Archive for October, 2008

Head above Water

October 21, 2008



I swim at dawn.


I swim and watch a big fat sun heave itself heavily above distant trees, watch it scramble into a pale sky. A pale duck-egg blue sky that will fade to white hot by breakfast time. I watch it ignite the tops of the trees; trees that are just beginning to blush faint, faint green, trees that are on fire with flamboyant blossom, trees that are littering violet blooms, like confetti from a wedding I missed, all over the sand.


Because the rain’s coming.


That’s what they think.


I hope they’re right.


I swim and feel cocooned by the water.


And I am struck by a memory: I am making bread with my mother. I’m small. Small like Hat. Smaller.


Put the yeast into blood-warm water, the recipe instructs.


What’s blood warm I ask Mum?


Water that you can’t feel, she says, water that is neither too hot nor too cold.


That’s what this feels like; I don’t notice the temperature of the water as I swim. I only notice its liquid caress. And it’s friendly buoyancy. I dive, eyes wide open, and grope for dark green depths. My head bursts through the surface. I gasp and close my eyes to too-bright sunshine.


I swim and I think.


I swim and I empty my head of thoughts.


Thoughts that shambled about and raced and argued and prodded me rudely awake at 4am. Thoughts that demanded loudly and unkindly, ‘what the fuck are you doing here? You’re wasting days, months, years doing nothing. Nothing’.


So. I swim. I swim and undo the thoughts so that I know I’m not doing Nothing.


I’m swimming. I’m keeping my head above water and I’m Swimming.

It helps to untangle my head, to order my mind to neat, colour coordinated strands so that I can pick one – not a blue one – and follow it all day.


I didn’t swim yesterday.


Hat and Husband noticed. Husband pushed me out of bed at half six this morning.


Time for a swim, he said sleepily.


I ploughed up and down and counted 50. 50 lengths.


Hat said later, smiling, ‘I heard you swimming Mummy, as I woke up I heard you swimming’.


And I, hair still damp, hot tea to hand, smiled back at her.


I won’t tomorrow.


Tomorrow Hat and I are escaping.


Onto the road.


Not into the water.




Please don’t turn the lights out … I’m looking on the bright side

October 19, 2008


A Tanesco truck pulls up at the gate.


They are here, the half dozen occupants tell me, to deliver 3-phase power. I don’t understand 3-phase power. All I know about 3-phase power is what they have told me: that if I pay the requisite fee (substantial) and upgrade from my current single-phase to Offer of the Week 3-phase, I will be able to run my washing machine, the computer and make a cup of tea all at the same time.


Presently I cannot. Presently I am left gagging for tea come the end of Hat’s morning at school when we can finally turn the computer off and the blasted kettle on.


Oh good, I say absorbing this marvellous and long awaited piece of news.


The truck disgorges its Tanesco employees who wander about the garden, turn off the mains power, peer into the pool, gaze through the verandah at the dogs whom I have told them are very, very fierce which is why I have locked them up (Outpost grapevine is such that news of man-eating dogs is useful security measure) even though they don’t look remotely fierce: they are both too fat, fast asleep and snoring contentedly.


Finally they ascertain where the power lines are (I could have shown them) and decide to park their enormous truck directly beneath them for ease of elevation and access.


Before they consult me, they have driven their gargantuan vehicle right across my lawn.


Admittedly it does not look much like a lawn at present; at present it looks like a patch of sand from which a few jaundiced shards of grass are protruding.


Once on the lawn the driver puts the truck into reverse in a bid to better his position beneath the power lines.


But in the sand he has no grip and his colossal double rear tyres begin to spin ineffectually throwing up clouds of dust.


He turns the ignition off and climbs out of the cab.


He regards the back wheels with an expression of shock and horror and sheer, sheer disbelief. Really! Who’d have thought that a 6 tonne truck would have got stuck in a sand pit?


Because he does not appear to grasp the situation entirely, I help.


‘You’re stuck’. I tell him in Swahili.


After some thought he agrees, and instructs his minions to dig him out.


Truck drivers in Africa drive and instruct. They do not change punctures, load lorries or dig themselves out when they are stuck.


The team, including garden boy Sylvester who looks appalled to find a pantechnicon mired on the lawn, his painstakingly planted lawn, begins to obligingly dig.


I don’t think that’s going to work, I say.


Nobody listens to me. I am a barefooted, white woman. What would I know?


Quite a lot actually, quite a lot about being stuck.


The driver clambers back into his cab, turns the ignition on and presses his foot flat to the floor.

The truck roars and belches out exhaust fumes. The rear wheels spin in agitation and fling up so much sand that I fear we might all be buried alive.


Zima, zima! We all howl, pleading with him to turn off.


He does.


And he climbs out again.


That’s not going to work, I say.


And then I make a suggestion, ‘why don’t we put rocks under the back wheels?’


He looks doubtful but he grasps my idea as his own.


Put rocks under the back wheels, he shouts at his team.


They do. They dig a bit more. They help themselves to the rocks off my rockery and they plant them underneath the rear wheels.


The driver gets back into his cab and tries again.


This time the truck moves as far back as it can until it runs out of rock. About 12 inches. And then the back wheels begin to spin …


This charade continues for an hour and a half.


Every now and again the driver, because he is impatient and wants to get home (5pm on a Friday is not a good time to be mired in a customer’s garden), abandons the rock idea and just puts his foot flat.  Every time he does that, he sprays us all with sand and digs himself in a few feet more.


And every time he gets out of the cab I – sitting on my haunches in the shade in true observational wiseoldman African style – tell him, That’s not going to work.


Finally everybody agrees to do it my way.


Finally everybody agrees that the only way they’re going to get the lorry out and themselves home is to painstakingly dig a little, lay some rocks down, inch backwards and repeat the whole wretched performance until such time as we get it back onto the driveway 50 foot behind us.


It takes time. It’s hot.  The driver tells me he is very, very tired and the work is very, very hard.


What about your minions I want to ask, you don’t think digging and fetching and carrying and laying down rocks is more exhausting than climbing in and out of the cab of a truck and putting your foot to the accelerator?


But I don’t say anything. Instead I demurely offer him a bottle of cold water in the hope the job will, please God, be done today.


They are all so elated to finally get the lorry unstuck they cheer. I look at my lawn and want to cry.


Sod the bloody jars I think. Mine’s empty this afternoon.


What about my power? I ask. Are you going to do it today?


We can start it, they tell me, consulting their watches, but we cannot complete it.


This sounds ominous.


They climb aboard the truck, the important driver behind the wheel and they drive out of my gate. Not 3 meters out of my gate. They park there. On the perfectly good sturdy-so-you-can’t-get-stuck road and they access the pertinent wires not 10 ft from where they first tried.


I do not know why they could not have done this to begin with. I don’t ask. The Outpost has reinforced what I thought I already knew: there aren’t always answers in Africa.


The job they said would take five minutes has taken 2 hours. It’s getting dark.


We are going now, they tell me cheerfully, we will turn on your power but it will only be single phase.


Oh. OK (relieved that I will at least have some power if not sufficient to make tea and wash my smalls at the same time). When will you be back?


On Monday, they tell me, beaming. Or Wednesday, they add.


And in the meantime, I ask, if I have any power problems, which number can I call?


A telephone number is duly produced?


Do you work Saturdays? I enquire (aware that having your power meddled with by the national power company at dusk on a Friday is tempting fate).


We are a 24/7 service, the boss informs me proudly, in perfect English.


I’m not sure, then, why we get all night power cuts, but I write the proffered number down anyway.


They leave.


I pour myself a very, very large glass of wine.


18 hours later, I mightn’t have a lawn, but I still have lights.


On Monday or Wednesday or three weeks hence I can anticipate the luxury of as many morning cups of tea as I want.


And I have given Tanesco in the Outpost a marvellous story about a mad white woman who directs the traffic whilst squatting on her haunches under a tree.


My jar is filling.







It is rare than anybody asks me for a recipe.


My culinary prowess is not such that people say, as they deliver a sumptuous feast to awed, lip-slapping guests, ‘Oh, this is one of RM’s creations’.


No. I’m not one of those.


But, nonetheless, somebody has asked me, me, for a recipe.


My sister.


I babysat her children three months ago. 


For two weeks.


When I left I thought that all they would remember of me was that I was a nasty old bat who insisted they go to bed before 8.


‘What are you looking forward to most about mummy coming home?’ I asked Katie, my four year old god-daughter.


‘Being able to go to bed at whatever time I want to’, she retorted without a moment’s hesitation.


So I was surprised when my sister called and said, ‘That chocolate sauce you made for the kids when you were here? How do I do that – they haven’t stopped talking about it since you left’.


That and how pleased they were the Gestapo had gone home, presumably.


Well. My heart practically burst. A small, the tiniest, tiniest taste, the weeniest hint of what it must be like to be a Domestic Goddess, to have somebody actually ask you how you did it?


So I told her. And I will tell you. For it is truly the best chocolate sauce in the wholewideworld. And, the only reason I can make it, the easiest.


Into a saucepan pour a generous amount of Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup.


Nothing else will do: not honey, not maple syrup, not some dodgy ‘golden syrup flavoured’ equivalent. Just Tate and Lyle’s, for that uniquely mellow, richly burnished, teeth achingly sweetness.


Chuck some cocoa powder in, swirl it all about and stick your finger in to taste.  


Add a small splash of water and stick it on the heat.


Stir until it begins to boil. It’ll bubble up so watch it. Sugar burns in lieu of hot chocolate sauce is a bad substitute.


The longer you boil it for, the more toffee-ish it’ll be. So entirely up to you. Rather depends on how many fillings your kids have?


Deliver direct to the table and serve with ice-cream.


Await the awed, lip-slapping that has eluded you all your life.




I encounter Hat in tears.


What’s the matter, darling? I ask


Are the best days of my life already over? She sobs


I take her in my arms.


No. I tell her. They are not.


What were the best days of your life, Mum? She wants to know, looking up at me, damp cheeked and expectant.


When I was little, I tell her, when I lived on a farm with my mum and dad and my brother and sister. When I was at school. When I was a student in Oxford. When I began to earn my own money in London. When I met your dad and got married.  When, my dear precious little girl, definitely when I became a mum – to you and your brother and sister.


There are lots of best days.  They come along at different times and they’re best for different reasons.


One day, I think later, to myself, one day I might even include Outpost living in Best Days. One day I might reflect back on this time and consider those were Best Days : when I had my youngest to myself, so that I could eke out the precious urgency of motherhood, when I had all the time in the world to explain to her the dilemma of Best Days.


And I hope she might too.













Filling Empty Jars

October 17, 2008



Hat has a geography project.


Identify two or three microclimates in your garden and describe them, her teacher instructs: rainfall, wind speed, temperature.


Her teacher lives on the autumnal Welsh borders. She sends a photograph of her own garden (‘Look, Mum, isn’t it pretty’, says Hat, her mouth wide open in reaction to images of green lawns and voluptuous herbaceous borders spilling unrestrained from their beds) and she describes the microclimates that it presumably hosts: one bank is quite sheltered, she writes, another is very exposed – that gets frost, even now. One side of the driveway is in full sun and the spring flowers there come out much earlier than they do on the opposite, more shaded, much colder, side.


Hat has closed her mouth. Her delighted expression is beginning to collapse into visible disappointment.


What shall I write about, Mum? She asks worriedly, ‘we don’t have microclimates, we only have hot’.


No, no I say to her (Jar half full, jar half full, jar half full I repeat mantra like to myself), we’ve got lots of microclimates in our garden.


Hat looks doubtful.


Think of two, I tell her (I can. Just. Sort of. If we tweak the definition of microclimate a little).


Oh, she says, suddenly brightening, ‘out there on the lawn’ (she means the old smoker’s head we optimistically call a lawn: all nicotine-stained balding stubble) ‘and …’.  She deliberates a moment more, ‘Over there, under the trees, where there’s some shade and a bit of grass, where your pot plants live’.


The ones that weren’t burned alive in the fire.


Clever girl, I tell her.


‘Shall we make an anemometer?’ she asks; her Welsh-border-living-mirco-climate-aplenty teacher has helpfully provided us with instructions to make our own. Using a protractor and a ping pong ball. (I bet she can make a Lear jet out of a toothpick and a box of matches too?)


No, I say to Hat, let’s not bother, ‘I don’t think we get enough wind in this garden for it to register on an anemometer’. Nor do we have a ping pong ball. And it is not likely I will find one in the Outpost either.


What shall we do then? wails poor Hat.


We’ll measure their different temperatures instead, I tell her.


Can we? Really? She asks excitedly.


‘Course we can’. And I gather up my free-with-a-bottle-of-Calpol ear thermometer and we set off into the hot sunshine beating down on the old smoker’s head.


I turn the thermometer on. It bleeps once to indicate it’s doing its job and then it begins to bleep feverishly over and over, louder and louder, and the words Hi, Hi, Hi flash up on the screen.


As in high, high, high, I assume, not hello, hello, hello.


‘I think’, Hat observes sagely, ‘that it’s telling you your patient is about to die’.


Too late. Already quite dead judging by the look of it. Warning: smoking kills.


Let’s try sticking it into the sand, Hat suggests.


We do.


Hi, hi, hi it screams, objecting even more hysterically to the febrile environment we have thrust it into.


Undeterred we decide to measure the temperature of our alternative microclimate.


We walk towards it and as we approach the shade, the thermometer briefly obliges: 38.4 degrees it tells us.


Ensconced beneath the cool dappled dark thrown by the few surviving trees at the bottom of the garden, where the pot plants are trying to recover their recent trauma, we try again.


Lo, lo, lo gasps the bloody free-with-a-bottle-of-Calpol offering.


It can’t be too cold, cries Hat.

It’s not, I explain, it’s merely below normal body temperature. Which is still bloody hot if you’re standing outside.


After half an hour of pacing about and being howled at digitally, we give up.


We’ll just guess, I tell Hat: 42 degrees in the sun, 35 in the shade.


Hat looks doubtful. Hat does not like cheating. And she does not tell fibs. Unlike her mother.


I’ll measure the rain instead, she says.


I cast my eyes up towards a sky utterly, utterly devoid of a single cloud.


I don’t say anything.


She disappears into the kitchen and returns with two recently emptied jam jars.  She places one in one of our microclimates, one in another.


“There”, she says, and she steps back to admire her handiwork and await the rain.  


I watch her later, unseen, from a window. She is inspecting them, adjusting them a little.


Her jars are quite empty and already they are half full.



Coke Adds Life

October 15, 2008



So. The big kids have gone back to school.



We drove them to the airport yesterday. Five hours there and five hours back. We stopped for a Coke Adds Life before the trip home. We sat on a beach overlooking Lake Victoria, sipping through straws. Hat said, ‘I feel like I’m at the sea’.  I knew what she meant. Miles of water and sky and a stretch of bone-bleached-white sand in front of us.



I hate it when the house empties of children.


When they were here – my seventeen year old almost 6 ft son, my just shy of 5’10” daughter (so that I wonder: was she really so ill as a baby I feared for her life and her doctors feared for her growth?) – the house felt too small. Long limbs flailed across floors, were sprawled on sofas. Wet towels were strewn. The television clamoured with the stereo for attention. There were loud arguments over what to watch: test matches vying hotly with romantic comedies.


Now it feels huge, rattling-around huge.


When they first return to school, my big kids, I cannot bring myself to go into their bedrooms. I can still smell them there. The clothes they wore the last day of half term are still scattered across their floors.


‘Bloody well pick your stuff up’, I’d have said.


Now I just close the door. I’ll pick it up later. When the emptiness isn’t so palpable.  Their clothes can stay where they are. Limp reminders that they were here.




Sometimes I worry when the big kids are home.


Are you bored, I ask? Do you mind being in the Outpost?


Part of me wants them to say yes. Part of me wants their alliance.


No, it’s fine they say.  ‘For a bit’, they add loyally, when they see my face.


They sleep late. Raid the fridge. Swim. We play rowdy games of cards, shrieking and laughing and fighting. Sometimes we play them and candlelight flickers across our hands, which we must hold tilted to the sputtering glow so that we can decipher: is that a 7 of spades or a 7 of clubs?


And we go to the dam. We do that a lot. Dogs, kids, us, a cool box of cold drinks. A bottle of chilled Frascati.


I watch my daughters walk alongside their father. I wonder what they are talking about.




 Mongoose, says Hat, when I ask her: ‘Dad was telling me about mongoose’. He had one, as a pet, growing up. The girls badger him constantly for one of their own. The dogs frighten a band back down their sandy anthilled home. I can hear them complaining indignant beneath my feet, I imagine what their high-pitched chattering translates as, ‘Bugger off you filthy great brutes, get lost!’


My son peels off on his own. With his dog, into the bush. The shrub swallows him quickly. One minute he’s there, the next he has quite vanished. I imagine he watches our progress from his hide, I can hear him slicing the undergrowth with a stick. And he hears me when I holler, ‘Want a coke Ben?’ and my voice rings around the dam and bounces off the kopjes that frame it, ‘Wannacokeben, wannacokeben’. He reappears then, instantly, as if by magic.


We sit and sip. Again. And watch the sun slip behind its western bedtime horizon. The water is sundowner pink-gin and the cotton wool ball clouds turn orange and the sky hangs onto snatches of blue until the last, last moment. A beautiful sunset. We murmur our applause so that the heavens will know their colourful display has not been in vain.  Somebody was watching.



“How many photos of Outpost sunsets do you think you’ve taken Mum?”


I couldn’t begin to count. I keep taking them. In case I miss the one I oughtn’t.


The sun has gone and from the east the drawing of a blanket of darkness is visible, as if it is being rolled out above our heads. The moon hangs high, suspended like a giant reading lamp above the earth and it begins to soft-glow. The insect world stirs slowly, shy clicks and whispers, ‘anybody up yet?’, and the quelea in the reed islands are trying to go to sleep if only somebody would stop talking.




Husband says, ‘You need to look at Outpost living through jar-half-full eyes’.


I agree.


And you, I tell him, need to regard me in similar light.


I am trying.


Perhaps I should drink more Coke?




Not another ******* beautiful day …

October 12, 2008



I wish it would rain.


Every afternoon, when the faint breeze that blew intermittently all morning has dropped to scant whispers, when I can no longer feel any evidence of its cool exhalations on my skin nor see them in the tiniest movement of leaves, I wish it would rain.


Clouds begin to gather then. A halfhearted and timid convention in the sky. They shyly congregate on my horizons, thin wisps that don’t look sturdy enough to bear a storm. Not like the big barrel chested variety that glower black and chase the brightness away. No. These are so lily-livered they collapse to their knees and scuttle off the moment the sun glares at them.


So the heat builds. The sky is still. Fans paddle the air. They don’t generate anything approximating a chill. Their seductively monotonous mantra, ‘hmmmmmm’, full of empty promise.


I can find no refuge inside the house or out. I give up. Resign myself to the inertia borne of being too warm.


At twilight though, with the sun safely tucked up in the west, those scaredy-cat clouds race across dark skies before anybody sees them and bring with them the briefest of showers. Two minutes. No more. I stand at the window breathing in Africa’s Exclusive Scent – the smell of rain on dust.  The heady, heady perfume of promise. Of polished leaves and glossed foliage. Of brighter, more invigorating tomorrows. Of new life.


But it has gone almost before it began.


By morning, the sky white-hot-horizoned rising to the azurest of blues and I wonder whether my memory of last night’s rain was just wishful thinking. Did I imagine it?


No. For there in the sand, like the footprints of a thousand fairies who might have danced fleetingly across it, are the tiniest pinpricks of raindrops.


I tip my head back and gaze up at the big empty blue above me and I am struck by a line from Charles Dance and Greta Scacchi’s White Mischief: Sarah Miles’ Alice de Janzé leans out of an upstairs window of the Djinn Palace and takes in a hot clear dawn breaking over Lake Naivasha.


‘Not another fucking beautiful day’, she yawns.





October 9, 2008


We went out to dinner two nights ago. An Important Company Do. I clambered reluctantly beneath a shower (water is precious: ocassion for washing must be lofty, and I wasn’t convinced this was) and put on a pretty frock. Under which I put black trousers. I don’t do frocks very well. The trousers were a compromise. And, accompanying Busy Important Husband, I minced off out to dinner. With, it turned out, a generous handful of Tobacco Men who all – in a bid to keep the industry alive and well – chain smoke.



Dinner parties in Africa frequently segregate the genders. An old colonial hangup: men in Empire Builders hunched over beers and discussing matters of – presumably – weighty import. The women, in frocks (hand made back then) clustered like bees around the honey pot of local gossip.  Exchanging recipes. A stereotype. I don’t fit it. It’s why I wear trousers under my frocks.



With only one other woman, our hostess, present on the evening in question, ours was less a cluster than a feeble union of the sisterhood in the face of too many garrolous men who didn’t care much for female company. Not my kind of company anyway. (Perhaps the trouser/frock combo made them nervous: a sort of She Male?).



So I talked too little that evening. And probably drank too much. I no longer smoke. What was I to do with my hands?



As we departed Big Important Boss (who had flown in for this little soiree along with others from South Africa, the States and Brazil) approached Husband and shook him warmly by the hand.



”Come and see us in Jo’burg”, he invited kindly and then, an afterthought, ‘where do you go for your holidays, actually?’



‘Anywhere’’, I said loudly, leering a little at him, delighted that somebody had finally posed a question in my direction (after too much Chablis my vision was skewed; I think his query was probably levelled at the Husband), ‘anywhere (again, even louder, in case he was deaf) so long as it gets me out of this place.’



Husband looked as if he was choking on a lemon. Big Important Boss wisely chose to ignore me.



Mildly disgraced, therefore, I was pleased to receive a small pickmeup in the shape of a lovely award from Livvy U.


I am obliged to answer seven questions with seven word answers. It was a challenge: not only because I was required to select, from the dozens of blogs I read and love, just three (why not seven?) but because as my brother once observed – with the neat put down ‘why do you use two hundred words where two will do’ – that I am not inclined to precis enough of what I say. So. Thank you Livvy and here goes:


Living on a rose farm, in


“Try not to mind being here today”


I would be overwhelmed by a billion


Farms, Fulham, France (in my dreams), Faraway.

Impatience, blaspheming and then pretending I don’t …

I don’t snack. I graze. All day.



Ngorobob Hill House – because her writing sews Africa together perfectly.

Millenium Housewife – because nobody writes funnier lists; read hers.

The Good Woman – because I’m pleased to see her back



And seven small words for best beloved Husband whose patience is, I know, worn to spiderweb fragility: Bear With Me. I’m doing my best.


“Ribbet, ribbet”, says she.

October 7, 2008



My mate C and her husband J drove, with their two daughters, to spend a weekend with us. I cannot decide whether that was the mark of real friendship (why else would you endure ten hours on appalling roads?), a curiosity to see where I lived and how (far flung, and hanging on white knuckled) or because they had a sudden urge for a road trip.


No matter. They  came. And it was lovely. I was so pleased to see visitors I almost cried. Which would have added fuel to the she’sgoingroundthebend fire.


Though they got plenty of that whilst they were here anyway: plenty of fodder that would suggest I am pitched towards insanity, as if leaning into a stiff breeze, an exerted attempt not to succumb, not to topple right over.


We sit drinking wine as night tumbles upon us. It does that here. You think you’re safe: you think the light is going to hang around for much longer than it does. You think that the slow slide of sun from zenith to its bed somewhere over sand-smudged western horizons will take forever such is the song and dance it makes as it goes: all long fingered shadows tickling the dust whilst the clouds blush, shy witnesses to such careless caresses.


And then night collapses upon us. A blanket of inky blue punctured colander like above us by little holes of starry light which sputter one by one to fragile life.


The frogs start up then: guttural friendly croaking.


‘They’re telling me the rain is coming’, I tell C.


‘The frogs talk to you?’


‘Yes, and they say it’s going to rain soon’, I say.


‘You’ve lived here too long’.


Later I describe my blogging. My forays into cyberspace to link with what Rosie calls Pretend Friends.


C says, ‘That’s nice’. But I don’t think she understands.


I think she thinks I talk to amphibians and have imaginary friends.


I think she thinks that I am going mad.