Olivia's Dead by Madeleine Andersson by Madeleine Andersson - Read Online

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Olivia's Dead - Madeleine Andersson

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Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.

(Pearl Strachan Hurd)

‘What is lovely never dies, But passes into another loveliness,

Star-dust or sea-foam, Flower or winged air’

– Thomas Bailey Aldrich



Just a word. An ordinary, everyday word. Blended into our lives as seamlessly as tea and milk, soap and water. Yet, if you take the time to study it, you will see it is far from ordinary.

It is exotic, evocative, strong and dark with a hint of Eastern promise.

Just like him.

He who stormed into my life and like a tsunami swept me off my feet.

They say, Do not regret the things you have done – merely those that you have not done – don’t they?

I cannot regret following my heart. Perilous though this journey has often been, it has brought me immense joy and passion.

It has at times been as dangerous as swimming with crocodiles and at others so emotionally fraught I feared I might break and never mend.

Coffee? was the first message he sent me. The irony of this was not lost on us. He lived in a coffee-growing nation and yet did not drink it. I taught him how.

Our friendship blossomed online. The wonders of modern technology meant that a woman living in England could form a relationship with a man living in Kenya.

Four months after that first invitation for coffee, I made an impulsive decision. Some applauded me: Brave.

Others scoffed: Are you mad?

Little did I know then that my last-minute act to book a flight to Nairobi would be the catalyst for dramatic change. That simple word coffee had sealed my fate and I was following a path destiny had put me on.

Along the way the man who would transform my life taught me that true love, a love that goes from your heart to your soul and back, is priceless.

If that sounds like a fairytale then that may be how it started, but that is not how it ended.


By the time you read this I will be on a plane to Africa…

I stared out of the window and watched the clouds float by like wisps of candy floss. I tried not to think about it, but my mind kept wandering back to the note.

I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore. If Olivia’s death has taught me anything, it’s that life is fragile and short. Don’t try to contact me. I’m going into the wilderness.

In my mind I could see it: the handwritten note on the gleaming kitchen worktop, his name bold and black on the white paper. I could picture vividly, too, closing the back door with determination. I had felt brave and strong then, resolving to be positive and move forward without regrets.

And yet…

In truth, I was scared, sad, excited and apprehensive; scared by the enormity of my decision, sad for what I was leaving behind, excited at the thought of my journey and apprehensive about this leap into the unknown.

Excuse me? A smiling steward leaned over the empty seat next to me. Hot towel, madam?

I smiled back and accepted the towel.

Only one hour and forty minutes away from landing. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. How many times had I repeated that throughout the journey, swinging from elation to fear at the thought of the adventure I had impulsively thrown myself into feet first without pausing for breath? All things considered, it was a miracle I had slept at all on the overnight flight.

I turned back to the window. The morning sunlight was glorious. My stomach had churned itself into a tight knot and I wriggled around in the seat, unable to relax. What have I done? How the hell did I get here? Am I mad? As the minutes ticked by, the anticipation of the meeting was becoming almost too much to bear.

Ladies and gentlemen, we shall shortly be starting our descent into Nairobi. Please make your final visits to the washrooms. Ensure the trays are stowed and your chair is in an upright position…

I buckled up for landing and watched the swathes of trees that gave way to open savannah become increasingly visible as the plane descended through layers of cloud. My mind, refusing to be harnessed, dragged me back to the kitchen of the home I had just left, to the moments before the taxi had arrived to take me to the airport.

Something had prevented me from just walking away. Something had pulled me back for one last look. With minutes to spare I had reclaimed the key from its hiding place under the second stone from the left nearest the garage and unlocked the back door that led into the kitchen.

I remembered clearly stepping back into the room that held so many memories and how I had been instantly transported back in time.

I saw the haunting painting of a beautiful snowy owl hanging on one wall. It was one of my favourites. Below it was the photo of Rob and I on our first holiday together in Crete. We were besotted with each other. I was laughing and he was beaming with pride.

Then, back in the kitchen, I didn’t see the smile. I saw only the image of Rob, a deep frown etched on his face when I had mentioned that I wanted to change jobs.

His reaction was not what I had expected. After eight years together, I realised with blinding clarity that I didn’t know the man standing in front of me. The disdain he showed for my desire to leave my full-time editing job and go back to freelance writing had hurt me deeply.

You? Write? Don’t be ridiculous. You haven’t written anything for years. We couldn’t rely on you bringing in any significant amounts of money. He had laughed, as if the idea was farcical.

We need to save. Otherwise how will we pay for the wedding? And what about kids? I thought you wanted children? You can’t work and raise a family. There’s nothing for you out there. You’re yesterday’s news. He had given a self-satisfied smirk at what he obviously considered a witty remark.

The row was the last straw. It was only a month since my best friend Olivia had died and I had been run ragged by the demands of her family as well as my job and trying to keep Rob happy.

Don’t speak to me like that. We’re not married yet. We don’t have children. You have no rights over my life, was what I wanted to yell at him. But, of course, I did no such thing. Instead, I gritted my teeth, said nothing and walked away. Wounded, humiliated and upset.

I hadn’t planned on going to Kenya. Not so soon, anyway.

After the argument with Rob, I had stormed out of the kitchen and locked myself in the study. There I slumped into a chair and clenched my jaw in controlled rage. I had stared at my iPad for the longest time before making up my mind and flipping it open. The Wifi connection took a while to kick in.

I typed in the password and tapped the mail icon. Nine new messages in my inbox. I held my breath. There it was. An email. I opened it and read it slowly.

What to reply? I sat back and thought a while, absentmindedly twirling a lock of hair around my finger, before typing. I paused briefly before hitting send. Seconds later I heard the familiar whoosh sound as the email took off.

I scrolled through the rest of the emails without much interest; one from an old school friend, a handful from work and another from a news agency inviting me for an interview. I flagged it as important and was about to reply when the iPad pinged, announcing the arrival of a new mail. I tapped the inbox.

The crazy grin that had spread across my face as I read the message over and over and how, for the first time since my best friend’s illness and death, I had felt some semblance of happiness again.

I checked my diary. I had been offered a week’s compassionate leave after Olivia’s death, which I had not yet taken. My workload was light at the time; nothing I couldn’t juggle or re-arrange.

I replied and waited anxiously for a return email. Seconds later it came. Finally, there was light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

I would be honouring a promise I made to Olivia before she died. To have an adventure and do something with my life before it was too late.

Madam, would you mind placing the bag on the floor under the seat in front of you, please? The cabin crew was doing the final pre-landing checks.

I wedged the handbag between my feet and not for the first time thought about the unpredictability of events.

The row with Rob was two weeks ago and now here I was – 4,000 miles away – about to land in a country I had never been to, as the guest of a man I had never met.

You and your bloody promise, Olivia.



The Maasai Mara National Reserve, also known as the Masai Mara or affectionately as the Mara by the locals, is a large game reserve in southwest Kenya, which is effectively the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It is named after the Maasai people, the traditional inhabitants of the area and their description of the area when viewed from afar. Mara in the Maasai language means spotted, an apt description for the circles of trees, scrub, savannah, cloud shadows and the distinctive acacia trees that mark the area – for many visitors the typical image of Africa.

I folded the fact sheet I had printed off the internet before leaving home and tucked it back into the guidebook on my lap.

The flight from Heathrow had been on time and I easily made my internal connection.

Peering out of the window I watched the ground approaching fast as the Mombasa Air Safari two-engine prop plane circled once and then came in for touchdown at Keekorok Airstrip. I gripped the armrests. I didn’t mind flying. It was the landings that got me – those few seconds between the throttle going back, the plane hovering over the runway and the wheels hitting the ground.

Within minutes the aircraft rumbled to a halt outside an open-air structure that resembled a house without walls. It had a green metal roof and a group of people waited on stone benches. The airport terminal, I presume.

I hung back deliberately, allowing my fellow passengers to disembark. I wanted to savour the full impact of that first sensory attack when I stepped out of the plane. What hit me was the heat. Nothing was cool or chilled. Not even the breeze that lifted the fringe off my face. I was instantly cocooned by warmth. It smelled warm.

Pausing for a moment at the top of the steps I surveyed the scenery, my mind absorbing every last detail. I was in Africa. I had finally made it to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. I sighed happily. The scenery was breathtaking. Dry, wide open plains, scorched and straw-like, broken up here and there by shrubs, and in the distance the distinctive shapes of the baobab and acacia trees. It was just so… Africa.

Gingerly I made my way down the wobbly steps, conscious of being watched from the plane’s cockpit. I’ll look a prize prat if I fall now.

Safely on the ground I followed the rest of the passengers. Bags were piled up alongside the runway, which was a compacted dirt strip. Half a dozen people boarded the plane as soon as I had left.

The flight had been fascinating – partly because it flew so low I could feast my eyes on the landscape below with its vast open plains broken up by magnificent mountain ranges. Partly also because a large, mousy-haired Australian woman in the seat in front had turned round, continually regaling me with tales of previous visits. The last time she had been driven in a Toyota Landcruiser by her boyfriend who ran a car hire business in Nairobi and she swore that this was absolutely not something she would be repeating as she had sweated like a pig and felt carsick the whole way.

When I sympathised with her and politely enquired as to the boyfriend’s whereabouts, the woman informed me that her name was Lois and that her honeybun had already driven down and was waiting to pick her up.

I squinted against the strong midday sun. I could see Lois waddling off towards a Landcruiser parked alongside the waiting area. The woman was bedecked in a loud print dress with giant red poppies that strained around her body and over a mammoth bosom.

A young black man sprang out of the car. I winced. Ouch! Oh dear. Rather you than me, honeybun. Inwardly I shook my head.

I guessed that Lois’s honeybun was at least fifteen years younger and I pondered the suitability of the match. Rewinding snippets of the conversation on the plane I deduced that, unless he was partial to obese, older women, the young Kenyan must be in it for the money and that the giant Australian woman was either too vain, too stupid, didn’t care or all three.

Lois waved cheerily to me as honeybun heaved her gargantuan frame into the car. I smiled back. Hope you have good suspension on that motor, honeybun.

I had been so busy watching Lois and her vast derriere that I hadn’t paid attention to what was happening around me. I was alone. In a matter of minutes everyone had disappeared. Where were they all? More to the point… where the bloody hell was he?

A quick scan of the immediate area showed a lone, battered Jeep next to a game park kiosk. I checked my watch. I had definitely said midday in my email.

Where is he? I grumbled to myself. If I emailed him once, I must have emailed him about fifty times. I’m sure he told me he would be at the airstrip to meet me. I wish he wasn’t such a lousy communicator. Too busy being bloody busy, no doubt.

Perspiration trickled down my back. Inside the game reserve kiosk, a bored-looking man in khaki uniform yawned and swatted flies. Three Maasai men hovering around outside watched me with interest.

The heat enveloped me like a blanket. My white T-shirt that had been so crisp and so right in the coolness of an English winter no longer seemed so fresh. It clung like a limpet. And jeans? What the hell made me wear jeans? I’m bloody boiled. My jeans stuck like glue. I should have known better. This is Africa and as close to the equator as I’m ever likely to get.

Still there was no sign of a car. Where is he?

The plane was taxiing, ready for takeoff. Further afield I noticed a tin shack with the words DUTY FREE SHOP painted on the sides. Curtains flapped in the door opening and several more Maasai locals stared with unabashed curiosity. The makeshift shop appeared to be selling local crafts and gifts. A game reserve car was parked next to it. Two men also in khaki uniform leaned against it, talking and drinking Fanta Orange. Hopefully they’re park rangers and will help if I get stuck.

My stomach was flipping around madly, nerves having a field day. I’m in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea where I’m supposed to be going and I don’t know what to do. Where is he? More to the point, what the hell am I doing here? I’ve never met him. Weeks of email conversations does not mean I know him. He could be anyone. I am mad. It’s official. If it all goes pear-shaped, I’m blaming you, Olivia. You and your bloody online dating dare.

I dropped my holdall on the dusty ground, simultaneously swinging the rucksack off my shoulder, keeping a firm grip on it. There’s no way on God’s earth I’m letting go of that. If I lose that, I lose all my valuables and then I’m as good as dead. Dead. There’s that word again. Was it only six weeks ago since we buried her?

I scrolled down the contacts on the mobile until I found Jamil’s number and was about to touch the number on the screen when a Jeep roared up and screeched to a halt in front of my feet, spewing out a large dust cloud.

What the—? I was in the middle of shouting when a beaming face peered at me through the settling mist.

Jambo. Welcome to Kenya. I am Festus. Jamil sent me to pick you up. He is busy taking other guests to the meeting point. His face dropped as if something had suddenly dawned on him. He pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and studied the writing. Then he looked up and said questioningly, Miss Alice?

I smiled and held out my hand. Jambo. Pleased to meet you, Festus.

Festus opened the door for me before placing my bag in the boot. Before I had a chance to get in, he rushed round and took my hand to help me. As soon as he had done so he climbed into the driver’s seat, put his foot down and we took off as fast as he had arrived.

He was friendly and chatted happily, answering my questions as best he could.

He told me that the camp was about twenty kilometres from the Sekenani Gate of the Mara Reserve and explained that the meeting point he was referring to was just a short drive away. This was for guests who chose to come by road.

Jamil always wants to meet them himself. But today he’s saying goodbye to other guests.

Is there anyone else staying at the camp?

No, Miss Alice. Just you.

Gulp. What if he’s hideous? What if we don’t get on? Don’t think like that. You’re in it now, fool. You’ll have to make the best of it. My stomach was aflutter with butterflies.

We drove through mixed arid countryside that intermittently gave way to scattered areas of vegetation and trees.

Look, Miss Alice. Dust devils. Festus pointed excitedly at swirls of dust that whirled across open spaces. He chatted away, telling me about Kenya and the Mara.

You speak Swahili? He grinned at me.

I shook my head. No. I’d quite like to, though.

I will tell you some words? It was more of a question than a statement.

That would be wonderful. Let me just get a pen and paper from my bag.

The Jeep bounced mercilessly as Festus rattled off words and phrases and I tried my best to write them down.

The vegetation grew thicker and, the closer we got to the camp, herds of cows and goats slowed us down significantly. The Maasai tribesmen herding their animals really did look like the pictures I had seen in guidebooks.

How much further is it? I asked, clinging on as the Jeep careered around a corner. That’s it. Now I feel sick.

Festus didn’t answer, he merely grinned and bobbed his head up and down as if following the rhythm of music.

Without warning the car stopped, the now familiar dust cloud settling around us.

We are here, he announced, lopsided grin in place.

Oh. I frowned, confused. Where?

Wait, Miss Alice. He will be here soon. I have taken you to meet Jamil.

I thought about what the young driver had just said and felt as though I was being escorted to the hand over meeting with a warlord. This made me giggle and I soon found myself giggling uncontrollably. Festus, none the wiser, followed suit and together we were still laughing when a second Jeep charged up and stopped in front of us, bonnet to bonnet. I peered through the dust, nervous and curious at the same time.

Then he was there.

Dark, exotic and appealing to all the senses in every way – like Amaretto coffee with cream and chocolate. The warmth of the amber nectar, the intensity of the coffee and the irresistible lusciousness of cream topped with cocoa-rich chocolate.

And in that moment – as sure as the first hit of caffeine from the strongest of coffee that kick-starts your mind and body – I knew life would forever be a different kind of normal.

I watched, spellbound, as he walked towards the car. Graceful and lithe as a wild cat. I didn’t move a muscle.

Jamil opened my door and leaned in to help me out. As he did so his eyes searched my face. They were the colour of coffee. Warm and penetrating. He gave me such a piercing look that I felt as though he had stepped straight into my soul.

He knows what I’m thinking. Jamil took my hand as I got out of the car.

Careful of the step. Karibu Kenya. Welcome, Alice, he said, his voice, baritone and yet soft and sensual at the same time. He held onto my hand and walked me round to the front. There he stopped and faced me. It’s so, so good to see you after all this time. You are so much more beautiful than your photos. He stared into my eyes with a burning intensity that made me blush and look away.

Heart galloping out of control, nerves dancing the twist. I had never encountered anything like this before. All new sensations swarmed through me and I definitely did not know how to handle it.

Then he threw back his head and laughed, a deep, hearty laugh that resounded around and bounced between the two cars.

Come, Alice. I will take you further than anyone ever has before. I will give you the adventure of a lifetime.

I wanted to jump for joy and hug him and tell him how gorgeous he was and how excited I felt at seeing him, how the wait had been worth it and how relieved I was that he wasn’t a voodoo witch doctor. Instead, I said, It’s lovely to finally meet you, too, Jamil.

He didn’t reply, merely nodded knowingly and flashed me a cheeky grin again.

Festus chucked my bag into the back of Jamil’s Jeep and I clutched my rucksack protectively tighter, racking my brains to think if there was anything breakable in the holdall.

Ready? Jamil was holding the door open for me. Again he took my hand to help me in and at his touch tingling sensations shot through my arm.

How long will it take from here? I asked.

Twenty minutes if we’re lucky. Depends on how many herds we come across along the way. Some parts of the roads are narrow and it can take a while to get past the animals. It’s important to be careful because cows are special to the Maasai people. They believe cows and humans fell to earth from the sky together.

Do they? That’s interesting. They must have such rich history and traditions.

Been to Africa before, Alice? he asked. Although he was looking straight ahead, I knew he was sneaking sideways glances at me. He’s watching me.

No, but I lived in Colombia, Kuwait and Costa Rica when I was little. I don’t remember much about it as I was only young, but my parents talk about it a lot and there are many pictures from our time there obviously. But never Africa. I’m already entranced. Obviously, I’ve read about it, seen pictures, films, you know, that sort of thing. And I know the roses and green beans I buy are from Kenya.

I was jabbering, but couldn’t help it. He made me nervous and excited. He didn’t seem to notice or if he did, he ignored it. Instead, he covered my hand with his and gave me a lazy look. Muscles contracted and quivered in places I didn’t even know I had. I wish he would stop giving me those looks. I’m not used to this.

Sweet Alice. Jamil smiled and turned his attention back to the road. I studied his profile. He was attractive in a wild, rugged sort of way. His features were bold. He had a strong jaw and was unshaven. His polo style T-shirt was faded green and his navy shorts had definitely seen better days.

Have you driven a Jeep before, Alice? There was something in the way he said my name – a slow, deliberate drawl with a knowing look in his eye – that sent a shiver up my spine.

Are you all right?

Yes, thank you. Just a ghost strolling over my grave. Damn. Why does everything have to revert to death?

He stroked my hand. No ghosts here, honey. Just the wilderness… and you and I. He kept glancing over at me.

Yes. Of course, I