Home Coming?



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.



29 Responses to “Home Coming?”

  1. doglover Says:

    Wonderful account, Reluctant, beautifully told! Nice that someone likes GB in this cold unpleasant summer!

  2. cat Says:

    Lovely writing.

  3. Tom Says:

    “Sitting on the radiator”, brought back some memories. We don’t have much use for them in Florida. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Yvonne Says:

    Hi, Love the poetic way that you write, do you write poems, if not, you should. Yvonne

  5. Janelle Says:

    happy you are there! when do you get to La France?? xx janelle

  6. Iota Says:

    Would Hat be able to advise me on what the difference is between a second cousin, and a first cousin once removed? We pondered this over the summer, and never reached a conclusion.

  7. Ruth Says:

    That phrase “sitting on radiators” brought back some memories for me too! Boarding school in England…

  8. Teena Says:

    Beautiful. Just beautiful. I love that the three girls share your granny’s name. That is such a lovely legacy to hope for! To be so loved. t.x

  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    doglover: oh but we do: love the cold and grey and damp, such an invigorating change after sandblasted kiln air of Outpost!

    Thank you, Cat; thank you very much.

    Tom – I suspected the radiators might resonate, they did with Ruth; there was always a line of us perched shivering on them. Derrieres roasting, feet freezing!

    Thank you Yvonne, I don’t: write poetry. Though I love to read it. I love to analyse what story the poet is trying to describe.

  10. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Janelle – France next week … when the groom finally pitches up!

    Iota, it’s a very tricky one isn’t it? Isn’t First Cousin Once Removed the offspring of First Cousin? to another first cousin, of course. But what does that make assorted offsprings to one another? and to the first cousin? We have pondered same. We did briefly – when my son was born (as eldest, most ancient, of all the first cousins here, I was also first to produce a first cousin once removed) – ponder Great Uncle v Grand Uncle. My Uncle said he didn’t care whether there was a difference, he was definately a Grand Uncle.

    Ruth – there must have been lots of us, strewn across England, burning bums and being reprimanded for exposing ourselves to risk of chilblains – wasn’t that it: chilblains?

    Oh thank you, Teena; that’s so kind. She was very loved. In actual fact we discovered after she died that she was baptised Alicia. But Alice seemed to work much better; she abhorred snobs, perhaps she thought Alicia sounded too pretentious for a girl from Tralee? In any event, Alice certainly sits better with the trio of great grand daughters.

  11. Lindsay Says:

    Boading school in Kent? Benenden? If so I was there too!

  12. Tamara Says:

    I really really love your writing. Enjoy it.

  13. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Lindsay … bit less upmarket … Ashford School. We played Benenden at sport though. And lost mostly as far as I recall!

  14. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you, Tamara. I will. I am. x

  15. guineapigmum Says:

    Those radiators and boarding school in England memories… me too! And we’ve been having these cousin discussions this summer; we introduced the boys to relatives they didn’t know they had in Ireland this year. There are many more where those came from so I think we’ll have to have some more forays across the water before they’re all too old.

  16. R. Sherman Says:

    Lovely post. It reminds me of my children’s relationship with Germany. My kids see their cousins and Oma only once a year, but it is a marvelous reunion. And they revel in their German passports.


  17. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thanks gpm: yup, bet there are lots of us out there who spent hours leaning against radiators. remember? hands held there too until the heat grew too much? kids love the whole relative connection, don’t they? I remember counting my cousins up when I was little: I had 24. My kids have ten and that doesn’t look like rising. Sign of the times, perhaps?

  18. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you, Mr Sherman. They are wonderful, those family reunions, lots of ”haven’t you got big?” which teen girls, in particular, hate. My own cousins are canny enough to that. Or young enough to remember how they hated it?!

  19. Iota Says:

    I think Alice is preferable to Alicia these days. Presumably your grandmother would have pronounced it Aliss-ee-ya, but these days I think most people would say Al-ee-sha first off, and would have to be corrected. That would be a burden for a child.

  20. Potty Mummy Says:

    Lovely. Just lovely.

  21. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Absolutely Iota: it was Aliss-ee-ya. And it would have been a burden for a child; I always feel sorry for children with names they have to explain, or articulate themselves for those who have called them Al-ee-sha.

    Thank you, Potty

  22. nuttycow Says:

    Sitting on radiators? You’ll get chillblains!

  23. Mozi Esme's Mommy Says:

    Well written. Those homecomings are always bittersweet – where is home, really? I can relate a little – Esme was 6 weeks when we left the US for Mozambique.

  24. ExpatKat Says:

    Lovely account of your relationship with England. You transported me ‘home’ for a moment.

  25. Tash Says:

    lovely, A… those puncturing spires… and ditto to all the others re the radiators. Although, it does remind me, at least you never needed a fridge- we always kept our milk on the outside windowsill! Have a lovely time… and love to all xx

  26. Wednesday miscellany XIV « Parlez-vous moo? Says:

    […] Digressica gets scared J-Money does Maccy Ds BloodRedRoses survives a wedding Reluctant Memsahib comes home English Mum remembers Nairobi Notes notes a hard day at the office Livvy talks marriage Occassional […]

  27. Hadriana Says:

    Yes..the radiators resonate again (this time girls’ private school)…just ask my Latin teacher! You do conjure England so well. I think that living abroad heightens your senses on return to England. I have spent spells away in London, Spain, Italy and Egypt. I love it here rain and all!

  28. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    I think, Hadriana, that you are right: I think that our foreigness means we need to anchor ourselves to a place. We, the children and I, search out the ”Englishness” in this island because we need that connection. We need that Marmite and crumpets and M&S connection x

  29. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you ExpatKat. x

    And Tash … no, never did need a fridge. not even in summer. except yesterday. that was summer. all 18 hours of it x

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