Archive for January, 2009

The Sound of Silence

January 29, 2009

An acquaintance observed, before I left the Land of the Living and departed for the Outpost, and during an exchange in which I articulated faint, nagging worries about impending, crushing isolation, ‘Oh but just think of all the time you’ll have to write!’.

Time. Yes. I have a lot of that. Sometimes my shoulders ache from the weight of it. I want to be able to say, ‘God, I’m rushed off my feet, no time for anything’. But that would be a lie. Time lies heavy in my hands; I have gathered armfuls of it since I got here and sometimes I sag beneath its load.

But time to write? Ah, time isn’t the only essential ingredient to conjuring words. You need inspiration. Integration. Conversation.

The silence is deafening.

Except, of course, that nothing is ever so quiet you could hear a pin drop (what would that sound like, I wonder, a pin falling stealthily to the floor?).

I hear the pantechnicon roar of thunder. I thought it was a truck until I knew better, a highway bound truck. Only there are none where I live: no highways. Only dirt roads which – at this time of year – mire and still the rush of wheels. I hear the fleeting beat of an aeroplane’s engine, the whir of propellers. High. High above me and winging its way east. My other children are in the east. And I wish that I was a bird.

But not a crow. I hear those as well. They are late risers and only descend, cawing indignantly, rudely (is that why they are common? No manners?) upon my garden as the afternoon tips to evening, to torment the cats and steal the dogs’ food. Their greed sated this week, one of the dogs has lost her appetite. Her single puppy was born dead. She tried valiantly to revive it, licking its little black lifeless body (the one Hat and I had felt squirm and kick in a belly turned towards us to be rubbed just days before) until its coat shone with a cruelly healthy gleam. She carted it from room to room and then, defeated, she buried it under a bed for me to retrieve and plant in a tiny garden grave. Hat cried. Hat would have liked a small black puppy. She would have called it Sparrow, she said, and it would have helped to alleviate her own noisy silences.

Even when I swim I can’t hear the quiet. Even with my ears full of water I can still hear the splash of my limbs, the comforting rhythm of my breathing. In. Out. In. Out. The sound of Keeping Going. I concentrate on the bottom of the pool as I plough up and down. I can see the sky reflected there. So I know that the sun is slipping behind big black clouds driven forth by thunder in pantechnicons. I know that when I surface a nicotine light will seep and stain where I had hoped for blushing dusk. I watch the debris dance along the bottom of the pool too. A twist of tiny drowned leaves choreographed by my passing stroke. I think I ought to clean it then – the cool blue pool – and lighten my burden of time , for the chore would swallow a little.

I hear the rain on the roof at night. I hear its drip drip through the ceiling and onto the floor. I lay down a towel, to smother the sound so that I can sleep. But I don’t. Instead I worry about spreading tea stains above me and I wonder if I will ever manage to plug them. Or will my home be reduced to veritable sieve. Or tea strainer, come to think of it?

I hear my phone beep. A girlfriend:

Thnx urs. No time now. Will resp l8er.

I hear myself scowl.

And later another. Not her. Not she who promised. My husband:

Shall we got out tonight

So we do. And I hear the sound of other voices. The plinkety plink of a tinkling African band somberly plucking guitar strings and tickling piano keys. And my husband ordering two cold beers. And a coke for Hat.

And it’s ok then. The raucous silence that crowds my head loudly is broken.

For a bit.



History. Herstory.

January 21, 2009



History in the making.

Hat and I watch Obama’s inaugural speech on the telly.

I witness my daughter’s face trying to register the import of the occasion. She has grown up in a multihued world. Why shouldn’t a black man be President of the United States, she muses? She understands there was a struggle for emancipation, civil rights.

But history is drier on the page. You cannot grasp it and lift it from paper in the same way you can pluck it from your own reality.


Hat is living history today, though: today she will remember. Without the aid of a text book that smells of chalk and the fingers of a hundred children that have thumbed it before her, all gazing out of a window willing the bell for lunch to ring.

Yesterday, on the same screen, a documentary this time, not the news, not anymore, she watched the collapse of the Twin Towers.


I assumed everybody was intimately acquainted with the date. Not if they were just four at the time. Not if they were too little, too far away, to comprehend what the crumbling of those iconic towers heralded.

I dragged my history up for her then. I described what happened, what happened next, in language she could grasp. I told her where I was when the planes hit. With my sister who had recently delivered her first baby. Hat’s cousin. The association is the link that will gather the chain of events and make my bit of related history meaningful to her. I think she understood the enormity: I told her I heard the world come to a brief, juddering, shocking stop.

Will Hat remember where she was – what she was doing – when America’s first black president was sworn in? Yes. ‘Just think’, she said, ‘Obama became President on your birthday, mum! Do you think they’ll make it a holiday?”


43. I find myself briefly in illustrious company and I glance around shyly at my co-guests. I imagine they are all younger than me for their children are younger than mine – I can tell by the tales of potty training and nanny hiring. I am glad that they are registering their own small Histories. HerStories. For their children will demand, one day, ‘tell me about when I was little’. And unlike me – upon whose memories of early motherhood a fog born of age and ideas and words and so, so many memories has descended so that it is difficult to conjure a fitting one to lucid surface – they will be able to say, for they have pinned eloquent reminiscences firmly to the intangible blackboard of the ether (what irony), ‘Well. Once, when you were two …’.

I sit and write and think about being older and gaze upon a sodden garden. The mosquito gauze that is strung about the verandah is glistening wet: rain has been captured there as if by a spider’s web. There are no sounds except for the steady drip of water on the steps outside and Hat’s occasional enunciation of a French verb. Next door’s rooster has finally, blessedly, realized that – at midday – his dawn chorus is perhaps redundant. And the green pigeon that I heard as I made breakfast has stopped practicing scales in a gently descending warble.

I am glad to see the rain. I thought that was history too: we returned to find the Outpost bathed alarmingly in sunshine, languishing hotly lazy beneath skies shaken wide and rinsed pale blue. I worried for two days and wandered a garden where palms sunk listlessly in the heat and lilies wilted like wallflowers at a ball. But the clouds have come blustering importantly over our horizons again and have rudely pushed the sun and the blue somewhere else so I can no longer see them. And I am delighted for the lilies have lifted their heads and put on fresh, bright lacewhite gowns for the next dance.


And now I must go. A deadline hangs over me. And unless I honour it, my relationship with that particular editor will, alas, be history too.

Hanging around the School Gate

January 19, 2009

Metaphorically, of course.  My geography precludes me from proximity to school gates.  Which is just as well given highlights well past due date and feet that are in dire need of a pedicure. I would be dismissed by fellow and always better coiffed mothers as having Gone Bush. I went there a long time ago, Ladies …

I digress.

Sarah Ebner who writes brilliant School Gate blog at The Times has uploaded a guest post in which I muse: What do you want to do when you grow up, I wonder, and what, sometimes more signifcantly, does your mother want you to do …

A recent letter to the same paper surmised my arugment perfectly. The correspondent said it was difficult not to feel smug but ultimately her parents had been wrong: a career in the theatre had, in the end, proved more solid than one in banking.

All said, a son who wants to be a science teacher is one thing. A daughter who aspires to be a celebrity chef is quite another …

Sand in my Shoes

January 16, 2009








I upend bags. Clothes spill. Rainbows against the bright white of floor tiles.


I can smell the salt.


Later, later when I’ve shoved damp still-sea-scented t-shirts and shorts into the washing machine, I feel the sprinkling of sand under bare feet, cast by a holiday wardrobe, the last tiny reminders of two weeks at the beach tipped so that I tread it again.  I smile.


The house is too quiet now. Now that everybody but Hat has gone back to school. Now that I can no longer hear the roar of the surf (unless I put a shell to my ear and persuade myself that I can as I did a child). Quiet except for the frenzied greeting delivered by the dogs who leapt and squealed and then did a lap of honour, tearing about the lawn (for there is a meagre blush of green after rain) to show how pleased they were that their humans were home. They keep coming to check on me, to make sure I am still here.  I pat their heads distractedly and they seem content then to wander off and flop back down, bellies against the cool cement of the veranda floor.


The cushions on the sofa are too tidily arranged. There are no wet towels beneath beds. Nor six empty loo rolls rolling redundantly about the bathroom.




My big African life has concertina’d to Outpost smallness again. But I shall hang onto the snapshots in my head. Hang onto the peace that descended with that brief broad space of sea and sky and seamless horizons so that I felt like a bird tentatively stretching wings that had been pinned too tightly to her sides for too long. 


I watched a great galloping ocean, listened to a wind that chased herds of white horses across its jade and aquamarine surface; I watched the sea race up the sand so that when the tide sank, it lay marked by ridges, each testimony to the perfect synchronization of every wave that tore up the beach chasing ghost crabs and then coyly receded, a little bashfully, when it failed to catch a single one. 



I watched my son play cricket with his dad. I watched ngalos string sails tight and trip along the fine line that divides heaven and earth.





I played cards with my children. They cheated. I laughed. We snorkeled and gently touched anemones tended by tiny colourful wrasse, we felt the puckered kiss of their tentacles against fingers rendered wrinkly by too long in the water. We trod the reef mindful of spiteful spine’d sea-urchins. I drank beer from a bottle, which quickly sweated its label off and we all ate fish and chips smothered in Heinz tomato ketchup (did you know tomatoes protect you from sunburn enquired Hat, as if to justify a too fat dollop plopping to her plate). 


Then the big ones went back to school – they will not be home until June – and I stiffened that top lip so that it would not wobble.


On my return the garden looks wildly, happily unkempt. Like a hippie who needs a haircut. Flower power abounds. The rain brought it. I came back to a blooming cerise pink geranium, plummeting yellow lantana, white spider lilies nodding in acknowledgment of my homecoming. The resident monitor lizards observe me from their habitual sunbakedrocks. Their small reptilian heads nodding too, as if agreeing with one another that the cats will torment them less now that there are laps to be sat upon again.


I will walk it later. The garden. When the sun has sunk too low to pinch I will pull on shoes dragged roughly from the single bag that remains unpacked, tomorrow’s chore I tell myself, and I will walk and inspect every tiny new shoot.


And I will feel the sand beneath my soles.