A dear, dear friend told me, as we anticipated this move, that houses were only bricks and mortar, that we took our memories with us – along with our families, our animals, boxes of books and cartons of carefully packed glass. And we do. But not all of them.
I have moved from a home that felt like a ship, so huge and spacious and sturdy and bright that she – and the house felt like a she for her voluptous size and generous curves and arches – sustained me through six stormy years, to a house that is tiny and dark and meanly sharp cornered so that I keep stubbing my toes on furniture squeezed too tightly together and steps that oughtn’t be there.
As I lay in the semi gloom last night (it is never quite dark here for the neon lights from neighbours that taint the velvety blackness) I missed the scream of bushbabies and the incessant chatter of the toads that lived in the pond in the garden. In the Outpost I hear neither of those: only the hoot of midnight trains and tinny mustic rattling from some not distant enough bar.
Live in a home for long enough and everything is achingly familiar. The way the bathroom door needed to be pulled to tightly before it would click shut. The way the stairs leading to our bedroom used to echo the patter of the cat as she scampered upwards to sleep with us. The way I could watch the moon rise over the acacia from my bed for the door onto the balcony outside was always open. The way the ceramic tiles on the sitting room floor shone after they’d been polished with the old fashioned floor polisher I inherited from my mother (no need of it here, it hangs forlornly in the store redudant in the face of green painted cement). Watching my daughters, oblivious to my observation, making fairy houses by the pond, watching my son – equally oblivious of my scrutiny – bowling against the garden wall imaginging he was at the Oval, listening to his solitary batting pratice as he rolled his cricket ball down the sharply inclied roof of our bedroom in the absence of anybody to bowl at him. The house inspired ingenuity in us.
I knew I would miss the house – all that space, huge windows to throw in the sunlight, history imprinted on ancient high beams – but I had not anticipated how animated the imprint of her essence would be. She was a refuge for longer than anywhere had been since I got married. Within her walls I grew up enough to become me, not the person I thought I ought be. I had the courage to withdraw my children from boarding school – in the face of vociferous protest and criticism – and enrol them in a day school so that the house rattled with early morning tantrums about homework and the whearabouts of PE kits, to late afternoon laughter over tea on the verandah when they all came home. I began to write, to distract myself from the worry about the farm itself and to help earn a crust when my husband’s dues were not forthcoming. I forged fabulously rewarding friendships. I watched in horror and sadness as others floundered. I witnessed the very best of people in that house. And the absolute worst.
Africa is fraught with security issues, most homes are a veritable Fort Knox: burglar bars and sirens, panic buttons and alarms. You could have kicked the front door in to the house on the farm. We could have been murdered in our beds any night of the week. Yet nobody ever attempted to steal in, I was not afraid to be there on my own.
Within days of our leaving, though, an armed gang of fifteen had broken in and ripped from the house all they could carry, including a door from its hinges. Perhaps I was there as much to protect her as she shelter us.
As much as the farm was about destruction and bankcruptcy and disappointment, so the house – such irony – was about growth. The acacias we planted towered above the verandah roof when we left. Our two eldest children towered above me.
Until the wee hours this morning I lay wondering what would become of her – who would live there eventually (for she lies abandoned now, the weeds and grass vying with those acacia for height, shabby and sad and dejected after recent looting)? Whoever it is, I hope they love her as we did. I hope they understand that she’s more than just a house.
And then, having lain so long in the dark missing the midnight sounds of the farm, I switched on my lamp to read a recent copy of the Spectator.
The political opinion pages had me asleep within minutes. Perhaps I ought to have done that earlier. But then again, perhaps sometimes it’s important to really consider what home means?