Archive for July, 2010

Mind the Gap

July 29, 2010

Today I put my girls on a flight north.

I hugged them in the shade cast by a Cessna’s wing, I told them to be good. I checked they both had phones/ ID/ a bottle of water. I reminded them to Mind the Gap.

And then I drove home to a house which resonates with silence: did you know the quiet could scream?

I did not know what the Outpost sounded like without the perpetual, omnipresent necessary needfulness of children. A long time ago, when I first became a mother, there was brief resentment at my stolen self, at abandoned career and a social life in exchange for bucketfuls of nappies and broken nights.

For a while I minded that my identity had morphed from ‘marketing’ to mother, ‘just a mum’, I said – a bit bashfully – when asked, ‘what do you do?’

Circumstance and choice meant I never returned to work in an office. And slowly I slid contentedly into the pillow of parenting, as constructed in my own rather less conventional, absolutely non-competitive and consequently comfortable way: perhaps I’m a lazier mother for it. Occasionally I tried to do better: I rearranged scatter cushions in regimental lines on the back of the sofa when I thought the place could do with a Tidy Up. But in reality it was easier – and more reassuring – to note them tossed to the floor by lengthening limbs as my trio of offspring sprawled in front of the television.

And so with time, despite initial reservations, kicking of heels and admitting to my role with muted embarrassment, as if I should be doing more, I adopted the mantle of stayathomemother and wore it happily, more confidently, if a little sloppily, so that occasionally it slid untidily over one eye and obscured my vision so I took a wrong turn from time to time.

My children steeped my subconscious, tripped through my dreams, dictated, unwittingly, the direction of my day: from school runs to teeth brushing, from lunch boxes to homework, from class outings to Christmas holidays. Even when your children aren’t there, a friend once observed, they’re in your head, as you muse whether they took their PE kit to school, why they seemed subdued at breakfast, how they bloody hell they managed to get nits again.

And whilst withdrawing to the Outpost meant compromising the proximity I had to my children, and by extension stretching tenuously the links that reassured me, endorsed my role and purpose and direction, I still had Hat.

I have never sat in this house without her quiet and undemanding – but paradoxically just because she was here, noisy, needing-me – presence. She isn’t asking if she can make muffins. Her room is silent, I can’t hear Owl City emanating from behind a closed door.  If I don’t make dinner it won’t matter as much.

In the days before my son left I wrote lists of all the things he needed to do when and where and how (old habits die hard: relinquishing control when you’ve held small hands across busy, busy streets is easier said than done). My eldest daughter witnessed my fussing and laughed, ‘Do you know what Mum did the first time I went to Gran’s by train on my own?’ My son didn’t so she told him, ‘she sent me directions of which trains to get from where and to what station and she put in bold letters, WHEN YOU GET OFF REMEMBER TO MIND THE GAP BETWEEN THE TRAIN AND THE PLATFORM’. My kids laughed. I did too, ‘Did I really?’ I ask, a bit horrified.

And for the last week it has sustained itself, that joke, every time I asked one of my daughters as they readied themselves for their departure, ‘have you got your  phones/ ID/ a bottle of water?’ they’d merrily chorus ‘yes Ma! And don’t foget to mind the gap …’

I waved them off on that plane, full of tourists sporting safari camouflage, my girls juxtaposed flamboyantly in bright blues and black boots, jangling bangles. And I plastered on a big, big smile in acknowledgement of the happy adventures they’re off on.

And then I came home and heard the silence and filled a washing machine with clothes still perfumed with the heady scent of children.

And I remembered that it is me who must Mind the Gap.

Staring into the Blue

July 23, 2010



Each morning I take a small, circuitous walk of my in-the-middle-of-nowhere-in-Africa garden (an anomaly: suburbia juxtaposed with sprawling, arid isolation). It’s desiccating fast. Jaundiced grass thin and dry and spitefully sharp against bare feet; termite tunnels crumble where I tread, meringue fragile. The dogs follow me. My old-gold lab suffers with stiff hips early in the day; it means she walks as if dancing in dressage, a little gingerly: an elderly lady on too-high heels. The cat follows at a safe, disdainful distance.

My mind is full of my son’s departure. He leaves home tomorrow. School done. Future yawns. He has declined a place at university, in lieu of another journey, an adventure of a different shape, and I am pleased for I think, for a while, he felt compelled to follow in other footsteps. Convention is sometimes safer, especially when the shape of shoe has already hollowed your path rendering it a little easier. Perhaps my constant admonishment when the children were younger, don’t be sheep, struck somewhere, sometime and stuck. So that now he has the courage of his convictions to try a slightly different road.  

I am acutely aware of sand slipping through fingers. Of imminent and seismic change. It’s good: it’s all good: it’s what we’re meant to do, us mothers – yield to the freedom of fledglings, encourage them out, shoo, shoo, on your way now as we, I, write itineraries, fill envelopes with hidden dollar bills (just in case) and top up cell phone credit, stay in touch, I urge. But it was partly in this loss, in this changing shape, mutating role, that my mother lost her grip, became unhinged from the happiness that rooted her until Depression slunk in and reduced her world to grey. I know for sure now: the scientists have proved it.  Hell isn’t Blue; it’s the colour of rain clouds.

But as I walk, tailed by my menagerie,  I squint up at the sky and see just blue. Blue and sunshine. And I hope that bracing myself for a shift in patterns and demands and role means it will be a little less jarring.

That the Blue will continue to obliterate the Grey.


Fur and Feathers

July 7, 2010

Tsavo National Park, Kenya, 1971



I wondered whether the lioness would eat R.

There was a part of me that would have enjoyed that. Not because I wanted to lose my little brother, but because it would have been interesting to see how much blood was spilled. I was glad the lioness’s yellow-eyed gaze was fixed on R and not on me.

She was staring at him, from her position on a low anthill, every muscle in her lean body taut, like a coiled spring compressed tight before being sprung loose, and she was calling softly, a long, low moan that she thrust forth from the back of her throat.

R was beside me in the rear seat of the car with his window wound up, right to the top. He was sitting very still with his thumb in his mouth. The lioness did not take her amber gaze off him. Not even for a moment. Her tawny eyes bore into him, unblinking. I knew he’d like to slip beneath the seat to invisible, safe obscurity. But his pride wouldn’t let him.

‘Why is she making that horrid noise?’ asked R unplugging his thumb briefly.

‘Why is she staring at Robert?’ I asked, grinning at my small, scared brother.

Dad said that the lioness had probably lost her cub, and that R’s mustard coloured jumper reminded her of it. I was glad I was wearing blue.

I told Robert, ‘You don’t get blue lions’


Somewhere in Western Tanzania, July 2010


I wasn’t wearing blue on Saturday, though.

And she stared hard at us. The lioness. We stared back. How deep those amber eyes burn. A flare. A stare. She and her sisters didn’t hang around for long. We weren’t Going on a Bear Hunt. We were going on a bird shoot. (Or at least Husband and son were; I was sitting obligingly and, given lionesses’ expression, a little stiffly in the open back of a land cruiser faced with a rack of shot guns I didn’t have a clue how to use). She’d heard the pop-pop of a -22 and wasn’t going to hang around. She didn’t know it’s target was a flock of pea-brained guinea fowl.

Open Season now. I just go along for the ride. And to garner enough dust in my hair so that it sits Elnett Sprayed high on my head, so rigid it refuses to be teased by the wind.

I sit on the periphery of these eminently masculine occasions; I listen to the stories, I sniff the scent of recently cleaned, slickly oiled guns, I watch heads tilted to the sky to train a barrel upwards at a bird whom I will silently on. Miss, miss my eldest daughter used to shout when she was younger, Fly, fly. I am too grown up to do the same so I hiss it silently instead: miss, miss.

Not, I should point out, because I am averse to men exercising primal hunting/gathering instincts (provided they eat what they shoot – and nobody eats lions). But because the weighty task of conjuring a swan-proportioned Spurwing Goose into something that approximates edible falls to me. And given that the usual advice to cook a Spurwing is to boil it with a rock, chuck the bird out and dine on the stone, I am frequently stymied.

But to be out, to be out here, to have scaled the sides of the bucket, to have escaped is worth the prospect of dealing with blood and gore and feathers and juggling the contents of my vast deep freeze in order that I can bury within its depths a goose the size of a small aeroplane.

The land cruiser forges through grass as high as an elephant’s eye. Bundu bashing I told Hat, that’s what your grandad would have called it: bush-whacking so that small-as-ant seeds are projected heavenward to join the dust and when I look behind me at a sinking sun I capture in my lens the quintessential African evening, painted with exactly the right light. My mum calls it kind light.


It’s a quite different light to the sort that illuminates the dawn, which steels over the east and torches the valleys with an iron hot-cold flame so that the river boiled in the bitter chill of daybreak and smoke-filled the valley. I cupped my mug of tea. And watched Africa spill, spill, spill all around me. An exhilarating, intimidating, cut-you-down-to-size space that lifts the soul and makes it soar.


Especially when you’ve been captive in a bucket for weeks.

So you gather all the sounds – the hectic cackle of guinea fowl, the cough of a leopard, the rush of the savannah as the wind and wildlife whip through it – and you hope you’ll remember all the stories that are told around a campfire (big, big man stories which make you say oh my! out loud and smile a little inside). And you log the memory of leaves the colour of claret so that they distilled the sunshine as wine.

And the honey hunter you encountered who wore a Beckham shirt and who sold you five litres of liquid gold and introduced you to his ancient father who wore a string bearing a single bead about his calf, ‘for it keeps the snakes away’, he told us as he rolled his trousers back down.

And you drag fingers whose nails are black with the best kind of grime (dust and heat and sweat wrought of real work) through your Elnett stiff hair and you grin and your face cracks for the wind burn and too much sun and you head home.

To face the blood and the gore and the feathers and the perpetual pursuit of a recipe for Guinea Fowl Casserole which is redolent of tender flesh and sweet herbs and not the sole of your shoe.