Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

It was becoming very awkward,' mused my host, whose features resembled a sand dune at high tide: brown, knobbly, numerous indentations. `Especially when the baboons started molesting the guests.' We were sitting under an African sky, where bottle-brush trees blossomed in lantern-light and the air was full of the mesmeric scent of flame flowers. `What baboons?' I asked idly. `My sisters,' he replied. `There are 25 at the bottom of the garden. Oh, and 34 dogs, one chimpanzee, seven peacocks, two parakeets, one wild pig, a couple of jackals and six cheetahs.' Lord M., as I shall call him, said this as calmly as if he were enumerating a list of garden gnomes. Noting, perhaps, that the breath was beginning to struggle from my throat like cigarette puffs through a damp cloth, he remarked, `Nothing to worry about, really. Just remember to shut your bedroom door at night.' How did I find myself on a baboon farm in the heart of Africa with some expats even Rider Haggard wouldn't have dreamt up? It happened, actually, when an English friend suggested that, having recently been bereaved, I might like 'a break somewhere different'. That frisson of fear first entered my blood when I saw the notice before the gate. It said: `Beware. Apes, birds of prey and other dangerous animals are loose on the estate. Also wild agapanthus. Enter at your own risk.' Then I remembered that an agapanthus was not an animal but a blue garden flower. Obviously it was a joke. Ha, ha. Molto inglese. Only it wasn't. Lord M.'s sister was molto inglese all right -- though her husband was Antipodean - but she was deadly serious. Each morning at five Mrs L., as I shall call her, rose to feed the baboons. At seven she took them for a walk. At lunch she fed the jackals, who were kept company by the wild pig. In the late afternoon she walked the cheetahs. At night she went to bed. This may sound like her one sane act of the day. It would have been if she had gone to bed with her husband. But she didn't. She went to bed with the chimpanzee. There were apologies for the early dinner hour - seven (for the humans, that is) - but the chimpanzee liked to be in bed by nine. So that was OK, then. Mrs L. could be found every evening around eight preparing baby bottles full of warm milk. `It can be a frightful bore really. I have to get up five times during the night to feed him.' `Your husband?"No, the chimpanzee.' It turned out that Mr L., whom we rarely saw, slept in quite another part of the house. One somehow understood how he felt. You wouldn't want to demand your conjugal rights with an ape on the other side of the pillow.

There is something about the African night, though. Those strange stars, cleansed by winds from the Antarctic, are so huge, cold and clear. Beneath them we were as children whose small feet have strayed into some dimly lit temple of a god we have been taught to worship but know not; and standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, each night we glanced up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision there.

There were plenty of awful visions on the ground. But the house wasn't one of them. It looked like an old Southern plantation building, pastel-painted bedrooms, creaking four-posters, white window netting making pirouettes in the breeze. Only there was no Rhett Butler. There were no butlers at all, just a lot of black maids who said 'Yes'm' and brought you round sweating mangoes on silver trays in the evening. …

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