Damn, it was hot!
There I was, sweat running down my forehead and half blinding my eyes, rendering the levelling staff a hundred yards away almost unreadable. I wondered whether it was worth it. I wondered whether the new community centre would ever be actually built. Whether any of the little Kenyan kids sat there quietly observing me would ever sit in a schoolroom on this site, anymore than the proposed medical centre would ever receive any patients.
Not my decision!
No. All I could do was survey the area to find the best position, and take the information back to our office in Nairobi, and let others see if the promised funding from some benefactor would actually appear.
Damn, it was hot!
"Friday," I called out to my driver/chainman/general assistant and source of all information. "That's about all we can do here. Let's go down towards the river and check we've got the falls to get the drainage in."
"N'dio Bwana," he grinned at me. He always grinned, never just smiled and I don't think I'd ever seen him look unhappy. He was from the Luo tribe and born and still lived just outside Nairobi, and his English was much better than my Swahili, but we'd fell into the habit of speaking to one another in a mixture of the two. Yes, I spoke mainly English and he used the same language with the odd Swahili word thrown in.
"It'll be cooler down there Bwana," he informed me, as he helped me pack up the surveying instruments and load them into the back of our Land Rover, and a few moments later we were bumping along the dusty track they called a road. Friday was happily humming away some unrecognisable tune, as he casually navigated the vehicle round the huge potholes, while I wished we'd waited for the newer Land Cruiser to come back from it's service, and the air-conditioner that it had fitted.
"Where did you get to last night," I ribbed him, well aware that he hadn't slept the night at the company guest house that we'd been staying in."
"The local girls up here in the northern provinces are renown for how pretty they are Bwana, pretty to look at and pretty available." He told me laughing aloud at his own little joke.
"I can vouch for the former," I smiled back over at him, having seen quite a number of quite beautiful young African girls around the village." But I'll take your word for how available they are."
"You're sure Mr Mike?" he tried to tempt me.
"I'm sure Friday," I assured him. "Memsahib Connie wouldn't be at all pleased."
Memsahib Connie wasn't actually my wife yet, but I felt that maybe we were working towards it. She was a Swedish volunteer working for an aid agency, and we'd been going steady for most of the two years that she'd been out there. Tall blonde and svelte, and typically Nordic, I'd been lucky to snatch her before any of the other randy expat guys.
With that, Friday slid the Land Rover around a huge baobab tree, and screeched to a halt.
"Here we are Bwana. Let's set up here."
"Shouldn't we be a bit further down Friday?" I queried, but he shook his head, leapt out, and started to unstrap the theodolite, which we would be using first.
"Right Friday," I murmured, grabbing the tripod. I was the boss, but I'd learnt that sometimes it paid to follow his judgement. If he was wrong then I'd bollock him and he would hang his head low, and then laugh it off. It was, I have to say, a good working relationship.
A few moments later and I'd had a chance to have a quick look around. We were stood on a small clump of raised land, surrounded by bushland, with a run of trees going down to the river. It was beautiful, idyllic. It was like something out of one of those safari films, where the countryside seemed just too perfect to be true, and it was then that I realised the Friday had disappeared.
"Friday," I called out wondering where he'd got to.
"Bwana Mike," he called to me softly. "Down here. Come quickly and don't make a noise."
I knew from past experience that Friday had a knack for spotting wildlife, so I quietly slid through the undergrowth, dropping down towards the river, the tripod still slung over my back, making my way to where his voice had come from.
"So Friday, what have you spotted," I asked in a whisper, hoping that it was perhaps a hippo, though it was more likely to be some antelope drinking.
"Over there Bwana," he whispered back, pointing at a gap in the trees overlooking a short section of the river. "Move quietly. Don't disturb them. There's five of them."
Carefully, one step at a time, I eased myself over to the opening, watching where I put my feet so as to avoid breaking any twigs or whatever and startling whatever beasts were just down there below us. By then I could clearly hear the splash of water and the odd noise that I couldn't quite place, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was at last going to be a family of hippos, one of the few animals native to East Africa that I hadn't yet seen close up in the wild. I was also well aware that Hippos if disturbed could be very dangerous, so the last couple of steps I took extra caution, struggling to keep my breathing relaxed.
And suddenly, there they were.
Five of them as Friday had said, and they were just so stunningly beautiful.
"Friday, you bastard," I called back to him, but keeping my voice soft. "I ought to sack you, you dirty sod."
"Why Bwana," he replied cheerily, his eyes flashing with merriment. "Don't you like this sort of African wild-life?"
"We shouldn't be watching them like this," I chastised him, but it didn't stop me transferring my gaze back to the five gorgeous young African girls bathing in the river, chattering away in some strange tongue as they splashed around playfully.
"They're from the local village," Friday delighted in enlightening me. "They come here most days, so I'm told."
"So that's why you bought me here?" I accused him.
"Of course not Bwana Mike," he claimed, though I could almost hear him trying to stop from bursting out laughing.
My God, they really were so damn beautiful. I'd been in Africa long enough to know that the tradition of young women to go bare breasted till they got married hadn't totally fallen by the wayside, so the two girls stood on the bank watching the others, clad in their colourful skirts were probably in their late teens. The other three, frolicking in the shallow waters of the riverbank, had no clothing to give me a clue, but the taught dusky naked bodies were clue enough for me.
The women of East Africa are as varied as those of Europe or the Americas, and every young woman has, somewhere, a man who would consider her beautiful. Some might lust after the big bosomed, ample bottomed variety that abound in that part of Africa, but to the average westerner the slender, graceful girls of Somalia are the pick of the bunch, and this tribe definitely owed their genes to that country, its border only a few miles to the east.
"Better than hippos?" Chuckled Friday quietly.
"Somewhat different," I agreed cautiously, not sure what the local chieftain would make of a 'muzango' perving his tribe's young girls in the nude. "Certainly a lot prettier."
"Look at that one Bwana," he whispered to me. "The tall one with the long hair."
Wow! I'd spotted her just as he'd pointed her out, and she stood out even amongst such a group of lovely young things. Unlike the others her hair was long and straight, and she probably had the smallest breasts of the group, but the little that she had were perfect. High, tight and pointy, with large dark nipples that I could make out clearly even from where we were stood. To make matters worse at that moment she decided to start to climb out of the water, and with each step she exposed more and more of her trim naked dusky body.
"Her name's Willey," Friday began to tell me, not taking his eyes off her. "She's ....."
At that point Friday fell silent and when I looked round at him, his mouth gaped open, his eyes glaring wildly, the whites showing as if in abject terror.
I spun round to see what he was looking at, and terror struck at my heart as well.
There, not thirty yards away a full grown Lioness was creeping through the undergrowth, stalking the five girls, as they frolicked naked unaware that death was at their doorstep.
To my surprise, Friday turned and fled, as the events rolling out there in front of me seemed to take place in slow motion, terror rooting me to the spot, unable to move a limb or even shout out some warning. It was then that one of the girls spotted the Lion crawling on its belly towards them, and let out a piercing scream. The huge beast, the element of surprise lost, rose up and began its charge and the girls scattered in terror.
The two still in the river struck out for deeper water, one of the semi dressed girls leapt into the water to seek refuge and the other took flight along the river bank. The poor lost soul still climbing up the bank desperately tried to scramble up to follow her friend, potentially the worst mistake she'd ever made in her short life, and probably the last one, as the Lioness spotted her and with a gut churning roar, changed direction to attack her.
She had no chance!
I have no idea what made me do it, certainly not true bravery as I had no time to consider my actions, but yelling like a banshee, I burst through the bushes hiding me, dropping ten feet or more, and landing on my feet more by luck than judgement. I'm not sure who was more surprised, the Lion or me, as I appeared there no more than ten feet or so from her.
Then I froze again, my rush of adrenalin drying up as the killing machine jolted to a halt and turned her huge head to stare at me and redirect it's target.
Me! Oh Fuck!
The shock of her first charge sent me sprawling onto the dusty ground, and as I tried desperately and instinctively to crawl away, I heard a roar from behind me and knew my number was up, wondering how much pain I would suffer till I no longer felt anything.
When it came, the force with which the big cat struck me astonished me, its hot rancid breath enveloping me before its jaws clamped down on my back, one bite enough to tear my body open.
The pain came, as bad as you could imagine in your worst dreams, but astonishingly I survived, at least for a few more horrifying moments. I didn't know it but the metal tripod still slung to my back prolonged my life for a few precious moments and when death is so near, those extra seconds are so important. The tripod caught up in the lion's jaws frustrated her, and she tossed her head in anger, throwing me bodily through the air like some discarded rag doll.
Death was close now, and I'd had enough, praying that it would come quickly, but knowing that it wouldn't be painless.
I screamed, not knowing if it was the first time, as the vicious cat bore down on me again, and took one of my legs in its mouth, the crack as the first of my bones snapped like a twig, audibly sounding out.
This was it.
Sad, when life had promised so much.
Then another crack followed by two more, signalling clearly my demise, soon confirmed by the warm cloying blood that covered me and blinded me, as my chest seemed to cave in.
They do say that your life flashes past you in your final few moments, but for me, it was the last glimpse I'd had of the beautiful young naked girl, as she'd emerged nymph like from the water.
Then I died!
Heaven was an awful lot noisier than I would have anticipated, so I feared for where I had ended up, the cloying heat giving me some clue that it wasn't good. I had no idea how long I'd been dead, but the pain had gone and I felt that I was floating on air. Struggling to open my eyes, I saw that it was light and bright around me, and I even spotted several angels.
I may have died, but as I fell back unconscious, I relaxed, knowing that I'd ended up where my mother would have hoped me to have come to rest.
My next experience of heaven was an unknown time later, and this time when I fought to open my eyes, I heard an angel sing.
"He's coming to," she sang out. "Get doctor Hasim quickly."
It took several days for me to accept that Nairobi hospital was only my own personal heaven, and not related to the one mentioned in the Bible. No matter. It was good enough for me.
A few days later and I was able to piece together what had actually happened, mainly from Friday, who hadn't fled the scene as I'd thought. Thinking quicker than me, he'd rushed back to our Land Rover to get the rifle that we always carried, and the final three 'cracks' had not been my legs being crushed in the Lioness' jaws, but Friday shooting her at close range. The blood that blinded me was the lion's, though no doubt some of mine was mixed up with it. My chest being crushed was as she fell dead on top of me, and not as she tore into me in an eating frenzy.
He'd saved my life, but they'd had to run to the village to get help to pull the dead beast off me, surprised and delighted to find me still breathing, though in a terrible state. Fortunately there was a private aeroplane in the air nearby which diverted and flew me back to Nairobi where they brought me back from the dead.
Connie came to visit me regularly, but as the weeks went by and it began to look as if I may never walk again properly, then the frequency dropped off. In fairness we hadn't got round to discussing anything permanent between us, and a life with a cripple couldn't have seemed too attractive to such a pretty young woman.
Rumours began to filter through to me that Connie had been seen out and about around Nairobi in the company of some Italian banker, though there was no evidence of them sharing a bed.
I did the decent thing.
The next time she came in, we discussed our relationship, without me mentioning what I'd heard, and I couldn't miss the relief on her face when I released her. That didn't stop her crying though and her tears were obviously genuine. Connie didn't stop coming to see me and in fact her visits from then on were far more relaxed.
Didn't stop me crying though the first few times when she left, though it got easier as it went on.
Two months almost to the day that I'd been admitted, I left the hospital in a wheelchair, was taken to the airport in an ambulance, and found myself flying back to the UK. The wonderful staff at Nairobi had done a fantastic job of treating the terrible, deep wounds that the lioness had inflicted on me, not the least of which was controlling the many infections that resulted from the bites and rakes of her claws as she attacked me. The wounds would heal but never disappear, and the severed muscles and sinews in my left shoulder, would rebuild themselves eventually to enable me to operate more or less as normal.
My left leg however was a mess, and for some weeks it was thought that it might have to be amputated, a fear that fortunately was avoided, although reconstructive surgery left me with one leg an inch or so shorter than the other.
OK, so I wasn't going to win any Olympic sprint medals in a hurry, but then I never was, and with specially made up shoes, I was able to walk out from the hospital with the aid of a crutch. The crutch was replaced by a stick eventually, and then, at last, I managed without that, though I never completely lost the slight limp.
But me, Mike Kelly, was fully mobile again.
The company I worked for were incredibly supportive, paying for special care and keeping me on the payroll. My story had made me a minor celebrity for a short while, and I was able to pay them back by attending various functions where lots of very impressive people seemed to want to shake hands with me. A few of the women were happy to do even more than that with a real life hero, and I even got to appear in a TV add!
A bit tongue in cheek I asked if it would be possible to fly Friday over to the UK, so that I could thank him properly for saving my life. The big wigs informed me that Friday was too busy to come over at that point, as following the incident they had promoted him into junior management, something that he'd taken to like a duck to water.
They then trumped me by informing me that they were sending me back to Kenya for a month or so, to tie up a few loose ends as they called it, though I soon gleaned that I'd became even more famous over there than I had been in the UK, and that my presence would be beneficial to a contract they were chasing.
Fair exchange really!
And so, ten days later, I found myself at Heathrow Airport, boarding one of those new fangled 747 Jumbo Jets, huge compared to the VC10's that I'd became used to on the BOAC flights on earlier trips. They may have been bigger, but they weren't a lot quicker, although on the other hand, they were an awful lot quieter and more comfortable.
I could have got used to that!
Waiting to pick me up from the airport was of course Friday, just like old times, except rather than the company Land Rover, he was driving his own Peugeot 504. Not a new one, but a huge step up from the motorbike that I fondly remembered him turning up for work in.
Life had been kind to Friday in the year since I'd last seen him, and oddly he insisted on thanking me continually for his good fortune, when it was him that had saved my life, but, eventually we came to a compromise. I bought him a beer to thank him, and he bought me one back. Then I thanked him again, and he returned the compliment. That first night back in Nairobi turned into quite a party and as I met more and more people I knew, I realised how much I'd missed the place and the people. I didn't get up early the following morning.
By then I'd become quite an expert at shaking hands and making the right noises. I'd also learnt to recognise when the women up for a bit more than that, and how to divert them politely when I wasn't ready. Hell, most of them were married, and Nairobi was a much smaller city then London.
Less than a week in, and Friday was onto me to make that trip back up-country. Back towards the Somalian border area where all this had started. A few days and even more beers and I found myself in the passenger seat of a four-wheel drive with Friday again, just like old times. But this time it was an all singing and dancing Range Rover with air-conditioning and all the luxuries.
The drive passed remarkably pleasantly, despite the time it took, and with one overnight stop, the pair of us found ourselves approaching the village, wondering what reception we'd get. We'd sent word, but who knew?
I can only say that we were overwhelmed when we got there, and yet again Friday seemed to know more than he was admitting to. I thanked them for helping to save my life but was carried along on a wave of euphoria as they all made it very clear that I was some kind of hero, having saved the lives, according to folk lore, of at least twelve young women that day by wrestling the lion, or was it two of them, down to the ground with my bare hands. Twelve girls and counting in fact, due to the local beer that flowed freely during the festivities, and by the end of the night there was talk of some elephants being involved.
That weekend, I never did sort out which five women were the ones that were actually there that day. There were a lot of pretty girls there for sure, but I hardly liked to ask them to take their clothes off to see if I could pick the original ones out. Not that the thought didn't appeal to me, and not, giving the mood everyone was in, they probably wouldn't have agreed.
The first night I was so drunk that I couldn't remember going back to my hut, and though I had vague memories of cuddling up to something very soft and pliable, I woke up on my own.