Tomorrow morning early we will leave the ranch.
‘Odd how quickly it can all change so much’, observes Ant, ‘how fast it can go wrong’.
He means The Dream.
That’ll teach us, I think, to let our Hearts rule our Heads.
When I first arrived, just four weeks ago, four weeks, I felt intimidated
Here. It seems huge and overwhelming. Mid morning and the sky, ballooning with the abortive promise of rain –will any come to extinguish this stifling heat – merges with the sage grey of the bush which reaches as far as the eye can see. Miles of it, to a dart straight far away horizon. There’s nothing between me and that. The flatness of the scrub a featureless blanket. Few hills to interrupt never endingly stretched space nor behind which one can imagine a pocket of civilisation that I cannot see but which mightn’t be far away. A market? A mall? A party? People?
I wondered whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew? Thought about my marriage, whether I was right to acquiesce this time, considered I always seem to say yes and wondered whether that made me less of a person, a failure to the feminist cause?
But the thing is about tandem living, you need to be peddling in the same direction or you won’t get anywhere. With his support and his balanced approach to most things, I’ll learn how to peddle in the same direction that he wants to go. I usually do. Without mine he might have been miserable. If this makes him happy, I reason, it will me too. In time.
Not for one moment then, just four weeks ago, did I imagine the ‘in time’ would concertina as just days. I did as my wise mum suggested: I kept a diary …
I ask Ant, as I observe my fatly happy Labradors explore their new home, ‘what do I need to worry about here, for the dogs I mean’. I expect him to shrug and say, ‘not much’. Instead he says, ‘tick bite fever … tsetse fly …. Oh, and snakes of course, this is real puff adder country’.
I swallow. At least I don’t have to worry about them being run over I suppose?
In the evening, after dark, we load the dogs into the car. I am in my pajamas. The night is velvet black and dense. A thick blanket of cloud shrouds the sky so that there are no stars and the moon, the slendercheeseslice that it is, has been obliterated. We drive down the airstrip. I sit on the roof, in the wind, holding a spotlight which I sweep from side to side so that it illuminates the bush either side of the road. I feel incredibly young with the dust I can’t see in the dark whipping in my hair; I am cast back decades to a thousand similar occasions when, as children, we did exactly this with dad, who died at the age I am now. I had never considered how cruelly young he was until this year.
A small herd of impala are settling for the night on the strip, where they can see what’s coming and where the sand still bears some of the day’s warmth. My beam picks out their eyes as bright marbles. They skip fretfully about, momentary panic splitting their party. I drop the glare and we leave them be. A dikdik dances away into the scrub. An owl. Nightjars. A rabbit. And then we spy a genet cat, small and lean, with his spotted torso reminiscent of a leopard, his striped tail a tiger. He is intent on hunting for insects for his supper and is quite oblivious of the car or the light or our soft voices as he steps daintily and carefully, picking his way through grass keeping his nose to the ground. We watch him for a full five minutes until his foraging takes him too far into the undergrowth.
‘I’d like to see an elephant’, I tell Ant as I slide from the roof and back into my seat. ‘You will’, he smiles, ‘I’ve seen the evidence; they’re around’.
The house which we must mould as home sits behind the farm offices on a small incline. Its position and the scrub mean that from the verandah you are not aware of any other buildings, indeed any civilisation at all. From where I stand, gingerly balancing on a short wall which looks as if it could give way at any moment, palm shielding my brow, I can see nothing but an ocean of bush spread in every direction and for as far as I can see. In the distance the Lali Hills, small and neat and stark for their elevation against the flatness of the surrounding, spilling savannah, are bruised purple by the leaning dusk. The airstrip suggests it might once have been a busier place. Perhaps it will be again.
Ant and I both knew the residents of this house. Friends of my parents, they left here 30 years go. I wonder what it looked like as Shirley’s home? A whisper of a curtain remains at a broken window; did she hang it I wonder? The house has no roof now. Or ceilings. The smell of bat guano has been allowed to escape. The rooms seem very small. The bathrooms miniscule so that the doors bang up against the loo when you open them. There are almost no sockets, ‘just think’, I observe, ‘a time when it wasn’t important to charge a phone or an iPod or a laptop …?’ Perhaps all the rare power points were used for then were the odd lamp, the occasional box of Carmen Heated Rollers?
‘When do you think this was built?, I ask Ant.
He doesn’t know. I think it was built in the seventies I tell the bush. It has all the architectural, aesthetic imagination of the same decade. Precisely none. Square. Grey bricked. Paradoxically small and suburban against the swallowing wilderness that surrounds it; it is its location that charms.
We pick our way through what was a garden, a desert rose is in furious bloom, as if to prove there was beauty here once, a young baobab festooned with creepers, a saffron orange bounanvillea cruelly pruned but with a base as thick as my calf so I know it is old; there is something comforting in thinking I knew the woman who planted it. I will keep that I tell myself. I will nurture it and take from it cuttings to spawn a whole fence full of orange blossom which will drip as confetti onto the lawn I plan to cultivate.
We push open the door to what must have been a store. It swarms with bats and the stench is overbearing. A jaundiced looking monitor lizard is hunkered on a decaying bookshelf. I think he must be dead until I discover he’s vanished a few minutes later. ‘How long do you think he’d been in there’, I ask Ant? Ant doesn’t know but given that his colour had leached almost right out of him, it must have been a while. ‘Since the door was locked’, I worry? But Ant’s too busy pushing more doors in to hear me.
I send the children pictures of what will be their new bedrooms. They post them on their Facebook pages; they think I’m joking.
A week ago I battled to find cool refuge, wore shorts and sleeveless tops, longed for cold showers. Today I’m in jeans, socks, a jumper and wish I could soak in a hot bath. The rain has come and brought with it low bellied cloud that sinks all the way to touch the scrub and scribble on my horizon so that it’s not nearly as dart straight or visible as it was. All night the rain fell softly and brought with it squadrons of insects that crowded clattering into the brightly lit kitchen so that I could hear their beating wings as they swarmed in a final brilliantly illuminated dance. They’d all fallen deadly by dawn so that the little counter top was carpeted in gossamer wings and tiny blackly curled thoraxes and I had to tip the toaster upside down before I put the bread in. If I were to turn the lights off, the bats would seek refuge.
I think I prefer the dudus which don’t dive bomb with such blind fury. And which have all obligingly expired by morning so can be swept up and out. Unlike the bats which hang from the pelmets and have to be shooed away with a broom.
The herdsman who looks after a straggling, bedraggled collection of cattle so skinny ribbed I can count every bone – 13 a side – complains that a lion is harassing his herd. Thirty years ago lion were more of a problem than they are today; when Ant ranched next door they culled 60 lion a year, ‘it’s all we really did’, he remembers, ‘keep lion out of the cattle’. He hated it. So did Dad who was obliged to dispatch of troublesome lions regularly on the farm when I was a child.
We have no intention of dispatching the alleged culprit in this case; we don’t have the means to do it anyway. But we do go up to the farm gate and track the spore, heavy indentations in the soft damp soil. ‘why didn’t we hear him?’, I want to know. Ant shrugs, ‘they’ve probably learned to keep quiet to avoid being shot’, he says. We don’t hear him that night either, but we hear hyena, their whoopwhooping comes hauntingly across the bush from up near the airstrip where earlier in the evening we watched a pair of protective plovers frantically trying to distract us from their two little ones. We’ve watched the adults birds on the strip often in recent days, trying to divert us and the dogs away from a nest. Today must have been the first time their young were on the move, tiny, slightly fluffy mirror images of their parents.
In the late afternoon Ant and I head towards Sala gate which is the easterly most entrance to Tsavo National Park and only fifteen minutes from the farm. My memories of the place are childish ones, a welcome exit from hours of Keeping your Eyes Peeled as we drove through the park towards the beach. I remember the road went on eternally, miles and miles of ribbon trailing through the scrub, mounting each tiny elevation and collapsing the other side so that , disappointingly, I could see its length before it unravelled behind us. I’m astonished at the speed at which we cover ground now. Everything must shrink as you get older; the proportions of old homes, the distances of once taken, apparently interminable, journeys, the quantity of time left …
We don’t have the necessary paperwork for park entry. We need a Smartcard which we can only acquire in town says warden Henry in his most officious tone. We plead with Henry whose initial insistence on the right protocol begins to crack quite quickly, ‘I think he’s weakening’, whispers Ant. Ten bucks later and his resolve gives way entirely altogether and we are happily through the gate and watching a herd of elephants daubed blood red from a dust bath.
We follow the Galana River west. Evidence of recent heavy rain upcountry is witnessed in high banks and trees as debris and the river still rushes with urgency. We stop the car under the colossal shade of tall whispering borassus palms and walk along the beach. I measure my small size five foot against the enormous print of an elephant. I watch the bush closely in case a herd is coming in for an evening drink; I can see the path they clearly take regularly, the bank collapsing between their accumulated considerable weight. ‘What would you do if an elephant appeared?’ I ask Ant. ‘I’d move quietly towards the river, slide into the water, be carried away to safety on that current’. I don’t pursue the conversation, I don’t’ want to remind him about the hippo we’ve just seen or the crocs which are bound to be lurking. My dad used to tell us that the Galana crocodiles all waited downstream with their jaws agape waiting for reckless tourists or herdsboys or women collecting water to carelessly fall in. I don’t’ want to think about my husband lodged firmly in a croc’s jaws. I especially don’t want to think about myself in similar predicament so I just shuffle along quietly and watch the bush and don’t talk anymore.
Just before exiting the park a huge herd of buffalo surges across the road in front of the car. Hooves and horns and dust so that the plains swarm blackly. Then they brake and stand stock still, dust settling so that they appear as visions from obscurity, and observe us with cross beady stares. Disdainfully, then, they toss their enormous heads and trot off.
Every evening we walk for miles through the bush. I five paces behind Ant. He jokes that this is because I am a respectful African wife. In fact it’s to allow him the task of battling a way through the wait-a-bit thorn which snags on skin and clothing in mean pinches sometimes drawing blood. Ant whacks it with a stick and it coils upwards so that its barbs cling to one another velcrolike. Dad would have called this bundu-bashing. As a child, when we drove past this ranch on the way to the beach, the scrub landscape seemed eternal and unchanging, as if there was nothing there but the spiteful wait-a-bit. But we walk and a whole quiet otherworld reveals itself, tiny plucky wild flowers pop brave heads above an arid earth and we often startle game.
A troop of mongoose who chatter furiously as Pili dashes in their direction, they take cover in the nearest anthill; sweetly paired dikdik; impala and last evening a herd of water buck on the airstrip, who let us walk with 100m of them, Pili restrained on a leash, before they fled. Far away we can hear the high pitched cackle of jackals. And all the while I watch the sky as the sun drops and drags the colour with it so that the horizon is aflame with saffron and tangerine and the Lali Hills are bruised lilac with the weight of the collapsing day and the underbelly of clouds burned baconpink. The moon hangs like a Chinese lantern, papery and pale, and is lit with the fires of sundown in a darkening sky. And the light that ignites the scrub is distilled to the colour of whisky. It is heartbreakingly beautiful.
And then we head home for a beer by the campfire.
So tomorrow morning we will load the few mobile possessions we have with us, the dogs, the cat, into the car and we’ll drive out, away from this huge spilling generous place and we’ll leave the bush and the skies behind, we won’t see the monitor we’ve nicknamed Sid who lives in the anthill behind the kitchen again, we won’t drink tea to the clamour of starlings and sparrow weavers. And I am quite likely to cry.
The brevity of dreams.
Either they don’t last or they morph as nightmares.