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  • Published: 31 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9781761045103
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 480
  • RRP: $22.99

The Beautiful Mother


This story is set in 1970 and reflects archaeological research and other factual information as it was understood at the time.


Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

— Kahlil Gibran




Tanzania, East Africa

Essie leaned back in her chair, a mug of black tea resting on her knee. She gazed out through the open front of the tent. In the early morning light the rocky plain below the camp was painted in smudgy tones of brown and grey. Away in the distance she could see the silver gleam of the lake. Rising up behind it was Ol Doinyo Lengai. A wreath of cloud drifted across the summit, hiding the cap of strange white lava that looked like snow.

From overhead Essie heard weaverbirds calling between the thorn trees. The air was cool and still. She tried to draw it inside her, so that she would feel it there later on, when the sun blazed from a sheer blue sky and a hot wind blew in from the north-east.

‘That’s the last of the marmalade.’

On the other side of the dining table Essie’s mother-in-law was scraping out a jar with a teaspoon. Her actions were slow and precise. She could have been removing specks of earth from a fragment of fossilised bone. A faint frown marked her brow as she worked.

‘There’s no more, you know.’ Julia spoke in her usual matter-of-fact tone, even though Essie knew that marmalade was one of the few luxuries she cherished, along with Scotch whisky and cigarettes.

Essie passed over a glass dish of dark-gold local honey. Julia shook her head, preferring to spread her slice of bread with the meagre amount of marmalade she’d collected. As she began to eat, she reached across to a wooden tray piled with stones at the far end of the table. She picked out a large grey pebble – water worn, with one end broken off. She stroked the edge with her finger. Essie guessed she wanted to make some comment about it, but was waiting for her son to reappear.

Ian was over in the Administration Hut where the radio was set up. He was expecting to talk to the Head Ranger at Serengeti. The call had been arranged last night, but there’d been no clue as to what it was about. It was rare, these days, for anyone to need to get in touch with the Lawrences. Since the Ranger’s office sometimes acted as a local contact for other authorities, including the Department of Antiquities, they all felt a bit uneasy.

A sudden nudge at Essie’s elbow made her spill her tea. She gasped as the hot water soaked through her shorts. Reaching behind her, she pushed away the muzzle of a young gazelle. ‘No, Tommy!’ The animal took two steps backwards, then stood still, head lowered, staring reproachfully at her. With his eyes so dark and shiny he always looked to be on the brink of tears. Relenting, Essie called him back and scratched his ear. The sun glanced off the silver buckle on his blue collar.

‘He’s getting horns,’ Julia stated. ‘He’ll be impossible to manage.’

Essie said nothing. She knew Julia was tense because of the radio call. And this was on top of the fact that she had never approved of Tommy being at the camp. He’d been found six months ago by one of the local workers, abandoned by his mother only weeks after his birth. When Tommy had been brought to the Work Hut, Julia had instructed the worker to put the hungry animal out of its misery.

‘No, wait,’ Essie had intervened. The baby looked so frightened, his cry almost silent as if his voice had run out. ‘Let’s keep him. I’ll take care of him.’

‘That’s not a good idea,’ Julia had said firmly. ‘You might think you’re being kind, but you’re not. It’s very hard to rehabilitate a wild animal that’s become tame. He’ll never belong anywhere.’

She’d gone on to talk about the cost of milk powder and other practical issues. Then she’d started on her more serious concern. By rescuing the creature Essie would be interfering in a natural process – survival of the fittest.

Julia had looked to her son for support, but Ian had surprised both women by taking Essie’s side. ‘I don’t see what harm it can do. One little gazelle.’

Essie had fallen in love with Tommy. She often buried her face in his fur, breathing his smell. She felt a rush of affection when she saw him sitting in the shade with his legs folded away so neatly, and she smiled at the sight of his tail flicking constantly from side to side. Now, Tommy was half-grown and grazing independently, but he was showing no sign of wanting to return to the wild. Instead, he still liked to stay as close to Essie as possible. He would sidle into the tent and stand – like he was now – right at her side.

Avoiding Julia’s gaze, Essie tore off a hunk of bread and fed it to Tommy, watching the quaint sideways movement of his jaws as he chewed.

‘You’ll have to let him go in the end,’ Julia said.

Essie took a breath. ‘I know that.’ There was a short silence. Essie noticed a smear of marmalade on Julia’s chin. She found herself rubbing her own chin as if that could remove it.

Into the quiet came the sounds of footsteps – brittle leaves and twigs being crushed. Essie looked up to see Ian striding over. There was a focused look on his face, as if his thoughts were racing.

‘Is it good or bad?’ Essie couldn’t help asking. On the other side of the table Julia waited quietly for a report. Her stillness felt like a reproof – a reminder that her daughter-in-law hadn’t yet spent enough time at the Gorge to learn how to take each day, month, year as it came.

Ian let the quiet stretch out for a few seconds, then he grinned. ‘Guess who I’ve been talking to.’

Julia watched him, saying nothing.

‘Frank Marlow,’ Ian announced.

Julia’s eyes widened. ‘You mean – Frank Marlow himself?’

Ian nodded. ‘I could hardly believe it.’

Essie had heard the name Marlow but couldn’t place it, so she just raised her eyebrows to show she was impressed.

‘He’s staying at the Lodge,’ Ian continued. ‘Yesterday he flew to Olduvai to see their museum. Leakey took him round all their sites – showed him what they are working on.’ A shadow of dismay crept into Ian’s voice. The Leakeys were another family of archaeologists who worked in a gorge about half a day’s drive away. A year ago they’d managed to secure funding for a museum at their research base. It had been a real coup – and it was hard not to feel envious of them. The moment passed, though, and Ian’s smile returned. ‘Now he’s coming to Magadi.’

‘He wants to see what we’re doing!’ Julia clasped her hands together like someone offering a prayer of thanks.

‘Not exactly,’ Ian said. ‘He wants to bring his wife here. It’s a surprise. For their wedding anniversary.’

Julia mouthed his last words as if they made no sense. At Magadi Camp, Christmas was celebrated and birthdays warranted a cake, if the ingredients could be found. But wedding anniversaries were barely mentioned. Ian and Essie’s had come around four times; they’d married within a year of her arrival at Magadi. Essie always wished they could go away somewhere together to mark the occasion – perhaps to Serengeti. But the date occurred in January, during the intense digging season of the Short Dry when no time could be spared.

Ian cleared his throat. ‘He wants to have sundowners served at the Steps.’

Julia’s lips parted, but she didn’t speak. Essie could see her struggling to come to terms with the famous archaeological site being used as nothing more than a romantic backdrop. She was annoyed enough by sightseeing planes that flew low over Magadi Gorge so that tourists could peer at the Steps on their way to view the volcano.

‘He’s asked as a favour,’ Ian continued.

Julia drew in a breath as if preparing to be brave. ‘So we have to say yes.’

‘Who exactly is he?’ Essie asked carefully. If she let the conversation run on any longer, it would only get harder to admit her ignorance.

‘A Canadian millionaire. He made his money in mining. The Marlow Trust funds private archaeological research all over the world.’ As he spoke, Ian looked in the direction of the Steps site – down on the plains, out of view behind a rocky outcrop. ‘Frank’s going to bring everything with him from the Lodge. Glasses. Folding table and chairs. And food as well. Trays of canapés. We don’t have to provide anything.’

‘That’s just as well,’ said Julia dryly.

Essie imagined the Marlows at the Steps, sipping champagne and nibbling caviar on crackers as they gazed out over the lines of footprints that had been captured in stone nearly four million years ago. Preserved beneath layers of ash and lava, the impressions were made on a muddy plain by the first of our ancestors to walk on two legs. The footprints of the Australopithecines – a species that was part-ape, part-human – led across the plain in the direction of the volcano. There was a man, followed by a woman and a child walking side by side, the distance between them regular as if they might even have been holding hands. The connection with deep history and long-lost people would be almost tangible. The visitors were lucky with their timing: the flamingos had recently arrived in Magadi for the breeding season. Essie had got out of bed to watch them fly over the Gorge, on their way to the salt lake where they, themselves, had been hatched. The birds made the journey from other regions of the Rift Valley, travelling during the course of a single night, lit by a full moon. Now there were tens of thousands of them milling around the lake. Along with the pyramid of the volcano, they would provide a stunning backdrop to the Steps. Essie pictured pink birds, pink sky, pink lake, even pink desert roses growing nearby. It would be unforgettable.

‘When are they arriving?’ Julia asked.

‘The day after tomorrow.’

‘Where shall we put them up?’ She glanced towards her personal tent, and then at the one Essie shared with Ian. ‘Yours is the biggest.’

‘Frank has his own plane. His idea was to fly in and fly out. Get back to Serengeti before dark.’

‘But there won’t be time to show him around,’ Julia protested.

Ian lifted his chin. ‘I convinced him to come earlier in the day. I promised him a flint-knapping demonstration.’ He turned to Essie. ‘I told him we have Arthur Holland’s daughter here.’

‘He’s heard of Dad?’ Essie was surprised. Professor Holland, along with his unique collection of stone tools, was known in academic circles but he was hardly a household name like the Lawrences were.

Ian nodded. ‘He actually mentioned the Tasmanian flints. Marlow’s not just a rich sponsor. He’s an amateur archaeologist. He knows who’s who.’

Essie swallowed. She liked the idea of being useful, but didn’t want to feel responsible if the man was unimpressed by her knapping skills. Flint could be unpredictable in the way it broke. Striking a worked edge could destroy a nearly completed tool. She didn’t want to end up with a failure. She’d be letting down the Lawrences and her father, both at the same time.

‘We can lead on from that to a tour of the dig,’ Ian continued. ‘We have to be careful, though. I’ve heard he doesn’t like to be asked directly for money.’

‘Of course, we wouldn’t beg anyway,’ Julia said. But there was a note of doubt in her voice. So far, the large-scale excavations that had been funded by the Steps’ success had failed to produce any significant finds at Magadi. In one of the sites there were some promising undisturbed living floors – buried surfaces containing evidence of occupation – but after an initial discovery of a hominid tooth nothing more had turned up. Grants had petered out and funds were alarmingly low.

Essie’s eyes strayed to the empty marmalade jar. Running out of a treasured luxury might not matter, but there were lots of other empty things here at Magadi Camp. Petrol drums, kerosene tins, whole shelves in the storeroom. Even the Indian ink they used to mark numbers on specimens was running out. If nothing changed, they’d soon have to start cutting the already reduced number of local staff. Then the excavation sites and the camp would be almost empty as well.

‘There’s just one more thing.’ Ian looked cautiously at his mother. ‘Marlow wants to create a sense of celebration, for the occasion. He’d like us to dress up.’

Julia looked blank. ‘What in?’

‘Evening wear.’

‘He can’t be serious,’ Julia responded. ‘This is a working camp, not a sideshow!’

‘I said we would,’ Ian stated.

‘We could wear our town clothes,’ Julia suggested.

‘That’s not what he wants.’

Essie knew better than to join in a debate between mother and son. While she waited to hear the outcome, she looked down at the three dogs that had slunk in to lie under the table. The mingled bodies formed a patchwork, with the stark black-and-white spotted hides of the two Dalmatians, Rudie and Meg, set against the tawny coat of a hound that belonged in the staff camp.

‘I haven’t got anything suitable, anyway,’ Julia said.

‘There’s that dress you wore in London.’ Ian pointed to a framed black-and-white photograph perched on top of the bookcase in the rear of the tent. The picture had been taken at a royal reception held to mark the discovery of the Steps. It showed a much younger Julia shaking hands with the newly crowned Queen, both women wearing elbow-length white gloves. There was a glimpse of Julia’s dress – an elaborate gown in a pale tone, embellished with lace. When Essie had first seen the image she hadn’t recognised her tough, no-nonsense mother-in-law. The person in the picture looked elegant and fragile – vulnerable, somehow. Julia would hate to know it, but she reminded Essie of a gazelle.

Ian turned to Essie. ‘What can we do about you?’

Essie didn’t reply straightaway. The fact was, she had a silk evening dress that would suit the occasion perfectly. It was hidden away in her suitcase along with the winter clothes she’d been wearing when she left England. Her father had advised her to pack a formal gown when she’d set off to work in Tanzania. ‘White people in Africa love to dress up,’ he’d told her. He’d made two expeditions there himself, so he knew what Essie should expect. In the five years she’d spent at Magadi Gorge, however, there had been hardly any trips away from the remote camp – and definitely no dinner parties or dances in Arusha. So Essie had never revealed the dress to her husband. Now, as Ian and Julia waited, she tried to think how to answer without giving away the fact that she’d envisaged a different life here. Ian and Julia might think there was another, frivolous, side to her. On the other hand, she didn’t want to be a problem.

‘I’ve got a dress somewhere,’ she said vaguely.

‘Good,’ Ian responded. Essie expected more questions but he turned his attention to the field notebook he’d removed from his pocket. After a brief pause, he spoke again. ‘We’ll have to stop the digging and concentrate on getting ready.’

Julia raised her eyebrows. Magadi ran on a strict schedule. The local staff as well as the Lawrences worked every day except Sundays. Even during the rainy season, the teams achieved whatever they could.

‘There’s a lot to do.’ Ian swung one arm, taking in their immediate surroundings, and then gestured towards the open doorway with its view to the rest of the camp.

Essie scanned the tent, her gaze passing over the sideboard with the gramophone player; the neat stacks of books, their dust jackets faded in the harsh sun; the Persian carpet that was well worn but swept clean. Kefa worked hard to keep the place presentable. The effort he put into polishing silver, waxing furniture and laundering linen sometimes felt to Essie like a reproach to the Lawrences with their shrinking resources. Even though his official title was ‘houseboy’, the man was in his sixties. He had been employed by the family, on and off, ever since Julia and her husband, William, first came here, nearly forty years ago. Kefa liked to place on the top of the magazine pile an old National Geographic from 1956 with William on the cover, standing proudly at the Steps. The photograph was taken only four years before his death. The magazine had come to symbolise everything the man had achieved. It had to be dusted daily to maintain the glossy shine.

‘The place isn’t too bad,’ Essie ventured.

‘It has to look busier,’ Ian explained. ‘We need to get things out of the store. Fossil eggs. The giraffe skull. Snake skins. Anything interesting. And I want a few of the guest tents erected, nets hung and beds made up, in case we end up giving a tour. We want it to appear as if they’ve caught us in a slow moment, but we’re expecting company.’ Ian paced back and forth, making small detours to avoid Tommy, who kept standing in his path.

Essie smiled at her husband. He looked more wide-awake and alive than she’d seen him in years. Then she felt a twist of anxiety. Was he getting carried away? What if Frank Marlow and his wife came here to enjoy their romantic interlude, and then just flew away, never to be heard from again?

On the other side of the table Julia had turned around to peer at a map of Magadi that was pinned on a noticeboard. A grid had been drawn in red pen, dividing the Gorge, and the smaller gullies – called korongos in Swahili – into zones.

‘We could begin work somewhere completely new,’ she said. For someone so practical, she seemed to be getting ahead of herself too.

 Ian nodded, following her gaze. ‘A fresh start.’

The Beautiful Mother Katherine Scholes

The breathtaking new novel from the internationally bestselling author of The Rain Queen and Congo Dawn.

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