Phillip was nineteen years old the summer he went to Arusha, he said, picking up his story on the beach of the Blue Marlin Hotel in Malindi. He was “down from Oxford and out in Africa” for the long holiday and to see his parents. He had spent most of his early years away at school, flying back and forth with siblings to visit their parents in Africa.
In Arusha his father was the Headmaster of a girls upper school. His mother was the school nurse, among other duties. And it was in Arusha, at an end-of-the-year party, that he met Gina, the young wife of the young sports instructor at the school. His name was Arthur and he was, Phillip said, “a fine bloke really, just a bit thick.”
Arthur was active and outgoing, a warm and friendly person. “One of those life of the party types that I couldn’t stand at the time. I was a bit of snob, thinking of myself a scholar what with reading history at Oxford.” Arthur, Phillip recalled, was “always kicking around a football and looking for someone to play a game of tennis with on the grass courts of the secondary school.”
Gina, however, was different. She was twenty-six or seven, older by a few years than her husband, older by almost a decade than Phillip. She was much more mature and in ways that Arthur would never be. She was a woman, Phillip said, “who watched and waited.”
From the very first Phillip was smitten with Gina, from the very first sight of her on the lawns of his parents’ home. It was at this Sunday afternoon end-of-school party for the faculty and staff where he was pranced about and introduced to all the overseas staff. It was an afternoon for women, he said, to dress “to the nines,” but it was also sad because the women’s clothes were out of date and style. They had come to Africa on overseas assignments and time and fashion had passed them by, living as they were in this outpost. The women stood around in flowered dresses and big hats, like church ladies, all white and pasty as the the African houseboys moved through them carrying trays of food and drinks. They were sad and dull and old. All but Gina.
Gina was dark and Mediterranean. She was also quiet and shy “with black olive eyes.” When she was introduced by his mother, “Oh, Gina, dear, I want you to meet my son; he’s just out from university.” Gina stared at him without speaking. Later she would confess that she had been mesmerized by him, that she couldn’t take her eyes off him. That was the word she used, ‘mesmerized,’ Phillip said, “and I’ve never forgotten that, of course, and who would forget having this dark haired, dark eyed beauty say they were mesmerized by you, and you only a lad yourself.”
Phillip broke off his story then and stood abruptly and asked if I wanted another round. He was buying. I noticed that with the telling of his tale, he had become more outgoing, expansive. Of course, it also meant that he had had too much to drink. When he returned with my larger, I saw he had switched drinks and had a brandy and soda in his fist.
He never left Gina’s side all that Sunday afternoon, he recounted, nor did she to want to leave him, it appeared. He was full of news and stories and gossips from London. She was from London, she told him, born there, but her parents were Italian. Her father was a “green grocer” and she was working at a shop girl in Harrods when she met her future husband. Arthur was just out of technical college and he swept her off her feet by saying he would take her to Africa. She would do anything to get away from Harrods and England and her family, and when she stepped off the plane in Dar, she fell in love with Africa at the first breath.
For the next several days after meeting at the faculty party, Phillip and Gina were inseparable, meeting up by chance and design at shops and bars in town. His ‘Mum,’ was concerned from the very first at the sudden intenseness of his interest in Gina. She had seen them at her party, standing alone under the giant Baobabs tree in the back lawn that whole of the African afternoon.
He was endlessly curious about Gina, peppering his mother with questions. Of course, his mother was aware of how unhappy Gina was in Arusha, and only in the second year of her marriage. Gina did not have a proper job, or children to care for, and few interests that might blend her into the English community. She did not play sports. She did not play cards. She was only happy, she told him, when she was alone and reading. “She read all of Jane Austen,” Phillip said, “during her first Rainy Season in Tanzania.”
He knew other faculty wives were aware of his interest in Gina for they teased him. It was all “quite charming really.” But for the most part, the wives and husbands were packing up the children, headed back to England, as they put it, “for a bit of civilization.” The town was clearing out of the Brits. Arthur and Gina were headed home themselves.
Much of their behavior “slid under the radar, so to speak,” not that there was ‘anything’ to their behavior. How harmless is intense personal conversations, discussions of literature, talk of shops and streets and childhoods in London? They were like other young people who did not have time enough in the day to tell each other what they thought or knew or felt.
There was nothing physical at all about the relationship, but there was physical attraction. They also found in each other the warmth they didn’t have at home. He was estranged from his family as a headstrong teenager, having grown up apart from them all through his adolescence, and she was not in love with her husband, nor did he really love her. “He married me,” she summed up once, ‘because he was afraid to go to Africa alone.”
And then one afternoon when Gina and Phillip were at the English club having a late lunch on the quiet cool and empty terrace, talking and talking about nothing at all, Arthur found them and rushed up in great haste and excitement and said “straight away to me” Phillip said, that he was planning a trip up Kilimanjaro and did I want to go with him and the lads?”
Phillip had come out to Africa that summer with plans to climb Kilimanjaro. Here was his chance. Now Arthur was making arrangement. It would take two weeks, Arthur said, seven days up and two days down, another couple of days to go from Arusha to the base, and back home again. And it was really nothing much than a long walk through four ecosystems, going from the forest zone, to the heather zone, then alpine desert and finally the ice cap. In the late fifties there were no wonderful organized tours that are in place today where small armies of Tanzanians are employed as porters to carry chairs, tents, water, sleeping bags, and, of course, chemical toilets to reach the 19,340 summit of Kilimanjaro [the mountain was smaller, having suffered from global warming since Hemingway time].
Arthur was rushing to organize the trip. He told Phillip to think it over, that he would be leaving in a day or two. He then planted a hasty kiss on Gina’s cheek. He was off, like a schoolboy free from school.
On the terrace of the English club they sat in silence for a few minutes in the wake of Arthur’s swift arrival and departure. At first, Phillip thought Gina might be feeling guilty that her husband had found her having a quiet lunch with another man, but then Gina turned to him and said with some urgency, “Don’t go and climb Kilimanjaro. Don’t leave me.”