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.