Out of African jail – and back in touch
A MIDDLE-aged man stumbles up the steps to a house, feeling his way with a white stick.
An older man greets him and carefully guides him to a chair.
Then they sit and the retired man talks, as he does each week.
And what a story he has to tell, filling his son's head with images: of birth and death, love and loss, of crime and punishment, of the sun-drenched grasslands of east Africa, and the claustrophobic gloom of a cramped prison cell in Kenya.
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As a little more of the past is revealed, the once-broken bond between Terry and Paul Johnson is rebuilt, piece by piece, week by week.
Elsewhere in the house in Efford, another connection is gradually being loosened: the grip that Terry's wife, Paul's stepmother, has on life. Ann has dementia, which is gradually pulling her from this world.
These encounters between the fractured Plymouth family began in late 2009.
Flash back to earlier that year when Paul was in a car crash.
"I suffered a severely detached retina in my left eye," he says.
"It wasn't diagnosed until I had a check-up at the Moorfields in London."
Doctors at the world-renowned eye hospital told him the damage was inoperable. Worse, pre-existing conditions in his right eye were giving the medics grave concern. Iritis (inflammation of the iris) and the cataract were treatable but not until a worrying worsening of the glaucoma (damage to the optic nerve associated with raised pressure in the fluid in the eye) could be tackled.
"I was at risk of losing my sight completely," he says.
He had a trabeculectomy – a draining procedure – done to the eye in the hope the pressure could be relieved allowing surgeons to operate when the level was safe.
For the months until the second procedure, he would be virtually blind, in a world of vague shadows.
"I was numb with the shock," says Paul, who feared he would never again see his wife and daughters, then 16 and 19. "I remember one evening the girls were dressed up and ready to go out for the evening and my wife said without thinking, 'don't they look beautiful?'.
"I couldn't see anything and I started to cry."
He had to give up his job as a salesman and was stuck at home in Hartley in danger of slipping into depression.
So he took a bold step: to try to patch up his differences with his father. The pair had not spoken for eight years and they'd had little contact for even longer.
Paul thought there was hope, though. "We always had a lot in common. We're both strong willed. We don't like other people helping us.
"Ann was the problem." He goes on to cite many grounds, which give a picture of his father's wife as if she were the villainous stepmother in a fairytale.
But back to his own all-too-real story. Each week on the way to work Paul's wife would drop him at his father's house and they would talk.
During the years they were apart, Terry had quit Plymouth, left Ann and fallen in love with and in Kenya. His stay in African would end in devastating fashion, with two deaths and imprisonment.
"The more I heard from my dad, the more I would steer the conversation around to what happened in Africa every time we met," says Paul.
The saga began with a bit of good fortune. Terry won £7,500 in a national newspaper competition in 1996.
"I decide to spend it on a holiday to Kenya and I loved it," Terry says. "I kept going back."
He packed in his job as a landscape gardener, left Ann and settled in Kenya. Always a good talker he got work as a go-between on safari holidays and then started running his own tours, working out of Likoni, a seaside town in the south of the country, close to Mombasa, the second-largest city.
He had a Kenyan girlfriend, Sharon, 40 years his junior, and they had a son together – a child he always refers to as "my boy".
"I had them to support and I was sending money home to Ann. I needed to make some more money, so I started poking my nose in."
Being nosey included satisfying his curiosity about some of the trade linked to the beach vendors.
That led him into contact with some drug dealers. "I started doing some drug smuggling from Kenya into the UK," he says.
"It wasn't large amounts, usually 1kg or 2kg of hashish [cannabis] at a time. I wasn't looking to make a lot of money, just enough to send to Ann and support me in Kenya.
"I wasn't worried about being caught. You could always pay a bribe to avoid going to prison. I thought you'd have to kill somebody to be sent to prison in Kenya if you were white.
"I made nine or ten runs to the UK. I'd be back on the next plane to Kenya each time.
"I didn't try to hide the drugs away. There was no point. If you were stopped, that would be it.
"They were packed in my suitcase."
But after one trip elsewhere in Kenya in 2001 he came back to see Sharon and his son and was told by a senior man in the village that both were dead.
"He said my boy had drowned. He was only four but he was a good swimmer. He'd got into difficulty in the river while Sharon was washing clothes on the bank.
"I was told she had killed herself out of shame."
Terry was incredulous, even when the shallow graves were pointed out to him. Dogs were pawing at the ground.
In the searing heat he stripped to his underwear and dug up the bodies.
"It was terrible. It was them. They were in an awful state in the heat."
Terry reburied them in deep graves he dug himself and, grief-stricken, went up to Nairobi, the capital, a couple of days later to do a prearranged drug run.
"I was in a daze with grief. I had this pain in the centre of my face. I wasn't thinking properly."
He changed planes in Mombasa and was going through for his connection to London when three customs officers men blocked his way.
"One of them said: 'Mr Johnson? Come with us.'
"They asked which was my bag and I pointed it out. I felt I was set up."
He was caught with 3kg of cannabis.
Still, there could have been a way of avoiding prison and court.
"They asked me if I had any money and I said I hadn't. I could have got hold of some but I wasn't thinking properly because of the grief. I just wanted to get away."
Away he went: four months on remand in Kamiti Prison in Nairobi, followed by a conviction and a further 12 months in the maximum security facility.
"At first there were 14 or 15 of us in a 17-foot cell. When I was sentenced I was moved to another cell about 8ft by 6ft with five or six of us.
"The food was terrible: ugali, a mix of water and maize, some tough kale and once a week a piece of meat about the size of your thumbnail that was too tough to eat.
"I got ill. I had malnutrition. The embassy got a message to send back home to my family to say I wasn't expected to live but I stopped it.
"I didn't want help. I'd got into this. I would get through it on my own."
Terry says his survival was helped by the continuing deference shown to all white men even though British colonial rule had ended nearly 40 years before. Speaking Swahili, which he had set about learning as soon as he first set foot in the country, was another advantage.
Fellow inmates could be brutal. "There was one called Chui – that's Swahili for leopard – because he liked to attack people. But he never touched me.
"I never had a problem with the prison officers either. I realised that they feared me more than I feared them.
"I was a problem for them, this white man in prison. There were hardly any others there. They wanted me out."
Terry was visited by officials from the British Embassy who tried to ensure that he received the occasional food treat sent by his sister in Cardiff – and that a corrupt guard did not get his hands on the snack.
"She sent me a big block of Cadbury's chocolate once. The officer told the woman from the embassy, 'He can't have that. It could be poisoned.'
"I said, 'I'll take that chance!' But he took it from me.
"Another time she brought me some wedding cake – she'd got married. I ate that straight down before they could stop me."
At last, with his sentence over, Terry left prison and headed back to Plymouth.
"A friend met me and told me I couldn't go back home because the house was a tip, but I insisted.
"As soon as I saw Ann I could see in her eyes there was something wrong.
"The house was in chaos. There was rubbish everywhere. In one room paper was piled up to the bare lightbulb. It could have gone up in flames in the heat from the bulb.
"My mate said, 'See. You can't stay here.' But I told him I would."
Later in 2002 Ann was diagnosed with the illness that Terry knew instinctively she had had for a long time: Alzheimer's.
"In the next ten years I had a couple of weeks' holiday in total and that was it. I cared for her on my own full time. I would not allow anybody else to do anything.
"She was doubly incontinent at the end. For the last six moths she was like a baby.
"I looked after her and I cleaned the house up."
Terry says that his experiences in Kenya gave him the physical strength and stamina for the demanding task, allied to the trait he passed on to Paul: a determination to do things on his own.
He admits, too, that he was drawn to the task because of the way he'd left Ann to go to Kenya.
"I felt a sense of guilt," he says. "I felt a duty.
"She went downhill very quickly in the last few months.
"Near the end I was making her comfortable and I asked her: 'Do you have a pain, love?'
"She said, 'yes, sitting next to me!'. That was the last time she spoke to me."
Terry had some comfort knowing that Ann had her "spark" even close to death. She died in December last year.
Paul got his sight back in his right eye in June 2010, following an operation after the initial treatment prepared the way. He remains partially sighted and cannot drive but has a highly successful job in furniture sales.
Physical evidence of their weekly chats comes in two forms. There is a book about Terry's Kenyan episode. Flying Cats And Flip-Flops – Surviving A Notorious African Prison will be available from Amazon from Wednesday as an ebook and in paperback format.
But most of all there is their rebuilt relationship. Today, Terry, 71, and Paul, 45, seem as close as any father and son could be, frequently finishing each other's sentences and laughing constantly.
Now when they meet there is more than a troubled past to discuss – there is the joy of a shared future.
"It's better than it's ever been," says Paul. "Wonderful," adds Terry.