Crafting Good Enough Company

November 26, 2014

Hat is describing a school function via Skype.  I witness her frustration in her frowns and the way she narrows her eyes when she’s cross. (A memory: when I was a child we had a book about science, it imagined a far off scenario where we could see the face of the person we were talking to on the phone in a screen opposite. It seemed the stuff of sci-fi movies. Less than a generation ago I marvel momentarily). I was so angry Mum, she says, her brow creasing, her voice rising in volume and pitch. There was this woman right, an Old Girl, not old-old (like me presumably) but Old as in used to come to my school. Yes, I prompt. Well one of the boys in my class, who was sitting at our table, mentioned the school’s new LGBT support. Yeeeees … I say (I think I know where this is going). And she said, LGBT? What? Here?! At this school?! That’s shocking!  And then she said, ‘in my day that kind of thing would have been knocked out of kids like that in the shower room’. I’m appalled. Hat clearly is too. How shocking is that Mum? Knocked out of them in the shower room?! What did you say, I ask. Hat drops her head. Nothing, she says. I couldn’t find the words. I empathize. I have been there too. Not long ago. And I have years on Hat, years which ought to have lent me a voice when I really needed one. But I did glare at her. And then I ignored her. So she knew I was disgusted. And I imagine Hat then, titian curls bouncing as she tosses her head to defiantly tip her chin, her hazel eyes hot with indignation. I have to stifle a smile. Well done I say. But next time, I tell Hat, next time a similar situation arises, draw on your inner journalist and ask a question. Say, ‘Why do you find the idea of LGBT support shocking’?  I bet they won’t have an answer.

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I am not an aspirational mother. But I do make certain demands of my children:

  1. Be brave and try it (whether it’s lentil curry, an extracurricular activity they’re tempted by and afraid of in equal measure or a terrifyingly ambitious university choice which they’d love to have a go at but can’t bear being rejected from). What’s the worst that can happen is my default position – life doles out plenty of joy and disappointment, the joy is easy to handle. Managing the disappointment takes practice. The earlier you get some in, the better.
  2. Say thank you. And please. No thank you, I won’t have any more of the lentil curry but I’d love some more of the chicken one please. Manners maketh the Man. And the woman. I cannot abide the lack of.
  3. Don’t be a sheep. Just because everybody else is – or isn’t – doesn’t mean you have to follow suit; do what feels right. (And that applies to drink/drugs/fags/ignoring the new girl because everybody else is).
  4. Don’t be a snob. I inherited my maternal grandmother’s abhorrence of snobs.  Just because somebody went to an elitist school or university, just because they can afford to attire themselves in expensive brands, just because they have a double barreled surname and live in a palatial home does not make them any more clever/interesting/compassionate/funny than the next person
  5. Be Kind. To children, old people and animals. Especially old people, given my own advancing decrepitude.
  6. Open your mind wide. If you narrow it, your view of the world will telescope and you’ll miss all the best bits. The stuff on the edge and in the middle distance which is often over looked.
  7. Ask questions – there is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers – it’ll ease your way into awkward social scenarios when you feel shy and asking questions is a good way to forget how anxious you feel (mostly because everybody loves talking about themselves.)

Educating our children isn’t, surely, just about making sure they get into the right school, onto the right course, attain the right grades, it’s not just about making sure they understand the perils of drink, drugs and unprotected sex (although, of course, urged a sex coach and friend, we must also ensure they understand that sex is not all bad; we must teach them about the good bits too)? It must also be about guiding them towards becoming reasonable grown-ups? Not just kids we’re proud of but adults we’d enjoy having a drink with? I think most of us do it instinctively.  We’re aware of the alternative:  imagine having to contend with a dinner party guest who won’t eat what you’ve prepared, having described the various afflictions that render him intolerant of dairy, gluten and lentil curry in particular, forgets to say thank you when you rush off to the kitchen to rustle up something he will eat, ignores the timid lady to his left, drones on about his skiing holiday and his son’s Gap Yah (the same son who went to Eton by the way), surreptitiously kicks your dog under the table, makes homophobic asides, never asks one question of a single person at your table and then ostentatiously regards his Rolex, twisting his wrist this way and that so you can all see it, and says ‘good lord, is that the time?’ and to yours and everybody else’s relief, ‘I must go’. You wouldn’t ask him back again.

To Market, to Market …

November 21, 2014

To market, to market to buy a fat pig (or sell some lampshades)

Home again, home again, jiggety jig.

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Home.

2 000 Klm round trip. To a fair to sell my wares. The heat bore down and the social onslaught threatened to overwhelm. So much air kissing. Mwah mwah.  (The acquaintances). Throwing arms around one another in hearty, exuberant embrace (The friends, some I hadn’t seen in more than a year). So much relating where we are. How we are. Smiling until my face ached.

And then, curled into a kitchen chair late at night, in my pajamas, with a dear, dear friend, over bottles of wine, righting our worlds. Or eating lunch where I forget to fork my food into my face because I am so engrossed in the conversations I have missed.

For this is what I miss the most. This. This proximity of easy, aged companionship. The kind where you don’t have to pick up the pieces.  No explaining needs doing.

It feels like a balm. A soft and kindly reminder, after jagged, bumpy recent history, that some place somewhere really feels like home.

And then Ant and I are bundled back into the pickup, luggage and shopping piled untidily in the back, ham sandwiches and a flask of tea at my feet.

I try not to nod off. I try to remain engaged, to keep Ant awake on the eleven hour drive home.

There is a lot to talk about. Whom we have each seen independently of one another. Their news.  A sharing out of our individual spoils, as if spreading our separate offerings upon a picnic blanket  – it helps to stretch the occasion.

And shorten our journey.

We eat our sandwiches and drink our tea on the shores of the Matera Dam, hunkered low in the long lean valley that straddles the hot country between Dodoma and Iringa. Here temperatures soar to 35 degrees and the grazing is nicotine yellow but the acacia, in heady anticipation of imminent rains, are sporting lime green foliage and wearing mantles of white lace. And by the water’s edge pigs snuffle greedily. The incongruity of Africa I think. And I smile.

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A Waste of a Cambridge Education?

November 11, 2014

 

On Sunday my eldest daughter will be 21.

She’s thousands and thousands of miles away.

A teacher now. Or a teacherintraining.

I say to an acquaintance, when they enquire as to where my children are and what they are doing: “Melie? Oh, she’s teaching’.

Teaching?

Teaching.

A degree from Cambridge and she’s teaching? What a waste!

My eyes grew wide and my mouth fell open. Slack jawed no words came out and acquaintance minced off.

But I was furious. Furious at their comment.  And furious at myself for not finding the voice to defend my daughter’s choice.  One her dad and I championed.

But I have now: found my voice.

What – I have asked myself  time and time again since that throwaway observation was made – ought parents do to pass muster? To be Good Enough? Love our children, certainly, protect them, cherish them, hug them, read to them, make them eat broccoli, remember to take them to the dentist, nurture a sense of self worth.

Educate them.

Give them Roots. Grant them Wings. Education helps society soar.

If we learned how to prevent the spread of malaria with a onetime cure, how to eradicate poverty with the wave of a magic wand, how to fill bellies in the hungriest places on earth with the click of our fingers, nothing would sustain. Nothing can without education.

Ask an impoverished African child what he wants most in the world and he’ll tell you to go to school.

And when I dwell further on my daughter’s critic’s comment, I am staggered at the irony. Clearly they revered Cambridge. But where on earth do they think all the academics who teach there began their careers. In classrooms I imagine?

I know it was the way Amelia was taught , the teachers who inspired her, that helped get her to Cambridge in the first place.

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Melie after last of her finals

And I hope she’ll help kids to follow in her footsteps.

 

 

And Another Thing …

 

Amelia’s dad comes home and reads this post. He asks who it was that considered Cambridge a waste given daughter’s career choice. I tell him. ‘Ah’, he observes, ‘the most competitive of parents … didn’t they bust a gut to get their son into  (and he names an elite British boarding school) …”.

Indeed they did.

Presumably so that they could boast about the Education they could afford to gift their offspring …

Ironies abound.

 

He. Me. We

November 3, 2014

 

I think about marriage a lot.

 
I think about it because if I were not married to Ant I would not be here. This would not be my choice. I am here because he is here and because I Do, I Am.

 
Here.

 
It’s a peculiar thing that I turn over and over in my mind.

 
Can I be a feminist if I have followed a man to the ends of the earth? Because this certainly feels like it – the ends of the earth: at times I’m in danger of falling right off the treacherous precipice upon which I teeter.

 
Can I be my own person if I form one half of a fairly well established duo?

 
And has being a part of a pair eroded my identity as an individual? Particularly given alienating, dislocating, isolating geography?

 

Is defining yourself as Wife Mother (writer) enough?

 
Ought I have striven for something Professional (with a payslip and a private pension?)

 
I was so young when I got married that I did not think beyond the romance of it all – the Big White Wedding. Playing at House. And then I became a mother and was subsumed by all the deliciousness and the demands that came with children.

 
It’s only now, as I come up for air, that I have the time and the perspective from which to ponder.

 
Would I have done it differently?

 
Sometimes I really hate living here sometimes. Abhor the loneliness. The struggling for occupation. The scratching for purpose.

 

But a year ago – and because of our constrained circumstances and unsettledness – Ant and I were forced to live countries apart for four months. And I did not do well: living apart. Not because I was unable to cope. I lived alone in a house on a farm, paid bills, cooked glass, wrote, went out with friends, drove many lonely miles, remembered to eat (occasionally). My geography was kinder; there were cappuccinos and pedicures to be had within ten minutes of my gate.

 
No. Not because I was unable to cope. But because a part of my definition, after twenty five years in the job, is the business of this partnership.

 
We sit side by side at my desk (which he has rolled his eyes at for my papers lie strewn all over it and he must clear a small space for his laptop) and we work in mostly quiet companionship, separately but towards a common end. Instead of eating solitary toast and marmite for supper, I prepare chilli chicken for two. Not because I feel obliged in manner of Good Obedient Housewife, but because food in the company of others is, for me, a celebration.

 
We have made so many mistakes together. Lost thousands on bad ideas. Cried a bit. Laughed a lot. We have raised three children. We have fought. But mostly we have carved from the other a small space to fit a part of ourselves. A part. He remains He, and I Me. Perfectly able separately but much happier as We.

 
I would not be here if he weren’t.

 
So how do I know that I am equal in this union? How do I know my role counts, my contribution to this arrangement matters? Makes a difference?

 
Because he wouldn’t be here without me either.

Gap Filling

October 31, 2014

So here’s the thing.

Because you – I – call myself ‘a writer’ (because it sounds better, when I’m asked what I do, than saying ‘erm … ahhhhm … err … Well I’m sort of a stay at home mum (whose part time mothering habit leaves her in an empty nest for most of the year)… and wife … and I write a bit’.) I keep writing despite the rejections.

But, even in age and after a huge, huge amount of practice (at receiving rejections and trying not to weep for the futility of it all) dismissals of pitches/submissions/essays still sting. The email comes in, you note the sender, register the subject, allow your heart to soar by the teeniest degree, and then you read the message and the bottom falls out of your world. For a bit. Just a bit. An hour. An afternoon. A day. Depending on the effort involved, the enthusiasm, the hope. Yesterday a computer generated rejection to inform me that my submission had not made the longlist – and no, the fact there were hundreds of entries, all of sterling standard did not help; the attached tips on How to Write Better only made it worse. The day before an emphatic No from an editor based on sample pieces he’d requested and I’d carefully, carefully honed and sent.

I often question the hours spent crafting words, conjuring up ideas to send to editors. I’ve sent thousands over the years. Most have been ignored. Or turned down. A few have led to stories that never ran. The occasional one morphed as ecstatic bylined publication. But it is, on balance,  in the cold light of day, when one calculates effort in/profit out, mostly a waste of time.  (But Time is something I can afford to fritter a little).

And I love language. I read a cleverly fashioned phrase on a page and I savour it as you would an exquisite taste on your tongue. I roll it around and dissect it and notice that each word has been carefully chosen to colour the expression more vividly so that it sits perfectly: a line of art that delivers much more than just neatly arranged, properly punctuated, letters.

Finding precisely the right word for a given slot is a joy. (I can spend an inordinate amount of my TooMuchTime on 500 words).

Like finding the piece you’ve been looking for to fill a gap in a jigsaw.

And so I suppose that’s why I keep doing it? Writing. Calling myself A Writer?

I’m filling gaps.

Last Great Wilderness

October 28, 2014

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The Selous Game Reserve is huge.

 

It hunkers low in Tanzania’s belly, its southern boundaries almost touching Mozambique. It’s big and hot and sprawls so that its spread is greater than whole countries; it’s bigger than Switzerland. It’s Africa unwieldy, a vast space of sky and scrub and water and wildlife – at 50,000 square kilometers, it is amongst the last and largest protected areas in Africa.

 

Named after Englishman Sir Frederick Selous, a big game hunter and early conservationist who died here in 1917 during World War I, the Selous, the oldest conservation area in Africa, was first designated a protected area in 1896 by the German Governor Hermann von Wissmann, became a hunting reserve in 1905, and was nominated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Today the northern corner is preserved as a photographic destination; the rest remains a hunting concession.

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How, given 25 years in Tanzania, this huge place had evaded our safaris, I can’t tell you. Perhaps because it offers the best component of a real road trip adventure: inaccessibility.

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It took us fourteen hours to drive there and we sank from high cool hills whose shoulders are draped in green tea and mist to low miombo woodland where mid afternoon temperatures tip 40 degrees when the only sound is the faintest whisper of borassus palms when their papery fronds are nudged by a kilnhot puff of enervated air because even the cicadas, which normally hiss all day long from unseen positions in the bush, are heatexhausted to silencing inertia.

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The 600 klm Rufiji River slips through a slice of the park before hurrying on toward the sea and even now, even in high hot October as we near the end of kindlingdry summer when the savannah is nicotine yellow and the brush desiccated and brittle, as we anticipate the Rains with panting excitement, even now the Rufiji is huge and wide and running fast. So fast that when we’re on it I can hear the rush of water in the upended vegetation, against the bank which is striped with the telltale rise and fall of past rains and scrambling with creepers that bear confetti white blossom, like jasmine and arterial green tosses two fingers to sapping heat for here the trees are rooted deep and damp.

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Everywhere’s waiting for rain. The flowers have been forced into evidence so that by the lakes that have morphed with the endless shifting shape of the river the flats are carpeted with blue. The impala and zebra and warthog all nurse young who will grow fast and fat on soon new grazing. I can see the promise of rain in gathering clouds which dissolve by sunset so that my lens captures the undiluted tangerine light of dusk.

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We’re here to fish. Or the boys are. I’ve come along in capacity of scribe. Photographer. Groupie. Oh well done Darling! The Rufiji swims with myriad species but it’s Tiger we’re after: big sharp teethed tiger that fight with strength and heart so that you can hear the zip and whine of the line as it rips from the reel when the tiger bites. Pale catfish lurk in the depths too and a few of those are plucked; one almost five feet long, pale scaled, like a finger nail, and long whiskered. Some of the catch is tossed back into the café au lait waters; some go to the boatboy who won’t mind the bones and the muddiness of the flesh.

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The air squats hot and the riverside sand is baking, it’d scorch your soles if you inadvisably went barefoot. A lot of water is drunk from cool boxes. Sunblock is slathered but the rays still nip below the shade of the meager awning and pinch our skin pink. You can hear the haunting cry of fish eagles; one glides low to swipe the bait. Hippo snort water and rise and sink as we pass, sometimes you can see their wake as they move beneath the surface, with surprising agility given their cumbersome size. Crocodiles lie jaws agape, as logs or glide in and out of our vision as stealthily as submarines. You couldn’t swim the width of this river if you tried, not without ending up as somebody’s supper. As we head back to camp the breeze rises and is deliciously, vigorously chilled as it collects the cool from the river’s now choppier surface.

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And when we’re not fishing we’re lost in the vast wilderness that forms this place, seeking midday shade to drink a flask of tea as we watch skittish zebra at the lake’s edge, skittish for the dangers that lurk beneath its soupiness. A giraffe arranges it’s long limbs and longer neck into a graceful triangle to drink. A pair of lions lies in the shade, the only movement the odd flinch against the irritation of a fly and the million butterflies that seem to flutter at their throats; even breathing is heavy work in this heat. Pink tongues loll. Could they, would they, I wonder aloud to Ant, get up the speed to pounce if I stepped out of the car. Don’t doubt it, he says.

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But for all the game we see – the big somnolent cats, the buffalo, the elephant, the kudu, the gnu – I know that numbers here have collapsed: the Selous, which once hosted the largest elephant population on the planet, has lost 80% of these intelligent, magnificent creatures to poaching – its why they stumble from sight in a state of distressed agitation at the sound of our vehicle – and there are no rhino left. Mankind exhibits such gluttonous arrogance with his assumption that he can annihilate a species for the sake of trinkets and superstition.

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I think hard about how to pin my few days in this extraordinary wilderness to the page on our long drive home when we eat heavily salted crisps and drink tea. It is always difficult to articulate the affinity one bears to the place you call home. To unpick it and try to explain precisely why a given place fits you. But when Africa swims in your blood and is the dusty grit that stings your eyes to tears, the things that make it my place are its light, the searching, searing, unforgiving light at midday that yields to the long fingered, leanly tapered shadowed and lingering glow at sunset, and the scent of the bush and the heat and the nearness of rain and the absence of it all at the same time, it’s the quick sound of a lizard startled as you step towards the shade with your mug in hand, the ripple of movement, the rustle of parchment dry leaves, it’s the chirps and coughs and sounds of the wildlife on hoof and wing. The sparseness of this place juxtaposed with a contradictory richness.

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It all conspires to create something that is so achingly familiar, fits so easily, so comfortably that it can be hard to describe it with the majesty that it deserves.

A Malignant Sadness

October 19, 2014

The worst thing about loving a person with Depression is that you lose them when they’re ill.

Depression steals their voice, their vigour, their very essence.

I have two mums. My well mum. My sick mum. That’s how much her illness changes her; she morphs from brave to timid, chatty to silent, upbeat to downhearted, energetic to enervated.

I have spent 35 years in the presence of Depression – sometimes at closer proximity, sometimes at greater distance. I feel its chill no matter how near or far. It’s like a damp sponge; the coldness permeates, soaks through every single conversation, whether across a table or the ether. Depression has a long reach.

For a time I felt sure that if I willed it away hard enough, educated myself long enough so that I could outwit it, bullied it, it’d go, Depression, it’d feel unwelcome vibes and shuffle off, embarrassed, afraid to return. But it’s not like that. It’s a cumbersome, thick-skinned illness that, once in residence, sits firmly. It doesn’t matter how much you love a person, or how desperately you want them to get well, if Depression has made itself at home, it’s difficult to evict. Drugs. Talk Therapy. ECT. Vitamins. Mum’s tried them all. It’s hung around for nearly a year this time.

It strikes me as I write as peculiar that so intangible an illness bears such a dead weight?

And there is another curiosity: that negative thinking can be so profound, so powerful as to obliterate even the tiniest positive? I am not sure Mum is sad when she is ill. But she is not happy? Her thought processes are so tangled and clouded that she can no longer pick a single bright strand and follow it through and know that if she keeps following it she’ll find the beginning and the end and be able to unknot the whole unwieldy mess. It looks so simple to do from the outside.

But I know that it’s not. I know that because Depression is like a cancer – Malignant Sadness Lewis Wolpert called it – that eats away so that a person’s sense of self and direction and drive and motivation begin to crumble for the structures built of confidence and belief, and cemented with vigour and smiles, have been consumed by the Beast within, dissolved by the seeping apathy.

Having a mum that suffers with Depression is not the worst thing in the world.

But I know that being a mum with Depression is.

That I – we, my siblings, my children – endorse her illness as real, does that help?

Empty October

October 18, 2014

This is the first October that I have not had any of my children home. Ever.

Through school they always enjoyed a fortnight’s mid term break. Which I enjoyed more. For a long time we used to go to the beach then; October being the best time of year on the East African coast. Not too hot. But hot enough.

I didn’t imagine that last October would be the last halfterm that Hat would be home; she came for just 12 days to the little house we’d been lent on a mango farm. I was fragile. She was brave. Life was fraught. We walked a lot. We visited the Sokoke forest together and  giggled naughtily behind our guide’s back, she wrote a story about it afterwards. We swam. We watched telly too late curled together on a sofa, the cat stretched out beside us. We saw a huge cobra work its way beneath fallen leaves and called the dogs off for fear somebody would get nipped. A palm frond fell on my head and Hattie worried fretfully all night. I told her it might just knock some sense into me.

It was a brittle, betweentimes two weeks. I don’t miss that period in my life. But I do miss her.

This October Hat is going to France, to improve her speaking in preparation of final school exams next summer. She will be with another mother. Annette. We have corresponded often, Annette and I, with the help of Babelfish and Google translate, and she has told me that she will take Hat to shop in markets, visit castles, she will make pastry with her. She sounds warm. And I can hear ready laughter in her words. She signs off bisoux Annette.

And that, I tell myself sternly, is all that counts; that Hat feel at home even when she isn’t.

Hat

When Anger is Good

October 16, 2014

Today I feel angry. I stomp around on my walk and kick things and shout and scream at the dogs to keep up and stop racing off until I am nearly hoarse.

I feel angry because I feel trapped. Because Ant is unhappy. Because I am so far away. Because none of this was our bloody choice. When we left the Outpost, a move that was considered with care and deliberated over for months and months, it was to assume management of the Family Business.

We had, from our dusty Outpost dislocation, dreamed and planned and plotted as to how we’d turn the whole thing around, pick it up, dust it off, knock it into profitable shape. We dreamed of creating a home in a place that had been familiar to our children since they were born. We imagined all kinds of enterprises we could introduce: like jam.

But the cynics were right: never do Business with Family.

And therein lies the catalyst that prompted a chapter of unspeakable unhappiness for my little team. The medium that precipitated an avalanche of chaos. Five homes, four jobs, three countries, two years. We’re not there yet: this isn’t ideal; I’m still turning the pages of an unfinished chapter, hoping for a happy ending.

See when we made our choice, we took all the information and we carefully laid it out and dissected it. We drew up spreadsheets to make sure we could pay bills, we talked to our children. We imagined a future. But choices are just the decisions we make as individuals. They’re flakey and insubstantial. Unless we have firm control over extrinstic influences. And we, it turned out, had no control.

So it went horribly, unhappily, irreparably wrong.

Most of the time I can control the anger, swallow the ugly taste of bile-bitterness. Most of the time. But this week I cannot. This week my husband is sadder than usual; his natural joie de vivre, his self esteem, his positivity have taken a brutal hammering because of all of this. He is no longer whole. He would be if we’d stayed put. And if we’d stayed put, in the secure oblivion of the Outpost, my little business would not have been railroaded and I would be busily preparing for Christmas markets.  My children would have had rooms of their own in a stable home for more than a single holiday at a time. And instead of spending the last year flailing and grappling to settle, again, I’d have had the time and the wherewithal and the emotional capacity to support my mum better – she has been in the clutches of another horrible Depression that is almost a year old.

Let It Go people say. Move ON. And that is absolutely the right thing to do.  But how can I when the fallout of that single bad decision continues to manifest toxically in our lives?

Until we have found our place again, until we are truly settled, until my husband has recovered some semblance of the person he was, until I am energetically engaged in my own enterprises again, until I feel able to support those I love with the commitment they deserve, I can’t move on.

And perhaps in the meantime the anger sustains me. Mum always advocated a little energetic red-hot anger was a million times better than a lot of enervated Blue.

I shall continue to kick and scream and spit vitriol from time to time . Perhaps it will prompt me to make better choices .

Man-eaters

October 13, 2014

‘Will I be eaten by a lion?’ I ask the ranger on the gate.

He stops writing in his register, a big book daubed with dirty fingerprints, biro poised.

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‘Will I?’ I persist, ‘I’ve heard that three people have been eaten here recently’.

After a pause, he snorts, ‘that’s not true’.

Rumour has it … I persist … ‘no’, he asserts emphatically, ‘nobody has been eaten in this park’.

I grew up in man-eating country. Big maned, big teethed, long clawed man-eaters. Of the carnivorously feline kind as opposed to the sort that prey on other people’s husbands. I was raised on thrilling bedtime tales of the demise of Captain Charles Ryall who, during the building of the East African Railway, was plucked from his bed one night when one of the lions who’d been busily picking off the Indian coolies working on the line which ran through what became our farm, managed to slide Ryall’s carriage door open and, standing on the stomach of the terrified Italian in the bottom bunk, dragged him from the top. His scant remains were found the next morning. I demanded my mother repeat that story night after night, partly for the electric thrill which it sent down my spine so that the hairs on the back of my neck prickled, but mostly for the delicious expression on my little brother’s face: blanched with fear.

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As cattle ranchers, lions were a perpetual occupational menace: my father was frequently obliged to spend the night curled uncomfortably into the cab of his pickup, rifle across his knee, coffee at his side, cigarette lit, waiting to see if he could put an end to the herd-executing-exercise that a pride had embarked upon. Dad didn’t enjoy lion hunts: he didn’t like killing anything. But he didn’t like not being able to pay his bills either. I listened to him grumble as he pulled a rare sweater on, gather up his cartridge belt and collect his thermos of coffee and the bar of chocolate Mum would have set aside and I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about: to stay up all night and eat Dairy Milk would have been infinitely more exciting than cocoa and a bedtime story at home with your little brother. Even when that story did conjure up big cats with big teeth that made your younger siblings eyes grow wide with fear.

But age has delivered that inevitable sense of one’s own mortality, and tempered my juvenile frisson at stories about the fate of the likes of Ryall; the proximity of man-eaters is less thrilling now. I’m relieved to hear that the lions in the Ruaha have not developed a penchant for human flesh.

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We are here, Ant and I, for a two day escape from the cold, corporate world we usually inhabit, where Health and Safety reign supreme, Big Brother snatching away the last vestiges of Common Sense. We are here to enjoy the sun and throw caution to the wind (except that I will sleep with my tent firmly zipped up … and a campfire burning all night, I tell Ant, … and, I add anxiously, I’ll feel better if you park the car very, very close …)

The Ruaha is Tanzania’s biggest national park. Gazetted in 1910 by the Germans as Saba Game Reserve, it became the Rungwa in 1946 when the Brits were in charge and thirty years later was renamed the Ruaha, after the Great Ruaha River which forms an eastern boundary; Ruvaha in the local Hehe dialect means ‘river’. The park is over 20 000 square kilometers and it feels it. It’s a vast sprawling space where views are long and lean and spare, unfettered by much except distant hills which carve soft curves into the horizon and baobabs which punctuate sharp profiles against evening light.

It’s October and the park is toastdry. The air is veiled with dust so that those far away hills look even further, ethereal, as ghosts, their outlines smudged. When the rain comes, in December, it will rinse the atmosphere clear and the hills will draw closer overnight, their shapes suddenly more sharply drawn. And when the rain falls, the Great Ruaha will become Great again, will fill to the brim its banks, which seem implausibly wide now, a quarter of a kilometer sporting just a trickle. The other arteries that sustain the park – the Jongomero, the Mdonya, the Mwagusi – will all rise and swell and the game will fatten and the savannah will green.

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But such fecundity is two months away still. Now the grass is baked to the colour of shortbread, the heat feels as if somebody left an oven door open, the shade is thin and animals hunker low and still.

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The combretum seeds are as aged, faded confetti caught in desiccated boughs, the pepper seed pods are as hollow and as brittle and as light as pingpong balls and leaves silvered with thirst skitter from treetops with the faintest breeze, fragile and winged as butterflies.

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We set up camp on the Mdonya Sand River, last vestiges of water are long gone, the pits that mark where animals have dug to drink are old and caving in; the riverbed pockmarked with the tread of game. By evening the sand is cool enough to walk across. Come noon it will scald my soles. We light a fire and watch the dark settle like a blanket which stars puncture with bright holes of light. The hiss of daytime cicadas gives way to the soft call of a Scops Owl and the mournful cry of a Thick-knee.

And then I hear a lion.

An unmistakable grunt.

Did you hear that? Asks Ant. As if he needs to.

I am sitting bolt upright, wielding my small supermarket bought torch in an arc all around me.

How far away do you think that is, I whisper.

Ooooh. I don’t know? 500 meters.

I don’t know much about lion. But I do know that their voices carry.

Rubbish, I squeak.

Quite how far they carry I’m not sure.

I drag my camp chair closer to the fire.

We hear the lion intermittently until just before dawn. From different directions, but never closer. Ant complains the next morning that I behave like a meercat all night, popping up and down to peer into the gloom, amply lit now with a huge Terry’sChocolateOrange moon which hangs syrupy and melts with daybreak.

Our pre breakfast game drive takes us south of camp on cinnamonpowder tracks, beyond the kopjes which we can see from our tent, atop which we see mongoose and rock hyrax warming themselves in early sunshine, and onto the shrinking river where hippo populations look larger for the diminishing size of their watery homes. When the water gets very low they will lie in pools so thick you can see the rising give-away bubbles of fish beneath the soupy surface which are plucked neatly out by storks using the hippo’s backs as rafts. Crocodiles lie sunning themselves on sandspits or slide beneath the river’s shallow surface to stalk unsuspecting game that comes to slake its thirst; impala are jumpy and watchful, their shivering reflections amplify their drinking shapes.

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From the river we head west and into the heart of the miombo. This is Kudu country; Ruaha is famous for its large numbers of these graceful antelope with their enormous ears – their hearing must be incredible’, observes Ant quietly as we watch a herd dissolve as apparitions into the grey scrub, their backs chalkstriped. When I was a child my father always exhibited excitement at a kudu sighting; there were rarer where we lived and their uncommonness elevated spotting one to cause for celebration: ‘how much will you give me if a see a leopard dad’, we’d ask. A shilling he’d say. And a kudu; if I see a Greater Kudu? Ooooh, at least another shilling Dad would laugh. We only ever spied them singly and they slipped shyly and swiftly from sight. Here they live in much bigger numbers so if you miss the first in the herd, you’ll catch the tail ender in your lens as she momentarily stops to gaze at you before vanishing into the bush.

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We are plagued by tsetse fly in the miombo, they dart through open windows, attracted to our dark car and its motion. I swat futilely with my map and my hat but tsetse are armour plated, even a firm slap does little more than daze them briefly, they shake their heads and recover their composure and are soon buzzing madly and nipping viciously again; they’ll bite through clothes and leave you with huge itchy welts. ‘You have to roll them under your fingers’, says Ant, that’s the only way to kill them. Roll them? I have to catch the buggers first.

My dad said if there were tsetse about there were sure to be lion close by.
I remember the tsetse in camp.

Which we return to when the heat is too punishing to do anything other than follow the game’s example and lie inert in the shadows cast by the acacia behind our tent. Even reading a book is too arduous a task. I doze and listen to the hum of the bush and every now again, I sit myself in the washing up basin and pour mugs full of tepid water over my head and then I stand, arms out, like a cormorant spreadwinged, to dry in the breeze which feels briefly cooler than it really is against damp skin. By 2 in the afternoon it is 40 degrees in the scant shade.

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By five though, energized and rehydrated with a mug of smoky tea, it is cool enough (cool being relative; the mercury has dropped from 40 to 33) for an evening drive up the Ruaha to where it meets the Mwagusi in a confluence that in the wet will surge and in the dry is a giant sandpit where I watch elephants carefully kicking up small clods of green grass where water once rushed, and coiling it in their trunks to eat. It must be as the most delicate appetizer: a plateful of tender young asparagus spears, sweet with butter. Like the baobab bark which they strip for the pithy moisture beneath. Baobab all over the park at this time year wear elephant wrought wounds, but they will heal and their trunks, polished over centuries as if the gods had wielded a giant can of Mr Sheen, will take on a slightly different more sinewy shape. On account of that same captured moisture, these giant Tolkeinesque upsidedown trees host, I am astonished to note, thousands of citrine-spotted leopard orchids.

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We drive through woodland of thron trees which stand as a forest of parasols, shielding dozens of species collectively from the sun: impala and fatbottomed zebra, giraffe and buffalo, baboons and elephants all hunker lethargically and in proximity of one another, waiting for the blessed, brief cool of evening to descend. Anticipation hangs in the air, a dead, hot weight. My skin feels sinfully scorched and my eyes gritdry, I squirt Natural Tears from Boots the chemist into each one and they run down my face and leave two tracks on dust dredged cheeks.

When the sun begins to slide it does so in earnest, as if in a hurry to escape. We hasten back to camp before dark envelopes us. Lengthening shadows tiger-stripe the road and just before it tips over the western edge, the sun is snagged, ever so briefly, in the branches of a baobab. I catch the moment on camera.

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I hear the lion again that night. And a hyena’s whoopwhoop. But the tent is zipped, the car is close by and the campfire will smoulder until dawn.

Are lions scared of fire I ask Ant. But he is already fast asleep.

When I get home the next evening, I empty the contents of my bag into the washing machine, I strip bedrolls and fill the laundry basket for a second load, I empty the cool box of a six pack of warm beer which I restore to the fridge, I download the photographs from my camera.

And into Google I type a question, ‘from how far away can you hear a lion?’.

Five miles says Google.

Five Miles.

Not near. But near enough.


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