o,” asked Cindy, the well-safaried American woman you get in every upmarket bush camp. “What brings you to Kenya?” “Well,” said my sister, gazing into the camp fire. “My father died last year, and he lived half his life in East Africa, and we’re here to… er… reminisce.” Cindy swirled her ice cubes and stared harder. “You haven’t, like, brought his ashes or anything?” “Um…” “You have?” A pause. “Beautiful.” But it was not beautiful. We had ruined Cindy’s evening. She turned with a stricken smile to the banker sitting on her left.
When my mother announced her intention that we would be taking Dad’s ashes back to Kenya, I was horrified. Not that I didn’t think he should get his final wish. I could think of no better place for a man once nicknamed “Masai” for his relentless stride; a man who, despite 50 years spent in England, remained unreconciled to a life away from the bush. Dad deserved to rest his weary bones in the African dust. I just didn’t want to confront this finality en famille, corralled into a place with no escape and no privacy.
We are a typically British family, and Dad was, ironically, the most typical of them all: reserved, uptight, no group hugs, no gushing. The occasional gruff utterance, if feelings must be made known. His death aged 82, a year ago, had been dealt with pragmatically. The awful gaping hole he left at home unnerved me, but I couldn’t be seen to crumple, for Mum’s sake. Equally, she felt she had to keep strong and positive, for our sakes. My sister, Juliet, was all for selling the house, tidying up the loose ends: it was easier to focus on this, than those corners where he still lurked. His sunhat was still on the peg; his binoculars on the desk; his large shoes still kept their place in the wardrobe.
This proposed trip, paid for by “the estate”, was going to be complicated on many levels. But what I feared most was the inevitable enforced emoting. How could such a holiday not be heavy? I foresaw tearful scenes under the African stars; reproaches and accusations. We were still finding our feet as a family of three, with what felt like one leg missing from the kitchen table. Stuff was bound to come up. I dreaded this safari – so much that I booked myself on to an earlier flight to Nairobi in an attempt to keep cool and collected.
We met at Wilson airport, where small planes deliver khaki-clad tourists to the game reserves. Mum was clutching an ominous-looking black bag. Dad was, she told me, the size of “three large packets of Pringles”, and he would not fit into her luggage. Did I have room for him? He had travelled this far in her hand baggage, and a certificate from the undertakers had got him through customs. He was a great one for travelling light, my father; I wasn’t sure if he’d be pleased by his reduced bulk, or surprised by the weight and quantity of it. Three Pringles-sized tubes. How were we going to stage-manage this?
Nothing more was said. Not one of us could bring ourselves to take control, lest it end in an argument (or tears). Dad sat in the black bag, at Mum’s feet, as we jolted about the Masai Mara in our safari Jeep. Vultures circled lazily. Hyenas cringed, whooping, waiting for lions to finish with a carcass. The skulls of wildebeest littered the plains, some with ghastly topknots of back hair. Death – and birth – was everywhere.
My first and last trip to Kenya was with Dad, 17 years ago. We had gone on our own, and I had got to know him, finally. Seeing him on home turf had transformed my understanding of him. Back then I was 28, single, and on a great adventure. But now that the wheel of life had nudged Dad off the top, I too had moved further up. Now I was a 45-year-old mother of two, fumbling with the two pairs of glasses I needed to see anything. My mind was partly back in London, with the children, instead of
Home from home: Tessa and her father Peter on safari in 1997