My father had a dusty white pick-up for work, which he sometimes took me in to the construction site. While he spoke to the foreman, I wandered through the stacks of steel rebars. At the beams, I balanced, one white trainer in front of the other, hopping onto the next and then the next, in whichever shape they lay. The challenge was not to step off the beam. The ground beneath was a sea of poisonous water.
Also, the site was an ideal place to find stones. I searched out the smoothest, flattest ones from the large piles, rubbed them in my palm and dropped them into my little shorts pocket for hop-scotching on our verandah later on. I would play against myself, favouring one stone then the other.
One afternoon at the site, from my place on the top of one of the sand mounds, I saw a Land Rover arrive with a boy in the front seat. His father stepped out and disappeared off somewhere to talk to my father, but the boy stayed sitting with his arm resting on the open window sill. I stepped, sideways two skips at a time, grains seeping into my runners, down the mound.
“I’m Anna,” I said up through his window. I tucked my thumbs into my pockets.
He bucked his head. “What were you doing on the sand heap over there?”
“Climbing. I might be a mountain climber when I grow up. Do you want to come and try?”
He opened the door and stepped down. He was taller than me. He ran his hand through his hair – he had curls almost the same shade as the pale rusty sand mound.
“Race you,” he called and sprinted off.
It took me only a second and I was after him. Of course he arrived at the peak first. I didn’t care. I hailed from the top as loud as my lungs would allow. “Daddy, look at us!”
The boy was Mark; his father owned the godown, his grandfather the whole coffee estate in the highlands around Mount Kenya. He lived with his parents on the South Coast, across the ferry, past the shanty houses with tin roofs in Likoni, past the turn offs to big beach hotels where Europeans came to holiday, in a forest of coconut trees, by a broad stretch of white powder sand.
Our families grew close in a short time, and soon my mother, my father and I were spending the weekends at Mark’s house. I learned how to swim in the spot of Indian Ocean in front of their garden. Mark and my father taught me – from my father to Mark, from Mark to my father, I paddled, clinging to each one. Back and forth, until I could move like a fish. Above and under water.
Mark taught me how to sword fight with sticks we found in the garden. He showed me the right stance from which to jut forward and attack, the right angle to raise my arm in defence.
We dug giant holes on the beach, connecting each one with a tunnel that eventually lead down to the water so we could watch the surf erode our underground city.
Under the sun, after a long afternoon, the copper streaks in Mark’s hair muted to a soft gold. The freckles under his tan would spread wide over his nose and across his cheeks. Sometimes we stayed inside and lay on our stomachs on the bedroom’s cool concrete floor and invented worlds with his collection of Playmobile figures.
Our favourite business though, was playing Vasco da Gama, the first European explorer to reach Mombasa. In the afternoons, while the parents sat in the sitting room under the ceiling fan with their ice-drenched gin tonics, to escape the heat, Mark and I snuck to the other side of the fence, to the abandoned plot next door.
We trekked, swords in hand, through weeds that reached our knees. The doors to the broken down house were locked, but we fashioned its dilapidated verandah into our ship. Many times, by mistake, I stepped on one of the thick black thorns that grew from creepers along the edges of the beach, and Mark pulled it from my heel. When a branch scratched my knee, he blew the dirt from the gash. “You alright?” he asked. I nodded and on we went.
But one day, I was seven years old, Mark was inside doing schoolwork and I was playing with my father on the beach.
My father was swirling me in the air. With a swish, he swung me high, and held me flat like a plank above his head. He swooped me this way and that, while he jogged along the water’s edge, so I could pretend I was a bird.
“Faster, Daddy, faster! You have to create a wind, to lift my wings.”
“You’re asking the impossible.” He laughed out. “It’s the middle of the day.”
“Try. Just try, Daddy.”
He picked up speed, and I became a seagull, gliding through the spotless sky. The sticky air flattened my face, fluttered my eyelashes. Torrents of giggles spurted from my mouth, I couldn’t stop them.
“I have to pee, Daddy,” I screamed between peals. “Stop! I have to pee.”
With an easy whoosh, he landed me onto the warm powder sand.
“Stay here,” I said. “I’ll be back in a second.”
“You’re not going to run all the way up to the house, are you?”
“I have to, right away, or I’ll pee in my swimsuit.”
“You can go in the water.” He winked at me.
“Try it, fish do it all the time. And you don’t have to worry, the sea washes away everything.”
“Fish do it all the time?”
“Of course. They don’t have toilets in the ocean, do they? They have to pee in the water.”
“And jellyfish and the crabs too?”
“Okay, I’ll be a crab.” I scuttled sideways into the sea, with my arms and legs bent, until the ripples reached my shoulders, and I was treading water.
When I came back out, my father and I decided to bury ourselves in the sand. So we started to dig the holes. My back was to the sea, and I was facing the garden, burrowing away like a frenzied dog. I happened to look up, and there was Mark, sprinting across the lawn. I jumped to my tip toes, lifted my hands to my mouth and yelled as loud as I could.
“Mark, we’re over here. Come bury yourself with us.”
He zipped on as though he hadn’t heard. All the way to the edge of the yard, where the bougainvillea fence with its five hundred magenta blooms separated this garden from the next.
“I think he’s gone to the Baobab,” I said to my father. “I’m going to go and get him.”
And away I skipped along the beach until I was standing under the huge, old Baobab.
The tree reminded me of an elephant. It was a pinky grey, and probably the oldest and fattest of all the trees in the world. It had no leaves at the moment, because we were in the middle of the dry season, when the Baobab loses its foliage and looks like a ghost tree. But its branches were made for adventure: intricate, wide and hundred-fold. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to climb them.
The smooth trunk of this particular Baobab divided at the root, just where it left the ground, and grew up in three parts; Mark and I often stepped into the centre, leaned against one division and propped our feet up against another. And we’d sit inside the centre of the tree. We played there often, competing with the ants, who were also quite fond of the middle of the old Baobab.
Some of the branches stretched all the way out over the sand. A few times the tide had come up so high that when Mark jumped down from the lowest branch he landed in the surf.
His parents had left a wooden ladder leaning against the trunk for him to get to the lowest branches, and by the time I reached the tree now, Mark was already stepping off the top rung onto the first one. I wasn’t allowed on the ladder or up on any of the branches. But as I stood with my neck craned upwards, looking at him, an idea burst into my head.
I had been dying to climb the way Mark did. Every time I saw his legs dangling off that first branch or his arms gripping the one above, pulling himself up to sit even higher in the tree, my body itched to do the same and I imagined it was me doing all those things. But now – now I was going to do it. I was going to go all the way up.
Ingrid Haring-Mendes has just completed her first novel, Tears of a Painter, a story set against the backdrop of East Africa. When she isn't writing you can find her behind her camera or constructing elaborate Lego structures with her two boys.
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