Counting Years, Counting Blessings

June 24, 2020

 

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Yesterday it was 35 years since my father died.

I do the math.

He has been gone from my brother’s life for almost twice as long as he was in it; nearly three times as many years as he was there for my little sister. 

In tragedy you can be lucky: I was 19. I got more of him than my siblings. 

Mum said, count your blessings. That was mine: a few more stolen years.

He was driving home from a weekend away. Mum was in England, encouraged by my grandfather, on another mission to chase down cures for an incurable illness.   

I heard on my lunch break on a Monday morning. A phone call as I manned the office reception. 

“Your dad’s had a car accident … I’m so sorry.”

What did I do – when I was told – what did I do?  Cry out? Crumple? Stand stock still and silent?

I do not remember. I remember being bundled into a cab. Being bundled north to my aunt’s on a train. Being met by her and two small cousins, too small to understand or empathise. Two cousins who wanted their supper.

I sat curled in the window seat of my aunt’s kitchen as she gave it to them, and I watched my mother drive in. She didn’t know. Not yet. 35 years ago the absence of technology protected us a little from the worst of bad news: buffered us until we could be told by somebody who loved us in some safe place.  Like a Northamptonshire kitchen when you are surrounded by your sisters, as your eldest child holds you and tries not to cry: “Dad’s dead.”

He was 47. 

When my children’s father approached the same age, I was full of trepidation. Could cruel history repeat itself.  The kind counsellor I am compelled to talk to – because my dad died, ‘twenty years ago’ I explain and feel ridiculous – says it’s normal: to worry about such markers. As they loom.

But he is well past that milestone now. My children’s father. And they far older than my siblings were that devastating day.

We returned home to pack up, slipped through a silky summer night back to Africa and arrived on a dawn that was unashamedly beautiful. You learn fast in the face of grief that the world keeps turning. That the sun keeps rising splendidly. That it sets just as magnificently as it did yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. 

On dad’s desk lies an envelope, ripped open, in it the Father’s Day card I’d sent. It arrived days before his death. 

Count your blessings, Mum said. I did. I do. I knew him. My children know their own father.

 

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Sending you the World …

May 6, 2020

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Sending you big skies and space and hoping you are safe and staying sane in Lockdown everywhere. From West Kilimanjaro, looking across the sway of a saddle towards Longido, Namanaga and Ambosli on the border with Kenya.   We sat here with a flask of tea yesterday and I marvelled at that huge spilling view and wondered again at Mother Nature’s bounty and the fact, even as we trample all over her, so she retains the power to kick back.

Another Life, Another Minute

April 28, 2020

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I imagine London falling quiet, quieter, today at eleven for a minute. A minute to remember the fallen of the NHS. Today there would be been almost nobody on the streets, in cabs, on trains, today most of those who stood, hands clasps before them, heads bowed in reverence and thought, would have been in their own homes. Quietly at home.

Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.

I remember another silent minute. I was walking west from Green Park when it fell, this time to honour the lives of those taken during the bombings of the London Underground. My eldest daughter, just twelve then, walked with me, a brilliant summer’s day. Suddenly the city fell pin drop silent. All the black cabs slowed to a stop and stifled the purr of their engines, staff from the hotels that line Piccadilly came out onto the pavement and gathered, an army of mourners in chef’s whites.

There was something so eerie, so beautiful, so profoundly moving in that single minute: that rocking rolling roiling riotous London could be stilled, hushed, an invisible fingers upon unseen lips.

Shhhhhhhh; remember them.

I hope those who sought solace today found some small measure in those still, silent, sixty seconds.

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New Mountain Views

April 23, 2020
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We are steeped and soggy on the farm; the rain keeps falling. The cat comes into our bedroom in the small hours, loudly announcing his arrival and complaining bitterly that he is cold and wet and hungry. He won’t shut up until I towel him dry and he begins to purr; his purr is engine like, loud and growing and grumbling. Sometimes I hold him up and press his body to my ear so that my head rings with the sound of his contentment. As I write, he is lying curled by the fireplace where last nights embers still glow faintly. Jipe is curled beneath my desk and I can still hear the drip drip outside.

A friend asks if I can take a photo of the mountain. I would if I could see it – it’s had its head in the clouds for days, a dark grey crown of them. He says he has heard the snow is spectacular. That’s because the world is cooler. And quiet. No planes overhead to melt icecaps away.  My son arrived from London once, his flight late, he explained the delay: “a plane full of climbers; the pilot wanted to show the mountain off, we flew around it twice!”  Small bitter irony: admiring a view that their circumnavigation was eroding before their climb began. Climbers often disembark from those flights bearing new rucksacks and out-of-the-box boots. I imagine sore toes days later. Weeks afterwards their kit is on sale in the second hand markets.

So as the world is poised, populations poisoned, in a what next pose, vistas are clearing, as if an unseen palm has wiped across a fogged up windscreen: the Himalayas are seen for the first time in thirty years. I tell my sister. She laughs.

“And the Eiffel Tower from Nairobi National Park”

Such are the powers of Photoshop and too much time on people’s hands as they languish in lockdown.

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When the World stopped Spinning

April 19, 2020

 

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I should have been chronicling all this. All of it. I’ll regret it.

My grandfather survived the 1918 flu. I once read his diary, penned in green ink. I was interested. But not interested enough; I didn’t keep it.  The diary. I regret that too.

If I pin this to the ether then it’s there. There. Safely tacked to an intangible notice board. Glued permanently to ethereal. 

When it first slid over our horizons, this pandemic, I wasn’t alone in not noticing. Not noticing enough.  Again: not enough. My HK based editor asked me to do piece on the lungs, consult a respiratory expert she said, ‘ask them about this pandemic.’  It wasn’t one yet. A pandemic. I asked why. Because the WHO hadn’t called it one. It needs to fit certain criteria. It fit those long before it was lethally baptised; it had slunk across borders, onto planes, into homes and lives long before the WHO copped it’s global grasp. Invisible fingers around the world’s throat. Strangling the life out of it.

Almost four weeks after lockdown came in England, the rest of the world has folded. Here? Here where I live? Not much. Not enough. Pray the illness away our government advocates even as Covid19 gallops in.  I think of horses and apocalypses.  In town, most shops have erected little wash stands outside, fashioned of buckets with taps.  Some people wear masks. Especially the bodaboda riders – the motorbike taxis – facemasks but no helmets, so I must laugh at the irony. Waiters in empty restaurants wear surgical gloves. So do supermarket attendants.

I hunker down at home. This is easy for me. Self isolating. I perfected it back in Outpost days. All that’s different now is that that the rest of the world has joined me. It’s easier to feel less lonely when you know you’re not the only one who’s alone. No FMO when nobody’s socialising because we are all being coldly socially distant. Unless we’re drinking virtually en masse on Zoom. Or enjoying a Sunday afternoon quiz en famille: 14 faces, four teams, five countries.

I fret about my children. All in England. One in hard-hit London. Their youth sustains them, they have such energy and imagination. They write, draw, learn new things. They are too young to hear, really hear, what I have to say: that this thing is, really is, unprecedented. If ever a word was overused it was that one: unprecedented. 

I worry they are able to shop. I worry they remember to wash their hands, twenty seconds, sing happy birthday twice, I worry they will keep jobs. Be able to pay rents.  The world has tilted on its axis and we all need to try to keep our balance. Not eat too much. Not worry too much. Walk enough. Drink less. 

You could be almost anywhere in the world and it would feel the same. As if the world had stopped turning. When I was little we owned one of those blowup globes. I used to like spinning it and then, with eyes closed, arresting the spin by placing a finger blindly to it, to see where I landed. To stop the spinning and be anywhere. That’s what this feels like now: the world has stopped going round and I could be anywhere. Nowhere. Here. There. Who knows. Who cares?

My WhatsApp squeaks and bleeps with Corona memes: silly memes, funny memes, clever memes, memes that make me cry. Captain Tom has marched all the way up iTunes and raised more than 23 million quid in the process. Key workers and especially the NHS are the new Superheros, we clap them at 7pm GMT every Thursday, even me, even on my lonely mountain where nobody but bushbabies and owls can hear my applause. Where a hyena may whoop whoop in reply. Loo paper is viewed in new light. Everybody wants to know what to do with tinned chickpeas. My skies are quiet and still, a canvas of blue naked of their usual scribble as ribbons of jet stream untangled reassuringly upon them. 

I’m waiting. Watching and waiting. To see what the world will do next.

To witness the messages that will be writ across new skies.

Making Memories about Forgetting

January 15, 2020

Hat says that holidays are for making memories.

Taking pictures. Making memories. Remembering.

But when you squeeze the people you love most in the world into a house for a month, there are too many memories to make and not enough space to paste them all.  Memories of meals and walks and sunrises and swims.  My memories come home in a head that’s packed with what we did, what I didn’t do, what I still must do and I want to unpack them gently to turn them about on my palm and admire them so that I might wish up a day already gone. I want to unpack them carefully so they don’t get lost.

I care less about how I unpack my suitcase. I have lived like a nomad for six months. A gypsy. Trailing a case from house to home, from job to job. There are things rattling around in the bottom of my case that haven’t seen the light of day for weeks. That’s where that is!  Laces. A comb. My yellow fever card.

And sand. There is always a soft dredging of sand in the bottom of bags after those beach holidays. Like sugar. Or the silver trail of salt that tears leave on sunburned cheeks.  Almost indiscernible except beneath my finger tips.

But as we are building memories, catching them like fireflies in jars to hold to the light later to brighten a duller day, Mum is losing hers.

I wonder now, too late, when Mum had her stroke four years ago, was it easier to attribute all the losses to the infarct described in her left occipital lobe. Was that more palatable, less frightening? Did we kid ourselves: if she has lost the memory to read, the memory for names, if the clot that set up the road block in her brains that won’t allow her to assemble letters on a page so that they make words, does that mean that the loss is halted . That that was that and it wouldn’t get any worse?

But we were wrong. Her memories slide like entrails now, too easily, too fast, slippery so that she clutches in vain, her whole life is being mined. Excavated. Dismembered. Disemboweled.  What will be left?

The small ebb and flow of what was remembered, what is forgotten, is now a galloping tide and it’s going out, far, far out where she cannot see any of it anymore and where we can’t even recognize the outlines that she is trying to articulate.

A few years ago she could recall her grandchildren’s names with a prompt.  Begins with a K, we’d say, ‘oh Katie!’, she’d smile. And we’d be as relieved as she.

Now she does not know who belongs to who, which daughters are mine, which my sister’s. Who’s grownup son is whose.

Who are those young men?

Your grandsons, Ma, we say. As bravely as we can.

One evening, as I sit with her on the verandah, as night trips in softly dropping a hem of inky blue as she comes, I can hear a kind sea, kissing the beach with the soft suck of surf of sand, I imagine ghost crabs, rendered spectres under a waxy moon, scuttling along the tideline, I pour Mum a cold beer. Like I have done many nights for years. Like I have done every night for six weeks.

She takes a long sip and smiles, ‘When did we first meet?’ she asks.

And I know that the hard bit is only just beginning.

And I think what sad, sad irony that one of my memories this Christmas will be of Mum losing the last sharp shards of her own.

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Onwards. Minding my Step.

September 25, 2019

 

I finished Kate Spicer’s Lost Dog late last night and cried soft snotty sobs into my pillow.  When I told Hat I was going to read it she asked, ‘you sure that’s a good idea, Mum?’   But it was. It was because it reminded me that the madness that descends when you lose a precious four legged companion is quite normal.

I keep walking. Just Jip and me now. Miles and miles each evening beneath two mountains which blush at the setting sun. Sometimes when I walk, I walk past ranks of sorghum which sway in the breeze and whose seedy heads are rattled when clouds of quelea take flight which makes me jump. And then freeze stock still in case it’s a buffalo.

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There are buffalo on the farm. I see evidence of them. Their tread. Their dung. Sometimes still too moist for my liking. I stop still then too and have a careful look around. And once, just beyond my garden. Five of them.  They gazed in my direction beyond a bed of Strelitzia as I stood and stared squarely back from safe confines of the sitting room.

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And elephant.  Their tread is less light than the buffalo. They have been on the rampage in the avocado trees and left tangled, torn branches sliced and felled.  One evening as I let Jip out for a last pee she went nuts – boldly barking the odds from the relative safety of the kitchen step and then I heard the unmistakable irritated blow of an elephant as if to say, ‘oh for God’s sake, do shut up!’. Ant did not believe me. But I heard the eles that night, near the veggie patch. And what’s more, Jip heard them too. Definitely.  The elephant left the veggie garden alone where porcupine did not, a whole family ripped through the maize crop and scoffed the lot. What a bunch of pricks, I said to Ant. He didn’t think it was as funny as I did.

I live on a chicken farm. Sometimes we get the old overflow. Yesterday I got ten, ready for the deep freeze. TEN. They arrived in a fertilizer sack on the back of a motor bike and I had to madly cull contents of freezer before they all got too warm. Life on a chicken farm has solved one of life’s great riddles. Ant told me. Chicken and egg? The chicken definitely came first he announced months ago. How do you know I asked? ‘Several hundred arrived on the farm in a lorry, no sign of any eggs’.

Almost time for a walk. Jip is beginning to stalk me lest I have forgotten. She follows me into the loo. I will pull on a hat, put on my trainers and we will walk.

And I will not look back.

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Long day, long walk

 

 

 

Running Away, Feeling Small

September 16, 2019

 

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The Ruaha is spilling and swallow-you-whole enormous. When we fly in, we float up the river’s throat like an eagle riding a thermal and I-spy elephants drinking. And then it’s to camp and to work as the heat sinks into my bones and makes me move too slowly. That and lunch.

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This is the funny thing about the work I do. Like living on a virtual magic carpet; I write for a paper in Hong Kong from my African mountainside office with a Labrador curled at my feet using one foot as a pillow. Or I write from a canvassed verandah above a sandy korongo where the occasional wheeze of a breeze tempts you briefly to believe it really is cooling down. It’s not. The rumble I hear is not thunder, it’s the soft pachydermic purr of a bull elephant as he ambles through camp. How silent a foot fall for so big an animal.
We are a flurry of activity – this little media crew – we bundle into and out of landcruisers with camera equipment and hats and water bottles and breakfast and I am astonished – at 6am – at the bracing chill of pre dawn. When the sun clambers languorously into a sky the colour of duck-down, it’s hard to believe you’ll be willing it back down by eleven.
I interview Masai herdsmen, scientists, a conservationist (whose encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife delivers drama to even the tiniest ecosystem, the smallest creature) and a poacher turned safari scout. I think that’s the best bit about what I do: when I call myself ‘writer’ I am afforded license to ask questions I mightn’t otherwise.

 

We spend hours on game drives, catching wildlife, distilling a huge sprawling wild space into the scope of a lens; the leopard we see is fleet of foot; a blur through the grass. The nine lionesses are so fullfat of antelope that they barely stir but lie flat on their backs playing dead.

 

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But the chalk striped kudu mill amongst the combretum calm as can be and delicately pluck off the plant’s fire engine red tooth brush bristled flowers whcih they nibble daintily and I marvel at their contentment.

 

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That ought to be my takeaway: find inner peace and steady a while. That and remember how small you really are.

 

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Just a Dog

September 3, 2019

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I keep telling myself, sternly, ‘she was just a dog.’

But even dogs leave gaps. And in my often lonely life, where company is rare and precious, gaps gouged let an icy draught in.

I got Pili 9 years ago when life was at its loneliest in the Outpost; Hat had just gone to Real School.

I took a plane to the north, hitched a lift across the border, scooped up an Andrex puppy and got a lift all the way home again; 1 000 kilometers with a yellow bundle that gravitated between back seat and my lap.  She made me laugh the moment she arrived.  She whined at the foot of my high bed until I scooped her quietly up so she could lie softly, triumphantly, at on top of the duvet. Six months said my husband, ‘she can sleep there for six months’. We made it to nine before he noticed.

She tormented the cats. Adored water. Watched television.

From the Outpost we did thousands and thousands and thousands of miles together. In the four years when our lives slid sideways and I found myself lurching from house to house, home to home, one place to another, she was my constant; she was more constant, more present than my husband who often found himself in another part of the world to me for the show must go on and bills must be paid.

We walked on beaches (so that she bore a perennial habit to hunt for something, anything, even in a puddle, lest a fish or an urchin or an eel lie within muddy shallows; her two front paws paddling and her tail wagging). We walked through bush thick with the rattle of leaves so that I only knew where she was for the clatter of undergrowth or the cackle of indignant guinea fowl that she sent skywards. And then later, I’d sip a beer and pick fat ticks from her yellow coat.

She was the best traveller, in cars, in planes. She lay curled obediently beside me, a cat, another dog, a case, a crate of chickens and waited until we got there. Wherever there was. Sleeping, her snoring was occasionally interrupted by a flock of francolin only she could see but which I knew she was chasing for the twitch of her feet.

And then, quite suddenly, and before her time, she got sick and she died.

I got back from the vets and wept as I picked her golden hairs from the seat of my car where she had moulted in that short last journey.

Then I whistled up Jip and walked for miles beneath the mountain. Sometime Jip looked back, her black brow furrowed in puzzlement, ‘Where’s Pil?’ and sometimes, because I forgot about the recent gap, I whistled and called. ‘Come dogs!’ remembering too late, there is only one.  I watch the horizon for a bit, the dust, the sky, if I watch and wait long enough, can I will her into view?

Just a dog?

Just a mum?

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A Night of Wings

May 9, 2019

 

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We think the rain isn’t coming. We say, ‘already May – and no rain; it’s not coming’.

It’s too cool for rain now, we say. As it can be too cold for snow in the north, so it can be too cool for rain; in Africa rain follows crushing heat. Always.

But then, just as we thought we’d had the briefest longest rains ever  –  a mere inch (in Africa we have Long Rains – April – and Short Rains – November- and sometimes Grass rains, a little bit of rain before one or the other), the rain came.

 

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It began to fall softly on Sunday night and as it fell, the insect world erupted and arose, clouds of flying ants – winged termites – took to the air. Clouds. So that they slipped through every window left a crack ajar, so that they seemed to appear from every hole in the wall as they emerged and took to the skies in brief fluttering ecstasy; a mating dance, a nuptial flight. Driven by the madness of the briefest phase of a life cycle and drawn to the light so that every lamp hummed with wings as gossamer thin before they burned to death. They drove me to bed where I lay in the dark; even the glow cast by my kindle was enough to attract them. I batted them away until I couldn’t bear it anymore.

 

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In the morning, dead and dying heaps of them lay beneath every bulb, like ballerinas who’d collapsed to the stage, still wings as netted tutus curled beneath them. Birds swarmed in and out and picked off the mounds that had fallen by windows and the dogs grazed on the rest – sausage flies we called them as children. Some of our friends boasted that they ate them fried, like cashews.

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Asina in the kitchen observes my fat Labradors snuffling against walls to lick up the last of the night’s fall, ‘they’ll get fat’, I say and laugh, she raises her eyebrows, ‘they’ll go deaf’, she says, that’s what eating those things does to you, ‘your ears don’t work’.

Seems she was right, my dogs ignore every whistle and call on a walk later as I plod through mud and they chase partridge through puddles left by the night’s full two inches fall.

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