Aidan Hartley’s Wild Life
My friend Philip Coulson was shot at midnight while driving home after the theatre in Nairobi recently. He had slowed down to go over some rumble strips when a white car halted in front of him. ‘A man got out and I could see in silhouette that he had a gun,’ Philip tells me. He backed away in reverse but the man walked up and from a few feet away he fired his pistol at Philip’s face. The closed window exploded. Philip felt a tug in his stomach. ‘That was a bit over the top,’ he says. ‘I thought, “I’d better get out of here.”’ He started to go forwards and the man said, ‘Now I’m going to kill you.’ Philip has forgotten the bang of the second shot, fired as he came up alongside the attacker. Later a bullet that must have been aimed from point-blank range was found lodged in the front-door frame directly in line with Philip’s neck. At this instant headlights illuminated the scene and an oncoming car drove past. ‘I imagine a poor guy on his way home, tipsy after an evening at the long bar, passing this ghastly tableau in freeze-frame.’
Philip accelerated away into the darkness. His ears still ringing from the gunfire, he noticed BBC World Service was still playing on the radio. He aimed to drive home and get the shattered window fixed next morning. At this point he noticed that his shirt on his left side was moist. ‘I never suffered anything like agony. I thought, “Oh, what a pain. I’ve been shot.”’ As he drove himself to hospital, he telephoned his sister, MJ. ‘Hey, MJ, can you come to the hospital. I’ve been carjacked.’ He rang off. MJ phoned back immediately. ‘Philip, have you been shot?’ ‘Oh, yes, sorry, I forgot to mention that.’
He parked, forgot to shut the car door, and walked himself to Casualty. One of Nairobi’s best lawyers, Philip noticed that he had acquired the shambling gait of a colleague who is renowned for ebullient liquid lunches. ‘Excuse me,’ he said to the receptionists. They were busy chatting. He had to say ‘excuse me’ several times. ‘Yes?’ ‘Excuse me, I’ve been shot.’ Panic ensued. He was laid down on a gurney while doctors searched for wounds. A bullet had ripped through Philip’s favourite purple-striped Charles Tyrwhitt shirt, entered just to the right of his navel, and come out above his hip. A nine-millimetre round, perfectly undistorted by its route through his stomach, was found at its exit point inside the folds of his tucked-in, bloodstained Jermyn Street tailoring.
He does not recall a great deal after that but his sister MJ and brothers Billy and Jamie quickly arrived. They say Philip remained calm and polite and only sounded irritated when an anaesthetist repeatedly asked him about his allergies. ‘I am only allergic to questions about what I’m allergic to.’ Under painkillers he acquired a Bertie Wooster drawl. He kept saying, ‘That’s so awfully kind of you.’ Under the knife doctors chopped bits out of him and now he has an eight-inch vertical scar resembling a giant zip.
‘How do you feel?’ ‘Very fit indeed.’ ‘What are the lessons?’ ‘I don’t own a gun and would never want a gun. I’ve always done what I wanted to. I came within a whisker of dying. I’m not especially religious but He decided it wasn’t my time to go.’ ‘Does this make you worried about living in Kenya?’ ‘No, I’m very pro-Kenya. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This stuff happens to us and we make a big drama, but ordinary Kenyans go through it all the time. I’m no crusader but it’s not really acceptable, is it? Yes, of course I’d like to see some things change.’
After being discharged from hospital, Philip went to recuperate with his parents in the Rift Valley. The Coulson family are good people. They have built several schools and at a rehabilitation centre for poor children they feed 550 mouths every day. His mother Mary has established a ladies’ workshop making items for an organisation called Ethical Fashion, with international clients such as Vivienne Westwood. On the second night at home, Philip’s father Terry, a greatly admired man in Kenya, died of heart failure.
With Philip there is no sense that he expects sympathy for any of this. He complains of no traumatic stress disorder. He says things like, ‘It’s the way we were brought up, isn’t it?’ How refreshing to find a man who displays split-second courage under fire, who has luck on his side, who drives himself to hospital bleeding from gunshot wounds and now protests strongly when I call him brave. He’s retrieved the mashed second bullet from the car body and is hoping the police will eventually return the first slug that messed up his now-laundered but frayed Charles Tyrwhitt shirt. He wants to make them into a pair of cufflinks.