© Tony Irvin
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(Northern Kenya – 1980)
It was the softest of sounds: the whisper of wind on sand, clouds brushing against each other, the rustle of butterfly wings. But; it was always there. During the daytime other sounds intruded and Dima could only hear the rasping of tiny jaws if he put his ear to the wood. If he tapped, the termites would pause. ‘Go away,’ they would say, rattling their heads against the walls of their tunnels and sending a shiver through the colony. He would smile. The termites would then resume their ceaseless gnawing and the sound would return. One day their persistence would be rewarded and the hut would collapse.
Dima lay beside his mother on the bed in the servants’ hut listening for the whispering rustle which would lull him to sleep. Tonight, though, there was an uneasy stillness: the sound of silence, the sound of stress, the sound of—
Close by. At the mission house. Their echo hung in the air: brittle, harsh, terrifying.
Dima clung to his mother.
The termites listened.
The echo drifted into darkness. Silence tiptoed back. The howling of a distant dog edged into the silence.
‘Mama, what is it?’
‘I don’t know. Something very bad.’
Another dog. The sheep and goats restless. A rat scratching in the roof. His mother’s terrified panting. The pounding of her heart – and his. Whisperings. Men among the animals. Frightened bleats. The clonk of a bell. A muffled curse.
‘Mama, they are stealing the animals!’
‘We must stop them.’
‘These men will kill us.’
A crash against the door of the hut.
The lock held firm.
‘Hide!’ She pushed Dima away.
A volley of shots. The lock shattered.
His mother gasped. Dima scrambled into the rafters.
The door flew open. Moonlight flooded into the hut. A man stood in the doorway.
Dima’s mother cowered against the wall.
The man dropped his gun. Came towards the bed. Stood looking at her. Lunged.
Dima dropped from the rafters and sank his teeth.
The man leaped from the bed. Yelled. Tried to beat him off.
But Dima was a leopard and clung on with teeth, arms and legs. He tasted the warm saltiness of blood. Ignored the pain.
The man staggered outside. Other men. Sheep and goats milling round. Dogs barking. His mother screaming. Flashes in his head.
Agony. Blackness. Silence.
The termites resumed their labour and the whispering rustle returned
When Dima came round the silence was soft and soothing. The pain was harsh and merciless. Something warm and strange against his
face. He picked it up.
An ear – a human ear!
He hurled it away. Pain, so much pain.
He remembered and stumbled back to his mother.
She didn’t answer.
‘Mama, Mama.’ He shook her.
She groaned, sat up and hugged him. A spasm convulsed her body.
He pulled himself free. Forgot his own pain. ‘Mama, what is it?’
‘I am paining so much.’ Another spasm. ‘They were bad men – very bad.’
‘They are now gone.’
‘And you saved me. Oh, Dima, you saved me.’
‘But Mama you are hurt.’
‘A shot went into my body and is paining me… paining me so much.’
‘And that man?’
‘He has gone with the other men and… and taken the animals.’
‘My sheep and goats!’ He dashed tears from his eyes.
She remained silent, her breathing ragged.
‘I will kill those men.’
‘No. You must go… go and bring your… father here to—’
‘You must come with me.’
‘I cannot move. You must… must go alone. You must not fear the… dark.’
He looked sharply at her. ‘I do not fear the dark.’
‘It is you who must care for me now, my son.’ She paused to regain her breath. ‘You are now a man.’
He thought for a moment. ‘I will go and tell Baba to come.’ He crossed to the door and peered into the night. The moon was bright and showed a dark shape lying in the shadow of the missionary’s house.
‘Dima,’ whispered his mother. ‘Come here.’
He knelt beside her.
She took his hand. Pressed it to her face. ‘Go safely, my Ridima.’
He withdrew his hand. Slipped through the door and closed it as best he could with its shattered lock. He waited in the shadow of the
hut, studying the shape on the ground and its surrounding stain – black in the moonlight.
I am now a man. He fought off the fear which made him want to rush back to the embrace of his mother.
He crossed to the shape. The bwana’s wife. She had been good to him. Taught him Swahili. Given him some lambs and kids to care for.
Given his mother a good job in the house.
He had seen death before. But never a white person.
There was no sign of the bwana.
A strange yet familiar sound. His mother singing. Words formed themselves into those of her favourite hymn – the one from which she derived his name: “Guide me, oh thou Great Redeemer.”
He slipped off into the night protected by his mother’s blessing.
Dima’s father was an Ndorobo. A man with no cattle, a honey hunter, a wild man, a man who lived in caves and knew about poisons and other dark secrets. A man who wore animal skins on his body, a dagger on his belt, a bow and quiver over one shoulder, and a bag of hyrax skin – containing who-knew-what evil – over the other. A man of the forest and of the night. A man feared by the villagers and loved by his son.
Dima reached the cave in the great mountain called Lokinang, the cave his father used as his base when hunting. He listened for elephants which also visited the cave, travelling from far away to scrape salt off the walls, gouging deep grooves with their tusks.
He crept into the cave and gave the call of the scops owl.
Echoes wandered through the tunnels which honeycombed the mountain and died away. No answering reply. Nothing.
I am now a man. I am now a man.
He repeated the call.
A faint light deep inside. A reddish light which flared to yellow. The reply came echoing back.
His father appeared and embraced him. ‘What is it, my son?’
‘You must come. It is Mama.’ Dima forgot he was now a man and his story tumbled out in a torrent of tears.
‘And the bwana, the man of God who lives in the big house?’
‘We heard many shots, Baba. I think he is dead. And I saw the bwana’s wife. She is dead.’
‘Who did this thing?’
‘Very bad people. They stole the sheep and goats.’
‘Come.’ He led Dima to a ledge deep in the cave and put dried grass onto the fire which flared up. Strange shadows danced round the walls. He took his bow and arrows, and those he had made for Dima, and set them near the fire. He reached into a crevice and withdrew the precious tin containing black sticky paste prepared from the roots of the egales tree, the recipe for which he had taught Dima and made him promise never to reveal.
‘Are you ready to do man’s work?’
‘I am ready, Baba.’ Many times Dima had watched the procedure in the cave with its dancing shadows and lingering smell of bats and elephants. The smearing of the paste on the arrowheads, the binding of the heads with strips of dik-dik skin, the careful placing into the bark quiver. But this was the first time he prepared his own arrows. The first time he applied the poison. The first time he would use a man’s tools to do a man’s work.
Today was his eleventh birthday.
Dima led his father back to their hut and took his mother’s hand. ‘Baba is here.’
She gave a faint smile.
His father examined her wounds and his expression hardened. He sent Dima to collect some aloe leaves, broke their stems and smeared the sap on the wounds. He then sent him to call one of the girls who worked for the mission.
She arrived looking fearful.
‘You must care for this mama until we return,’ said Dima’s father.
The girl began to cry. He shook her and repeated his words.
She nodded through her tears.
He turned back to his wife. ‘We go to find those men.’
‘We will kill them, Mama,’ said Dima. ‘Then I will come back and care for you.’
‘My Ridima,’ she murmured.
They caught up with the men that night, drawn by the smell of roast meat drifting in the air.
Four men. Three, with guns beside them, sat by the fire chatting and roasting meat – one of Dima’s precious goats. The fourth lay with a cloth tied round his head. Beyond them, a makeshift enclosure of thorn branches penned the animals.
Dima fingered the arrows in their quiver.
His father touched his arm. ‘Not yet. They are too far.’
They watched and waited.
The great scorpion rose in the night sky and the men lay down beside the fire. The man with the cloth round his head had not moved and he had not eaten.
Dima’s father whispered and pointed to a lone rock between them and the men. The signal to attack would be the call of the scops owl. They would rendezvous back at the sand river they had crossed earlier.
A cloud drifted over the moon and his father was gone.
Dima shut his mind. Raced across the open space. Dropped behind the rock. Waited for the shouts and the gun fire.
Dima extracted two arrows from their quiver. Unwrapped the skin covering the poison: poison which could kill an elephant. What chance did a man have?
He laid one arrow on the ground and notched the other into his bow. His breathing had settled. His heart no longer pounded. He was now a man.
The cloud moved on. Moonlight flooded the scene. The scops owl called.
Dima rose and sent his first arrow into the body of the man nearest the fire. He notched the second and—
The man with the head cloth was gone.
A burst of gunfire. Bullets tore into bushes and ricocheted off rocks. Screams and shots shredded the darkness.
He threw himself down behind a tree. He had failed. His father trusted him to do a man’s work and he had failed.
The shooting stopped. The screaming continued.
A crashing in the bushes. The sheep and goats had broken out of their enclosure. They raced past him and tore off into the night.
Dima opened his eyes. Warm sun filtered into his hiding place above the sand river. His head ached. His body ached. His muscles had stiffened up in the night.
‘Baba,’ he whispered.
He sat up, startling a ground-squirrel scrabbling nearby.
He was a bruised and frightened boy alone in the bush. But a bush filled with joyous birdsong and the whispering spirits of trees and rocks: ‘You are now a man. You are now a man.’
Dima peered out from the screening bushes, slipped down the bank and dug into the sand river with his hands. Water seeped into the hole. He quenched his thirst and washed his face.
The alarm call of a francolin.
He started. Turned his head. Listening, smelling, searching.
Scent drifting on the air. Not an animal. A man. Not his father. A man who smelled of stale sweat and wood smoke. A man following his tracks.
Dima would not fail a second time. He turned and ran: not in panic, not in fear, making no effort to conceal his tracks. He ran until he was clear of the surrounding bushes and in the open among rocky outcrops. He chose one with vegetation that offered both shade and concealment, and settled down to watch and wait.
The sun was remorseless and he was thankful of the shade from a gnarled acacia.
His head began to droop.
The man was there. At the edge of the bushes. No cloth round his head but, on one side, the ragged and bloody wound where once
there had been an ear. The man would be reluctant to follow Dima’s tracks, reluctant to approach too close. A hidden boy with poisoned arrows was more deadly than a man in the open – even if that man did have a special gun called Kalashnikov.
The man hid in an adjacent outcrop.
Dima watched and waited. He watched harvester ants carrying grass seeds to their nest, an agama lizard posturing with its blue throat to its drabber mate, a sunbird probing the flowers of an aloe. He watched the place where his foe lay, his rifle glinting in the sun. And he watched the blazing sun beating down as it moved across the sky. By the time it was overhead, even the industrious ants ceased their activity and retired underground.
Dima struggled to keep awake as he watched a dust devil weaving its haphazard way across the surrounding plain. Then, as though with some demonic purpose befitting its name, it rushed at Dima’s hiding place. He clapped his hands over his face, threw himself to the ground and braced his body against the roaring monster which tore into the outcrop, hurling sand, sticks, leaves and birds into the air.
When he cleared the sand from his eyes and peered out, the dust devil had resumed its aimless wandering. The glinting rifle had gone.
He had failed again.
It was almost dark by the time he reached the sand river. Some warthogs had been during the day to drink from the waterhole, but no sign that his father had been there.
He was past caring. ‘Baba,’ he called. ‘BABA!’
His cries were swallowed by the bush. He slumped beside the waterhole and buried his face in the wet sand, heedless of the coarse grains he sucked into his mouth as his body took over the task of restoring itself.
He raised his head and listened.
There it was again.
He answered the call. There was a pause and the call was repeated.
His impulse was to rush towards the sound. But perhaps it was a real owl. He called again. Again it was answered. His father was out there calling to him.
Other things were also out there: leopards, hyenas, lions even. They were dangerous – particularly if hunting – but they were predictable. The man with one ear was different.
Dima picked up his bow and arrows, rose to his feet and crept off.
Reaching a sand gully bordered by sparse bushes, he was about to squeeze through a gap, when—
A dark shape in the gully. Moving towards him.
The shape came nearer and… And passed beneath him – so close he could have touched it. There was a bark of alarm as the leopard picked up his scent and fled into the night. Dima breathed out.
This time his owl call was answered from nearby.
He strained his eyes. Nothing resembling the outline of a person. Had he been deceived by a real bird?
Very faintly, he heard the whispered word: ‘Dima.’
His father lay hidden in the thickest part of the bush. They hugged each other, tears coursing down their cheeks.
‘Baba, that man escaped. I have failed you.’
‘No, you have not… failed. I am… proud of you.’
‘Baba, you’re sick!’
‘It is… nothing.’
‘Be still, my son.’
Dima slipped into a dreamless sleep.
Dima woke to the sound of chopping. He opened his eyes to see his father cutting a throwing-stick.
‘Come.’ His father smiled.
Once again, father and son were hunting at first light with the mist rising from the mountain called Lokinang. As it dispersed in the morning air, the fear lifted from Dima’s mind.
His father hurled the stick.
Dima rushed forward and picked up the luckless hare – just as when he was small and his father was teaching him the ways of the bush. Except, it wasn’t.
His father slumped to the ground gasping and clutching his stomach.
Dima flung the hare aside. ‘Baba, what is it?’
‘One of the… shots from that man hit… me.’ Blood oozed through his clutching fingers. ‘When… when I threw that…’ He paused,
panting. ‘… threw that stick, something broke… inside me.’
‘I will help you, Baba. I will get medicine.’ Dima rushed off. Scrabbled leaves and berries together to make the medicine his father had taught him. When he returned, his father’s eyes were closed. Blood was darkening the sand around.
‘Don’t die, Baba. Don’t die!’
His father opened his eyes. ‘It was the… man with one… one ear. He was—’
‘I will kill him.’
His father gave a faint smile. His eyes remained open. They were still open an hour later but a film had formed over them.
Vultures circled overhead.
Dima closed his father’s eyelids. He kissed his brow, picked up the hyrax-skin bag and walked away, leaving the vultures to carry his father’s spirit into the sky.
He walked all day, indifferent to thirst and hunger. As he approached the village, a flock of sheep and goats wandering unattended through the bush, rushed to him with joyful bleats. He barely noticed.
His mother lay as they had left her. The hut was filled with buzzing flies. There was no sign of the girl.
Dima pulled the cover over his mother’s body, picked up the paraffin lamp and matches from beside the bed.
The flames engulfed the hut and incinerated the termites. He turned away, and followed by his faithful flock, walked off to an uncertain future.
Now, he was a man.
London – 2001
Colette struggled with the front door. It closed at the third attempt and a piece of masonry fell down narrowly missing her head. She leapt back and glared up at the crumbling façade and the creeper which seemed to be holding the house together; then turned her attention to the tiny garden – pretty sad, really. The blue tits, which had been nesting in the back of the piano, had just flown; it was her excuse for not having the thing taken away – or the mouldering sofa through which a buddleia was growing. But the excuse was wearing thin, even though the tits did come back each year, and the buddleia was wonderful for butterflies.
Paul said if you tidied your front garden it encouraged people to think you had something worth stealing. What – his weights, his rowing machine, his… his tackle? Where was Paul, anyway? He’d said something about a new contract but she hadn’t seen him for over two weeks and was beginning to have doubts.
She checked her car and was mildly surprised to find it still in one piece: the steering lock in place, the windows intact, a wheel on each corner. Someone had twisted the coat-hanger aerial into the shape of a phallus. She tried to straighten it. It snapped.
A leaflet was tucked under the windscreen wiper. She pulled it out:
"Shah’s clearance services. All forms of household goods removed by sympathetic and friendly professionals. House, garage and garden clearances a speciality. No job too small."
Why not? The tits had flown.
She rummaged for her mobile and called the number; then had to run to catch her train.
Her brain was in neutral as she rode the escalator at her arrival station but it snapped into gear when she noticed a smug-looking Paul in skimpy underpants. She scrabbled in her briefcase, put on dark glasses and hoped that none of the fifty thousand other travellers would notice her blushes.
There he was again – and again – and again. Every third poster, exhorting London’s population to "feel confident when it matters," portrayed Poser Paul. God! – it was probably the same at every station on the Underground. And who was that beside him? – the bimbo with the inflated superstructure, the belly of a greyhound and the straying hand.
She glared at her fellow passengers. The next thing she knew, she was lying in a heap at the top of the escalator with feet stepping over and round her. People tutting and muttering. She snatched her sunglasses out of the path of a large foot and some of the words filtered through her humiliation.
‘Give me your hand.’
She looked up. A tanned face, blue eyes, a concerned expression.
‘I guess you missed your footing.’
‘Yes, I was…’ She held out her hand. ‘Thanks.’
‘Are you hurt?’
‘Only my pride.’
He gave a lop-sided grin. ‘Sure you’re okay?’
‘Yes – and thanks.’
‘No sweat.’ He disappeared into the crowd.
Hey! Aren’t you supposed to invite me for a drink or something?
Another bloody poster! Graffiti scrawled across it read: "May contain nuts."
She fought her way to the exit.
She reached the Zoo twenty minutes later, made her way to the Unit of Comparative Medicine and let herself into an office with the nameplate Dr Colette Fraser, Virology, on the door. She dumped her briefcase on the desk and slumped into her chair.
The light on her answer-phone was flashing. She pressed the replay button: “Colette, one of the new colobus is off its food, can you come down?” It was Eric, her assistant. The light continued flashing and she waited for the second message. “I’m really sorry. I don’t know how to say this, but Binty and I have this thing going. I think it’s best I move out. Sorry.”
‘Binty!’ She swept Paul’s photograph off the desk. The glass smashed.
She snatched up the phone and punched numbers.
“Hi, this is Paul, I’m busy right now.”
Doing what, I wonder?
“Leave your number or call back later.”
What – when you’ve finished?
She drummed her fingers on the desk. ‘Hi, this is Colette. I’m not going to call back later. Just make sure you and your tackle never come into my life again!’ She slammed the phone down and felt better. ‘Tosser!’
She switched on her computer and allowed her mind to wander while it booted up. Realistically, it couldn’t have worked. There were two new e-mails: the first reminded her to attend a meeting about the Condor Programme – whatever that was. She deleted it. The second was from her boss. She thought he was in the States, but this was from Kenya. “Call me urgently on this number. Don’t forget we’re two hours ahead of you.”
She got through on the third attempt.
For a moment, she was confused then remembered that Jeff still kept his old office at Nairobi University. ‘Can I speak to Professor Jefferson Carter?’
‘You just wait.’
She smiled. Some things in Kenya didn’t change.
‘Carter,’ said a man’s voice.
‘Jeff, it’s Colette. You asked me to call.’
‘Thanks, Colette. You busy right now?’
‘Well, there is the—’
‘Good. I want you to get out here on the plane tonight.’
‘Yes. The Petes have gotten a problem.’
‘What sort of problem?’
‘I’ll fill you in when you get here. Just e-mail me your flight details and I’ll meet you at the airport. You’re booked into the Fairview.’
‘Jeff, my dad’s quite ill and may have to go into—’
‘Get a three-month excursion. Charge it to my travel budget.’
‘I’m really tied up at the—’
‘See you tomorrow. And bring your sampling gear. Any problems, call me on this number. Leave a message if I’m out.’
‘Thanks Colette, really appreciate it.’ He cut the line.
Damn! He’d caught her off guard. Why hadn’t she resisted? She wasn’t ready to go back. The memories were too painful. And what was that about the Petes? If they had a problem they could contact her direct. Why was Jeff involved?
There was a knock on the door and a young man with a wispy beard entered. ‘Morning, Colette.’
‘Hi, Eric, I got your message.’
‘I’m fine, why?’
‘It’s just you look a bit… er, flustered.’ He noticed the broken picture frame. ‘That’s a shame.’
‘I, er… knocked it off with my briefcase – careless.’
‘I’ll get a dustpan and brush.’
‘Leave it, Eric.’
‘It’s no trouble.’
‘I said leave it!’
He held up his hands. ‘Okay, okay.’
‘Sorry.’ She gave a rueful grin. ‘All right, I am a bit uptight – not my day I’m afraid.’
‘I have days like that sometimes.’
With posers in pants and bronzed Samaritans? I doubt it.
They went through their respective units, and changed into hospital greens before entering the quarantine area reserved for all new arrivals. The black and white colobus monkey – one of the new batch from the Berlin Zoo – crouched in the corner of the cage, hunched and listless. The others seemed fine and raced through to a connecting cage.
She and Eric put on surgical gloves and facemasks; then, with a mixture of persuasion and coaxing, managed to get the monkey into a crush-cage so she could carry out a proper examination.
The monkey had a high temperature, signs of respiratory distress, and most disturbingly, a slight nosebleed. At least, there was no evidence of a rash – yet. She gave it broad-spectrum antibiotic – not that it would do much good, but it was a gesture. They carried the monkey in its cage to an isolation room. Normally, she alone would attend to it but in view of her imminent departure to Kenya, Eric would have to take responsibility.
‘Are you okay with that?’ she asked, when they were back in her office.
‘Yes, I think so.’
She opened a drawer in her desk and took out a business card. ‘If it dies, call this number.’ She scribbled down the details. ‘Ask for Dr Alan Davies.’
‘I’m sure it won’t, but if it does, call Alan.’
‘Someone else who specialises in primate viruses. He’ll know what to do.’
‘It’s okay. I’m just being ultra-cautious.’ She gave an unconvincing smile. ‘I’m sure the monkey will be fine.’
‘But this Davies person—?’
‘As I said, nothing to worry about. I just want to be sure you’ve got back-up if you need it – which you won’t.’ She repeated the smile.
‘It’s okay, Eric. We’ve got it covered. Now, are you clear what to do while I’m away?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘If necessary, you can always get hold of me through Jeff.’
‘Right, then. Thanks, Eric.’
She gazed at the closed door. Was she being alarmist? That nosebleed, though. Probably trauma from the journey. And the temperature? That could also be stress. Should she alert Alan? She turned to her computer and typed in the address on his card. A screen flashed up: Porton Down is home to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Defence. The site is one of the United Kingdom’s most sensitive and secretive government facilities for military defence against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear warfare.
She managed to get through her routine work but her mind kept going back to the monkey. She paid two further visits to the isolation unit. The monkey hadn’t moved and its food remained untouched. Perhaps she wasn’t being alarmist.
At lunchtime, she grabbed a journal from her bookshelf and went to the main cafeteria – a place of cheerful chips, children’s chatter and – when the doors were open in summer – the aroma of elephants. She collected some food, found a spare table, propped the journal against a pot of plastic flowers and shut out her surroundings.
‘Do you mind if I sit here?’
She glanced up. ‘No, go ahead.’ She went back to the journal.
‘It’s rather crowded.’
‘Hmm.’ She started munching a sandwich and continued reading. The respiratory infection, the bleeding nose, the high temperature –
please, God, no! Perhaps she’d missed the rash. She’d have to check more thoroughly.
‘I can see you’re busy but haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’
‘I don’t think so.’ Nice try, Sunshine, but— ‘Good grief! What are you doing here?’
‘I could ask you the same question.’
‘I work here.’
He raised his eyebrows. They were unusually fair against his tanned face.
‘You okay, now?’
She managed to switch off monkeys, and smiled. ‘I felt such a fool. Thanks for coming to my rescue this morning.’
‘I guess your mind was elsewhere.’
She was at a loss for words.
‘What are you reading?’
She showed him the article: "Differential diagnosis of haemorrhagic diseases of primates, by A. Davies."
‘Not exactly light reading.’
‘It’s my job.’
‘You a vet?’
‘What’s a sort-of vet?’
Stop blushing, you stupid cow.
‘I am a vet but I now specialise in this sort of thing.’ She gestured to the article.
‘Isn’t that a bit scary?’
She examined her finger nails. It was scary sometimes – bloody scary.
‘I’m sorry I interrupted your work. Just ignore me.’ He pulled a newspaper from his brief case.
Ignore you? Fat chance.
‘Do you work here?’ she asked. ‘I don’t often come to the cafeteria so it’s hard to keep track of people.’
‘Hell no, I’m just a visitor. I was invited to give a talk.’
‘Not the… what was it?’
‘That’s it. I’m afraid I zapped the message.’
‘Have I missed the talk?’
He nodded. ‘It was this morning.’
‘Come on,’ she said, closing the journal. ‘Let me get you coffee in the Fellows’ lounge. It’s much quieter.’
‘I don’t want to impose.’
‘No, I need a break. Besides it’s the least I can do to repay you for saving my life.’
A few minutes later they were settled in a more peaceful and refined environment.
‘I’m sorry I missed the talk,’ she said, ‘but we have so many meetings, I’d never get any work done if I went to all of them.’
‘So you’re involved in condor conservation?’
‘No ways! Condor is a corny acronym. One of the donors dreamed up the name.’
‘What are you conserving?’
‘Wildlife regions of Kenya.’
‘Is that new?’
‘No, but the funding is. At last, we’re getting good backing from the donors and a chap called Jeff Carter, who’s—’
‘Jeff! You work with Jeff?’
‘A very persuasive guy,’ he said, with a chuckle.
‘Don’t I know it. But how’s Jeff involved?’
‘He’s been brought in as—’
Her pager buzzed. She checked the message. ‘Damn! Can you excuse me a moment? I’ll be right back.’
She hurried off to meet Eric in the primate isolation wing. It took longer than expected and when she got back to the Fellows’ lounge, he’d gone. The woman, who was tidying away the coffee, told her that the man – “such a nice man” – had to leave to catch a plane. He’d said he was really sorry he couldn’t wait.
Such a nice man – and she hadn’t even learned his name. The only consolation was the sick monkey was now eating. Perhaps the antibiotic was working or perhaps it was travel stress. She felt foolish over her alarmism.
She went back to her office and stared at her computer: chance encounters with someone who had sun-bleached eyebrows and worked in Kenya with Jeff on some conservation programme or other, and who— Just book the bloody flight! But what if her ex was still there? He’d stopped sending her Christmas cards but had he moved on? Perhaps she should tell Jeff the flights were full. He’d never believe her, though.
She swept up the broken picture frame, consigned an unsatisfactory relationship to the waste bin and booked the flight.
She reached home and was pleased to see the front garden had been cleared. She put her key in the lock and opened the door.
Bastards! They must have discovered the spare key hidden under the brick.
She found the crumpled leaflet in her briefcase, and called the number.
‘Can I speak to Mr Shah?’
‘Which Mr Shah you wanting?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You wanting to leave message?’
She gazed round the sad empty room. What’s the point? ‘Just tell, whoever, that he’s left a broken chair.’ At least, Paul’s stuff had also been taken. That was some consolation.
They hadn’t bothered with her clothes. She’d had her passport and laptop at work, and had arranged to collect her ticket at the
She changed into jeans and a simple top then climbed into the loft and dragged out a suitcase, stuffed some clothes into it and went to the bathroom – also untouched. She studied the twenty-nine-year-old with the brown eyes and sleek black hair gathered in a pony-tail
who peered back at her from the mirror.
‘Your nose is too big. God! – wrinkles.’
She scrabbled things into her wash bag, shoved it in the case and hurried downstairs. She checked the essentials were in the small rucksack to carry onto the plane, had a last look round and locked the front door – that was a joke.
She set off for the airport, wondering what it would feel like to be thirty in a couple of weeks’ time.
Nairobi – 2001
Ian tried to ignore the phone. It was no use; they knew he was in. He snatched up the receiver. ‘Sinclair.’
‘Ian, I know it’s Monday but—’
‘Sorry, Helen, what is it?’
‘The High Commissioner would like you to come and identify some birds.’
‘He’d like you to come and identify some birds outside his window.’
‘Good grief! Is that more important than national security?’
‘Nothing.’ He scowled at his reflection in the window. ‘Okay, on my way.’ He adjusted his tie, took the stairs to the top floor and smiled contritely.
Helen looked up from her desk. ‘Perhaps you need a break.’
Office work getting him down? Was it that obvious? He shrugged.
The turquoise top suited her, complementing her blonde hair which was tied back revealing discreet jade ear-pendants. Her slim bronzed legs protruded from under the desk. She’d kicked off her shoes and was wiggling pink-painted toes. She wasn’t wearing her ring. He wondered why.
‘How’s it going?’ he asked.
It was her turn to shrug. ‘Go on in.’ She inclined her head towards the inner door.
He knocked and entered.
Sir Aubrey Gilmore stood peering out of the window. He was a tall angular man with bushy eyebrows, a prominent nose and Prince-Charles ears which probably went with the post. His pose suggested the colonial diplomat surveying virgin territory or a native uprising, rather than bird-watching.
‘Morning, sir,’ said Ian.
The High Commissioner turned. ‘Ah, Ian. Good man. Thanks for coming. Tell me, what are those chaps?’ He pointed to some iridescent purple birds which were jostling the other birds aside in the pink blossoms of a cape chestnut tree just outside the window.
Ian followed the High Commissioner’s gaze. ‘They’re violet-backed starlings. The purple and white ones are the males, and the brown ones are—’
‘Thanks, I must remember that – most attractive. Take a seat.’ Sir Aubrey returned to his own seat and began shuffling files on the desk. ‘Keeping well, are we?’
‘Splendid, splendid. Any good safaris recently?’
‘Ah. Knew it was here somewhere.’ Sir Aubrey passed over a bulky report. ‘Do you remember this consultancy?’
Ian read the title: "Conservation in Developing Regions of Kenya – Report of a Multi-Donor Consortium." ‘Yes, some of the team came and spoke to me about security issues.’ He passed the file back. ‘They seemed to have some pretty radical ideas.’
‘Well they certainly haven’t pulled their punches. They say there won’t be any African wildlife to speak of within fifty years unless there’s an international effort to address the problems.’
‘They could be right.’
‘Well you know more about these things than I do, but the consultants seem to have convinced our lords and masters who’ve accepted most of the recommendations.’
The report on Ian’s desk began to seem less important.
‘I plan to go back to London with my own endorsement,’ continued the High Commissioner, ‘but with one proviso. That’s where you come in.’
‘I see.’ He didn’t.
‘Our Department for International Development is proposing to pledge a not inconsiderable sum – twenty-five-million pounds to be precise – over the next five years for wildlife conservation in Kenya, provided the other key donors – US, Japan, Germany and so on – make similar pledges. Coffee?’
‘Er, no thanks.’
The High Commissioner took off his glasses, held them up to the light, polished them on his tie and peered out of the window again.
‘Violet-winged starlings, you say?’
‘Ah, yes. You’ll see that one of the main proposals is to set up a number of task forces to tackle different wildlife aspects.’ Sir Aubrey looked up. ‘Cynthia will be most interested.’
The High Commissioner’s wife interested in the operational aspects of a conservation programme? I don’t think so.
‘She’s keeping a record of all the birds she sees at the residence – bet the violet-winged starling isn’t on the list.’
‘Oh, yes. Must remember that.’ He smoothed his eyebrows. ‘Anyway, the consultants recommend that each of these task forces should be jointly led by a specialist nominated by the donors and a Kenyan counterpart. On this basis I am proposing that you help lead the force concerned with security and anti-poaching. Let’s say for a year – should be enough time to get the show on the road.’
‘You could probably do with a change.’
‘Let me explain,’ went on the High Commissioner. ‘I’ve already had a number of informal discussions with other heads of mission while the report was in draft. With such large sums of money being proposed, we are unanimous that there must be strict and transparent accountability…’
Ian’s mind began to wander.
‘…joined-up thinking… coordination of inputs… poverty focus… multi-pronged attack… maximize resources… Are you with me?’
‘Yes. You want me to be an accountant.’
‘No.’ The High Commissioner wagged an admonishing finger. ‘No, no, no.’
Ian raised an enquiring eyebrow.
‘Well… no, not exactly.’
‘What do you have in mind, then?’
‘Well, it’s, um… we need to make sure that a tight watch is kept on the funds. We don’t want any misappropriation; politicians lining
their pockets, fingers in the till, cooking the books – that sort of thing.’
‘But appointing a military attaché to manage budgets?’
‘Ian, the whole point is that you are appointed to the security task force on the basis of your military background and, I might add, your considerable knowledge of wildlife. You are not being appointed as an accountant.’
‘But that will be my role.’
‘As far as Her Majesty’s Government is concerned, yes. But the Kenyan authorities won’t see it that way. Besides, there may be more to this security aspect than meets the eye.’
‘Eyes and ears, Ian. Pre-emptive focus.’ The High Commissioner leaned forward and lowered his voice. ‘Let’s say the Americans are getting jittery.’
‘But they’ve been like that ever since the Embassy bombing.’
‘Yes, yes, I know. It’s just that the, um… the Ambassador button-holed me at a recent function and mentioned some satellite images their fellows sent her which appear to show some unexplained activity in a remote region of northern Kenya.’
‘What sort of activity?’
‘She didn’t know but— Who’s your opposite number in the Embassy?’
‘Felix Rossi. Italian father, Jamaican mother.’
‘Is that relevant?’
‘His ethnic background. I wouldn’t have thought that was relevant these days.’
‘Precisely. The Kenyans can be quite sensitive about such matters.’
That’s why I mentioned it. He was glad he hadn’t mentioned the mother’s profession.
The High Commissioner sniffed. ‘Anyway, get on to him. See what he can tell you.’ He leaned back in his chair. ‘I expect to hear from the Minister for Environment and Conservation, within the next day or so, who your counterpart will be.’
‘How’s he involved?’
‘Daniel ole-Tomeno is the Programme’s patron.’ The High Commissioner removed his glasses. ‘We were at Cambridge together.’
Ian pasted a polite smile.
‘He’s a Maasai.’
‘Is that relevant?’ – sotto voce.
‘Good runners the Maasai. Daniel won the varsity cross-country three years on the trot, if you’ll pardon the pun. No one could touch him.’
Ian’s gaze wandered back to the birds outside.