Big Pictures, Little Things



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.



20 Responses to “Big Pictures, Little Things”

  1. The Finely Tuned Woman Says:

    I won’t be making any kind of jam, but I do enjoy reading about the process of making it. I’ve always enjoyed reading recipes and getting some satisfaction out of exotic food that way. Well, mangoes are still a bit exotic.

    I also just like reading about your days and how you manage to stay occupied. I wish I was your next door neighbor and I could come visit you and have a bottle of wine with you on a lazy afternoon. Mind you, 3 glasses and I’m standing on my head.

    How is Hat? You don’t mention her. Will she help you eat all that delicious jam? Where do you buy your bread, by the way? Is it good bread and can you make it last a while in that climate?

    Big hug,

  2. laurie Says:

    everything you teach me seems so magical, so exotic, so foreign. i love it.

  3. lulu campbel Says:

    Fingers crossed re your son’s results….lovely writing as ever. You have a taggy thingy at my place Lx

  4. rosiero Says:

    Love the look of that jam. It is sad reading about your son – they grow up so fast these days and we cannot hold on to them for too long.

  5. Potty Mummy Says:

    You’ve made my mouth water RM. I love the idea of making jam. Never done it (in the literal sense, that is), but I do like the concept… One day.

  6. Pig in the Kitchen Says:

    Oh such a beautiful post, with a slightly melancholy tone. Reading about your son made me want to cry, I don’t know why, perhaps because I long for life to ease a little, for my little ones to be a bit older, but I can already see my 9 year old peeling away from me and it scares the hell out of me. This mother thing isn’t easy, do they still need you when they’re 17???!

    and the jam! I haven’t made a single mince pie but now I fancy making your jam!

  7. Iota Says:

    This is meant to be a compliment, although it doesn’t sound like one, perhaps. Sometimes I need a really good cry. There’s not always an obvious reason. But I find it hard. Too British, too stoic, too irritated by self-pity, wrong generation. There’s always an internal policeman telling me not to be so pathetic. In order to get past that policeman, I used to put on Borodin’s string quartets, or Debussy’s Arabesques, and that usually did the job. Now, I read what you write about your children, which is instantly effective. You do me such a favour.

  8. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Irene, thank you. Hat is well. Happy. Wonderful. Suffused with pre Christmas excitment and eagerly anticipating the weekend arrival of older siblings and her granny. x

    laurie, but i think all our lives often sound more exotic than they really are. In the end – like everybody else – i’m just getting from one end of the day to the other. Reasonably intact one hopes!

    thank you, lulu x

  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    rosiero, oh too, too fast. I look at him and i wonder, ”where did all those years go?”.

    Potty:: my jam making (sugar and fruit variety) is sporadic and irregular. but immensely therapeutic when i get around to it. Try it x

    Pig, thank you. They pretend not to. And sometimes you fear they mightn’t. Need you. Weeks can go by without any apparent cry for help and suddenly there will be a call or a text or an out of the blue hug and nothing in the world is as gratifying, as a mother, to be reminded that you are not maternally redundant. Not yet. As to mince pies … thanks for reminding me!

  10. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Iota. We all need a good cry now and again. It’s imperative. Cathartic. I am flattered to occassionally match Borodin and Debussy for that necessary prompt. x

  11. Mud Says:

    Beautiful descriptions as ever; I too find jam making theraputic. Spending time in control of something, having it all make sense, making something that can be stored and shared between family & friends. A multitude of reasons!

    I have my fingers crossed for your son’s health as well. He is lucky to have a mum to travel all that way to care for him. He might be brave and have size 11 feet – but he is still a child at times like that.

  12. blogthatmama Says:

    A vision of the future for me then, I’m starting to be able to imagine older boys but the baby bits still seem so close! Great post, makes me nostalgic for the summer, have always wanted to visit Tanzania, not made it yet.

  13. Roberta Says:

    Forgive me. I have to know? What’s wrong with your boy?

  14. Google Mummy Says:

    what a beautiful writing style you have. it’s as if i’m sat right there with you.

    Heart warming tips on remembering to talk to your children, whatever the time. Thank you.

    And i might even try making the jam!

  15. Dumdad Says:

    Delightful, thoughtful post – and you end it with food. Perfect!

  16. nappy valley girl Says:

    Lovely post, (and my mouth is watering, particularly at your description of mangoes, which I love). I hope he is OK.

    When we lived in Hong Kong, I always used to say to people that I came from Essex, even though I could hardly even remember spending the first three years of my life there. Now, when people ask where I am from, I say that I grew up in Hong Kong and now live in London – but I don’t really feel I’m ‘from’ anywhere. It’s a funny part of the expat mentality.

  17. Roland Hulme Says:

    It’s so weird… It’s freezing and snowy over here… And then I visit your blog and see bright sunshine and crocodiles!

    They’d be crocodicicles here!

  18. Tessa Says:

    Oh. You write so beautifully, so lyrically andmanage so magically conjure up pictures of your life which we, your readers, can share. I can almost smell the warm, spicey sweetness of the air in your kitchen as you make that delicious jam!

    Funny, isn’t it, when you look at your grown-up child and feel a certain awe? I remember well the evening our daughter walked down a sweeping baronial staircase in her wedding dress, her hand linked into the crook of her husband’s elbow. I quite simply lost the power of speech. Guests keep asking why I was so quiet and I just shook my head and smiled.

  19. paradiselostintranslation Says:

    Thanks RM for a stunningly evocative post. You really do awaken the sense & stir the soul at the same time. Sensory & emotional overload for me! That’s a compliment by the way, I don’t know how you do it. Simply beautiful & poignant too. Do hope your son is ok.

  20. QldDeb Says:

    Yum! I want to make some of that jam now, (I love cooking, goes with the earth mother thingy, if I didn’t cook at times my daughter might never survive the psychological damage!).

    What’s your recipe for Mango chutney? I’ve got 20 kilos of mangoes sitting on the front veranda at the moment, I’ll freeze some (very yummy, they’re nice & creamy when frozen, almost like ice cream) but I wanted to make chutney with the rest and I know I can get a recipe from the ‘net but I love to get old “tried & true” recipes, they’re always the best, just like your plum jam one.

    Hope you guys have a wonderful bush christmas and all keep safe over the new year.

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