I herd the dogs out at dawn. The puppy tumbles down the verandah steps to pee on a lawn spiked with frost, like a punk’s hairdo. The cat comes high stepping across cold grass, mewling in complaint at the chill. The dam breathes steam at the bottom of the valley. The tea, close cropped weeks ago, is bristling with bright new green.
Ben flies back to London today. The sadness I feel is reminiscent of my returning to boarding school days, a lump wedged between my sternum and my throat. I make sure he’s up. Take him coffee. Make toast.
Ant leaves for work. Ben says goodbye to him with a broad grin and a firm handshake. His dad holds his hand for longer than would be seemly if it were anybody other than his son. The lump threatens to dissolve.
By 8 we’re in the car. ‘Passport, ticket?’ Yup. ‘Phone, chargers?’. Yup. We take the shortcut which means dust and trucks which drive at such perilous speed that the short cut morphs as long for the number of times I need to take to the bush to duck out of their way.
We drive three hours to town. We play the same CD over and over that we played over and over when we drove together last week, 2 000 klms to collect the pup from the north. It’s the only one we have. It sounds tired. Ben drops off. The temperature climbs ten degrees as the altitude sinks. I am ready for this. I shed layers, untucking arms from sleeves, one at a time so I can keep a hand on the steering wheel. The cops don’t stop me once.
In town we drop the car off at the garage for its service. And Ben and I climb into Rashid’s taxi. He drives us the dusty ten miles to the airport, pointing out the palaces of all the rich ‘warabu’ in town, who’ve made millions transporting fuel and tobacco. They look like concrete wedding cakes, white and decorated with swirls of white plaster like icing. Miles of tiles adorn the exterior. Windows like mirrors. Rashid is very impressed. He’d like a house like that.
At the tiny airport the check in staff, wearing days old filthy rubber gloves, insist on opening Ben’s case which is secured with tape which Ben has to slice through with the knife they proffer. They only give the insides a cursory glance, mercifully no digging amongst Ben’s back-to-uni laundered wardrobe with stained gloves. They seal it all back up ineffectually with cheap selotape which curls redundantly off directly. We share a bottle of water, a television too high up the wall to watch in comfort, delivers the ubiquitous wildlife show. ‘Be glad it’s not air disaster’, I say to Ben, ‘it was the last time I flew from here’. A nervous flyer, I got up and walked outside to the apron. The airport staff were disconcerted, ‘mama, you can’t stand outside, you must sit inside and wait for the plane’. Then you, I said, must change the channel. They laughed. A Stand Off. I stayed where I was.
Go Mum, says Ben, you’ve got a long way to drive.
I hug him. Twice. Hard. I tell him to look after himself. You too, he says. (When did my children start telling me to Take Care I wonder later? When they grew taller than I?) And I leave.
As Rashid and I drive away, the little craft Ben will begin his journey in bounces down the dirt strip, twin engines slicing the stillness, dust rising. I watch until I can’t see it anymore.
We drive back to the garage via the butchery, for dog meat, and the market where I race through high aisles where women sit amongst their wares, piles of rice and mounds of tomatoes and heaps of purple aubergines glossy as if polished. On previous occasions I have trawled this market with my children, laughing with vendors, negotiating the prices in Kiswahili, bartering, bantering. I don’t have the heart for it today. I gather my peas and carrots and pay the asking price.
Back at the garage my car isn’t ready. I sit and wait and read the Sunday Times on my ipad and wonder at the extraordinary far awayness of London Fashion Week and the immediacy with which its images have been delivered to me? I sit for a full hour and a half.
Finally the car’s ready. The mechanic shows me what he has done: secured the tailgate, changed the fuel filter, cleaned the engine. He shows me the jack and the fire extinguisher and triangles that we’re obliged to carry here, to prove they haven’t been nicked in the garage. They have been before. He tells me he has adjusted the tyre pressure; it was too low he says.
It’s the first journey I have made solo for months and months. I play music very, very loudly. The sun is climbing down from its perch and the hills are turning violet. Buses, hurtling late towards far away destinations, race past me recklessly. I duck into their slip stream, they’ll shadow me from speed guns, slowing in the right places so that I do too. But I can’t keep up.
The shortcut is even worse at this hour, trucks returning laden with timber, kicking up clouds of dust, pushing me off the road. The pickup bounces all over the corrugations and slips on loose scree. The tyre pressure uncomfortably high. I must slow right down after each passing vehicle until the plume of dust dissipates and visibility is restored. The temperature gauge in the dash indicates falling figures as I climbn. From 28 degrees to 18.
And then I am home and the puppy greets me in a frenzy of barks and bendy-body tail wagging. I make a mug of tea and step onto the verandah to see the sun set and watch for the trail of Ant’s homecoming dust.
It will be days before I have the courage to step into my son’s bedroom.