Archive for September, 2008

What it feels like to live in an Outpost

September 30, 2008


This is what life in an Outpost makes you feel like:


An eccentric: we made sausages on Saturday with our new Sausage Making Machine. We used duck, quarry from husband’s recent bird shooting expedition. Not beef. Not pork. Not even chicken. Nothing that approximated normal: we are not normal. Not anymore. Husband turned the handle and I unwound the sausage skins and hoped to fill them uniformly. I did not .The sausages burst on contact with the hot frying pan. Too much air. Too much meat. Too little attention being paid. Who knows? Who cares? They tasted alright.


Lonely: so that you reply to every single email the moment it drops into your inbox with a gratifying little ping. An inbox you check with obsessive scrutiny; every five minutes on especially long days. I can hear my correspondents thinking, ‘Gawd, not her again, now I’ll have to write back’. So they do. Briefly, ‘That was quick’, they say.


Grateful: that you have an eleven year old who is engrossed in school. I like my school, says Hat. I don’t have time to be bored; I have too much to do, too much homework to finish. I’ll help you I say. Because I don’t. Have enough to do.


Frustrated: because there is no water. Not a drop. All that is left at the bottom of the too-large storage tank which we optimistically built is a scummy puddle thick with the fat guppies we fed into the water to keep the mosquito larvae at bay. Them and a dead gecko floating, white bloated belly upside.


Excited: that your two older children arrive tomorrow. For two whole glorious weeks of halfterm.  You have counted the hours. You are trying not to think about the day they will, inevitably, have to leave, to return to school.


Worried: you have a visitor staying; he tells you that the last woman he knew in the Outpost only lasted six months. Before she went quite, quite mad. A stark raving lunatic, he said. She had to be shipped out. Too late. Into an asylum. Will I go mad, I wonder?


Hot. Very, very hot. By mid afternoon the house is humming agitatedly to the sound of several fans which can’t summon up the interest to inspire a cool breeze, instead they merely stir the soupy heat in which you are submerged. I can’t bear to go outside, not until close to sunset. When I have to, venture out, the heat hits me like a slap in the face. And my feet sting for ages afterwards because I have forgotten to put my shoes on and the sand has scorched my soles.


And sometimes glad. Glad that even you ocassionally enjoy an escape. 




Back to the Future

September 24, 2008




It’s strange to be back.


I look out upon my parched and scorched – a fire raged through whilst we were away – garden and wonder that I was ever away.


France and England, wind and rain, red wine at lunchtime … it all seems an awfully long way away. An awfully long time ago.


As if it never happened. My Pictures proves it did though. And recently.


France, Sept 2008.


I open the folder and watch the slide show.




A friend phones to catch up. My husband says, ‘Would you like to speak to my new wife?’


He remembered.


And I smile.




I ask Hat, ‘What was the best thing about your holiday?’


She does not hesitate, ‘Time with Gran’, she says emphatically.


And I am tugged back more than thirty years. To a time when I was eleven. And spent time with my gran.


She was called Alice.


I was her eldest grandchild. Born when she was fifty and my mother 25 (I obligingly sustained the symmetry; my eldest was born when I was 25 and great gran 75).  She took me swimming on my own – no younger siblings – and let me eat sugar on bread afterwards.  She was a Roman Catholic who often, and vociferously, questioned her faith, but manipulated it to get me out of my (C of E) boarding school for weekends anyway.  She told mum that I needed some instruction in Catholicism.  Then she took me to the theatre and the pool and out for a curry.  Mass was almost incidental.  Gran kept her eyes closed throughout and was very still. I stood quietly beside her, mesmerized by the sun filtered rainbow through stained glass.  I learned from Gran that religion is about personal peace and space. About gathering your thoughts, collecting yourself.  She told me she wanted to become a Buddhist – so perhaps she was meditating beneath her mantilla, not saying the rosary? 


She let me help her cook, which she did with wonderful abandon and careless regard for the cookery books she owned which were splattered with evidence of the last dish she’d prepared and bound together by rubber bands.  She sent me back to school with the Peppermint Creams we had made. They melted in the tin so my friends and I scooped handfuls of minty sugar into our mouths. She loved books and owned hundreds.  I inherited most of them.  She wore trousers and colourful blouses and long strings of beads.  And chaplis on her feet in deference to happy days in India.  She never learned to drive; she rode a moped. I thought that was cool.   She was broad-minded and often controversial, scowling about the Vatican as she offered me a cigarette. She smoked long Mores.  I thought that was cool too.


When I became engaged, she told me that marriage wasn’t about whether you could live without the man, but whether you could live with him.  She was right.   She taught me never to judge a book by its cover, which meant I inherited from her an intolerance of snobs and a library as eclectic as she was.


My mum won’t offer Hat cigarettes. She does not smoke, never has done. Nor will she swim with her. She does not wear chaplis.


But she will patiently teach Hat how to knit where I say I do not have the time. She will seek to answer every question Hat poses.  If she does not know the answer, they will look for it together, within the pages of a book; she endorses the same passion for the written word that my own grandmother did. She will feed her chocolate biscuits with her morning tea and scowl when I make a face. She will remind me not to nag, ‘Is it important?’ she will ask and I will consider that no, it’s not. And I will be quietly grateful that she reminded me what is. She will take my daughter to museums and expose her to things that I – in the Outpost – cannot. She will let her play her new Mama Mia CD at volume 10 in the car. And they will sing along to it together.


She will take Hat’s small warm hand in her own cooler one as she still sometimes does mine and they will walk and she will tell Hat stories of a sometimes isolated childhood in India and Africa, so that Hat feels less alone.


And all the while she will be tipping gems into Hat’s memory bank, gilding it with what will become treasured recollections.


Hat’s as lucky as I was.











Hot Chick

September 3, 2008

Amelia confides during yesterday’s MSN conversation, ‘I was worried dad was having an affair’.

Why? I wonder.

‘He told me he was off to London to meet a Hot Chick. I felt a bit scared until I realised he was talking about you!’

That my darling fourteen year old girl clearly knows her mother is more Old Bag than Hot Chick matters not.

That her father, after twenty years of hanging around with same, chooses to refer to me as HC is what counts.

That’s what going on honeymoon does to you. Or him.

Off now. You can enjoy some peace and quiet.

Au revoir x

Cool and Sunny

September 1, 2008





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.