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.
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.
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.
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.