A Strange Kingdom

DSC01368 It's our last week in Kenya. On our way back from Naivasha, we stop by Elementaita, once an impressive outlet for pottery and woven goods. Their looms and stock burned in a fire a few years ago and their recovery has been slow and unsure--maybe they will never regain their former glory, and maybe, to hear the whites talking, in half-despondent, half-satisfied tones, it won't matter anyway. Things here are dying; things like this,becoming unnecessary and extinct. We buy some blue-painted doorknobs and a finely-shaped coffee mug. The men are kind, but I imagine a kind of sadness into their bright eyes; we're the only people in the shop, maybe the only people to stop by all day, and if you think about it, even if the rugs are overpriced, our custom is paltry, useless, like shaking the hand of a beggar but leaving it empty. Outside a few drops of rain fall and thunder claps in the distance, and suddenly, briefly, on our way to the car, we are deluged.

We drive to Sanctuary Farm, to meet old Francis Erskine, who owns the place. The farm is not like anything I have ever seen before. It is sprawling, green, full of trees and pastures and horses and game. Driving down dusty tracks, we see wildebeest, zebra, impala, dikdik. There's a racetrack, a rusty starting gate, stables, a polo field complete with an elegant, incongruous red pavilion.

Erskine himself lives in what appears to be a crumbling palace (one corner even has a concrete turret). We meet him on his terrace; the deckchairs are covered in a film of dust, the paint is peeling, the floorboards are cracked. He's a small man with tufts of white hair and sideburns. He resembles a mad old king reigning over an abandoned and beautiful kingdom and in a way I suppose he is. He asks me if I ride, and seems pleased when I say I do. He offers us tea but we're in a hurry to get back before dark, so he shouts inside to his staff to call the whole production off, and it's just as well, he says, as he hasn't any cake to offer us.

He shows us his study instead, which is infinitely better than any cake I could possibly imagine. It is decorated with historical photographs of his family. On one wall a huge painting of a pink-faced young man in uniform hangs; a great-uncle, killed in the Boer war as he went to place a white flag in the earth. "I've never liked the Boers," Erskine says, turning away from the painting, showing us another, this one of a racehorse he rode to victory once, an elegant bay beast portrayed in all its spindly-legged thoroughbred glory, a fragile, highly-strung animal whose owners gave Erskine the painting as a gift in thanks for his success as a jokey. His desk is huge and covered with carefully arranged piles of things; it looks both chaotic and highly organized, and looking at him, I've no doubt he knows exactly what's there, even if no one else does.

Then the mad old king bids us adieu from his dilapidated terrace. He is at once intensely vulnerable and fiercely, wildly independent; he's so small, so fragile, so fearsome and storied. He says I should come back and see his horses, but we are going to Nairobi soon, and then back to England, and then this kingdom will seem more than just remote, it will seem as it is: impossible, anachronistic, poignant.

I imagine, as we drive away, that I can literally see the whole scene fading before my eyes, that, like a stage set, it's being dismantled, dismantled by the years and the rain and the heat and that by the time old Erskine dies it will have sunk more or less right back into the earth from which it came, and then all that will be left will be a herd of zebra grazing on a polo field next to a red pavilion.