They say that one ought not speak ill of the dead, but with some people, it truly is an unnecessary proscription. If Simon had any faults, it was that he was too generous, too open-hearted, too damn agreeable. These are faults to which we all might aspire.
Simon was a living, breathing model of how life ought to be lived. Mortuary assistant, pig farmer, shoe cleaner, B&B proprietor, writer: his career path sounds almost mundane until you realise he established pig farms in Vietnam for a charity, ran Streetshine, a charity for the homeless and built his own tourist eco-lodge in Abene, Senegal. In between-times, he wrote two books, Squirting Milk at Chameleons and Chasing Hornbills, and numerous pieces on Africa. He wasn’t one to sit on his haunches. Apart from when sitting on one’s haunches was exactly the thing to do. It’s no surprise he ended up in Africa.
When I met Si some thirteen years ago, he was married with a house in a trendy area of Brighton, doing what Brighton people do. Over the following seven years, he was amicably divorced from a woman who remained one of his best friends, unamicably divorced from another and made suddenly homeless by an unfortunate series of events. His reaction was perhaps to be expected of a man whose attempts to toe the middle-class, middle-aged line in this country were thwarted at every turn. He decided it was time to cross the Sahara.
He returned a month or three later brimful of stories as was his wont, and itching to get back: he had stayed at a guesthouse in Senegal and been asked to manage it for the summer. Typical Si. As a traveller he had one great quality, it appeared to me: he made friends easily. During the Sahara trip, for example, he had been arrested and thrown into a cargo container with various ne’erdowells. Rather than robbing him blind, they played cards. Africa loved him. He thus returned to Senegal where life took him down another alleyway in the shape of Khady Mane, who worked at the guesthouse.
His employment was terminated abruptly as a result of his affair with Khady, and he returned once more to the UK, though it was increasingly apparent that ‘home’ was no longer the country where he was born. By this point, Si had decided that it was time to up sticks, throw in his lot with Senegal, and maybe start a family (though this was already in hand, as it turned out). He had become, in his words, an accidental African.
When he had returned some months earlier I told him he’d go back soon enough, but he didn’t believe me: at least, he didn’t admit to it. But he concocted a grand plan and enacted it, establishing his eco-lodge The Little Baobab in Abene, with a typical quantity of adventures. By that time Si had already begun to consider the written word. He had read a book about Vietnam. He was of the opinion that he would have done a much better job. It was pointed out to him that while he might have been right, the author in question had actually done it. He decided to enter a travel-writing competition. While he wasn’t a writer, he certainly was a story-teller, and he had a whole heap of stories to tell. Over a few weeks, various versions of some of his stories flew back and forth between us, and eventually a voice emerged. We must have done something right, as his Namibian ghost story was a runner-up. Not bad for a first attempt.
His thoughts turned to a book, and its opening chapter grew out of one of the possible competition entries we had considered. The chapter detailed how he and his partner Khady were in a bus which turned over, injuring many, but which Simon escaped without a mark. He had recently been given a gris-gris, a charm to protect the traveller, by a rastaferian he met in Dakar. Having dragged Khady from the wreckage, assuming the worst, he found out another truth about Africa: family means everything. They soon found themselves recovering at the house of an uncle of hers who live nearby.
‘That evening as I crouched in the dark, ladling water over myself to wash off the blood, diesel and dust,’ he wrote, ‘I felt the gris-gris around my neck. I voiced my cynicism when I returned to the house – the gris-gris hadn’t worked, they were just superstitious nonsense.
‘Khady replied in quite simple terms: “of course they worked. You were the only person to walk out of the crash without a scratch, weren’t you?”’
Life was an adventure for Si, though never plain sailing, and while he made mistakes, he had a heart as big as a whale, and life in Senegal was what he wanted it to be. He lived on his terms, and was, I believe, truly happy there. He considered himself pretty lucky, living in Abene with Khady and their two children, Gulliver and Alfie.
On Saturday, May 27, however, his luck ran out. The car he was travelling in crashed, killing both him and the driver. His gris-gris wasn’t infallible, though he placed great and increasing faith in it, if only vocally. But as has been observed, if he’d been given the choice of five years in Senegal or a long life in England, there would have been no discussion, no hesitation.
I’m proud to be able to have called him my friend.
Rest in peace is a traditional blessing for the dead, but Si had already found it. This really was unnecessary, world.