Archive for February, 2010

In Transition

February 16, 2010


Hat and I are in transit.

30 hours since leaving the Outpost – 6 in a car, two on a plane – we are five away from a nine hour flight to London.

And in transition.

Between one world and another.

My friend E said it best; she said when you step off the plane back in Africa, the heat hits you like you’ve stumbled into a wet blanket.

She reminisced about ‘the joys of supermarkets where you can buy anything; gas that comes out of the wall into the back of your cooker’. Not the sort that emanates from a bottle so heavy I hang sideways when I have to pick the one in my own kitchen up.

When I am in England I will marvel at gin-clear water gushing from taps; I won’t have to remember to turn them off mid hand-washing or tooth-brushing and I will be able to lie in a bath, hot suds up to my chin without worrying that I have deprived the lettuce. The lights will come on every time I flick a switch: I might even flick one on and off, on and off, just for fun: to be sure. And I shall stand in Tesco with my mouth agape thinking, I only came out for milk: how hard can the choice be? I will not jar my spine on potholes you could lose a giraffe in; I will not have to remember to turn the water heater off before I can turn the computer on because I won’t be contending with the vacillations and vagaries of TANESCO.

But nor will I have to remember to put sunblock on. The skies won’t be hot and high and blue: utterly naked of even the flimsiest scrap of cloud. I won’t be able to look out of a car window and marvel at Africa’s ridiculous notions that it’s perfectly alright to strap 175 live chickens to the back of a petrol tanker just because the market for live chickens is better in the west of the country than the east. So that 175 chickens hunker slit eyed and ruffle feathered and you really hope they don’t understand their fate is about to take a turn for the bloody worse. 


And nor will I hear the hadada ibis cackle rudely and unexpectedly as if they have just pulled a stunt on some unsuspecting victim and have lain in wait to witness the resultant misery. I won’t hear the cicada or the toads that live in the pond in the garden and which begin to croak in such extraordinary and sudden synchronisiation you wonder there isn’t an amphibious conductor amongst them.

And when Hat and I clamber onto the Tube tomorrow to travel intestinally from one end of London to the other, in the depths of her dark, billowing bowels where thousands throng, not a single person will smile and ask us how we are. Even though our noses might be only inches from one another. Where I live it’d be inconceivable not to exhibit a measure of interest at least in such proximity. Where I live you’re lucky to get away with less than a hello, a how are you and have you had rain yet? If you’re not in the mood for talking, that is.

And equally inconceivable would be the notion that you’d take the price of a given thing in a shop at face value. Not to at least feign mild outrage at the cost, not to suggest 5% off would be to fly in the face of the spirit of biashara. I’ll be negotiating my way to cheaper t’shirts in Duty Free in a few hours, ’10,000 shillings for a t’shirt?, I shall gasp, ’10,000 shillings!’ and I shall cross my fingers behind my back for I will be about to tell a fib, ‘but they’re only 8,000 bob in that shop over there’ and with the other hand I shall gesture vaguely. And I shall get my – more than – 5% because the shop keeper never expected the full price in the first place. She’s built in a biashara buffer.

Imagine doing that in Boots? ‘4.99 for a tub of vitamins? 4.99!’ as you arranged your expression into one of disbelief, ‘Can’t I have it for 4.50?’ and the girl on the till will be nervously casting about for somebody who can come and take you away and give you something much stronger than Vitamin C with Zinc because you clearly need it.

So when I come home, in 17 days from now, I shall welcome Africa’s hot kisses and sweaty embrace as I step onto perspiring tarmac at 7 in the morning and then I shall negotiate with the cab driver, having exchanged mandatory pleasantaries, hello-howareyou-haveyouhadrain (even though it will be patently obvious from hot high blue skies and the dust that hangs in the air that he has not), ‘30,000 shillings for a ride across town? 30,000 shillings!’, and he will laugh at my makebelieve shockhorror and knock a little off.


Learning to Walk Tall

February 13, 2010

I have developed a dangerous addiction.

I e-buy on E-Bay.

A lot.

I am honing my bidding skills, sharpening my timing to a tee (so that the hours of stalking a given thing pay off).

And swiftly going broke.

It begins innocuously: Hat needs a pair of pajamas. And then some underwear. And a swimming costume because hers is threatening to fall apart in unseemly fashion at the seams. And a swingingly- sixities bright pinkanddfringed boho cardi, just because I know she will love it.

And lurking in the glittering cyber mall that is the biggest virtual auction house in the world, I stumble across a pair of boots which I, naturally, fall hopelessly in love with. So I pop a bid on: what’s the harm in a little fling? To test the waters. God: you don’t actually think I’m going to buy them! Of course not: this is just for fun. This is pretend because-you-live-in-an-Outpost shopping.

Except that when that sly little message from the ultimate in retail temptresses (the one that reminds you a coveted item is Ending Soon) wheedles its way into my inbox at Outlook Express: “You’ve been Outbid …”. Well then, of course, because they have lurched just, just (mere pence) out of reach I want them. Nay. I NEED them.

And so – after furious midnight shadowing, after a near bloody hunt, after mere pence turn into more pounds than I meant (and you thought that thing about counting the pennies and the pounds would look after themselves was a load of bollocks from your granny?) – I get them.

Congratulations! You’ve won this Ebay Item. Which, of course, you never knew you had any use of until  1 day, 4 hours and 57 minutes prior to purchase.

I am now the proud owner of not one but three pairs of boots. Three! Knee High Black Suede (courtesy of LK Bennet); long soft brown leather (Jones the Boot Maker) and ankle boots from Bally.

And I live in a sand and sunshine and endless high blue skies place where flip flops are too hot.


So it’s just as well Hat (in her swingingly-sixities bright pinkanddfringed boho cardi) and I (in any one of three new pairs of boots) are off to frostwhite London on Tuesday. A day before she is 13. And four before the first of five interviews at prospective schools. Five in Six days. (And it’s just as well my footwear collection is broad: I’ll be walking my soles off).

Hat says, tearfully, ‘ I don’t think I’ve really achieved anything in the past three years, mama’.

I suppose that’s the thing: educate a child via a virtual experience and you risk reducing achievements to the intangible. Invisible collections in the ether. Disembodied voices for classmates.

For a moment I want to weep. For a moment I think, ‘did I do this – with my choices? Did I reduce my precious daughter to a bundle of compromised self-esteem?’

But you’ve done loads, I say to her …

She looks doubtful.

And I realize that we must qualify – quantify – those accomplishments in a way that she can touch and hold and rifle through to look back on, something she can use to demonstrate to any of those Head Teachers who might doubt the boho way we have chosen to educate Hat in recent years (swingingly sixities bright pinkanddfringed cardi aside) that she really has learned something.

And so we have made a scrap book. And it is bursting with poems and plays and stories she has written; presentations she has compiled on Zanzibar and the catacombs of Paris; maps she has drawn; the proposal she sent to the World Health Organisation for her malaria game; a description of Livingston and Stanley and their historic meeting not far from the Outpost. And it is spilling with bright photographs of Hat facing the Congo across an expanse of silvergrey water; Hat looking at Mozambique over a boiling hotchocolatesauce Ruvuma River; Hat sitting by a big, big fish on a butterscotch beach; Hat holding up another her dad caught on Africa’s broadest inland sea; Hat sitting day-dreaming on a rock in that same landlocked ocean, like the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen’s Langelinie; Hat walking on the dam with her brother and sister and Hat pondering a kettle bubbling on a camp fire, her titian aflame with the sunrise … It’s fat with life and colour and experience: three years jam packed and jostling for space.

It’s good Mum, isn’t it? She smiles as she holds it up in her hands – all the happenings of the most recent quarter of her little life. Quantified. Qualified.

Yeah, I laugh, it’s great.

So I will stride into those schools on my new heels with my little girl, auburn curls bouncing on swingingly-sixities bright pink shoulders, and I will hope that she believes what I have told her: that whichever school gets her is jolly lucky. And whichever does not has missed out.

Because that’s what you tell your children.

Because that’s your job.

So wish my Hat good luck

And pray that I don’t break a leg.

Travelling with Kids: A How-not-to Story

February 5, 2010


I am writing copy for a publication about travelling in Tanzania. My editor has included in the brief an instruction for 1500 words on travelling with children.

She suggests I include topics like health concerns, which inoculations a child should have pre departure and what baby foods are available where.

I suck my pen, chew the ends of my glasses and make another cup of tea.

I optimistically open a Word document and type TRAVELLING WITH CHILDREN across the top.

Then I underline it.

And put it in bold.

And then I potter off to make another brew.

See it’s not that I haven’t travelled with kids. I have. Often. It’s just that I’m not sure I’m the right person to be doling out advice about how to do it.

Take the time I flew back to East Africa from South with three children aged, at the time, 18 months, 4 and 6.

Things began to fall apart not very long after our arrival at the check-in desk. The post Christmas, back-to-work rush meant the queues were very long. And the children got very tired. And very cross. And very bored. And – because it was hot – developed a raging thirst.

Get them something to eat, I suggested to husband, as the eldest bared his teeth ready to bite the middle of two sisters. And drink.

Husband, who is not an apple juice and carrot sticks sort of man, came back with a family size bag of M&Ms and a litre of Fanta Orange.

The children fell on it like gannets. Not – I am mildly ashamed to say – because such fare is rare but because they were each anxious they got their fair share and with minimum backwash.

The tartrazine and E numbers fuelled the enthusiasm for suitcase leaping and trolley diving. And biting. Happily for me though, just as the children were reaching that point where you are debating whether to smack them (Oh God, what a terrible mother) or walk away from them and cast disdainful glances over your shoulder as you do (I wonder who those horrid children belong to), a pretty lady came to my rescue with a Where’s Wally book. Perhaps this will help, she kindly offered. Oh yes please, I said, trying to keep the desperate tone out of my voice and then making a show of wiping my trio’s hands clean with a tissue I’d surreptitiously spat onto (wishing I was the kind of mother whose tub of babywipes was always full) so that they wouldn’t leave Technicolor M&M finger prints on pristine white pages.

Wally offered blessed if brief distraction. If you discount the fact my savoir only lent me one book and I have three children, so a minor argument ensued about who was going to look at the book first.

My prize for arranging the children into a neat sort of pile on top of the luggage on my trolley, so that they could all see the pictures at the same time, was ten minutes peace and quiet. Except for the odd – and inevitable – fracas that broke out about who’d spotted bloody Wally before everybody else.

During this short-lived period of (almost) harmony, I was able to observe the fellow passenger who’d come to my salvation with such grace and speed. I hadn’t noticed until now, but she had children too. Almost as many as me. I hadn’t noticed them because I hadn’t heard them. They were sitting at her feet quietly looking at books (one each) and drinking from small bottles of water (as opposed to the litre of hyperactivity inducing Tartrazine fuelled orange pop mine had just polished off) and nibbling daintily on carrot sticks.

We wound slowly to the top of the queue, checked in our luggage and armed with boarding cards made for the VAT-back which my husband had promised me I could spend on an eternity ring (because I had promised him that unless I got one I would continue to breed, not, given our morning so far, an attractive prospect) You’ve seen the adverts haven’t you – ‘she gave me a son, I gave her the stars’ – I was about to embark on an entire solar system unless I got my way.

With husband safely dispatched to bank to cash Vat-back cheque (for a disappointingly small amount it turned out) and with three hyper active children in my determined wake, I made my way to Duty Free.

The sales girl at the jewellers smiled broadly and commented in thick Afrikaaner brogue that my children were ‘agh sweet hey’. Hmm, I murmured, my eyes already on the prize: can I have a look at your eternity rings.

She produced a tray of the sort so heavily studded with diamonds I’d have had a problem elevating my hand to give somebody a wave. I didn’t need to turn over the price tags (why do they do that in expensive jewellery stores: leave all the price tags face down so that you draw attention to yourself as a poor sod who has to perform menial turning-over tasks before you know if you can afford a thing) to know these weren’t the kind of eternity rings I was looking for.

Something a bit smaller? I asked, ‘I’ve got quite small hands you see …’ (but big enough to grab an errant 18 month old escapee by the scruff of her neck before she makes off into the melee of the departure lounge).

The sales girl smiled – but less broadly – and put away the rocks and brought out some pebbles. I didn’t need to turn over the price tags to know these were still way out of reach. But I pretended they weren’t and tried a few on, holding my hand up in front of me, tilting it so that the pretty stone caught the light and winked at me suggestively – go on, you know you want to .

Lovely, I sighed.

But the salesgirl wasn’t watching me anymore, she was watching a more promising customer approach, one unable to lift her hands above waist, ‘Yar’, she conceded in off-hand fashion.

I tugged the ring off.

But still a wee bit big, I said, anything a teensy bit smaller, gesturing with thumb and forefinger pressed so close together there was barely a gap between them.

She plonked a third tray in front of me. The prices face up. I could see those. But the diamonds were so tiny I couldn’t see them.

I was saved by a holler behind me ( ‘Mummmmmeeeeeeee’ … my maternal heart mightn’t have been in it that day, but the reflex is hard to ignore and you always know when it’s one of yours, don’t you?) and turned in time to spot middle and eldest both resurrecting the cordoned rope they’d been swinging on: it had brought the supporting pole down on their baby sister’s head. In front of my eyes a large egg was looming on her crown.

I think I’ll just leave these for today, I mumbled, pushing the tray of jewels away (as if I might be coming back later in the week for another look).

I gathered up the children, eldest two each blaming the other for the collapse of the cordon, youngest screaming her head off and sobbing so that tears and snot mixed with bright orange saliva courtesy of too many sunshine-yellow M&Ms and all that Fanta. I tried to ignore the reproachful stares of 369 fellow passengers including, I noticed, Mrs Where’s Wally Book. Who trotted over, perfect (and perfectly clean and calm) children in obedient tow: would you like some arnica for that, she said, indicating the egg on daughter’s head.

Please, I said, sheepishly as youngest looked on adoringly at a woman who produced useful things from designer bag not like her mother who produced spit-on-a-tissue from jeans’ pocket.

We boarded the plane and it was with relief that I took my seat. And with relief that other passengers noted neither I nor my any of my ghastly children were sitting anywhere near them.

It was with considerable discomfort, however, that I discovered, two hours into our four hour flight, that middle for diddle was as hot as Hades, ‘I don’t feel very well’, she said miserably.

My medical kit (if you can call it that: a sponge bag with a broken thermometer and half a bottle of Calpol with sticky sides) was in the hold. Beneath my feet. And quite out of reach.

I caught the hostesses attention, ‘my little girl’s got a temperature’, I explained and my Medical Kit (with my fingers tightly crossed behind my back) is in my suitcase, ‘you couldn’t see if anybody’s got some Calpol, could you?’.

The hostess sashayed off to survey the cabin for somebody that looked like a proper mother.

And guess who she asks first. Oh God I want to curl up and die. Mrs Where’s Wally. Who turns around and with raised eyebrows and just the hint of an ‘I might have guessed’ sneer, she sighs. I know she does. I hear her. From ten rows back. And rummages in the Boots (which actually turns out to be Holland and Barratt) department at her feet and produces a little bottle. Of homeopathic tablets. Which the airhostess ferries over to me. This, though, is where the buck stops. Homeopathic is all very well. On paper. But the reality – a child burning up and threatening to throw up – is something different altogether. I needed drugs. Real ones. I mouth ‘thank you’ to my watching Guardian Angel and as soon as her back is turned I hiss at the airhostess, Find something else. She does. From another passenger. A whole bag of medicines I know and trust and understand – Calpol included – and – somewhat tiredly now – brings it back to me. And all the while, guess who’s watching, with piercing accusatory stares.

The luminous pink Calpol goes down. And comes straight back up. Over me. With the Fanta and the M&Ms and the airline lunch and whatever else my greedy four year old has fed into herself that day. I am now Technicolor. And I smell. And I don’t have a change of clothes. Or a single baby wipe. I only have a snotty, spat-on, tear stained tissue.

Now. Would you ask me for tips for travelling with kids?

The Veggie Patch goes Drinking

February 4, 2010


The Outpost seems very big at 5 in the morning when you wake to the rain and dark and an empty patch in the bed beside you because your Husband is hundreds of miles away to the South. It seems swallowingly big then.

So I get up and let the dogs in and make tea and find myself suddenly surrounded by a menagerie: cats which weave between my ankles threatening to trip me up and clamouring for a saucer of milk, a pair of slightly plump yellow Labradors that wiggle and smile to let me know how delighted they are to see me (and please may we have a biscuit?) and whose too-long nails on the kitchen tiles make them sound like fat blondes in high heels grappling for purchase on a treacherously glossy piazza.

I make tea and urge the dogs to sit for a biscuit and feed the cats and then I go back to bed and the cats get in with me and the dogs flop down on a bedside rug and begin to snore and occasionally yelp as they chase a guinea fowl in their dreams. The rain continues to fall in steady, unseen sheets and outside it’s still pitch black because the dawn is procrastinating (who wants to get up on a cold, dank morning anyway?).

And I feel a little less lonely.


Hat will be pleased it’s raining. Hat, for her fifth generation African pedigree (which of course it isn’t at all: not when you’re a bit Irish, a bit Scottish, a little more English and brought up under African skies) has skin the colour of clotted cream and hair like copper and isn’t built for a fierce equatorial sun; she likes the rain, does not object to the cold, curls up catlike with a book where I pace in irritation demanding ‘when’s it going to stop?’. Two generations ago I’d have had her in a pith helmet (to protect her Celtic complexion) and a spine pad (for my ancestors feared their brains would broil and they’d go mad), now it’s just Factor 50 and where’syourbloodyhat.

But recent days have seen temperatures soar so that the garden wilts as I do, so that our little vegetable garden pants and sweats and begs for its rasping thirst to be slaked; the few precious buckets of water Sylvester tosses in its direction of an evening only make it beg for more, only tickle its taste buds without hitting the spot.

This morning, after hours of gently caressing rain, the kind that settles deep into the earth and stays, not the sort that lashes and slaps the ground in spite and runs off with its prize of top soil, the vegetable garden will be bright eyed and perky and will have drunk its full.

The chillis will be redder and glossier; the carrot tops all bushy-tailed; the tomato vines will blush at their good fortune; the sunshine yellow blossom of fat, emerald gem squash will unfurl as new dawns so that the forest green leaves of Swiss chard stretch and uncurl, the purple shoots of beetroot will be polished shiny; the tresses of a maize cob newly washed and brushed and the tiny snow white flowers of beans snowier, whiter.

And I will be able to peer into the deep, cool heart of a lettuce and think, ‘salad for lunch?’