Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 28 July 2012

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Kenya coast

A loud crash woke us in the middle of our first night at the beach house. ‘Robbers must be trying to break in,’ said Claire, kneeing me in the back. ‘Go and see.’ I was groggy. It had been a 12-hour drive from the Rift Valley to the coast, with several near collisions involving Congo-bound juggernauts. The children had rioted in the back of the car. I tiptoed into the dressing-room, from where the explosive noise had come. Our clothes were in a heap on the floor. The wardrobe had imploded. On closer inspection I saw that in the year since we had last been here termites had eaten the entire thing, leaving only the ghostly form of household furniture in paint and slivers of wood.

And so our holidays begin. The fridge doesn’t work. The septic tanks are bunged up with roots from the banyan tree so that vegetable tendrils actually grow out of the loo. The beach house is like a picturesque Swahili ruin. Every hinge and metal fitting is rusted and seized. Monsoon winds have torn off windows. Strange smells lurk in bedroom corners. There are only three spoons in the kitchen. As I showered, a centipede nearly as long as my forearm, disturbed in its fetid tropical realm by human visitors, snaked its way towards me. I had to leap across the bathroom naked and wet to bomb it with half a can of Doom spray until it died on the tiled floor in a puddle of poison.

As you all know, holidays are exhausting. We do not relax. I certainly do not read Wordsworth’s poems nor the beach novels I brought, such as Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys. Instead I spend my days in town at the hardware store, or dealing with plumbers and electricians. Each morning Claire deploys me to handle a list of chores, and in the evening before I’ve even had time to uncork the first bottle of Gato Negro my performance is rated — not by what I have achieved but rather in terms of all the things that still need to be fixed. All other middle-aged fathers are going through the same, silent purgatory. The only perverse solace is to swap DIY horror stories about the upkeep of coast houses with the other balding, sad men at the bar of the Driftwood. Another year has passed. The gut has got larger. And as you gaze at the Italian females in bikinis and stripper heels promenading along the white sands at evening, you say aloud, ‘Those days are over, buddy…’ The children are clamouring for ice creams.

So I decide to go surfing. I realise that my muscles have collapsed in a year of flying and driving around Africa. Yesterday I paddled out to sea for five minutes and then felt too exhausted to continue. In past years I always got walloped by big incoming waves because I am severely myopic. Without glasses in the water I cannot see what’s about to hit me. This year my cunning plan was to buy disposable contact lenses to wear with goggles in the water so that I can see the waves and position myself perfectly to catch them. All went well yesterday and the lenses really helped with observing waves I was too unfit to catch. But after coming out of the water I was unable to remove the left lens. The right lens is too stingy to keep in. I am now blind in the right eye unless I put my glasses on again, but this makes me dizzy because the left eye is getting double strength. I am now writing this with a piece of paper inserted between my left eye and my glasses. I feel very odd indeed and realise I need help.

This is going to go on for weeks. I probably won’t read Skagboys. I will get fit enough to catch a wave or two. I may even have a pleasant day or two with Claire and the children. As I sit on the beach watching them all swim I remember my own childhood here, and I remember my late father and my mother who lived here for so many years before she migrated to Nairobi. I see ghosts of all our family’s past, walking up and down the sand path to the beach. In August the house will be painted, the metal fittings will be replaced. After spending a fortune, the place will look great — on the final day before we drive back up to the Rift Valley for another whole year.