There is a chance we will have to move house.
And so we are house hunting. In most parts of the world this would mean an exercise in box ticking:
Proximity to work? Access to schools? 3 bedrooms? Or four? Number of bathrooms? Parking facility? Large garden? Or just a patio?
There is rather less choice here and so, in order not to miss any unlikely gems, we are forced to view every property that every obliging Outpost resident comes up with. (And when word is out that some fool who’ll pay a rent and renovate a place is looking, dozens do).
The first that we visit, excitedly, because it means an outing for Hat and I at any rate, belongs to Hanif who is a very fat Swahili of Arab descent. He has brought a mate along with him, whom I have met many times and who, for reasons I have not yet fathomed, is called Parish. Parish is proprietor of a petrol station. He chews betelnut and is generally font of all local knowledge.
I regard the house, when we arrive, tailing Fat Hanif and smaller Parish, is some dismay. It is huge, granted, plenty of space for all my assorted children, animals and books. But the garden is tiny. Indeed it is almost non-existent. The house fills the available walled space. It is also, rather bizarrely, unfinished: the walls are unpainted, the windows devoid of glass, the doorways of doors and the first floor of a staircase to get up there. There is little in the way of plumbing (except for an outside water tank which – considering the healthy crop of sugar cane growing alongside it – has a serious leak) and no electricity. Husband politely enters the doorless doorway for a guided tour of the ground floor (we can only admire the first from below). Hat and I wait outside on the pretence of admiring the ‘garden’ whilst I try to stifle my giggles and Hat her disappointment. Hanif, judging by appearances, eats too well to be able to afford to finish the grand residence he optimistically began.
We promise to be in touch but not before husband enquires as to how peaceful the neighbourhood is. I could have told him: the house is a spit from the biggest hotel in town which runs a disco with live band every night.
‘Oh it is lovely and peaceful here’, promises Parish (who is clearly in line for some commission).
‘Except for the hotel …’ adds Hanif looking at Parish doubtfully.
Oh but that’s very far, says Parish, chewing and waving our concern dismissively away.
It’s not: I can see it just around the bend.
We move onto the second house. Husband has high hopes of this one because he is an eternal optimist. Hat and I, on other hand, have been quietly laying bets as to how ghastly it’ll be on a scale of 1 to 10 (one being ghastly beyond any redecorating redemption). Hat has bet a 2. Her wager an informed one; she’s seen enough of the Outpost to know.
We meet the owner and follow him to the house. First impressions are promising: the area is quiet and secluded and shaded by huge old trees.
This looks better, says Husband.
It’s not. Though there are windows and doors and electricity and plumbing, it is all – along with 3 bedroom and 2 bathrooms – squeezed into the tiniest space. The flat I shared in London was a veritable broom cupboard. This was smaller. That was when I merely needed a place to lay my head and change my clothes. This needs to accommodate assorted children, animals and books. Not to mention a husband of almost 6ft2. We politely viewed the property, husband doing three point turns to get into and out of rooms. The kitchen is a lean-to of corrugated iron sheets. Water, we are promised, is not a problem (funny that; it is in most parts of the Outpost). I can’t help but notice the ranks of plastic drums which are being used to store same.
The house is a bit on the small side, admits Husband trying to turn around in corridor, shall we have a look at the garden he suggests?. We do. It is vast. Acres of space. An acre, to be precise says the owner, of – at the moment – mostly maize and beans and sweet potatoes. I imagine a pool and chickens and enough grazing for my much missed geese. I imagine bowling nets for my son. I imagine a treehouse for the girls. I imagine space to play badminton. I image a vegetable garden and herbs in tubs.
What’s that, I ask, pointing towards a derelict building on the boundary of the land.
‘That’, says our guide cheerfully, ‘is the old Hindu crematorium. But is is no longer in use’ he adds hastily when he sees Hat’s face.
Thank God. Though his attempt at reassurance doesn’t stop my vivid imagination running further amok with ghosts, ghouls and insomnic children too afraid of next-door departed to sleep. Not least because somebody has graffiti’d the word Phantom in bold black letters on the walls.
We leave – promising to be in touch. If we can come up with a realistic plan as to how to extend the shoebox to fit (unlikely), and the necessary wherewithal to carry out any extensions we might have dreamt up (even more unlikely).
That evening we see the third and final property of the day. We are obliged to collect the owner and give him a lift to the house which he swears he owns. It is a charming little cottage, remnant of the days of Colonial administration, in a big garden. A watchman appears as we drive in. He does not look as if he has any clue who the owner is. Nor does the housegirl who stands on guard by the backdoor.
How many bedrooms does it have? I enquire.
Two …? No. Um …3, says the owner, thinking hard..
“One”, he says, more emphatically. “I think?”.
A toto appears and sweetly greets us all.
Is mama in, asks the ‘owner’?
Yes, says the child, venturing towards the door. Eagleeyed, watchdog house girl quickly hisses, ‘no, she’s not’.
Do your tenants know that you are planning to rent this house out to somebody else? asks husband suspiciously.
Oh yes, says the owner, ‘I have given them notice, they will leave at the end of this month and then you can move in’.
I’m not moving in anywhere until I’ve seen the inside, I say quickly.
The owner shrugs. He clearly doesn’t see the necessity of viewing the house inside and out. But he’s going to work to accommodate this quirk.
Assuming, of course, the property really belongs to him.
Given that he was due – but has failed – to call me today to fix a time to re-view, this seems unlikely. You’ve got to hand it to him though: bloody good try.