“Oh God – no …” Marie breathed in horror. “There’s going to be a massacre unless we do something.” She brought her crop hard down on her horse’s buttocks and galloped between the fleeing tribesmen and pursuing villagers. The tribesmen halted abruptly at our appearance and stood their ground, erect and unflinching. I noticed they were all finely muscled young men.
Marie singled out one young buck, naked except for a goatskin waistcloth and monkey skin anklets. “You, Keriok,” she challenged imperiously. “Why do you trespass on our property?” The villagers ranged themselves behind us. “They threatened to kill us if we didn’t allow their animals on to our pasture,” the Headman said plaintively. “Is this true?” Marie asked, turning back to the tribesmen. “Or have my people misunderstood and you and your herd are just passing through?” she said, trying to cool things down.
The one called Keriok stepped forward arrogantly, his light-brown skin glistening in the sunlight. “You’re people are our people,” he said. “We are of the same blood. We will not kill them unless they attack us first. Their brains have turned to mud since they came to work for you. They cannot refuse to let us graze our herds here.” “They have every right,” Marie said sternly. “The Bwana Piet and I have set this place aside for their own cattle.” “And what right have you?” Keriok asked insolently. “This land is not yours. It is open and free to all.”
Marie’s body trembled as she fought to control her anger. “We’ll see what your Chief Kipchui has to say about this,” she said menacingly. “Now, get your herd back to your own pastures.” “The Chief and the Council of Elders have told us to do this thing,” Keriok said, squaring his shoulders defiantly. “We stay here.” He turned on his heel and stalked back to his fellow warriors. I thought Marie was going to explode. She withdrew her rifle from its sheath on the saddle behind her and rattled the bolt as she slid a cartridge up the breech. Keriok froze, as if expecting a bullet in the back. Marie fired high in the air, the deep boom momentarily stunning our ears and making the horses shy in alarm. “If you don’t remove those animals of yours this instant, the next one will be in you, Keriok,” she said dangerously.
He spun round and faced her, a mixture of surprise and apprehension clouding his normally haughty expression. His eyes narrowed as he considered his next move. He could have launched his spear before Marie could get off another shot, and from that close range would surely skewer her through the stomach. His comrades shifted about uneasily and fingered their weapons. A trickle of fear-generated sweat ran down between my shoulder blades and I began to regret my enthusiasm for spending my school holidays with Piet Bouker, an Afrikaner farmer, and his daughter, Marie.
My father had arranged it as part of a present he gave me for my fourteenth birthday. I had opened all the gifts from the rest of the family on that particular morning and felt a great disappointment at not having received anything from him. I stole surreptitious glances across the breakfast table but he studiously avoided my eye. He gave my mother her usual peck on the cheek and got up to go to work. He suddenly turned back as he went through the door and looked at me as if he had just remembered something. “Have a ride into town sometime this morning and come and see me,” he said casually
I timed it to arrive at his office during the coffee break. Not being quite sure what to expect, my pulse bobbled about erratically with hesitant anticipation as I knocked on his door. I entered at his call and my eyes immediately flew to the assortment of rifles and shotguns spread out on his desk. He stood up and waved a hand in their direction. “I thought I’d let you choose your own this time,” he said, giving me the impression he remembered how he had been fooled by the flash appearance of my useless Japanese air rifle. “I had the gunsmith bring over some of his stock and he wants them back as soon as possible. Pick out one of each. You should be old enough by now to learn to use them properly.”
I basked in a warm glow of satisfaction at this evidence of his trust in me without realising that this form of flattery was a device used by adults to instil a sense of responsibility in their young. I picked each weapon up in turn and balanced it lovingly in my hands, instinctively feeling which ones were right for me. I chose a five-shot bolt action 22 Mauser and an exquisitely hand-tooled Italian Beretta shotgun. “Trust you to want the most expensive,” my father grunted when I had made my choice. “Now, are you sure you’re happy with those two?” I nodded quickly, hoping he wouldn’t try to persuade me to change my mind. “I’ll bring them with me when I come home from work,” he said. “Don’t think you can use them yet. You need training first, so listen well to what I have to say.”
He sat down in his large leather-bound chair and about a foot of ash detached itself from the end of his cigar and splattered down the front of this waistcoat. He brushed it off with the back of his hand and made a long grey unsightly streak. He suddenly leaned forward, looking intently at me through a plume of smoke that screwed up his eyes. “It’s all been arranged,” he said. “You’ve still got three weeks of your school holidays left so you can spend them upcountry with Mr. Bouker and his daughter on their farm at Eldoret. He’s agreed to instruct you in the safe and proper use of firearms. You can leave tomorrow and take the guns with you. Mr. Bouker will give you some ammunition as and when he thinks fit. Is that clearly understood?” I swiftly signified that I did. He could not have made a better arrangement as far as I was concerned, especially knowing that I hero-worshipped old Piet Bouker whose skill with a rifle was legendary. The prospect of spending the next three weeks with him had me walking on air. I gave my father a quick hug of appreciation.
I caught the train next afternoon and settled back as the two powerful Garret locomotives huffed and puffed up the steep gradients, gaining altitude through the lush green countryside to Limuru where log fires burn at night to keep out the chill mountain air. A dining-car attendant in a flowing white gown down to the ankles and red waistcoat braided with gold came walking down the corridor playing tunes on a hand-held xylophone to announce that the evening meal was being served. We reached the rim of the Rift Valley as we were eating, blazing orange in the setting sun, and eased down the escarpment with much squealing and protesting of brakes into the darkness of the valley floor two thousand feet below.
Being too young to sit in the bar after dinner, I asked the attendant to make up my bunk and retired early. I found it impossible to sleep for long. Apart from the swaying of the coach and the sheer excitement of travel, the occasional stop at rural halts jolted me into instant wakefulness. The still, cold air seemed to magnify the voices of the porters and the rumble of their iron-wheeled trolleys trundling along the wooden platform.
I was fully dressed and staring out of the windows at dawn. We were at the highest point of the Kenya And Uganda Railway, well over eight thousand feet above sea level. Clanking along through forest and meadow, by thatched farm houses set in English gardens with dew-laden lawns surrounded by delphiniums, roses, daffodils and narcissi. The delicious smell of coffee, fried eggs and bacon wafting down the corridors from the restaurant car had me sitting at my place at the table, knife and fork at the ready, well before the xylophone medley. The train gathered speed, coasting downhill until we gently floated into Eldoret, a small agricultural township with a single dusty street lined with tin-roofed shops and elegant blue-gum trees.
When Piet Bouker smiled, his pale blue eyes sparkled. That is, if he liked you. If he didn’t they probed you coldly and you knew where you stood. He had no time for pretence. They were sparkling as he waved to me from the station platform. He was wearing a greasy, wide-brimmed felt hat with an antelope-skin headband. His khaki shirt and shorts were covered in a fine red dust and his armpits were dark-stained with sweat. A pointed Jan Smuts beard, white as snow, made him look taller than his five feet six inches and accentuated the deep sunburn of his wrinkled face. He extended a hand in greeting, a strong brown hand accustomed to handling farming tools and whips and reins and rifles. Alert and wiry, he was as lean and tough as a man half his age.
“Do you ride?” he barked in a guttural Afrikaner accent. I nodded affirmatively. “How often?” he said. “A couple of times a week – when I can.” “Good,” he grunted. “We won’t need to pickle your arse in brine. My daughter and I spend a good deal of time on horseback.” He took charge of my rifle and shotgun as I slung my suitcase into the back of his trap. He had an old Ford pickup, but from the way he handled the pony along the narrow rutted track it was obvious he preferred the more traditional form of transport. Automobiles were still new-fangled contraptions to his way of thinking. The saddle or buggy seat were his second home.
He had been a Commando raider as a young man in the Boer War, mounting lightning cavalry attacks on the slow moving British soldiery. After the hostilities ceased, life on the family farm in the Transvaal had bored him. He craved action and the challenge of the unknown so he rode north, living off the land as he made his way through the Rhodesias (Zambia/Zimbabwe) and Tanganyika(Tanzania) until he reached Kenya, where he promptly fell in love with this new untamed country. He established himself as a big-game hunter taking wealthy Americans and English aristocracy on Safari, and soon became one of the pioneering elite.
He re-visited South Africa briefly when he had saved some money to marry the Afrikaner girl he had promised he would one day return for. He was highly commended in his capacity as a scout for the British Forces ranged against the Germans in Tanganyika in World War I. His wife eventually persuaded him to settle down in the mid-twenties and buy land upcountry on the Uashin Gishu near Eldoret. They had several years of hard, sweated labour with no money coming in, living a temporary one-roomed wooden shack before finally hacking out a reasonably prosperous farm from the virgin terrain, an unwanted and unsettled slice of no man’s land that formed a buffer between tribal territories. Piet and my father had remained close friends since those war days when they shared danger together on the Tanganyikan border. It was because of Piet’s specialised knowledge of weapons and field craft that my father had asked him to teach me those skills.
We reached the farm after two hours of brisk trotting. The house was a neat, unpainted wooden bungalow supported on a series of stout posts about two feet high. A circular metal collar shaped into a shallow trough and filled with creosote was fixed around each post to prevent the wood-eating termites from reducing the house to sawdust in short order. A veranda cluttered with saddles and bridles and leather straps ran along the front of the building whose walls were adorned with horned and bleached antelope skulls.
Piet’s wife had died several years before. It was his daughter, Marie, who came out to greet me. She had never married, and although only in her early forties had long since given up caring about her appearance. No creams or makeup sullied her weather-beaten face. She had dark Eton-cropped hair and wore baggy moleskin trousers and a frayed lumberjack shirt with holes at the elbows. With only a minimal re-arrangement of genes at conception she could easily have been born male. As tough as old boots, she could lick a span of recalcitrant oxen into shape faster than her own father, yet her voice softened when she spoke to me and she radiated an inner warmth and kindliness that confounded her granite exterior.
My note - Many, many years later I was stumped for a 70th birthday present for my father. I pondered for a long time and remembered a conversation I'd had with him about shooting and did he enjoy shooting game. He answered truthfully not really. It was necessary and commonly a sport, but he never took to it. He did though enjoy shooting in itself but obviously had not done it since leaving Kenya. I arranged through a colleague a day clay pigeon shooting on a local farm near us in England.
On the day we arrived early, my father was a little nervous. I asked why. He said that over the years he'd told us many stories about the game he's shot, about riding on his bike out into the bush and returning with antelope etc lashed over the rear pannier. One time, he swears blind, as he was returning, the blood dripping and leaving a trail, he was chased by a male lion. He felt he'd competed in a stage of the Tour de France by the time he'd managed to out run it along the bush tracks. Another time he managed to out run a storm where the line between it pelting down and not was so fine, the rear of his bike was soaking wet whilst he just managed to keep ahead of it and stayed dry.
He was a little nervous that he'd show himself up and not hit anything. I told him I was his son, and so what, we're here for fun, not to prove anything. We went through a short safety drill as regards the shotguns, my father having admitted he'd "Maybe shot one some years ago" to the instructor. Eventually the first trap was sprung, the clay pigeon flying rapidly left to right like a meteor. I had to put my driving glasses on to see it. My father raised the shotgun to his shoulder and attempted to track its flight, but didn't shoot. The instructor asked why and he said he was "just getting my eye in". I thought of his earlier nervousness.
The next 'pull' was shouted.... my father in one smooth and rapid movement raised the shotgun, led the flight a split second and 'BOOM!', obliterated the clay pigeon. The next set of half a dozen ended up the same way. Just dust in the air. My father raising, leading, firing and relaxing seemingly in all one smooth coherent movement. Whilst reloading I asked him if he'd got his eye in yet. He replied, "Aye. It's getting there". The instructor turned to me and raised an eyebrow.
After the next ten or so with only one miss due, my father swore, to a faultily made clay the instructor said, "My job here is done" and went some distance to the rear and sat down. We had a good day. I managed to hit probably a third of what was flung my way.
Realising that my father wouldn't be physically capable after a few more years as he aged I arranged something different for the next few birthdays. We went hot air ballooning, gliding, speed boat driving and go-karting. At the same time I asked my mother, as she was the same age, if there was anything she'd enjoy doing. Anything. Her reply was that all she wanted was to see my dad enjoying himself. That was a present enough.
They were left a lot to themselves, breeze. They certainly got into some trouble but I think they were mostly left to sink or swim and entertain on their own. I understand my grandfather spent an inordinate amount of time at work and my grandmother played the queen of the house. They certainly has local servants to look after everything, as all colonials did, plus a nanny or two. My father mentions how he spent a lot of time playing with the servant's kids and also it as they who taught him Swahili.They didn't want for things to do, and maybe trouble to get in to, but I feel the parents only stepped in from time to time.
It was still dark when Marie shook me awake. “I have a ride around different parts of the farm every morning to make sure all’s well,” she said. “Want to come with me?” I needed no second invitation and jumped out of bed to submerge my face in a bowl of cold water. I only had time to slurp down a mug of red hot coffee before joining her outside where a syce held the bridles of two horses. I asked why she had a rifle slung from her saddle and she replied that it was just a habit from the old days.
The thin wine-coloured light of sunrise shafted through the trees and picked out a multitude of dew-laden cobwebs that shone like strings of diamonds as we rode out. The sharp morning air was so pure and fresh with the smell of grass and wet wood that I could feel my lungs swelling to receive it. The dawn chorus tinkled bell-like through the stillness and all my senses were sharpened to an excruciating pleasure. We passed by fields of wheat and maize until we came to more open country of yellow grass dotted with thorn trees and populated by scattered herds of grazing antelope and little erect eared jackals trotting home from a night’s hunting.
Marie pointed ahead with her riding crop. ”About another half hour and we’d reach the boundary of our property,” she said. “But we won’t go that far today. We’ll circle round and come back to the farmhouse from the other direction and you can see where our workforce live and have their plantations. Each family has a couple of acres to grow their own vegetables and a communal grazing area for their cattle and goats.” “Do they pay you rent?” I asked inquisitively. “Oh no, we don’t charge them anything,” she laughed. “It’s part of their wages. They could probably earn more in town but they prefer this arrangement because they make extra money by selling their surplus produce in the market in Eldoret. Our poor old pickup regularly breaks a spring when we take them once a week.”
We could make out the course of the little river that ran through the Bouker’s farm from quite a distance by the trees that lined its route. We turned our horses upstream when we reached it in order to pass by the workforce village. We rode quietly, listening to the muted stirrings of the waking countryside. My horse’s ears suddenly pricked upright. Marie reined in and held up a hand for silence. We both heard the distant sound of shouts and screams. “It’s coming from the village,” she said, regarding me with startled eyes. “Come on, it’s not too far ahead.” We had to walk the horses through a clump of trees and it was not until we reached open country on the other side that we came upon the trespassing tribesmen running with their herd of cattle.
The chilling silence that followed Marie’s rifle shot over Keriok’s head only lasted a minute, but seemed more like ten. She visibly slumped with relief when he lowered that menacing spear of his, and barking a harsh command, moved his men and their stock back to tribal territory. The village Headman made sure they had gone some distance before speaking. ”They’ll be back, Memsahib,” he told Marie. “They’ve been once before, but they only had a few goats so we said nothing. It was a mistake. Now they think we are weak. Soon they will bring all their herds and ruin our pasture.” “Do nothing if they return,” Marie said sharply. “We must arrange a ‘Baraza,’ a conference with Chief Kipchui and the Tribal Council.”
The runner Piet sent that afternoon came back late that night with the message that the Chief had carefully considered the request for an audience and was pleased to grant it for the day after tomorrow. “There’s always trouble when he’s in that mood,” Piet said, swearing to himself. “He’s got his condescending blanket on today.” He playfully slapped my shoulder. “We’ll go out and bag a few impala to take with us to the baraza. There’s nothing like a gift of venison to soften the old boy up, but before we see him we had better have a word with the District Commissioner.”
Piet told me to fetch my Mauser next morning when I had finished breakfast and took me out back where he had me shooting at ten cent pieces he had nailed to a tree. All the copper coins had a hole through the middle for the African women to carry like strings of beads round their waists. Piet explained the finer points of range estimation and aiming and trigger squeezing and deflection shooting at moving targets. He repeatedly emphasized the vital importance of never leaving any weapon loaded after use and never pointing it at anyone even when empty. After a couple of hours instruction he said he was pleasantly surprised by my standard of accuracy and made me promise that I would always observe the ground rules he had lain down. We mounted our horses and rode out across the open savannah, Marie following close behind in the battered old pickup, grinding along in low gear and skirting the bushes and clumps of trees.
We had been riding for about half an hour and were just breasting a rise when Piet suddenly reined back and caught hold of my horse’s bridle. He waved back to Marie to stay where she was. “There’s a small herd of impala not far ahead,” he said as he dismounted. “We’ll go on foot from here.” He watched me shading my eyes, still searching. “Look for their tails flicking across the white of their rumps,” he said. “It’s a dead giveaway.”
We kept parallel with and behind the rising ground, moving downwind from the herd. I stopped several times to remove the ticks, which lay in ambush in the undergrowth and clung to my bare legs to suck my blood. If they weren’t quickly removed they gorged themselves and swelled up like bloated grey balloons the size of a large pea. Marie’s moleskins sprang to mind. We reached the end of the ridge. Piet stooped and pointed to a small hillock about fifty yards away. “If we can get there without being seen,” he said. “We can lie in wait for the herd as it grazes towards us.”
The only cover was dry knee-high grass, so we got down on our stomachs started inching up the slope. I heard a sudden agitated rustle and a long brownish object as thick as a ship’s mooring rope reared up a yard high just in front of my face. I flinched in horror and gathered my muscles for one gargantuan backward leap. Piet’s strongly urgent arm immediately pinned me to the ground. The thing swayed from side to side, forked tongue flicking spasmodically from out of its blunt nose and cold expressionless eyes staring. I lay there for what seemed like ten years, ghastly white and paralysed until it turned and slithered away.
Piet released me and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Why did you hold me down?” I asked indignantly. “It was too close. It would have struck if you’d moved.” “It might have done that anyway,” I croaked, engulfed by a shiveringly limb quaking aguey bout. “Na-a-ah,” Piet said derisively. “It was basking in the sun after the cold of the night. It was just as frightened as you were.” “I wouldn’t like to bet on it,” I said, glad that my shaking was beginning to subside. “What kind of snake was it?” “One of the Mamba family. Not a black one, lucky for you. Now, they do strike first and ask questions afterwards, and you don’t live long enough to give any answers,” he replied, grinning.
We continued our crawl up the hillock, but this time I thrust my rifle forward so that the barrel probed the ground well ahead. Pied stooped just short of the summit and carefully parted the grass at the top. “Good,” he grunted in a satisfied tone. “The herd is still grazing this way. They’ll soon be within range of that little 22 of yours.” He gave me five cartridges. “Fill your magazine quietly and engage the safety catch. Put the rifle down with the barrel pointing away from us.”
He fished around in one of his pockets and pulled out two lengths of biltong, strips of choice venison fillet soaked in brine and then hung out to dry in the sun. He gave me one and told me that he had lived on this stuff for weeks at a time during the Boer War. It looked singularly unappetising, being in the form of a hard black stick about an inch thick and six inches long. Watching what Piet did, I cut a plug off the end and popped it in my mouth. Gradually softened by saliva, it reconstituted back to its original raw state and released its full delicious flavour.
Piet took another look through the grass. “They’re within range now,” he whispered. “You have the first shot. Take that young male nearest us. We don’t want any females; they’re likely to be pregnant at this time of year.” He waited while I cradled my rifle into my cheek. “Now release the safety catch,” he instructed quietly. “Aim for a spot just behind the shoulder.” Palms sweating and hands trembling with excitement, I aimed where he indicated and fired. I heard the bullet smack home. The buck sprang stiff-legged straight up in the air. It came down to earth, its legs buckled under and it flopped on its side, kicking spasmodically.
Piet fired his first shot a second after mine. Another buck dropped. The herd of impala took off in a frenzy, leaping over one another in frantic haste to get away. I watched astounded as Piet traversed his rifle and shot another two in full flight, both cartwheeling over and over as the bullets found their mark. I ran to where mine had dropped. A thin jet of blood pulsated high above its body from a small hole in its side. Its wide open eyes stared upwards, unblinking. I had to make a conscious effort to avoid what seemed to me to be an accusing gaze as I put my rifle to its forehead to finish it off.
Piet spoke from behind me. “Don’t waste your bullets,” he said. “You’ve probably severed a main artery. The heart sometimes pumps a few more beats after sudden death.” He slapped my back enthusiastically. “A great shot,” he growled approvingly. Praise indeed from possibly the greatest marksman in all Africa. If mine was great, his were pure magic. All three of his buck were stone dead, each shot just behind the shoulder and two of them hit on the run at that.
“I’ll go and fetch Marie,” I shouted excitedly, eager to share my triumph with her. “Not so fast,” Piet uttered calmly. “We have to remove the stomach and entrails first.” “What for? Can’t it wait until we get them home?” “No, they fill up with gas and then the meat tastes bad,” he said. “Besides, what we leave behind will make a good meal for the jackals and our friends up there.” He glanced upwards to where the Maribou Storks and vultures were expectantly riding the thermals.
I settled back on my haunches and watched intently as Piet slit the soft underbelly skin with a razor-sharp hunting knife. He persuaded me to feel around inside the carcass and cut away and pull out the slithery stomach bag and intestines. I queasily examined my arms, smeared up to the elbows with blood and partially digested grass – and promptly threw up – my breakfast of maize-meal porridge and carrots from the soup I’d had the night before, colourfully splattering the ground at my feet. I shot a quick glance at Piet, ashamedly expecting his scorn. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” he said, grinning. “I’m pleased you feel like that. A caring hunter is a good hunter.”
Piet reversed the pickup to the door of the cool store next morning and loaded the impala he had shot into the back. “Three should be enough for old Kipchui and his people,” he explained. “We’ll take that one of yours to the Viljoens tomorrow, the family at the next farm. The idiots have shot out all the game on their land. One of their married daughters, Erika, who runs a farm with her husband nearby, takes them a buck now and again, but they’re such a large clan that she can’t supply them with meat all the time. “I don’t know why I bother, but they are neighbours after all.”
It was still quite early when we entered the District Commissioner’s office in Eldoret. He motioned us to sit down and reached for a silver snuff box on his desk. He tapped it with a forefinger before springing back the lid and extracting a pinch. He sneezed so violently that globules of moisture sprayed the polished top of his desk. I stared fascinated at his brown-stained toothbrush moustache, which wiggled and jiggled when he spoke.
Piet explained about the grazing rights dispute with the tribe over a cup of tea. “We’re going to meet the Chief and the Council of Elders,” he said. “We thought it best to consult you first.” “I’m glad you did,” the D.C. replied. “Just tread carefully and try to be a bit diplomatic.” “Why should I be? They started it,” Piet said, frowning. “If I don’t put my foot down they’ll take over my farm. I want to know where I stand with you. Are you going to back me up if I fail to sort something out?” “Now, hold on a minute,” the D.C. said, taking another pinch of snuff. “Don’t get all agitated. If I know old Kipchui, he’s clever enough to go over my head and take this matter up with my superiors in Nairobi.” “I’ll grant you that he’s full of cunning,” Piet growled. “But don’t mistake that for intelligence.” “That’s just your trouble,” the D.C. sighed. “You don’t give him credit for any. He may be unsophisticated, but he’s not stupid.” “I didn’t exactly say that,” Piet protested. “You see, you haven’t been out here long enough to understand the African mind. They aren’t as devious as us. They associate diplomacy with weakness. You have to deal with them as they deal with each other, in simple basic ways. There are no shades of grey, everything is either black or white. They like direct talk with no hidden meanings and that’s how I shall conduct the meeting.”
The D.C. shook his head despairingly. “If you go with that attitude you’re bound to fail,” he said impatiently. “Don’t push too hard at this stage. The Tribe might just have a case and we don’t want a minor war on our hands. Bearing in mind your reputation for fair play and the lack of complaints from your farm workers, I’m asking you to approach this dispute in a spirit of compromise. If you can do that without being belligerent and all your efforts come to nothing, then I’ll back you all the way.” Piet stood up and grudgingly shook hands with the D.C. “I might have to hold you to that,” he said as we filed out of the office. “But remember, I’m the injured party.”
We’re a bit less than halfway through at the moment, so I thought it was about time you had some idea of what the protagonists looked like. I apologise for the quality but I don’t have the originals, I’ve scanned them from a book we have detailing the family history. It was mostly compiled by one of my aunts and that’s why ‘Bob’ is labelled as ‘dad’. I hope you can see more or less what they looked like. The first page shows top left my grandparents, at the time of their marriage in 1915. Bear in mind my grandfather (Bob) was then twenty one but Zina (Georgina) was only fourteen. They quickly went on to start a family.
Then the children at different points in their life. You can see Lance, bottom left, the year before he died –
The rest of the children with the author, my dad aged twenty, top right. Looking like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth and all natty with his wings and RAF uniform on –
Thanks for sharing the photos. What a lively and happy-looking family.
kerouac, in the earlier photos I can see daring in Lance's eyes, but in 1943 he's not so sure. That's my attempt at interpretation, anyway.
My dad told us nothing about his childhood. One time I asked, and "Chub Hankey hit me on the foot with a brick" was all he said. We used to ask for details of that event since it was all we had to go on, but nada. On the other hand, my mother made being a poor farm girl in the Depression sound like a wonderful experience.
Marie engaged first gear as we entered the tribal village and bumped slowly over the hard packed earth. Half naked, brown skinned men, some with monkey skin headbands and anklets and all carrying spears and shields, stepped out of their round thatched huts and stared stoney-eyed at us as we passed. We saw no women or children. A screeching chicken suddenly ran across our path and thankfully pierced the ominous silence. We pulled up at the edge of a large open space dominated in the centre by a huge wide-spreading tree, its abundant foliage rustling in the gentle breeze and casting a great circular shadow. Kipchui and the Council of Elders squatted in a semi-circle at its base.
Piet put his rifle down on the floor of the pickup and covered it with an old tarpaulin. We walked to the centre of the semi-circle and sat down facing the tribesmen. They watched us warily, the all-pervading atmosphere of hostility raising the hairs on the back of my neck. The stench of badly cured goatskin and unwashed bodies violated my nostrils. I wondered who would crack first as neither side seemed inclined to engage in the usual rigmarole of exchanging compliments and pleasantries. Piet reached round behind his back and withdrew his large hunting knife from its sheath. A dangerous hum rose from the assembled Council. He casually produced a stick of biltong, cut off a generous portion and held it out to Kipchui. The old man’s rheumy eyes glistened greedily as he snatched the offering and stuffed it into his mouth. I speculated on how he would cope with it, as owing to many years of toothlessness, his lips had long since collapsed into the maw between his nose and chin.
Piet’s conciliatory action seemed to satisfy the old chief. He couldn’t lose face now the Afrikaner had made the first gesture. He opened his mouth to speak and the unmasticated plug of biltong dropped into the dust at his feet. He picked it up, brushed it off and crammed it back in, making sure this time that it was firmly wedged into his cheek. “I have a serious complaint,” he said, thrusting an accusing forefinger in Marie’s direction. “She fired on my young men.” “No she didn’t,” Piet retorted sharply. “She fired over their heads as a warning. Your men ignored her request to leave our land. They even said that you had ordered it” “We, the Council, ordered it, “Kipchui corrected. “But why?” Piet snorted. “You knew it would anger me and we have been friends for many years.” “Why should you be angry? Our cattle may graze where we wish. We have allowed you to farm some of our land because you give employment to a few of our people. When we want it back we shall take it.” “It was never part of your tribal lands,” Piet said, struggling to keep his voice at a reasonable level. “You have seen me grow good crops on it year after year, that’s why you want it now. You lay false claim. I have a paper from the Government that proves it is mine.”
The biltong in Kipchui’s mouth was beginning to disintegrate. He spat and kicked up a spurt of dust. “Because we have not worked it does not mean that we don’t own it,” he replied indignantly, and threw a dangling corner of his blanket over his skinny shoulder. “This land has always belonged to us. You have no title or claim in our law. You Europeans are invaders.” “Huh, you talk of invaders?” Piet countered promptly. “And what about you. Did not your ancestors invade from the north and west and drive out the little yellow people, the Drobo, who were hunters and had lived here since the first snow fell on the peak of yonder mountain?” A low murmur of assent rose from the Council for they were proud of their past conquests. Kipchui shot them a contemptuous glance and his wizened old frame quivered angrily at the way they had fallen into Piet’s trap.
“That was before the time of my grandfather’s father,” he conceded grudgingly. “We have lived here for generations. You Europeans have come only in my lifetime. You take what you want and try to change our customs. One day we shall rise up against you and then the happiness we knew before will return.” “You call that happiness do you?” Piet laughed sardonically. “When you lived in fear and warriors from other tribes raided your villages and burnt your crops and carried off your cattle and young women while you fled to the forest? We Europeans put an end to all that and now you sleep peacefully and without fear in your huts at night. When you died from disease and pestilence and your babies were stillborn we brought good powerful medicine to cure you and have healthy children. Why do you complain when you should be grateful?”
Kipchui slowly levered himself upright, creaking in every joint. He gazed haughtily down at Piet. “We did not run to the forest,” he denied vehemently. “We stood and fought, but their numbers were like the ants on the earth and they fed on blood and milk and were tall and strong.” Piet made as if to rise also, seemed to think better of it and lowered himself again. “I’m sorry, Chief,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “Please sit down. I’m sure you were all very brave and fought like Simba, the lion. Now, can we discuss the real reason you sent your herds to my farm?” Kipchui dropped back, appearing somewhat mollified by Piet’s apology, but his voice rose aggressively when he spoke again. “Our pastures are bare, we see the ribs of our cattle. Would you have us let them die? Our fields are barren, our crops are sparse and stunted. Would you have us starve? We need your farm, and after that, those of your neighbours.”
“And all this is because you won’t listen and learn,” Piet said savagely, embracing all the Council in his sweeping gaze. “Have I not been telling you this past twenty years that this would happen? You clear a patch of forest and bleed the rich red earth to death, then you abandon that place and cut down more trees. The wind and rain take the topsoil away. The streams are clean and clear in the mountains, but down in the valleys the rivers run red and choke and dry up with the soil that was once on your slopes. Now you have run out of forest and good land. If you had done what I suggested and have done on my own farm and planted saplings in place of the trees you cut down, it would have prevented this. If you had let your clearings rest a few years and spread animal dung on them, you would still be having abundant crops to feed yourselves and you cattle.”
An old man on the front row suddenly leaned forward. “Our way is the way of our forefathers,” he interrupted. “If we had done as you advised then a curse would have fallen upon us.” “And has not a curse already fallen on you with your stunted crops and starving cattle?” Piet replied with exasperation. “Your forefathers were few in number and the forests seemed infinite to them. Now your tribe and all the others have become like a swarm of locusts. Each year it will get worse. The more land you leave barren the less will it rain, and so you are responsible for the spread of the deserts. Can’t you see why you must change your ways? Europe is still lush and fertile after thousands of years because we changed and learnt how to look after the soil. No one put a curse on us. If you don’t listen to the Europeans and let them help you, you will all starve.” “Not if we have you farm,” Kipchui spat venomously.
“And how long will that last?” Piet asked mockingly. “A few years and you will be back to where you are now.” “Nevertheless, we shall take it. It will give us more time.” Piet’s fists balled into hard knots. He hunched forward and spoke slowly and deliberately. “As you say you defended your village against marauding warriors, so will we defend our farm. Make no mistake, your women will wail for the young men who die.” There came a low hum at first like the sound of a swarm of angry bees from the assembly behind the council of Elders. It swelled to a deafening roar as they stamped their feet and drummed their spears on cowhide shields. I asked myself what the hell was I doing here. This was nothing to do with me. I looked around in panic and tried to estimate the chances of reaching the pickup and the hidden rifle before I resembled a porcupine.
Piet sprang to his feet. “Enough!” he shouted, throwing up an arm to command instant silence. He faced Kipchui. “Will you and the Council come with me to see the District Commissioner? He is the one to settle this dispute.” “He is European, like yourself,” Kipchui said, clearing his throat with a hoarse rasp and ejecting a ball of mucous, which landed at Piet’s feet. “I say no more.” “He is a fair man as you well know.” Piet said, his voice trembling with the effort to keep control of himself. “He has arbitrated in you favour many times. He explains the law and his Askaris see that all parties observe it.” “It is your law- not ours,” an Elder called out. Piet squatted down again and cut himself another chew of biltong. This time he did not offer any to Kipchui even though he was fully aware of the old man’s greedy gaze.
A great waiting silence gripped the young men standing rank upon rank behind the Council, their faces turned expectantly to Piet and Kipchui. “Stoke up your cooking fires,” Piet said at last. “We’ve talked enough for the time being. Let us eat and drink before we discuss this matter again.” He looked all round. “I see no women. Tell them there are three tender young impala in the back of my truck.”
The whole village sprang into action. Trilling women appeared from all directions, many with fat little babies strapped to their backs. They emptied the pickup and started roasting the spitted impala. The appetising aroma of cooking meat and spiced vegetables soon hung heavy on the air. The circle of Council members broke up and each elder was immediately swamped by groups of young men heatedly trying to put across their own point of view. I followed Piet and Marie back to the pickup where we sat watching the women preparing the feast. Even though sensed an easing of the tension, I still felt ripples of apprehension. We were completely surrounded and there was no way out if things turned nasty.
“Can we go now?” I asked uneasily. “It doesn’t seem as if they’ll agree to let the D.C. sort this cut.” “Be patient,” Piet grunted. “If we left now it would be like a slap in the face to them. We brought them a gift of meat and it is their custom to share it with the donor even if they intend killing him straight after.” The corners of his mouth twitched slightly upwards. “Besides, they don’t want us to leave without making some settlement. All this sabre rattling is sheer bravado to demonstrate what brave warriors they are.”
We sat for another hour until Kipchui beckoned us over to where he squatted in a circle comprised of his most senior elders. They shuffled around and made room for us. Two great wooden bowls on the ground in the middle of the circle. The first one was full of hot vegetable stew containing peas, beans, sweet potatoes and unripe bananas. The second was piled up with a huge wodge of steaming maize-meal dough they called posho. Between the bowls were strips of roasted venison laid out on a table cloth of wide, green banana leaves.
Kipchui started first. He reached out a grubby hand and grasped a fistful of the posho, which he moulded into a ball. He stuck his thumb into the middle and widened the indentation into a crude cup shape, which he plunged into the stew and then stuffed into his mouth, beans and gravy slurping down his chin. His youngest wife stood behind cutting off small portions of meat and handing them to him as required. He appeared to swallow these whole. We all followed suit and in ten minutes the meal had disappeared under a flurry of darting hands. Before grasping each mouthful from the common pot, they licked their fingers clean with a loud smacking of appreciative lips. No words were exchanged as they concentrated on the serious business of eating, those chewing and gulping down the fastest getting the lion’s share.
Kipchui belched loudly and called for beer, a strong acrid-smelling potion that burnt a hole straight through the stomach lining if you had too much. Piet and Marie appeared to be enjoying it. Kipchui thrust a wooden cup, full to the brim, into my hand and grinned encouragingly. Not wishing to offend, I sipped the smallest quantity possible whilst holding my breath, but even then it took a great effort of will to refrain from running out of the village and pukeing all over the bushes. After the meal, the younger men and women, well primed with beer, started dancing. They leapt high in the air and landed stiff-legged in time with the basic drum beat that dominated the intricacies of the interwoven rhythms until they had worked themselves up into a fair old state of frenzy.
They then formed two lines, men in one and women in the other, and came together repeatedly, stamping and waving erotically, wooden body ornaments and dread-locked hair spiralling outwards. Most of them had either fallen exhausted by sundown or paired off and disappeared into the darkness. The only people still conscious were us and the Council members who were too old to participate in the caperings, but even they were beginning to sag as they peered through an alcoholic haze. Piet went over to the nearest cooking fire and threw on some more wood. As soon as the flames were bright enough to pierce the gloom he asked Kipchui to reassemble the Council of Elders.
“I think it best for us all that we settle our disagreement tonight,” Piet said when he had their somewhat soporific attention. “I wish to propose a solution that I hope will meet with your approval.” He paused a moment to let this sink in. “I am willing to set aside an area of my farm for you to grow your crops. You may also graze your cattle with mine providing you keep their numbers down to a reasonable figure. I ask one condition only.” Mouths fell slack as the Council stared at the Afrikaner in utter disbelief. Kipchui’s expression immediately changed to one of suspicion. “What price Kaburru?” he asked, using the tribal epithet for all Afrikaners. ”We pay nothing.” “And it will cost you nothing. You only have to observe my condition.” “Let us hear it then.” “You must agree to adopt my methods, not only in the use of my land, but also in yours. It is not too late to restore its fertility. Once we have done that, you will continue to work your tribal lands in the way I have shown and rotate your pastures for your stock.”
Obviously nonplussed by this totally unexpected offer, Kipchui turned to confer with the Council. They huddled together, murmuring amongst themselves for about five minutes before Kipchui again spoke to Piet. “How long will all this take?” he asked. Piet shrugged. “Perhaps five or ten years,” he said. “It won’t be easy. You’ll have to plant trees and terrace your hillsides and dig irrigation ditches. It means moving earth and much hard work and patience. Once it is done you will have more than enough to feed your own people and you won’t earn money by selling off your surplus corps to the other tribes who persist in ignoring the European methods.” Kipchui’s ears literally stood erect at the mere mention of money. He hauled himself unsteadily to his feet. “What say you?” he asked, addressing the Council of Elders.
“It is good,” a senior elder opined. “The Afrikaner has seen wisdom and acknowledged the fairness of our claims. I say we accept.” The others all voiced their assent with a vigorous hum of approval and pressed forward to surround Piet, each elder in turn gripping his thumb and shaking his hand thrice to seal the contract. Kipchui insisted we celebrate by downing more beer, his toothless gums agape in one huge smile, a feat that must surely have threatened his jawbone with dislocation. The whole village including Piet and the elders were fast asleep within the hour, their grating snores mingling with the crackle of the fire and an occasional yelp as the dogs fought over the last vestiges of the three impala.
Marie helped me to carry Piet back to the pickup, well, I say helped, but she more or less staggered beside me while I dragged him along. She felt in his pockets and gave me the ignition key. “I hope you can drive,” she said, slurring her words and seeming not to care much whether I could or not. I fortunately had some experience of driving old jalopies around grass tracks, but going home that night across virgin pot-holed savannah with only dim headlights to see by and two snoring adults swaying about in the cab as I swerved around the dark, looming shadows, was something I never wished to repeat.
I had been up and about for an hour next morning before Piet and Marie joined me for breakfast. They sat with their heads in their hands, wincing at the slightest noise as they drank several cups of strong black coffee. “It’s lucky you couldn’t stomach old Kipchui’s beer,” Piet remarked. “We would never have got home last night if it hadn’t been for you.” I blushed at this compliment, and in that statement I thought I could detect a certain wistfulness for the son he never had.
I rode out with Marie to the farm worker’s village to tell them the outcome of the Baraza. They promptly invited us to a celebratory feast when they had time to make proper preparations. I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to endure another one like Kipchui’s, but at the same time reproached myself for wanting to decline their spontaneous generosity and hospitality. Piet was waiting by the pickup when we got back. “I’m taking that buck you shot to the Viljoen’s, remember that family I told you about with no game left on their farm?” he said. “I’d like you to come with me because they’ll want to thank you personally.” I would much rather have spent the day out riding or helping around the farm but said nothing. We arrived at the Viljoen’s after half an hour of bumping along the two ruts through the grass that passed for a road. The pickup’s sump was fortunately just high enough to avoid being cracked open by numerous projecting rocks although we heard it scrape dangerously once or twice.
The farmhouse was a rambling board wood building that snuggled protectively into a recess in the base of a hill, and was sheltered by a line of trees at the front and round both sides. It had started out no bigger than a one-roomed log cabin and over the years as the family grew; extra rooms had been built on until it looked like a series of army huts placed end to end. A half-hearted attempt to paint it many years previously gave it a haphazard mottled appearance and a couple of slatted window shutters hung at crazy angles from broken hinges. Rusting farm machinery littered the front yard. Sitting on creaking chairs on the veranda which ran the full length of the house were several men of differing ages, all heavily bearded and wearing wide-brimmed felt hats and brown corduroy trousers tucked into riding boots.
Mrs Viljoen came out to greet us, a plump middle-aged women in a long cotton dress down to her ankles. She cooed with delight and planted a lip-smacking kiss on my cheek when Piet told her that I had shot the buck we brought. “You must stay for lunch,” she insisted. A brace of her beefy sons lifted the impala out of the pickup and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. I joined Piet and the other men on the veranda. After the initial introduction I took no further part in the conversation as they all spoke in Afrikaans which was double-dutch to me anyway.
I sat with my legs dangling over the edge of the veranda, trying to count the ticks on a miserable looking dog which lay at my feet. A few grimy children, barefoot and dressed in tattered clothes, were playing hop-scotch and kicking up the dust in the yard. There seemed to be no one around about my own age. I heard quick short steps on the wooden floor behind me and I inhaled a whiff of unfamiliar perfume. A soft hand patted the top of my head. “Hell man, you look as bored as I feel,” said a low melodious voice. “Let’s go for a walk down to the river.”
I turned my head and saw slim ankles and small feet shod in a pair of fashionable high-heeled French style shoes. My eyes travelled up the rounded well fleshed legs to a flowered dress that stopped short just above the knees. Her waist was just beginning to thicken and her face was chubby and pretty in a delicate doll-like sort of way. Her skin was smooth and pink unlike the leathery sunburn of many of the Afrikaners women. Her over-large brown eyes sparkled friendliness at me from below a dark fringe of marcel-waved hair. She took me by surprise, so out of place in these surroundings, like suddenly happening upon a single bloom growing from a niche in a rock in the desert.
“Y-yes I-I’d like that. I wanted to have a look at the river,” I stammered, inexplicably flattered by this attention from a woman I judged to be in her mid-thirties. I got to my feet and fell in beside her. From the ground she had looked quite tall and it rather pleased me when I discovered that we were much the same height. “I’m Erika Pretorius,” she said. “I was a Viljoen before I married. I come over once a week to visit the family. My husband and I have a farm over there,” she said, pointing. “It’s about five miles away. You must come and see us before you go back to Nairobi.” “I certainly will if I can get Marie to run me over in the pickup.” “Yes, she visits us occasionally. In any case, you’ll be at the Country Club in Eldoret on Saturday night won’t you?” “I don’t know. The Boukers haven’t said anything.” “They’ll be there all right, they never miss. Everyone will be there. It’s the one night of the week when we can all be together, apart from during the wet season that is, when we usually get bogged down if we attempt to travel.”
We dodged through some trees and undergrowth and came to the bank of a placid muddy stream. Erika sat down on the grass and motioned me to sit down beside her. “Are you any good at ballroom dancing?” she suddenly asked. I shook my head. “No, I’ve never learnt. I’ve not been very interested.” She stared at me, a look of mild shock in her eyes. “Hell man, you must learn to dance. How else can you meet young ladies? You are interested in girls aren’t you?” she asked, a shadow momentarily flitting across her face. “I fancy one or two,” I conceded, going red. “I’m too shy to talk to them.” “There you are then,” she laughed, leaning over and squeezing my thigh for emphasis. “You come to the Country Club a few times and I’ll give you some lessons. You’ll have the confidence then to ask girls to dance and get to know them.”
We sat watching the antics of a colony of weaver birds hanging upside down as they built their nests in branches that overhung the water. The entrance holes were at the bottom of the nest and I wondered why their young seldom fell out. I felt unaccountably embarrassed and however much I tried could think of nothing further to say. I was saved by the beating of a stick on a tin bath suspended from a nail on the farmhouse wall summoning us to lunch.
The entire Viljoen family were gathered in the dining-room when Erika and I entered. A long rectangular table stretched down the centre from one end to the other. There must have been getting on for thirty people of all ages sitting around it. The old Grandparents sat one at each end and all the Aunts and Uncles and Sons and Daughters and Grandchildren were ranged down the sides. Piet had already mentioned that the Viljoens were going through a bad patch, what with crop failures and having to sell off their stock and slaughtering all their herds of wild antelope, but nevertheless, the table legs creaked under the weight of food. Large oval dishes were spaced out at intervals, each one containing greens or sweet potatoes or hunks of crusty bread. A massive tureen of gravy was placed next to two whole legs of roast venison. Mr Viljoen made a great show of carving the meat, and after first serving the Grandparents, put the next plate in front of me as the honoured guest. They all drank a toast to me and the Boukers with a delicious peach wine - and I wished the floor would open up and swallow me.
I met Erika’s husband, Renier, a stocky fair-haired man in his early forties that following Saturday night at the Eldoret Country Club. He greeted me with a firm handshake and a friendly smile, and then wandered off to the bar with Piet. Erika involved Marie and I in some games with the children. Later on we joined the adults and played whist and dominoes and tombola. The floor was cleared for dancing about halfway through the evening. I slid outside into the darkness and walked around the lawns hoping that Erika had forgotten her threat to give me dancing lessons. I knew I would stumble over my two left feet and make a complete fool of myself. In any case, I considered dancing to be effeminate. She didn’t let me get away with it however, and sent a couple of the younger kids out to look for me. As soon as I re-entered the club-house, my eyes blinking as they adjusted to the light, she caught hold of my arm. “Hell man, where have you been?” she asked reproachfully. “I’ve searched all over for you.” “I-I thought you’d want to dance with Mr Pretorious,” I said lamely. She cast a disparaging glance in the direction of the bar. “I’ve given up trying to teach him,” she said. “He has no sense of rhythm and he lugs me around like a sack of potatoes.”
A strict tempo Victor Sylvester waltz was playing on the radiogram. “You can’t go wrong with this,” Erika said. “Just count one-two-three and move your feet in time with mine.” She put her arm around my waist and demonstrated the steps as she propelled me along. We had traversed the length of the floor, narrowly missing the other dancers, when she stopped and pulled me to one side. “No – no – no,” she exclaimed impatiently. “You’re marching as if you were on parade. Remember, slide and glide and don’t keep looking down. Hell man, surely you know what you’re feet are doing?”
We did another length or two and I concentrated until my hands were clammy with sweat. “That’s it – that’s a lot better,” Erika cried joyfully. “Now we can do it properly.”
She swayed rhythmically in time with the music, waiting for the right moment, then suddenly exerted pressure on my arm to get me going. I moved forward on the wrong foot and quickly changed step when she tutted with annoyance. I soon got the hang of it and realised I was enjoying myself, especially on the turns when our bodies rubbed together and our legs interlocked. I wondered why I had thought dancing was effeminate as I began to feel one hundred percent masculine. By the end of the evening I had become reasonably proficient in the basic steps of the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep and could circumnavigate the floor without once tripping up or crashing into anyone. I thanked Erika for her patience and she rewarded me with an affectionate hug.
I improved so much the next two Saturday nights I even dared to ask a girl of about sixteen for a dance. I had been eyeing her all evening, so when Erika left me for a brief moment, I seized my chance. I was whirling this girl around when Erika returned and stood at the edge of the dance floor. As we swept by her I waved and smiled thinking she would be overjoyed at the way her expert tuition had given me such confidence, but the icicles that shafted out from her eyes reminded me of the mamba snake that had nearly bitten me. I saw her walk over and say something to Marie who was in charge of the radiogram. The record was cut short and Marie announced that the next dance would be an ‘excuse me’ quickstep.
The girl and I had only progressed a few more yards when Erika came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. I smiled my thanks to the girl as she broke away. Erika moved in, stoney-faced, and dug her long red fingernails into the flesh of my arm. I realised then how much I preferred the feel of her when compared with the young girl’s boney awkwardness. My thoughts must have been reflected in the way I held her because she gradually relaxed and resumed her former flowing posture.
Erika and Marie ‘rescued’ Renier and Piet from the bar when we had danced the last waltz and we all trooped outside into the warm night air. Erika stood by the open door of her car and gave me a motherly peck on my cheek. “I’ll make quite a good dancer out of you yet,” she crooned. “Will you be coming back up here for your next school holidays?” “I certainly hope so,” Piet interjected. “I’ll be contacting his parents soon to ask them. He’s good company for me and Marie.” Renier shook my hand. “You’re welcome to come and stay with us and do some shooting if ever the Boukers get fed up with you,” he said, his left eyelid twitching with a nervous tick. “Thanks, I look forward to it,” I replied politely. “You must call in and meet my family next time you’re in Nairobi.
My parents acquiesced readily enough when Piet wrote and asked them if I could return, which surprised me somewhat as my mother often complained that she hardly saw me during my holidays as I treated home like a hotel and only put in an appearance at meals and bedtime. I spent several more holidays with the Boukers and Piet completed my education in hunting and tracking and woodcraft. The predominant theme that came through this course of tuition was the special emphasis he put on observing the behaviour of wild birds and animals to make me understand their needs and help preserve their numbers and habitat. He ensured a continuous supply of free meat for himself and his workforce by judicious culling of the game on his farm to maintain a sustainable population.
The Saturday nights at the Country Club soon became the highlight of the week for me. My dancing lessons continued for a while under Erika’s guidance and I thought I was pretty good until she brought me down to earth when she told me that I would never be another George Raft, the Hollywood tango champion. The periods of time she spent with me eventually became shorter and shorter and she would go and sit with her husband and the Boukers in the bar. Baffled and disgruntled, I decided to make a play for the sixteen year old Afrikaner girl, who by now was eighteen and should have filled out a bit. I manoeuvred her outside and attempted to kiss her and the hand that slapped my face was as boney as the rest of her. I might have considered trying again on a future occasion but for the chilling looks I got from a huge bronzed youth with fists like sledge-hammers.
Erika and Renier sometimes visited Nairobi to combine business with pleasure and my parents usually invited them to stay with us. The war seemed remote and we were hardly affected by it except for the presence of British, South African and Rhodesian troops either stationed in Kenya or passing through to Abyssinia or Egypt. We still had a reasonable supply of petrol, but farm machinery, tractors and new cars were unobtainable so everyone became expert at welding and repairing and making new parts out of old. The supply of young European men for the Armed Forces soon dried up, which was not surprising considering the low density white population. The Authorities then increased the call-up age to forty five. My father escaped by a couple of years, but not Renier Pretorius. He was instructed to report to Army Headquarters in Nairobi. He brought Erika with him to stay with us while he went through the signing on procedure. It so happened that they arrived a few days before I was due to leave for a month’s holiday with a friend who lived in Mombassa on the coast.
Renier looked devastated. He had banked on missing the call-up and could not believe his bad luck. I expected Erika to be sobbing her heart out but she seemed quite composed. I guessed she was being brave and the floods of tears would come when her husband had departed. He passed his medicals next day and was soon in uniform and on his way to training camp. From there he was posted to ‘somewhere in Egypt’ as a clerk in the Pay Corps.
He spoke to me while we were having dinner the night before he left. “Remember me asking you to come and spend some time with us on our farm?” he said. I nodded and he continued. “Well, I wonder if you would mind going back to Eldoret with Mrs Pretorious for a few weeks? I’ve already asked your parents and they’ve given their permission. I’m worried about my wife being on her own just at this time. Her family aren’t far away but I don’t trust those Viljoens. They’re unreliable and I’d be happier if you were there, especially knowing what Piet and Marie think of you. My wife likes you and you’ll be good company for her. She can’t drive so perhaps you won’t mind taking her into town for business and shopping occasionally. You can also use our car to visit the Boukers whenever you like.” “Well, the trouble is, “ I said, trying to conceal an involuntary flush.” I’m supposed to be going down to Mombassa for some swimming and surfing.” “You can do that another time,” my mother snapped. “Mr Pretorius is asking for your help.” “Of course, I’ll be glad to,” I said, being careful not to display much enthusiasm. I looked at Erika. “I can pay you back for the dancing lessons by teaching you to drive.” She smiled back at me with evident relief. “Well, I’ve got to learn now,” she said. “Bless you, you’ve taken a great weight off my mind.”
Renier’s car was parked where he’d left it outside Eldoret railway station. It was a nineteen thirty-nine Oldsmobile and it took me a few miles to get used to the steering column mounted gear lever. I could foresee problems trying to teach a novice to drive it. My worst fears were confirmed after the first lesson. Erika was one of those people who had not the slightest sense of direction or co-ordination and seemed terrified of all things mechanical. She stuck out her tongue and hunched forward to grip the steering wheel as if attempting to restrain a wriggling poisonous snake. She crashed the gears until they howled in protest, she steered left when she wanted to turn right and selected reverse instead of first. Her hair became matted with perspiration and her frock rode unnoticed up her thighs within minutes of starting off. I soon realised it would require a miracle to get her to a state of minimum competence before the beginning of my next school term.
We went as usual to the Country Club in Eldoret on the Saturday night. Piet and Marie and all the friends I had made on my previous visits signified their approval of the way I had ‘volunteered’ to assist Erika in her hour of need. She seemed happy enough, laughing and smiling in the company of the older people, so I spent most of the time with the younger set. She only came across two or three times that evening to dance with me. “I wonder what Mr Pretorius is doing right at this moment?” I speculated on one of these occasions. “I bet he’s on a binge with his pals.” Erika glanced at her watch. “He’ll be in bed,” she replied disdainfully. “He never stayed up late when he was at home. He was always fast asleep when I turned in.” “I suppose he had to be up early to give his workers their jobs for the day, “ I suggested. “Yes, but he used that as an excuse,” she said bitterly. “Not that it mattered anyway. He couldn’t do me much good even though I’m infertile. He’s been impotent these last two years.” I looked away awkwardly, flustered by the way she was revealing these intimate details to me, a mere boy after all.