Once again he sat next to her bed, watching her bandaged head and freaky machines hissing and sighing and bleeping away in her room – the monitors. The tubes and ventilator and needles in her veins, all called life support. He watched her usually moist lips, ever fascinating in their mauve tinge against her autumn colouring, now chapped and lifeless. He placed a gentle palm pressed to her aubergine cheek – the colour he had left on her when he’d hit her on Saturday night, sending her crashing against the wall behind her in the room at Salt Lick Lodge. A weekend that had been meant to be a happy and significant family safari with wild animals had created one animal wilder than all the rest of them: himself. At the time, that blackout moment when he was convinced that his daughter was actually…
Oh. Had his wife’s face muscles just moved? Or was it his imagination? Her eyes seemed, for a couple of pulses, to imperceptibly quiver. Then nothing again. Christ, it was getting so that he hardly knew what he was all about – around her. As if he involuntarily shifted into insane gearing – intermittently. Maybe his hand hurt her bruised cheek. In the four days the swelling had gone down on the cheek, the colour darker. He lifted his palm off the cheek and rested it on a shoulder. Thank God the cheek was the only other injury she’d incurred.
The nightmare film of Saturday night hardly left him in peace. Especially when he was finally alone in bed and couldn’t give a fuck about defences and putting on shows for his equally tortured children. Villa Stjärnblomma was small in comparison to their other properties, but twenty rooms with seven bathrooms (plus an entire park) offered enough niches for him. He could weep in his pillow half the night. Curse purple streaks. Hit, tear and break things that wouldn’t be too audiovisual for the children and get them even more insecure…
So maybe he never really lets his defences down, after all.
The children. Despite Patricia’s diplomacy, you just couldn’t hoodwink Gudinna’s children. Especially not the five-year-old twins: “Admiral” Leif Frederik Maximilian and “Generalissimo” Davin Philip Enos. They’d get you on your back foot before you spell your own initials out loud.
As soon as Patricia explained (bless her once again for being his bulwark where the children were concerned – he’d never paid enough attention to details to learn motherhood) that they couldn’t visit their mother in ICU because she was “still sleeping so deeply she wouldn’t know you’re there, darlings”, Leif had ignored her. He turned to his father and asked, “Pappa, is Mamma going to be roots like Mor-mor when she was put in the hole in the ground?”
It was such a blow from his five-year-old that he staggered inwardly to keep his shield intact and steady enough to glance off the burning arrow of his self-anger. “Of course not, Admiral. Mamma’s only sleeping off a very, very bad headache. The more she sleeps the more she’ll get better and the headache will go away.” But Drs Phillip Dumas and Fabian Ziegler have an entire encyclopaedia ranging from A as in anorexia to V as in ventriculostomy. And the length it would take sweet old Mamma to wake up from her sleep is, according to the doctors, Wait & See.
“You won’t let somebody put her in the box and bury…”
Christ bloody Jesus.
He’d taken both twins in his arms. “Nobody will, Generalissimo. I won’t let anybody do that. Now, go and see what we brought back for you from town, hm?” He’d pecked on their hair to hide his face from them.
Then escaped to the study to pour it all out. Other times it was some bathroom or the galleries upstairs with his collection to hide the union of his nose and eyes in watering. Or when it was her – his Celestial Holiness – breaking down from the devastating questions of her fellow siblings, he took Loyana up to her room and grieved with her till she fell asleep. At least Loyana knew what was going on so that he didn’t have to explain why his nose and eyes had turned to fountains. His two older boys Larson Jan, ten, and Thorsten Solomon Bertil, a year younger, actually worried him more. Because they said less. He had to pay particular attention to their body language to gauge what was going on inside them. Teasing and pet names had suddenly turned into causes of the sulks rather than communicating affection or intimacy.
He remembered Monday evening when he went in to Thor’s room to say goodnight and found him in his “workshop” which was annexed to his bedroom, consumed with pulling apart and comparing huge model ships. He had five of them in his collection: the Norwegian training barque Christian Radich, the Danish square rigged Georg Stage, the Swedish Navy’s ketch Gladen, the Italian Marina Militare full rigger Amerigo Vespucci and the German Navy barque Gorch Fock. All around him were pulled apart, being pulled apart or already put together again aircraft, food mixers, radios, cars, toasters, TV sets, the lot. The workshop was roughly twice the child’s bedroom where these would never fit.
Thor was known as “Machinery Lord” in the family. From the time he was three he watched the mechanics who repaired the Lindqvist Transexperts (K) Ltd vehicles with fascination, then he was soon pulling the engines apart and putting them together again with the mechanics’ assistance. He was always fiddling with his "machinery", lost to the rest of the world for hours on end.
He’d hesitated at the door, that Monday evening. Thor hadn’t heard him enter since he’d come in through the child’s bedroom.
“Hello there, Machinery Lord. Not yet bedtime, I suppose?”
Thor was wedged between exact scale models of Gorch Fock and Amerigo Vespucci, both at least a yard high, studying the rigged masts, sails, jibs and Gorch’s albatross figurehead. He looked up to his father, blond curls bouncing as he tossed them off his eyes, natural Baltic-Nilote tan the same burnished gold shade of his hair in the light of the room. The same colour circled his pupils, completely blocking the irises without dots or green specks as in Loyana’s more amber-green eyes. If it wasn’t for the jeans and pale blue Six Million Dollar Man T-shirt the boy had on (Lee Majors as the bionic man Steve Austin in some improbable action), Thor would look like a living golden statue of cupid, Erik had thought.
The boy brought his nine-year-old shoulders to his ears and dropped them as if whatever he’d been looking for was not to be found in his Pappa’s six-foot-four frame nor his remark on bedtime. The boy had no word, no sound, not even a sigh. He had turned his attention back to his three-masted German Navy’s barque and its albatross.
Red alert, Erik bled invisibly, all artilleries off in unison. But at least let me take some of the bullets for you, my precious child. How would Mamma cope here, for this was definitely not a primary development, there was something of a personal character in the gesture. What would Mamma do – hug, or leave the room? He’d dropped on the floor next to Thor, crossed his legs like a Buddha and waited for whatever would hit him. Perhaps his son was only on troop inspection.
Don’t bloody cry, old lad. Just don’t. Jesus. He’d suppressed a sniff.
Eras went by.
“Do you think the Gladen would have won against these two,” the boy finally pointed alternately at models of the Swedish Navy’s training ketch, the German barque and the Italian Naval Academy’s Vespucci, “if the race was based specifically on speed and seaworthiness, Pappa?”
Erik nearly let the dam burst with relief. And who else but his Thorsten Solomon Bertil Lindqvist would come up with words as precise as specifically and seaworthiness at age nine? Loyana, who had pet or nicknames for every family member, called Thor Thistle-Bert, a corruption of his three first names put together. But sometimes she deliberately said Thistle-Butt with emphasis when her brother came up with his smart arse technical knowledge.
Thor was now referring to this year’s 1978 Northern Waters Tall Ships Race which the Gladen had just won. The ketch had won the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Trophy because it had stood by to help the German Meteor whose forestay had broken, waited till another ship arrived to tow the Meteor to port, and then continued the race. After all, the aim of the Tall Ships Race, which is held every two years, was to promote international understanding, friendship and goodwill amongst the young people taking part. Thor was an ardent fan of the gathering of these sailing ships normally engaged in the training of youngsters aged 16 to 25, in their native waters.
Eyes glistening, he’d un-Buddha-ed himself and crawled on all fours to his son, who stood on his knees. Pappa sat back on the floor and held out his arms to his son. Thor sat on Pappa’s lap, back to chest, and leaned his head on him.
“Well,” Erik began, one arm wrapped around Thor closely against him, the other hand stroking the boy’s golden curls rhythmically from forehead to crown. “As you know there’re other prizes for the winning ships, precious, and the Cutty Sark Trophy is awarded to the ship judged to have done the most towards international understanding during the race. Gladen is a Class B1 schooner as…”
“As opposed to the square riggers,” Thor lifted a hand to indicate. “I know.”
And so they’d sat on the floor talking about the Northern Waters race that had been 1978’s main race from Gothenburg, round the Fair Isle off Scotland and then back to the Oslofjord, a distance of 840 nautical miles; about Cutty Sark, the merchant vessel, that had had been used for ferrying tea out of China, gold out of California and Australia, until the opening of the Suez Canal put an end to the clipper era. All the Lindqvist children loved sailing, but only Thor was as passionate about the sport as his father was.
Finally the boy fell asleep on his lap and he’d carried him to bed, hoping that the child would dream of the Swedish Navy's destroyer HMS Visborg, where the King of Sweden started the Northern Waters race, rather than whether Mamma would sleep forever and become roots.
That had been Monday evening. Then yesterday, in the study alone after unloading the children on Patricia following another sleep-and-roots episode, he’d wiped his eyes and blown his nose. He’d reached out on the bookshelf and pulled out two books: Biblos, Khira’s mother’s Bible in Dholuo, the Luo language, and a book her mother had given her as a present: Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi by Paul Mboya. This was the Luo equivalent of the Torah. In it Mboya had written everything about Luo centuries-old customs and traditions: from what plants and animals to eat over marriage rites and rituals to avoid inbreeding or diseases; to central governance; to medicine men á la Witchdoctor Wach who had influenced (perhaps inadvertently) his marriage to Khira in that unique wedding in Luoland; to how to bury the dead of all ages and social status. Mboya was a visionary to preserve all these in modern writing. The young generation of Luoland – and he knew this only too well from his own wife who had been bent on modernity so much so that she found nothing worthwhile in her own people’s civilisation – were turning to western ways with heart and soul.
Mor-mor had bought the book for her daughter when Leif had asked his Mor-mor why she and their Mamma called the children grandfather or grandmother although they were neither old nor had any children of their own yet. Erik remembered how Mor-mor had explained it all to the children in the sandbox back at the mansion in Nairobi.
The dear lady had picked up a stick and used it to draw a giant tree that filled the entire box, its roots exposed, then industriously explained to the children how the roots not only kept the tree upright but also gathered and conveyed nourishment to the trunk, boughs, branches, twigs, leaves and blossoms. The roots were the buried "dead" forebears who "rose" again along the tree trunk to live once more as boughs, branches, twigs, leaves and blossoms. Mor-mor told the children that they were the blossom part of the forebears, their parents and grandparents the leaves and twigs, and their great-grandparents the branches, and so on. And when any family member died, they were buried and became the roots again and began nourishing the tree afresh, forever part of the composite whole that was infinitely regenerative, recycling itself life after life after life. She had concluded, hugging Davin, her favourite, whom she’d always called Enos (Khira’s father who died before Khira was born), "So now you see why you're grandfather, grandmother, and mother and father - because you've already been. If you wait to be called grandfather, grandmother, mother or father only after you've had children of your own, then what happens if you don't get blessed with any children?”
He and Gudinna had both been flabbergasted. That’s when Mor-mor discovered that her daughter, who had completely adopted to the modern “European high society” world from the time she was sent to a British missionary boarding school, had no idea of her own roots. Had in fact deliberately avoided them with incomprehensible charity. Hence Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi as a present to Khira. Old Gudinna had religiously read the book and explained most of it to him through the years. But he, who prided himself on being self-sufficient, an autodidact who taught himself all he knew even while labouring in harbours at age eighteen, loading and unloading stinking fish, later starting an entire business kingdom and hiring the boys with degrees to work for him the way he wanted them to work for him, he – of all people – had never learned Dholuo, his wife’s native tongue, to be able to read Mboya’s book. To be able to have knowledge of what barks and roots and leaves were used in Luoland for what kinds of diseases, rites, rituals and ceremonies. To be able to grasp the Luo spirituality well enough to now be of help to his children who – he now realised – had soaked all this up in the blood coursing through their veins and the upbringing they’d had from their mother. Whereas he’d believed he was the best of fathers, he’d failed to see that the best of fathers had to also be something of a mother.
He now felt like a dictionary with half the words explained but wrongly spelt.
Leif and Davin had not only remembered their Mor-mor’s teaching in the sandbox, but also her funeral of two years ago in Luoland. Their questions still seared his vitals, making him feel totally bereft; the poor lambs had no idea that he was the one who had sent their mother to the “sleep” and the death they now feared might follow and take her, too, away from them.
His Gudinna, who was the best of mothers as well as a father to them.
The Saturday night horrors had come back to him full force after this incidence. And he’d promised that he’d never let anybody put her in a box and then lower the box into a hole in the ground.
But he was far from sure that he’d be able to prevent such a thing when it came to it.