Sometimes I think I must be compelled to take pictures that reflect the dizzying variation of life’s proportions from one week to the next.
Last week life was Big. Big drives. Big spaces. Big distances. Big, big crocodiles lying log-like upon spits of sands fast shrinking in a river swollen with rain.
Last week was cross-border big. Long waits in airport queues. Longer ones in the consultant’s surgery in a big city hospital.
I hear my son behind the curtain where the doctor is examining him.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I hear my son do as he is told.
‘Where are you from?’ the doctor wants to know.
I hear my youngman son’s big new voice: ‘Northamptonshire …?’.
‘Northamptonshire, hey?’ the doctor repeats as he exits the curtain.
Not really I tell him. My son’s great grandfather arrived here more than a century ago; we have been here ever since. (I don’t tell him my children feel obliged, as they grapple for Home, to snatch Northamptonshire up simply because that’s where their granny lives, simply because they fear that to say Here may seem presumptuous).
Hah! Laughs the doctor, ‘you are as African as I then’, he tells my son who reappears buttoning his shirt. ‘We are just a different colour, that’s all’.
My son smiles. Later he confides, ‘I liked that doctor, Mum; he made me feel at home’.
We share a bedroom in my sister’s house. My six-foot son sleeps on a mattress on the floor beside my bed. We talk after lights out. Teens find their tongues late in the day. I have learned that. I have learned not to say, ‘I’m too tired to talk’. I yawn as quietly as I can. I tell my son a story, I tell him I have brave siblings. He tells me he has a brave mama. And slow, silent tears slip down my cheeks and slide into my pillow; I want to tell him I am not always brave. But I want him to believe I am more. Later I trip over long legs flayed when I stumble to the bathroom in the deep big dark of night. And I remember a time when I used to tuck that seventeen year stretched body up. I drag the duvet over big exposed size 11 feet. For old time’s sake.
And now, now back here, the Outpost – all bright eyed and fatly-bushy tailed after rain – telescopes life to the little things.
And I am forced to fill my cavernous days with as much small stuff as I can gather up and cram into them.
To Making Jam.
I forage for inspiration and ingredients in the market, just a mile away and fetid with steamy between-storms heat and over ripe fruit spilling its guts onto the sand where blue bottles feast greedily until they are sated and quite intoxicated.
I buy Christmas plums; re routing the fate of the few pounds I purchase from compost to conserve. I argue the price. Why so much I want to know? But the vendors are not interested in haggling; they don’t care if today’s plums suffer the same suppurating fate as yesterdays.
And I buy mangos, harvested from the Outpost’s proliferation of trees, which are luxuriant green and generous with their shade now, they are bedecked abundantly with crop as if simulating their own festive decoration. They are the legacy of the slavers. Such bitter irony disguised by fruit so plumply sweet the flesh strains against rosy orange skins and streaks it with sugary tears.
And I come home to make Spicy Plum Jam and Mango Chutney and I do not know what thoughts fill my head as I weigh and wash and peel. Perhaps I do not think. Perhaps all I know as I sift stones from warmly silken preserve with my fingers is that my small kitchen smells like an obediently happy one. I watch with satisfaction as the fruit bubbles claret in a pan and I smile later when I notice redwine stains dripped across the kitchen counter where I have carelessly poured my small achievement into jars. And I think it looks as if I have thrown a Christmas party for invisible guests between the fridge and the stove.
Spicy Plum Jam
(adapted from Clare Macdonald’s Sweet Things)
2 lbs plums, washed
Half a pint wine vinegar
A stick of cinnamon
A generously rounded teaspoon of mixed spice (I substituted with Zanzibari Tea Masala assuming the ingredients – cloves, cardamom, ginger and pepper – in the absence of the prescribed to be similar)
A little less than 2 lbs granulated sugar.
Bung everything but the sugar into a pan and simmer gently for about half an hour or until plums look as if they are releasing their grip on their stones.
Allow to cool enough that you can plunge your hands into the pot and separate stubborn stones from flesh. It’s like a fruity-smooth hand massage. I recommend it.
Stir in the sugar and dissolve over a gentle heat. Bring to a rapid boil and test for set every few minutes (drop a spoonful onto a saucer, cool and push with your finger, if it wrinkles, it’s ready). Pour into warm jars and seal.
Serve (from a glass dish where it can wink invitingly at diners) with turkey (given the time of year), pork, lamp, fat herb sausages or eat as I did: spread still warm upon bread and feisty cheddar cheese.