Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

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Authors: Alexandra Fuller
took the cup to the hospital and put it on the pillow by her head. She never regained consciousness.”
    Betty’s coffin was put on a large old ox cart. All her dogs were loaded up and sat among piles and piles of garlands. The cart was pulled by two black Percherons to the churchyard. “It was very tragic of course,” Mum says, “but we thought it was a very right and proper ending for Betty.”
    Mum thinks for a moment. What she says next confirms for me what I’ve always known about her without ever having had the words to put into this knowledge. In her view, the immediate peril of a situation is always weighed against the glamorous obituary that might be written if the thing killed you: “I suppose that’s why I’ve never seen the dangerous side of riding. For me it was always a brave and gallant sport, and if it did you in, it was a glorious way to go.”

Nicola Fuller of Central Africa Goes to Her High School Reunion

    Mum and Dad, newly engaged. Kenya, 1964.
     
    W hen I was a child, Mum presented Kenya to me as a place of such forbidding perfection that its flawlessness shattered in the telling and what I was left holding on to were shards of equatorial light. Even the hinted-at, subsurface revolutionary tactics of the Mau Mau fighters, who were agitating for independence from British rule, were part of the romance. Kenya, in Mum’s telling, was a land of such sepia loveliness, such fecundity, such fulfillment that it was worth dying for if you were white (if you were black and you wanted to die for Kenya, that was another matter altogether. Then you were an unpleasant, uppity Kikuyu anarchist). Mum made it clear that leaving Kenya was one of the great shocks of her life. “I never thought I would leave,” she says. “I had such a magical childhood, filled with such magical people.”
    When I was sixteen, I read James Fox’s White Mischief . The book is an account of the infamous Happy Valley set, a group of aristocratic flappers who came out to Kenya between the two world wars, shot lots of animals, behaved very badly and died in hedonistic droves. Hunting accidents, plane crashes and drugs and alcohol killed a fair number of them. Murder, venereal disease and suicide took a few more, and the whole disgraceful party teetered on January 24, 1941, with the discovery that the thirty-nine-year-old Josslyn Hay, Twenty-second Earl of Erroll, had been shot on the Nairobi-Ngong road after a decade of scandal, divorces, affairs and dalliances.
    Notables of the Happy Valley set included Sir Jock Delves Broughton, Alice and Frédéric de Janzé, Lady Idina Sackville, Diana Caldwell, Jack Soames, John Carbery and Kiki Preston, none of whom I had ever heard of. I asked if these were the magical people of Mum’s miraculous childhood. She shook her head and her eyes went pale. “The Happy Valley set were not us. No, they were very careless, very irresponsible and very boring. Nothing like us at all.”
    “I thought you said Kenyan people were so fun and interesting,” I said.
    “Not that lot,” Mum said.
    “How were you different?”
    Mum looked as if I’d beaten her up with a dead fish. “In every way,” she said. “We were pukka -pukka sahibs. They were cruel and silly. Wastrels.” And then my mother took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you an awful story about that lot,” she said. “A really shocking story.”
    Mum and I were sitting at the veranda at the German-owned farm in Mkushi, Zambia, to which we had moved in the mid-1980s. It was the end of the dry season, not long after I had finished reading the James Fox book. The air was stung with the salty scent of burning msasa from forest fires. Dad had started plowing in preparation for the spring rains and dust from the fields added to the forest-fire smoke to create a yellow-gray sky. A mob of cows were wandering up from the dip, bellyaching for their calves. The herdsmen whistled and shouted, “Ha! Ha!” Our stubborn, rearing, bucking, biting bush

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