Archive for July, 2008


July 30, 2008

People have been extraordinarily generous of late. And have bestowed upon me awards which I absolutely do not deserve. Such flattery has left me squirming with an uneasy mixture of delight and bashfulness. The pretty one above is the Wylde Women Award ; Mozi Esme gave it to me. The criteria is that award recipients “teach you new things and live their lives fully with generosity and joy”; I don’t think I’ve taught anybody anything new (except how not to raise chickens, perhaps). And alas I frequently fail miserably at the ”living life fully with genorosity and joy” thing; I am often unspeakably ungracious about having to put up with life in an outpost.

But thank you, Mozi, for a lovely award and for believing I am a better person than I really am!

This one came to me from my friend Janelle at Ngorobob House. She is a much more special, and eloquently flamboyant, scribe than I shall ever be. She uses language daringly and vibrantly where I would never have the imagination to use the same word. I have – ironically, though perhaps not? – grown to know her better since we both began to blog. I like to think – simply because I began before her – that my waffling inspired her to get talking too. I like to think you can thank me for delivering her lovely, passionate, full-of-life-and-colour words to you. She’d have probably have done it anyway – begun to blog/blab – but it’s always nice to think you’ve helped drag the latent creativity out of somebody whom you could see bubbling with the stuff all along.

This one was from Potty who is practically a celebrity and who sweetly endured my emails in lieu of comments for months and months because I was too thick to manage to say what I wanted to say via conventional blogging channels and instead sort of stalked her via Outlook Express. I think she was quite relieved when I worked out how to get around the problem without jamming her inbox. I hope Random House or similar is paying attention because everything she writes is brilliante – which is why she got the award to pass on in the first place. And so now I am a stalker and fully fessed up Potty groupie.

And the very grand award here is from Alcoholic Daze who writes about life with her alcholic husband with grace and courage and even – which augments the already evident bravery – humour and all without a trace of self pity. Not even a hint of it.

My scratching was recognised by Not Enough Mud . And Milla at Country Lite tagged me. Which was very nice of her but I need to point out – here and now, for the record, lest anybody who reads me but doesn’t know me yet meets me in the future and is horribly disappointed – I am amongst the most awkward and gauche people I know. I write – like Mud – because ”there are many things I would not talk about. However, I find I am able to write about them. I then find that, far from being a lone weirdo, other people have these thoughts, fears and peculiarities (although maybe not all at once!) and are able to tell me so. More than once I have breathed a sigh of relief or laughed out loud at someone exactly pin pointing something I had been feeling or worrying about, rather reassuring.”

And because – being clumsy and plagued by self doubt in reallife– I feel comfortable on the page. A reallife conversation might leave me tongue tied and breathless and blushing. But at the keyboard I can take the time to articulate what I want, how I want. I can select the words at leisure, like a child does the precise crayon for her colouring. She thrusts the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth and deliberates carefully between the orange and the green, as I do the words. Sometimes the choosing is easy, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some tiny writerly guardian angel at my shoulder nudging me encouragingly. I like to think it’s Dad, who wrote such beautiful letters to my mother,

The lights have long since gone out and I am writing by torchlight.  There is a grasshopper sitting at the top of the page obviously trying to read this.  I don’t know how he does it – reading from the bottom to the top –  but I am sure he is reading out aloud, probably to the two illiterate moths, the one tiny black beetle and the very sedate and proper praying mantis who are all sitting in an audience around him.  If I look closer I will probably find the grasshopper is wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and a gold watch chain.

Dad in a letter to Mum, 1964


But often its not at all easy to find the right one. And then I huff and puff crossly and snarl at my children and prove I am not a bit worthy of Mozi Esme’s award, or any other for that matter.


Mostly this overwhelming recognition requires that I mention where the awards came from.  So I can confidently tick that box. And put the handsome awards in my sidebar, which will be challenging given that I cannot organise my text font or line spacing. And nominate writers for the same awards.

Which is where I am going to cheat a bit.


Once upon a time there was a wonderful blogger called The Good Woman who moved from Scotland to Kenya and we haven’t heard from her since. Which is really sad because she wrote brilliantly and because now we are all wondering what happened to her. Blogland can be like that – you make fantastic friends who you absolutely believe to be real (because they are, of course) and whom you develop a certain affinity with and whom may suddenly drop from view. Good Woman invented her own award which is what I am going to do.


Because I’m an indecisive cheat, mainly, and because for me, in this splendidly isolated OutPost, I really only get Out by writing and reading and swanning about in cyberspace. So my OutThere Award – which doesn’t have a logo because, as Potty Mummy will testify, as the fact I cannot comprehend why I have gone from single to double spacing will prove, I am too techo-challenged for that, though I can give you an OutThere photograph –


 goes to an assortment of people who have made me feel less lonely OutHere:


Kathleen who feels like an old friend; Ann who is just bloody cool. And a great-granny. Which just adds to how cool she is; Mr Sherman who has been a faithful and patient reader who never tells me I am boring, just politely and gently points out that I’ve already touched on that particular topic; Roberta  because she – another old friend – loves books too.  Nutty Cow because she blogs regularly and because I, who hurtled past the sign for 40 so fast I hardly saw it, am hugely flattered that anybody so young should read my often Grumpy Old Woman rants. And Primal Sneeze who doesn’t really do tags but who is getting one because he had a sense of humour big enough to laugh off the fact I call Him Her.


I don’t expect anybody to do anything with their award. Unless they feel compelled to pass it on, in which the only criteria would be that nominees have helped to feel you less lonely when you might otherwise have felt a little bereft of company.









But why the threading …?

July 27, 2008



I feel compelled to describe my introduction to eyebrow threading.


I feel it necessary to emphasize that my own knowledge of same was born not of any sophisticated leaning or, even, especially, zealous adherence to latest innovation in beauty therapies.


No. My eyebrow threading initiation was a happy – though admittedly quite painful – accident.


Once upon a time, back when I resided in relative civilization, I used to get pedicures at a tiny salon in Arusha in northern Tanzania where I lived (with friends and lattes and – yes – regularly buffed feet) for sixteen years.


The salon was owned and managed and almost solely staffed by an Indian lady called Noori. She wore tight blue jeans, high heels, glossy pink lipstick and her hair in a voluptuous henna-red pile upon her head.


I ended up in her shop mainly because I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, but also because it was convenient to where I lived – the right side, the farm side, of town – where there was rarely a queue and I could flick through back copies of Indian Cosmopolitan – a 170 page medium to illustrate the colourfully chaotic clash between East and West.


I sat whilst my feet soaked in a bucket of suds, my laptop or diary on my lap, quietly absorbing the flamboyant atmosphere around me. Noori visited India regularly and brought back with her treasures to sell: kaftans and cheap jewellery and skin skimming trousers not unlike the pairs she wriggled into every morning.  Her CD choice was eclectic so whilst I pretended to write, I might listen to Sade or Michael Jackson or the richly undulating strains of the latest musical offering from Bollywood.


Frequently Noori’s salon was full of other Indian ladies. Sometimes they indulged in ‘treatments’: a massage, a wax, had their tresses painted with cow-dung coloured paste that on rinsing shot their dark hair through with auburn light or endured a spot of eye-watering, eye-brow threading, but more often they simply descended upon her for a gossip: relating the progress or not of their ‘slimming’ efforts (Noori, with her hourglass figure was clearly an idol to be upheld and emulated); sharing deliciously in the latest scandals of their local community or coming armed with the fruits of their shopping trips to Mumbai or Calcutta or Delhi. It became evident to me, sat silently and unnoticed in my corner, with my jeans rolled to my knees, that Noori’s was a social hub as much as it was a trading post: shopping lists and fists full of dollars were exchanged with promises to deliver the requested goods within a week or two or three, depending on the duration of the trip back home. These high-pitched, excitable conversations were conducted in English peppered with lilting Gujarati and punctuated by laughter and squeals of delight or gasps of disbelief. And always, always, saturated by such infectious enthusiasm, that I wished I was party to their plans and promises and not an invisible spectator.


I watched bags being unpacked and I smiled inwardly as a bevy of Indian beauties paraded in front of the salon mirrors, saris held up to their shoulders as they – and I – admired the richness of the fabric, the silvery scaled glinting of sequins as lengths of material were flicked and tossed and lovingly caressed and sighed over. 


Sitting in the salon, I visited India vicariously. I shyly ventured to tell Noori that my mother was born in Mumbai, mindful to be PC.


“Oh we locals don’t call it Mumbai!”  she laughed, tossing her mane of hair, “it’s still Bombay to us.”


As it is to Mum. As it always was to my Gran.


And during those fanciful flights to the sub-continent, I gleaned a small souvenir.


Noori told me, looking sternly at unkempt brows, that I needed to thread them. She instructed me to tip my head back and hold the skin of my lids taut and then, with a length of sewing yarn wound tightly between the fingers of both well manicured hands, she proceeded to use it to tug the stray hairs and tidy up my face a little.


Tears ran down my cheeks, the skin around my eyes went scarlet but my brows were neatly aligned and matching within moments.  I stared at my expression in the mirror Noori proffered.


There now, she demanded, in her singsong voice, isn’t that better?


It mightn’t have felt it, but it certainly looked it.


And so I continue to thread my brows whenever the opportunity presents because I like to steal back into the memory.


And because I’m too idle to tweeze.


Elixir of youth?

July 25, 2008

My hair has been done.

I am blonde again. Too blonde. Almost luminescent. As if I am wearing a halo. Perhaps that’s appropriate, given saintly offer to baby-sit my sister’s children …?

My feet, courtesy of a pedicure, are almost presentable. Sadly the cold prevents me from presenting them; instead my recently buffed soles and polished nails are encased in several layers of socks and a pair of boots.

And my brows have been threaded and reshaped so that they arch elegantly above my eyes. As if I am perpetually surprised, as if, indeed, I am mildly shocked at my rash offer (three under-eights for two weeks!) or my somewhat startling new appearance. As the friend I bumped into yesterday clearly was; she couldn’t stop staring at my Day-Glo fringe. I know what she was thinking: ‘has she always been this fair?’

Eyebrow threading comes close second on the Richter scale of feminine pain to giving birth. It makes your eyes water similarly. Though obviously I wasn’t shouting at beauty therapist, Grace, in same way I might have done husband; I wasn’t yelling obscenities (”and you can jolly well keep the **** away from me in future!”) at her. I simply surrendered meekly and quietly and then she gently dabbed away my tears with soft tissues and a consoling, ‘the pain makes you cry kabisa!’.

You’re not wrong, honey. Kabisa! And by the way, you ever thought of taking up work as a doula?

Amelia opted for threading too. As in:

Mum, can I get my eyebrows waxed?

Grace, which is better: waxing or threading?

Grace considers my question for a moment and then tactfully says, threading is more … um … effective.

I think she meant painful but I told Amelia she meant better.

Amelia now sports similarly elegantly arched eyebrows above, admittedly, scarlet lids.

God Mum! That was the most painful thing ever.

I haven’t told her. That it wasn’t. That it could be worse. If you’re a woman.

And I won’t: I don’t want to put her off; I quite fancy becoming a grandmother one day.

And then I can morph from luminous blonde to sugar almond pink or lavender purple rinsed. And shave off the brows altogether, replacing them with pencilled semi-circles.

So that I might forever look as if life can still surprise me.

Perhaps that’s the secret to eternal youth – an expression of permanent wonder – and not Botox?

Slummy Mummy

July 21, 2008

I am staying in Karen; leafy Nairobi suburb steeped in Blixen history and saturated with mothers who drive to the shops and out to lunch and across town to deliver their offspring to playdates in shiny 4 x 4s. Their tresses bears witness to regular visits to their hairdresser and their wardrobes to a highly developed sense of style. They run homes as sleek as their appearances.

Many of them shop at Crossroads. And drink capuccino or a latte afterwards at Dormans whilst their children are entertained upstairs in Dragon.

Where – indeed – my small charges spent a portion of Sunday morning. Whilst my daughters and I trawled the shops downstairs, eyes on stalks at all the merchandise available.

Not like the Outpost, Mum, is it? commented Amelia.

Not at all. No.

I didn’t have a latte or a capuccino at Dormans, though. I have forgotten how to order one. Nor are my tresses recently coiffed or coloured. I was in yesterday’s jeans. And I looked like the mildly harrassed mother of – for the present at least – six children.

Not least becuase I arrived wearing my bedroom slippers.


July 20, 2008

Nairobi is cold compared to the Outpost; very cold.


I’m glad our suitcases arrived. Eventually.


We flew here from Mwanza via Kilimanjaro.


Our luggage came via Dar es Salaam.


I think it’s all part of Precision Air’s plan to make your journey even more unforgettable than it might have been anyway.


Having secured our visas on arrival (I, with a too full passport, was admonished by the authorities thus: there is no space in this, flicking through a document so battered that the gold lettering on the front has been rubbed off, your babies can get into our country but you will have to stay out until I persuaded them that it’d be fine to paste the necessary on the endorsements page of the passport) we tripped downstairs to gather baggage from the carousel.


Except that there wasn’t any. Or at least none that belonged to us. Only lots of other passengers lost luggage sitting forlornly in untidy piles being regarded in dismay by a dozen irritated travelers all demanding to know what had happened to their suitcases and did the Precision Air staff care that this was the 45th  time they’d misplaced it?


Evidently not.


What about compensation, I demanded, for some spare undies and a toothbrush?


Airport staff looked at me blankly.


Precision’s policy does not involve compensation. At least not until the baggage has been missing for 13 ½ years. Or something like that.


Leave your telephone number, I was instructed, we will call you when/if it arrives, so that you can come and collect it.


Don’t you deliver?


Precision Air’s policy does not involve delivery of lost luggage.


Nor, apparently, it transpired, is it Precision Air’s policy to turn their telephones on. Or answer those that they have forgotten to switch off during office hours.


24 hours after arrival and following numerous calls to PA offices in Dar, Nairobi and Kilimanjaro I secured the number of the Station Manager at the airport.


Since you have still not received confirmation of your baggage’s whereabouts, I can release the number for the airport duty staff, I was told by a woman who had clearly answered a PA telephone by accident (perhaps she was expecting a call from a friend, how disappointing to have to speak to an irate, disheveled, unbrushed, unwashed and in yesterday’s clothes passenger instead). She delivered this information in tones that suggested travelers were required to reach critical levels of impatient frustration before being granted privilege of access to a useful telephone number.


Mr Faustin, owner of that number, who answered with helpful alacrity, called me back, as promised, to inform me cheerfully that my suitcases, yes all four of them, were safely in the baggage hall.  They came via Dar, he said, they arrived last night, he added, as if they were relatives I’d long been expecting a visit from who’d turned up early bearing gifts.  As if, frankly, he was both surprised and delighted at their appearance.


Ben and I traipsed back to the airport with little sister en route to South Africa.


Have you got your ticket?


Yes, she confirmed.






Yellow Fever card?




Yellow Fever card? You need a valid one to travel to South Africa from here.


She looked stricken. Her long awaited, carefully executed, child-free (given imported minders) ten day break with her husband now in jeopardy because nobody had mentioned this. Until now; until 2 ½ hours before she was due to fly.


Omigawd; I’ve lost it, she wailed, on the verge of tears.


Don’t worry, I urged, seeing the expression on her face; we’ll make a plan.


This is Africa. T I A. There is always a plan. 


We tumbled from the cab as we pulled into the airport and tore up to the Health Office.


It was staffed by a very fat lady who led us, with a slow limp on account of legs exhausted by the effort of transporting the bulk above them, to the clinic.


We were ushered inside by a man with a hopeful glint in his eyes.


How many travelers? He enquired.


Just me, said my sister.


The glint dulled a little.


Come with me, he instructed.


I took a seat whilst my sister followed him into another office, the door shut firmly behind them.


You busy here? I asked the lady who’d delivered us to this point.


Oh yes, very, she said, very, very busy. Twenty four hours non stop. Always busy.


It didn’t look busy to me; the corridors echoed with the sound of a lone set of distant footsteps.


Lots of Yellow Fever business? I pressed.


Oh lots and lots, she said merrily.


I wondered later if that had anything to do with the generous expanse of her girth.


We continued our inconsequential chatter for a few moments before my sister emerged from behind the closed door.


She gathered me hastily up and we ran towards the Departure terminal.


Bloody hell that was expensive! my sister puffed


How much, I asked?


1,000 bob for the certificate, and another 1,000 for agreeing to give it to me without an injection.


In Johannesburg her story has been met with expressions of outrage and shock.


We can’t believe how corrupt your country is!


Hmm.  And I suppose there’s none of that south of our borders?




Making Memories

July 15, 2008



Tomorrow, at dawn, the children and I will pile into the car and drive five hours to Mwanza which lies sprawled as the worst kind of suppurating African urban spill on the shores of blue-grey-green Lake Victoria, its edges festooned with – alongside and in-between the corrugated iron roofed stain that spreads from its edges – enormous boulders which teeter precariously, like they have done for thousands of years, one on top of the other – balancing rocks – as if the tiniest nudge would send them tumbling down. A fragile house of cards.


And in Mwanza we will clamber aboard an aeroplane and fly north east. We will spy from the portholes as we sip warm Cokes and nibble curling Precision Air sandwiches Lengai and we will feel mildly disappointed that it has stopped its irritated volcanic smoking; we will witness the green puddle of lushness that leaks into the land around Arusha, damp and chilly and immersed in African mid winter now. And we will fly between two mountains, Meru and Kilimanjaro, standing face to face, sturdily sentential as they keep close watch over the border with Kenya, their hunched green shoulders collapsing to flat white plains whose surface is ribboned by the ancient, eternal tread of game and cattle and Maasai herders.


And then, twelve hours after leaving home, we will land in Nairobi where we will scramble into a very big taxi and we will drive across the city, marveling at its noise and size and interminable traffic and we will rendezvous with my sister and her three children.


And Mum. Who is well again. Who, after six months of being weighted down by Depression’s enervating shroud, has shrugged it off and is invigorated and happy and smiling. And she and I will, when my sister departs to join her husband in South Africa the following day, eat breakfast with a rowdy rabble aged between just five and almost seventeen. We will make mad trips to town, to the shops, to the cinema, to the Butterfly Centre and Safari Walk. Amelia and Hat will read to younger Lizzie and Katie. Ben will bowl endless cricket balls at little Ollie and will sweetly, in his gentle, early adult way, coax and encourage and make sure Ollie gets more runs than he really did. They will play rugby on the lawn. And Ollie will stare up at his older, taller cousin awed and delighted and shy. And he will remember every moment in order that he can recount to friends the days he spent kicking a ball about a garden with his big coz: my son will stand firm in Ollie’s young memory bank just like his older cousins have in his.  Fights will be few; there are enough cousins to go around. One a-piece.


And Mum and I will talk and laugh and talk and laugh and drink cold beer in the evening and talk and laugh some more.


When my mum is well she understands that life is to be caught tightly in both hands and held onto and she knows, within her grasp like that, how to milk it for every tiny ounce of happiness, for every sweet precious passing moment that it may render. She knows how not to worry, when she is well, about the mundane. About the incidental. About the unimportant. No matter the chaos that will whirl about us, that lunch will morph into picnics at Bedlam, that my small nieces who have climbed into our beds before it is light will dress as fairies wearing wellies when they accompany us to buy bread and milk, no matter. She will laugh. Because she is well.


She left Depression behind. She got on a plane, nagged and bullied by my sister and me, but we need you Mum, we pleaded on the phone across endless, unseen miles. And she left Depression behind. Sulking in her sitting room or whining in a cab or scowling on a train or hunkered miserable on a row of uncomfortable seats in London’s Heathrow. I don’t care. I don’t care where Depression is now.


Because for now it’s not with my Mum.


And so we will laugh. And spin some happy, lasting memories.


All of us.







Settling Dust

July 14, 2008








We are here.


In our new house.


We moved on Friday. Finally. After half-heartedly shifting half-loads for weeks, we got out our big stick and herded ourselves off and out. Five lorry loads ensued. Me piling the final dregs into bags and boxes as the truck drew out of the gate for the final time: wash bags, sponges, almost empty bottles of shampoo, the Leaning Tower of Pisa pile of books beside my bed and armfuls of back copies of the Spectator.


We just had time, once the last load had been packed, transported around the corner and unpacked, to hastily erect enough beds, sling the appropriate number of nets over each one and fall gratefully into them.


My eyes are gritty from too little sleep and too much dust – the house is full of it.


Our new home is still a building site. What was completed must, it appears, be rebuilt: we are learning which taps drip or don’t turn on/off at all; which wall sockets don’t work (most of them) and which doors won’t shut/open. We provide, I am sure, around the clock entertainment for the askari who peers in through windows naked of curtains as this little family scuttles about grazing on peanut butter sandwiches and bananas whilst unpacking boxes and cursing the lack of book shelves.


The garden is devoid of much except for a spectacular flamboyant in front of the verandah. I long for it to ignite into fiery blooms which will bleed all over the dust beneath it. Nor can I wait for end of year rains so that the sandpit that masquerades as a lawn will support the grass I plan to plant. When it rains. Until then we must endure the dust beneath bare feet like talc and try not to mind that nothing looks clean: Daz-White must wait til Christmas.


The dogs have ceased to tail me anxiously, from room to room. They have stopped trying to clamber into my car every time I go out. I think they have begun to understand this is home. The cats, incarcerated in my bedroom for a week, have lost their wild-eyed stares and are curled into peaceful balls beside me as I write. Under normal circumstances they would not tolerate being in the vicinity of one another but these, they have clearly agreed, are not normal circumstances. They’re not talking. But they have obviously, judging by their proximity on the duvet, made some kind of space-sharing truce. For now. No hissing or spitting or swatting each other crossly.


Whilst literal dust hangs choke-thick, eye-stingingly, skin-sloughing heavy in the air, the metaphorical kind is settling: I managed to find something clean to wear this morning; the television is working; the internet is up.


And the fridge is full of cold beer.





The Benefits of Hindsight

July 9, 2008




We have been away.


We probably oughtn’t to have gone. That’s what husband said. I told him Hindsight was wonderful stuff. Had we known, with the hindsight that was not afforded us when we left home on Saturday morning, how the weekend was going to pan out, then, no, absolutely, categorically, we ought not to have gone.


Especially so far.


Particularly given that I had malaria.


Diagnosed the day before we left, I feigned stoicism and told everybody I’d be fine.


They believed me.


When are other people, husbands predominantly, going to grasp that ‘I’ll be fine’ translates as I probably won’t be, cue unseemly amounts of TLC and radical changes of plan. 


Why are men so literal?


So we went. At 5am on Saturday morning. Me curled up with head on pillow. Children armed with the necessary to entertain themselves for the eight hour drive their father assured them was ahead of us.


I couldn’t pretend to be anything other than Fine. We had planned this trip months ago. Long before we realised we would be mid move. Certainly more distantly than we knew I’d be enfeebled by malaria. Definitely before we remembered how valuable Hindsight can be.


Our road trip to Katavi. One of Africa’s last great wildernesses.




The 8 hours morphed into ten.  The family ate breakfast overlooking the Malagarasi which gave Livingstone perpetual headaches during his expeditions inland as he and his porters were mired in its high waters when the river was in spate. I – with my own perpetual headache – lay prostrate across the bonnet of the car wondering why I’d got out of bed.


We arrived in Katavi in time for a cup of tea. And an early night.


Our first foray into the park the following morning began well. I felt brighter. Things were looking up.


Until – two hours into the third biggest and first loneliest wildlife conservation area in the country – we developed Car Trouble.


Car Trouble comes in a million different guises. It is at its most ominous when you are in country thick with buffalo, lion and hippo and your cell phone registers no network coverage.


Especially given the size and the solitude of our chosen weekend get-away.




We looked at one another forlornly.


‘We are in the S**t’, announced husband succinctly, as if we were all too stupid to have gleaned severity of situation for ourselves.


‘How often do you suppose a vehicle comes down this road?’ I mused


‘Couple of times a week?’ Husband said, scouring the ground for signs of tyre tread. There were none, just ours indicating where we’d come from. The direction we’d hoped to continue in was marked only with the tread of game. And it’s droppings.


With 3 litres of water, 7 naajis, a bag of stale popcorn and three swiftly blackening bananas, things looked dire.


‘We are all going to die’, wailed Hat miserably.


We didn’t. Obviously. For otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale which my darling children urged would make good blog fodder as we sat in the heat and dust feeling sorry for ourselves.


Finally, for there seemed no alterative, Husband and Son decided nothing for it but to walk for help, armed with a cell phone which they hoped might bleep into action at some point along the way.


The girls and I cowered in diminishing shade, carefully sipping water and wondering whether we ought to be saving our pee in plastic bags. Isn’t that prescribed prophylaxis to perishing from thirst in desert?


How bad was this going to be?


The air was silent but for bird call and the gentle whisper of the bush in response to the faint sighing of occasional breeze. The sky was huge. Huge and empty. No clouds. No planes. No nothing.


The longer we sat, the more I worried I became and the proportionately greater volumes of Rescue Remedy I squirted onto my tongue.


Had I sent the boys in the right direction, I fretted? How good was my map reading, really? Be honest here.


What about buffalo? Katavi teems with huge herds of them. 1000 at a time, great big black hulking brutes with sulky expressions and mean beady eyes.




And hippo. The mammal responsible for more human fatalities than any other in Africa.


And – oh God – what about the lion?


My friend Tash, member of Big Cat Diary crew, recently described to me the aggression and determined hunting technique of the Katavi lion.


They’ll bring down a buff, she said.


One man of 6’2” accompanied by a lean teen would be easy pickings.


Amelia was remarkably relaxed. She lay in the sun and read her book. Amelia never goes anywhere without a book.


‘Chillax man, Ma, it’ll be cool.’


I hoped she was wearing her Lucky Pants.


Hat massaged my shoulders, ‘Away worries, away!’ she demanded.


Almost three hours after the boys had vanished into the scrub and out of sight, a park vehicle – alerted after a call from them – came barreling over our dusty horizon and we were rescued. We picked up the boys minutes later, trailing back to us, through the bush, sunburned and thirsty and coated in dust.


They had been neither gored, trampled nor made mincemeat of by a pride of hungry lion.


They had seen nothing.


Except for a cobra, ‘as thick as my arm’, reported Ben delightedly.


The rest of our weekend was spent trying to ascertain how we could get home given our car could clearly not.


We managed a lift yesterday. We arrived back in the Outpost last night travel weary and filthy dirty.


And full of reflections on the benefit of hindsight …


And now, if you will excuse me briefly, I must move house.










Empty Drawers

July 3, 2008



We’re living in a weird twilight zone: somewhere between this, our old – of only a year – home and our next one, still something of a building site where the loos don’t flush and the taps don’t run but which is where most of our furniture awaits us.


Some of our conversations reflect our present half-lit half-life.


Asina, who has been away for a day, gathers the necessary to lay the table for breakfast and returns looking bemused, ‘it’s gone’, she says, ‘the table’. It has. It did. Yesterday. We’ll have to manage on our laps for now.  We remain with just our beds and boxes full of clothes in lieu of wardrobes. The children dig for whatever it is they need to wear. Or don’t bother and make do with pajamas all day.


Amelia insists she needs mine and Hat’s help sorting and packing her underwear as she empties final drawers. With slyly captured audience, she subjects her little sister and me to a running commentary on assorted knickers:


‘These are my mountain climbing pants.’




‘They are roomy and comfortable.’


Ah right. Of course.


‘These are my fat-day pants.’


I have some of those too.


‘These are my radical pants.’




‘See, it says Radical here’ and she indicates the label.


Hat wants to know what Radical means.


‘Girl power’, says her older sister.


‘These’, and she picks up what appears to be a brand new pair of Tesco’s Best, ‘are too good to wear. You bought them for me Mum’.


I did. Because she insisted she needed new ones.  That without them her life would fall apart. As she swore all of her knickers had done already.


‘These’ as she carefully folds another pair, ‘are my party pants’.


‘Why do you have to have party pants?’ a confused Hat demands, ‘nobody’s going to see them’.


I hope not. God, I hope not.


‘Because if I look nice on the outside, I like to think I look nice underneath as well’.


I do not have the heart to tell her that when she has been married for twenty years she will only care about looking presentable on the outside, that her grey washing-machine fatigued M&S undies will be the least of her concerns.  Providing, of course, she has remembered to put them on. I hope that between now and then – tired, sagging, absent-minded middle age – my daughter can indulge in Myla and Agent Provocateur and Bodas


“I iron my knickers before I go out’, she tells a very impressed Hat who is clearly taking mental notes


I’d like to be able to iron my face before I go out, I think to myself. Sod the bloody undies.


‘And these’, as she sifts through the last of the heap, ‘are knickers that look better off than on’.




My daughter is fourteen. This is not the kind of thing you want to hear your fourteen year old daughter say.


She obviously takes note of the alarm which is quickly suffusing my expression.




And she demonstrates.


The knickers look tiny: narrow-hipped, skinny-jean, size-zero tiny.


Abnormally tiny in fact: the waist measurement is about 7 ¾ inches.

Amelia stretches them to a more realistic 27 ¾ inches and they mesh out unattractive and transparent.


Indubitably: they look better off than they probably would on.

I’m relieved she explained.



Rolling Dough

July 1, 2008




Pastry cutters.


Dozens of them.


Rattling around jostling for space amongst the cake tins and cooling racks that I have tossed, because I am mind crushingly bored of packing now and impatient to be finished with the job, so that they lie higgledy-piggledy, one on top of another, bare of a muffle of bubble wrap, in a huge cardboard box.  They will complain bitterly once we get moving, I can hear their clattering complaints already.


I stop throwing for a moment and eye them. I feel a bit guilty. They’d wink at me, the pastry cutters, if I used them more often; they’d be shinier if I did. As it is they’re crusted with a tired coat of rust.


I am going to use them more in my new home. I make a promise to myself. And to them. They’d smile back if they weren’t so lacklustre, so jaded by the tedium of dark back-of-drawer living, dejected, apparently long forgotten except by the cockroaches that scuttle between them in the middle of the night.


They hold, you see, in their scallop-curled-corners, such sweet memories of childhood. 


Mum made pastry on a board. She cooled her hands before she rubbed the butter into the flour; she ran the cold tap over the inside of her tilted wrists, to chill the blood to her hands, she said: the cooler her palms, the shorter the pastry, she explained.


We watched as she rolled the dough with a wooden rolling pin to smooth sleek sheet, our small flour dusted noses just peeping over the top of the kitchen counter, we watched as she deftly pressed down into the dough with a cutter and twisted sharply so that it gathered the perfectly executed shape between its edges and she could drop it into the soft hollows of a muffin tin. She wasted little; each cut made as close to the last as possible. No gaps.


When the muffin tin was full of shell-shaped pastry cases, my brother and I were given the scraps from which to fashion whatever we liked. We rolled and tugged and pulled until our own little piece of dough was grey from the grime of small hot hands.


“See, Robert, I’m making a snake, see, see? Ssssssss! It’s going to BITE you!” My brother squealed and rolled his own piece more energetically.


Mum filled the tarts with a careful teaspoon of strawberry jam. Glossy, fat red berries cushioned in scarlet jelly which slid from the spoon lazily. She filled the space perfectly so that it bubbled caramel but never boiled over or burned bitter black at the edges. We baked them and ate them hot with a dollop of farm fresh cream heaped on top.


Nobody made jam tarts like my mum did.


I am going to teach Hat how to.


As soon as we’re there. As soon as I’ve unearthed the pastry cutters I’ve made my silent pledge to.