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.