Birds, Baths and Failure

Just caught the tiniest kingfisher trapped in my office (grandly named lean-to in which I wrote the book that brought me to literary recognition, i.e. rejection letters from 50 editors on both sides of the Pond). It had flown in through wide open door (courtesy of Anthony who is hoping that if I can see the mess therein, I will do something about it: I won’t; I’ll just shut the door) and kept bashing its pretty little head on the closed windows every time it tried to escape. I scooped it up in the palm of my hand, its sharp orange beak all that could be seen then, safe in a loosely closed fist so that it wouldn’t struggle and break a wing, its fast-beating breast palpable against my fingers, and let it go outside. It only sat for a micro-second upon my outstretched hand before taking flight and soaring to the top of an acacia. I felt like Sir David Attenborough in my proximity to nature and my valiant conservation effort.

A quiet Saturday, which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what a thoroughly hopeless ‘memsahib’ I am. The last few days have seen visits to friends who run beautiful homes in proverbial clockwork fashion. They call for tea and uniformed staff deliver it upon trays dressed with silver and delicate linen. One had to call twice before tea appeared, she looked sternly at her watch when the tray arrived and scolded the cook for taking too long a lunch break, ‘I told him to have tea here for four’, she explained (it was 4.20) noticing how embarrassed I looked (not because tea was late – it always is in my house, if it happens at all – but because witnessing anybody’s dressing down is discomfiting). The luxury of affordable home help here is tempered by the politically incorrect elements of having ‘servants’. That I should even be concerned to analyze this is suggestion that I’m too liberal to be a proper ‘memsahib’. My contemporaries, with their uniformed ranks of staff and homes that run to timetables, regard me as something of a failure and a disappointment; after all, my colonial heritage suggests I ought to know how to do this better. But I never learned, happily, for neither my grandmother nor my mother were especially keen to lock up the sugar and wear bunches of keys at their waist like county jailers.

The dogs have had a bath. Regularly – because we walk in long grass in Africa – we must pick ticks from their coats which we toss into the wood-burning stove that heats water for our own baths (the dogs enjoy no such luxury – they’re washed in cold from the garden tap) and submerge them in noxious smelling ‘dip’. Otherwise they will get tickbite fever and die. Like Marmite did. Marmite was Hattie’s dog, and is buried at the bottom of the garden. Today – too late, the dogs were already damp – I discovered we’d run out of ‘dip’ (further evidence of my poor house-keeping skills) and so the dogs were washed in the local laundry detergent, Omo, which, according to the tub, ‘washes brighter’.

I mightn’t manage my home with regiments of unformed staff but I shall unquestionably have the brightest dogs in the district.

So there.

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