The Girl and the Sunbird

By Rebecca Stonehill

Historical fiction, General fiction, Literary fiction, Romance

Paperback, eBook

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359
2 mins

PROLOGUE

MAITHO

NAIROBI 1952

It will happen in five days and eight hours. This man, this man who came last week, he told me ‘I am friend.’ I believed him. I wish he would come again. Every day I wait for him. But he is not coming. Strange, I do not know him, who he is. Why he is friend. But there is something that connects him to me. To my past, this past of which my questions are not answered. I keep waiting for this man. If he comes again, I will ask him: You know my mother? Real mother? You know my father? In five days eight hours I will die.

PART ONE

IRIS JOHNSON

CAMBRIDGESHIRE AUGUST 1903

‘I shall never understand you, Iris. Nor why you have made this decision, but there it is.’

Mother stands a shoulder’s width apart from me outside The Old Vicarage as we await the landau. I ignore her and stare ahead of me. What kind of a choice is it truly? I fidget with my hat, my eyes drinking in the overgrown brambles, clumps of nettles and winding trellises of bryony that skirt the hedgerows surrounding the house and those wide, endless skies. In what feels like the blink of an eye, I have moved from debutante to would-be wife of a Lord to a girl who shall be flung unceremoniously across the seas into the waiting arms of a faceless stranger in East Africa.

A chaperone, Miss Logan, has been employed through The Lady by mother to escort me to Mombasa. She arrived yesterday afternoon on the 1.20 from Kings’s Cross and was collected from Cambridge by Papa with her one small valise and chiffon parasol. I want to hate her, this woman who shall take me far from all I know and love. But she has small, shrewd eyes and a look of repressed humour about her that I cannot help being drawn to. Somehow her presence also comforts me, calming the anguish that racks my body in great, nauseous waves at the thought of leaving my beloved papa and brother Arthur with no idea when we may be reunited.

Farewells are brief. Papa looks exhausted, his thick white dog collar accentuating the pallor of his cheek. As he grasps both of my hands in his, he parts his lips to say something and then closes them again, simply shaking my hands with emphasis. How curious it should be, I muse, and how gratifying, if we lived in a world in which we were all permitted to say precisely what we were thinking rather than be restrained by convention.

As Miss Logan and I climb into the landau and the horses begin their gentle trot towards the end of the drive, I cast a final look back at The Old Vicarage, large and white and solid. All the staff have come out and I smile sadly as I see Cook waving a white handkerchief at me. How I shall miss her; her smooth, shiny face and the way she would always smuggle me small pieces of Welsh rarebit or lardy cakes when mother punished me as a child with no luncheon for coming into the house dirty or answering her back. Mother holds her head in that high, imperious way of hers as she watches me leave, relief painted in the squint of her eyes and the haughty tilt of her chin to see the back of her errant daughter. As for Violet, only now that I am on my way, I see that she is crying. It is possible her tears are genuine, but somehow I doubt it. More likely it is for Papa’s sake. I feel the slightest pang, wishing as I have done many times, that my sister and I had shared a closer relationship. Well, it is jolly well too late for all that business now.

Before pulling out of the driveway, I hear the sound of crunching gravel and a shout. Poking my head back out of the carriage, I see father running after us, spidery black arms waving overhead. I call out to the coachman to stop and Papa approaches, panting.

‘Iris, I forgot to give this to you.’ He feels around in his pockets before pulling out a small velvet drawstring bag and hands it to me through the window. I stare down at my outstretched palm for a moment before opening the bag. It contains a tidy pile of banknotes, wrapped around something hard. Peeling back the money, I find a small silver medallion, bearing the figure of a saint holding a staff.

‘It is St. Christopher. The patron saint of travellers. My grandfather gave this to me many, many years ago and it is right that you have it now.’

I close my fingers around the medallion, cool against my skin and thrust my head further out of the carriage to kiss Papa’s familiar cheek and grasp his hand. ‘Goodbye, Papa.’

‘God Bless you, Iris,’ he says before nodding to the carriage driver to proceed. ‘God speed you…’ His voice trails off as I am forced to drop his hand and he is left standing there, forlorn, a figure in black framed against The Old Vicarage. My head out of the window, I tilt it backwards, the cockaded silk hats of the coachmen fluttering in the breeze against the cloudless, blue summer sky.



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