They loved to tell stories of their time in Africa, as if they saw themselves as late 20th century adventurers, faced with the edge of civilisation, shortages and dangers, but always making do with what a century earlier would definitely have been a stiff upper lip and missionary zeal. The only conversions they were interested in during that last decade were ones involving their bank accounts, tax status, inheritance-tax-proof gifts and retirement provisions.
Three years or four years, the details of fixed points vague, yet the challenge, the effort, the accomplishments, what he said to her and how they were always cast in a favourable glow, clear and precise. They didn’t claim to be heroic, only clues, of course.
There were stories of dinner parties augmented with reconstituted-in-champagne dried fruit from the cereal; camp politics and the head girl condescension of the old hands patronising the overwhelmed newcomers.
He built the camp and the plant – you would think single-handedly. A captain of men. Organising defences when the helicopters were called in. Always fair-minded and interested in the natives.
They spoke of walks on the beach, keeping an eye out for snakes, crocodiles and other carnivores. There was nothing we could mention they hadn’t experienced first, better and harder. Any comment met with ‘Remember Nigeria’ and an exchanged rolling of the eyes.
Watching, I first thought the look was about sympathy for each other, for the challenges and privations, and a gentle superiority that we could never know life as they did; such privileged experience was banned to us. I didn’t realise it was deeper and more complex than that. We tried to introduce them to friends who’d had similar experiences but they demurred, unavailable.
There was a murder in the camp, unexplained but most likely domestic, connected to infidelity – also rife and the moral order of the island – blamed on external forces, savages, never solved. They nodded about that in unison.
It was such fun! they told us. When the ship came in with supplies, when the wives left with the children for the summer, when there was a crisis in the construction programme. All conquered, nothing skimped.
How we admired their resilience and fortitude: such wisdom and expertise to be gained from their old hands.
When we visited them at home, there were souvenirs of their exotic life: black wooden carvings, spears, fabrics and baskets. There was a stuffed leather hippopotamus, the size of a large dog, lounging in the conservatory. Oh yes, we had such trouble bringing him back.
We nearly marvelled and shuddered and gasped in appreciation. We listened to the stories with growing politeness and unease. It was not only the one-sided heroics that were off-putting, but a sense of cruelty that was not far below the surface, a smugness of triumph and something else amiss.
Years later a casual comment from a colleague who knew them in darkest Africa suggested their story was incomplete, shorter, less dramatic and primeval. The wife only visited twice, the husband possibly participated in the camp rituals with too much enthusiasm: not quite keys in the bowl.
I have a picture of the ferocious jungle coming down to a swirling shore, with hippos bathing, cars on the beach, quicksand and witch doctors, and a container-load of lies.