Istanbul. The airport a hub – a conduit, funneling people of every creed and colour to all four corners of the world. Mixed tongues are white noise here; I can recognize some languages by the lilt, the odd word, but many are too alien. A fellow passenger wonders at the tighter security; ‘I don’t remember having to go through security between connections last time’, he observes, ‘are you sure you’re right’. I point to the sign which clearly indicates, ‘international transfers’ and I remind him that Turkey has been placed upon the map and dragged into the news for reasons that might well put a noose around the security in this huge airport. I must pull off every single one of the dozen silver bangles on my wrist before I walk through the machine; at home I always make a show of trying to tug them off and explain that they are tighter in the heat and please can’t they let me off and – depending on their mood – the airport staff either laugh and wave me through or snort and roll their eyes and let me through anyway. I daren’t try that here. I wonder, as I always wonder when I travel, what presses people to move such vast distances. I thought nobody had any money anymore? Is long distance travel a luxury. Or a necessity? A bit of both for me this time. Is it necessary that I see my children? Or am I just lucky enough to luxuriate in their presence for a few precious days? Where are all these people going? Why? Business? Pleasure? Love? Life? Death? I have flown expectant with child, heavy and round, and nervous to drag a suitcase from a carousel in case my waters broke. I have flown thin and haggard with a daughter that needed urgent medical attention in London. I have flown home brimming with tears and sadness – on the news of my dad’s death. I fell into deep slumber on the flight, exhausted by days of too little sleep, too much crying, and woke over Africa as the early light stole into the cabin. For the briefest moment I was elated at homecoming. Until I remembered why. I have flown as a new bride. On the cusp of adventure as I feigned grownupness and confidence. I’m in ubiquitous Costas as I write. Harshly lit so that the fluorescent light washes complexions of the tans we may have collected as souvenirs. Not me, of course, tans are old hat when you’ve always lived in the sun. SPF 50 for me. A slightly laughable case of closing the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. When I was eighteen and travelling between home and college, I flew back to januarynipped London the colour of toast and my skin crumbed on the way so that even as I arrived I was miserably paler than when I left home. I am in toohot, washed of colour Costas for tea. Because I’m English. Or masquerading as English for the purposes of travel. That’s what it says in my passport; it’s what I must be. Despite what my taxi driver in Dar es Salaam said as I transited through a city breathing heavily and hotly close to rain. The parking attendant in the domestic terminal – for I had bounced through the sky from my highland home to this sultry, seaside capital in a tiny plane, as an empty Coke can caught in a wind so that we were buffeted and tipped and I, an exceedingly nervous flyer, was white knuckled with fear and focusing on the podcast I had dug into my ears at volume 10 – gave my driver lip, I interjected in Swahili, please don’t hold us up, I have a plane to catch from international. Laughter all round. They weren’t expecting that: impatient Kiswahili, ‘Really mama, you are an African!’ Memoirist Alexandra Fuller doesn’t believe we can be African if we have white skins, if our heritage is muddied and smudged by the movements of itinerant grandparents. But if I’m not African, if I’m not African when my family has called this continent Home for 111 years, what am I? English today. It is as an unfamiliar and slightly ill-fitting overcoat that I wriggle into from time to time. I know it doesn’t suit me. Drinking tea because I’m masquerading as English and because it seems the decorous thing to do at 10 in the morning. Ten in the morning where though? Where I’m headed – it’s ten in the morning in England. Where I am as I sit to write and sip my tea, it’s past noon – at home it’s after lunch – but it seems impolite to ask for a beer. Reckless. I wonder – by others’ orders – what time it is for them. Eclectic tastes and scrambled time zones – that’s the essence of airports isn’t it: lives suspended, between one world and the next. A bubble. My world is greenfieldtea and mist and dogs and my darling, darling Ant and filling hours the fullest I can with whatever I can find to hand. For the next two weeks, time will be tight. I won’t be able to amble through its wide corridors awash with silence and space so that I can hear myself think. I already anticipate the hurly-burly of the next fortnight with some trepidation. Except for the weekend with my children. That will be as a pillow beneath my head. I have rented a cottage so that I can scoop them up, cook them generous meals, listen to their stories, hear their laughter, reassure, hug, hold, kiss, scold. And there, in the cocoon that we will carve of a stranger’s home for a precious few days, we can be whoever we feel we really are.
Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description.
William Styron, Darkness Visible
Mum has been mired in this episode of depression for fourteen months.
I nag her with Skyped texts.
Have not seen you today. hope you are ok?
Or I issue stern warnings:
If you are idle, be not solitary;
If you are solitary, be not idle.
you can have one or the other ma. not both
She describes feeling fearful and I try to calm her by instructing her how to breath deep and slow, to stop her heart from beating so quickly, butterfly wings trapped in a chest , to bring back into line the rogue chemicals in her system that are exacerbating such disabling panic.
I copy pages of text from sites that may help and paste them into messages to her. I don’t know if they help. I don’t know how much of it she reads.
The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.
I try to discover new ways that she might learn to cope, I want to unearth an innovative, novel weapon in the arsenal she has deployed over the years in battling this demon Depression, but Google doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know: there is no silver bullet.
I type the same question into a dozen search engines ‘how to get get going out of a depression?’
And I get 222 000 000 hits.
Everybody has an opinion. But nobody has the answer.
Some of the suggestions are sound: walk, eat, sleep, breathe, read.
At any rate, during the few hours when the depressive state itself eased off long enough to permit the luxury of concentration, I had recently filled this vacuum with fairly extensive reading and I had absorbed many fascinating and troubling facts.
Some are facile and patronizing: “make yourself a fancy dinner, maybe invite somebody over; take a perfumed bubble bath; rent comedy videos.”
If only you could shoo a stubborn Black Dog from your door because you ate asparagus for supper, or smelt prettily of Lily of the Valley or watched 100 minutes of Friends?
If only it were that easy.
It has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.
Nothing that I say, nothing that I do will alleviate mum’s pain. I have learned this over time.
In the end I resort to Styron. And in his beautiful anguished words there is, oddly, comfort. I am reminded that though I, mercifully, cannot comprehend the measure of this horrid illness, it is enormous, nontheless. It is real and all the more awful for its intangibility.
Perhaps in understanding that, in endorsing Mum’s illess as appalling and all-consuming, that is the best I can do.
Perhaps it is all she needs me to do?
A week ago I returned from a four day writing gig in Dar es Salaam; the remit, to highlight areas of need for a large UK charity. I loved the work – I learned so much, I spoke to so many different people. I interviewed an albino woman, her albino child, a snowwhite baby boy, strapped to her back. I learned about her mothers’ fears to keep her safe in a country where albino body parts are prized in black magic and voodoo. I met newly successful entrepreneurs. I marveled at a man who volunteered in protecting his – and his community’s – environment. And then I came home and scribbled for days, submitting my commissioned case studies, articulating my reflections.
And I thought that for the horror, for the disappointment, for the poverty and the disease, Africa never fails to amaze me with her ability to unfurl her palm and reveal the brightest gems. That even in the godforsaken slum I describe below, I met hope in the volunteer and I met humour.
The valley is strewn with rubbish. Feet deep. I can smell it. Fetid and warm in temperatures that rise above 30 degrees.
It’s not bad yet though. Not as bad as it could be. When the rains come – as they will, in March and April when tropical storms sweep in and out and lash so that mud slides and corrugated iron roofs clatter with the downpour – the humidity will sweatily, steadily soar and the garbage will ease upwards and down the valley towards the single source of water that this community relies upon.
And flies will rise as steam.
I contemplate, as I walk and watch and witness conversations: there’s a lethal cocktail here, waiting for the shaker that the wet weather will be.
I don’t know what’s in these bags of rubbish, some have split open to reveal seeping innards – I’m not about to delve too deeply. I pick my way gingerly through the tip (in closed shoes:’ wear your trainers’, urged my partner on the gig, ‘not Birkenstocks’) as we make our way carefully down the incline towards the water. But I can imagine. I can imagine what’s in these bags. There are no recycling bins here. No safe, monitored, managed, tidy system of rubbish collection and disposal. No modern sanitation. There will be bags of rotting food. Bags of plastic bags, bags of newsprint that will be picked up by the wind and tossed as confetti to add to the sea of litter that swims the streets.
Bags of shit.
If you wonder why disease is rife in places like this you only need to picture the ‘dumpo’ – its Kiswahili name translates, literally, as Valley of Water. An appalling misnomer. It’s not the shaded glades and dappled brooks and streams that its name conjures. It’s a place where the earth has been gouged by erosion so that it sinks, where ramshackle buildings teeter precariously, their shallow foundations visible, like the roots of old men’s toolong teeth. Loosened. Accidents waiting to happen: like the structures that collapsed last year. Including two latrines, which toppled as rain fell, to be washed up the valley. Taking their toxic cargo with them.
Everything about this place seems precarious. Not just the houses. The proximity of water to waste. Life to death. Skinny kids, unshod, snotty nosed, yellow eyed, huddle to eavesdrop on conversations they don’t understand; they are intrigued by our hair. Our shoes. Healthy children in Africa – children whose skin shines glossily (the children here have lost their lustre) often scamper after palefaces and shout ‘mzungu, mzungu’. Not here. Here they can’t be bothered. Don’t have the energy. Here the air is oppressive with apathy and exhaustion.
I’m dying for a drink. I think of the cool box in the car, full to the brim with Coke and cold water. They need some Coke-Adds-Life here I think. They need water. I’ll wait to slake my thirst. Swigging from a bottle as I walk seems impossibly, unbearably, tauntingly, cruel. I must drink 2 litres, 3, maybe 4, in this enervating heat. These kids won’t be drinking enough. Their pee will be jaundiced too. And what they do drink won’t be Evian-safe. When they get sick, sicker, when their tummies begin to run they won’t have the reserves of fat, or fluid, to sustain them for long.
I think about that for a long time. I think about the thoughtless way I turn on a tap to wash my hands and run it as I lather my palms lavishly. I remember the local doctor’s words, ‘we tell them to wash their hands, the mothers, we tell them to wash their children’s hands’. How? How will they do that when there is no tap? How will a child remember – as we have urged our own children since they were little – to wash their hands after they’ve been to the loo. How would our children remember if there was no tap in evidence to nudge a reminder? How will a safe habit develop? The doctor says, ‘these mothers, they are ignorant’. But prompts – like taps beside a loo that always obligingly deliver water – are a luxury. Would we remember – would we bother – to wash our hands, rinse our fruit clean, wipe our children’s faces down if the water wasn’t there. If we had to clamber over hundreds, thousands, of kilos of suppurating bags of rubbish to get it to it. And if when we got to it, it was foul and spoiled anyway.
I know I wouldn’t go to the trouble.
At the bottom of the valley, where the waste and the water reach out to touch one another so that you just know there is a noxious leaching, you don’t need the water to be analyzed to tell you that, and I know I wouldn’t touch it in a million years, there is a young boy scooping handfuls to drink from a pond dammed with a truck tyre. His palm is cupped, his head thrown back. He drinks thirstily. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t wash his hands before he put them to his mouth; the water’s filthy. I can discern a smell. In the rains it will rise to a stench.
It dribbles from a spring and the further it gets from the source, the shallower it becomes. In the dry weather, now, people dig to get water. A gaggle of girls have mined a basin in the sand and are doing their laundry. Bubbles of detergent rise and pop. A sick man is supported up the valley, his feet only just touch the ground, his arms are slung over the shoulders of a young girl and her father, he’s too weak to bear his own weight. The sick man’s flip-flopped feet trail in the water all the way down the thinning stream.
I wonder where they’ll take him – when they’ve dragged him up the steep sided valley and to the main road. They’ll flag down a boda-boda, a motorbike, they’ll grapple about for some change to cover the fare. The nearest hospital to this community is a Mother and Baby unit. Not much use if you’re a man with malaria or cholera or dysentery or a bit of everything. But they’ll shore him up for a few hours. Until he stabilizes, when he’ll be ferried across to the district hospital.
Or until he dies.
The doctor tells me, ‘sometimes the mothers leave it too late’. They do. Small bodies desiccate with speed, and dangerously. An ill-educated African woman from the ‘valley’, on a dollar a day, if she’s lucky (and the boda-boda fare to the hospital is half that at least) is going to leave it as long as she dares. And whilst daring she won’t know to examine the child’s fontanel, is it sunken? Won’t gently pinch the skin to check for elasticity, wont’ sweep the inside of her baby’s mouth with a (clean) finger to register how wet – or dry – it is. She will not notice when the child cries that there is no longer enough liquid within to create tears to fall. She doesn’t know about electrolytes. She is unlikely to have a sterilized mug or bottle to hand filled with rehydrate to coax the child to sip. She may heave a sigh of relief when her child falls asleep. She won’t know that it may never wake up.
More than 2 million children die every year from dehydration. Most of them in Africa.
I have water at home – there’s no excuse not to wash my hands – and an education.
The women I met had neither.
If you had to choose – had to – what would be your choice?
And then remind yourself that the women I met had none.
Water. Education. Choice.
Somebody remarks, in response to a brief bio that I must deliver, in which I refer to growing up children, Ant and his veg garden, ducks and bantams, ‘what an abundant life’. I re read the message. Over and over. Abundant? And try the word out on my tongue. It fills my mouth. Appropriately.
I have considered the comment often since. Tried out the word for size again and again.
What constitutes abundance, I wonder? In so many ways my life is lean: strung taut with isolation so that every sound rings louder, every occasion is more deliciously wrung for a last lingering drop , every rare guest celebrated.
Can you call my life abundant when time lies so weightily upon my hands that I must eke it out into manageable chunks and plot my days so that there are no idle hours. When for so much of the time I am not doing anything important or urgent?
I remind mum, who is battling a depression, of Samuel Johnson’s words: If you are idle, be not solitary; If you are solitary, be not idle. You can’t have both. You can’t Have It All. In my necessarily lonely life (I would not chose this), I dare not lounge, unoccupied. I would ruminate and fret and stamp my feet and weep (as I have done). And allow demons the space to clamber in. So I work – mostly to futile end in reality – feverishly. Busily. On nothing of any significance. Paddling to propel myself from one end of the day to the other.
But it is into those solitary, silent hours that the abundance creeps.
My children remain connected via the intangible, invisible umbilical cord of the ether. They are worried. They are tired. They are sick. They need an opinion.They are elated. I am happy to be the first to be alerted, to be asked, sometimes several times a day, with little electronic ticks and bleats and beeps. Even when they are broke. For it amplifies a quietening role. I am still their mother. I can still offer advice, salve, reassure, praise. And yes, inevitably, put money into their accounts.
And it is in the acceptance of my role of wife that abundance presents again: come and look at the veggie garden with me, Ant will say in the evening when he gets home and I will walk admiringly through neat, greening rows, my bare ankles tickled as I brush past lacy parsley bursting enthusiastically from its bed. I could not do this: grow things well. And if he could not – If Ant could not – we would not dine so lavishly: broccoli, plumply podded broad beans, big headed, snow-white cauliflower, tiny yellow pear tomatoes, huge purplebruised artichokes which we eat with buttery fingers. And when the vegetable garden is done I must usher my bantam hens to their pen and I always laugh loudly when I do, for their scuttle in feathered harem pant legs is so comical. We gather quail eggs – forty of them, tiny greyandwhite and pebble-like with yolks of smilingsunshine yellow; they look for all the world like sugar coated mini Marks and Spencer Easter eggs.
We sit by a roaring fire to eat a chive omelette for supper, with peppery rocket salad pinked with red Swiss chard stems.
And I roll that fat word around my mouth again, trying it out for size. Abundant. It makes me think of adventure and simplicity, fatsalted tears and love, and loud, loud unladylike laughter.
Is it the perfect word. To describe my life as it is now? I don’t know. There is abundance. And satiety. Certainly.
And when there is not, it’s what I must strive for. It is a word I must remember.
I’m going to pose a dilemma.
It’s one that might present in clearly defined black and white – as it has in my experience and in my protagonist’s, let’s call her Alice – or it might have emerged in blurredlines and shades of grey.
But it’s one that is faced, to some degree, at some point, in some shape, by almost all the women I know. Our flaky job descriptions mean there are always hard choices to make.
Alice is married with young children; she is a Good Mother, that much is evident in the way she stoops to speak to her small son, answers her daughters’ interminable answers. Alice gave up a career in London, ‘I was good at it’, she says, a little forlornly, so that I am in no doubt that she misses the camaraderie, dressing up for the office, the daily need for mascara, a slick of lippe, the clearly defined parameters of her ninetofive day.
But Alice’s husband has a bigimportant job that has taken them to a remote corner of the world. His Career takes precedence over hers, because he gets paid more, because the children are little, because it’s just the way it has to be.
Alice, though, questions the fait accompli that has been thrust before her. She isn’t sure what to do; isn’t sure of the Right Thing To Do. In the briefest passage of time she has gone from single career girl to wifeandmother. Her role has been picked up and shaken so vigorously she feels disorientated: which way is up, which way is down.
She asks my advice.
What ought I tell her?
Put the Kids’ needs first: that’s the right thing to do
Listen Alice, honey, you’re a mother right? Your first responsibility must be to the kids. They’re small and defenseless and can’t effect change themselves; they can’t make the choice you know they’d make if they had the voice, the muscle, to do so: you’ve got to make the right choice for them.
And they can’t be expected to live in the sticks, with no exposure to other little people; they need the opportunity to develop social skills or god knows what they’ll be like when they get back to the real world! They’ll be awkward and withdrawn and you’ll be left picking up the pieces and end up in some shrink’s office as you weep about being a bad mother.
Your husband’s job is to support his family financially, yours is to support your children emotionally. And anyway, what on earth are you going to do about school stuck out there! No, they need to go mainstream school so you need to make a plan. And don’t’ even think about home school – they’ll drive you mad when they won’t sit still or refuse to do set tasks. You’ll just end up fighting with them and upsetting yourself. And anyway people who home school always end up wearing really bad shoes and ghastly elasticated waist bands in their skirts. Homeschooled means Homemade. Hobbled together. You won’t be able to lay on Competitive Sport – who is your son going to play cricket with? Your daughters won’t be able to have ballet classes. Besides, homeschooled kids are just plain weird.
What your children need is a well rounded and recognizable education that sustains them throughout their lives; they need the very best start.
Your job is to make sure they get it.
Put your Husband first; that’s definitely the way to go
Listen Alice, honey, you were a wife before you were a mother, right? He came along first and the kids second. He’s going to be around long after they vanish to boarding school or university. Long after they’ve grown up and flown the nest.
If you make a child centric choice now you’re in serious danger of finding yourself unable to give them space later, you’ll be forever striving for attachment to the kids, your apron strings at risk of strangling the life out of them. And you’ll look needy. God. Don’t look needy.
And imagine if whilst you’re living away so the children can go to school he takes up with some other woman. Have you considered that? Absence may well make the heart grow fonder, in the short term, but ultimately, inevitably, it will make the attentions wander. Men are just like that. You’ll grow apart and he’ll always remember that he played second fiddle; he’ll never get over that – men have chinafragile egos. You’ll never be able to make up for what you took from him – from your partnership – when you made the decision to put the kids first. You need to stay connected and you won’t if you move to the other end of the country/world just to make sure your kids get the accepted prescribed education.
If you gouge a gap in your relationship now, for the children’s sake, you’ll never be able to plug it; there will forever be a hole, a space, when you ought to have been together, raising the kids as a team, a proper family. Imagine all the important lost moments, the conversations you could have, should have, had but never did because your separate lives meant what you had to say to each other began to lose context.
And kids learn anywhere. Home school them! Don’t be bullied into believing there’s only one way to skin a cat. Think outside the box. Imagine the adventure! Your husband will be so proud of you; demonstrating you can be wife, mother and teacher! You’ll lend your kids CVs such an unusual slant; give them the edge at their Oxbridge interviews.
This is an opportunity to extend yourself. And anyway, the kids would much prefer to have mum and dad together in one home than go to conventional school.
Break the mould; what better lesson could you give your kids?
Put yourself first. Numero Uno. It’s a No Brainer
Listen Alice, honey, you were YOU first, long before you were wife and mother, right?
Don’t let either role define you entirely or you’ll find yourself swallowed whole, your identity compromised and – over time – and trust me on this – your sense of direction and selfworth eroded. Hang onto a bit of yourself. Hang on hard.
And whilst you’re at it, practice saying No. Out loud. In front of the mirror. Articulate the word clearly. As if you mean it. No I can’t play Lego with you now I am going to have a nice hot bath. No I cannot help you with that report now, I am catching up on the news. No you cannot watch the cricket, I’m watching this.
Sure the kids need you when they’re small, but they need a mother who’s going to stand well as a self-contained role model in the long term, not one that’s going to cling because she hasn’t got a clue what else to do with herself because this, this business of mothering, is all she remembers how to do. You want your kids to know as the cool person you were. You want them to proud of you, your achievements, you don’t want them ushering you off the phone when they’re 22 because you have nothing interesting to relate?
And your husband? Hang onto his every word, be at his perpetual beck and call and I promise you there’ll come a time when the kids have grown up and flown off and you’ll find you don’t have a fulfilling role at home anymore and nor do you have the attention of the man you married.
And you are too old/out of touch/riddled with self doubt to find engagement in the workplace.
You’ll have lost your looks (Alice is young and beautiful, the question mark that creases her brow as a frown as she ponders her dilemma hasn’t get ironed itself firmly to her complexion, there is no grey at her temples, the backs of her hands are smooth) and your figure (Alice is thin. Bitch) and all of that will conspire to further pick at your confidence.
Your husband will have grown accustomed to Taking You For Granted (if you made it that easy), he’ll have stopped hearing what you say (mostly because you don’t have anything new to tell). He’ll thumb texts whilst you respond to the question he has asked. The obligatory How Was Your Day. Why does he ask, you think to yourself sadly? He’s not listening. Tell him you seduced the milkman/postman/gardener and he won’t register. He’ll mumble, ‘hmmm … hmmm … hmmm?’ and then he’ll get up and say, ‘Sorry Darling I must just make this call’. And you hadn’t even got to the climax.
So consider the Big Picture and do what works for you in the long run; nurture your own sense of self and you will forever remain interesting and enigmatic, self assured and self contained. You’ll be glad you did. And so, I imagine, will your husband and kids.
PS This is my 500th post. For so many reasons, on so many levels, and in the context of this blog and who I am, this is exactly the right post for that milestone.
My eldest daughter has a difficult conundrum at work. A conundrum that would not have presented in my world at her age. I’m not even sure the right language was there then. She is too young for this dilemma and I too old to know exactly what to say: how can I relate when I know nothing of this particular quandary. It would be patronizing to even try.
This is the first time that this has happened to me. In every other respect I have been able to empathize with my children’s experiences: I failed exams as they sometimes have; I had my heart broken as a girl, several times, so I recognize what the splintering fall out feels like when they tearfully articulate it through sobs and snot and hiccups; I say, ‘I know, darling, I know’ and I mean it. I understand about bad friendships and good ones. I get being broke; I’ve been there too. And when my daughters fret that they don’t look as beautiful as they’d like to, I feel the sting again when I felt the dumpiest, dreariest at a party. My mother must have told me I looked lovely as I do them; must have meant it as I do now.
So, until my daughter called me last night and said, ‘Mum, there’s this thing … I don’t know if I’m going mad … what do you think’, I always knew what to say.
But her New World presents with experiences my old one never delivered, not in any shape – her dilemma was as far away from my 21 year old world as the internet and smart phones – so for the first time I don’t know what to say. And that is a difficult thing as a mother; we ought to have the answers. We always used to.
I ponder all night and find myself in hack-mode. If in doubt Google it. So I do the research and plough through opinion pieces and Facebook pages and readers’ comments and small answers are revealed as tiny gems through the soupiness of the ether. If I sieve them out, will that help I wonder?
And then I consider another obstacle. My daughter is full of young-freshly ironed Save The World idealism. Mine is old and crumpled and faded with cynicism. Somehow we must build a bridge across the two to a Happy Medium and perhaps on that island we will find a treasure map that leads to a solution that satisfies us both: her youthful desire to fix all things and mine as a mother to just mend what worries her.
This, I think, this uncertainty, this loss of bearings, must be what defines a parent who is tentatively handing her baby across a generation to the big teethed world of Grown upness.
A morning walk.
I learned a long time ago that days in lonely places need to be kick-started aggressively. Get the endorphins pumping as your heart pounds then the long hours ahead seem less weighty; abbreviated.
The dogs follow me from the moment I wake up. I sternly say, ‘I’m going back to my bed with my tea you two; you’ll have to wait’. They gaze up at me solemnly, beseechingly from the floor.
They stand outside the bathroom door as I shower. They are trip hazards until I get my – at this time of year – wellies on and pick up the lead and then the wait erupts into a frenzy as they charge towards the gate and I am hauled along by six month old Jip who, despite her size, is as strong as an ox.
Why the lead Ant asks as we walk together on a Sunday and Jip pulls me down the hill so that my answer is snagged on the wind and he has to ask again, ‘what, why?’. Because of the road, I wail as Jip charges forth. It’s hardly the M4 laughs Ant. Quite. But there are bicycles to be toppled if Jip appears like a bullet out of the tea and pluckers on their way into the fields to be terrorized when they mistake Jip’s enthusiastic hellos as imminent attacks.
Yesterday’s storm, which took out the internet – as rain clouds obliterated the satellite – and the electricity because the lightening rods erected on my roof tripped the power, is long gone. Not a trace above me to suggest last night’s tempest.
The sky is rinsed Omo Blue and the tea and forest newly painted green; a Dulux colour chart: Enchanted Eden, Luscious Lime, Kiwi Crush.
The earth beneath my booted feet is damp and gouged with the rivers that rushed; all that remains are scars and debris and the gossamer wings of flying ants which flew briefly and ecstatically. Siafu march determinedly onwards in their trenches; regimented lines. I am glad of my footwear. Occasionally the dogs tread carelessly and must pick a nipper from between their pads. I can hear frogs. Birds. The occasional Sykes money scold from damp tree tops.
And Jip continues to charge blindly onwards, ebulliently disobedient. I only know where she is by the shiver of tea bushes above her as she races between them, her tail an antenna. Occasionally, to get her bearings, she must stand on her hind legs and peer above the foliage, like a gerenuk. Pili is altogether more decorous.
I harness Jip before we cross the road home and – despite heavy panting and a long pink tongue lolling – she has lost little of her exuberant speed and so she pulls me up the hill.
I didn’t tell Ant that bit; she helps me home.
So there. It’s all over. The busy-ness.
The business of family and Christmas and kids.
I am always struck by the deafening roar of silence that follows the brouhaha of a full house. I can hear myself think. And that’s not always a good thing.
Amelia left last week. My sister and her brood over the weekend. Noise drained. Happily cluttered sofas cleared to leave cold spaces.
Yesterday I drove Ben and Hat to the airport, three hours away. We rose in the dark; dawn smudged with mist and rain and blackbellied cloud. The weather didn’t shift all morning. Their plane couldn’t land; rerouted to sit the weather out. We sat it out in a café and drank too much coffee and played cards. And I thought, ‘this feels like a reprieve: stolen hours’.
But come lunchtime, the sun had burned a small hole in the gloom and the rain abated and the plane came in and I watched my children clamber aboard. And I stood on the runway in the drizzle and waved and blew kisses and I continued to do so as they taxied away and I watched the aircraft lift and I saw it swallowed by the sky. I took a deep breath, blinked back tears and got into the pickup to drive home.
I bounced on the rutted dirt roads to the farm, fighting with the steering wheel to stay steady as the unevenness of the surface threw me all over the place.
I don’t remember it being this bad on my way in, I puzzle.
And then I remember: my ballast has gone.
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.
I am not an aspirational mother. But I do make certain demands of my children:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
- Be Kind. To children, old people and animals. Especially old people, given my own advancing decrepitude.
- 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.
- 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 to buy a fat pig (or sell some lampshades)
Home again, home again, jiggety jig.
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.