There’s an old photo, coloured when colour was new, of a small girl wearing ribbons and a white dress standing beside a blue 1950s Vauxhall, surrounded by village warriors. With hunting sticks, they watch a white man bending over the punctured wheel.
Another man, the father, is smoking a pipe, as if settled in his lounge room back in Scotland, rather than stranded on a desert track somewhere in the Serengeti Plain. He’s wearing light shorts and shirt with long pull-up socks. The girl, her brothers, the two white men and the warriors cluster around the car like layers of sacredness around a shrine. On the outside looking through the camera lens is the girl’s mother.
Among the warriors is a boy with his half-size hunting stick regarding the white curiosities. The villagers who have survived the Mau Mau massacres by Kikuyu cousins, who themselves have been massacred by the colonial army, have returned to their patriarchal normality. But this boy might be the one who was sent to the village school. The one who gained a position in the newly-independent government and finished the job of ending seventy years of colonial rule.
Later, a Maasai man will touch the brother’s red hair, indicating his own clay-reddened plaits. The white men will fix the tyre and take the family to the next village, where the pipe-bearer will attend to the teeth of those other subjects of the British Crown.
Look at this second photo. The girl, in ribbons and a patterned dress, beams at her father as he stands before a camel pulling a cart. A man in a white fez and tunic puzzles about them. The girl and her family are returning to their peaceful Scottish home, minus her pet hyena, destroyer of shoes.
Settled among their own kind, the family will prosper, but the girl, removed from the sun, will be placed on an ice-bed and have her ribs broken apart, a half blood-eagle. Her heart will be experimentally sewn together. Turn the page. There’s a tiny newspaper clipping describing her contribution to modern medicine.
There’s another photo. Years under the clouds has led the man and his pipe back to the tropics, south of the equatorial line, to another continent. He’s out in the bush this time, beside a single-engine plane at a remote mission. He’s wearing light shorts and shirt with long pull-up socks. He’s fixing the teeth of other Australians. They give him gifts of dilly-bags and good humour, even though they are trapped in a kind of white man’s prison. In twenty years’ time a brave Mer man of their kind will fight a government to reclaim their land right.
There are no photos for a while. The man is in hospital, bedridden from a disease contracted up north. The girl visits him in the gloomy ward. The man has already survived a war which torpedoed his ship into the Atlantic Ocean, he inhaling ship’s oil and salt water; made him a D-Day hero. He survives again, he and the girl.
See this photo of the man, hair greying, and the mother. The girl is behind the lens this time. The mother, tanned and wearing a slip dress, throws back her head in joy at the man who has made her laugh. He does that. He always did.
The girl shows her children the old album. She turns to page one. See that photo. There’s a girl in a yellow dress clutching a rag doll made by the village woman. Her brothers are feeding fruit to the Vervet monkey by their back door. There’s so much light outside.