Archive for August, 2008

Minding the Gap. And New Shoes

August 28, 2008

I have bought new shoes.

They are outrageously, irresponsibly, ridiculously high. Six inches, at least.

I never wear heels. I have no need now: barefoot and shorts-clad in the Outpost, the only thing between my soles and the floor, a slippery talc of dust.  Where on earth will you wear them, my Head demands in irritation, what a waste it tuts, crossly.

But I have bought heels. Higher than any I have ever worn.

My Heart wasn’t listening.

I laughed as I tried them on, teetering around a store. Some observers smiled, some looked on po-faced: I am too old to be lurching, giggling giddy across a shop floor to the amusement of my eleven year old daughter.

Go on Mum! Get  them, urged Hat.

I warned my big kids, ‘When I go to England, I’m buying heels’, I said.

I am shorter than my two eldest children now. And smaller and lighter than my son who is seventeen today. Once I could pick him up. Now he does me, clean off my feet, hugging me in an embrace so tight he winds me with his man-child strength. And with the joy, the sheer beautiful take-your-breath-away unexpectedness, that at 17 he still, sometimes, wants to hug his mother.

And Amelia, willowy slender, clasps me so that my head fits snug into the curve described by her shoulder and neck. My face beneath her chin. My skin, lined and pummelled by the march of time, the tread of three children who have added more to laughter lines than to the frown that folds between my brows (that’ll be squinting too often into an African sun because I cannot locate my dark glasses) looks parchment-old against the smooth alabaster of her fourteen year old one.

They chuckle, my two big kids, ‘Come, little mama’, they tease and manhandle me to remind me that they can. Now.

Once it was I who lifted them, swung them upwards and in dizzying circles, round and round, higher and higher, and shrieked weeeeeeeeeee to rapturous applause of their delighted laughter: encore mama, encore. And so again, weeeeeeeeeee. Because I could. Then.

And when I read to them, at bedtime, their sweetly intoxicating Baby Shampoo scented heads close enough to plant random kisses upon, near enough so that I might inhale deeply and any still busily worrisome whirling dervish thoughts be stilled by that unrivalled high. When they drooped, sleepy, curled against my body, beneath my arm, beside my hip, soft child-flesh filling angular shapes. A perfect, perfect fit. The last piece of a jigsaw puzzle; the one you’d been looking for.

I didn’t just buy heels so that I could smile at their expressions when they noticed my new found elevation.

I bought heels so that I could buy some time. Fill a space again. So that – briefly – I might feel the shape of their heads against my shoulder. 

Mind the gap, Mum, Hat will warn as I board the train, tottering perilously on my precipitous new heels.

Sometimes you don’t notice it until it’s too late, see.


There’s a new page on my blog, a link to the right of this, Mind the Mummy Gap. If you can bear to, please click  on it.

Thank you. x


And What Do You Do?

August 27, 2008



Bank Holiday Monday. And we walk, la famille, nine of us aged between 7 and seventy: great nieces and granduncles. It means we walk like a spring; a group stretched by the disparity between years and fitness levels, strung around the reservoir when the younger and quicker get bored of hanging back. We bounce together when our conscience gets the better of us though, and shuffle then in a huddle that it difficult for speeding cyclists to navigate.


We go the pub afterwards: it’s easier to eat en masse than ramble as a group. We’re better at it too: eating and drinking together; we’ve done if often over the years.  We’ve had more practice at that than communal walking.


We are joined by two of my cousin’s London friends: a futures trader and his wife. I am introduced as Mike’s African Cousin. I am quite plainly not: African. And the eleven years between us and the difference between our complexions (my cousin’s smooth English one, my weathered hide) throws the ‘cousin’ connection into question. I can see the futures trader and his wife thinking: African? No. Cousin …. Hmmmm? Possibly. She’s a lot older though.


She takes a seat opposite me. It is a long time since I was obliged to converse with a professional from London. It’s a long time since I was obliged to converse. But she makes it easy: she smiles and laughs readily. I ask her what she does. She is a journalist on one of the national dailies.


She is pregnant too.


‘Will you work after your baby is born?’ I ask her.


‘I am not sure’, she replies, ‘I think I’ll just wait to see how I feel’.


I tell her she is sensible. Society plants too many expectations on mothers as it is.  Why would we want to exacerbate those by adding the weight of our own? You cannot describe what becoming a mother is like – the job is too huge, too different according to whose doing it, too personal – so I do not try.


She does not ask me what I do.


If she had done I’d probably have said, ‘Oh, I’m JustaMum’. But I would probably have added, ‘I do a bit of writing and I teach Hat’ and I’d have gestured my little girl at the end of the table.


I wonder how she will describe herself once her son or daughter arrives.




Hat says, ‘I once read something called Ten Tips on How to be Happy’.


I know how elusive Happiness can be. So does Mum. So we ask Hat, ‘And what did it say?’


‘Oh I don’t remember them all’, says Hat, ‘just two’.


And she elaborates:


Try to do one nice thing for somebody else every day so that you feel better about yourself.


‘That sounds wise’, says her grandmother.


‘And make a collage of all your achievements’.


Mum – who eight weeks ago shook off Depression’s clammy grip which had pinned her vice like in unrelenting misery for a full six months – smiles broadly; Mum – who until recently would have sniffed at How to be Happy tips – says confidently, ‘In that case I would make a collage with pictures of my children and all their children; for they are my greatest achievement’.







Home Coming?

August 24, 2008



We are here, Hat and I, in England.  The last time I was here, in April, the sun was shining and the rape was blooming ridiculously rudely yellow. And I noticed little of it, my mood infected by poor Mum’s.


August now and the sky bellies grey and low and occasionally sags so close to earth it is punctured by church spires and fat foliaged oaks so that the wetness leaks out and dampens the air and leaves the pavements oil slick glossed. I barely notice. Mum is spilling smiles and sunshine and pound coins. Hat gathers the coins whilst I bask in the sunshine. Few people in the world match my mum for good company. When she is well.


Hat’s face mirrors her bursting enthusiasm. It began on board assorted aeorplanes (3) during our journey here.


‘Aren’t you excited, mum?’


She was. Hers was bubbling up so quickly it split her small face into an enormous smile in its hurry to escape. Even as she slept fitfully curled into her seat. Especially as she spied the Alps, egg white whipped and sparkling against an early morning blue.


‘Are those the Himalayas, mum?’


I laughed, ‘Where do you go to school, Silly?’


We landed in London to late summer straggling queues and the news that our baggage had been left behind in Zurich. Swiss timing not as it once was, clearly. But it didn’t matter; it meant we could skip across a London unfettered by luggage, ‘We’ll deliver it when it arrives’, they said. And they did. That doesn’t happen with Precision.


We arrived at Heathrow to a frosty Passport Control. The lady behind the desk took our maroon passports. Mine so old and battered that the gold embossed promise I belong to Britain has vanished; Hat’s shiny and new and convincingly intact.


The lady behind the desk opened both and observed our photographs. I look older than I did then. And blonder.


‘Is this your, Mummy, Harriet?’ she asks.


Sweet Hat’s smile bubbles out as laughter, ‘Yes’, she replies.


I smile at the lady. But she does not smile at me as she hands our passports back.


A brush with the Real World. In the Real World people steal children.


We live in Africa. Real life doesn’t come more concentrated that it does in Africa. Undiluted by the luxury of running water.  But its distance sometimes removes it from the Real World. Where many people care more about whether Posh is still Katie’s friend than hungry African babies. Already Africa seems very far away. A tiny speck on my horizon.


Whilst I have lived in England, my children have not. Yet their relationship with it is friendlier, easier, than mine. I wonder why? Mine began at boarding school in Kent, a belligerent teenager full of obligatory adolescent angst and anger. At being sent away to school in England, mainly. It improved as a student in Oxford. And I bore it with resignation whilst I worked in London where I missed seeing fat African stars, where the neon light that percolated up into the night sky stole the dark and chased the stars away: Dad was dead, Mum had moved to the Northamptonshire village where she still lives.


And my children were all born here.  In their maroon passports it says, Place of Birth: UK. Mine says Nairobi. Mum’s says Bombay. The British Consulate said it’d be wise, even though I lived in Tanzania by then, to make the journey Home to have them there. My children’s claim to Englishness had been a little undermined, courtesy of a plethora of grandmothers and great-grandmothers who in their exuberant settling days neglected to return Home, as I was being advised to do, to deliver their babies and instead had them on foreign soil: India, the Congo, Kenya.


And if I don’t, I enquired crossly, have my babies in England?


Then they will be stateless, I was told tersely. ‘Refugees. Good day’.


So. They were born in England. All three of them. They took 8 hours, 4 hours and fifty minutes to make their respective debuts into the world. Hat, sweetly obliging as ever, knew I was in a hurry to get home.  We flew back she was ten days old. She sat slumped in her car seat, tiny torso curled, babygro toes way beyond her own, looking quite unperturbed by a second and much slower move in less than two weeks.


The man at British Airways said, as he checked us in, my brood and me, and peered over the counter at the tiny infant at my feet, surrounded by bags and buggies, ‘I didn’t know we took them so young’.


Hat likes to tell people she was born in England. Perhaps it helps to anchor her. Perhaps knowing she was born here helps to make her feel she belongs.


But I think it’s also because her – and her siblings – relationship with England hasn’t ever been about boarding school and sitting on radiators whilst you tried to acclimatize to the cold thinking wistfully of a far-flung drenched in dust and sunshine Africa that nobody seemed to talk about. Her England, their England, has been mostly about family. Granny. Great Aunts and Uncles. Cousins. Second-Cousins-Once-Removed. Familiar links secure us on a reassuring chain. Hat likes to count her relatives; she likes to place them in relation to herself: ‘If Mike’s your cousin, what is he to me?’


She and Alice, two years her junior and my cousin’s daughter, barrel towards one another as if the year since they last saw each other had never happened.  They share a name, one that has recently been selected for another new second cousin and which belonged to a mutual and much loved great grandmother. I wish Gran knew of the small precious heritage she has left this collection of daughters who all deem family important, and all for quite different reasons. They disappear into the garden, heads (Hat’s titian curled one and Alice long blonde) bowed close together in delicious, little girl, secrets.  We gather blackberries on a walk. Fat swollen fruit that bruises our fingers purple the moment we pluck it from the bush. Our bucket is half-full within moments: Mum says so. Mum’s always Half Full. Until Depression creeps up on her and tips her out.


The girls collect windfalls in a Sainsbury bag. Hat is happy. As am I. My head has been full of so much that the words have found it hard to find a place to sit. I spent a fitful, sleepless night as hundreds of them rained down suddenly. I will gather them up and write a story.


And use the apples and the berries in jam.



Off on Honeymoon

August 19, 2008

My honeymoon – like quite alot of things in my life – is mildly unconventional.

For a start, I am leaving ahead of my groom (by two weeks). Though we are rendezvous-ing. In south west France.

But it is timely. Not least because we have been married for nearly twenty years.

But also because we have both reached Outpost Burnout.

Getting away, a long, long way away, seemed prudent.

A bientot x

How Not to Wait at Tables

August 16, 2008

There is a new restaurant in the Outpost.

It’s called the Golden Eagle.

Local competition, with not the tiniest hint of sneering sour grapes you understand, has dubbed it the Golden Cockroach.

They’re probably right. About the cockroaches.

But competition is a healthy thing. Even if cockroaches are not. Though my mother-in-law always deemed they were: they ate all the rubbish in the kitchen, she said. Helped with the housekeeping, she said.

So we went. Husband, children and I. To the Golden Eagle/Cockroach. For a Last Supper. Before the Big Ones returned to boarding school last week.

We washed our hair and put on our glad rags and went out for dinner.

First impressions weren’t encouraging: the place was almost empty. But we sallied forth: the Outpost has made us brave. And limited choices have rendered us less dismissive of what there is than we once might have been.

A waitress wandered over to take our drinks order.

Amelia – optimistically – ordered a milkshake. The waitress looked at her blankly.


Have a coke, darling, I suggested, thinking her dad had talked the place up a little too enthusiastically.

The waiter ambled up shortly afterwards shuffling a handful of scruffy A4 pages. The menu is transpired.

What do you want? He demanded as he rifled through grimy pages without sharing them with us.

Chicken, I ventured? What kind do you have (as in: Tandoori? Masala? Grilled?)


I looked blank.

The chicken is from the village, he explained. Loudly. Because he thought I was really stupid, obviously.

Have the beef, hissed husband, impatient at my rambling indulgent consideration of what to eat as if I were dining someplace like The Ivy.

At that point our table was joined by the proprietor’s seven year old daughter. She was disarmingly precocious and alarmingly loquacious.

My dad’s restaurant is very good isn’t it?

We all murmured assent. Lack of milkshakes and surfeit of village chicken aside.

The food here is very good, she added, and the bar too – and she waved her arm in the direction of a bar festooned with fairy lights.

Fabulous PR tactic, I whispered to husband, send your pretty little daughter out to charm the guests.

Hm. He grunted.

And the pool table is also very nice. I am very good at pool.

Because we had grown a little tired of the animated juvenile marketing strategy we made Hat go and have a game with her, of pool. Hat made a cross face but quietly acquiesced.

Our meal arrived – beef as ordered by husband – at the same time as Hat reappeared, looking even crosser.

She cheats, she hissed at me.

Our pint-sized hostess rejoined us too and sagely observed us whilst we ate, leaning against the table.

Then she said, ‘Meat gives you warts, you know, I can show you a picture in my Body Atlas if you like?’

The Best Laid Plans

August 13, 2008

I learned a valuable lesson once. I don’t remember when exactly, but a long time ago.


I learned that even the best laid plans often don’t come to fruition.


I certainly didn’t absorb the lesson immediately. And I probably still haven’t: not so entirely as to be inoculated against making plans that fall apart – sometimes softly, sometimes with jarring abruptness – ever again. But each time I am confronted with a plan that doesn’t, well, go to plan I am less indignant than the last time.


The first shocking adult revelation that some plans go awry long before inception was when my Dad died at 47 putting paid to plans to combine my 21st birthday party with his 50th.


The second came soon afterwards: when my plan to marry a Dulwich-living Lloyds broker fell apart long after a deposit had been placed on a gown in Tatters on the Kings Road. Long after the church had been booked. Long after the fabric for the bridesmaids’ dresses had been purchased. But, blessedly, just before I trotted up the aisle to make what would, indubitably, have been the biggest mistake I ever made.


Lots of plans since have been derailed: by life, by circumstance, by something I hadn’t seen even though it was lying heavily in the plan’s path all along.


My plan to send our children to the prep school my brother went to? So that they might benefit from similar advantages: sport, chapel on Sunday evenings, tradition, convention, good manners, the doffing of school caps?


That plan went pear-shaped when Ben was bullied. We plucked him out and sent him to an international school where sport wasn’t as strong, where there was no chapel at all, not even on Sunday evenings (there were no Sunday evenings: it was a day school) and where the doffing of school caps was replaced by the thumbing of noses. At convention mainly. At conformity. As in: don’t try to make your children conform to what was the norm when you were young.


Our plan to make our millions when we invested our life savings in a farm we called home and grew to love began to fray at the edges quite soon after we’d signed the dotted line. By the time we realized we’d made a colossal error of judgment, the plan had disintegrated to nothingness.


And so another recent plan has evaporated to be replaced, as is sometimes the case but not always (I will never stop being sad Dad and I didn’t share a birthday party; we will probably never stop regretting that we invested in a farm that went bankrupt), by something much better (marrying a farmer in Africa was an infinitely happier plan than becoming the wife of a London broker).


My son was offered, on the condition he attained certain grades in recent IGCSE exams, an assisted place at an independent school in England.


He thought, ‘Oh goody: more cricket’.


I thought, ‘Oh goody: chapel on Sunday evenings, tradition, convention, good manners, the doffing of school caps …” (as I said, sometimes the first failed plan’s lesson takes a while to sink in).


But before the results were available I began to notice that my son’s enthusiasm for More Cricket had begun to wane.


And I also – uncharacteristically – began to notice the obstacle lying in our plan’s path before we all tripped over it.


One Saturday afternoon, post exams, pre results, I took a cold beer into the garden and joined my almost-seventeen-year-old who was hanging in the hammock.


I proffered the bottle for us to share.  ‘Spill the beans’, I said, ‘you don’t want to go, do you?’


He didn’t, he said, not anymore. He had once, he added hastily, and apologetically, so that I might know the effort had not all been in vain. But not now. ‘I am happy where I am, Mum, I like my friends’.


He was tired of change, he said. I empathized: it had been a year full of it.


‘So don’t go’, I said. Just like that. ‘Don’t go’.


It was easy. No angst. No sleepless nights. No deliberating. Not even, and this is the best bit, a twinge of indignation.


Just a change of plan. Another change of plan.


Friends, some friends who have their hearts set on schools like the one we have apparently just dismissed – chapel, tradition, convention, doffing of school caps – pretend they understand our choice. But they don’t. They think we have wasted an ‘opportunity’. I can hear it in the briefest of pauses after I have told them, ‘He’s not going, you know?’ and before they say, ‘Oh!’ I hear it then. In that tiny silence. Before they draw breath.


Have I? Squandered an opportunity? My son’s first Big Break?


I don’t think so. My friend E doesn’t think so either : “Good for you, boy”, she said, emphatically, because she meant it.


I think, instead, we have given him a different opportunity as the ManChild he is, teetering on the precipice of GrownUp: the opportunity to affect some influence on his own life. He has made his first big choice, by himself. Taken responsibility for himself. The gently stretching self-confidence is evident days after he returns to his old school – happy, smiling, buoyant, laughing with his mates: he calls me to tell me which subjects he plans to take and which exams he will retake. He does not ask my advice, my opinion. He simply delivers his decision as a fait accompli.


I say, ‘That’s great, well done. And if you decide to change tack, you know you can’.


Because, of course, he has had another opportunity – to learn that plans change.


And that sometimes that’s OK.


Sometimes it’s a bloody good thing they do.





Why Women Must Make Jam

August 6, 2008



Livvy reminded me of this. In a recent post. So eloquent and graceful and honest and generous in its delivery. Livvy reminded me that most of us – lots of us – lose our way. Sometimes. It’s not surprising. Not when you’re a woman. Our route maps might as well be roughly sketched on the backs of cigarette packets: you could be any number of the following: daughter, sister, career girl, lover, wife, mother, carer, grandmother … or something like that … roughly speaking … if you see what I meanand not necessarily in that order either, by the way … sorry I can’t be more specific …


But how will I know when I ought to shift gears, move from one to another: marriage to motherhood? From job to job? Career to career? One kids to two? Two to three? Is there a right time to change roles between career, say, and motherhood? Ought I work or stayathome? How do I even do my new job, come to think of it?


Quick, desperate glance at back of fag packet clutched between trembling fingers: … sorry I can’t be more specific …


Nobody knows.


It’s why titles at Amazon on Parenting abound (36,751 at last count), where those on Rocket Science do not (678).


It’s why, at least I think it’s why, women are more likely to succumb to Depression than men. Their myriad, merging, multi-faceted roles begin to smudge the boundaries of Me.  That’s what happened to my mum. We moved. The last of her babies, with shy beating of newly stretched wings, flew the nest and Mum was sunk into a chasm of What Now? What Next? She lost her particular copy of that hastily drawn map and before she could confidently pick up the path again, Depression had slipped a cold clammy hand into hers and dragged her off into the dark.


I lost Me once. I remember it clearly. Not just because I wrote about it but because I remember what prompted the words. Changes. Mostly. Like with mum. And more role manipulation. No longer a full time mother because children were no longer at home full time: my days were emptied of demands to read, to feed, to watch Pingu on the telly.  Pingu bugs the hell out of you until you’ve got nobody to watch it with.


I especially remember the moment the realization that I didn’t know Me anymore hit home: I sat on the kitchen counter consumed by an overwhelming feeling of disorientation. Loss of direction. Loss of definition. Loss of enough to do to the point of near-redundancy. Loss of self-esteem. 


Just loss, really.  Mum agrees: that’s what did it, she remembers, Loss.


And I cried. Great, big gulps of sadness and confusion and fear.


My husband looked on askance, regarding me with a peculiar mixture of sympathy and horror but mostly horror.


‘What’s the matter?’ he asked as gently as he could.


I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell him that I had Lost Myself. You lose keys, Goddamnit (at least I do, often); you lose your glasses; you don’t lose yourself. Not if you’re a man. (My friend B, a man and dad of two, tells me men can’t lose themselves because they lack the emotional intelligence to know how).


So I didn’t test the fine veneer of his trying-to-be-patient-and-understanding facade by saying I have lost Me. Instead I said, ‘I don’t know what to do next’.


My husband is dear and kind and clever. And – above all – eminently practical.


‘Make jam?’, he suggested.


Make jam? Make jam!


I was indignant (which at least arrested the sobs, briefly) that he presumed knocking up preserves should replace the busy, important, involved, mothering, nurturing person I had – hitherto – been for ten odd years.


I didn’t make jam.  I mean I do. Occasionally. Really, really badly. So that either it won’t set at all and slips and slides all over your plate and cannot be spread obediently on toast. Or else it cements itself inside the jar and won’t be coaxed out.


But I did begin to write; I began to fill hours with words. And I wrote my newspaper story about how it felt to lose your way. Its publication, of course, was gratifying. But much, much, much more gratifying than that were the letters I received subsequent to its running. Women aged early twenties to late eighties wrote to me. (Their messages are archived carefully, too). They’d all been there. Where I had found myself. In the wilderness of lost, wandering, women. Some were still there, flailing about, groping their way through the dark, trying to find somebody who could explain the Job Spec for wife or mum or whole, happy women, trying to find somebody who knew what the hell they were doing, who would be happy to impart a little wisdom without sounding smug. Others had navigated their way out the other side and were able to shine a light on my stumbling journey, ‘it gets better’, they said, ‘it gets easier’.


And it did. I continued to write. I still write. It’s My Thing; my metaphorical Jam Making.


It isn’t the jam that’s important, it’s certainly not how you make it that counts. My husband -wise boy – knew that. It’s the purpose, direction, happiness, engagement and occassional real achievement that comes with it, whether it’s fat glossy strawberry preserve winking at me from a hot jar, or a screen full of words that I have threaded together to make a pattern that suits my moods. It’s not big or important or even, usually, a money spinner (jam would earn me much more).


But it helps me to make sense of my world when life knocks the edges off and leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable. It keeps me company when I feel lonely. It reminds me who I am when I am no longer sure.


I think, girls, we all need to learn to Make Jam.








The worst kind of worry

August 5, 2008

Amelia fainted yesterday.

We were in the pharmacy in town. It is small and airless and forever filled with a crush of people paying for malaria drugs which the WHO insist no longer work but which are still sold here (by shopkeepers who either don’t know or don’t care what the WHO says) and purchased by desperate people who either don’t know that the WHO feel so strongly about combined drug therapies in the treatment of malaria that they have articulated a desire to have anything else pulled off dusty shelves across Africa. Or cannot afford them.

So I – because I can read English and because, given our geography, have had to educate myself to a degree about medicine and because I have a tome about health care published by the BMJ and a copy of the drug bible, BNF – am leaning over the counter having reached the head of the hot little crush and am reading the insert in a box of antibiotics.

Amelia is behind me.

I feel sick, she says.

I only half hear her. I presume this is her fourteen year old way of complaining about the wait and the heat and the warm-body smells exuding all around us.

I feel sick, she says again. A bit more insistently this time.

I turn around. She is the colour of chalk. I realise I need to get her out fast.

But we don’t make it. As we turn to leave, she crumples in a heap on the floor, her head is saved from crashing to the cement because of the heaving density of the crowd and the counter she collapses against.

For a few seconds I do not hear anything. I don’t see anything except my young daughter’s blanched expression and pale lips and glazed eyes. And then, thank God, thank God, the colour returns to her face, she registers mine, and bursts into tears.

We stumble out of the pharmacy, I try to put my arm about her shoulders to draw her protectively towards me but she is too tall. Instead I clutch her elbow and guide her to the car, watched by a gathering crowd, and we drive home, all windows wide open.

I used to faint. My mum did too. We were swooners who ought to have been armed with smelling salts. 

But it’s different when it’s your daughter. It’s not something, then, to boast to your mates about, ”I fainted you know”. Now it’s something to worry about.

And it’s a big worry when you live this far away. In the bush. Living in the bush exacerbates your health paranoia to the point of hypochondria. albeit by proxy in the case of loved ones.

We get home and I make Amelia drink a pint of coke and eat a bar of chocolate and lie down with a book. And then I fuss over her all day, shadowing her, insisting that she leaves the bathroom door unlocked when she goes to the loo whilst I hover outside anxiously.

“I’m fine, Mum”, she says, sweetly trying hard not to sound impatient at my clucking.

Teenage girls are liable to faints. Especially when they’re so tall. Especially when they’re growing. Especially when they can’t be bothered with breakfast. Especially when their mothers make them stand and wait too long in hot, airless, little dukas.

I know all this. But I get online and re-read it all anyway.

My children’s health is my greatest concern here. Where the medical facilities are lacking. Basic. Extend, at most, to a laboratory where you can get a blood slide read – though not necessariy accurately – for signs of malaria. Or a stool sample, dysentery.  If any one of us were really sick I would be obliged to phone Flying Doctor in Kenya for an airlift. And even if they could scramble a plane then and there, we’d have a nail-biting, sky-scanning, three hour wait for it.  And during that interminable wait, I would forget that I am lucky I can afford such a luxury.

I try not to think too hard about it.

I resort to the internet. I make calls to friendly doctors. I put my worries to them. Which is unfair: how could they diagnose over the phone. I subject Amelia to a blood test to check her iron levels. I make a promise to myself to make her eat breakfast.

And I continue to watch all three like a hawk.

Whilst my daugher MSNs her mates, ”I fainted, you know!”

Scaring Crows

August 3, 2008

Two big ugly black and white pied crows have taken up evening residence in the garden. They have clocked, because they are clever birds, that that’s when the dogs are fed. Hang around long enough, hovering hopefully, and the dogs, having picked all the meat out of their supper, leave the rice behind. They wander off then, and flop into the shade and the crows take over, pecking delightedly whilst perched cheekily on the edges of the dogbowls. I have urged my fat labrador Kanga, ‘Sa, sa!!’ but she looks at me disdainfully with liquid brown eyes as if to say, ‘Look honey, I am not going to deign to chasing crows’.

I describe my annoyance to the girls as we walk our splendid new verdant estate. And several hours later they constructed (under the nightwatchman’s nonplussed gaze) a solution to my avian pests.

He is called Senor Margherita. I don’t know why he’s wearing a beret. He should be Monsieur Escargot. Particularly given that he has a Gauloise hanging from his bottom lip. No matter his origin; he is very handsome (though not, obviously, in rugged Marlboro Man way). Albeit astonishingly short. The sign the girls have erected beside him reads WARNING: SMOKING STUNTS YOUR GROWTH. I feel they ought to exhibit some restraint regards their anti-smoking exercises, given what their father does for a living. Given that its the noxious weed that not only puts food on our table but that of the dogs as well. And the crows come to think of it.


But they could also have written – and you must forgive me, it’s more than my (my husband’s actually) job’s worth not to offer some defence of the industry – SEE THE WORLD: SMOKE.

Come dawn though, and Senor M had clearly decided to kick the habit. Or perhaps somebody had hammered it out of him overnight? Orlanda maybe?(Orlando until we instructed the vet to pick his pockets only to discover, once under sedation that he was a she without pockets to pick and thus newly christened Orlanda) who perhaps offered to sit beside him in the morning sun  but only if he put his fag out in the dust first.

Which he obligingly did.

Frankly I couldn’t care whether he lights up or not. No long as he sees the wretched crows off.

Briefly arresting their Growing Up

August 1, 2008




We are home now.


A brief sweet week of long lie-ins for my big kids and rediscovering her books and new bedroom for Hat, before we must head north towards school. How swiftly the holidays seem to have raced by? Did time always move so quickly? Didn’t Christmas used to take an eternity to come around again, yet already we are August and people are muttering about plans for a four-month-hence festive season.


Already Nairobi seems so long ago. A small capsule of family and giggles and – in a house populated predominantly by the very young – not enough sleep. The two weeks went by too fast too. I was the proverbial Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Except that I didn’t feed my so many children broth. My young charges demanded boiled egg and soldiers for supper. So I buttered the toast and cut it as instructed and was reminded of a time when my own young required the same of me.


The immediacy of mothering the small is hugely gratifying: you feel so needed. So in demand. So very necessary.


I did send them to bed afterwards though. Earlier than their own mother might have done. For by then, older than my dear sister and harried from a long day herding half a dozen assorted offspring, I needed to put my feet up.


Are you looking forward to Mummy coming home? I enquired of my youngest niece and God-daughter, Katie.


Yes, she trilled gleefully, ‘cos then we can go to bed when we want to!’


I was born in Nairobi. My father was too. But it is alien to my own children who have spent their lives in Tanzania. They don’t know anybody there – other than their aunt and their three cousins.


‘Good Lord!’ Exclaimed a mildly shocked acquaintance of my mum’s, ‘what on earth are you going to do with teens in town if they don’t know anybody?’


Well. I took them to see Kung Fu Panda, along with the rest of the team. We sat giggling. At Po’s antics and at Kate who, just four, was perhaps a little young to sit incarcerated in a cinema seat for two hours.


“I think it’s bath-time now’’, she hissed 20 minutes into the movie, ‘we had better go home’’.


I sent them, the big ones, my big ones, to watch The Dark Knight on their own. I took them shopping. I fed them pizza and curry and ice-cream, rare treats in the Outpost. And we all fed the residents at Giraffe Manor and stroked their soft velvet noses.


All six children spent endless hours in a garden playing football and French cricket (the little ones, ready for an aged aunt’s early bedtimes, already dressed in their pajamas and smelling delciously sweetly of Baby Shampoo and damp heads).



Amelia blew bubbles for her young cousins. I do not know whose expressions were the more lovely: Lizzie and Kate’s for their evident excitement as they raced to pop each one, or Amelia’s at the ease with which she effected such tangible delight.


Hattie choreographed a ballet sequence and she and Katie delivered it on a lawn glazed with orange evening light filtered cobweb by towering Eucalyptus trees. Ben bought Ollie a cricket ball and taught him how to bowl.



There was something precious about our sojourn. Something sweetly innocent. Time didn’t just stop as far as my own chidren were concerned. It took several strides backwards. No Facebook, no Nintendo, no texting friends for there were none to text there.  We played My Spy With My Little Eye every time we got into the car and laughed when Katie spied a HangBag. And when we weren’t doing that we sang loudly and tunelessly along to the Corrs, me too, as I drove six kids (all warbling, nobody wincing at how uncool a mum they had: any wincing came from Granny, ”do we have to have it so loud?”)


Did they mind? Their enforced sortie back to unadulterated childhood? Their mother’s singing? Did my almost-17 year old son object to playing goalie to a seven year old’s kicks for hours at a time? Did my fourteen year old mind reading Tony Ross to a pair of little girls every evening? Was Hat irked by Kate’s eternal pleas that she play camping with her in the tent?



I don’t think so. If they were, they graciously kept their counsel and got on with the job in hand. Getting to know their cousins a bit better. Even – perhaps especially – teens appreciate the glue of family life. Perhaps they must be forced to step, briefly, off the hectic treadmill that is growing up? Perhaps they were quite glad to be allowed to be kids again. Perhaps it gives them time to realign emotional compasses, to take stock, to heave sighs of  relief as the pressure of peers is alleviated. For a bit.


And now, after two weeks of rising at dawn to clamorous appeals to eat breakfast en grande famille (Coco Pops), they appreciate home even more: nobody has woken them up even though it’s almost lunchtime.