K2, I shall pass on your compliments when next I see him. I hope not for may a year though. bjd, I think he passed on to me a certain amount of his ability to not take anything too seriously, apart from intelligence, good looks, numerous skills and..... modesty.
My father switched the radio off and rose to greet the Pujols as they entered. He noticed the red-rimmed eyes of their daughter, a petite, olive-skinned girl of seventeen who was wiping the wetness off her cheeks with the back of her hand. “What’s the matter, Danielle?” he asked solicitously. “I’ll tell you what the matter is”, Mr. Pujol growled, heavy blue jowls quivering angrily. “She’s pregnant, and your son, Lance, is the father”. “How do you know that?” my father immediately retorted, his face colouring redly. “Who else can it be?” Mr. Pujol said, scowling. “She hasn’t been seeing anyone else. Besides, he’s already admitted it”. My father rounded on Lance. “Is this true?” he demanded incredulously. “Yes, it is”, Lance said, bristling defiance, not a trace of guilt in his tone. He brushed back a lock of blond hair that had fallen over one of his bright blue eyes. He looked across at Danielle, still wiping away her tears, and his impish features broke into a smile of encouragement. My father’s mouth opened and closed, his eyes glazed over. “Have you had it confirmed? he asked Mr. Pujol. “There’s no need. I know my own daughter. She’s always as regular as clockwork. This is the first time she’s ever missed a period. There’s nothing else for it, they’ll have to get married”.
“Impossible!” my father blurted out with surprising intensity. “But I want to marry her”, Lance interrupted suddenly, jumping to his feet. “I won’t permit it”, my father snapped, a pulse throbbing in his neck. “And you need my consent until you’re eighteen”. “That’ll be too late”, Mr. Pujol said. “Her condition will be obvious for all to see by then”. “I can’t help that”, my father replied. “A special licence can be arranged if we both agree”, Mr. Pujol said. “It should only take a few days”. “I’m sorry, it’s out of the question”.
“Why is it?” Mr. Pujol exclaimed, a bewildered expression on his face. “There’s no obstacle if we both bless this marriage and help them set up home together”. He suddenly hunched forward, eyes narrowed. “There’s something troubling you, isn’t there? Something you won’t tell me. What’s your real objection?” “I don’t have to give reasons”, my father said. “After we’ve been friends all these years”, Mr. Pujol grunted, shaking his head sadly. “I think you owe me an explanation”. “That’s just it. I don’t want to offend you. Let’s leave it at that”. Mr. Pujol looked despairingly around the room at my mother and oldest sister as if expecting them to volunteer some information. “Well, I’ve not finished yet”, he said meaningly when he observed no reaction. He grasped his wife’s arm and propelled her to the front door. “Come, Arlette, we have to talk outside for a minute”.
I had to move quickly before they opened it and discovered me crouching outside in the darkness, listening to and looking at this enthralling confrontation through a small gap I had carefully prised in the door. I scuttled hastily off the veranda and flopped down behind a mass of purple bougainvillea. Mr. And Mrs. Pujol held a council of war not far from where I was hidden. They spoke in undertones and I could only pick out the odd word here and there. I had the impression that Mrs. Pujol was reluctant to agree with some proposal her husband was making. They eventually went back inside and I resumed my observation post.
A quiet footstep scuffed the ground behind me. I spun round. Blasio, our cook, was leaning forward and peering at me through the gloom. “Oh, it’s you”, he said, exhaling with relief. “I could just see a dark shadow. I thought someone was trying to break in”. “It’s all right”, I whispered, irritated by the interruption. “I’m listening to something. Be quiet as you walk back to your hut”. “The Bwana and Memsahib won’t like what you’re doing”, he replied tartly. “I’m afraid I’ll have to go and tell them if you stay there”.
I swore under my breath, furious at the thought of missing anything. However, I knew Blasio would carry out his threat. He watched me creep round the side of the house and waited until I had climbed through the window of the bedroom I shared at that time with Lance, I snuggled down between the sheets but couldn’t sleep until my brother came to bed and I could ask how things had turned out. He certainly wouldn’t hide anything from me because we had shared secrets and been fellow conspirators many times before. We enjoyed an implicit trust and fraternal rapport that the bond of blood only served to strengthen. We always backed each other up when things got rough, which made great demands on my loyalty because Lance and trouble were inseparable, especially concerning his numerous love affairs. He was usually seeing more than one girl at a time.
The clandestine meetings, the avoidance of places where he might encounter one while escorting the other involved me in many a duplicitous plot or stratagem. The one thing that continually surprised everyone was the constancy of his relationship with Danielle Pujol. They seemed to have an unspoken consonance that although it was acceptable for both to play around a little, their love for each other remained steadfast.
I was once instrumental in starting one of these transient affairs through my friendship with the brother of the girl concerned. I don’t really know why I considered Peter Howarth a friend because he bored me stiff with his continual bragging about all the big game he had shot. He was only twelve years old and the tales he told were straight out of fantasy land. On one occasion when we were walking through a heavily wooded area, a cheetah padded lazily across a clearing about fifty yards in front. I never heard Peter’s feet touch the ground. When I caught up with him half an hour later he was washing his underpants in a stream.
My father had six siblings. Arnold, Esmeralda, Lance, Diana, Cecily and Raquel. I only met two of them many years later in the UK, Cecily and Raquel. You will read later more about Lance. Most of the siblings ended up living in South Africa, marrying and having children. It wasn't until the two surviving siblings who(m?) I met had been widowed that they moved to the UK. My father was already there anyway. There is now only one living, Raquel, the youngest born in 1930, who last Christmas moved to be with her children in Australia.
Just to add, my grandfather's ancestors we've traced back to 1770, all farmers or Baptist Ministers in England so quite standard, and my grandmother's back to the French Revolution, apparently an aristocratic family called Des Bussieres, the husband slaughtered by the peasants, the wife escaping with a young son, and also back via the excommunicated nun who married the son of a Greek Army General (Coroneo) who had married Cecily Miani reputedly a Venetian Countess somewhere around the beginning of the nineteenth century. I am basically a mongrel.
When Phoebe, his attractive sister, discovered that Lance was my brother, she dropped many a hint that she would like to meet him. I didn’t think she had a chance because of his involvement with Danielle, but she continued to pester me so I mentioned her to Lance. “Phoebe who?” Lance asked, his forehead crinkling with the effort of recall. “I don’t think I know her”. “She lives in that white painted wooden bungalow on the sharp bend in the road”. “Ah, I think I know who you mean”, he said, a gleam of recognition in his eye. “It’s the girl whose father scares all her boyfriends away. She can’t have much guts”. “She’s really nice when you get to know her,” I said. I liked her.
She had a sweet, musty, perfumed smell and was warm and kind and motherly, more like a big sister than anything else. When the monsoon brought the heavy rains, her brother Peter and I went out with her on the nearby Athi Plains for the mushrooms, which remained dormant during the dry season. We had no spring, summer, autumn or winter, just wet months and dry months and the sun rose at six in the morning and set at six in the evening give or take half an hour, every day of the year depending on whether the sun was north or south of the equator.
When it rained and the earth smelt fresh and full of growing, the mushrooms sprang up like a vast white carpet that covered the savannah to the horizon. You couldn’t walk without crushing them. You only had a couple of days to pick them because they soon dried up and disappeared in the short periods when the clouds rolled back and allowed the hot sun through. We collected basketfuls and gave nearly all of them away. Phoebe knew about a hundred different ways of cooking mushrooms and they all tasted scrumptious. They had a unique flavour as the ground they grew in was fertilised by herds of zebra and wildebeest and many varieties of antelope.
“So this Phoebe wants to meet me, does she? Lance said, a mischievous twinkle in this eye. “Will she be at home now?” “I suppose so, why?” “Well, let’s go and see what she’s like and if her father is as fierce as they say.” “You mean right now?” I asked, highly impressed by his courage. “She won’t be expecting it so soon. Don’t you want me to arrange a meeting first, away from her father?” “Why wait? She might cool off if I dither about. Besides, I reckon I can run faster than her father. Come on.”
I jumped on the pillion of his motorcycle and we rode straight up to the front of Phoebe’s bungalow. Her father sat on the veranda smoking a pipe. My stomach flipped over for I knew old man Howarth pretty well by now. He had been a Sergeant Major in the Great War and wouldn’t let you forget it. He spoke in a series of staccato barks and his movement were spasmodic and squirrel-like, as if dictated by numbers. His back was so straight that one could imagine he even lay in bed as stiff as a ramrod.
Lance left me holding his motorcycle and sauntered up the veranda steps to face Mr. Howarth. “I’ve come to ask your permission to take Phoebe out for a spin,” he said, without so much as a tremor in his voice. Mr. Howarth’s arm jerked so violently that his pipe disappeared halfway down his throat. His face turned purple and he burst into a fit of coughing. I got ready to run, but Lance stood his ground, albeit a little ashen-faced. The fit subsided and Mr. Howard wiped his eyes, in which I could have sworn there lurked a glimmer of admiration. “All right young feller, “he said mildly. “Don’t keep her out too long.” He pushed the front door open. “Phoebe, there’s someone to see you,” he called.
I couldn’t believe it. This ogre, this man whose voice was supposed to have quelled a thousand men and scared the hell out of the enemy was nothing but a great big pussycat. What I did know however, was that it took about ten seconds for signals from his brain to activate the parts of his body, so I thought that perhaps Lance’s audacity had pole-axed him. Phoebe came out rubbing her face where the suddenly opened door had struck her and Lance escorted her to his motorcycle like a flunkey conducting a noblewoman to her carriage.
Lance’s initiative in taking Phoebe out and giving her the experience of her very first romantic relationship acted as a catalyst for two notable changes in her life. The first was that her father, perhaps realising at last that he had been too strict with her, mellowed in his attitude and recognised her need for self-determination. The second was that her new found freedom so intoxicated her that she surrendered to wild abandonment in her voracious attempts to make up for lost time. She lusted continually for fresh conquests and dumped Lance without a backward glance.
Long before his involvement with Phoebe, on his fifteenth birthday in fact, Lance came to the conclusion that he had spent enough time at school and was sufficiently educated. The world out there looked much more exciting and he was impatient. He asked, quite reasonably as he thought, if he could leave. Talk about pandemonium: no one left school until they were seventeen at the very least, unless of course they were academically brilliant and could go on to University in Britain or South Africa. Lance was the first to have the unheard of insolence to want to buck the system and leave early. The shame of it! It was as inconceivable as actually requesting a dishonourable discharge. The stares of horrified disbelief only made him more determined. When all else failed, he decided to engineer his own expulsion. He knew he couldn’t be sent to another school because there weren’t any.
He began his campaign by having a day off here and there and forging sick notes. He calculated on discovery and resigned himself to being caned. Then he just turned up at school when it suited him. He left home at nine in the morning and lost himself until four o’clock in the afternoon. Mr. Aspley, the Headmaster, tried to be very understanding at first and only thrashed him about twice a week. Lance soon developed thick callouses on his buttocks and hardly felt a thing. Eventually, a desperate Mr. Aspley, his patience finally exhausted, gave him six of the best with his trousers down in front of the whole school at morning assembly in the hope that the humiliation would have some effect.
In Lance’s case - it didn’t. It at last dawned on everyone that he had closed his mind. A council of war was held at which it was agreed, that as he was impervious to punishment, no more could be done with him. The disappointment that my parents felt at his stubborn rejection of any further formal education was tempered by the fact that they now had the opportunity to find him employment upcountry as far away from Danielle Pujol as possible in the hope that the distances involved would cause the relationship to wither and die. Ironically, it was my parents who were instrumental in bringing Lance and Danielle together in the first place.
My parents had advertised in the Seychelles for a nanny for my youngest sister, the women from those islands being highly prized for their gentle and conscientious natures. Mrs. Pujol had come over to take the job in order to alleviate the grinding poverty she and her husband and family endured in that supposed paradise. Their small farm provided subsistence only, and if any other employment was available, the pay was derisory.
A few months after his wife’s arrival in Kenya, Mr. Pujol sold up and managed to scrape together the fares for himself, two daughters and aged parents to follow her. My father found him a job and a small house to rent on the outskirts on Nairobi. He stuck at this for a while, but farming was in his blood, no doubt inherited from generations of French yeomen ancestors. He worked all hours until he had enough to pay a deposit on a farm on the Thika road about ten miles out of town. My father lent him the balance at zero interest on the understanding that he would be paid back in annual instalments after each harvest. Aided by the richness of the soil and his own expertise, Mr. Pujol consistently extracted two harvests per year. He rapidly paid my father off and even bought a new car, a box-body Model A Ford with canvas curtains that rolled down to enclose the open sides when it rained.
Lance and I rode out whenever we could to spend the day helping Mr. Pujol around the farm. Well, that’s what Lance told everyone, but his mind was on other more captivating things such as the Pujol’s youngest daughter, Danielle. And who could blame him? All the young bucks went off their trolleys at the sight of her lissom raven-haired beauty. My motives were different as I loved those days on that farm for their own sake. We left home at dawn two or three times a week during the school holidays in order to be in time for Mrs. Pujol’s scrumptious breakfast. A large slice of papaya fruit shaped like a canoe and sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar for starters. Then a bowl of hot steaming porridge, choice of oats or maize meal, followed by eggs still warm from the hen with fried tomatoes and bacon cut from a flitch hanging from the kitchen rafters. To finish off, a couple of freshly baked scones layered with guava jelly and thick cream. Mrs. Pujol always boiled some of that day’s milking in a two gallon saucepan every afternoon and left it to settle and cool overnight. The delicious inch thick crust of pure cream that floated on the top next morning had the taste of lush, green dew-laden grass that made the mouth water.
Mr. Pujol did all the ploughing himself with a team of oxen. He taught me how to fix my eye on a landmark ahead to cut a straight furrow. I helped him in the curing of the hides of the odd beast he slaughtered and the cutting of straps and the making of harness and whips and all the leather paraphernalia of agriculture. I especially enjoyed the company of Mr. Pujol’s father, an agile ancient with a face like a walnut who had clocked up eighty years and then some. He had served in the French Foreign Legion and enthralled me with accounts of his campaigns in the Colonies.
I sat long hours in the sun watching him whittle lumps of wood into magical sculptures while he talked. He had two addictions, Gorgonzola cheese and tobacco. He had the cheese whenever he could obtain it and the smell of this disgusting mess of blue-veined mottle nearly made me throw up. The Food of the Gods he called it, fixing me with bright eyes that twinkled from under bushy white eyebrows. He maintained it was at its peak when it moved, and to prove it whenever there were small children at the table, he surreptitiously pulled at the table cloth and laughed when their disbelieving eyes popped out as the Gorgonzola crept towards him.
He grew and processed all his own tobacco. I often helped him to gather the leaves and hang them from drying racks in the sun. When he said they were ready we rolled and bound them tightly with loops of twine and finally wrapped them in fleshy layers of soft banana tree bark before storing them away in a dark shed for a few months. He always made a little ceremony out of the first smoke from each new batch, reverently removing the banana bark to reveal a dense black plug of matured tobacco. Cutting a piece off one end, he stuffed it into his pipe with a thick nicotine-stained forefinger. He puffed furiously for a few seconds after lighting it and his ecstatic face with its beatific smile disappeared in clouds of banana-flavoured smoke.
I particularly noticed that he did not have that musty smell I was aware of with many old people I knew. Perhaps it was because he stripped off quite unashamedly every evening and submerged himself in an old tin bath full of water that had been left out to warm in the sun. It never worried him that it also doubled as a drinking trough for the livestock.
The old man’s tales about the Foreign Legion certainly had an effect on Lance because he told me that he had decided on a career in the Army as soon as he was old enough. He joined the Cadet Corps at school and amazed one and all by never missing the Saturday morning parade. It was the only time he was prepared to take orders.
On his sixteenth birthday, my parents and Mr. Aspley, the headmaster, at last agreed with Lance that he could leave school. He applied to enlist in the King’s African Rifles the day after the end of his last term. He was laughed out of the recruiting office and told to come back when he was eighteen. Knowing how much he loved the outdoors, my father suggested he train as a farm manager. Lance shrugged noncommittally, anything except office work would do until he could join the Army, he said.
My father had some business dealings with a wealthy landowner who possessed a large farm near the Ugandan border. He was unmarried and in his late forties and had a reputation for philanthropy and good works. He had built a chapel for his African workforce and a school for their children and preached sermons to the Christian converts every Sunday. Just the man to set a good example and with the advantage of putting many miles between Lance and Danielle, my parents thought.
A deal was negotiated for Lance to receive training in farm management in return for keep and a small wage. Lance accepted reluctantly, but it was either that or an office job. He tried to console himself with the thought that he would save all his money and come back occasionally on the train to see his beloved Danielle. All the family turned out to see him off at the railway station. I had to bite my lip when he affectionately punched my shoulder and sprang up the steps of the carriage, his face fresh and eager and with the sum total of his possessions in a battered brown leather suitcase.
We received a letter from him after a few weeks telling us that he worked from dawn to dusk and had not yet been paid. We heard nothing more for a couple of months and were beginning to get worried when at last another letter came in a creased and grubby envelope. We had to pay postage because it was unstamped. My father had collected it from our post office box on his way home from work and silently handed it to my mother. She read it with a sick look on her face. A brief exchange of muted conversation ensued and they drove off after telling us that Lance wasn’t very happy and they were going to arrange for him to come.
When he eventually arrived next day, I was excluded from the room while my parents grilled him. No one explained anything to me and I had to control my impatience and curiosity until I could get Lance on his own. I went out into the darkness and sat on the veranda steps, as I did every evening after dinner because only there could I play my harmonica without the family throwing things at me. I had just mastered the number one in the Hit Parade, ‘The Isle Of Capri’ sung by Gracie Fields, when Lance came out to me. I stopped playing while he sat a moment watching the miniature winking lanterns of the courting fire-flies gyrating in the gloom.
“Well,” I said impatiently. “Are you going to tell me why you’ve had to come home?” He shook his head slowly from side to side. “I hope I never have another job like that,” he volunteered at last. “My Boss was really good to me at first, kept on asking if I was happy and if there was anything he could do for me and all that stuff. I thought everything was going to be fine even though I was bored stiff at night with nothing to do. I wanted to go to the Country Club about two hours drive away, but he said it wasn’t worth going all that way. He maintained it was a sinful. Then one night after I had gone to my room he came and sidled into my bed and started stroking my things.” “Why would he do that?” “I’ll explain when you’re a little older,” Lance mumbled, reaching up and twisting strands of his hair round an embarrassed forefinger. “You wouldn’t understand right now. Anyway, I kicked him in the bollocks and ran outside. I bedded down on some straw in one of the barns and never slept in the house again. He gave me all the crappy jobs he could think of after that and treated me worse than his labourers.”
“Why didn’t you come home then?” I did try once. It was forty miles to the nearest neighbour so I decided to borrow his estate car. He kept it locked but I managed to force a door. I had almost connected the ignition wires together when he came out and caught me. He removed the rotor arm and threatened that if I tried to leave before he’d had his money’s worth he’d set out after me with a couple of trackers and give me a taste of his bullwhip.”
“I’ve never known you to be scared of anyone, “ I said disappointedly. “You should have seen him, “Lance protested defensively. “He’s six feet two and built like a gorilla. I thought I’d stand a better chance of escaping if I pretended to accept the situation. I had all my meals with the Africans and made friends with a man from the Jaluo tribe. He agreed to smuggle a letter out for me the next time he went into town with the Boss. I’d already made up my mind that if nothing happened after another week I would make a break for it, trackers or not. I hoped I could outrun them, but it never came to the test because Mum and Dad asked the police to investigate after they read the letter my Jaluo friend posted for me.
When the police came to the farm I asked if they were going to arrest my Boss for holding me against my will, but I don’t think they believed me and also said it would be too difficult to prove, just my word against the Boss’s and he was highly regarded in the district. None of the Africans would give evidence for fear of losing their jobs.” Lance paused briefly, his mouth set in a grim line, “and after all the work I did for him, “ he continued bitterly, “the bastard didn’t pay me a single cent.”
That experience of rural exploitation didn’t seem to deter Lance as he let himself be talked into having another go, only this time it was a farm near Nanyuki in the foothills of Mount Kenya which was owned by a childless couple in their early forties. It surprised me when Lance accepted this new job until I discovered that my father was going to buy him a motorcycle to enable him to come home occasionally. I had visions of my brother doing a ton on a gleaming high powered Norton until I saw the motorcycle. It was an old B.S.A. dating from World War I and had a pair of handlebars that curved backwards in a great sweeping arc like the horns of a Sable antelope. The hand operated gear lever rasped over a ratchet fixed to the cylindrical tank and it was only possible to select two gears – slow and a bit faster.
It had a beautiful brass headlamp illuminated by carbide and the oil was circulated around the engine by a manual pump which had to be actuated every half mile or so. Lance worshipped it, his first real possession. He cleaned and polished it every day for the first week. What pleased him most was that he now had the means with which to visit Danielle. Off he went again with his battered old suitcase strapped to the pillion and a huge smile on his face.
He reached Nanyuki that night by some miracle and soon wrote and told us how he enjoyed the farm work and how pleasant the childless couple were. His only moan was about his mean machine, which turned out to be more of a hindrance than an asset. It collapsed with exhaustion after a few miles every time he tried to come home and he had to spend the rest of the day huffing and puffing as he pushed it back to the farm. Consequently, he only managed to come home once when he chanced it on a banana express, but after that harrowing experience he decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
From his letters we got the impression that he was so keen on his new job that he had resigned himself to not visiting Danielle regularly. He had been away about three months before my parents felt they could congratulate themselves. I was with them in town one day when they called at the Post Office and hastily read Lance’s latest missive. My father passed it on to my mother with a gratified smile. “Looks like we’ve done it at last and found him somewhere permanent and far enough away, “he said. “God, I hope so, “she breathed fervently.
It couldn’t have been more than a week after the arrival of this letter when I was woken up early by the sound of raised voices outside.
Mark, are you the one deciding where the chapters should break, or did your dad make it clear where a segment ended?
A word of warning, Mark:
"In 1841 impatient Dickens fans rioted at New York harbor as they waited to learn whether sweet orphan Nell had indeed died in poverty despite her loving grandfather’s best efforts. And in 1842 there was a riot in Paris by readers who didn’t have the fee to read the resolution of a particularly nail-biting cliffhanger in Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris." From plympton.com/about/a-short-history-of-serial-fiction/
I had read the first couple of installments, but then held off reading for many days so I could enjoy more of your father's story all at one time. I really liked doing it that way, but, as you can see, it was difficult when I was forced to stop reading.
I leapt from my bed and flew to the window. The rising sun shot red-gold rays, which fanned out wide and painted the undersides of the few scattered clouds with bold strokes of crimson. I caught a glimpse of Macharia, our gardener, disappearing round the front of the house supporting a limp unrecognisable figure, I charged through the dining room and opened the front door just as they staggered up the veranda steps. It was Lance, barefoot and naked except for a pair of sodden khaki shorts, his eyes red and swollen and his body caked in mud.
“I’ll explain in a minute, “he said with an exhausted grin in answer to my horrified expression. “Better go and tell Mum and Dad that I’ve come home.” I ran down the veranda to the end bedroom, which my parents occupied. They nearly had heart failure when I blurted out the news, bleary-eyed disbelieving astonishment gradually dawning on their sleep composed faces. I hurried back to find Lance wolfing down half a leg of mutton and a cup of steaming hot coffee that Blasio had thoughtfully brought for him.
My mother came rushing in hastily drawing a dressing gown around her shoulders. “Oh, my poor boy – what’s happened to you? – Just look at the state you’re in – why have you come home and at this time in the morning?” she threw about three different kinds of a fit as the questions tumbled out, her voice rising another octave with each one she asked. “Don’t worry, I’m all right, “Lance mumbled, his mouth full. I’m just cold and tired.” He gnawed hungrily at the mutton bone. “I had to leave Nanyuki in rather a hurry. The motorbike broke down after about twenty miles and I’ve had to walk the rest of the way. It’s taken me three days and never stopped raining.” All the family were gathered round by this time as my mother gently coaxed a fuller explanation out of him. He started off slowly until the hot coffee began to take effect and the chattering of his teeth gradually subsided.
About every two weeks, Lance told us, his employer strapped a one-man tent and some provisions on to the back of a horse and rode around his thirty-thousand acre farm on a tour of inspection. He was particularly worried about the elephants, which often breached his fences and allowed the roaming herds of antelope to decimate his crops. He usually managed to frighten them off by firing over their heads. The distances he had to cover necessitated camping out a couple of nights. For some reason that Lance couldn’t explain and didn’t hang around to find out, he returned unexpectedly early from one of these trips and caught Lance thrashing about under the bedclothes with his wife. At this point I sensed that my mother was about to banish my younger sister and I from the room, but she shrugged resignedly and allowed Lance to continue.
While his employer ran back outside to fetch his rifle from its sheath on the horse, Lance just had time to snatch on his shorts and dive through the window. The threats of imminent death being shouted at him galvanised his legs into a blur as he raced for his motorcycle. He bump started it, praying desperately that it would start first time, and careered off into the night at full throttle. “Your luck won’t last forever,” my mother scolded abruptly. Then her expression softened and she reached out a hand and ruffled his hair. “What you need is a hot bath and a good sleep,” she said. “But tell me first, why did you walk all that way. Surely you could have got a lift with someone?” “Well, being half naked,” Lance replied. “I reckoned I’d have to answer some awkward questions, so I avoided the European owned farms and kept to the forest tracks. It’s just as well I did. The Africans who gave me sweet potatoes and roasted maize cobs along the way told me to be careful as my employer and his friends were armed and scouring the district.”
Lance wisely decided to keep well away from the vicinity of Nanyuki and Mount Kenya for a while after retrieving his motorcycle. He remembered where he had hidden it in the forest and borrowed a pickup from Mr. Fernandez, a Portuguese engineer who owned a large service station and repair shop in town and who was a good family friend. When Lance returned the pickup Mr. Fernandez offered him a job as a trainee mechanic and possible branch manager sometime in the future. Lance grasped the opportunity with eager hands knowing that he had an aptitude for all things mechanical and it also meant working in Nairobi near his beloved Danielle once more. My parents were most displeased but grudgingly accepted the situation because Lance appeared so keen and they had formed the opinion that Lance would never hold down a regular job, especially if it was far from home.
Mr. Fernandez, who was in his middle forties, repulsed most women and had consequently never married or even formed a stable relationship, yet was the gentlest and kindest of men. His swarthy skin was covered from head to toe with a fine fuzz of jet black hair and he shambled in a stooping fashion as he walked. My mother was constantly on the lookout for a woman he could marry. It became an obsessive challenge for her. With his wealth it should have been easy and it grieved her sorely that such a fine man was still a bachelor. He would make a wonderful husband for any woman who could tolerate his looks, she said.
It often puzzled me when he visited us to see him and my mother with their heads together looking at photographs and reading letters. Her invariable clucks of disapproval as she examined them somewhat mystified me until I accidentally discovered that Mr. Fernandez, on my mother’s advice, regularly advertised for a wife in overseas news-papers and brought the replies to our house for her to vet. It took a woman to know one, he wisely deduced. My mother eventually reacted enthusiastically to one of these replies and Mr. Fernandez left the following week on what he said would be quite a long trip.
He returned a couple of months later with a tall, willowy, rosy-cheeked woman in her late thirties. She had long flaxen hair arranged in plaits around her head, a vision of Nordic beauty until you looked at her legs which seemed as if they had been attached as an afterthought as they were as thick and as straight as pine tree trunks. Mr. Fernandez had found his pot of gold in Sweden, which seemed strange, two people from widely differing cultures and so starkly opposite in appearance. However, everyone wished them well, and when they walked hand in hand down Delamere Avenue, a main thoroughfare, heads turned to marvel at this contrast in black and white and short and tall, but they didn’t care, only having eyes for each other in their cocoon of mutual love.
Lance settled immediately in to his new job at the service station. He came home every night greased up to the eyeballs and happily left a black ring round the bathtub. He spent as much time as he could with Danielle, and now he could save part of his generous wage he bought himself a powerful motorcycle, a 500cc Ariel capable of ninety miles per hour. He gave me his old B.S.A., which I was forbidden to ride. It was left leaning against an avocado pear tree in the vegetable garden behind our house. When the rest of the family were either out or minding their own business, I furtively pushed it out into the open country nearby and hot-rodded through the bushes and long grass, that is, if I could get it to start. It bucked about like a wild mustang over tree roots and wild pig holes and I eventually mastered it by trial and error without serious damage to life and limb.
I had to be careful not to be seen when I returned home with it and made sure to always use a besom broom to brush away the tyre marks running across the soft earth of the garden. A length of rubber pipe, a bottle, and plenty of suction kept me well supplied with petrol out of the family car after everyone had gone to bed. Even as skilled a mechanic as Mr. Fernandez couldn’t understand why it only did ten miles to the gallon. I found a grassy hillock that I could get up enough speed to take off at the bottom of the slope over a large anthill and fly through the air like a ski jumper. When I landed once after an exceptionally long jump, the tubular frame snapped leaving the front wheel detached from the back. I only just managed to drag both sections back home, sweating and straining for fear of discovery. I propped it up against the avocado pear tree and contrived to make it look all in one piece. It remained like that for months until a swirling dust-devil blew it over and there was much scratching of heads trying to figure out why it had split in half.
Lance learnt very fast under Mr. Fernandez’s expert tuition and soon became a passable technician, also showing a surprisingly keen interest in administration and the management of a vehicle repair and sales business. Then one night over dinner, he told us that Mr. Fernandez had made him an offer which frightened him and tested his self-confidence, but which he felt he had to accept. He was to go with two Asian mechanics and three lorry loads of equipment and establish a garage in the highlands of Tanzania. My parents were quite amazed and very pleased with his rapid progress and promotion, the added bonus for them being the great distance between him and Danielle once again. They couldn’t have engineered it better themselves.
Later that night I asked Lance how far it was to Iringa. “A good two and a half days journey, “he replied. “More like three or four in the wet season.” “What about Danielle. You won’t see much of her now, will you?” “I know, but we’ve talked it over and she agrees that it’s worth earning the extra money to give us a good start for our marriage when that time comes. What’s more, she’ll come to Iringa with me and we’ll have a ready made house to live in.” “I thought you were going to join the Army. Have you changed your mind about that?” Lance stroked his chin reflectively. “W-e-e-ell, it depends on how this job shapes up. Danielle says she won’t mind if I really want the Army as a career providing we can still be together.” He shrugged. “We’ll have to wait and see. The way things are going in Europe at the moment I may have to join the army anyway.”
Mr. Fernandez’s perception paid off and Iringa’s farming community were soon flocking to the branch of the business that Lance had set up. Before he arrived they had to travel all the way to Dar-es-Salaam on the coast for spares and repairs to their machinery. He returned to Nairobi for a couple of days at the beginning of each month to pick up fresh supplies and submit a progress report. It was a Saturday early in September 1939 that he came home on one of these regular visits and all that hell broke loose over Danielle’s unfortunate suspected pregnancy. He was so late that I had already gone to bed when I heard his lorry drive up. I rushed out in my pyjamas to greet him and noticed with great surprise the Pujol’s car following close behind.
Lance swung down from the cab and grasped my shoulder. “There’s going to be trouble,” he hissed in my ear. “I called to see Danielle before coming home. Something’s happened and I’ve had a terrific row with her parents. They’ve come to have it out with Mum and Dad so you’d better go back to bed. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.” Never mind tomorrow, I thought. It was now that I wanted to know. That was when I decided to eavesdrop and ended up getting caught by that old fool Blasio who sent me back to bed with a flea in my ear. I lay awake for the best part of an hour before I saw the reflection of the Pujol’s headlights on the ceiling and heard the scrunch of their tyres on the gravel as they drove away.
Lance came to bed soon after they had gone and found me sitting up, impatient and expectant. “I thought you’d be fast asleep,” he observed dryly as he undressed and crawled beneath his mosquito net. I told him what I knew already and that I couldn’t wait to hear how things had turned out. “You nosey little sod.” He swore, yet without malice. “All right, but I’m not going into details at this time of night.” He hoisted himself up on to one elbow and peered at me through the gloom. “Dad wouldn’t give way,” he continued. “He flatly refused to let me marry Danielle. Mr. Pujol started threatening then. He said he would take me to court to get maintenance money for Danielle and the baby, then the whole town would know I was the father.
“What happened next?” I urged. “Well, Mr. Pujol said it was either that or else he wanted five hundred pounds to send her away to have the baby and then have it adopted. Dad foamed at the mouth a bit but decided to pay out in the end. I’m to have money docked from my wages each month to pay him back.” Lance lapsed into silence but remained propped up on one elbow. When he spoke again his voice was quietly determined. “Danielle and I don’t care what they arrange or what their plans are.” He said. “We’ll be able to marry without their permission before the baby’s born. We’ll see them in hell before we allow it to be adopted. Until then we’ve got to meet in secret because Mr. Pujol said he’d blast me with his shotgun if I set foot on his property. I can’t understand why he has to take it out on me. He knows how much I want to marry Danielle.”
“What about me. Does this mean I’m barred from the farm as well?” “Oh, you’ll be all right,” Lance said. “They won’t mind you going, if only for the old Granddad’s sake. They know how he looks upon you as his own grandson. I shall want you to carry messages between me and Danielle.” I agreed readily enough, my stomach doing an anticipatory flip at the prospect of participating in all this cloak and dagger stuff. “It’s too risky to write letters,” Lance went on. “You’ll have to memorise the messages and tell her when no one can overhear.” “I can do that,” I said. “but what’s all the fuss about? I still don’t know why Mum and Dad should object to your marriage. Is it because you’re too young?” “Not really. They’re using that as an excuse. It’s because Danielle has a touch of what the old folks call the tar brush.” “What does that mean?” “She’s partly coloured. It’s on Mrs. Pujol’s side of the family. Her mother was Asian. Mum and Dad won’t have a daughter-in-law who’s not a pure European. Well, they can all go to hell. We love each other and that’s all that matter.” Lance punched his pillow into shape and shuffled under his bedclothes. Seconds later, I heard heavy snoring.
I slept late next day, Sunday, what with all the excitement of the previous night, and missed breakfast. I searched the kitchen and found the crusty end of a baguette, which I hollowed out and stuffed, full of marmalade and cream. My father came through while I was eating. “Don’t stray far this morning,” he said. “There may be an important announcement on the wireless soon and I want everyone to hear it.” It wasn’t often that he sounded so serious. I made sure I sat with the rest of the family as he tuned in to the BBC Overseas News. We all heard Neville Chamberlain’s lugubrious statement that Britain was now at war with Germany. A heavy silence followed and my stomach screwed up at the sight of my parents’ grim faces. My father shook his head. “I never thought I’d see another in my lifetime,” he said sadly.
I sped round excitedly to all my friends’ houses to see if they had heard the news. I only had a vague idea of what war actually entailed. Two differing images dominated my mind and I was inclined to believe the second because it was a factual experience. The first I had gleaned from my monthly comic with illustrations of handlebar-moustache cavalrymen brandishing gleaming sabres and mounted on charging horses with flaring nostrils that galloped at you from out of the page, or a group of British red-coats with white crossed-over bandoliers planting the Union Jack on a hillock with a frenzied horde of spear-waving “Fuzzy Wuzzies” thirsting for their blood.
The other image came from one of my father’s friends, a Yorkshireman with a wooden leg who had served in the trenches in France. We could never get him to talk about his war service until he became drunk at a party one night and we at last managed to drag out of him how he had lost his leg. A large drop of moisture oozed out of the corner of one eye and traced an erratic course down a grizzled cheek as he re-lived a nightmare.
“We went over the top,” he recalled, staring wide-eyed into the past. “I had nearly reached the enemy trenches when machine-gun fire shattered my leg and I dropped into a depression in the ground. Men were fighting hand to hand and shrieking and dying all around me and I was helpless in my agony. I managed to bind my upper leg to stop the bleeding and pretended to be dead until it got dark. It never stopped raining and I heard Germans talking so close it seemed that if I reached out I would touch them. I started dragging myself through the mud back in the direction of our own trenches. I slithered down into a deep shell hole in the darkness and was too weak to drag myself out.
I can remember having a raging thirst and drinking some of the water that had collected into a little pool at the bottom of the hole.” He paused and shuddered, as if being clutched by ghostly fingers. “When it got light next morning,” he continued. “There were three corpses down there with me. One was my best mate and the water was red with their blood.” I wished afterwards that we hadn’t egged him on to recount this experience because every war film I saw after that brought on a tremor of horror at the image he evoked.
Lance was supposed to return to Iringa on the Tuesday, two days after the outbreak of war. He seemed in no hurry after breakfast and told us he had some business to attend to first and would be back to say goodbye before he left. I hung about, thinking he would only be an hour or two. It was very much later when he eventually came home, that blink of an eye between a tropical sundown and total darkness. We were quite unprepared for the shock when he walked through the door in his new Army uniform. He told us he had spent all of the previous day having medicals and had signed on that morning. Before taking this drastic step he had consulted with Mr. Fernandez who had given him his blessing and assured Lance that his job would still be open after the war.
My mother flew into a rage, accusing the Recruiting Officer of not bothering to ask for Lance’s birth certificate. “First thing tomorrow morning I’m going to tell him you’re under age,” she wailed. My father put his arm around her. “Let it go,” he said coaxingly. “He’ll be eighteen by the time he’s finished training and have to answer to the call-up anyway.”
Lance went up country to Nakuru in the Rift Valley for a crash course in soldiering and passed out as a Sergeant within six weeks. He was put in charge of a mortar platoon of Wakamba tribesmen whose custom of filing their front teeth to points gave them a truly fearsome appearance. He came home on a weekend pass and told us he had been posted up North to patrol the border with Abyssinia (Ethiopia). I hurried to the Pujol’s farm and secretly arranged a last meeting for him with Danielle. I went with Lance to act as lookout when they kept their tryst under a tall yellow fever tree well out of sight of the farmhouse.
I sat on a rock about fifty yards from them and gazed out across the rolling savannah to the blue distant bulk of Mount Kenya. Only the lower slopes were visible, rising steeply into a mass of dark cloud and sweeping curtains of sinister rain that obliterated the craggy snow covered heights. A low mutter of thunder vibrated around the horizon and a sudden blinding zag of lightning flared and rent a deep gash through the bellying blackness of the towering cumulonimbus. Lance and Danielle hugged so close that a cigarette paper could not have been inserted between them. A gusting flurry of wind blew her long dark hair upwards and over until it covered both their heads and they kissed as if under a protective canopy. They clung long moments together, savouring this last physical contact for they knew not how long. Far off streamers of rain spiralled down until it seemed that even the mountain wept for them.
Danielle had a severe haemorrhage shortly after Lance left for the Northern Frontier. Whether because of a miscarriage or just the bursting of a dam through missing a period, I was never told. It left her pale and drained and she took to her bed for several days and subsequently resumed her normal periodic cycle in the following months. I wondered if my father got his five hundred pounds back but never dared to ask.
Lance and his sabre-toothed Wakambas terrified the Italians in the Abyssinian campaign. They switched from mortars to artillery and back again as the occasion demanded, and sometimes had to resort to rifle and bayonet in mopping up operations. Their fire was so accurate that they demolished as many retreating tanks and armoured cars as those that attacked. The fearful prisoners that they took pleaded with Lance not to let his tribesmen eat them. His platoon came home with many decorations for bravery.
He told us he had ‘liberated’ a fabulous 1912 Hispano Suiza open tourer automobile from a high ranking Italian officer who had himself looted it from Emperor Haile Selassie’s collection of vintage cars. Lance had thought it unwise to come home with such an obvious item of booty, so he drove it to the Kenyan border, and with the help of his men, scooped out a deep pit in that sandy semi-desert terrain. They rolled the Hispano in and buried it in gallons of oil then covered it with tarpaulins and filled the hole in with sand. He intended to retrieve it after the war and restore it to original condition.
Lance was off again to Madagascar within days, and whether by accident or design, Danielle was on the coast at Mombassa on holiday with her parents when he returned from that campaign. His unit was speedily re-equipped and shipped out to the Far East. He had no time to travel down from Nairobi to see Danielle. His Commanding Officer suggested that she could come down to the docks as the regiment embarked. He sent her a letter and a telegram, which she never received and only discovered; he had been home and gone overseas again when it was too late.
Lance never did get to Burma. His torpedoed troopship went down in minutes and few survived. My numbed brain could not accept that I would never see him again or hear his voice and his laughter or look at the mischievous glint in his bright blue eyes. I rode out to the top of the Ngong Hills where he had often taken me to watch and marvel at the wild herd migrations. I sat till sunset in windy isolation, gazing down across the tree-dotted plains and almost feeling his presence beside me, bitterly resentful of the fate that had taken him from us. The knowledge that thousands of other vibrant young men were losing their lives offered no balm to my sense of utter desolation.
Danielle took an overdose and her condition was critical for a time, but her youth and resilience pulled her through. She eventually married a Fleet Air Arm pilot and left Kenya, never to return. As for the rare and magnificent Hispano Suiza, it still lies buried under the sands of northern Kenya, and the secret of its exact location remains with my brother, Lance, and his faithful Wakambas – at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
The death of my uncle, Lance, is only touched upon above. My father says "His torpedoed troopship went down in minutes and few survived." There is, as you would expect, a lot more to it. A real tragedy. The ship was the Khedive Ismail -
She was travelling in convoy and at a point near the Maldives was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine. Two Destroyers of the convoy attacked the sub. It was forced to the surface but then submerged again and took refuge underneath the survivors of the Khedive Ismail who were floating in the water as the ship had sunk too quickly to release the lifeboats. The Captain of one of the Destroyers, HMS Petard had to make an agonising decision. Did he depth charge the sub through the survivors or leave them be and let the sub escape, probably to sink yet more ships.
He took the hard option and released the charges, which had to be set at a shallow depth, this being where the sub was hiding. Shell fire and torpedoes were also used, eventually sinking the sub.
"The depth charge fuses had to be set to detonate at the most shallow depth, and they killed or wounded many people who had survived the initial sinking. The seventh torpedo finally destroyed I-27, sinking her with all hands. The battle had lasted two and a half hours.
Of 1,511 people aboard Khedive Ismail, only 208 men and 6 women survived the sinking and subsequent battle. 1,220 men and 77 women were killed. The sinking was the third largest loss of life from Allied shipping in World War II and the largest loss of servicewomen in the history of the Commonwealth of Nations."
I understand that soon after the end of the war the Captain of HMS Petard took his own life. One can speculate this incident was a contributing factor.