Julia paused and reached for her shades. She was standing at the exit from the airport concourse, where the current of arriving passengers met the rip tide of taxi drivers, baggage loaders, the listless waiting and the meandering lost.
A kid had unzipped her holdall and was busy rummaging. Grabbing it, he dashed into the crowd, a scrawny blur in a football top. Yet after a few strides a taxi driver tackled him, the holdall upending, slewing contents across the pavement. Julia pulled her suitcase over, and clung onto it with one hand while she repacked the spillage. She stuffed the mosquito net, still in its packet, and her new sun hat back inside. She wasn’t sure what this bag contained – she’d packed in a hurry – and found Freddy’s toy helicopter. A complete mistake, she’d been meaning to get new batteries for the remote control. Somehow things had got jumbled up. One rotor looked badly bent by the crush. The taxi driver beamed at her and took her suitcase.
“This happen any place. Don’t worry!”
The air was hot and cloying, tourists were pointing, people were everywhere. She nodded and got into the taxi, her nerves about working in Kenya keened to a point.
At the bar of the Essex Hotel, the mood was global corporate; there wasn’t even a Maasai shield or a pair of crossed spears for decoration. The shelving to her left housed a teapot collection. Working down here, away from the landline in her room, her concentration could not be broken by the need to phone her parents, to check that Freddy was alright, and that Mark her soon-to-be-divorced husband knew nothing of her absence. She wouldn’t call on her mobile. Her mother would see the number and query the cost. So that was okay. She had a driver and a minder from a reputable firm pre-booked for the week, so she shouldn’t fear any unpleasantness. That was okay, too.
She sipped her orange juice and scanned through the contract. The client, Leaf Biofuels, didn’t currently have any employees in the country, and they wanted someone they could trust. Enter her.
“Hello there, Jools?” A broad yet chiselled face, short hair and neat beard, smiling. Enough of a likeness to spark the scramble for a name. Eyebrows raised, she opened her mouth:
“Tom…? Tom from Birmingham University?”
“The same. And yes, it has been a long time. You’re here for work, I see?” He glanced over a letter on the table.
“Indeed,” she said, shuffling her papers together.
“Better than being on safari, like my folks. I’m meeting them here in a bit, when they finally get back. So what are you up to these days?” She tried to compose herself, flicking her hair behind her ear. “If you don’t mind me asking,” said Tom, just as she was starting to speak. They had been in the same halls of residence in the first year. She had a dim memory of an unfulfilled crush.
“I’m a solicitor. There are some people making a noise about a land purchase, and I’m here to establish the facts for a UK-based client. And brief a barrister, here in Nairobi.”
“Oh, right.” He sipped on his pint of Guinness. “Sorry, do you mind if I sit down? It would be good to chat about the old days.”
“No, of course not!” she said, blinking. She didn’t do unprepared, if she could help it, even when socialising. More than that, meeting someone here was completely out of left field.
“So is this your first visit to Kenya?”
“Yes, yes it is. Seems much the same as home!” She gestured to the orchestrated blandness of their surroundings.
“Yeah well, that’s why I chose this hotel for Mum and Dad. You’ve been to Africa before though? I mean that makes it sound like one country, but…”
“No, no first visit to the continent, actually!”
“Okay. So you know what you’re about, then. With local knowledge and stuff.” He winked.
“Excuse me, but I have watched David Attenborough. And seen the Lion King.” They laughed. She felt oppressed. “I saw the newspaper had something about a grenade attack on a church,” she added quickly. “Sounded awful.”
“Yeah, extreme, and pretty unusual. Tensions have gone up recently…” He paused and nodded. “So, you do land law, then?”
“And the land purchase? What’s that for?”
“Nothing doing right now, huh?” Julia tilted her head and pursed her lips. Tom grinned raffishly. “Which province?” he asked.
“Confidential. Oh, alright, Eastern, since you ask.”
“Bet that’s gone down well. Sorry. Sounds like interesting work. I expect you got hired by a top firm. Everyone knew you were going places.”
“I’ll give you my card.” She reached into her briefcase.
“I’ll text you my number. Hey, nice pic. Julia Howard, Lambert Smith Magers,” he read. “So you’re married.” She tapped the bare fingers of her left hand on the table.
“I’ll be Julia Wareing again soon enough.”
“Ouch. Bad luck, Jools.”
“Julia, please. No one calls me that. So what is it that you do? Or are you on holiday with your parents?”
“I work for an NGO. Concern Worldwide.”
“We give assistance to partner organisations – trade unions and community groups – helping people to protect their rights.”
“I see.” Eyebrows raised. The face her brother had described as a horse face. Long-nosed and narrow, she knew. “So what do you do when you’re not working?” she asked.
“Drink. Play the ukelele. Make music.” She smiled. He was a touch childlike, even now. She finished her orange juice. Tom’s phone buzzed, and he checked the screen.
“Sorry, duty calls. Lovely to meet you again, Julia. Maybe I’ll be in touch when I’m back in the UK.” He lifted his Guinness while his free hand gave a mock salute.
Returned to the calm of her room Julia gazed over the lights of Nairobi. Tom still had a spark about him, that was obvious. Stretching gently from side to side she tried to clear her mind. Too many hours hunched over documents or immobile on aeroplanes were no good for your back, especially if you were almost six feet tall. It was time to wind down and find Sky News on the TV. She picked up the phone and ordered redbush tea and honey toast from room service. Her mobile rang.
“Julia? It’s Mark. We have to talk.”
“Going for sole custody is outrageous. I mean I thought you might try some shit on, but not that. And saying that I was drunk in charge of Freddy, that afternoon –”
“Sorina backs me up.” Sorina the nanny, whom she plied with chocolates and appeals to female solidarity.
“I’d been watching the England game with Dave, we’d had one can each.”
“You were intoxicated in charge of a child…”
“Oh can you hear yourself, you’re not some fucking judge! Was I legal to drive? I don’t know, that’s irrelevant. I wasn’t driving. And I wasn’t drunk, or intoxicated or inebriated or any other shitty lawyer word you want to use.”
“Mark, don’t be pathetic!”
“What’s pathetic is that we’re even doing this –”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Okay, I’m the bad one, I had the affair. So that means you get custody and I get to visit now and again? You think that’s the best thing for Freddy?”
“And if you have your way he’ll be spending more time with that blasted nanny than with you. I called round at half six yesterday, and you weren’t even there. Our child, our son will be brought up by a crucifix-wearing peasant from Lithuania.”
Still she said nothing.
“Can’t you see you’re just tit-for-tat? You even named Kate on the divorce petition –”
“And why the hell shouldn’t I? Sorry to inconvenience you, for screwing a trainee.”
Outside the wind was rising. Palm leaves flexed in the breeze, and the distant scent of street food wafted through the barely open window. She could hear Mark take a deep breath.
“We need to come to a statement of arrangements, you know that,” he said.
“Well then read the documents and get back to me,” she spat, ending the call. And there they were on screen, on the grass at Windsor Castle last summer, nine months ago. The photo was obscured by apps, probably why she’d overlooked its presence. She dragged the apps out of the way, and turned the mobile on its side. The three of them formed a perfect triangle, with Freddy at the front in his sun hat. The day rushed back with an unexpected pungency: Freddy’s delight as she helped him from the gloomy staircase onto the oh-so-high tower roof, the horse and carriage ride around Windsor Great Park, Mark and her perfectly attuned, easy. The future rolling out before them like an avenue of golden poplars under a Turner sunrise. She moved to the display settings and browsed wallpapers. A desert. A forest. Or perhaps other photographs. Or she could go for blue, that would be fine. Just blue.
A knock on the door signalled that her redbush tea had arrived. A proper taste of Africa, she thought. Placing it on the bedside table, she shut the window, turned off the air conditioning and sat on the bed. Breathing deeply, she slowly lifted the china cup. They had given her Earl Grey.
At nine the next morning the heat was ominous, and she was thankful for the cool of the Toyota four-by-four. Nairobi was a knotted tangle of honking traffic, and she decided to run through her notes a little later. Outside a stork with a pink, scab-encrusted head gulped down chunks of rubbish on a street corner. Yards away sweetcorn and flatbreads were browning on a grill. Further out men were making furniture by the side of the road, wood shavings lifting in the breeze like feathers. Yet whether the view was ugly or beautiful, she felt a strangeness, a distance.
So, the villagers were claiming they had not received any compensation. Yet the contract stipulated that compensation was to be distributed to the villagers by the provincial government, the former owner of the land. Leaf Biofuels had paid the Eastern Province in full, so there was no liability to the villagers on this point. There might be a public relations issue, both here and back in the UK, but that wasn’t something for her to worry about. If charities were making too much noise, then Leaf needed a better PR firm. Of course, if Leaf had met their contractual obligation to provide a health clinic and a school, that would both help with the media coverage, and put Leaf in the clear legally.
Out of the capital the housing became more primitive; breeze blocks and tiles gave way to mud bricks and corrugated iron. A noisy truck in front of them was belching out thick black fumes. She coughed and coughed again, then tapped her minder Solomon on the shoulder and pointed.
“It smells awful!” she said. He smiled and switched the air con to recycle.
“We say, the driver has brought a kitchen and is cooking his dinner!”
She tried to doze, and wondered how Freddy was coping at her parents. He would be fine, though guilt was condensing inside her like bitter dew.
A loud bang brought her to with a jolt, and she was thrown against the door as the vehicle lurched to one side. The driver braked hard, and they pulled up on an area of hard ground.
“What was that?” Instantly nervous.
“I think we popped a tyre.” Solomon got out, stretched, and inspected. He stood up and nodded. The driver opened the boot for a jack and a spare. She felt slightly odd, sitting inside while they raised the vehicle, and stepped out, slipping her shades on. The heat was ferocious. Twenty or thirty metres away lay large piles of rock. Through the hazy air she could see men swinging sledgehammers, each impact sounding a dull crack. She approached cautiously. After four or five blows each man would shift slightly, occasionally pick up a stone and throw it to a different pile. No one had spotted her, and she took a few more steps. She could see more men in between the mounds; there must be ten or twelve working here at least. They were naked from the waist up, wiry, and slicked with sweat. Their hammers rose and fell with hypnotic regularity. She gazed at them. Soon she understood; rocks the size of footballs were being split into gravel, each mound a different grade. It seemed impossible that men could work here in this pounding heat, while sand spiralled and insects bit. She shook her head slowly, watching their muscles tighten as the hammer came down, then release on impact, before tightening again to raise the steel for another blow. Suddenly there was a shout, glances were exchanged, and she quickly backed away to the car.
Driving on, they passed green fields of a crop Julia couldn’t recognise, waist high, maize perhaps. The fields gave way to grassland dotted with groups of cattle chewing lazily. The animals had bony humps and saggy skin on long necks. Well, you couldn’t expect Friesians and Herefords.
“We are nearing our destination,” said Solomon. Her driver grunted.
The Toyota lurched across ruts as they drove through a village. The eyes of the children were eager and curious, the adults more reticent. She looked away and checked her fingernails. They pulled up abruptly on an area of hard ground, two long low buildings stretching away from them, doorless and gaping. She slung her camera around her neck and got out of the car. Solomon walked over to a woman standing nearby and asked a few questions.
“Ok, these are the new places.” He gestured weakly. “These are for the school and the clinic is over there.”
The school rooms were empty shells, weathertight, except for the doors, but with no blackboards, desks, or other equipment. Any sound rebounded with a faint echo. Julia took photos, the flash rudely highlighting the naked breeze blocks. In one corner a series of yellow wall plugs drew attention to empty screw holes. That deserved a photo. In the second room tiles had been taken away to create a hole in the roof at one corner, the wall below blackened where someone had lit a fire. People had sheltered here once or twice. She glanced over the ash pile. Could that be the top of a chair back? Potentially. She documented everything.
There were two or three adults and several children present now. She tried to avoid their glances and stuck close to Solomon. The clinic building was half finished, tiles missing from the roof. Yet inside there were three trolley beds on the concrete floor, pushed against the wall to avoid the rain. In a separate room were cabinets and wall cupboards; it was logical to assume the tiles had been removed.
Outside she was met by warm drizzle and a small crowd. A tall man who commanded attention was speaking to Solomon. Her stomach constricted. She put the lens cap on her camera, and waited.
“Excuse me, he is asking about the fence.”
“What fence? Sorry, I don’t understand.” Hand gestures and pointing followed. She felt exposed, a white cotton pillar of the British Empire.
“When the land was taken by the company, after the sale, they put a fence up over there. It is three kilometres long.”
“Okay…” She wondered about opening her briefcase. No, that would be a mistake. She glanced at the Toyota. It would be difficult to get through the crowd.
“It makes it harder to get cattle to water. They have to go around. Far, they go.”
Julia leaned into his ear. “There’s nothing I can do about this! Can’t we just leave?”
“Let’s take a look. Make a note or something, take some pictures.”
There were some hard stares and angry body language in the crowd. She assented with an incline of the head. They walked down a rough track through the acacia scrub, children circling them like satellites. The fence was chain-link, cutting straight across the track, running as far as she could see in either direction. On the other side, fallow land bearing traces of a spent crop stretched into the distance. She took a photograph, and pretended to make a note on her phone. Smiling at the sea of dark faces shining in the sun, she turned to Solomon.
“Tell them I will see what I can manage.” She offered the tall man a handshake. He looked slightly embarrassed and took it. God knows what she had just implied; it was simply a case of getting out of there. After a few paces, Solomon touched her arm.
“Gakuru says you must come to his house for dinner.” His eyes were serious.
“Oh, of course, that, that would be lovely.” She threw a nervous glance over her shoulder. She should do this properly. Turning on the spot, she stretched out her hand again.
“Gakuru, my name is Julia Wareing.”
“A pleasure to meet you, madam.” He smiled, with a glimmer of reproach.
The house was large, wooden, and painted yellow, though most of it seemed to be one room, with fabric screens at either end.
“Make sure you say hello to everyone,” said Solomon, “that’s important.”
She sat on a polished wooden chair in the centre of the room, greeting Gakuru’s relations as they entered and left her orbit, waving at children who peeked around the door. Eventually Gakuru and his wife sat on the only other chairs, the rest of the family on a long bench or cross-legged on the floor, and they shared a meal of a mashed green substance with sweetcorn in it, and rice on the side. The aroma was rich. She would probably have awful diarrhoea, but there was no way out. Later, as the meal came to an end, she asked Solomon to get her holdall from the car. And there, amongst the hurried extras she had thrown in, was the mistaken plastic bag that held the toy helicopter. She leaned forward to the boy who’d been introduced as Gakuru’s son – Matu perhaps? – and presented it to him. A rotor was bent wonky but she doubted he’d mind. He looked at her quizzically as she gave him the remote control. She opened the back of it and pointed to the empty battery cavity. After a few glances from the adults and a bit of help from Solomon, Matu understood.
Gakuru stood by the door of the Toyota as they were leaving.
“It takes the children more than one hour to walk to school. And there is no medicine for fifteen miles. That is a long way to go on foot. We are angry that the promises made have not been kept.”
“I know.” She nodded, and stepped into the car.
On the road home she felt a swell of relief. The villagers, who clearly had so little, had been polite, courteous even. Her lip twitched. She knew that neither the school nor the clinic had ever been finished, let alone staffed. It was, however, difficult to say if anything had been stolen from them. The hollow spaces that remained were the only hard evidence of the contract, the stillborn project which a British boardroom presumably hoped would yet bear fruit. She wished that she could help the villagers. She really did.
The traffic in Nairobi was a trail of fast congealing filth. Stuck just yards from the hotel entrance, Julia gathered her bags and hopped out onto the pavement. As she approached the crescent indent that marked the drive, she noticed three women and a man sitting forlornly on the kerb. One of them bore a tired looking placard nailed to a stick of wood. She averted her eyes and quickened her pace.
“Hey Missus!” They were standing in front of her, blocking the path. The women wore headscarves and bright printed dresses muted by dirt. The man was non-descript, but his eyes stung her with rage. ‘Give Back Our Stolen Land’ read the placard. Julia froze. One woman stepped forward, arms folded.
“Are you Howard?”
“Yes, but – how do you know who I am?”
“Your company they take our land. We have no money, no compensation, nothing.”
“Look, I’m sorry but I don’t know –”
“We have big fence and security men come past once a week.” The others were nodding. “We come to Nairobi to get help. We go court to get our money.”
“It’s for Eastern province to pay compensation…” Julia backed away.
“God is on our side! And we have help now.”
“You are thieves, thieves!” Another woman broke her silence and ran forward until she stood inches away. Her face was heavily lined, with proud cheekbones shaded by dim hollows. Glancing over her shoulder, Julia could see Solomon running towards her. As she turned back, the woman grabbed the collar of her blouse, and spat in her eye. Moments later Solomon had his arm around Julia, pushed forcefully past her assailants and into the hotel grounds. They stopped by a bench under a tree covered in deep pink blooms. Julia found a Kleenex and dabbed her eye. She was shaking a little.
“How did they know who I was? Did they follow us from the village?” she said.
“No. No one followed us. I think they had been there some time. It is strange.”
“The people at the village were so nice!”
“You were their guest.”
Back in her room she washed, and unpacked her bags mechanically, slowly. Her phone had two messages, both from Mark. She couldn’t face that, now. Picking up the landline, she dialled her parents.
“Hi mum, it’s Julia.”
“Hello love, how are you? Seen any lions yet?”
“I’m here on business… How’s Freddy?”
“He’s – he’s alright. Mark came around today, and he wasn’t very happy. You should have told us that you didn’t want him knowing where Freddy was. We had to let him see the boy.”
“Well what else could we have done?”
It didn’t take long before Julia rang off.
She knew that it was probably impossible to catch HIV from someone spitting in your eye, but even so the thought nagged. Whatever she looked at, the image of the woman flashed in front of her like a strobe light. She could still smell the curdled sweat and dust on her clothes. Being touched, being spat at, it broke that precious space. It would be helpful to get on with something now, to take her mind off the incident, but she was still too jumpy. Her mobile rang: Mark. Answering seemed like a bad idea, but so did not answering.
“Look, Mark, I’m sorry I made a mistake…”
“Where are you, Julia? You claim to be taking care of our son, but are you even in the country?”
“I’ve had to work late a few times, that’s all.”
“And you want sole custody? I’ve read your papers, and you’re just on a revenge trip. Which, by the way, is looking even more unrealistic now I find that you’re not caring for Freddy at all. I thought the line sounded odd. You might as well tell me where you are, or I’ll phone your work and find out.”
“I’m in Kenya.”
“You’re not serious?”
“I’ll be back in a couple of days!”
“For fuck’s sake… Well, my solicitor will hear all about this. You are so far out of line. You want to hurt me? Fine. But you’re hurting Freddy too –”
She ended the call and turned her phone off. Cross-legged on the bed, she leant forward, and let her long hair fall in front of her face, forming a dark curtain that blocked out everything.
The morning came swaddled in warm mist, dulling sound and hiding the city from view. Julia felt an urge to cradle Freddy in her arms and disown Nairobi, Kenya, the world. After breakfast in her room, she ran over her plan for the day, and took stock. She was apprehensive about meeting the Kenyan barrister the firm had hired. It wasn’t the work, it was going out onto the street again, even briefly. She picked up her phone, and searched her texts for the number. Tom, Concern Worldwide. It took a while for him to answer.
“You shithead! You absolute bastard! I could have been – badly hurt. Or worse.”
“Slow down a minute – what exactly…”
“You told those people where I was. You gave them my card. With my picture on.”
“Okay, so what happened? They have a right to protest, you know.”
“A woman grabbed me and spat in my eye.”
“Oh. Sorry for that. I didn’t think anything… Look, I wanted you to realise – they’ve lost their land, their livelihood, and they have no compensation, just some empty buildings that were never completed. They’ve been here two weeks, waiting to meet anyone in government who’ll listen. Do you even know how expensive it is for them to travel to Nairobi?”
“Get lost, okay, you can get lost!”
She stabbed the phone with her finger, then flipped open her laptop. No time like the present. Finding her anger had given her some confidence. A brief report was all that Leaf needed, and she would start with the executive summary. It didn’t take her long to glance over the evidence and decide what line to take. She bashed out a draft.
Customary law aside, the local inhabitants did not have any rights over the lands in question. It is the contractual duty of the provincial government to pay compensation. Since Leaf have provided full consideration to Eastern Province for the sale of the land, there are no outstanding issues.
The structures for both the school and the clinic appear to have been completed. (Figs. 1-2) However, fixtures have clearly been removed without permission and stolen, (Fig. 3); note the empty screw holes in the wall. Roof tiles and doors have been looted. (Figs. 4-7) Furthermore, there is evidence of squatters and probable arson. (Figs 8-9) Given such criminal activity, and absence of action by the local people, the current lack of function in these facilities cannot be attributed to Leaf Biofuels.’
She pursed her lips and glanced out of the window. The fog was lifting. Leaf were her client, after all. It was just business. She saved the draft, and took her laptop down to the bar. Pausing for a single estate espresso, which did not disappoint, she composed an e-mail to her divorce solicitor. She had to be grounded in reality, especially now Mark knew of her absence.
‘My apologies if I have been a little unrealistic; I have decided to revise my demands. Firstly, I would be willing to accept joint custody of our son Freddy Howard.
I expect Freddy to live with me, but will allow him to stay with Mark alternate weekends and for one night each week, either Tuesday or Wednesday.
I expect maintenance payments each month, but would be willing to revise the monthly figure down by £200 to £750.’
After a few pleasantries, she took a deep breath and sent the e-mail. She was a reasonable woman, and however much Mark had hurt her, she could be kind, generous even. And Freddy had to come first.
Sprawled on a leather sofa, two African businessmen were smoking cigars. They were chatting soberly, their fleshy hands making weighty gestures. Their suits looked expensive, probably from Paris or London, though no suit could hide their corpulence. Julia thought of the quarry they had passed on the road, and the sleek, muscled backs of the men breaking rocks. She had watched them in a documentary, or on the news, or seen their photograph in a paper. Any frisson of attraction she had felt was a rogue signal from some primitive part of her brain. She had not been standing just yards away. In fact, she was never really there.
In the village Matu was at his cousins’ house, borrowing some batteries from a walkman. He and a gaggle of friends hid out the back, crowding him as he inserted the batteries into the remote control. Tentatively, he pushed a lever. The rotors buzzed and the helicopter lifted for a second. Excitement crackled around him. He handed the toy to his best friend to hold for the launch, waited, and gave it full power. The helicopter leapt forward, a streak of yellow and orange which started a promising climb, but then inexplicably banked left, and dived steeply into the red earth.