheer frustration. I was so keyed up at the prospect of owning one at last that I decided to hang around and wait for him in case he came home from work for a few minutes. I passed the time by endlessly riding round and round the gravel driveway on my bicycle. When my parents had first moved into the house they had to develop the garden from its original wild state, no spade or plough had ever broken the virgin soil. My mother immediately employed an army of locals to lay down a lawn at the front of the house, and beyond that an Italian garden with flagged paths winding between beds of flowers and statuettes and fountains and pergolas with climbing granadilla vines.
Her flair for design was only one of many talents, being also an accomplished pianist and fluent in six languages. The one thing she could never master was reversing the car. She punched holes through our thorn hedges more times than we could count. What made it worse was that she did it in my father’s pride and joy, the ultimate driving machine, an American Willys Knight with leather upholstery each side of its square bodywork. The wooden spokes of the wheels had to be sprayed with water each morning to prevent them from creaking and cracking and drying out. The paintwork dazzled from the front, but from the back it looked as if it had been clawed by a lion.
My mother was too small to see over the back of her seat when she reversed, and for some unknown reason she always spun the steering wheel the opposite way to which she wanted to go. With admirable feminine logic she suddenly decided one day, after a bit of a tiff with my father, that henceforth she would only drive forwards. She sacrificed some of the lawn and had an oval-shaped driveway laid down in front of the house. She only needed to drive forwards from then on and would streak off like a maniac, drifting the rear end of the car out sideways in a scrabble of dust an gravel around this mini racetrack until she joined up with the existing driveway that led out on to the main road. Wherever she parked the car she made sure she could move out forwards, a relatively easy thing to do as there were many more spaces than cars on the road.
I must have ridden a hundred miles round and round by the time my father arrived home from work. He got out of the car and I flushed with delicious anticipation when I saw him brandishing a long cardboard box. “Now this is the latest model”, he said, giving it to me. “The gunsmith tells me that he’s just started importing them, so you’re the first in the country to have one. Look, here’s a thousand pellets to go with it”. He handed it over as if there was no finer airgun in all Africa. I gratefully received this wonderful gift with trembling hands. The front of the box displayed a picture of a Daniel Boone look-a-like waving a Winchester repeater over his head at a fleeing Comanche war party. I opened the flap at one end of the box and breathlessly read the legend – “Made in Japan” – as I withdrew the gun. The highly polished simulated copper barrel shot the rays of the sun back and forth in blinding flashes of brilliance. The stock was roughly hewn from packing case wood, all crinkled and knotty. A reloading lever just forward of the trigger was about the only feature that remotely resembled a Winchester rifle, and telescopic sight was a hollow tube devoid of magnifying lens.
“Go and try it out, but be careful where you shoot. It’s very powerful”, my father warned. “You’ll get ten cents for each rat-tail you kill”. I couldn’t believe this generosity. Ten whole cents – whoopee!. One cent would have been acceptable, never mind ten. My brain went into overdrive as I calculated that I could bag at least twenty birds a day. What riches!. At that rate I would make fourteen shillings a week. Even Sebastian, the lawyer’s son with the posh accent who was soon to leave for boarding school in England, only got half that in pocket money.
After reading the instructions that came with the airgun very carefully, I looked down the interior of the barrel to check degree of rifling. It was as smooth and polished as the ancient cannons in the old Portuguese fort at Mombasa. I painstakingly filled a long thin tube under the barrel with a hundred of the copper coloured pellets, then set up a target in a tree and paced out twenty five yards. I fired several shots and ran over, fully expecting to find a peppered bulls eye, but not a mark could I see. I searched the surrounding tree bark for embedded pellets, puzzled and ashamed at such poor shooting. A sudden glint at my feet drew my eyes down to where they lay scattered about on the ground.
Thinking the rear sight needed adjustment, I fiddled around and found it immovable, so I squinted along the side of the barrel and fired again. This time I observed the pellet perform a scintillating downward curving trajectory and land at the foot of the tree. Disappointed but not beaten, I eventually found that I could hit the target providing I shot up in the air at a forty five degree angle. I sneaked up on a forlorn rat-tail searching for a hopeful morsel, aimed quickly and pulled the trigger. I distinctly heard the pellet smack into the side of his body. He squawked in a very annoyed manner and fixed me with his most indignant stare.
My father seemed to have lost all interest in the birds when we sat down to dinner that night. Having stripped all the fruit trees bare, they had transferred their custom elsewhere, but I knew I would have to keep their numbers down when the fruit began to ripen again. He would start asking me awkward questions then. However, there was no immediate urgency. Not wishing to appear unappreciative, I decided to postpone telling him that the super airgun was totally useless and endeavour to conceal my disappointment not earning his proffered bounty.
My mother stopped me before I could creep away next morning after breakfast and said she has two jobs for me. The first was to help her with some vegetable planting. She donned a wide-brimmed floppy hat and a pair of delicate chamois gloves. I followed her to where a patch of ground had been prepared near a row of avocado trees. She gave me a handful of seeds and then walked over the soft earth in a straight line while I trailed along behind dropping them one at a time into the holes she has spiked with the French heels of her shoes. The soil was so fertile that they would be showing through in a week. Macharia, our gardener, brought up the rear filling the holes in.
Why he was known as a shamba “boy” I never understood as he was sixty if he was a day. Gnarled and grizzled, he wasn’t sure about his age but vaguely remembered as a youth, his father being manacled and marched away by strange brown-skinned men who dressed in long flowing robes and faced the rising sun when they prayed to their God. He couldn’t relate to time or distance. There were more important things in life, he said. He asked for time off at regular intervals to go home for a couple of days to check that his wives were working hard on his plantation in the tribal lands. He usually added, with a sly grin, that he might make another baby while he was about it.
It would sometimes be three weeks before he returned, but he always managed to convince us that he thought he had only been away a few days. We suspected that he was a consummate liar, but because of his magical knowledge of plants and their husbandry and curative powers, we were just very pleased that he deigned to return.
My mother gave me the second job when we had finished the planting. She told me to go and shoot some pigeons for lunch. That dropped me right in it. My brand new Japanese howitzer was never going to kill a bird that size. “But that airgun Dad bought me wouldn’t hurt a sparrow at five yards”, I protested. “Don’t be so ungrateful” she snapped, her dainty figure trembling as a wrathful expression marred the prettiness of her rounded face. “Just do as you’re told and make sure you bring enough back for all the family”. I could see I was wasting my breath trying to convince her. At two pigeons per person, it would require a miracle to bag enough for the entire family. That was when I hatched my own little private plot, the only trouble being that I would have to wait until she went out before putting it into action.
That's a good point. I suppose my grandmother would have been about thirty six or seven at this point. So maybe someone a little younger? Meryl Streep is a good idea though. I'm told that Zina never appeared in a morning until quite late. Somewhere around 11am or so. This is because she took a long time to do her 'toilet'. She'd then speak with the cook about meals for the day, inspect the garden, maybe have a friend round for coffee etc etc. Normal colonial life.
My brother, Lance, had been the main provider of game for the table before he left home to work on a farm. It was a long time since we had pigeons for lunch and my mouth watered at the prospect. A feast fit for a king when prepared by Blasio, our African cook. He had been trained by a Cordon Bleu chef and my mother had poached him by offering an extra twenty shillings per month. It didn’t matter what he touched, he could transform mundane ingredients into gustatory masterpieces. His Talapia fish in cheese sauce, his chicken kidneys a la Italienne, or his authentic Indonesian banquets had them flocking in from miles around and gave my mother the status of being one of the premier hostesses in Nairobi. What amazed everyone was that Blasio was a Nandi, a tribe who were more noted for their martial proclivities than the gentler arts.
I once asked him why he had come to work in the town and what made him choose to be a cook. “Well, it’s the highest paid job, you see, and I needed the money to buy a wife “, he told me. “You’re not poor, I argued. “I know your father gave you a big piece of land back home. Surely you make enough out of that to afford one?” He shook his head sadly. “Not any more. It’s the bride price, you see. In the old days before you Europeans came, a man could buy a wife for three goats, a milking cow and as much sugarcane as ten women could carry. But now”, he said with a shrug, “the old fathers have picked up your greedy ways. All they think of is becoming rich. Today, even the ugliest and laziest girls cost eight goats, two milking cows and a hundred shillings, which is two months wages for me. You have to haggle for weeks to bring the price down even as low as that”.
I whistled incredulously. “That’s a helluva lot to pay”, I marvelled. Still, from what I’ve seen of your wife she’s beautiful and looks very strong. I should say she’s worth it”. “That’s only my first wife you’ve have seen. I’ve two more like her at home”, he chuckled, busily sucking the frayed end of a green stick he used to clean his teeth. “Why do you keep working then, aren’t three enough?”. “For now – yes”, he agreed, ejecting a stream of spittle at a small green lizard basking on a stone about ten feet distant. “But I have to save money for when they get old and weak with child bearing. I’ll need younger ones to help them when that time comes”.
Besides his cooking skills, Blasio was no mean hand at brewing and renowned for the quality of his home-made liquor, which gave him a nice little side line in sales to his fellow countrymen. Few diamonds are flawless however, and he was no exception. His one weakness lay in the over enthusiastic sampling of his own creations. He was often to be found stupefyingly drunk. This could be a bit embarrassing, especially when we had a dinner party. More than once there was panic stations as the first guests arrived. The dining room table was laid and all the candles lit. The wine was cooling on ice and the house-boy, dressed in a long white gown and with a red fez on his head, was decoratively folding the last napkin. My mother would go to tell Blasio that he could soon start dishing up only to find him flat on the floor in a haze of alcohol. Pints of strong black coffee and some energetic prodding around the kitchen with a long meat fork usually saved the day.
You could always tell when he had just brewed a fresh batch of liquor. Drums booming and feet stamping from the African’s quarters continued until the early hours. It was amazing how they knew so quickly, almost as if they could communicate by telepathy. Within hours of a man being sacked from his job for instance, one of his relations living perhaps a hundred miles away would apply for the vacant position in person despite the fact that they had no access to telephone or radio. It took those few hours for the relative to travel into town on a banana express, but that didn’t explain how he knew of the vacancy in the first place. You always got the stock answer if you asked him.
“My father’s Uncle’s second cousin came and told me”. “Well, how did he know?” A shrug of the shoulders, shuffling feet and a blank stare was the only reply. Mind you, it made you wonder if any job was worth risking a journey on those Banana Expresses, ramshackle old buses with raffia crates full of chicken and bunches of bananas piled high on the roof. They had a grab-rail and a narrow foot platform bolted to the outside bodywork to take the passenger overspill. They came swaying and bumping down the rough mountain tracks with a sheer drop in one side and a wild-eyed driver hunched desperately over the steering wheel. Round the sharper bends the passengers clinging on the outside swung out over the void like the chairs on a merry-go-round, and God help anyone who let go. Occasionally, a crate of chickens might be flung off to soar down the ravine and hit the bottom in a fine flurry of feathers.
Your dad seems like the kind of boy who'd have a backup scheme to bring pigeons to the table. Maybe wait at the bottom of a ravine and wait for a crate of chickens to drop off a banana bus, then pass them off as pigeons to the drunken chef?
However, not all the Africans had to risk their lives by travelling this way. The affluent ones, mostly those who worked in offices, possessed that ultimate in status symbols, a bicycle. A brand new Raleigh or B. S. A. was cloud cuckoo land. The more mirrors and ostrich feathers and flashy chromework, the better. It followed that Blasio had to have the most flamboyant bike around. He didn’t know the first thing about mechanics or maintenance and totally relied on me to service his pride and joy. As long as it looked good, that was all that mattered. That morning when my mother told me to shoot some pigeons I deliberately delayed my departure while I repaired a puncture on Blasio’s bike. He stood watching me as she got ready and put her makeup on before going out.
“You’d better hurry if I’m to cook those pigeons for lunch”. Blasio said meaningly. He liked to think he was in charge of the household when no adults were around, so I took even longer than usual to inflate his tyre. I was greatly relieved that my mother had given me a job instead of taking me into town with her. Why she pretended she needed me to carry her purchases I never knew because the Asian shopkeepers vied with each other to bring them to the car. It wasn’t so much the actual shopping that I disliked; it was the oft repeated ritual beforehand.
She always started off at the New Stanley Hotel for morning coffee with her cronies and somehow timed it to be the last to arrive in order to make the grand entrance and float majestically to her table. The background music provided by piano, violin and cello in the palm-fringed lounge could hardly be heard above the hum of female voices, trilling laughter, knowing smiles and discreetly digging elbows as minor scandals were aired. I had to endure frequent kisses, bosomy embraces and rouged lips desecrating my blushing cheeks.
Whenever a lady came and sat down or left our tables, I had to stand and pull out a chair for her or wait politely until she walked away. This could take anything up to ten minutes because these women always thought of something else to talk about immediately after getting up to go. As a result, I had to simulate a jack-in-the-box as all these acquaintances circulated from group to group. When I once could no longer stifle a gasp of exasperation, my mother fixed me with a telling stare. “When you’ve grown up and can understand, then you’ll thank me for teaching you how to behave like a gentleman”, she observed acidly.
After the dust cloud had settled and my mother was well on her way into town, I put my previously conceived plan into action and quietly entered my brother Lance’s bedroom to borrow his 22 rifle and a pocketful of ammunition. It was still a couple of hours before lunch and I estimated that I had plenty of time to return before it was missed. I didn’t have far to go as there were flocks of fat breasted pigeons almost on our doorstep. Our house was built on a ridge overlooking the Nairobi river. The ground sloping down to it was covered in knee-high yellow grass and low bushes except for a few scattered African plantations with their circular huts of mud and wattle and thatched roofs with a hole in the middle to vent the smoke from their cooking fires.
I made for the trees lining the river, which the pigeons used as launch pads from which to raid the ripening maize growing in the plantations. Intoxicated by the aroma of burnt cordite and gun oil I soon bagged a dozen or more. An old Kikuyu woman clad in a smelly goatskin robe appeared in the doorway of her hut and called me over with shrill ululations of pleasure as I struggled back up the slope with my load. The wooden discs in her pierced and elongated earlobes clacked excitedly as she presented me with a gift of a freshly roasted maize cob. She asked me to come as often as I liked and rid her of these pestilential corn gobblers, as she regarded them.
I replaced the rifle and what was left of the ammunition without anyone seeing me when I got home. I was about to give Blasio the pigeons when I heard my mother return from town. She intercepted me and prodded them with testing fingers, admiring their well-fleshed bodies. Her smile of gratification suddenly disappeared. “We can’t eat these”, she fumed, separating the feathers.
“You’ve ruined all the breast meat. You’re supposed to shoot at their heads. Just look at the size of these bullet holes. I thought you said your new airgun was useless”. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously and I could sense her brain working overtime. She suddenly grasped my ear and frog-marched me to Lance’s bedroom. I should have known better than try to bamboozle her. Reaching into the cupboard, she pulled his rifle out, snicked the bolt back and sniffed at the breech. As she replaced it with deliberate casualness I tried to wriggle away and flee, and nearly wrenched my ear of in the process.
“I’ll give you a choice”, she said, in a voice about forty degrees below zero. “You can wait until your father gets home, and you know what his orders are concerning rifles and guns, or you can take your punishment from me, right now, and nothing more will be said”. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind. It was a case of the devil you know. The mental torture of waiting to find out what punishment my father would mete out was more than I cared to endure. He had never chastised me physically before, but then I had never committed such a serious misdemeanour. I figured he couldn’t allow himself to overlook the disobeying of a direct order and the using of a forbidden lethal weapon to boot. On the other hand, my mother had always used the smooth side of a hairbrush on my posterior and I knew what I would get from her. At least it would be quickly over and done with. “I’ll take your punishment”, I gulped nervously.
She led me to her bedroom, unlocked a drawer at the bottom of her wardrobe and took out a “kiboko”, a flexible black whip about a yard long and half an inch in diameter at the tip. A fancy silver-coloured handle imparted an air of harmless innocence as if it was meant to be a benign trophy to hang on a wall. I remembered this white hunter friend who wore a wide-brimmed bush hat trimmed with zebra skin. He brought the whip as a present for my mother when he came to one of her dinner parties. He told us he made them out of hippo hide and flogged them at astronomical prices to the wealthy English nobility and Americans he took on safari. I had never attached much importance to it before, but when I realised the use to which it was now going to be put, I recoiled with instant alarm.
“Hold both your hands out level”, my mother ordered coldly. She gently laid the kiboko across my upturned palms and I saw her judging length, height and distance like a snooker player preparing for the strike. She raised her arm to a generous elevation and suddenly slashed downwards. That was when I showed the old white feather. I snatched my hands back out of the way a fraction of a second before impact. The kiboko followed the law of pre-set impulsion and continued down to thwack my mother’s thigh with a loud crack. I gasped with admiration. She didn’t flinch or even emit the slightest whimper of pain.
“Hold still”, her voice sizzled through clenched teeth. She roughly pulled my hands forward. “You’ll get double if you do that again”. This time as she prepared herself, I couldn’t help but notice how she stood slightly to one side. She struck once and accurately caught both my outstretched palms simultaneously. O-oo-o-h, the pain of it! Fingers glowing like red-hot coals, I shifted from one leg to the other and tucked my hands under my armpits.
“That’s all – you can go now”, my mother said, her bottom lip quivering as she turned away and replace the kiboko in the drawer. I run out, not wanting her to see the large drops swelling out from under my eyelids, and shinned up a tall jacaranda tree with abundant foliage that grew at the side of our house, a handy refuge for whenever I needed to disappear quickly. I couldn’t be seen from below and could look down on our corrugated iron roof and feel distant and superior. I sat on a small platform I had previously constructed and let thoughts of running away from home ferment in my brain like bubbles of methane riding from a mist enshrouded bog.
My father came home from work and sat down as he always did first thing, in front of his wireless set, a massive, mahogany-coated glowing-eyed monster that crouched on his desk proudly displaying a chromium plated legend that proclaimed its short wave super heterodyne attributes. I looked down through the open window and watched him switch on to listen to the B.B.C. Overseas Service. Speaking was forbidden during the news bulletins. As soon as it was over my mother appeared at his side and started explaining something. To illustrate her point she pulled her skirt up and showed him an angry red weal running down her bare leg. Sounds of muted laughter wafted up to me on my perch.
I heard my father say quite clearly; “I’ll ask Piet Bouker to take him in hand. It’s time he had expert firearms tuition and what that old Afrikaner doesn’t know about guns isn’t worth knowing”. As the mosquitoes commenced their usual twilight dive-bombing act, my mother came to the foot of the jacaranda tree and called me down. Her Chanel number five overpowered my nostrils as she gave me an affectionate hug. “It makes me cry inside when I have to punish you”, she said reproachfully. “But I must do when you deliberately disobey”. I’m sure she cried quite often after that if what she said was true, because although it was the first time I tasted the sting of that fiendish kiboko, it certainly wasn’t the last!