Head above Water



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.



44 Responses to “Head above Water”

  1. Irene Says:

    I admire you for your swimming prowess and where might you and Hat be escaping to of from?

  2. Iota Says:

    Where are you going?

  3. Mud Says:

    It is hard to come to the conclusion that one doesn’t always have to be striving for something in particular. Sometimes keeping one’s head above water and appreciating what is around one is enough. We are too used to having to be heading in a direction, mindlessly ploughing forward, that we forget to just be.

    At least I do.

  4. lulu Says:

    “Not drowning, swimming”….that’s good enough for me Lx

  5. tamara Says:

    Your blogging is not nothing. Your writing really inspires me. it’s the best jam i’ve ever tasted. use your isolation to write, i really think you have potential for something – a book, who knows? And after I read your last post I thought what an amazing mom you seem to be. I know, you need more than that. But for what its worth, I think your words bring a sense of humanity into the world. Many writers would trade all their cleverness for that. Also, many writers would love to be in some far-flung place… ironic isn’t it?

    I do hope the rain comes sooon….

  6. Wife in Hong Kong Says:

    The other day I asked if it might be possible to adjust the pool temperature so it felt less like having a hot bath. The guy looked at me in astonishment and said, but the pool isn’t heated. I swim too, when I’m not ironing, ha! When I read your posts I feel I know you. When were you at OU?

  7. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    I am going – Irene, Iota – to the north of the country, ten hours north. To see my big kids. I cannot wait. I am escaping isolation. for a bit.

    Mud: what wisdom. Thank you. Perhaps i need to learn to just be. We’re not often allowed to believe that’s enough though …?

    Lulu: no, not drowning. Not today x

    dear Tamara, what kind, generous words. Thank you. I don’t deserve them. The rain has come. In tentative little whispers. But it is here. It was, this afternoon, so that this evening it is blissfully cool. almost cool enough for a hot shower

    Wife in HK. OU? I know what you mean about pool temps though!

  8. lulu Says:

    Oops just realised the quote is actually “not drowning, waving”. Nevermind. You know what I mean….Lx

  9. Roberta Says:

    One stroke at a time Mem.

  10. Hadriana Says:

    I like swimming too. I wish I could swim every day (it keeps me sane) but at the moment that’s impossible. We have pools either at Hexham or at Carlisle (each about 30 mins. away by car in either direction). There is a private pool nearby but I have to find a swimming partner to use it (insurance reasons). I just try to think that one day I will be able to do it and I try not to wish my son’s life away…he is just turning two and is absolutely adorable.

    I too used to swim daily when I was in Egypt and I now wish that I had written more then (pre-children). If you can – write! So the perfect solution would be to swim and then write a bit…whilst the endorphins are still swimming inside you!

  11. socalgal Says:

    Hi RM, I have been reading your blog over the past few months and find myself responding to what you write on an emotional level. I am in a similar situation to you, I am a British woman in her 40s living in Southern California. I also have 3 kids (2 girls, 1 boy). I sometimes feel isolated here too even though there are a lot of people around. I don’t think that it is just the fact I am not living in my homeland I think it is – as my husband puts it – the fact that we are “husks on the cusp”. The teenagers need us less and are pulling away, we are reevaluating our lives and sometimes feeling worthless. THe promise of youth is over and we have to re-tool to face the rest of our lives. Finding a level of contentment within yourself is definitely an inside job, although it is helped by touching base with those in a similar situation. Your isolation is forcing you to be intense and harsh with yourself but you would face it in some form wherever you were – especially as a wife and mother in her 40s. It is one form of the human condition.

  12. Millennium Housewife Says:

    OK, now you’re just showing off! Gorgeous writing Memsahib x

  13. kitschen pink Says:

    May I take this opportunity to assure you that, from what I keep reading here, you are not doing nothing. You are decidedly doing something. Some days, you make me smile, some days you make me cry (not in a really bad way), and some days you make me think ’til my head hearts. And I don’t like to swim so I have to cycle it off. So you are doing a lot really. I’m surprised you have time for swimming! t.xx

  14. kitschen pink Says:

    Lulu – isn’t it Stevie someone and ‘not waving but drowning’ ? t.x

  15. Gillian Says:

    Yes, the poem is ‘Not waving, but drowning’ by Stevie Smith. It’s a sad poem. And, Mem, while we see you hit sad bits quite often just now. I get the impression that ‘Head above water’ fits you much better than ‘Not waving but drowning’.

    So, I hope you keep writing, and wish you lots of joy visiting your kids in the north.

    Not waving, but drowning

    Nobody heard him, the dead man,
    But still he lay moaning:
    I was much further out than you thought
    And not waving but drowning.

    Poor chap, he always loved larking
    And now he’s dead
    It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
    They said.

    Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
    (Still the dead one lay moaning)
    I was much too far out all my life
    And not waving but drowning.

  16. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    ”not waving but drowning” i think lulu, thank you gillian, but you”re right: waving not drowning. i knew what you meant x

  17. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    yup, Roberta, you’re right: one stroke at a time. I forget that sometimes; i forget and splash too hard and swallow water which makes me cough and lose my breath. it upsets my rhythm.

  18. QldDeb Says:

    You do something very important for me. You allow me to sneak into your little world and take me out of mine when I need to escape. You also help feed my love affair with Africa, the real Africa, not the tourist or news sensationalised rubbish.

    It is easy from the outside to think that everything is rosy, wouldn’t it be great to have that peace etc, but to have the ability to make the choice (isolation & peace vs civilisation & organised chaos) removed is very difficult to cope with. Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could have the best of both worlds. Unfortunately that would involve lots of money, and I still havn’t figured out how to get that for myself yet!

    Chin up, I love what your doing and just keep doing it!

  19. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Hadriana, you’re right: you’re spot on, write whilst those happy hormones are still afloat in the system … don’t wish those baby years away’. don’t. they go so fast on thier own anyway. two is heavenly, whoever said it was ”terrible”?

    Socalgal: thank you for reading. yes, there is an hiatus drawing close, i can feel that. But i think i can feel the loneliness of this place more acutely. the sheer brittle can’t get out, nobody can get in loneliness. i suppose that’s what makes the hiatus loom larger. too much time to think, perhaps?

  20. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    MH: and that is just sheer flattery which i don’t deserve. But thank you. x

    And you Kitschen: that made me feel better. it”s not true. but it made me feel better. thank you x

  21. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Gillian, that is beautiful, really beautiful. I had heard hte phrase, ”not waving but drowning” but never the poem. it’s beautiful and sad. and you are right: i am determined to remain head above water. if ever there was a personalised test of a million things, this is it. thank you x

  22. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you QldDeb, so then i shall continue to deliver little bit of Africa. perhaps i would not be able to unless it was delivered in such distilled such as it can be in splendid isolation

  23. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you all x i write when i should be packing. the dawn is dark today. the rain is around. around. stalking. today i am glad i’m not swimming; today i am glad i can anticipate three days with all three children. soon x

  24. Mom de Plume Says:

    RM your writing really is beautiful and I am one of those for whom you do plenty by allowing me into your world. The isolation you live in is something that my hubby craves; I am sure even he would tire of it after a while. That you do remain sane confirms that your strength of character is amazing. I am sure that Hat believes you are indispensable when it comes to the things you do for her. You would do a disservice to the world and yourself if you did not take some time to write a book… one that lets people into your world as your blog does (it may seem mundane to you but to those of us who are not there it is fascinating). Your talent deserves a wider audience and you deserve the sense of accomplishment. Enjoy your escape to big kids and civilisation. Jxxx

  25. carol Says:

    Safe travels! And thanks for the recipe – choc sauce was great, really boiled it up so that I could dunk strawberries in it. Kate licked/peeled the chocolate toffee off and I had to eat a whole load of spat on berries!!

  26. Tash Says:

    hiya… there’s a nostalgic wistfulness in your words at the moment, and I can feel the sadness, helplessness, fear under the surface of your brave front. I can only say that – as so many of your readers tell you – use the situation to keep up the writing. To me, it almost feels as if this IS what you are meant to be doing right now – and actually, not only for yourself – read between the lines of all the others, all of us – hell, you don’t even need to read BETWEEN the lines… we all need you to write for us. Every vulnerable quality you have, we worry about in ourselves, every bump in the road you hit, we wobble over too… all I know is that I come away from reading every one of your posts, if not feeling concern for you, feeling a little better about me. Now – that’s a gift. Lots, and lots, of love xx

  27. paradiselostintranslation Says:

    Hope you have a wonderful reunion and the trip revives, restores & rejuvenates you. I’m sure it will be a fillip to your soul which will strengthen you for your next ‘onslaught’ on the outpost.

  28. Potty Mummy Says:

    I hope you are having a wonderful time with your big kids RM. And I will definitely be trying your chocolate sauce recipe soon!

  29. Wife in Hong Kong Says:

    OU? I read in an earlier post that you were happy as a student in Oxford.

  30. Rob (Inukshuk Adventure) Says:

    Have a safe and fun trip to visit with the kids.

  31. ANN Says:

    No drowning, merely waving. You write with such passion and honesty. One day you WILL look back on this time with fond memories. And the best thing is that you have recorded the experiences.

  32. nuttycow Says:

    RM – hope you’re having a great time with the big kids. It’ll be nice to get away. I know you’re not having the best time at the moment but, as all the rest of your readers say, it will get better. Promise.

  33. Gill Says:

    it’s good for you to swim every day………we have had the first sign of winter just north of us………snow!!

    Gill in Canada

  34. guineapigmum Says:

    I thought of you yesterday morning when I went for an early morning swim. I was in the local public indoor pool with several old ladies, my eldest and another lad. The dawn was coming in through the windows in the ceiling but I was thinking of you swimming outdoors, up and down your African pool. Your blog and you beautiful writing has made you many friends across the world so next you’re lonely and need some adult conversation, find some of us on Skype and we can have a bloggy conference chat.

  35. val Says:

    i loved this post – blood warm water. i think we are in the same rain belt. started spattering this morning – you can walk between the drops but at least its something! have a safe trip

  36. Maggie May Says:

    Ahhh…….. if only I’d learnt to swim.
    That was a very relaxing read!

  37. rosiero Says:

    You sound a wee bit down to me. AS if you are questioning what you are doing there and whether you want to get away from it. As someone else said, your writing is beautiful and conveys very well what it must be like living in an African outpost. So, if nothing else, you are doing something useful!! Hope you had a nice break with your older kids and managed to recharge some batteries.

  38. Kathleen Says:

    This was absolutely lovely. I could feel the water the way you described it. Have a good trip.

  39. ali la loca Says:

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Thank you so much for this delicious gimplse into your life and words each time I visit.

  40. Gill Says:

    How are you doing? You haven’t posted in a few days………..

    Gill in Canada

  41. Tash Says:

    ditto Gill… just what I was thinking? Realise it was half term, so hope you had a wonderful time with the kids. Can’t wait to have you writing into our lives again, though xx

  42. ExAfrica Says:

    You OK?

    Looks like we’re all missing you … hurry back.

    XO ExAfrica

  43. Mama Kalila Says:

    I’ve gotta go back & reread this one, too asleep to do it right… but before I go… You’re tagged!

  44. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you all.

    Mom d P: that’s kind. And you flatter me. Wish recent agents agreed with you. But altered attitudes means I shall care less about what they say. And that’s probably a good thing.

    Thank you Tash. And for generously reminding me that I’m not alone in feelng vulnerable. We all do. I just blab about it! Because I’m narcissistic presumably?

    paradise: that’s exactly it. sustains me for the next outpost onslaught … perfectly observed.

    Thanks Rob. And Ann, yes, recording it all. And this week feels more like waving than drowning. So that’s good …!

    dear nutty: I had a lovely escape. i am a better escapee than i am outpost inhabitant, clearly! x

    guineapigmum: that was lovely. two swimmers separated by oceans thinking of each others very different – and not so different – lives. Today was overcast, no dawn today. But a fiery flamboyant all showily in bloom to admire.

    thank you val, and for reading. Yup, we’re definatley in the same rain belt. mine’s not here yet, teasing from a distance …

    I’m glad Maggie May: i love to swim. it keeps me sane. sometimes. almost.

    you’re very perceptive rosiero. i feel better now i’m back. i’m sure the outpost will overwhelm again. but for now … for now, it’s better x

    thank you Kathleen. And Ali la loca – and for visiting.

    Gill, Tash, ExAfrica: i am. back. and ok. better. for now. thank you.

    And Mama K: thank you for the tag.

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