We went to Brighton for the weekend: Hat, Mum and I. To stay with my Godmother and Hat’s great aunt. We did all the things you do in Brighton: we visited the Royal Pavilion so that Hat could stare at a chandelier hung from a dragon’s mouth, as if it was breathing brittle fiery ice, so that she could giggle at the bed Queen Victoria slept upon, with it’s nine Princess-and-the-Pea mattresses.
We shopped in George Street and I bought shoes. More shoes. More heels and wondered that I wasn’t hurtling, tripping on new six-inches, towards a midlife crisis that would leave me spread-eagled and humiliated on the floor. We ambled through the Lanes and Hat dropped pennies into a busker’s guitar case, open at his feet as he strummed. He smiled at her through his song, Hat stood before him ferreting through her purse oblivious to the crowds pushing past her.
She bought herself a doll with Christmas money. The outpost doesn’t offer much in the way of retail therapy. She knew exactly what kind of doll she wanted. And the tiny collectors’ den we unearthed between biker’s shops and boutiques met all mental picture requirements.
‘This is the one’, she whispered, enraptured, ‘this is just what I have been looking for’, she confided as she handled the doll the proprietor proffered for her to admire: an old fashioned looking one wearing a porcelain smile, bonnet and gloves.
Hat deliberated carefully over her choice: ‘I like what this one is wearing but I prefer that one’s smile’, she said. Always go for the smile the proprietor and I agreed. And so she did and watched intently as the kind gentleman behind the counter wrapped her doll.
Precious pocket money, I told him, to excuse the length of time we had monopolized him while other customers waited patiently behind us with far more expensive purchases.
‘You’re lucky’, he told me, ‘my daughter has just used all hers to buy a mobile phone’.
I wanted to tell him that where we live, in the middle of a vast and dust laced African plain, hundreds of miles from anywhere, a doll will be better company than a mobile phone. And Hat will not have to contend with the derision of peers for there are none there.
I think our holiday acquisitions must mirror our mildly eccentric way of life. My heels, Hat’s old fashioned doll, my husband’s sausage machine.
I bought that online whilst still Outpost captive. My son, arrested mid way between verandah and kitchen on a foraging expedition, was struck by the site I was surfing.
‘What are you doing, Mum?’ he said, observing my Design a Sausage site.
‘Shopping’, I told him.
‘For a sausage?’ he questioned incredulous.
‘For a sausage making machine’.
‘That’, he sniffed, ‘is just sad’.
I live in an Outpost, where I cannot buy sausages, dolls or heels, I reminded him, ‘I am allowed to be sad’.
I imagine Hat, when we get home, giggling with the newly christened Lady Charlotte as they observe Hat’s plainly quite mad parents: a mother teetering on heels despite the fact she has nowhere to go and a father churning out strings of sausages. I envisage Hat rolling her eyes and admitting, sheepishly, ‘yes, that’s my mum and dad’.
I take Hat to mass. A lapsed and lazy Catholic, all my children were baptized. I told myself I must offer them the option of a faith. It would be up to them whether or not they pursued it. My husband, force-fed religion at school, had been quite put off. I didn’t want to do that to my children. I know that Faith can come in handy.
So I took Hat to mass, to a child friendly service, in a church full of noise: laughter, the odd grumble of bored complaint and shrieks of indignant resistance when asked by parents to sit still. Not that the priest seemed to mind as children slipped between pews or babies shuffled on their bottoms down the aisles or toddlers munched on apples or curled on the floor to suck a thumb or crayon a page in a colouring book. I thought that seemed the right approach to religion: that it should slot comfortably, friendly, around our lives.
I thought that, especially, when I watched a small boy with an impish grin and a face-full of freckles stick his hands in the aspersorium, damp his blond shock of hair with holy water and then arrange it spiked around his head.
That, I thought, is how modern religion ought to be. And I smiled at the little boy who raced back to his mum so she could admire his hairdo.
My little girl began school today. I sat on the floor behind her, by the washing machine, mug of tea at my side, laptop on my knees to write. I sat behind her on the floor no less anxious for her happiness than I was the first time I dispatched her at the proverbial school gate when she went to proper school.
She sat at Mum’s desktop, absorbed by her new cyber peers: Hat began virtual school today. She wears a new skirt, in celebration, and a headset. Every time I glance up I can see her smile reflected in the screen. I cannot hear the voices in her ear but I know that sometimes they make her laugh.
There are ten children in her class. One has Asperger’s. He told the class, ‘I am autistic. I have Asperger’s Sometimes I get things the wrong way round’.
That’s OK, says the teacher, you’ll be fine.
What’s Asperger’s? Hat wants to know.
It means he is special I tell her. Extra special. And it means he has a gift.
Cool, says Hat.
I think it is. That she sits in a class full of children she can hear but cannot see. I think it is cool that she skipped down the stairs to begin, ‘Bye Gran, I’m off to school now’. I think it is cool that she got dressed up for the occasion, did her hair carefully. I think it’s cool that she goes to school in cyberspace and lives in the bush.
I think she’s cool.