Saleena was seven when she informed her parents she would become a doctor. When she reminded them years later, they had clearly forgotten.
‘But you’d have to go to university,’ said her father.
‘No one in our family has ever done that,’ said her mother.
‘We couldn’t possibly afford the fees,’ they both said.
Saleena shrugged. ‘I’ll get a scholarship, then.’
Now, as she sat on the veranda looking out across the sweeping lawn towards Lake Victoria, she wondered if her brashness was about to be called to account and her childhood dream exposed for what it was: childish fantasy.
The family cat was trying to conceal itself behind a tree. The tip of its tail twitched as it eyed two hoopoes probing the lawn. It had done this for as long as Saleena could remember: hoopoes, weavers, lizards. It never caught anything.
She’d been offered a place, done the revision, taken the exams. Now, all she could do was wait – wait, worry and wonder if she would achieve her life’s ambition.
The cat made a half-hearted rush at the hoopoes. They flew up and settled on another part of the lawn. The cat sat down and licked a paw. Saleena smiled at its feigned indifference, then waved to Nathan the gardener, who, dressed in shorts and Wellington boots, was trundling back and forth pushing a hand-mower – one of those with a long handle and cross-piece, rarely seen these days.
Nathan stopped to wave and grin. Then, with the sweat glistening on his body, resumed the task which never seemed to daunt or tire him.
The garden was mainly lawn; it started at the front of the house, spread round the sides and flowed down to the lake where it merged with papyrus: an impenetrable wall of green, broken only by the tunnels through which hippos emerged at night. Saleena liked to think of them frolicking on the lawn in the moonlight, but they probably just snuffled around for any grass which had escaped Nathan’s attention.
In the background, Saleena’s sister was playing the piano. She was always playing or singing. She had a lovely voice. Saleena’s musical repertoire was limited to simple tunes on the recorder, but she loved listening to classical music. She recognised Beethoven’s Fűr Elise, a piece her sister played with consummate ease and supreme confidence.
The music stopped and Saleena heard her mother calling from inside the house.
‘Saleena, it’s come! It’s here!’ She came bustling onto the veranda waving a letter.
Close behind, came Saleena’s sister, followed by Ezekiel the cook drying his hands on his apron.
Saleena took the letter.
Everyone lined up to watch.
‘See the stamp!’ cried her mother.
It had to be the letter. No one else would have written to her from Kenya.
‘Open it, Saleena,’ said her sister.
‘Go on,’ said her mother.
Ezekiel nodded encouragement.
Nathan stopped mowing.
What if she’d failed? How could she face the family who, once they accepted her ambition, put such hope and expectation into her achieving success?
With clumsy fingers and a sinking feeling, she opened the envelope and extracted a single sheet of paper. Too little writing. She forced herself to read it.
‘I’ve passed,’ she whispered.
It was ages before she could get to sleep that night. She lay on her bed reliving the day and gazing at the moon through the haze of the mosquito net. I’ve passed. I’m going to medical school. I’m going to be a doctor.
She closed her eyes. I’m going to be a doctor, I’m going to be a doctor, I’m going to…
The litany eventually lulled her to sleep.
No sooner had she drifted off, than a persistent banging invaded her subconscious. Her first thought was a hippo. One would occasionally try to break into the garage – she’d no idea why.
Doubt began to creep into her mind. These were anxious times. She pulled the pillow over her head to shut out the noise. The doubt could wait until morning.
She sat up, trying to orientate.
‘Saleena, wake up!’
She pushed the mosquito net aside and scrambled out of bed.
Her uncle’s car was in the driveway. He was hammering at the window, his muffled voice urgent and fearful. ‘You must be leaving; the soldiers are coming.’
She could see her aunt in the car; the security light on the porch making tears on her cheeks glisten.
Saleena whimpered and ran through to her parents’ room. ‘The soldiers are coming!’
‘Oh, my God!’ Her father struggled with his dressing gown.
‘Oh no! Please no.’ Her mother rushed to wake Saleena’s sister.
Her father began dragging out suitcases from the hall cupboard.
Saleena ran and unlocked the front door and her uncle burst into the house. ‘There’s no time for packing. Just come.’
‘But we must be taking some clothes,’ her father cried.
‘No, see! Already they are at Manjit’s house.’
Flames erupted from the thatch on the roof of a house no more than a quarter of a mile away.
‘Hurry! Leave everything. Just come.’
Her father ran outside to the back of the house.
Ezekiel and his wife hurried round from the servants’ quarters.
‘Ezekiel, we have to leave,’ said Saleena’s mother, her face now streaked with tears.
Saleena was the only one not crying – perhaps she was too frightened. She heard the roar of an engine, the crunch of gears, the hiss of tyres spinning on gravel.
Their car tore round the side of the house, her father at the wheel. He’d never abused his elderly and beloved Morris like this before. He skidded to a halt and leaped out. His dressing gown snagged and tore on the door catch. ‘Hurry, hurry!’
He bundled Saleena’s mother and sister into the back.
Saleena jumped into the front.
‘We’ll be back, Ezekiel,’ her father cried.
‘Look after yourselves.’ He scrambled into the driver’s seat, leaving one of his slippers on the drive. He slammed the door, crashed the gears and sped after the uncle’s car which was already out of sight.
An owl flew off on ghost wings.
Saleena glanced back at the elderly couple standing in the driveway looking fearful, their faces faintly lit by the glow of flames. Ezekiel picked up the slipper. They’d been with the family since Saleena’s father was a child.
The car turned onto the road and they disappeared from view.
Twenty minutes later, those two gentle people, whose only transgression was forty years devoted service to an Asian family, were hacked to death with machetes by President Amin’s militia. Next morning, the beautiful house at Jinja overlooking the source of the Nile, was no more than a smouldering ruin.
They drove all that night and reached the Kenyan border as it was getting light. Saleena never understood why they were waved through, but her uncle and aunt were stopped. Her father waited for over four hours but was then ordered to drive on.
And so, with little more than the clothes she was wearing and a place at Nairobi’s Medical School, Saleena arrived in Kenya, her heart full of hope, her mind full of fear.
I arrived at the Botany Department to find Professor Hanley standing on a chair in his office. He had his back to me and my attention was drawn to the baggy khaki shorts, the long socks and the safari boots which said he knew Africa.
‘Professor, it’s David Seymour, I’ve come—’
‘I know who you are. Tell me, is that straight?’
‘The picture; is it straight?’
‘Oh, er, yes.’
‘And this one?’ He indicated a similar adjacent picture.
‘Yes. Looks fine.’
He jumped down and shook my hand. ‘David, splendid, grand.’ He turned back to gaze at the pictures through half-closed eyes. ‘I must say they do look rather good. You know the artist, I presume.’
‘It is indeed.’
‘Sit down, David. Sit down.’
Professor Hanley proceeded to study me and I tried not to wilt under the scrutiny of the shrewd eyes and quizzical kneecaps.
‘The pictures, David: tell me what you see.’
‘I um… Two chairs.’
‘Ye-e-s. Would you, er… care to develop that theme?’
Where was all this leading? Better humour the guy, I suppose. ‘Well, the one on the left is quite simple, mainly in yellow and with a pipe on the seat, but the other is more ornate with richer colours and—’
‘Stop there!’ He held up his hand. ‘Now shut your eyes and continue.’
I sighed – not audibly – but couldn’t help wondering what all this had to do with my application to study for a PhD in plant ecology.
‘Well, I could say that the yellow chair is simple and functional. Whereas the ornate chair on the right speaks more of comfort and warm evenings in front of the fire with a good book and—’
‘Excellent! By shutting your eyes, David, you’ve evoked an image which goes far beyond the simple portrayal of a chair. Go on.’
‘Well… I can perhaps imagine the warmth of the fire, and um… possibly envisage the book I might be reading and… and even the cold beer at my elbow.’
‘Splendid! Do you see what I’m getting at?’
I hoped my vacuous smile implied concurrence rather than bemusement.
‘Although the pictures are now in different art galleries, Van Gogh intended them to be displayed together facing each other – as I’ve done with the prints: Van Gogh’s own chair on the left and his friend Paul Gauguin’s on the right – each representing what Van Gogh perceived as the respective and different personalities of the two artists.’ He paused to massage his kneecaps. ‘You’re familiar with the work of Roger Sperry, I presume.’
I winced. ‘Afraid not.’
‘Come, come: the so-called lateralisation of brain function.’
‘Er… Is it the right side of the brain controlling the left side of the body and the left brain controlling the right?’
‘In simple terms, yes. On his way to a Nobel Prize, I shouldn’t wonder. Less well known, though, is that the two hemispheres of the brain process information differently. Are you with me?’
I nodded, hoping I was.
‘The left side is verbal, logical and analytical, and the right side perceptual, intuitive and holistic; an analogy admirably portrayed by van Gogh. That’s why I’ve hung the pictures.’ He continued to gaze at them, seemingly lost in thought. ‘By the way, David, the topic I’d like you to research is communication between trees.’
‘Trees are living organisms, like us. Well, not quite like us – they don’t have a central nervous system for a start – but you get the idea. So, how do they communicate?’
‘Um. Not sure I quite…’
‘The concept is simple.’ He pointed out of the window. ‘If that tree over there is infested with caterpillars, do the neighbouring trees know and, if so, do they become repellent to the caterpillars or fungus, or whatever it is, attacking the first tree? That certainly seems to be the case with some tree species. How do they do it? When you’ve sorted that out, you can go and study acacias and giraffes.’
‘Where else?’ Professor Hanley peered over the top of his glasses. ‘Cambridgeshire, sadly, is not noted for its acacias – or its giraffes for that matter. I’ll find you funds from somewhere.’
Thanks seemed to be the order of the day. ‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘Remember, David, genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine-per-cent perspiration.’
I’d been warned about this one. ‘Thomas Edison?’ I enquired innocently.
‘Yes. Research is the same.’
He gestured again at the pictures. ‘The study of art will help you tap into that one per cent Edison talks about – the right brain, if you like. The one per cent which inspires great minds: the Edisons, Einsteins, Darwins and Newtons of this world – two of whom, incidentally, were at Cambridge – people who dared to challenge conventional wisdom and ask silly questions.
‘Good Lord!’ Professor Hanley stared out of the window into Tennis Court Road where a colourfully-dressed figure was playing a recorder and dancing Pied-Piper-like down the street urging people to buy tickets for a forthcoming show.
‘There you are, David; someone who’s prepared to be different.’
‘Should I do that?’
‘Of course, but not necessarily in that way. Besides, I can’t stand pink on a man. Where were we?’
‘Asking silly questions?’
‘Ah, yes.’ He picked up a potted plant from the window sill. ‘What’s this?’
‘How do you know that?’
‘I can read the label.’
Professor Hanley chuckled. ‘I can see we’re going to get on. Have you seen it growing in the wild?’
‘Possibly the Loita Hills in Kenya.’
‘Wonderful spot. Interesting cycads there.’ The professor replaced the pot. ‘Right, back to research. Most of science is, of course, graft – perspiration, if you like – but the flashes of insight and inspiration come when we allow our brains to wander and peer into dusty corners, turn over hidden stones and—’
‘Exactly! But look beyond the subjects, scrutinise the pictures, listen to what they’re telling you.’
‘Work it out, David. A word of warning, though: when that eureka moment does come, I would not advise emulating Archimedes and leaping out of your bath to run naked down King’s Parade. It might be misinterpreted.’ He patted his knees and rose from his chair. ‘Right, let’s go.’
‘We have an appointment with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.’
But Professor Hanley was on a mission.
I almost had to run to match the sprightly figure – the venerable Boy Scout – striding down Fitzwilliam Street, indifferent to the amused smiles of passers-by.
We stopped at the end of the street to admire the Fitzwilliam Museum’s neo-classical building with its massive pillars and haughty demeanour; then crossed Trumpington Street, passed through sturdy iron gates, up the steps and into the towering entrance hall – even more imposing.
‘Good morning, Professor Hanley,’ said the attendant who greeted us.
‘Good morning, Walter. Are you well?’
‘Very well, thank you, sir. Have you come to see the Corots?’
‘I’m afraid, sir, the exhibition doesn’t open until tomorrow.’
‘I know but my colleague, here, leaves for Africa tomorrow. He’s a particular admirer of Corot.’
I did my best to look learned and enthusiastic amidst my bewilderment.
Walter patted the professor’s arm. ‘Leave it to me, sir.’ He looked furtively around. ‘This way, gents.’
We followed him up some back stairs to the first floor and along to a gallery at one end, the doors of which were closed. A notice read: “No Entry. Staff Only.”
Walter knocked on the door.
A woman with untidy hair and a harassed expression stuck her head out and glowered. ‘Yes, what is—? Lionel!’
‘How are you, Miranda?’
‘Run off my feet. You’ve no idea.’ She raised her eyes to the heavens. ‘I suppose you’ve come for a private viewing, you old lion.’
‘That would be most kind.’ The professor slipped something into Walter’s hand.
‘Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.’
‘Mum’s the word, eh, Walter?’
‘Much obliged, sir.’
‘Come in. Come in.’ The woman pulled us inside, closed the door and held out her hand. ‘I’m Miranda.’
‘Another of Lionel’s students, I presume. Being dragged along to nurture your brain and peer into dusty corners.’
‘Really.’ Professor Hanley feigned shock.
‘Science can provide answers, but art provides inspiration which enables us to ask the questions which science seeks to answer. Is that what Lionel tells you?’
‘I think so.’
‘Without art, Miranda,’ said Professor Hanley, ‘we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective.’
‘Now you’re showing off.’
The professor smiled. ‘But you have to agree with Nietzsche.’
‘I do indeed. I also believe we can never fully understand art.’
‘True, true. Now, Miranda, don’t let us interrupt your work.’
‘Bit late for that, isn’t it?’
He gave his most winsome smile.
Mock sigh of resignation. ‘Come on, then. Just mind the packing.’ She led us into the gallery. ‘Coffee-break, girls,’ she called to her helpers. ‘No more than half an hour.’
‘Where are the pictures from?’ asked Professor Hanley.
‘Some from our own collection but most are loans from other places: the National Gallery, the Courtauld and some from France – the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. We were chuffed to get them.’ She turned to me. ‘Do you know Corot?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ I admitted, as the day continued to expose my woeful ignorance.
‘Frenchman born in 1796 and much neglected,’ she said, setting off round the gallery. ‘Probably because he came between the neo-classicists with their idealised views of landscapes peopled with vestal virgins and mythological figures—’ She indicated a couple of paintings ‘— and the realists like Constable and Turner. You’ve heard of them?’
I grinned with relief.
‘In later life Corot anticipated the plein-air innovations of the French Impressionists and is regarded by many as the fore-runner of that movement, although one critic complained he still retained too many nymphs in his pictures. There, see.’ She pointed at another picture; then gave an apologetic laugh. ‘I’m sounding like my brochure. Here.’ She gave me one from the heap on a side table.
‘Right. I’ll leave you in Lionel’s capable hands. Make sure you study the way Corot handles water and sky; ethereal is the word I like to use.’
‘The merging of time and space,’ said the professor.
‘Miranda, thank you so much for indulging two gate-crashers.’
‘Go on, you old lion, you take over.’ She turned to me. ‘Nice to have met you.’
‘Thanks so much for your time.’ I shook her hand.
‘He probably knows as much as I do about pre-Impressionists,’ she said, indicating Professor Hanley who was studying a painting through half-closed eyes.
‘You’re too kind,’ he murmured.
‘If you ever get tired of plants, Lionel, let me know. We can always find you a curator post …