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Chapter no 21

Spare

MUSTVE BEEN EARLY spring, 1999. I must’ve been home from Eton for the weekend.

I woke to find Pa on the edge of my bed, saying I was going back to Africa.

Africa, Pa?

Yes, darling boy. Why?

It was the same old problem, he explained. I was facing a longish school holiday, over Easter, and something needed to be done with me. So, Africa. Botswana, to be precise. A safari.

Safari! With you, Pa?

No. Alas, he wouldn’t be going along this time. But Willy would. Oh, good.

And someone very special, he added, acting as our African guide.

Who, Pa?

Marko.

Marko? I barely knew the man, though I’d heard good things. He was Willy’s minder, and Willy seemed to like him very much. Everyone did, for that matter. Of all Pa’s people there was consensus that Marko was the best. The roughest, the toughest, the most dashing.

Longtime Welsh Guard. Raconteur. Man’s man, through and through.

I was so excited about the prospect of this Marko-led safari, I don’t know how I got through the following weeks of school. I don’t actually recall getting through them, in fact. Memory winks out completely, right after Pa delivered the news, then snaps back into focus as I’m boarding a British Airways jet with Marko and Willy and Tiggy—one of our nannies. Our favorite nanny, to be accurate, though Tiggy couldn’t stand being called that. She’d bite the head off anyone who tried. I’m not the nanny, I’m your friend!

Mummy, sadly, didn’t see it that way. Mummy saw Tiggy not as a nanny but as a rival. It’s common knowledge that Mummy suspected Tiggy was being groomed as her future replacement. (Did Mummy see Tiggy as her Spare?) Now this same woman whom Mummy feared as her possible replacement was her actual replacement—how dreadful for Mummy. Every hug or head pat from Tiggy, therefore, must’ve unleashed some twinge of guilt, some throb of disloyalty, and yet I don’t remember that. I remember only heart-racing joy to have Tiggy next to me, telling me to buckle my seatbelt.

We flew direct to Johannesburg, then by prop plane to Maun, the largest city in northern Botswana. There we met up with a large group of safari guides, who steered us into a convoy of open-topped Land Cruisers. We drove off, straight into pure wilderness, towards the vast Okavango Delta, which I soon discovered was possibly the most exquisite place in the world.

The Okavango is often called a river, but that’s like calling Windsor Castle a house. A vast inland delta, smack in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, one of the

largest deserts on earth, the lower Okavango is bone dry for part of the year. But come late summer it begins to fill with floodwaters from upstream, little droplets that begin as rainfall in the Angola highlands and slowly swell to a trickle, then a flow, which steadily transforms the delta into not one river but dozens. From outer space it looks like the chambers of a heart filling with blood.

With water comes life. A profusion of animals, possibly the most biodiverse collection anywhere, they come to drink, bathe, mate. Imagine if the Ark suddenly appeared, then capsized.

As we neared this enchanted place, I had trouble catching my breath. Lions, zebras, giraffes, hippos—surely this was all a dream. At last we stopped—our campsite for the next week. The spot was bustling with more guides, more trackers, a dozen people at least. Lots of high fives, bear hugs, names flung at us. Harry, William, say hello to Adi! (Twenty years old, long hair, sweet smile.) Harry, William, say hi to Roger and David.

And at the center of it all stood Marko, like a traffic cop, directing, cajoling, embracing, barking, laughing, always laughing.

In no time he’d pulled our campsite into shape. Big green canvas tents, soft canvas chairs grouped in circles, including one enormous circle around a stone-rimmed campfire. When I think about that trip, my mind goes immediately to that fire—just as my skinny body did then. The fire was where we’d all collect at regular intervals throughout the day. First thing in the morning, again at midday, again at dusk—and, above all, after supper. We’d stare into that fire, then up at the universe. The stars looked like sparks from the logs.

One of the guides called the fire Bush TV.

Yes, I said, every time you throw a new log on, it’s like changing the channel. They all loved that.

The fire, I noticed, hypnotized, or narcotized, every adult in our party. In its orange glow their faces grew softer, their tongues looser. Then, as the hour got later, out came the whisky, and they would all undergo another sea change.

Their laughter would get…louder.

I’d think: More of this, please. More fire, more talk, more loud laughter. I’d been scared of darkness all my life, and it turned out Africa had a cure.

The campfire.

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