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Leopard at the Door

Stepping off the boat in Mombasa, eighteen-year-old Rachel Fullsmith stands on Kenyan soil for the first time in six years. She has come home.

"Rachel, this is Sara," my father says, disentangling himself from my embrace. "She lives here –" He boldly speaks the words as though there is no shame in them, as though his tone might remove any awkwardness that the revelation holds.

The woman walks towards us with a neat step and a smile that never quite reaches her eyes. I can tell by the formality of the introduction that she is more than a recent acquaintance; she has been here some time. I dry my eyes with my hands and we kiss – Sara barely leaning forward so that I end up just grazing her cheek. The saturating, sweet smell of lilies envelops me.

"You haven’t been here since you were a little girl, is that right?" she asks.

"I haven’t," I say, leaning down to sink my face in Juno’s fur, breathing in the animal smell of her, trying to hide the tears which are coming now for a different reason, or for the same reason all muddled into one. I don’t want this woman to be here to witness my homecoming. Every second is a chance to bring my mother alive, to feel her presence as it was when we left, me scrambling on to her lap in the car, her soft whisper in my ear.

"Nate Logan," Sara says, turning her gaze away from me.

Nathaniel is shaking my father’s hand.

"Can we persuade you to stay the night with us?" my father asks.

"No – thank you. I’ve picked up a new camera. I want to be out first thing tomorrow." He takes a small package from the front seat of his jeep and gives it to Sara. "Extra film for Harold."

"He’s out on the farm," she says, giving him a tight smile, "taking photographs." I sense a friction between them.

"Well – send him my regards," Nathaniel says.

He turns to look at me and I stand up, pressing the heels of my hands into my eyes to stop the tears. I swallow down the choking that is catching at my chest. I scarcely know him, but for a reason I cannot explain I would rather he stayed.

"Thank you," I say, smiling.

"That’s all right, kiddo," he says, laying a hand on my head. "You look after yourself."

A moment later he is gone, the rattle of his engine receding into the dusk.

Sara links arms with my father, one arm wrapped round his, and smiles, and I notice the coolness of her gaze as she looks at me.

"I hope you won’t mind," she says, "but we’ve moved you into a different room. There’s Harold, you see, my son. It seemed silly to let that big room go to waste." She pauses for a moment, then says into the awkward silence, "If I had known you were coming back –" as though she had thought I might never come home.

I smile brightly at them both. "That’s fine," I say, but all I can think is that she is not a guest. She is talking about our house as though it is her own. Who is she exactly? How could my father not have told me?

My father clasps my shoulder, bridging the distance between us, and the familiar weight of his hand sends a current of emotion through me. "Come on in, Rachel." I am aware of a thread of tension. It seems to me that their backs are all to the house, on guard, but perhaps I have imagined it. Evening has come, the sun has gone down and the air is chill – we are at over 6,500 feet here in the Highlands, and on the equator nightfall is swift.

They turn towards the house and I glance involuntarily behind me. The wind is rustling the long papyrus grass in front of the house and the silver spires move as though someone is walking through them.

"It’s all right," my father says quietly. "There’s no one there."

Kahiki has left my bags by the front door, and I thank him. He calls to Juno as he leaves but she puts her tail between her legs and drops her head, unwilling to follow.

"She’s not coming in?" I ask.

"Not in the house," Sara says, standing in the doorway.

"Why?" I ask, looking at my father in surprise.

"She’s riddled with ticks," Sara says. But we have always de-ticked our dogs, and they have always slept in the house. I can’t imagine this evening without Juno stretched out in front of the fire.

"She sleeps in the stables," my father says. "It’s comfortable enough."

"I’m afraid I haven’t adopted your family’s love of animals," Sara says with a small, brittle laugh.

"What about leopard?" I’m shocked. "Don’t they try to get at her?"

"They haven’t managed it yet," she says drily, but I am sure my father can’t approve. Even if they bolt the stable doors so that a leopard can’t get in, it would terrify her with its circling. Leopard like dog almost as much as baboon.

 

My father looks at Sara for approval, and I can see the struggle in her face, a flare of irritation that this is out of her control.

"Can she stay now that I am here?" I don’t want to go in without her. I will sleep better with her by my bed.

My father looks at Sara for approval, and I can see the struggle in her face, a flare of irritation that this is out of her control. "Of course," she says with an indulgent smile that is just a little tight round the edges, and – as if she can sense the outcome – Juno trots past her into the hall.

My father shuts the door behind us. Standing here I feel as though I have slipped through time. The house is just the same, with its thick plaster walls stained dark over the years by wood smoke and the rub of shoulders. The grandfather clock – brought by my parents from England on the wagon which drove them to the farm – ticks out the time, achingly slow. In the sitting room a fire spits and crackles in the stone hearth, and the air is sweet with the smell of burning leleshwa. Arched over our heads is the pitched timber ceiling beneath the thatch whose patterns I had endlessly tried to memorize as a child. The mahogany dresser – which used to hold my mother’s collection of fossils and stones – now shows off rows of matching pink and yellow floral plates and china teacups, but little else has changed. Here are the armchairs gathered round the fire, draped with zebra skins, the rugs my mother and I bought on a trip to Zanzibar, and the floorboards she had laid by hand with my father, the line of the equator – which crosses right through this room – picked out in red cedar. The dark, waxed table where we ate supper every evening is just the same, set in front of the three windows that look out on to the lawn beyond.

"Where is Jim? And Joseph?" I ask, looking around. Jim was the cook – overweight, sweating and full of laughter – he had been with us for as long as I could remember. Joseph was the houseboy. His long face, his wrinkled hands and soft, padding feet had been an intimate part of my childhood.

"Jim is in the kitchen," Sara says.

"And Joseph?" I ask my father.

"We had to let him go –"

"He was half blind – always knocking things over," Sara says. "Mungai, the new boy, will get you anything you need." A slightly built, young Kikuyu boy is hovering in the doorway.

But I don’t need anything. I only want to see Jim. A homecoming isn’t a homecoming without him bursting out of the kitchen to greet me, clasping me to his huge belly, his arms smelling of onions and treacle.

"I’ll go find him in the kitchen."

"Don’t you think you’d better have a bath first?" I follow Sara’s gaze to my shoeless feet and my calves, spattered red-brown with mud. I pause for a moment. There is something in her voice – a challenge – that stops me from going.

It is Sara, not my father, who shows me to the guest room, on the other side of the sitting room. I step inside, with Juno at my heels, and Sara hovers at the open door watching me.

"I expect you’re wondering what I’m doing here," she says, her gaze settling unflinching on mine, her forefinger winding round the thin gold chain at her neck. I look at her then, taking her in. She must be in her mid forties – a little younger than my mother would be now. Her dark hair is cut short round her ears, accentuating the white curve of her neck, and she wears a sleeveless silk shirt that tightens over her breasts. Her mouth is a glossy lipstick red. The skin on her arms is pale and smooth, and as she drops her hand to her waist, thin ivory bangles slip down her wrist, clinking against each other like bones. She is so pale she might be in England, and I wonder if she ever goes outside. My eyes slide away from hers. She seems the very opposite of my mother who wore only the simplest things, who smelled, not of lilies, but of the warm sun mingled with antiseptic, and of the sharp, green lettuces that she cut from her garden.

"I said he should write and tell you but he never did," Sara says.

"Why not?"

"Men don’t like change. They choose the path of least resistance, and generally don’t step off it unless pushed."

I struggle to match this assertion with what I know of my father, the way he was with my mother when I was growing up. But then – with a hot rush of blood – I remember how easily he gave me up to my grandparents.

"Are you married?" I ask. I know it’s a risk and I feel my blood beat a little faster.

"Not yet," she says, holding my gaze, letting me understand there is no shame for her in their arrangement. I feel a tiny chink of relief, that she is not yet family. That my father hasn’t given all of himself away.

She calls Juno to her as she leaves, but the dog drops to her haunches on the floor beside me, her head low in apology for not following.

Sara clicks her tongue in irritation. "She’s filthy."

"I’ll give her a bath," I say, wanting to hold on to this one thing.

"As long as I’m not the one who has to do it."

Just as she is about to leave, she turns in the door. "Why did you come?"

I stare at her. The question is so direct, so lacking in grace, that I do not know how to answer.

"Why would anyone come back to this place?" she asks in a low voice. I do not think she wants me to answer.

After a moment she glances at me. "If you need anything in the night, you know where your father and I are sleeping."

In my mother’s bed.

When she is gone I sit down.

More about the author

Leopard at the Door

Jennifer McVeigh

'A simply stunning novel that will stay with me: a magnificent book' Dinah Jefferies, bestselling author of The Tea Planter's Wife

Stepping off the boat in Mombasa, eighteen-year-old Rachel Fullsmith stands on Kenyan soil for the first time in six years. She has come home.

But when Rachel reaches the family farm at the end of the dusty Rift Valley road, she finds so much has changed. Her beloved father has moved his new partner and her son into the family home. She hears menacing rumours of Mau Mau violence, and witnesses cruel reprisals by British soldiers. Even Michael, the handsome Kikuyu boy from her childhood, has started to look at her differently.

Isolated and conflicted, Rachel fears for her future. But when home is no longer a place of safety and belonging, where do you go, and who do you turn to?

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