Archive for May, 2010

How to Spot a Teenager

May 20, 2010



This post is inspired by a blog I have just discovered:  Muummmmeeeeee…… from No Wine on Wednesdays thinks she is getting old because – amongst other things – her daughter has just turned 13.

I wrote this almost exactly six years ago, in May 2004, as I witnessed my daughters observe their brother’s metamorphosis from 12 to teen.

A (10) and her younger sister H (7) eye B with a mixture of side-long distrust and transparent awe. B, their older brother, is teetering on the edge of teen-hood. They have heard what that means – becoming a teenager – but since neither has ever spent any length of time in the company of anybody between the ages of 13 and 19, they aren’t sure what to expect. A is waiting for B to get spots. Sometimes I see her peering at his face from just inches away as if expecting to see the sebum rise and swell in a yellow pustule on his nose right before her eyes. B creases his baby-smooth brow at her and shoves her roughly away. He despises the scrutiny and her eager anticipation of his acne. H only knows that teenagers slam doors. And sulk behind them. ‘When is B going to slam a door?’ she wants to know, she tails me around the house, nagging, ‘when, when?’ as if waiting for Christmas or the End of the World, and then when he does, slam a door (because he has grown tired of A’s up-close-and-too-personal inspection of pore activity) H screams with delight and scurries importantly about the house delivering the news:, “I heard it, I hear it”. “Heard what”? I ask. “I heard B becoming a TEENAGER”.


Though I don’t admit it, I’m also studying B with a peculiar blend of trepidation and sadness and a tiny measure of excitement. I silently mourn the baby-fat days of uninhibited affection. He’s long and gangly now and won’t kiss me (unless he wants something or is absolutely 100% certain nobody’s watching). Our conversations are less dialogue than maternal monologue with the odd mumbled interjection from a boy who insists on wearing his cap back to front. His feet are as big as mine now, and he’s almost as tall but he tends to slouch, the adolescent aspiration to become invisible already manifesting itself.

“When is B going to have a girlfriend”, demands A who’d love to be somebody’s girlfriend since she’s already planning her wedding (‘Will you be my bridesmaid mum?’ No thanks. ‘Ok then will you plan my wedding’ – rather tiredly – as if she’s already exhausted by the thought’. ‘Alright’.)  She asks B, ‘when are you going to get married?’ B growls at her. Never he says, which astonishes A because she has already selected her future husband (a poor unsuspecting boy in her class). ‘Will you be gay instead then?” asks A. B isn’t entirely sure what gay means. Nor is A; she just knows being gay has something to do with a man not wanting to marry a woman. B on the other hand thinks it has something to do with Khaki pants and White T-shirt selling Gap. H has a pink fleece with GAP in bold letters across the front. That stands for Gay And Proud he tells her beaming. I cringe. H hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about but relays this astonishingly useful piece of information to her teacher later in the morning as she points to each capital letter in turn: ‘See, Gay And Proud’, she explains solemnly and I just know this isn’t going to translate well in the staff room.


Despite successfully avoiding the birds and bees conversation with my precocious middle daughter, (who is longing for her teens with the same fervour that I dread them) I finally, given son’s explosion onto teen scene, and fortifying myself with a glass of wine, take the plunge.

‘How are those kind of whatever-they’re-called-ummm-human biology classes going?’

She looks blank, which makes me squirm because it means I’ll have to prompt with more toe-curling information, ‘You know, the ones where you learn about puberty?’

‘Oh those,’ she says, in a voice that hints, I am surprised to note, at boredom, ‘Growing Pains?’

‘Yes, that’s right, Growing Pains. Are you enjoying them?’ ‘

‘They’ve stopped, there was too much laughing and the teachers got embarrassed’.

I can’t say I blame them.

‘What kind of things did you learn?’

‘Oh you know, the usual stuff, erections, wet dreams, condoms …’

I swallow hard. I’m all for a progressive education but the child is ten.

‘oh’ I say. In a very small voice. And then, when I’ve recaptured the tiny remnant of composure which has not deserted me entirely, I take a big glug of my wine and persist, ‘What about periods and things, did you learn about those too?’

‘Yeah,’ she says, definitely bored now. And then, voluntarily, which is as well because I’m at a loss for words, ‘periods are when the woman gets rid of all the stuff she doesn’t need because she’s not going to have a baby’. Which is a trifle ambiguous (and makes me think of finding homes for second-hand prams) but I chose not to say so.

‘We learned about body hair too,’ she adds, ‘under arms and around genitals. Sarah says she has some already, but I don’t believe her’. I refrain from asking where Sarah’s body hair is.

‘I don’t have any though’, adds A little sadly, ‘I’m bald as an egg still’.

Which brings us back to No Wine on Wednesday’s story

Talking of teens, I have a guest post on Schoolgate at The Times today. The lad who was observed so intently by his sisters all those years ago leaves school forever on Saturday. He is much taller than me now and he no longer slams doors. He has found his voice and his conversation is engaging and witty. He has no inhibitions about throwing his arms about his mother and lifting her clean off her feet in a tight embrace.

They grow up, see. And too fast.


Needles in Haystacks?

May 18, 2010


The frustration, the desolation, the loneliness is palpable; her small voice echoes with it.  How incongruous: that so tiny a voice could be so loaded with such weight? Skype connects us, but I can’t touch her: I can’t reach out a hand to place on her arm, some small gesture of support. And warmth. I can’t smile encouragingly at her. Urge her to smile back at me (Botox stop frowns and Depression – if we cannot look sad we cannot feel sadness say Researchers – have you ever heard such nonsense!). I can’t do those things. I can’t do anything. Depression is like that. And Mum is still sick. So I rail instead. And I intellectualize her illness for I do not know what else to do and doing is better than not. And I have to hope (hope, hope, hope) that by researching, reading, writing I will keep a step ahead.  And I flail around looking for answers. And people to vent my rage at.

The secretary in the East Anglian mental health clinic mum attends is mildly shocked to receive a telephone call. From Africa I say, in vain hope (hope, hope, hope) that the very fact I am ringing from so far away will impart the import of this call: will prod her to bring Mum’s next appointment forward. It won’t. It doesn’t. I’m sorry, he’s terribly booked up. You could write to the doctor, she suggests (to fob me off the line). I do. And I say – after the necessary preamble as to who I am and who my mother is because he has not met her yet and is another in a long line of doctors Mum has seen (such is the turnover  of psychiatrists there) and I want to spare her a  tearful introduction – that she went for 18 months depression-free was a good run is not good enough;  what do you suggest?

I don’t hear back.

Nor do I hear back from the local Mind representative when I write and ask about support groups, their befriending service, outreach programs. But I am sent a form.

I do hear back from the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who writes and urges me to contact a doctor whose specialty is depression amongst women. So I do. And she responds and tells me that when the report she is compiling on exactly this – the fairer sex’s proclivity to melancholia – has been published, she will send me a copy.  And I thank her. 

Why do I do it? Why do I deliver written tirades to  doctors I do not know, why do I risk getting a reputation for being a strident cow (it’s all very well for her to write and rant and rave, why doesn’t she just get over here and look after her mum herself?  But, as mum tearfully offers when I suggest as much, ‘you have your own family, and anyway there’s this ash cloud’ …).

Why? Because I have to keep digging about in the emotional fallout, the rubble, looking for answers.

Even when there aren’t any.



I love this time of year. The sun gets up early, grins broadly, clambers eagerly into the sky and chases the clouds away so that all that’s left in the bright high blue are thin as a wisp white horses tails. So that the sunsets are tipping and glorious and spilling and generous and gild the outpost in delicious syrupy light which I drink in with too much white wine for it seems a reason to celebrate – especially when in the east they are mired in greyly damp gloom: such are the staggering proportions of this country that our winters in the west are quite different. And quite beautiful for it.



I love this time of year. But I do not love snakes.

Sylvester in the Gumboots killed a five foot Cobra in the garden this morning. I was immersed in words and was called to inspect and congratulate. From a safe distance. As it twitched blackly and slickly and evilly on a gasping lawn.  “Take a picture” instructed Sylvester. I took a photograph.  ‘This is not the biggest snake I have killed in this garden’, Sylvester in the Gumboots offered, ‘I think this one is that one’s baby.’ And seeing my face twist in an expression of gratifying horror he said, ‘this one is much smaller’.

I have made a solemn promsie to myself: I have promised myself to wear shoes from now on. Perhaps even gumboots, despite that high hot sun and temperatures that soar to the thirties.

What was it doing in my garden anyway, I asked Sylvester once unadulterated sweating palm fear had given way to indignation and snake was being safely carted to tip for cremation. It needed a drink, he told me sagely, that is why it was near the tank.

Now I need one. Rock on sundown.



PS The long black length behind Sylvester in the Gumboots is not the dead Cobra’s mother come to give me whatfor. It’s the hosepipe which so helpfully delivers sustenance to visiting snakes. I have to decide: do I need baths more than I need snakes?

Answers on a Post(card)

May 17, 2010

Thank you for playing.

Your answers were fascinating/interesting/diverse and prove that men don’t pay enough attention to the fine detail of a home (Dumdad …).   Almost American and Mama B clear winners; Shelley did well too.

No 1. Was a light-switch – when I was a child I was told that if I flicked the light switch on and off and on and off and on and off (because it was entertaining to watch the glow come and go) I’d electrocute myself. This is not true (like swimming after eating will make you drown isn’t true). It is especially not true when in Outpost since flick of switch often does little than make feeble noise.

No 2. Despite what 7 out of 10 women say, this beauty product did not make me look 17 in the morning.

No 3. A mirror. Which proved that 7 out of ten women (above) were lying. Or did not own one of these.

4. Clever Ali la Loca: the inside of a high energy light bulb. Redudant in my case (see light-switch above). Wonder what it’s going to do with all that unspent energy? Wonder if it’s a candidate for Ritalin?

5. Towel Rail – Tattie Weasel your kids clearly do as mine do. Strew.

6 Overflow thingummy bob – as put so eloquently by Mama B.  Also redudant in outpost, never enough water in bath to overflow, if indeed one was ever so reckless as to abanadon bath whilst running it; water is that precious.

 7. Inside of loo roll, Mama B again. Not as my dear sister suggested “leaky mark on your ceiling’. That would be about 478 times larger that inside of loo roll.

 8. Toothpaste. Indeed Almost American: do you have nice white ones? Teeth?

9. Comb, cunningly held up to window, well done Almost American, I’ll give you that. Like Franny B, who never used one to tease out tangles of her bird’s nest hair, Hat does not see the point either. She is a hairdresser’s worst nightmare: a child with long curls who does not brush them.

10. Hinge to my wardrobe in which hang clothes I never wear now: I have no use for evening dresses/jackets/winter coats in Outpost. Most days I don’t even need shoes.

11 and 12 are found in the kitchen – funnel and grater. Unless I absent-mindenly take 12 off to bathroom with me when distracted from cheese grating . As you do.

What in the World … a game.

May 13, 2010

Sometimes I don’t know if my ability to stay sane (I use the term loosely) in the Outpost is born of great strength of character and sustaining endurance. Or a lack of drive so that I am perfectly content (I use the word loosely) to potter about barefoot and directionless. Sometimes – when people observe (as they do often) Gawd, I could never live where you live, I don’t know if their observation is born of admiration (all that strength of character and endurance) or because they are staggered by my apparent lack of any ambition.

I suspect that being able to hang on/in/out here is partly the product of my childhood; my mother told us that only stupid people got bored. There were always books. And if you tired of those, there was also a subscription to National Geographic’s magazine for children – The World (indeed the inspiration for this). You didn’t want to complain, mid way through a too long summer holiday on an afternoon that you thought might never end, that you were bored when you’d been told that.

So regard this post as you will: the work (and I use the term loosely) of one with extraordinary creative genius or the result of an afternoon with nothing else to do. And if you have an enquring mind that revels in tortuous puzzles, or absolutely nothing to do, see if you can fathom what the following are: all taken in my bathroom/bedroom, you’ll have similar. My geography might be exotic, my life reallly isn’t.

1. Often redundant in the Outpost:

2. This is a liar; it has not delivered what it promised:

3. Unlike this one which sadly tells the truth as it is: you ate too much on holiday/you drank too much last night/you are getting old even though you behaved like a teenager last night and drank too much … :

4. I don’t think Al Gore had these?

5. I would not have to use the word ‘strewn’ if my children used this:

6. I do not know what this is called; I just know it has absolutely no role here:

7. A globally aware two squares? Or a couldn’t care two metres?:

8. Some people put this on their finger:

9. Fanny B Kranny does not use one. Nor does Hat:

10. When I lived in the real world (school runs, social life, pedicures, capuccino) I used to stare into this for hours, pondering and wasting time. Here (given dearth of school runs/social life/pedicures/capuccino) I do not need to and save hours. A paradox given that Time is one thing I have more than enough of now … :

11. This turns big holes into little holes:

12. This lives close to No 11 above … :

All-in-day’s entertainment – Outpost Style

May 8, 2010

How Reluctant Memsahib keeps busy in Outpost


… then we ate it.

How her cat keeps busy in Outpost


She didn’t bother to eat it. When she got bored of it she abanonded it to the crows.

The MOMentum of Motherhood

May 4, 2010

I talk to Mum on Skype. Only the connection goes, it wobbles, drops from an encouraging five green bars to a shrunken two amber ones and I hear mum say, ‘Oh! I’ve lost you’. So we text box then. I don’t know if Mum knows I can still hear her even if she can’t me. I don’t know if she knows I can still hear Depression heavy on her voice; diminishing her. Everything is smaller when Mum’s consumed by Depression: her messages are abbreviated; her concentration span compromised; her conversation condensed to absolute essentials (if I’m lucky); even – especially – her voice. It’s much smaller. And the few words battle to escape from a too dry mouth which I know won’t be lipsticked.

Mum says the episode is dragging. ‘I know it will come right, but I just wish it would bloody well hurry up’, she types. She sounds exhausted. (For of course I can hear her even if she can’t me). And I am not surprised; Depression is a very, very heavy weight. Depression doesn’t just make you feel as if you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Depression puts it there and then – for added miserable meassure – sits squarely atop it.



My tenuous connection to the outside world goes completely then. When the wind whips up and the rain comes down. We thought it had gone, the rain.  Indeed so confident where we that the Rains were over we took what remained of the (courtesy of the UN) blue tarpaulin off our roof (the little that was left clinging tenaciously to disintegrating tiles after six months of sunshine and storms, the little that had not fragmented and been picked up by a passing breeze only to be dropped moments later on the lawn). We ought to have known better. My grandmother never took the washing off the line if she wanted the rain to come. Some peculiar reverse psychology at play depending on whether you wanted the rain or not.

I don’t know how much rain fell. I just know how much fell inside the house (a basin full in my bedroom, enough to soak most of the sitting room, sufficient to seep out beneath the French doors and saturate the verandah). We packed up the rain gauge last week. Took it inside, dusted it off and stored it away until next Rains. Tatu who works with me must puzzle at our eccentricities. We measure the rain. Whatever for, so long as it falls, surely that’s enough. The first time it was employed, in an early season storm, she raced outside to snatch it in. I explained to blank expressions. She is left in little doubt as to my madness. I measure the rain; I plant our acre of garden with inedible grass mostly and I collect a plethora of dust gathering seeds pods and wild grasses and bits of drift wood which I scatter about the house.

‘About two inches I reckon’, Husband announced knowledgeably this morning as I paddled my way to make tea (shame he didn’t know enough to leave the tarp in place a few more days) .

And, because that’s the way things work in the Outpost, the powers that be have turned the water on today. After weeks and weeks of nothing, water is gushing into an already almost full tank.

I shall have a deep, deep bath tonight.


It’s a funny thing. Motherhood. And the momentum into which it sweeps you up, so swiftly. One moment you’re not a mum, the next you are: a mewling infant slid swaddled into your arms, a tag about his wrist and a cross face looking up into your own astonished one. And the next, for such is the speed with which it all seems to happen, you’re doing his very last school run.



My school runs have never been especially ordinary or suburban; the closest they got to that was an hour and a half round trip from the farm, through town to drop the kids off at a day school where mothers gossiped in the car park. The first I ever did – before we went semi-suburban –  was across savannah knotted with the thread and tread of Masai cattle and dotted with rocky kopjes; we saw a cheetah and two cubs once, sitting on an anthill. That took the sting out of seven hours.

But lately, in the last three years, my school runs have been strung out even longer; it takes me 12 hours to drive west to where my son is at school now. I can abbreviate it with a six hour drive north so that he can take a 75 minute flight west. Which is what we did at the weekend.  And we dropped him off at the airport and waved him through security and I said to Husband, ‘it doesn’t get any easier does it, saying goodbye to them?’.



And all the six hour way home I thought about that, about that last school run for my son for he will be done in two weeks, and I watched Africa unfurl outside my window, an ethnic alternative to the Bayeux Tapesty, telling her story and depicting with such precise clarity microcosms of life: not the celebration of a conquest, rather one of ordinariness and endurance and colour and community.



I saw totos bathing in transient water holes, for they will be gone in a month, swimming pools reduced to dust bowls, their goats drank at the edge and the children splashed and laughed, small dark bodies slippery seal glossed as they hung onto their water containers as floats. Later they’d reluctantly pile out, dry in the sun, fill their mtungis, and herd their livestock home to mothers impatient for having to wait for the requisite to wash and cook. I watched men gathered beneath the sprawling shade of trees, engaged in a baraza, smoking, arguing, wondering when the rain would end (perhaps we ought to have stopped to consult them and saved ourselves a sodden rising?); I watched goats, Africa’s resilient garbage collectors, grazing in rubbish dumps; I watched women doing a weekly wash in a diminishing river, wrung-out clothes vivid against the taupe and grey of rocks upon which they had been spread to dry.  And we stopped for a coke (Adds Life which is what you need on a gruelling six hour-long drive) beneath a Baobab we have dubbed as Ours simply because it’s where we always stop when our school run takes this particular route and I watched the pink headed, lilac torso’d monitors nod maniacally on rocks as they sought their hearts’ desires.



And I watched all the way home, as we drove through villages strung as bright beads on an eternal grey ribbon, and I watched as the tar gave way to the final 100 miles of dirt and I thought life goes on, doesn’t it? It changes shape and size and colour, but it carries on.