Archive for November, 2009

Seven Things I learned in the last Seven Days …

November 30, 2009


• That IB maths is necessary if you want to read psychology at University College London; my middle daughter loves the idea of counselling but hates the idea of maths. UCL insist upon it. As does Oxford. Cambridge and St Andrews don’t. Funny that.

• That despite the fact we have a several-acre-wide blue tarpaulin covering our entire roof in manner of refugee shelter not dissimilar to something the United Nations might use in a crisis situation, the house still leaks like proverbial sieve. Buckets bedecked our bedroom last night and the kitchen was an inch deep in water so that this morning I had to paddle through to make tea.

• Not that I mind – the rain. Although I knew as much already, its return has reminded me of Africa’s steadfast ability to forgive. The lawn is green, the spider lilies are dipping pretty white heads coyly and the veg patch is popping with green shoots, except where fat Labrador sought to create a nest for herself and tossed the seeds out as she dug. We won’t have coriander in that corner of the garden then …

• That despite my fears, I can manage a glass kiln. Finally stopped regarding mine with fear and trepidation, unpacked it, read the instructions, cut some glass, put it in side and turned it on. And I did not burn the house down nor did kiln blow up. I now have five festive – albeit slightly wonky – new decorations for our Christmas tree this year. And lots of plasters on my fingers. Give Blood: Become a Glass Artist …

• That Hat is increasingly adept in the kitchen; she made focaccia this week, dredged with oregano, black pepper and coarse salt. Fatly plump and warm from the oven, we ate it with minestrone soup just to extend the whole Italian thing.

• That as well as having an IQ and an EQ, you can also develop an AQ: adversity quotient, a measure of resilience. My friend B – a father of two – does not believe men have EQ but I know he does. As well as lots of the other kinds.

• That Precision Air has cancelled the flight my daughter needs to board when she comes home for Christmas. This – though – is not so much a question of learning something new about Precision, rather being reminded of something old and tiring about them.


Life as a Cat. Or Life’s a Bitch?

November 26, 2009

I have clawed my way through the week.

I have wept when the internet failed and Hat watched forlorn as I battled to get a connection and all the while her Science lesson ticked away. She didn’t mind missing the lesson she said. But I knew she minded missing the contact. With Beth and Zoe and Victoria.

I have ranted at poor beleaguered Husband, ‘I don’t know what to do with myself all day’, I rage. So I do mad, nonsensical things like apply for editorial jobs in London. In London? In London! I live in an Outpost in Africa for God’s sake; what was I thinking? I ignore the email that comes back, ‘Your message sounds interesting. I would be interested to know where you are based? Perhaps you could also send me your CV and telephone number to discuss with you further’.

Where you are based. That’s the crux of the thing.

I have ploughed through water spangled with sunlight and strung with the last of the flamboyant blossoms and swimming with scorpions so I watch where I am going which briefly distracts me from my furious, tearful frustration.

And I feel better then. And I say sorry to my Husband. ‘ I’m sorry OK. I am confused and lost and lonely and bored. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself.’ and I fix the internet connection so that Hat can go back to school and I can assuage my lack of retail therapy with a wander through the cyberaisles at Amazon and Ebay. I might even pick up something pretty at Monsoon or Karen Millen to admire and quietly put back on an invisible shelf.

I am writing an article on what makes a survivor. Your DNA, your experiences, your exposure as a child, your support network – they all mesh to knit an armour-plate of resilience. So I owe it to my genes, my upbringing, my Husband and Hat to try harder.

Bugger this place. I will bloody well survive it.

Even if it kills me.

We have two cats.

One grey, one marmalade.

The marmalade is old – at least ten. We thought she was a he until the vet came to pick his/her pockets and found there were none. Orlando morphed into Orlanda. She is affectionate with a plaintive, pathetic miaow.

Moshi is grey. Moshi is younger. Moshi is fickle, and a bully. If Moshi were a woman she’d be the kind who flirted with your husband and bitched about you behind your back (at the top of her voice; there is nothing plaintive or meek about Moshi’s miaow) whilst borrowing your best shoes and never bothering to return them. And she’d be beautiful, where Orlanda would be plain and kind and dependable.

Orlanda discovered that the thick foam padding discarded from the packing around an oven made a fabulous bed, perfectly feline-shaped and warm. She enjoyed it for precisely three days until Moshi copped on and with exquisite ease and subtle, silent, exacting tactics evicted Orlanda and occupied her space.

Now she spends her days atop her illgottengained bed watching the world go by in an imperious and slit eyed manner, whilst Orlanda seeks refuge with the dogs.

At least Moshi will leave her alone there I think.

Doing Your DoughNut

November 20, 2009

Somebody says, ‘I couldn’t do what you do’.

They mean sit in the Outpost, detached, distanced. Lonely, mostly.

The assumption being, of course, that that is what I do: sit. Just sit.

But I don’t. Sit. (I mean I do: but never for long).

They gesture the pool, ‘do you ever use it’.

Every day I say. ‘I swim nearly a kilometer every day.’

I should swim, they say, I need to get fit.

I don’t swim to get fit. I swim to keep sane. 

And I don’t sit still for fear that staying in one place for too long might mean I become rooted to the spot.

Finding your niche is good. Getting stuck in a rut isn’t.

Funny that.

So I have found a peculiar kind of groove in Outpost life. One where I keep moving for fear my demons will catch me and gobble me up.

Do you read much?

Yes. But never during the day. Only late at night.

Do you watch the television?

Yes. But only after dark.

I sound like a control freak. But I don’t care. I’m not disciplined. I just know that direction is the only thing that keeps me going. Keep moving. Forward. Towards the light.


Hat and husband ask, ‘have you written your blog lately?’

Not much, I reply, ‘I don’t think I have much to say’.

They don’t argue the point.

They live here too.


But they prod my conscience. You can’t just give things up in the Outpost or you might give up altogether.

And so I help Hat make doughnuts. We roll and cut dough cool from the fridge.

We watch it bubble satisfactory and dance a jig in hot oil.

‘Always be very careful when you are deep frying’, I tell Hat, because it seems important to use the exercise to teach her something she didn’t know. (Because sometimes the worry festers: should I hold her captive here?).


And I don’t know why. Except that it’s very hot.

‘Because it will give you a nasty burn.’

We scoop golden doughnuts from carefulitdoesn’tburnyoufat and drop them onto sheets of newspaper and dredge them in icing sugar and Hat say, ‘look, like a snow storm’.

And then we eat them. For tea.

And we put one aside for her dad and when he comes home he will applaud our small act of warm domesticity because he knows how hard it sometimes is to put one foot in front of another when you’re not entirely sure where it is you’re going.


The garden has yielded a crop of leeks. Feathery-sage-strappy leaves atop cottonwhite bulbs.

I harvest a handful to accompany a roast chicken for supper.

I slice them into fat pennies and toss them into a pan with some herbs.

Sautéed leeks, I think.

And then I get distracted. By an email. By something Hat says. Thumbing a text message. Because I can’t sit – or even stand – still and patiently sauté.

Until I smell smoke.

And I look into the pan and the leeks are near charred.

But leeks from your own garden are too precious to chuck out. Especially in an Outpost.

So I serve them up with a flourish: caramelized leeks I tell my little family.

And they eat them with relish.

My accidentally caramelized leeks.

My secret.


Green Fingered …?

November 9, 2009


It has rained. Hallelujah! The lawn is blushing green. Just a blush, mind. Not about to incriminate itself yet as wholly-happily irrigated.

Husband is possessed of post-storm fervour and marches around our tiny veg patch shaking packets of seeds in my direction. He is going away this week. Because he is busy and import and employed. I, because I am not (busy, important, employed) am staying put. And as such am In Charge of the veg patch for the next six days. Which means I must Pay Attention to what he is telling me about where to plant maize and carrots and must try not to kill the coriander like I did the beans when I drenched them with some toxin to evict spider mite population.

‘You said 15 mls of insecticide to 25 litres of water’, I mumble in feeble protest as we stand observing dying, gasping, jaundiced crop.

‘I didn’t mean you to pour the whole effing 25 litres on 12 plants. Fercrissakes, that was enough for the whole garden!’. (which, for the record, is nearly 2 acres).

‘At least I got rid of the spider mites’, I point out uselessly.

I did. They donned mite-sized gas masks, packed their bags and moved hastily off to the lovely healthy coriander  plants to the left.

 Still. At least the Flamboyant looks lovely. I don’t have to do anything with that.

Which is probably just as well?


How to Play Poker

November 3, 2009


The book Hat presents to me is beginning to shed leaves, its spine is collapsing, and the pages are glued together with age and the ancient escapees from many mixing basins.

It was mine, and the childish handwriting that denotes ownership indicates I can only have been seven or eight.

Look! I Can Cook! it says on the front cover. Not that it worked for me, necessarily, or I wouldn’t need to do what I’m doing now. But it was a lofty challenge delivered by my mother, I think, for a birthday. Perhaps my 7th?

It sat squarely and brightly upon a kitchen shelf alongside Katie Stewart and the unassuming Kenya Cookery Book, and its jacket, for all the colour and the confident assertion of culinary success, made you want to pluck it out and pursue the baking of Lemon Meringue Pie or Lazy Daisy Cake.

Cooking with mum as a child brings back memories as warm-sweet as the jam tarts we made (with their syrupy-strawberry insides and papery-flakey pastry cases which we ate with a dollop of fullfatfarmfresh cream because we were little and cholesterol hadn’t been invited). Something about the togetherness and teamwork that came from being captured in the same small space and then, later, sitting down around a table, carefully laid for tea, to enjoy the sticky fruits of our labour.

My brother and I stood upon upturned crates so that we could see what Mum was doing on the too-high kitchen counter, we deliberated carefully about which recipe to tackle (and sometimes the deliberation was cut short because, as in the Outpost of the noughties, Kenya in the early seventies, lacked gastronomic delights). Katie Stewart’s Cherry Russe remained a figment of mouth watering imagination forever and eternally replaced by sturdy Scotch Pancakes. Which never sounded as exciting on the page but which – when warm from a griddle and saturated with treaclesweetness – were just as eagerly devoured so that the Cherry Russe was quite forgotten.

We assisted with the gathering of ingredients, sifted flour and left a dusting of snow across the floor, we beat eggs and sugar with an electric hand whisk and when we were done and our offering in the oven we licked the paddles clean, sitting on the kitchen floor and carefully regarding one another’s prize for any signs of unfair distribution of the spoils.

Delicious. The taste and the recollection.

And so Hat brings to me the same book and asks if she can make Chocolate Cake and I, because I am hell bent on some new sanity-saving exercise (namely to anchor my fleeting self in food and words) leap from my chair and offer my services.

Together we gather flour and butter and sugar. Together we seek the paddles for a similar hand whisk (not the same one but one almost as primitive to satisfy the craving to do things in precisely the same way I did with my mother 35 years ago) and together we begin to weigh flour and cocoa.

Hat beats the ingredients until the mixture is feather light and fluffy and so air filled it seems to sigh with pleasure as bubbles rise to its velvety surface and pop languidly. We tip it into two tins greased using newspaper so that the butter has blackened from the ink and we put them in the oven.

Later we sandwich them together with a butter icing stained with instant coffee. As a child we flavoured our own with Camp Coffee Essence.  But Camp doesn’t exist anymore, and definitely not in the outpost so Hat and I improvise with Nescafe. And with the two halves clinched together in a mocha kiss, we decorate the top with glace icing  and I show Hat – just as mum showed me – how to spread it with a knife dipped in boiling water so to iron it to a glossy satin sheen.

Hat doesn’t lick out the bowl – a long ago experience of giving all my children salmonella poisoning on account of raw eggs has left me nervous of bowl licking.  Instead it’s for the washing up, not the dogs as was the post baking habit of a friend called Sue who laid the empty basin on the floor for her Labradors.

We eat thick slices later playing cards by candlelight during a power cut and Hat announces that she plans to teach us how to play Poker.

And I thought I had her adult education in hand with cooking lessons?

Chocolate Cake

6 oz of each: butter, sugar, self raising flour (a bigger cake and you just increase proportionately)

3 big eggs (4 if you’ve been tempted to go for 8 oz of each …)

A hefty spoon of cocoa powder

Bung the lot into a basin and beat until smooth and creamy.

Tip it into greased sandwich tins and bake until the cake has risen and is coming away from the sides.

When cool, remove from the tins and ice with whatever takes your fancy: cream if you have it or, as we didn’t, butter icing and a cocoa glace on the top.

Eat whilst playing Poker.