Archive for August, 2007


August 8, 2007

Tonight I feel blue.

Tomorrow I must pack up my big kids ready for boarding school. I will no longer be able to escape the reality that they’re going away: I will face piles of name-taped clothes.

And before dawn on Friday we will leave for the long trek east. On Sunday I will hand them over and early next week I’ll drive home again, without them, and whilst their dad’s out at work all day, Hat and I will rattle around this house on our own. I will miss Amelia’s blaring music and the fact the kitchen looks like a bomb’s hit it every time she bakes; I will miss her chocolate chip cookies for nobody makes them as well. I will miss Ben eternally watching sport on the telly. I will miss him everytime I need help fixing something or lifting something for he won’t be there. I will miss cooking for the 5,000 every mealtime and wondering why there still aren’t leftovers. Though now there will be – I’ll still cook for the 5,000 for old habits die hard – and the leftovers will make me sad.  I will miss their company; their nearness so that I can touch them whenever I want to. I will not be able to bear to go into their rooms at night for their essence will be there but they won’t. Hat and I will be sad together and then we will begin school ourselves for there will be nothing for it but to fill our days with fractions and grammer.  And we will make a Sally Worm with 21 segments so that we might count off the days until we see them.

The very thought gives me a pain in my tummy which hurts so much I want to cry.

Aspiring to be DG. Again.

August 8, 2007

I ought to be in the kitchen in a lather of productivity. I’ve got seven of my husband’s assorted bosses/colleagues/cronies for lunch.

But I’m not. I have sat here for the past two hours doing what makes me feel comfortable and happy, escaping into a world of words. My own. Others. It doesn’t matter. So long as it’s not Nigel’s/Nigella’s/Delia’s which will send me into paroxysm of anxiety about what I ought cook for lunch today. And why I oughtn’t. (Mainly because although it looks lovely on the page, it probably won’t on the plate. Largely because I had a hand in it.)

We are having Lasagne because even I have trouble getting that wrong. We can’t get mince meat here but we can get thigh of cow or back muscle or something that’s astonishingly tough but masquerades as beef all the same. I borrowed a mincer and my son’s bowling arm – becauase it’s  great deal stronger than mine – and we minced meat in manner of real pioneers.

I have not considered what to do for pudding. Amelia has suggested a marble cake (too seventies) and Hat cheese muffins (too, well too cheesy mainly). Chocolate mousse would be nice. If I could get cream. Pavlova is beyond me so perhaps fortunate I can’t get cream; last time I made it in absence of baking parchment I substituted the Sunday Times Review pages which stuck to the bottom so everybody could read Jeremy Clarkson aned India Knight when conversation got a little stilted.

When I first got married I offered, because I thought that’s what expat wives did, to make a pudding for my hostesss one Sunday lunch. I made what looked lovely, an orange cakey affair, and what was, in reality, leaden and disgusting. I begged husband to exhibit loyalty by eating at least a slice since everybody else was giving orange frisbee wide berth. By the time he was on 7th slice (and seventeeth beer to wash it down) I grew suspicious. Under closer inspection I noted he was bringing spoon to mouth and then deftly tossing over shoulder. I was red faced not only because my offering was so disgusting not even pissed Husband could force it down, but because now evidence of my culinary failings lay in pile behind him.

Perhaps we’ll ditch a pudding today.

These are tobacco farmers after all, they can have communal fag instead.



August 7, 2007

That’s not Henrietta, mum.

It is.

It’s not.

 How do you know?

Henrietta had a blue band around her foot, this chicken doesn’t.

Yes, but I took the band off because I was afraid it’d begin to dig in and make her sore.

A bit later.

That’s not Henrietta, Mum.

It is.

It’s NOT. Henrietta was all quiet and had her eyes half closed yesterday, this chicken is running around and making a noise.

Yes, well, Henrietta’s feeling better today, that’s all.

Later. In tears.

That chicken is not mine, Mum. My Henrietta had black feathers under her white ones.

What could I say to that? that I’d taken her Henrietta to the Chicken Beauty Salon and had her roots done before breakfast.

No, Hat, I’m really, really sorry. That’s not Henrietta; I lied.

And then I told the truth. And through her tears my little Hat had the courage and the grace to say, ”thanks Mum”.

Gawd this job’s hard sometimes.

Would you have told the truth?

August 7, 2007

A dilemma. And a story.

The story:

Once upon a time there was an enchanting little girl called Hat who went to the market with her big sister. They knew their mum was having a tough day because she’d recently moved to Outpost in middle of the African bush and was getting cross with intermittent power/water/internet connection, so they bought her a chicken to cheer up. Which it did; their mum laughed for the first time that day. They called the chicken Henrietta. The next day a kindly neighbour brought Henrietta a boyfriend in the hope of increasing flock numbers. And the day after that, Hat and her dad and her big brother and sister spent all morning building a love nest/chicken house for Henrietta and Arnold.

Two days later, Henrietta disappeared. Hat was distraught. She escaped through a hole in the fence, said her mum, and James – who helps her mum water the lawn she hasn’t got yet – has gone to find her, her mum told her. An hour later Henrietta reappeared, with a pretty brown friend who Hat christened Hilda. Hat’s mum secretly thought perhaps Arnold’s amorous advances were exhausting Henrietta so she had embarked on developing a harem, to give herself the occassional night off. She didn’t tell Hat that though, she told Hat that every girl needs a good girlfriend: this was Henrietta’s and wasn’t she clever to have escaped to find her and bring her home for some good girly company.

Hat – of course – was elated. And the chickens looked happy too.

We anticipate they will live Happily Ever After because that’s what happens when stories begin Once Upon a Time.

The dilemma:

I woke early to discover Henrietta was stone cold dead. I was distraught. Not for me but for darling Hat who has tended her chickens with great care and lavished attention and fine food upon them.

What will I do, what will I do? I wailed to husband who was trying to come to peacefully with a cup of coffee.

Ask James to go to the market as early as possible and buy a replacement. And get rid of the bloody body, he instructed (in manner of serial killer which alarmed me further).

James dashed off on Ben’s bike with instructions to buy one white chicken and one other. Any colour. But a chicken, not another rooster.

Hat awoke. Where’s Henrietta she said worriedly. Oh I said, crossing my fingers (for the second time in a week because I was lying through my teeth) she escaped through a hole in the garden fence, James has gone racing off to find her.

What hole? she asked (she is no fool, my daughter).

Oh. I’ve fixed it, I said (in my pajamas).

Hat looks doubtful (more at my being able to fix anything I think, than implausile story about escapee hen), but swallows my explanations.

James comes beetling back with two chickens in a black plastic bag: one white one, Henrietta Mk II, and one brown: Hilda.

Hat is elated. Look, Hat, I say: Henrietta brought a friend back!  Hat is doubly delighted.

I can hear proper mothers out there frowning. I can hear them telling themselves that it’s important to use such experiences to bring lessons about life and death to children.

Yes. Sometimes it is.

But sometimes it isn’t.

Hat doens’t need lessons about death: she’s had enough in the last three years. Her beloved Granny Neville died, her dear great uncle Robo died and her black labrador, Marmite, died. None of them could be replaced sadly – and certainly not with a clone from the market – and all of them were ill before they died, something Hat witnessed.

It’s not often – as a parent – you can make it OK for a child when a pet (and in the Outpost most creatures will count as a pet) dies. In this instance I could. I fabricated a story, pulled a couple of chickens out of a black plastic bag and began my daughter’s day with delighted chickles and happy disbelief. Instead of tears and heartbreak.

Thanks to her clever dad’s suggestion and James’ pedal power at the break of dawn.


Slovenly in the name of saving water

August 6, 2007

Today’s a water day: that means I get it. And everybody gets into action. Filling tanks and manning hosepipes. James and the unlikely named Sylvester, who help me in the ‘garden’, splash water over the ”lawn” and toss handfuls of fertilizer to try to encourage some growth and greenery. Sylvester is undoubtedly an optimist; he wears wellies whilst he works. James and I, on the other hand, toil bare footed because there is never enough water to make for mud, sadly. Every drop is sucked greedily up by parched earth.

Because it’s a water day it seemed appropriate to put a load in the washing machine.

Until I realised there was no dirty laundry to load. Clearly my children have taken my lectures about how precious water is several steps too far: they are apparently not changing their clothes as often as would perhaps be wise.

Why? What? When? Where? Who?

August 6, 2007

My daughter, Amelia, says sometimes questions are hard to ask because they might make you sound stupid.

Her little sister says the thing about questions is that if you don’t answer the person asking the first time, they’ll keep pestering  you until you do. And that’s what she does: harangue me until I come up with a satisfactory answer to whatever it is she needs to know. Now.

I think their responses perfectly illustrate the difference between them: my eldest is an angst-ridden, self-conscious teenager, worried the world will dismiss her lest she say the wrong thing. My youngest – happily for her – is still too little to know that’s what people sometimes do: dismiss you for the things you say, or the questions you ask.

Their mother is mostly too old to care what people think of her. But she does care that she didn’t ask enough questions when she was younger.

Did you? Think about it.

Down on the Dam

August 6, 2007


 Our escape is – increasingly – sought in the dam.  It’s where I find the space I crave, and the peace – silent after the midnight shriek of trains, the call of strange voices that waft over the fence, the tinny strains of disco music or more melancholy sounds emananting from nearby church. It’s where kids and dogs can stretch their legs and run or ride bikes. It feels – as we pile out of the car and spill onto the banks of the dam – like we’re disentangling ourselves from a match box. People romantise Africa, all that space, they say. Yes. Well. All that space it may be, but not if you live in a suburban Outpost.


So, it’s to the dam we go when we find home is making us cranky because we’re falling over one another inside or going a little stir-crazy cooped up in a garden you couldn’t swing a cat in (not that I’d try mind you, not with mine – she’s so evil-tempered she’d chew my arm off). Inevitably, because it feels like an outing, an adventure (and even if it doesn’t I’m of the school of thought that dictates Occassion ought be sought in the most mundane) we go armed with food and drink.

That’s what we did this weekend. We drove. We found a tree. We parked. We uncoiled ourselves. We laughed.


We got sunburnt despite wide brimmed hats.

 hat-in-a-hat.jpg                    me-in-a-hat.jpg      

We messed about by the water. We ate a picnic lunch and Amelia wanted to know why the popcorn tasted so good: because we’re in the bush, I told her, food always tastes better when eaten in the bush.

We threw sticks for the dogs until they were exhausted wading through hip-high water.


                    boy-in-a-hat.jpg        ballet-dancer.jpg

We collected wild flowers. We engaged with the local fishermen who drag nets up and down the dam and catch tiny tilapia and we begged from them a few of the tiniest to stock our own pond (in the hope they may keep the mosquitoes at bay) and we put them in a jar and brought them home.


Getting Out used to mean something different before Outpost life. It meant seeing people. Lots of them. And all more or less like-minded. It meant conversation and being able to tell yourself you had a Good Social Life. But Getting Out here means being a little less demanding and lot more creative. It means learning to elicit from the smallest thing, maximum pleasure: like five pop-eyed fish staring at Hat from the insides of an empty Nescafe jar as she named them: mum, dad, Ben, Amelia and Hat!

 But most of all Getting Out means Going Home and finding it’s not so bad.


Just bricks and mortar?

August 4, 2007

I woke last night after only an hour’s sleep stricken with longing for my old home on the farm. It was quite sudden. And the pain of missing it almost brought me to tears as I lay there.

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?


Do blondes really have more fun?

August 3, 2007

Ben – nearly sixteen – poses a question, ”Mum, do blondes have more fun?”


 “Do blondes have more fun?”

Good Lord! Why do you ask?

“I saw it on the telly” (?!?!?!), he elaborates (thankfully) ”on Braniac; they did an experiment, they said blondes have more fun”.

I don’t know what to say. I know why I thought blondes have more fun. I don’t suppose my theory coincided with Braniac’s.

I don’t know, I tell my son, but that’s certainly what they say: that blondes have more fun.

Talking of which: my roots need doing. Highlights in ten days time. Then I might have more fun too?


You promise there won’t be a blood test …?

August 3, 2007

Today, and to my chagrin, I realised that the medical forms I ought to have had completed, ”by a medical professional”, for the big kids before they begin boarding school in a week were still sitting in the midst of the bomb site I optimistically refer to as ”my desk”. The school had written a sharp little reminder.  Which served to summon in me guilt pangs about not being a good enough mum, pangs which bubble forth all the more freely as imminent start of term approaches.

We ought to get these filled out, I said to the kids. They looked at me crossly. Which made the guilt pangs worse. Couldn’t we have done it in England, they demanded. We could have. If I hadn’t forgotten (in manner of really bad, really errant, really utterly bloody hopeless mother).

What shall I do, I whined down phone to husband.

Go and see Dr Ruth, he suggested.

Dr Ruth, who I called and who charmingly offered to oblige right way, runs a local clinic to which she gave me directions: on the other side of ”town”, beyond the bread shop, bus stop and bright red new Celtel office. We piled into the car. Me and three cross kids. Hat cross because though she wasn’t going to be subjected to the medical, she was having to accompany us. Big kid cross because they have useless mother who can’t get act together.

Are you sure there won’t be any injections?

I promise, I said.

Blood tests?

I promise, I said, crossing my fingers on the steering wheel hoping they wouldn’t see.

What about this bit where it says “Blood Group”, then?

Oh, I said, cheerily (and – on reflection – really, really irresponsibly) we’ll just guess, shall we?

Ruth’s clinic is typical of many across Africa. It’s full of patiently waiting Africans sitting on narrow benches. There’s a quiet air of reverence as each of the dozens of patients wait for their number to be called. We ”fast tracked” the system – you pay more that way, which is fine, the kids don’t have to wait whilst being closely scrutinised (being the only non Tanzanians, aside from Ruth, in the building) and the clinic benefits (albeit marginally: it cost me four quid).

Ruth is friendly and vibrant and efficient and puts two anxious teens at ease. We talk about the prevalance of malaria here in Outpost (high, very high: one can expect 300 infected bites a year, she says). We talk about preventation and treatment and the advantages of partial immunity afforded my children because they’ve lived in Africa all their lives: I try to feel encouraged. But I’ve had a child teetering on the edge of a coma with malaria, reassurance doesn’t come easy.

And then Ruth says it’s time for the blood tests.

My big kids’ jaws drop and two pairs of angry eyes bore into me. I look at the floor.

Blood tests? they say, outraged.

Yes, says Ruth, cheerfully, we need to identify your blood group. And then your mother can make a note of it so you don’t have to go through this again she says, a little sternly (so another discomfiting little pang rises in my throat).

We trail to the lab where tourniquets are applied and blood deftly taken.

See, I say, not so bad. My children ignore me.

I thank Ruth, thank the lab staff, thank everybody I see, pay my dues and follow my children, who can’t get outside fast enough, to the car.

I give them all some money to spend on cheap sweets in the Arab duka on the way home.

When I get in, I skulk off into the anonymous refuge of cyberspace and notice that the Good Woman has given me an award. Which makes me feel alot better about being a crap mum.