Archive for March, 2009

Sally Worm

March 26, 2009

Tomorrow at dawn, I will put Hat on a plane to London.

This will be the first time she has flown alone.

And the first that I have had to say goodbye to her for more than a few brief days.

Nineteen sleeps. That’s what I have told her. Told myself.

She is going for a school reunion: to put real life smiling faces to the names she has grown to know across the ether, to meet the children that match the personalities which have become familiar in her virtual classroom.

She is excited. And happy.

She has packed and repacked and sorted from her outpost-warm wardrobe one that will suit chillier England. She is going to stay with my mother. With cousins. She is going to go to Tesco as often as anybody is prepared to take her.

I, despite the welcome company of her older siblings and her dad and the distractions that outside-outpost living will bring in the coming weeks, will notice her absence acutely. She has become my shadow. And I hers. My conversation over breakfast. My swimming and walking and watching telly companion. Her gentle presence is much bigger than you imagine.

Next week we will be an unfamiliar, too tidy, four. We normally number almost half a cricket team. We will pile into the car for an outing and I will say – before I remember that she is on the other side of the world – ‘Where’s Hat?’ We will sit down for a meal and I may stop myself just before I holler, ‘Come on man Hat, it’ll get cold’. And her siblings will be given rare opportunity to win at cards.

This, this gentle exercise in encouraging her forth is because I know she deserves the opportunity to shed outpost shackles. To have her own small adventure. To meet her peers so that she can really know them and not just their voiceless, faceless names across a void.

My conjecturing is being put to the test. This plan was hatched last October. Things are always easier In Theory. I am determined not to cry though. To dampen her enthusiasm, to dilute her joy.

I am tentatively standing at the coop door and reluctantly, anxiously, ushering the last of my brood out a little, just a little. And I am resisting the almost impossible urge to go after her, to shuffle alongside my smallest chick, ruffling my feathers importantly and bossily clucking instructions.

She will manage. She is composed. She has proudly packed her passport and ticket and the paperwork that denotes her as Unaccompanied Minor into a small bag purchased especially for her expedition. It is red velvet, with sequins and gold tassels. She chose it herself. And it is a perfect.

When my children were young and obliged to be separated from me for any reason, I constructed for them a Sally Worm. Each segment of her – usually flamboyantly coloured body – was a paper cut out, perfectly round for the tumbler I had used as a template. The segments were taped together and numbered for the days. Each evening, I told my children, they were to rip off the segment at the end furthest from her head. As we grew closer to our reunion, so the Sally Worm got shorter and shorter and shorter until, finally, happily, gloriously, the night before I got back, all that remained was a single circle with big eyes and a broad, broad smile.

Hat made me my own Sally Worm today.

Nineteen circles and a huge yellow face.

With an impossibly big grin.


Why a single day isn’t enough

March 22, 2009

Mother’s Day. If you’re English.

I didn’t remember. Until I opened my digital copy of the Times and read Olivia James piece. (Such is the isolation afforded by the Outpost).

Nor did Hat. Or Husband. Not until I laughed, ‘Hey! Where was my breakfast in bed?’ Husband is unperturbed, ‘Back to bed, then’, he instructs, ‘and I’ll bring it to you’. Hat is devastated, ‘I’ll make you as many cups of tea as you want today’. And she duly flusters after me, demanding, as I drain one mug, ‘do you want another?’

My big kids haven’t remembered. They probably won’t.

And it won’t matter.

Heartbreak, screams the Daily Mail, as Jade Goody loses her cancer battle on Mother’s Day. Two female celebrities died this week, two women dissimilar in almost every conceivable way. Except one. Mothers who died too young.

I ask a friend, ‘do you ever worry about dying?’ I feel a bit silly. Asking. A bit melodramatic. A bit too-much-white-wine-on-an-empty-stomach. Yes, she says. ‘Since I had children.’

They amplify your sense of mortality. Hone your self-preservation. Make you suspicious of lifts. Ensure you drive more slowly and remember to take your vitamins. They can heighten awareness of your health to a point of almost-hypochondria and accentuate a fear of flying.

Who would know how to do my job if I wasn’t here I fret foolishly as I board a plane? Who would understand my son must be allowed to eat two bowls of cornflakes heavily dredged with sugar at breakfast time before being dragged into conversation? Who would appreciate my eldest daughter is a charming, sweet, exasperating combination of woman and child, who needs, despite her rangy height, taller than me, to fold herself onto her mother’s lap? Who would know Hat needs a certain reassurance before she can sleep at night.

Who would know their secrets?

Nobody. Not even their dad. Who loves them no less than I do. Nor any harder than me. Just differently, that’s all.

My father died when my sister was the age Hat is now. I thought I had reached Closure long ago. But then – years later – the grief came barrelling back over my horizons so rudely, so unexpectedly, that it winded me, knocked me for six. I cried for a week  Racked by sobs on the school run, my children regarded me with dismay. ‘Why is Mummy crying?’ ‘Because her dad’s dead, silly!’, they whispered to one another. They were too kind to scoff: ‘Come on man, Mum, he died years ago!’

Is it ridiculous (for that is how I felt) to seek answers, solace, so long after the death of a loved one? Apparently not, said Alan at Cruse. He assured me that the return of a grief I thought I had been able to parcel up neatly and put away was not uncommon. Particularly since I was a parent myself now. With children approaching the age I had been when dad died. There was, he said, a deep, unconscious fear that history might repeat itself. I couldn’t bear that. I do not want my children to endure the same pain. Not whilst they are so young.

Ted Bowman, a poet and American grief counsellor says that though we are able to come to terms with the vacuum the loss of a loved one creates, we never come to terms with the loss of a dream.

My lost dream meant dad never knew his son-in-law; my children never knew a grandfather. It meant he never knew I named my son after him, that I write, that I drink red wine.

I want to be there when my children graduate, buy their first homes, get married, become parents. I want to be able to say In My Day and I want to watch their eyes roll. I want to be there when they know better as teens and absolutely nothing by the time they are thirty. I want to see my dreams out. And I want to keep doing this job.

Which is so bloody big, so vital, so demanding, so rewarding, so universal and so unique that no single spec for the job of A Mother can ever read the same.

Nor a single day be sufficent to celebrate its magnitude.



Yesterday my blog was two years old. I have written almost 350 posts which total – as an estimate – nearly a quarter of a million words.

That’s equivalent to three books full.

Thanks for reading.

Give me the boy …

March 15, 2009

Hat sits on the floor beside me as I write. She is scratching through a chest (painted green with thick rope handles) of Lego – it was her big brother’s. The sound, a soft, friendly clatter as she digs to find precisely the right piece, is achingly familiar. As is the shrapnel that finds its way across the floor and into my bare sole later.

I watch her face and her fingers. She is absorbed. Architect of – she tells me – a sheriff’s office. And a jail. I can see cacti outside. A mustachioed Mexican and several hatless cowboys.

Childhood tears past in a blur. The box of Lego anchors me briefly, reminds me of the Mum I used to be: hotly, hugely and often crossly in demand. For just a moment Hat is the tenuous link that straddles two parts of a job.
I read clever, funny, poignant posts of early mothering madness, of the things children say, of potty training, of horrendous birthday parties. I am glad those mums are recording the things I did not. Their recollections remind me of the stuff I did not know I remembered until prompted. It seems like yesterday that I was there. It seems like decades ago. How does that happen? That a thing seems both recent and so far away all at the same time?

My mum told me – an indignant 25 and wondering where my waist and my social life had gone as I furiously and tearfully wheeled a belligerent three month old around in a pram willing him to sleep so that I could – ‘don’t mind it so much, he will be little for so brief a time’.

Like I said: a blur.

But oddly – and miraculously– despite the speed with which our children grow up, so we apparently (if you didn’t know any better) seamlessly morph into different kinds of mums. (Mother Nature’s a canny old bird).

I am still feeling my way around my evolving role – steering an almost-adult not raising a child. Still trying to comprehend, just as I had to broken nights and breast-feeding, the Oxford Reading Tree and Kumon maths, what it’s all about.

I am trying to navigate my way around UCAS applications so that I might be of some use; I am trying to exert patience with a boy who grunts until tea time but finds his voice as his mother is going to bed (and so I am getting better at stifling yawns); I am getting wiser about asking too many questions (just enough, and definitely no stupid ones); I am beginning not to mind that whilst a small child begs you to Watch Mum, Watch Me!, an older one – despite loving the attention – will feign utter indifference.

I don’t always do very well.

You don’t when you’re learning to let go of the ropes.

I still miss the old job. I still miss baby-fat hands reaching up to me; I still miss inhaling the scent of soft flyaway hair atop small heads (my friend E, with her three-year old boy on her knee sniffs deeply and describes it as peppery but I cannot remember it well enough to agree); I still miss reading Babette Cole at bedtime and eating leftover Marmite soldiers.

But slowly and tentatively as I locate my new place in my son’s world (I think I have been very gently but very sweetly and subtly nudged sideways, just a bit, just enough to give him the space to become the man he needs to be – as my friend H, who has three sons, observes, ‘we must hope our boys’ women like us or the distance will be greater’) so I find my feet in my own changing one. Enough to begin to enjoy it a little.

When we rendezvous in two weeks time for the Easter holidays, he, my nearly 18 year old, will envelop me in a hug that takes my breath away (God, he’s got strong! I will think – though I will not embarrass him – or myself! – by saying as much), he will carry my suitcase and shoulder both our laptops importantly, he will check us onto our flight (for the practice, we will tell each other, for he will be on the other side of the world next year) and it will be him I dispatch to get me a cold beer.

Which we will share.


ImPrecision Air 2/Me Nil

March 11, 2009

Away for a week.

A weekend with the Big Kids.

It sounds excessive. Indulgent.

It’s the getting there that necessitates the getting out two days before Friday. It’s the getting back that means we arrive in the Outpost mid week after the weekend away.

It’s partly out geography; it’s mainly Precision.

Prior to departure I telephone Mr Abdallah, unfailingly enthused (given his employer’s track record) Outpost representative for Precision Airways.

What’s the opposite of Precision? Hat wants to know.

Imprecision, I tell her emphatically.

Imprecision Air has a better, certainly more truthful, ring to it.

Mr Abdallah, I say, how IS Precision’s service these days?

Very Precise, he tells me.

He is, regrettably, proved wrong two days later. Our flight is delayed eight hours. We depart not after breakfast as we ought to have done but as the sun is drawing long lines down the dust strip. I don’t drink coffee after take off. I drink beer. For the time of day and the fraying of nerves. An added surprise is the re-routing west instead of the direct flight east.

We land on the soggy shores of Lake Tanganyika. The mountains of the Congo glower from a distance, shoulders deeply hunched, expressions menacing; they’re wearing hoodies. Paddy fields spill over. Mud splatters the side of the aeroplane as we touch down so that we can no longer see out of the windows. Tanzania’s west is sponge-soaked, has drunk its fill. There’s nowhere for all the water to go. So it lies, a million tiny mirrors, reflecting the greedy paunches of low-slung grey-bellied clouds.

We fly the fat breadth of a country that desiccates proportionately as we travel east. Lush green gives way to lean khaki, light surrenders softly to dark. When we arrive in the capital city the sky would be quite black were it not infected by the jaundiced glow of a thousand neon lights.


When I am with the children, when I am with all three, when my head is busy with what they are doing, when my physical self so immersed in the talking, listening, being, I never question what I’m for. I never need to. There isn’t time anyway. And when they’re all asleep, when I look in on them last thing at night in the guest room where they lie like sardines tucked into a trio of beds that touch one another, with limbs flung, I smile. Will I always, I wonder, need to check on my son as he sleeps? Did I imagine, when he was tiny, just two, that I would be doing the same when he reached almost-18 and could lift me clean off my feet?

Sometimes I think motherhood tastes very, very sweet the smaller the sips you are allowed enjoy; I hope the taste will keep me going.


We arrive at the airport to check in for the flight home.

There is none, we are told.

But it says there is, we say, and point to the board which hangs above the check in desk with a series of tired looking (like me) rubber bands. I want them to break. To snap (as I threaten to). I would like to see the Precision Air staff hit on the head with a board that redundantly suggests one of their fleet is going to the Outpost that day. Or week.

I telephone Precision Air’s Call Centre

Nobody answers. Instead I listen to calming music (well chosen given the frame of mind of most customers who dial the number) and a recorded announcement which promises me that one of the A-Gents will take my call soon (they don’t) and in the meantime suggests that some people fly to get there. Unless, of course, they’re going Precision?

You are Why We Fly, I am informed. Or don’t as the case usually is.

Because they are tired of people trying to check onto a flight that isn’t happening, the airline staff remove the board indicating Outpost as a destination. This is disappointing. Uncharitable, I know, but disappointing all the same; the rubber bands were stretched to their limit.

Imprecision finally agree that there might be a flight that day. But they are not at all sure when. 4pm? 2pm? No telling, really, and they shrug and smile and tuck the board out of sight. Because no departure time can be confirmed we are all obliged to stay put, lest an aircraft suddenly appear, as if by magic, like a rabbit out of a hat. We are issued with lunch vouchers. Boarding passes with LUNCH scrawled across them in ballpoint.

I don’t want any, says Hat, who has gone very pale, I feel sick she says miserably. And then she is. Dreadfully. I wish she had been sick at the feet of the staff whose heads I wished destination boards had rained down upon. Alas she has better manners than her mother.

We do take off eventually, eight hours after we should have done. We are just thankful we left the same day.

We arrive back as the sun is drawing long lines down the dust strip. I go home and drink a beer for the time of day and the frayed nerves …

A Perfect Day

March 1, 2009






Now that it is wet, now that the Rains (capital letter to denote their lofty presence) are well and truly ensconced, I long for dry high, blue skied days.  There aren’t many at this time of year.





And I know of their presence, or not, the moment I open my eyes.


The dawn of clear days is reflected in the lightening western sky which forms my waking view and which blushes as the sun, bald and naked, bounces unabashed above eastern horizons. I can see leaves shivering on tall trees as I lie contemplating my first cup of tea. I can see early shifting shade.





And I can’t hear rain. I can only hear next door’s guinea fowl, rudely stirring chickens to rise with his loudly insistent chatter, ‘Get up! Get up! Get up!’ he demands.  Some of his companions are late risers; he’s often still at it come lunchtime.  My neighbour, from whom I buy eggs, says he flew in from nowhere and stayed.











 Whilst my garden thirsted for rain for weeks, months, now – now that it is here in almost daily deluges – it smiles broadly at newly rinsed blues above and occasional suds of tiny white clouds which foam lightly but have quite disappeared come noon, indiscernible against an Omo-white hot sky.


The water lilies are open wide and generous. We collected them from the dam. I am pleased to see how they thrive in my tiny pond along with schools of tadpoles which will morph as fat ugly toads that frequently find their way into the pool and have to be fished out. The antherium lilies are polished, waxy red and the single rugby ball proportioned bloom on the banana tree sports unfeasibly delicate blossom when examined up close.





We find a baby chameleon amongst the palms. He scurries, fairylight, up and down fronds, which whisper not the smallest protest, trying to escape the prying lens of my camera. His rolling eyes anticipate my every move and he turns on his infinitesimal heels as I zoom in on him. My mother used to tell us, as children, that she had eyes in the back of her head. The belief, for a bit, that she really did proved valuable deterrent to back-seat scrapping. The chameleon rolls his back-of-head eyes at me again and curls his tiny tail and navigates his way gingerly to green obscurity.




 And brief respite from drenching showers means we can escape to the sanctuary of the dam. A rare treat in wet months when the ground is permanently sponge-soaked because an impossibly high water table means it has nowhere to go once it has filled the rice paddies and potholes and puddles to overflowing. 




The dam waters have risen and the scrub thick and the banks swim in a sea of grasses, their different coloured heads heavy nodding in happy acknowledgement of a dry, lightwinded, merrily propagating day.




 And we drive back, into dust strung against a setting sun, a uniquely African veil, thrown up by the tread of bovine hooves or the clatter of home-bound wheels.





And I give the draught excluders a cursory nudge as I head happy to bed.