1952, Kenya Colony
The rain had stopped, leaving water dripping from the eaves. As the hacking breaths of the last few hours gave way to a wet, hollow sound, a spear of rose-coloured light shone through the window and illuminated the dust. Deep in his gullet, unsaid words were drowning. She tightened the covers. He was colder, his skin mottling purple above his belly button.
When she thought he was more comfortable, she knelt. Her eyelids felt heavy. She allowed them to close, lowering her head and joining her hands in a long-forgotten stance of childhood. Prayers would not come—it had been too long; she had forgotten the words—but she thought that in the stillness and the silence, she might evoke the measured cadence of her mother’s voice. There; she almost had it. But it slipped through her fingers like water.
1950, Kenya Colony
The engine cut out again, and Cynthia yanked up the hand-brake. She brushed several strands of dark hair out of her eyes and pushed up her sunglasses, checking the rear-view mirror. The road behind was an empty ribbon of tight curves all the way down the hill to Nyeri. There was no reason to think anyone had seen her stall.
“I’m useless,” she said. “I’ll never get it.”
Her father’s browned forearm courted a patch of sun over the passenger door. His hand held an almost-smoked cigarette, his third of the day. “Just restart the engine. It’s a case of try and try again.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Cynthia said, her voice holding a sharper edge than she had intended.
He stubbed out the cigarette in the tray beneath his elbow. “There’s no need to rush it. I learnt in the Army: three days of lessons, hanging on to the seat of your pants. You have time on your side.”
He was right, but after a month of lessons the sensation of wading through treacle was becoming tiresome. She released the hand-brake. They went backwards, rolling over a protruding root into a shallow dip.
“More gas uphill,” her father reminded her. She put her foot down. A laugh sounded in her ear as they began to climb.
She built up speed, beginning to enjoy herself.
It was a fine morning, though crisp, and she wished she had brought a pullover. It was what she thought of as a moving day, with sunlight and green-tinted shadows frolicking on the tarmac, and the wind changing direction, stirring up swathes of red dust from the road. The road itself was a patchwork job, cobbled from older stretches of track as the colony expanded, riddled with cracks, hidden holes, and blind summits. It made for a jolting journey, like one of the fairground rides she remembered from a long-ago visit to an English seaside town.
“See, you’re getting the hang of it,” her father said as she came to the next steep incline and changed up a gear. “It’ll soon be second nature.”
The car levelled as they traversed the low ridge. In her mirrors, the White Highlands stretched out like a green and yellow chessboard, thousands of acres planted with coffee, pyrethrum, and tea, spotted with white farmhouses and Native homesteads. Above them, bushland and woods turned into thicker bands of conifer and bamboo, until the peaks of the Aberdare Mountains disappeared out of sight into the high clouds.
Her father said, “This will stand you in good stead in England.”
She frowned. “I’m not sure how much call there will be for driving. Most people bicycle. Less expense.”
“Bugger the expense. I want every Tom, Dick, and Harry to see you steaming about. It’ll stop them from getting ideas.”
“I’ll be far too busy studying to worry about any of that,” she said.
“Have you told David?”
“He knows I’ve applied.”
“But not that you’ve been accepted?”
“I suppose it will prevent him from making you a serious offer, at least for a few more years.”
There was no need to share that David had made her a serious offer already, almost as soon as she had returned to Kenya after her first degree. She had been putting off the decision. Medicine or marriage? It was a difficult choice. David would never leave Africa, and the university would not wait. He loved her, and she him, but was it enough? Would he wait for her? Like the rains, her decision was overdue, and it was unfair to ask him to wait longer.
She did not know where the thought came from but said, “Did Mother drive?”
Her father looked surprised. “No. I gave her a few lessons in the Crossley, but it didn’t take.”
“Oh. I thought Mother was all for women’s rights. I mean, I would have thought she would welcome driving, the freedom of it.”
He took out another cigarette. “In her way, I suppose she did. Perhaps so much so that she didn’t enjoy the lessons—didn’t enjoy me telling her what to do or how to do it.” He fumbled one match and lit another, shielding it behind the dashboard before lighting the cigarette and inhaling, then blowing the smoke away from her. He peered at the treeline. “I think I just saw a forest hog.”
Her father was one of those people who saw a lion every hundred paces and a bull elephant hiding behind every trunk, so Cynthia focused on driving. They fell into a companionable silence, enjoying the scenery. The road was heavily shaded by giant podo trees dripping old man’s beard, and behind these were some of the most remote areas of the uplands, endless square miles of forest and game tracks, studded with ravines and waterfalls, their pools so clear you could throw a coin into them in the summer and return the following year to see it still winking up at you from its rocky bed, unaltered, though you yourself might be half a head taller.
“That’s it,” said her father as she sped up again. “Steadily through the gears. Go on, quicker than that.”
“That’s as quick as I want to go,” she said, glancing at the speedometer. As they rounded a corner, the wind swooped in and lifted her big-brimmed felt hat, almost taking her hair with it. She shrieked and passed the hat to her father, who stowed it near his feet.
She looked at the towering shapes made by the shifting clouds. “Do you think it’ll come soon?”
“The rain?” He considered a moment, then said, “Who knows?”
“What does Kamau say?”
Father’s Kikuyu headman was a self-professed expert in meteorology, specifically the study of rain and all its variables: when it would begin, how heavy it would be and how long-lasting, where and when the final drops would fall. He was not the only Kikuyu to lay claim to such arcane knowledge—virtually every one made similar pronouncements, and each disagreed with every other.
“He says it’ll happen on Friday week, at ten in the evening.”
“Better dig out our galoshes then.”
“Sun hats on stand-by, I would have said. The World Service has yet to call on Kamau.”
Whether Kamau was right or wrong, the land craved rain. The game stood inert or prowled yellowing grasslands, nosing the pitted earth for water. In the towns taxi-drivers complained, and in the marketplaces women watched the skies anxiously. Even on the plantations, people scraped the dust from their nostrils and lips. Nobody’s mood was unaffected. The houseboys served tea outdoors with an air of distraction, forgetting the butter, and the farm hands counted the coffee sacks three times in case of mistakes. In the house it was more tempting to lower the blinds, turn up the volume on the wireless, and sink into an armchair in the muted light, dreaming of rain, than it was to face another cloudless sunset.
Her father stubbed out his cigarette and reached for another. Cynthia frowned, then tried to cover it. “I wish you would wait,” she said.
“Worried about my health?”
“Yes, as it happens. I’ve been reading up about tobacco—frightening stuff.”
He snorted. “Give it a month—there’ll be another scare for you to get excited about. It never did my father any harm, and he smoked a pipe into his eighties. Drank a fair bit of brandy too.” He lit up and leant back as she swerved to avoid a football-sized rock in the road.
“Bugger,” he said, straining to reach his feet.
“I’ve dropped my smoke.”
“Well, pick it up. Is it out?” She was trying to stay focused on the road; there was a crossroads somewhere ahead.
“No,” he grunted. “It’s still…”
She looked down and saw the tip glowing red in the footwell. “Left a bit. Not there…”
“Keep your eyes on the road.” His voice was gruff with effort.
“I don’t want the car on fire.”
“It’ll go out in a second.”
Then several things happened at once. They approached the crossroads, and Cynthia acknowledged the bus racketing towards them but was slow to connect its size and imminence to her own position. She corrected unconsciously, still giving half her attention to the unfolding drama of the cigarette. The other driver blared his horn. Realising the danger, she pulled hard. They skidded, and her father shouted her name as they thundered towards the trees. She screwed her eyes tight. When the impact came and the world turned over, her father’s voice was cut off. She said the shortest of prayers, thought how little she wanted to die, and in the same thought hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much. She heard breaking glass and felt a shuddering, and then a stomach-churning crunch. The last thing she was aware of before she lost consciousness was the red dust clouding her nostrils and mouth.
Before she opened her eyes, she heard the steady thrumming of water. Rain. It was a benefaction. In the fields the coffee trees would be sucking up endless draughts of water, the sheep and cattle wading up to their ankles. On the arid grasslands every wild creature would be rushing to waterholes. In the rivers and marshlands great flocks of birds would be getting ready for their journeys to drier nesting sites, and brooding crocodiles would be readying their ambushes. At home, as the coffee harvest ripened, her father’s shoulders would carry a little less weight every day.
There’s something wrong.
The voices near her were hushed. Church voices. When she opened her eyes, the light was unbearable. Everything ached, as though she had slept on bare earth. A dim shape with a fuzzy outline hovered over her, and a hand stroked her hair. Father? No. As her sight sharpened she saw a familiar jawline covered in wiry russet hair. David. She tried to move and gasped with the pain that spread across her neck and shoulders.
“Cynthia?” David said, gripping her hand. The relief in his voice was palpable as he bent to kiss her. Even his lips felt painful against hers.
She moved her mouth, but words stubbornly refused to form. To someone out of sight David said, “Bring water.” Moments later he held the glass to her lips, and she gulped back the liquid. “Don’t try to talk yet,” he said. “Just rest.”
“Where’s Father?” It came out as a croak.
He wiped excess water off her chin. “He’s all right. It’s you we were worried about.”
“We’ll talk about it. There’s plenty of time. Just rest.”
She was groggy, so it might have been minutes or seconds before David called in her father. Her vision was still blurred, but as he sat down she could see he was unshaven, wearing an unpressed shirt. Beneath the greying stubble that covered his chin was an angry-looking welt, and his cheekbone was purple.
“The bus came back,” he said. “The driver pulled you out. The car hit a tree trunk and rolled and…I was thrown clear.” He looked horribly guilty as he finished.
Her swollen mouth forced out the words. “You weren’t hurt?”
He shook his head. His expression frightened her; he should have been relieved, but his eyes swam with tears and he kept opening his mouth as if to speak, swallowing air like the carp in their pond.
He took another deep breath. “My dear girl, the collision damaged your leg. There was a chance, but…the doctors had to operate. They had no choice.”
“They had amputate your foot.”
This did not sink in. The words shimmered before her like oil on water, slippery, meaning nothing in particular.
Her father continued, “But the operation was successful. You are going to be well. Quite well.”
The word “operation” disoriented her, evoking appendixes and cataracts and mysterious procedures to resolve female issues nobody ever talked about. It took time for her to understand, and her father had to tell her more than once.
They wouldn’t let her look at it.
“I want to see it,” she said. “Please.”
“Doctors’ orders are to stay still and rest,” said her father. “All in good time.”
David agreed with her father. They wanted to protect her, and in part, she thought, to protect themselves. She didn’t really want to see it, but there was a moment of truth to be faced. She could not put it off forever.
The doctors allowed her to sit up the evening after she regained consciousness. They gave her pills, big and colourful, and she swallowed them. They were fast-acting and made her feel transparent, like a memory, or a ghost.
Nothing prepared her for the moment when they finally drew away the sheet. The surgeon had warned her that it would not look real, that he had seen people laugh because they could not believe the evidence of their own eyes.
He pulled the cover back, and she saw the bandaged stump where her foot had been. She did not laugh. She stared at the bizarrely rounded end of her right leg. It looked like a parcel. Clean and clinical. Undeniable. She retched.
David held something beneath her chin, catching the cords of mucus and bile. Her mouth tasted like battery acid. “It’s all right,” he said. “Just hold it there.” He cleaned it off, patting her face dry with his handkerchief.
Days passed. She did not speak for a long time.
It was not the physical side of it: the discomfort regardless of the position in which she attempted to rest, the true pain and the phantom pain. Both hurt, but they paled in comparison to the knowledge that it was impossible for her to continue in this depleted fashion. She would die from it eventually, she was certain. Yet that did not account for her whole-hearted, daily repudiated belief that the foot would grow back overnight, or for the dreams in which she found herself soaring, a drunk walking a circus wire with imaginary grace.
Each morning, as she was bathed and towel-dried by the silent nurses, she looked at her leg and let the truth press down upon her with its unbearable weight.
Anger and shame hovered like vultures. The idea of rehabilitation was as repulsive to her as she was certain it must be to everybody else. Besides, it was impossible. Everything was gone: David, medicine, being the first qualified woman doctor in the colony. Everything. She turned her face to the wall and refused food. She did not drink water unless her father or David insisted. When they held the cup to her mouth, she wanted to let the water into her lungs instead and let it overflow, drowning her.
In the third week after the accident, her father came to see her one morning. He had a box of Emperor chocolates tied with a pink satin ribbon and set it on the bed in front of her. He did not comment on the absence of thanks; instead he said, “I’ve just spoken to Doctor Kelman. It’s excellent news. We can take you home this week.”
Home. The word usually stirred the scent of coffee cherries in her nostrils, made her think of wrapping herself in a woollen blanket on the veranda to watch the sun come up from behind the mountains. It was a green word, a word surrounded by open fires and the slight, light-stepping figures of houseboys in white robes.
But the thought of being carried home and set down to dwindle in a bedroom or a bath chair flooded her with cold rage. She turned away from her father and shook her head, wanting only silence.
“Cynthia.” Her father sat heavily on the bed. “Talk to me, please. It won’t do, you know, this…” He seemed to struggle for a word that would not provoke her. “This moping.” He poured a glass of water from the jug on the table and took several sips before putting the glass down. “I’m saying this for your own good, but…you have to buck up, sooner or later, don’t you? This isn’t you, sweetheart. It’s…” His words fell away.
She saw the pleading in his eyes but shook her head dumbly. I can’t. Please understand. I can’t. She could not say it. She could not say anything.
“It won’t go away, Cynthia,” he said. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to find the courage to face this. And I’m going to help you to find it.”
Her father and David mounted their campaign, and she dug in, hard. She was never alone. For the first few days, her father went home only to sleep. David came early each morning before going to his tiny news desk in Nairobi, where he was the most junior of the junior writers for the most prestigious newspaper in the city.
David’s plan of attack was different to her father’s. He said nothing about taking her home. Instead he made it his job to read her the papers, brought her novels and crossword puzzles, and relayed what was happening on the plantation: which fields were doing well, what needed mending, which squatters had given birth or left for new pastures.
After the first week, neither David nor her father could be with her all day, so her father engaged a Kikuyu man from the farm to fetch and carry for her. The Native was a taciturn presence on a stool in the corner, day after day. Unless her father or David asked him to do something, he had no particular duties to carry out and spent most of the time looking down at his shoes.
In the fifth week of her stay, Cynthia lay propped up one morning with an Agatha Christie novel, one she had read several times, not really reading it. David was filling in a crossword, chewing his pen and musing aloud on an eight-letter synonym for “discrepancy.” He seemed to have something else on his mind. He had been working up to it all morning, placating her prickliness with humour.
Finally he put down the crossword unfinished, leant forward, and laced his fingers together under his chin. “I need to talk to you,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to for weeks, but…with everything that’s happened… Well, things got in the way, didn’t they?” She noted his use of euphemisms: things, everything.
Suddenly conscious of the third person in the room, she glanced over at the Kikuyu, but he didn’t seem to be paying any attention. He sat like a cricket on a tall stalk of grass, camouflaged by his immobility.
She was preparing to be jilted—she could not blame David, not after the way she had made him wait; what sort of man, in any case, would want to marry a woman with one foot? But then, knowing David as well as she did, she thought he might try to be noble and offer to marry her anyway, and she wasn’t sure she could bear that. Nor, she decided, could she ask him to give up everything they had talked about: travel in Europe, America, and the Far East, trekking, riding, and shooting, a life spent outdoors, as a life like his should be spent.
She set her mouth in a straight line. If he was going to throw her over, she was sure he would do it as gently as possible, but there weren’t many creditable ways to take back an offer to a woman who had just lost a foot. Perhaps he wouldn’t be able to do it. And if he couldn’t, she hoped she would be able to do it for him.
David continued, “What’s happened makes no odds to me. I want you to know that.”
It was a lie; he could not even say it—the amputation.
“Don’t.” Her voice cracked. It was the first word she had spoken in days. “Don’t tell me it makes no difference.” She pulled aside the sheet, revealing the awful stump. She felt a rush of cool air to her skin. “This! Look at me!”
David did not look. “Cynthia, it…” He tried to hold her hands, but she disentangled them and pushed him away.
Without knowing why, she addressed the man in the corner. “You! Would you marry a woman like me?”
She spoke in English, as was usual with the younger Kikuyu, who tended to understand it better than their elders. She did not expect him to look. In spite of her words, she wasn’t thinking of him marrying her. She had in mind a woman of his own tribe, a working woman, a load-carrying woman, with legs as thin as the seams in the river rocks, and arms as strong as tree trunks.
But he did look. He lowered his eyes to the foreshortened limb on the spotless white linen, not deferentially but with curiosity.
Cynthia looked back. He was tall, significantly more so than David, who was above the average height. This was obvious even in his seated position, due to the unusual length of his legs. Like most of the Kikuyu he was thin, but his hair was shorn closer to his skull, in a departure from the longer styles worn by the older men. The cut emphasised his sharp, spare face.
“Cynthia,” David said, “leave the man alone. This has nothing to do with him.”
But she disagreed. She felt weak and disadvantaged, and angry. If she had been standing on her father’s veranda with two strong limbs, asking about the cherry yield or a heifer, no hired hand would make her wait like this. “Make him answer me!” she said. She knew she sounded shrill.
David snorted. “I can’t make him do anything.”
Surfacing from the deep water of her mind were impressions, fragments, the backwash of the years. She saw her father cuffing a man who might have tried to cheat him out of a sheep, porters carrying guns and supplies, a chief coming to her father with a marriage dispute. All of this combined to form her expectation that the Native would speak when he was spoken to.
The Deluge is an intergenerational novel about empire, love, and sacrifice. It presents the lives of three very different women in Kenya and explores themes of racism, memory, and motherhood.
After a devastating motoring accident in colonial Kenya, Cynthia Harred recovers on her father’s plantation. Her father engages a Kikuyu labourer, Mũraya, to fetch and carry for her. When Mũraya tells her a story about his mother, Nyambura, it throws into doubt everything Cynthia has been told about her own mother’s death.
She begins a search for the truth, but Kenya in 1950 is a racist society on the brink of savage rebellion. When the Highlands erupt into violence, lives and truths collide. Mũraya is forced to choose a side, and Cynthia must decide whether or not she can trust him. Finally, as Nyambura’s story unfolds in her own voice, Cynthia must recognise her true enemy: the lies people tell to those they love.
The question of inspiration is always a difficult one for me. Sometimes characters seem to spring into one’s head fully formed, and Nyambura arrived in this way, already fiery and kind-hearted, muttering insults. Somewhat differently, my inspiration for Cynthia’s character came from the scene which bookends the novel: a young woman sits in a room at the end of a rainstorm, waiting for her father to die. This more reflective scene refused to leave me, and the plot started to arrange itself around it.
As a student I studied History, so it also seems natural to ground my writing in times of social change. However, having set my novel in Kenya in the middle of the twentieth century, I wondered if I had overreached myself. The more I learnt about the history of the country, the more apprehensive I became about writing about it. I wanted to differentiate my work from the “safari memoirs”—however evocative—written by European settlers in Kenya, and present more about the lives of the people who lived and died under British rule. This meant tackling challenging themes and historical events, including the “Mau Mau” conflict and its roots in the preferential treatment of Europeans in the Kenyan Highlands after the establishment of colonial rule. The research for this aspect of the novel was fascinating and very moving, and profoundly influenced its plot. I hope I have done some justice to the history.
Helen-Rose Andrews is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and a teacher of English. She lives in Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, with her husband and young daughter.
Embark, Issue 10, October 2019