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

 

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.

 

Slowly.

 

**********************

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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21 Responses to “Please don’t turn the lights out … I’m looking on the bright side”

  1. rosiero Says:

    1. It just goes to show workmen are the same the world over!!!

    2. The chocolate sauce you describe is well-known to me. But I add a knob of butter, a dollop of icing sugar and a bowl of cornflakes or rice crispies. Stir and put into cake cases. They make the most divine little cakes to add inches to my hips!

    3. Yes, hang on to those moments. They are precious.

  2. Bush Mummy Says:

    I remember travelling around parts of Africa on my gap year in 1990 and, whenever things didn’t quite go according to plan, the common response was “T.A.B”..

    “That’s Africa Baby…”

    Do people still say that?

    BM x

  3. Iota Says:

    I’ve done that chocolate sauce too – but with mostly butter and sugar and just a mean dollop of golden syrup. Yours sounds much better.

    “…the precious urgency of motherhood…” – lovely way of saying it. But even those best days are interspersed with the ones where you can’t believe anyone would describe mothering small children as anything other than a nightmare.

  4. Roberta Says:

    I have never heard of this “golden syrup”. But hell, I’ve just become acquainted with Nutella!

    There is a lot to savour in this post. I loved it!

  5. paradiselostintranslation Says:

    Oh, I could relate to this so well; the workmen, 3 phase electricity, trying to explain a good, maybe even better way of doing something. power cuts…I wasn’t even on an outpost, that was Sri Lanka!

    Do you ever get fed up with having to find a suitable substitute ingredient because you can’t get what you’re supposed to use? At 1st it’s a challenge but pretty quickly I get disillusioned with my constant improvising, cos it never tastes any good. I can’t get golden syrup in Albania. But honey just wdn’t work.

    I loved your description of best days. I often wonder when I feel life is slipping by & I’m pondering again what I’m doing here & with my life in general, whether I’ll look back on any of my time overseas as best days or just ‘quite an experience’……

  6. kitschen pink Says:

    Pour me a glass of that wine! And to think I get colly-wobbled if they just turn our power off every so often to trim some trees! The very thought of all that fuss would finish me off!
    Oh Hat! – whatever made her think such a thing poor lamb!
    Another glass of wine methinks (for me not Hat!!!)
    There’s a term of speech – ‘these are the good old days, just you wait and see’. As I get older I am undecided as to it’s validity. I’ll think on it again in a few decades time! t.xx

  7. Gillian Says:

    Hello Mem,

    Thank you for writing and writing. You seem to be not so very far away when you share these experiences, robust and fragile, with us.

    What will I do today? Sit at my desk at my office and mix a bit of work with a bit of procrastination. Why procrastinate? Perhaps I need to get rid of some of the projects that I can’t find enthusiasm for? Perhaps I need something altogether different.

    Perhaps I need more exercise. I will definitely need more exercise when I try your chocolate sauce. You write recipes the way I cook. “Put in this and add some that.” Maybe I’ll go home now and do some of that.

    And some sewing…

  8. QldDeb Says:

    Hi Mem

    Talking about cooking, I found a cool recipe for Hat to try, now that you’re going onto 3 phase power, you might be able to run a microwave!

    It’s a chocolate cake made in a cup. We made it at work & put a big piece of chocolate in it as it was cooking, a big melted chocolate suprise, yum!

    Anyway, here ’tis:

    5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake

    4 Tablespoons cake flour
    4 Tablespoons sugar
    2 Tablespoons cocoa
    1 Egg
    3 Tablespoons milk
    3 Tablespoons oil
    3 Tablespoons chocolate drops (optional)
    1 Mug
    Add dry ingredients to the mug, and mix well. Crack an egg and add it to your mug. Be sure to mix it well to avoid any pockets of flour in the corners. Pour in the milk and oil and mix well.
    Add the chocolate drops if you’ve got them, and a splash of vanilla essence too. Pop your mug into the microwave & zap for 3 minutes on maximum power (1000watt). Wait until the cake stops rising, and sets in the mug. If necessary, run a knife around the sides of the mug, and
    tip the still warm cake out of the mug and onto a saucer.

    I’m such a foodie, this was the first entry ever in my blog!

    No wonder I’ve got a huge butt!

  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    rosiero – i like the additions to choc sauce. sounds like perfect cupofteatime accessory?

    Bush Mummy – we sort of have an Only in Africa thing. But i like TAB. That’s sort of Biba cool. Thanks for that!

  10. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    oh. And AWA – as in Africa Wins Again.

    No Iota, there is that whole nightmare thing going on with tiny kids but those years are gone so quickly and then you’ve got this great yawning chasm ahead …

  11. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Roberta. You have not lived. Get some. in my book nutells pales by comparison.

    Paradise: frequently. I am frequently bored to death by the challenge of finding a substitute. sometimes when the recipe says parmasan or mascarpone or apple, i’d just like some of that. not some of whatever i think might work instead. green pawpaw in the case of apple one pioneering cookery book said: it’ll taste just the same it said. No it did not, especially not with roast pork.

  12. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    kitschen: i hadn’t heard that. i shall reflect on it. i know, poor Hat. i hope i reassured her.

    gillian, isn’t that the way everybody cooks: a bit of this, a bit of that?! My gran taught me that. marvellous approach. cookery books are so intimidating. esp where i live. mascarpone cheese. oh puhleease.

  13. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    QldDeb: that is sooooooooo cool. thank you so much. Hat and I can’t wait. let’s make two mugs, said Hat. quite, lets. We have to wait for 3 phase to actaully get here. at present it takes 5 mins to heat a mug of milk in the microwave. but when it’s here, this is the first thing we’re going to do. and we shall think of you as we indulge! no mascarpone or parmasan or cream either. perfect outpost recipe!

  14. Mom/Mum Says:

    wow – what a post. Thiose men should have listened to you in the first place eh? Seems they are the same the world over then.
    Love the sound of the sauce. just need to import some of that golden syrup….And bless Hat.

  15. guineapigmum Says:

    I’m sure that, some time in the future, you’ll look back on these days with fondess and happy memories. But I’m also sure that knowing that doesn’t help at all TODAY. Stick in there. We’re all cheering you on.

    We have that chocolate sauce too, or a version of it. And men – you’d think that at some point they’d realise that women are worth listening to. Will your garden recover?

  16. Marianne Says:

    The best days of your life are now. Yes, you will look back on this when old age creeps up on you and you will remember the good things and remind Hat of the times when you and she were so close. Enjoy.

  17. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Yes Mom/Mum, they should have done: typical blokes faffing about.

    thank you thank you GPM; it feels lonely here at times, very lonely. Those loud cheers in the silence of cyberspace are more comforting than any of you will probably ever realise. Yes, my garden will recover … when … if … it rains.

    I will Marianne. I will. Meantime I must try to remember that

  18. Irene Says:

    Tell Hat the best days are now and the better days are tomorrow.

  19. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thats lovely, Irene. I will tell her. x

  20. nuttycow Says:

    Chocolate fridge cake would be perfect for the outpost… let me dig out the recipe, email me and I’ll let you have it (the recipe that is, the last part of that sentence sounded a bit threatening!)

  21. val Says:

    what a fabulous post – so glad i came to visit (came from The Times of Miranda) – i wil bookmark you 🙂

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