‘Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’ Mr Malik smiled. How many times had he heard Rose Mbikwa say those words?
Almost as many times as he had been on the Tuesday morning bird walk.
You never know exactly how many kinds of birds you will see on the Tuesday morning bird walk of the East African Ornithological Society but you can be sure to see a kite. Expert scavengers, they thrive on the detritus of human society in and around Nairobi. At his first school sports day (how many years ago was that now – could it really be fifty?) Mr Malik remembered little of the sprinting and javelin throwing and fathers’ sack race but he would never forget the kite which swooped down from nowhere to snatch a devilled chicken leg from his very hand. He could still recall the brush of feathers against his face and that single moment when as the bird’s talons closed around the prize its yellow eye looked into his. Of course it wasn’t quite accurate to say that he had no memories of the javelin throwing. Few would forget the incident with the Governor General’s wife’s corgi.
There was already a good turnout. Seated along the low wall in front of the museum a gaggle of Young Ornithologists (YOs), mostly students training to be tourist guides, chattered and preened.
The Old Hands were also out in force.
Joan Baker and Hilary Fotherington-Thomas were leaning against a car talking to a couple of pink-faced men, one bearded, whose pocket-infested khaki clothing instantly identified them as tourists and their accents as Australian. Standing furtively to one side were Patsy King and Jonathan Evans.
They had been carrying on their Tuesday morning affair for almost two years now and though Mr Malik had never had an affair, he supposed that a certain furtiveness was necessary to achieve full satisfaction in these things. The two were an unlikely match. Imagine a giraffe, towering above the wide savannah. Now imagine a warthog. But Mr Malik was used to seeing the lanky figure of Patsy King striding along road or track, her 10 x 50 binoculars enveloped in one large hand, with Jonathan Evans trotting along beside her. To Mr Malik they seemed, like members of his own family, no longer remarkable.
Keeping himself to himself as usual was Thomas Nyambe. He was standing with his back to the crowd, looking up towards the sky, entranced. Mr Nyambe loved birds, and had been coming to the bird walks even longer than Mr Malik.
Tuesday was his rostered morning off from his job as government driver. A driver in Kenya is seldom paid enough to afford a car of his own, so as usual Mr Nyambe had walked to the museum from his home in Factory Road, just behind the railway station. As usual Mr Malik would offer him a lift to wherever they were going that day.
A bang and a rattle and a loud curse through an open window announced the arrival of Tom Turnbull driving over the speed bump in his yellow Morris Minor (the speed bump had been there over a year now but still it took him by surprise). He opened the door of the car, got out, and slammed it. He cursed, opened the door, and slammed it again.
The distant town hall clock struck nine.
‘Good morning and welcome,’ said Rose.
All conversation ceased, all heads turned.
‘I see a few new faces here – and many old ones – but I welcome all of you to the Tuesday morning bird walk. My name is Rose Mbikwa.’ Mr Malik had got used to it by now, the transformation of Rose’s normal low contralto speaking voice into her public voice of distance-shrinking volume and clarity. Rose looked around the group, nodding here and smiling there, then conferred again with the young woman who had earlier pointed out the kite.
‘And to those of you who don’t know her, may I introduce Jennifer Halutu. Just to remind you, I will be away next week and Jennifer will be leading the walk. Last week, you may remember, we thought we might try the MEATI but we didn’t have enough cars. Do we have enough this week?’ She looked around the car park. ‘I think we might.
Who can give lifts?’ Hands were raised, calculations made.
‘Good, that’s fine,’ said Rose. ‘Then the MEATI it is. You all know the way?’ It was left to Joan Baker and Hilary Fotherington-Thomas to explain to the mystified newcomers that the Modern East African Tourist Inn was a popular restaurant on the southern outskirts of town.
Thomas Nyambe had already slipped into the front seat of Mr Malik’s old green Mercedes 450 SEL. The back seats were sttill empty. Perhaps, thought Mr Malik, the two tourists would like to come with him? He was about to offer a lift when another Mercedes, a shiny red SL 350, bounced in over the speed bump and swung into the car park. A tinted window opened, a sunglassssssed face leaned out over gold-braceleted arm.
‘Hi, Rose – not too late?’ The man leapt out of the car. ‘Hey, David, George, there you are. Your chariot awaits.’ The tourists, who Mr Malik now surmised were called David and George, walked over to the red Mercedes to be greeted with handshakes, smiles and shoulder clasps.
‘These guys are staying at the Hilton too, Rose, so I said they should come along. OK with you?’ After the three of them had gained Rose’s approval and paid their visitor’s subscription the two guests were shown into the passenger seats while the driver jumped back behind the wheel, started the engine and pulled out on to the drive, yelling out through the window just before it closed.
‘See you there, everyone.’ Who on earth was that? Brown skin, white hair, expensive clothing, and some kind of American accent; yet he looked slightly familiar. Mr Malik had little time to ponder this question, nor how this man seemed to know Rose Mbikwa, before several young black Africans piled into the back of his old Mercedes.
The rest of the YOs slipped and squeezed into Rose’s 504, Tom’s Morris Minor and the assortment of Land Rovers, Toyotas and other vehicles that other Old Hands had brought along. Engines were started, handbrakes released. As he drove gently over the speed bump and eased his tightly packed load out into the morning traffic, Mr Malik was wearing a worried expression.
That man. No, it couldn’t be. Not after all this time.