Of all the girlfriends and wives that my father had, my sister and I liked Ute the most. A lady from Switzerland, Kenya had somehow taken her fancy and so she moved here for her retirement years and set up a home in Nyali.
I don’t know how my father met her – but they had a friend in common. A homosexual Arab man who worked for a tour company in Mombasa, Rahimtullah was a short thin man, with high cheekbones and an accent. Very soft spoken and gentle. An undeclared homosexual, of course, but then most homosexuals in Kenya, ten years later, still are. His tour company was based somewhere around the Tusks on Moi Avenue, Mombasa, and I think of him, to this day, every time I pass that way.
Homosexuality wasn’t openly discussed then, and men of my father’s generation, marinated in machismo, were visibly uncomfortable with the topic. I remember my father describing him to us. He would affect that weak handed pose and then look at us to see if we understood what he was alluding to. My sister and I would look at each other and try to hide our smiles. Seeing our rugged and oh-so-masculine father acting the gay part was hilarious. And then he would tell us, with all seriousness, that men like him were the safest kind for us to be stuck in an elevator with because we had nothing to fear from them. Fatherly advice, I suppose. Let no one ever accuse my father of raising us in an orthodox manner.
These moments of conversation, like many others we shared, were reduced – over time – to key words and so, every time after, whenever we spoke of Rahimtullah, my sister and I would adopt the weak handed pose or just say “The elevator… “.
My father, remembering the laughter we had shared the first time he told us the story, would snicker again and then almost wistfully shake his head and comment on how he had lost touch with so many good friends.
It was Rahimtullah, I think, who introduced my father to Ute. I suspect she probably had some legal matters to sort out when she first purchased land in Kenya and that was how they met.
She was lovely. Old enough to be a grandmother (although very unlike my own grandmother) and so unthreatened. Completely un-jealous of my father’s relationship with us, unlike the other women he had had in his life.
Ute would travel to Switzerland at least once a year and return with furniture and items for her Kenyan home. One year she brought us these plastic straps, covered in a waterproof fabric, that you could slap onto your wrist and have it curl on tenaciously. They were new to Kenya and I remember the fun my sister and I had playing with them around the house and at school. They smarted at first, of course, but gradually either our skin thickened or the sharpness of the plastic wore out. When we tired of slapping them onto our wrists, we would aim them at the banister from a few steps away and watch them curl on.
That same trip, my father asked Ute to bring him a waterbed. Of course my sister and I had seen a waterbed on TV but we had never experienced one – especially one being assembled. We literally dragged a hosepipe from the garden, through the front door, up the stairs, round the corner and into his bedroom to fill it up. And my sister and I sat there, balanced precariously on the edge of the huge wooden frame for the bed, watching a thick grey rubber balloon become larger and larger.
Sleeping in a waterbed was a life-long dream for my dad. Unfortunately he never enjoyed it. The rippling surface of the bed made him seasick. So he would rather lie there, right in the centre where the water was at its highest, on his back, absolutely still.
But my sister and I loved it. In the early days, we would jump onto it and start doing the backstroke. Soon we realized how silly we looked feigning backstroke on a flat surface. That was when we started treating it like an ordinary mattress bed – jumping up and down on it. Unfortunately, we only ever chose to do this when my father was lying down for an afternoon siesta after a heavy lunch. And we were having so much fun that we were oblivious that his face went from yellow to green, and that then he just upped and left.
We would find him sleeping on one of our single, mattressed beds when we were done with our antics.
In the first few weeks, when the water bed was a novelty and the waves didn’t bother him so much, my dad told us a story about a friend of his, Major Kelly, who also owned a water bed. Apparently one weekend, the Major invited a group of his friends over. They arrived with their kids and while the adults sat downstairs chatting, the kids rushed around the house playing. A half hour or so later, the house became very quiet and the Major went to look for the kids, worried they might be up to mischief. He found them in his bedroom. They were all standing there silently, crowded around his bed, staring at it.
The Major saw an opportunity for immortality… and also a way to keep them out of his bedroom… and so he told them it was a magic bed. Their eyes widened with the word “magic”, and they looked at the Major with awe. Not only had he been in the army, but this must be one of the treasures he had found on his travels.
The Major milked the moment for all its worth. He gave each of the kids a turn to touch the bed, even allowing one of the little ones to sit on it and then quietly prodding a corner with his finger, smiling to himself when they all jumped and started pointing at the moving bed, shouting, “Look. Look!”
When the turns were over, he shepherded them out and rejoined his friends downstairs, confident that none of them would enter his room.
An hour or so later, one of the younger kids came up to him and began pulling him up the stairs. Two steps to the top, he saw a pool of water on the floor. He rushed into his bedroom to find the entire group of kids soaking wet, sitting in a pool of water that used to be his bed. Before he could shout one word of remonstration, the kid in the middle splashed his way to the side, pointed at him and shouted angrily, “You lied to us. You said it was magic. But it’s not magic. It’s water.”
Clasped in his hand was a pin. The Major’s face fell.
The kids, looking sulkily at him, filed out the room.
Ute was extremely unconventional. I remember one time … I must have been around ten… she brought me a swimming costume from Switzerland. It was a turquoise blue, with three stars (a large red and two smaller yellow ones) on the top left corner of the suit. And it had two thin, red, un-hookable straps. But the best part was that it was in that high-cut style which was so fashionable and which I had always longed for but never been able to ask anyone to buy for me.
I remember making my debut in it at the school pool. I was so conscious of myself and of all the eyes that I assumed to be on me, that at first I dilly-dallied in the changing room until the rest of the girls were out. Then I rushed outside, dove into the pool and stayed in as long as I could, feigning total diligence and swimming lengths until the rest of my class were out!
Lifting myself out of the pool at the end of class, I bumped into my swimming teacher and he mentioned, with a small smile at my quickly blushing face, that I should be wearing the uniform costume for my swimming lessons.
We have always been a board game kind of family. Solitude, Monopoly, Scrabble. It would be a prerequisite as kids, sitting around the TV, to play a board game.
When Ute came into our life, she introduced us to a new board game. Swiss Trimino. It was like dominoes but each smooth wooden stone, forty-eight in total, was triangular in shape, with a number on each point and the sum of all three numbers in the centre. Like dominoes, one side had to be matched to the other during the game but because of the triangular shape of the stone, the entire landscape of the game changed. Whenever a player didn’t have a suitable stone to play, they would be allowed to pick one stone at a time, to a maximum of three, until they found a suitable one – with each stone picked costing them ten points.
I remember playing Swiss Trimino with my dad and sister in Lamu. My dad loved it. Every time my sister and I started reaching for the pile of extra stones, he would push at least two or three in our direction, even though one was more than sufficient, all the time laughing and not quite under his breath counting as to how many we had picked and how many points we had lost.
And if we happened to strike out with all three stones, he would pass a comment about how our multitude of triangular stones, standing upright in front of us, looked like a forest of trees. And then with a dramatic flair, he would pull out a stone from his own set and place it down, counting loudly the points he had just garnered.
To his credit, he would crack the same jokes when it was his own turn to pick from the spare piles, with my sister and I gently nudging the extra ones in his direction.
But it wasn’t just the wonderful gifts that Ute brought that endeared her to us. It was the way she treated us. After countless stepmothers and girlfriends, my sister and I were extremely wary of the women my father brought into our lives but somehow Ute never rubbed us the wrong way. Whether it was the way that she encouraged us to talk about our mother, or the way she felt completely unthreatened by it, or whether it was because, coming from a western country, divorced families and single parenting were not a new and strange phenomenon to her, I don’t know. But at some point she mutated from being my father’s girlfriend into being our friend.
We would often visit her at home. She would pick us up from school, look after us in the evenings, over the weekends. We would have dinner with her, play in her garden, in her little paddling pool, listen to her telling us stories about her life in Switzerland in that strange accent of hers – guttural like German but light like French.
But most of all, I remember playing with the skin on her arms. Like most Europeans, Ute was easily tanned. And when the pinkish, almost light brown tanned skin on her arm was pressed, it would revert to a natural white – and would remain that way for a few seconds. I used to be totally fascinated with it and would spend hours prodding her arm watching it turn from brown to white and then back to brown again.
My Indian school friends were uncomfortable around Ute. She was so obviously my dad’s girlfriend, who sometimes stayed over, that they didn’t know how to treat her. My sister and I were oblivious to it.
One of the most important lessons that Ute taught me, though, was not to appear as the poor cousin. One year my father was on a business trip and my sister and I were scheduled to travel to Canada for our summer holidays. Ute was babysitting, as she had many times in the past, and this time she was helping us pack for our two months away. I remember stuffing my suitcase with any old clothes, knowing (although I cannot remember ever being told) that everything I was taking would not be coming back with me so there was no point in carrying my best outfits. My sister, packing independently in her room, was doing the exact same thing.
Ute was livid. She asked us what we were doing and then without waiting for a response, started packing for us – matching trousers to shirts and so on. She even took us out to buy new clothes and put together an outfit for us to travel in. When we arrived in Canada at my grandmother’s house, as we were unpacking and settling in, my aunt asked us why we had brought all these clothes when we knew there wasn’t going to be space for them on the return journey. And then she showed us some clothes that she had bought for us to wear in the few days before we had time to go shopping. Just to tide us over.
I look back to those days and I wonder why they never said that to my English or Canadian cousins. Was it that they were more protective of us? Was it because we continued to live in Kenya, a third world country, while the rest of our family had emigrated to England and Canada? Or did they look down on us for being children from a broken home, without a mother. There was always that unsaid something that hung upon us like a cloud. It drew stares from the rest of the family, hugs and affection from the rest. Perhaps if I could remember more clearly the situations when it was more pronounced, I would be able to understand what brought it about.
I would like to think that some measure of it was guilt, shame – for the part that they played in destroying my parents’ marriage and leaving my sister and I so vulnerable – but that would indicate that they knew what they were doing at the time and chose not to stop themselves, to let it continue – and I am not sure if I want to believe that my family is so lacking in humanity.
When I returned to Mombasa in 2002, I saw Ute one afternoon. She was buying some vegetables at a supermarket in Nyali. I went up to her and introduced myself. She hugged me, hard and tight. She asked after my sister by name and inquired on what we had been up to for all these years. I guiltily realized that when my father stopped dating her, so had we. We had cut her out of our lives as if she had been no more than his girlfriend. And so, last year when my sister and I visited Mombasa, we decided to go and see her. We could still remember the way to her house.
But the gate was overgrown with creepers and when we rang the bell, a stranger answered.
Ute had moved away.
Note: The Mombasa Tusks were built to commemorate the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the town in 1952, when she arrived in Mombasa for her Kenyan safari. They lay directly on the path from the port to the town. The intersecting tusks spell the letter “M” for Mombasa.
*”Ute” was first published by the Generator 21 in 2007.