Archive for November, 2008

How to … (First in a new series on Outpost Living)

November 27, 2008

How to … Organise a Doctor’s appointment for one of your children when you live in an African Outpost.


1. Telephone doctor (when you finally get a dialing tone/decent cell signal and once you have ascertained number which takes several frustrating calls prior to this one) who lives in Nairobi, several hundred miles across border to the north

‘Morning Dr, any chance you can see my son?’ (so pleased to get through you forget to introduce yourself).

Sorry, who is this?

You tell her, you remind her she has seen your son on two

occasions before

What’s the problem?

You describe it.

She says Oh.  She says he would need to see additional physicians and have some tests.

OK, you say.

When can you bring him in?


Monday? This Monday?

Yes please.

How long will you be in Nairobi?

‘For the day?’ (son is disinclined to spend more than the barest minimum of time out of school; he would be for cricket, not for the doctor)

Good gracious. A single day. And such short notice, and so close to Christmas! she admonishes.

You nod apologetically into the phone.

A single day? She repeats, sounding a trifle impatient.

Yes.  Sorry.

Ok. Let’s see what I can do. Get yourselves here and we’ll go from

there.  I’ll find a gap in my schedule.


You say thank you several times. 

2. Telephone travel agent  

Please can you get small daughter and I flights out of Outpost to Arusha on Saturday morning (where you plan to rendezvous with son.)

“Possibly. We hope so.  If airline flies as per schedule”.

(Which is unlikely given reputation of distinctly imprecise Precision Airways).

“Please can I have the telephone numbers for airport operations staff so that I can  find out for myself whether plane is on its way on the morning in question so that if not I have a few hours to try and scramble an alternative plan”.

Reluctantly they provide a number.  And then they tell you smugly that there is not a single other aircraft going in the direction you want to go that day. 

3. telephone long suffering friend

Please can you baby-sit small daughter? And you explain why.   

4. she agrees, with sweet and kind and eternally patient alacrity

5. Telephone son’s school

         ‘Please can I take son out of school for a couple of days? He needs to see a specialist.’


6. They agree; they are quite tired of your anxious phone calls as to state of son’s health.

7. Telephone travel agent again.


Please can you book me flights from Arusha to Nairobi?

We have already booked you a flight from Outpost to Arusha.

I know. Thank you. Please can you book two to Nairobi.

Are you wanting to go to Arusha or Nairobi? (impatiently)


With your daughter?

Only half way, you say.  ‘’Then I shall be travelling with my son’’

This causes significant confusion.


8. They hum and ha quite a lot.

9. And then they say, Sorry, no, there are no seats available on that day. It is full.

10.  This is a problem since you have been foolhardy enough to arrange to see doctor first thing on Monday morning. 



11. “Are you sure? Is it really full?”


12. Yes. (Emphatically). We will waitlist you. 

13. Please don’t (rising panic evident in tone) please get me on the flight. And you explain why. Hoping to elicit some sympathy.


14. They hum and ha again.


15. Please. You begin to beg in humiliating earnest 

16. The waitlist they referred to (the ‘critical, unlikely you will get on that flight one’) eventually miraculously and happily clears in order that requisite two seats can be found.  You imagine this is not on account of sudden benevolence but because they are sick of listening to you and because you are losing them a lot of business as you are hogging the phone line.


17. Say thank you thank you thank you several times. Until receiver at other end clicks.


18. You duly receive e-tickets. You are apparently travelling to Nairobi with a Mr David Roland who you are sure is a very nice man and who may also need to see a doctor but who is decidedly not your son.


19. You call travel agent.  It takes a long time for anybody to answer.  This is probably because your number has been black-listed.


20. ‘I think you’ve made a mistake with the passenger’s name’, you point out when the phone is finally picked up. The receiver is very quickly replaced.


21. And a new e ticket promptly pings into your Inbox.  Almost instantly. You suspect this is not an endorsement of agent’s efficiency rather that they hope never, ever to hear from you again.


22. Telephone sister who lives north of border, ‘please can we come and stay for two nights, son has to have some tests’. 

23. Of course.  


24. Remember belatedly that your son needs to be collected from school and delivered to airport and that you will not be traveling with useful car in your hand baggage.


25. Call school. Again.

 26. Sorry. Me again. Would it please be at all possible to arrange transport for son to airport where I will meet him. Please. They are not terribly thrilled to hear from you. Again. But are very patient. Yes, they say.


27. And – you ask, striking whilst proverbial iron is at best still luke warm – can you collect him on our return since he needs to go in opposite direction (back to school) to you.  

28. Yes, they say. Distinctly less sympathetic now. As if the prospect of another phone call from you fills them with horror.  They would like to remind you that they are not a taxi service but are too polite to do so.

 29. Send 45 emails to confirm and reconfirm assorted plans and appointments and flights. 

30. Cross fingers very, very tightly for next two days that every one of the three planes you are due to board over the weekend is on time.


How to Organise a Doctor’s appointment for one of your children when you are staying with your mother who lives in a village in Northamptonshire in the East Midlands of England.


1. Pick up the telephone, be briefly amazed and delighted at constant and reassuring purr of dialing tone, telephone the Health Centre at Burton Latimer




Morning.  I wondered if it would be possible to make an appointment for my son to see Dr Spencer next week.


Certainly. What’s him name? (Brief silence as appointments books is consulted), ‘How about next Thursday at 11?’


Perfect. Thank you very much.  See you then.


Going on a bear hunt …

November 26, 2008









And Hat?




We’re going on a bear hunt.




No bears in Africa.  (Unless you count Ant Bears.)


Everybody knows that.


Or Tigers. (That’s a common misconception, lions and tigers don’t share jungle space).


Off on a Bush Whack.


Not a sedate amble along the dam, ‘Shall we head north or south?’


Neither, Husband says. Up the Hill, he says. For the view.


Because the flora and fauna change with the Rains, he says.


Ah. Right.


(Wish I hadn’t put my Birkenstocks on – not ideal hiking footwear).


So we walk. Swiping at thick scrub with sticks to cut a path through.  The dogs are ecstatic, quickly getting high on a gamut of alien scents. The canine equivalent of the perfumery at Harrods.


The flora a constant distraction.  (Come on, you two! urges Husband).







Look at this mum, look at this, Hat enthuses, look at my pretty leaf.  The veil of crisp new green that veils the hill side is a million merging colour swatches. Did you know Africa came in that many shades? Dissect it and you’ll see: bottle green, olive green, lime green, dark green, light green, aquarium green, soft sage-green filigree leaves.




And all of it sprigged with surprising splashes of colour: brightly lit yellow chandelier blossom hangs from acacias;


appropriately festive red berries (“Are they edible?’ I wonder Husband tries one and spits it out, ‘bitter’, he announces.  I watch him carefully for the next half hour lest he exhibit signs of poisoning);


Tiny violet flowers tucked shyly amongst rocks, nutty castanet seed pods which rattle cheerfully when I touch them.



The bush is resonant with sounds. Guinea fowl bossily organize one another for the night; mongoose talk too much; distant cow bells clang in that mellow dusty way that they do in Africa; Husband urges, again, ‘Come on you too’ and whistles for the dogs. I hear them long before I see them. They barrel, panting, through the undergrowth.  ‘Careful of snakes’, I keep reminding Hat. She is too kind to say Stop Nagging.

OK Mum. (Given my regular encounters with same, she gave me a bangle, ‘a Snake Bracelet’, she explained, ‘to keep you safe, mama’, she said).

So we climb and as we near the top I hear Hat above me, ‘Don’t turn round Mum, wait until you’re up here, the view is Splendid’.

And it was.



And we admired only briefly, clouds and sinking day sapping the light, and we slipped and slid our way back down and I cursed my Birkenstocks. Again.

And the light collapsed and the dogs began to lag.

And we got back on the faintest chink of pink sky. As if the heavens were watching our progress and kindly keeping a finger beneath the curtain of black. 

They let it drop then.





Mummy Mardi Gras

November 25, 2008

We’re at it again.




Is that a word? My spell check says not.


But then Google wasn’t once.


Anyhow. We’re at it again.


Iota says they let her in because she’s a Mummy and she’s British.


I am too. It says so in my passport. Not the Mummy bit. Just the British.


Hat’s origins are a constant source of puzzlement to her. Once, once when she was at Real School, she was obliged, as part of a class project, to design a poster to illustrate her birthright.  Our finished product disappointed Hat; it did not, like the example provided by her teacher (who was from Brighton), indicate where Hat came from.   We knew which children were from Holland or England or Egypt or Tanzania because they had written in bold letters, ‘I AM FROM …’ and added a badly drawn flag by way of explanation.  All our effort did was illustrate that Hattie had a grandmother who must be very old (judging by all the sepia photographs I used – which taught me not to be a show-off) and a dead grandfather who used to ride a bicycle.   


‘Who’s that?’ she asked, indignantly as I stuck a photo of paternal grandfather onto our piece of card


‘That’s Grandad Simon’, I said, and then, gently, in reverent tone reserved for the departed, ‘he’s dead now’


‘No, he’s not’, she snorted, ‘he’s riding a bike’.


Hat’s teacher asked kind and interested questions about all the dead grandfathers and long deceased great-grandparents staring from liver-spotted images bearing testimony to lives spent in India, the Congo, East Africa. 


How exotic she remarked.  Hat didn’t think it was exotic.  She would rather have had a poster decorated like her teacher’s, with pictures of Brighton Pier, Cadbury’s chocolate, pink and white complexioned children.  And a Union Jack. 


Her passport, the same maroon and gold of my own, helps to ground her when our poster clearly did not.


Her big brother, though, would rather be Indian. Largely on account of Sub continent cricketing prestige I think.


And her sister insists she’s Australian. She has never been to Oz and she has not a single relative Down Under. But Australian she is. She says. At 15 I think I remember thinking I could be/do/have whatsoever I chose.


How glorious unsullied youth is.


So. Back to the British Bloggy Carnivalling Mummies.   If I had to select one this week it’s be Grit, a home-schooler (leaden phrase: makes me think of ugly shoes, tie-dye dresses and underarms that need depilation) like myself (who wears no shoes, has never worn a tie-dye dress in her life and whose underarms are baby smooth); Grit’s entertaining post puts happy pay to any lingering suspicions that parents who teach their own kids either take themselves too seriously or are too painfully worthy for words.



Go take a peek.


Then come dancing on the cyber streets. 



To Do …

November 24, 2008





Hat says, ‘Mum why don’t you make a To Do list every day?’ (Hat who notices I waft).


She does.


To Do (she writes, at the top of a page in her notebook, and underlines the words in curlicues)


  1. Finish mending Dad’s shirt (a job inspired having read Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women)
  2. Do geography homework *
  3. Chat to Georgie on MSN
  4. Finish letter to Granny *
  5. Write a Christmas Wish
  6. Do half my advent calendar
  7. Clean out doll’s house


( * The asterisks denotes “A Must”).


When I was first married, when I abandoned fledgling career in the City in preference for life of eager young housewife on an African coastline, I used to compile To Do lists. (1. Learn what to do with Fish 2. Learn what to do with a prawn 3 Try not to imagine the sound I can hear as I plunge lobster into boiling water is a scream). And shopping lists (which I usually left behind when I went to the shops). I used to catalogue the contents of the deep freeze (which I had labeled first) and I composed meal plans.


I’m less organized now. Older. Less domestically enthused. More of a cynic. Or perhaps I just tell myself I prefer the daily challenge of emptying contents of freezer onto kitchen floor, surveying them forlornly and wondering what I can extract from ice-covered and unrecognizable pile (since labeling has long since been abandoned) for supper and whether, once I have done, it’s chicken, steak or dog meat.


Hat’s right though. To Do lists are written by people who understand their days need filling. Even at 11 she knows Busy is Best, the Outpost has taught her as much.


(And ought to be written by those who live in a directionless void and spend their days pondering, What Now? What Next?)


The satisfaction of a list, of course, as Hat’s demonstrates and as she can articulate, is the ticking off or crossing out.


‘I feel I have achieved something then’, she says.


Write one, mum, she urges, and stick it on the fridge.   It will make your days go quicker.


Don’t wish you life away, my own mother used to warn when I was Hat’s age (when I pressed impatiently, ‘I wish Christmas/the holidays/my birthday would hurry up’).  I didn’t live in an outpost then. She would empathize now. Certainly she would understand why I need to hasten Christmas and the holidays along. Though I’d happily wait forever until my next birthday. After 30, I have found, birthdays lose their festive allure.


So. Lists.


Mine this week (had I made one, I didn’t) would have included:


  • Build rockery. Tick. I did. With Sylvester’s help. A job that – were there any doubts remaining as to my sanity – the planting of stones as the Rains begin confirmed his worst fears: the memsahib was clearly, and quite quickly, going round the bend;


  • Organise dinner for ten. Tick. I did: in capacity of Good Corporate Wife. Three roast chickens which failed to obediently cook on time. Four hours after putting them in the oven they remained languishing like fat pale skinned Beryl Cook models with legs, somewhat suggestively, spread as if reduced to careless soporific state by lazy heat of stove. They were dragged unceremoniously out then, and hastily carved up and nuked.  By the time I served dinner at 10pm guests were too drunk to notice supper looked like so many bleached cadavers – that I insisted on dining by candlelight doubtless helped disguise what was on their plates. I told them it was chicken. Roast Chicken, I said. They believed me. Nobody died of salmonella poisoning the next day.


  • Filing, which I did not do even though it has been on the To Do lists I have not been writing since January. Or before. My husband files with meticulous precision. I hide mine in a drawer and then have to shuffle for the letter/bill/statement he demands as I mutter, ‘It’s in here somewhere …’


  • Write copy for a coffee brochure I am working on. Tick. Remembered not to add, despite temptation, that women who drink too much of the stuff have smaller boobs.  According to research.  I don’t drink coffee. My bust would apparently be concave if I did. I have well endowed friends who spend their lives high on caffeine. Imagine if they didn’t. They’d explode.


  • Research price of two new lenses for camera. Tick. The subsequent ordering (from Amazon) and payment of same was somewhere on a list for 2009. Nice to think I can cross something off a list I have not even begun.


  • Attempt to make mango chutney. Which I would have done. Had I not eaten the mangoes before I got around to the chutney bit.


What it would not have included but which I could have added with hindsight was the fact I managed to resist mobilizing a mountain rescue team when my 17 year old son called me from Kilimanjaro’s frozen shoulders to tell me he was suffering from appalling altitude sickness.  On his way down by then, he assured me he was feeling better.


Are you sure?


Yes, Mum, I’m sure.


Sure ?






Really, Mum, relax.


So you don’t me to arrange a helicopter to pluck you off the slopes then?


No Mum, I don’t need you to organize a helicopter.


In the intervening years, between new-trying-to-be-busy-bride and now, I was too busy to make lists. I knew what needed to be done next because my children told me. The pressing urgency of motherhood filled all the gaps.


Perhaps Hat’s right: maybe I need to stop them up with lists now?




Having it All?

November 18, 2008







Sometimes I need to remind myself why I live in an Outpost.


Because I’m married.


And I’m thoroughly married. My status underlined by my geography. No escape. He is my bread and butter, my only adult company; provider of grownup conversation. My sanity. Sometimes. (Though there are occasions when he tests it sorely). Apart from Hat, he’s all I’ve got when Outpost bound.  I live in a place that distils my marriage; no small shots to dilute the mighty Maritalstatus (I tick that box with bold black pen) measures I must imbibe.


God knows, I don’t want to live here.


But I do want to stay married.


Which is why I Do – do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband: I Do. Live here.


I bore out a mental tussle that raged for weeks and then I succumbed to what I thought was the Right Thing To Do. (I do, I do: how many times must I say it?)

And because I was a bit afraid that if I did not come, if I did not live With him, I might grow too used to living Without him. As indeed he might grow too used to living Without me.  (I also feared he might meet somebody else and fall in love all over again in that stereotypical way men of a certain age are supposed to. And then I got here and realized – given the dearth of female company I can pick from for a laugh over a shared bottle of Chablis – that that was probably an empty threat.  Too late, though, I was already ensconced: Mrs R firmly in residence).


Some people are good at staying married whilst remaining apart.


I’m not. Possibly because I’m not very brave. Possibly because I’m a mite old fashioned (Until Death Do Us Part? I Do, I Do).


Mainly because I have been with this man since I was 22; I have grown too used to his being there. Here.


I consider that my life now – the one I have opted for in lieu of regular contact with my children, my friends, the job I used to think I had – must fly in the face of what our bra-burning sisters of yesterday fought for: emancipation from male dictate.  Am I anathema to the liberation they battled for? I cook for him, I run a home for him because he’s the kind of bloke who enjoys a home with kids and cats and fat Labradors slumped on floors, I entertain his tobacco growing, beer-drinking colleagues and sometimes I bite my tongue when they ask me how I find life here (sometimes, not always: I’m married, remember, not mute). I try to remember to consider my reflection in the mirror; I try to remember that it is not just me that sees the face that scowls back (and so I drag on some lippie). I try to smile when he comes home. I open a beer for him (and one for me too) and I relate my day.


And I try – I really, really try – not to complain.


Having It All is the stuff of myths and legends and media-hype.  Didn’t your mother ever tell you? You can’t have everything.


I couldn’t. I couldn’t Have it All: all my darling babies close enough to tuck up every night, all my friends near enough to laugh with regularly, my husband in a job that paid all the bills.


So I had to choose.


I rationalized that my older children were probably – and certainly will be soon – ready to disentangle themselves from my long and knotty apron strings. I looked at Hat and I wondered, ‘Will you be OK, away from your peers?’ And I thought, ‘perhaps for now, you will be; perhaps for now a room of your own and regular walks on a dam with your dad are more important’. I asked Mum, ‘What shall I do?’ Mum, who lost my father when she was the age I am now. ‘Go with him’, she urged. Nobody ever asked her; Fate just snatched him away.  And I thought of both my grandmothers who followed their men to India and to Africa and I remembered the adventures they enjoyed (and doubtless the ones they endured too), adventures they collated as stories which they told to the wide-eyed, awed audience they had in a small grand-daughter.


So I realized I couldn’t Have It All. I could only Have a Bit of it. And I weighed it all up in my head and on the pages of my diary, frantic sideways scratching, testimony to my ragged thoughts and sleepless nights.  And I found places for the big kids in boarding school and I learned what was necessary to educate a child in the bush and I ignored the perplexed expressions of some of my friends.


And I told my husband, ‘I’ll join you’.


And so now, now on days when my home morphs from Outpost to Bloodyeffinoutpost, I remind myself that my big kids calls me less often than they used to, (and that’s a good thing I tell myself in trying-to-be-grownup tones), that I can hear Hat scream with laughter when she swims with her dad in the evening. That real school can probably wait. That I can collect adventures of inland seas and long drives and memories of Hat singing All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth on the back seat. That two years ago I couldn’t pay my bills.


And mostly that my mum was right: that usually you can’t have everything, not all at the same time. 


And so I lipstick on a smile.  And I tell myself, ‘Just Give it Your All Girl. For now just try to Give it Your All’.



At Last

November 12, 2008



It rained last night.


Cue round of applause and exhalation of long held breath.


It rained – soft, kind, gentle rain which belied the thunderous ovation that accompanied it – and I curled deliciously beneath covers too thin for the cool.


Less delicious come dawn, though. The trip switch clicked loudly, an ominous snap signalling an end to power as we know it.


No tea for me then.


I staggered from my bed intent on sourcing the problem. Me, with no significant qualifications and certainly none in electrics, me so frantic for a brew I might have killed for it. Or killed myself in desperate and ignorant pursuit of same. I tried flicking the switch back on. To no avail.


The dawn drip-dripped in melancholy acknowledgment of my nomorningtea misery.


I stepped onto the verandah, awash with water that had soaked through the roof which had helpfully sieved all trace of dust from it before it landed a pristine puddle on the coffee table. Yesterday’s virginal bridewhite ceiling boards bellysag pregnant and stained sepia. As if with tea, come to think of it.


Is that where the source of my powerlessness lies, I wondered, up there?


I wasn’t going to swim. But I did. It seemed imperative given breakofday challenges.


I dived in and surfaced to steam rising from waters warmer than the air. A mist-laced lake beneath a cloud bound sky that brought to mind Arthurian legends. Except that I was no water-sprite accompanied by Lancelot or Excalibur. Rather a disgruntled mum keeping company with the four fat toads that swam lengths beside her.


An electrician came to survey the watery scene. He clambered up a ladder and rescued naked drowned cable in the roof.


Have you fixed it, I enquired when he climbed back down.


With duct tape, he nodded.


Later I am assured by the contractor who built the extension that he can waterproof my home. With sheets of United Nations blue plastic I notice: from the air we shall appear as a refugee camp.


Power restored, I drank my belated tea and took to the garden, damp sand moulding itself beneath bare feet so that I left prints as testimony to where I had walked.


We are planting trees, Sylvester and I. (Sylvester wears his wellies; he wears wellies every single day of the year irrespective of the weather). And a lawn. And a rockery. And ranks of bougainvillea against the fence.


Something is eating these, I observe to Sylvester as I bend low to examine nibbled leaves.


It’s the Gra Shoppers he says importantly.


And I giggle.


Because that’s what the Rain does to you in Africa.


Despite the unfamiliar grey, it’s suddenly easier to see the Bright Side.





Go mama, go!

November 11, 2008



Lovely Rosiero has nominated me for an award.


Awards are always nice to receive, little endorsements that yes! somebody actually reads my stuff!


But this one, this award, underlined for me what blogging is fundamentally all about.


Non bloggers might recoil, gawd how cheesy they might sneer.  Or, worse, and they may snigger into cupped hands, Sad Cow, her and her imaginary friends.


And some bloggers, some who have their feet planted resolutely on terra firma and only venture into cyberspace to test its coolblue ethereal waters now and again (and don’t hang about there on an almost permanent basis, loitering, waiting for conversation and company)  might not quite comprehend the phenomenon entirely.


But for me, for me in the bush, a metaphorical million miles (though it often feels like it in reality) from most of my brood, all of my friends and a bloody good evening out, for me blogging is – predominantly – about connection, communication and, by extension, friendship.


Friendship with people you have mostly never met, never clapped eyes on, probably never will.


I can’t remember why I began to blog, cannot identify with one immediate and emphatic answer the precise reason that I dragged my personal life into the glare of the frequently unforgiving spotlight of the internet, and started to describe to invisible strangers the minutae of my days.


Perhaps it provided creative vent? Perhaps I believed it would, as one editor suggested, elevate my profile (it didn’t and it doesn’t matter). Perhaps because I had nothing better to do that day.


But I know why I continue. Because I am often lonely. Blogging has become the crutch I use to limp about the isolation of the Outpost. I cannot imagine being here without it; I’d be brought to my knees. It’s better than a diary because I observe more than just what I ate, where I didn’t go and how pissed off I might have been with Husband that day.  And it’s better than a diary because even I cannot read my own illegible scrawl were I to wish to re-read what I had written. And it’s especially better than a diary because it obliges me to rationalise the way I feel as I articualte myself, and in so doing I often unravel the confusion. Bring some tiny order to a mind strung out in frustrated reaction to trying to fill a day full of nothing with something. Anything. Often my blog. My children understand how vital this compulsion has become, how it percolates my thought processes: my son pleads ‘oh Christ mum, pleeeeeeeease don’t write about that in your blog’ but my exhibitionist daughters beg, ‘put it on your blog, ma, put me in your blog’’.


Rosanna E. Guadagno, a researcher at the Department of Psychology, University of Alabama, recently published the findings of a survey: Who blogs? In her report she acknowledged ‘that women may blog as a means to cope with loneliness’.   (She also had the audacity to suggest that women who blog may be more neurotic. Qui? Moi?!)


Judith O’Reilly, brilliant and widely read blog to book Wife in the North told me when I approached her on this for a piece I was writing for The Examiner (which just goes to show what a marvellous platform for connection blogsphere is: frequently chronically shy I, emboldened by the veil of anonymity spun of ether, had the confidence to approach literary celeb) that loneliness was definitely a catalyst for her: having moved from London to the remote countryside she began to blog as she ‘’found it was a place to vent’’ at a time when she had ‘’things to say and no-one to say them to’’.


According to Technorati, which tracks 133 million blogs to which 900,000 new posts are added every 24 hours (10.4 new posts per second),  four out of five bloggers are personal bloggers.


And most of them are women.  


Most. Not to say all. Mr Sherman who has been a constant and kindly reader of this blog since its inception is obviously not a woman. Nor is Primal Sneeze, who was full of encouragement when I first began to write, even if I thought he was a she.


But predominantly, according to the research, bloggers are birds. One or two I know in reallife, like Janelle, and our mutual blogging habit has, I like to think, enhanced our friendship. Two or three I have never met in person but communicate with off-post, Iota and Potty Mummy (who invited me for coffee and cake in London; I never got there) and Good Woman (who I so wanted to meet For Real when she was briefly in north-of-the-border Kenya) and Mzungu Chick whom I might have seen in Karen Dukas when I found myself there in my bedroom slippers. She suggested a rendezvous. I declined. Afraid that my real life persona may disappoint. You might be able to brazen it out on the page but it doesn’t mean you have the verbal conversation to support the invisible poise you assume in the ether.


There’s lots of friends I’d like to pass this on to, I had to think hard, and simultaneously give my choice good geographical spread.


So if I may I’d like to extend this award to Pig (in France), who understands abandonment and whose site is so delicious. I urge you, if you have not been there, to visit and take a big bite. With a dearth of delectable eateries in the Outpost, Pig’s page is where I cyber-binge;


Boisterous Butterfly (in the Netherlands) because I would like to sit in a café and drink cappuccino and white wine with her for she sounds so colourful and interesting and warm and human (can I say that about an intangible entity?);


And Paradise Lost in Translation (in Sri Lanka) because on some level I suspect she might understand my loneliness.


To me blogging is the whispered rallying of a gentle sisterhood; so much of what we experience as individuals is recognised and experienced universally: marriage, motherhood, Making Jam.  There’s something enormously reassuring in that, something oddly empowering.  You really aren’t on your own. Even if it sometimes feels like it.


And talking of which, talking of marriage, motherhood, Making Jam, it’s Carnival time:  further proof, as if we needed it, that lots of us mamas are at it.


Blogging. I mean.







And a brief postscript for the eldest exhibitionist who, because she is applying for scholarship entry to a sixth form, was obliged to write a letter to the Head:


Dear Sir


I am very nice and you should totally accept me into your school. 


Personally, I don’t think it matters that I have three kids, am on forty fags a day, have an IQ of 23 and consider Heat magazine amongst  the best of Britain’s contemporary literature.  It’s what’s inside that matters, innit?


Loads luv,

Big A


Ought I urge her to have another go?










W(h)etting of Appetites

November 10, 2008


There has been some rain.


Not so much that you would throw caution and propriety to the wind and rush out in exuberance to dance beneath the downpour getting thoroughly soaked to ecstatic, goose-bumped skin. Not so much that the verandah is dripping with still-damp laundry. Not so much that you long to see the sun again. No, not that much.


But enough to lay the dust. It skipped through the garden, the rain, waving cheerfully as it went. As if to say, ‘I’m just passing through, sorry, can’t stop’. I could see where it was going. Away. To the east where it dug itself in darkly and glowered at me, staring disconsolate, from a distance.


And enough to suggest it’s Around. The Rain’s are Around we tell one another optimistically (so optimistic as to refer to them in the plural) as we peer up at the sky squinting, as if hoping that our focused stares will bully far-away marshmallow clouds to bruising rugby scrum proximity. Around enough to give the grass by the dam a brittle green bottle sheen. Not a shade Africa offers in her colour swatch often; this is a limited edition. Enjoy it while you can.




Enough to prompt tiny wild flowers forth; they lie scattered on the ground like pink paper tissue littered. I had to stop, to examine them close up, to make sure they were what I hoped they were and not something carelessly discarded from a passing bus window.  


Africa is so forgiving of punishing cruel Drought. The minute the Rains arrive she yields, forgets that they abandoned her for weeks, months, and begins to bloom enthusiastically so that overnight she morphs from tired grey barrenness to blushingly youthful fecundity.




Nights are suddenly rendered gloriously, sleep enhancingly cool and my dawn swims chilly. So that I dive into water that feels like cold blue silk; water that quite takes my breath away.


I must swim hard then. To keep warm.


Fifty lengths last week weren’t nearly as quickly swum as they are this.


Keeping up with the Joneses

November 8, 2008






There is a Flamboyant tree over the fence, in next door’s garden.


It is laden with blossom, so laden that not a trace of green is visible.


It’s bleeding colour into my garden, staining crimson the caramel sand.


There is a Flamboyant tree outside my verandah.


It was sickly when I arrived in this house. A headstrong, loudly purple bougainvillea had clambered up its trunk and was slowly strangling the life out of it with cruelly twisting fingers.


I cut the bougainvillea down. I felt no remorse as I hacked it to the ground where its remains lay spitefully spiking my bare feet with hidden thorns for weeks.  I still didn’t feel any remorse. I just hopped and cursed.  Excuse my French I used to say. Until Hat began to learn the language, ‘That’s not French, mama!’, she reprimanded sternly, ‘I know better now’, she added.


I watched the Flamboyant anxiously then. I scattered fertilizer at its base. Poured precious water onto the earth embracing its tired old roots. I feared the bougainvillea might have maliciously dragged it to its own similar fate.


But slowly, slowly tiny, tiny shoots of green began to appear. Just one or two at first. They yawned and stretched and unfurled as long feathery leaves.





I watched next door’s burst into flower. An unashamed Scarlet Lady.


My own tree seemed content to gently busy itself with a more demure outfit of lime coloured lace.


Until two days ago. The first bloom.


I like to think I coaxed it there, that my patient urging ignited the brilliant red.


But I suspect it’s suddenly woken up and could not bear to be outdone by the Joneses?




The telly went on the blink.

I would like to pretend I am so cerebral I would not miss the telly for a few days.

I am not. And I do. Especially because I live in an Outpost. Especially when Husband has abandoned Hat and I. On those days, especially, which become taut and seamless in their longevity, I miss the telly. I want to punctuate long days’ ends by escaping into BBC Prime. I want Sky to deliver to my tiny little world its own bigger one.

So I began to stalk television technician, Raju.

After two days he succumbed to my texted pleas.

He arrived. It was late. I was in my pajamas.

He tried to make the telly work. (I hovered anxiously. So did Hat. ”Will we miss My Family again?”, she asked.)

”I need to collect something from my house”, announced Raju, ”to make this work” (he gestured at offending appliance).

Ok. I said.

”Do you drive, mama?”

Yes, bewildered.

”I do not have enough diesel in my car to get me there and back again”, he explained.  ”Can you take me?”

I was desperate. Hat too.


So it was I found myself driving Television Technician Raju around the Outpost late at night in my pajamas and slippers with a gleeful Hat on the back seat, texting her distant father, ”We are driving Rajoo around in our pajamas trying to get the telly mended”.

I discovered – during our foray out – that Raju was born in the Outpost, that his father, a goldsmith, came here from India during early gold mining hay-days, that his wife is from the Gujarat.

He discovered that my mother was born in Bombay, that she lived less than 100 miles from here as a child. A small neat symmetry I thought.

Later, much later, ensconced in front of Prime, glass of wine in hand, Hat deliciously curled up on the sofa demanding, ”what shall we watch next Ma?” and Raju/Rajoo presumably safely back home and quite pleased to be shot of me, I considered that my neighbours’ wives (spouses to – on one side – a local judge and – on the other – the Regional Commissioner) probably don’t run around an Outpost after dark clad in their nightwear.

But then perhaps they don’t have tellies to break down either?

New Flavours

November 6, 2008



So, we went away.


And we came home. Ten hard hours. 


And as we bounced over roads rutted by rain and dry and rain and dry and overloaded lorries and leaning, leering buses, I clung to the optimism spawned of Change.


I saw my children. I think I cried. I had my hair done, painted my toe nails pillar box red, wore more than just yesterday’s shorts. Laughed with friends. Drank wine.  They told me I was brave. That they couldn’t do what I do. I told them they could. And with infinitely more grace. They were lying. But it made me feel better all the same. And braver.


And slowly the layers of confusion and sadness peeled away, like onion skins.  So that I cried a little more; onions can do that to you. But there was release in the shedding. A newer, brighter me. A tiny epiphany. Scales stripped from eyes jaded after too much dust, too many days of unchanging vistas.


I’m going to do something else, I thought. I’m going to Make a different kind of Jam.


And not just because a literary agent pronounced my writing Monotonous and Narcissistic.


Oh. I said. Then, Ouch!, I reeled.  (And I might have cried a bit more).  And finally: oh fuck. Who cares. What wonder that my days, which morph when Outpost bound one into the other so that I can remember little between them other than how I felt. Except Hot, Lonely, Frustrated. When the substance of your life distils to the tiny space mine occupies it is hard to remember to look beyond your boundaries; you go round and round in circles, whipping the days to a viscosity until it feels as if you are wading through molasses. Self absorbed and tedious? Quite possibly. 


Will I be tightly clutching the same courage a week from now? Who knows.


We went from one Outpost to – having kissed my babies goodbye again and sent them back to school, having dispatched Hat to friends so that she could hone her socialization skills (Socialization skills? Whose vernacular is peppered with such phrases? That of those who are constant in their suspicion of the reckless, feckless amongst us who home school their children, that’s who. As if we might lock them up in a dark cupboard and instruct them to learn and until they do, we will withhold conversation and hugs and lying on a bed together in the swampy afternoon heat reading in companionable, close silence) – to another.


Another Outpost. I was dubious. What purpose will more isolation serve, I asked a friend. ‘Change’, she said, wisely.


Three days in a piece of Africa still so close to the way Nature – or God or Mother Earth or whichever deity had the dexterity of fingers and purity of vision to create – intended that I suddenly knew everything was going to be alright. Was it because I lived not far from there as a little girl? The red soil, blue skies, sage-grey acacia a reassuringly familiar palate of childish colour.  A railway ripped through here at the turn of the last century – a Lunatic Line they called it – I grew up beside it, tales of maneaters thrilled me by day and kept me awake at night.  Lusty maned lion plucked off the poor imported Indian labour laying the line.  Their feline descendants – sixty years later – plucked off our cattle.  And my pony.  The only one I ever owned; a deal brokered between my parents and the mare’s owners. Livery in exchange for a foal. One that I never got to ride.

We slept under a sky littered so generously with stars that it looked as if the angels had flung a jar of multicoloured commas and semi colons and brightly surprised neon exclamation marks across the heavens.  We lay on sun baked sand that still grasped enough of the early evening heat to warm our backs and we star-gazed. Husband said, because he had done the same in exactly this spot as a child, ‘if you are patient, you’ll see a shooting star’.


But my reserves of patience, alas, do not match my fear for snakes and scorpions.


I could not lie long enough for the shooting stars.


A shame. I could have stolen a wish from the inky blue. Wished on a star as it trail-blazed across that big domed African night.


It’s all big out there: big unbridled, shameless Africa. Big skies, big baobab festooned with big, fat tissue-fragile blossoms. Blooms that live for a single day in a year. Perhaps that was as good as a wish I told myself: to stumble upon such rare flowering. I shielded my eyes with the flattened palm of a hand and I gazed to far, far horizons, enormous, embracing views.



We talked. We walked. We trod carefully, mindful of hippo – whose tracks mapped journeys of night-time foraging along the river’s banks – of crocodile – which lay sunbathing on rocks – of elephant that crashed through the undergrowth on the opposite bank at night. 




And at dawn when the jaundiced bark of Fever Trees glowed yellow and the doum palm fronds rattled a papery tune, I sipped tea sweetened with wood smoke and I watched a host of lion ants frantically rebuilding homes beneath the sand so that grainy plumes of dust were evicted, every few seconds, with synchronized precision. I sat on my haunches, mug cradled between my hands, eyes trained to the busy ground beneath bare feet.


Until I saw a scorpion. And then I stood up.


How does Africa do that? How does she – with space and light and birdsong and the eternal chatter of cicadas – hypnotize you so that you forget you ever had a worry? How does she, with her patient, listening silence massage your self doubt like tired shoulders so that you are able suddenly to roll them languidly and shrug it all off? No matter what the All is.



Because she’s bigger than you are, that’s why. So big, she reminds you of how small you are.  An oddly reassuring prompt when life overwhelms you. You’re not supposed to be invincible.


So. Perspective altered. A new recipe to hand.  And I’m back. A little bolder, I hope.


And with prettier toe nails.