Archive for December, 2020

Macs and Millions

December 31, 2020

Sometimes, when the children were younger, we’d sit around a table, usually when we found ourselves out at a restaurant, so it was rare, and we’d each imagine having a million pounds and what we’d each buy the others.

My children always used to say they’d buy me a Mac laptop. Whoever went first, for we quoted our million pound shopping list one by one, would grab the Mac for mum so that the next sweet child to reel off their imaginary shopping list was always a little stuck as to what to buy me.

I suppose partly because that’s what they’d have bought themselves, instead of the refurbished falling apart laptops their mother got them. Or because the laptops that had been handed down to them by their mother were falling apart and needed refurbishing.

But mostly because that’s all their mother seemed to do: write and raise kids.

I suppose I wanted one because they looked sleek and light – Macs – and were popped open by cool people and never seemed to run out of battery power.   I suppose I wanted to be a young, lean, lithe thing in a coffee shop tapping away at a Mac’s keyboard, the bright apple on the rear of her screen illuminated.

And then last Christmas Ant bought me a Mac. He doesn’t have a million pounds but he bought me one anyway and all the children were involved in the secrecy of buying it and bringing it out to me in Africa. And I opened it on a verandah surrounded by all of them, with their breath held, and I burst into tears. It was as if this make-believe world of millions had briefly morphed for real. A game had aced.

And now I tap away at it and marvel at it’s lightness and how the battery power goes on and on and I think of the little team that conspired to bring this technological wizardry, this thing of neat engineering, to my very, very untidy desk which is littered with photos and bits of paper and pencils, and I smile. 

Every time.


Remembering to Forget and Forgetting to Remember

December 31, 2020

When I talk to mum, on Skype, I can see her but she can’t see me.

I tell her it’s because I am afraid if I turn my camera on, I’ll slow my internet connection up and our words will trip over themselves and then stall and our conversation will be frustratingly interrupted.

But really it’s because I am afraid she will not recognise me; will think I’m an imposter.  She has before.

She knows me as her daughter in name only. 

Sometime she makes me laugh. Last Christmas we gave her an Alexa with a screen; we hoped it’d make connection easier (not recognising some members of her family notwithstanding).

We taught her how to use it, ‘See mum, easy, just tell it to Skype whoever’. Use their name. Use its name, hers: Alexa.

“It has a name?!”, she is astounded.

Sometimes my brother helps mum to navigate this new tool. Sometimes he says, ‘Mum’s on strike today – sorry, she’s had a fight with Alexa’.

Yesterday when we spoke (and I could see her but she couldn’t see me because I’d remembered to turn my camera off), I ask her why she was still in her nightdress. At 2pm.

‘How do you know that?’ She demands as she clutches at the neck of her dressing gown to draw it more tightly closed.

‘Because I can see it Ma!’ I laugh.

She laughs too then and tells me she does not feel like getting out bed. There is a disconnect now. She does not know why this feeling has descended. I am not worried, she assures me.

Perhaps Christmas was too much, she says and then, clutching at straws for explanation, ‘perhaps it’s this awful thing, you know … ‘ and she falters because Covid19 has slid off her tongue.

The virus, I prompt? Yes, the virus she says, ‘it’s dreadful’ – as if we have never discussed it before, as if it might be news to me too: ‘do you have it where you are?’

I think there is something residual of Mum’s Black Dog. Not a depression exactly, but some learned behaviour, some misplaced self-care habit, some residual sort of go-to to get-better: whenever she was overwhelmed by life in the past, she hid in her bed. As she is doing now.

Only now it’s different; she cannot remember what it is that made her feel this way. Whatever transient anxiety or thought has slid through the sieve that is her brain now and left behind a sort of pall. A niggle.

In some ways I am grateful for this loss of memory. I hope it means that the needling fretfulness is blunted for she cannot cup the worrisome memory to her. I hope it means that I can coax her, kid her, tease her out of it sooner. Out of bed sooner.

I am sad that her memory is in tatters but I am happy that when I bully her up, she laughs (in the past she’d have scowled) and it’s not a hollow laugh, a feigned thing, it’s a full blown belly laugh. 

“Oh thank you, you have made me feel so much better with your pep talk, I shall remember that for tomorrow”.

The thing is, she won’t. She’ll have forgotten by supper time. So today when I call (remembering to turn my camera off first) she’ll ask why she can’t see me and I’ll ask why I can still see her in her nightdress.

Words and Wings: our children need both.

December 28, 2020

You tell yourself at first that this can’t be for real.  That you are imagining things, that the black-dog burden you’ve lugged about for years is just a shadow, that the snapping you think you hear, the teeth you think you feel, are just memory. A learned thing that’s imprinted on your mind. You are branded by it. It’s like a scar. Run your finger across the skin of your life, and you’re bound to feel its raised soreness from time to time. You tell yourself that mental illness is not hereditary because well, you have to, don’t you? 

And then you scold yourself for being melodramatic. You are cross with yourself for slapping a label carelessly. You don’t want to be that person. That mother. You don’t want to reach for reasons.   You have had this discussion with doctors in the past – mental illness, designer disorder; everybody wants an excuse.

But it niggles and it gnaws and you can’t escape the feeling that something’s wrong. Like when you think somebody’s following you and you keep turning around to look. There is a chill at your back. You are sure you saw something, heard something. But you can’t be certain. So you pretend you didn’t and you put your head down and you quicken your step and you hope it’ll go away.

But when mental illness looms large and real, it doesn’t matter how deep you dig yourself into sand, how fast you walk, how much you tell yourself it’s imagination, it’ll stick a leg out and trip you up anyway.

And it’s so much worse when it’s your daughter that’s sick and not your mum.

It’s worse because you’ve fashioned this child, you’ve shaped her. You’ve birthed her, you moulded her and brought her into this world, Brought her up in this world. You cast her life about her. If bits don’t fit, it’s your fault.  It must be. 

And it is much worse to witness a child in pain than a parent.  Much.

When Hat crashed, I cannot tell you that I was surprised. I had witnessed parts of her coming adrift for weeks. Months. I could hear it in her voice, distracted, like a track that kept jumping. I could hear the cracks. I could see it in her face; she sat opposite me at breakfast a million miles away. She curled up tight on her bed, like a comma, an hiatus in her life. She’s stopping reaching up, reaching out and the only thing I am thankful for is that when she fell, I was there to break that fall.  Catch her. She sat, taller than me, 21, in my lap, curled again and she came undone in tears and words that snagged on emotion so that they were hard to piece together.  

But in that unravelling,  I began to understand a little of her enormous, invisible pain.

And I understood a little more when we sat in the psychs’s office in the same London hospital I’d taken mum to years before. Hat and I sat there on a hot Indian summer evening. Mum and I had sat there on a brittle March afternoon. My palms were damp with fear both times.

But I have never understood from the experts as much as I have grown to understand from Hat as  she began to piece herself gently together, as she collected her story and knitted it neatly up with eloquence – in words I understood.  And patience; she has been so patient with at our clumsy efforts to comprehend. With our questions.

We urge those who battle with mental illness to talk but often we don’t factor how hard it is for them to articulate their pain – pain wrought by that invisible, intangible, mercurial mental illness.  It must be so hard to find the words to describe something none of us can imagine. Or feel.

Monsters under a bed that we will never see.   

Almost three years later and despite a pandemic which has been especially hard for my beautiful Hat, she is getting there, one careful step at a time. She tiptoes into her world. She feels her own cautious, characteristically independent, determined way. It is rare now that she must reach for a hand to hold.

You have to give children wings. But you must also make sure they have the right words if they need them.

I’m so lucky Hat did.

The Genie and the Lamp

December 24, 2020

The lamps were destined for somebody else. But he dismissed them as rubbish, eaten by time and scarred by salt and wind. 

Can I have them?  I asked

And dispatched the lamps to a tiny workshop in Mombasa’s backstreets where you can hear the muezzin calling the faithful to pray and where the air rattles with traffic and the throatily insistent call of crows. Where artisans sit cross legged on an earthen floor and hammer brass and burnish it to sunshine gleam so that gloomy interiors seem illuminated.

I unpacked my lamps this morning as I flailed around, trailing the house and eager for occupation, and armed with Brasso and a brush and a handful or rags I set to. Elbow grease and gusto and enough rubbing and I released the Genie of shine.

My lamps winked at me encouragingly.  Keep going! 

The stubborn aqua green of patina grew more beautiful against the deep ember glow of copper. I stopped minding the parts impermeable to my effort, the bits that I was afraid to rub too hard lest the metal crumble to nothing. Instead I took delight in the comparison – where the old showed through, resistant to my hand. Where the brass and glass conspired brightly. 

Suddenly the imperfect was perfect because I could see the tread of time, feel it beneath fingers blackened by the task, feel rough edges where the years had nibbled away. And in the aloneness of my morning I grew happily busy. Just like Mr Burton warned I must.

Tonight I will place a candle in each and watch the light dance. 

Christmas Trees

December 23, 2020

The evening sun is all whiskey distilled gold and as it slides like honey over my western horizons, it pulls mine and Jip’s shadows long and lean.  I look taller in this light.

I tramp about the farm almost every evening. Often this year, when my children were locked down in English cities, I felt even luckier to have this space. I do again now.  I write to my eldest daughter who is locked up in Tier-4 London and recovering from Covid.  I am sending sunshine, I write. In solidarity, my house is bare of decorations. I confide in a friend – ‘I couldn’t bear to put any up, without the kids here’. 

But when I walk the farm, I see that the acacia are decked with a snowfall of ivory blossom and as the evening light slants through the dense green of the tree,  the pale pompom flowers are burnished silver and bronze and it is as if the boughs are strung with Mother Nature’s own baubles. She has done what I cannot: decorated.  I stand beneath the tree and watch the sun profile Meru’s slope, see the mountain shrug off the day nonchalantly and my heart is stilled. 

An Abundance of Plums

December 22, 2020

I pay too much for the plums.  I can’t be bothered to haggle.

They squat fatly in a plastic bag sweating. 

And I don’t know what to do with them. 

I bought them because I thought I ought to make a nod towards Christmas. This year there is no tree, no gifts and especially – worst of all – no children home. My eldest daughter is London-incarcerated with Covid.  I feel as if the Grinch has swept in and miserably parcelled festivities up in a big tatty sack.

We can only buy plums at this time of year. In the past I have made Nigella’s plum cake, I have bottle plum jam, I have delighted in their plump redness. This year they sit in the fridge getting high glowering at me.

But I know that in the making or the baking a little of past years abundance will seep in and colour our Christmas. That’s what getting busy does to you: makes you feel better about being redundant.

The Sustenance of Memories

December 18, 2020

It’s kind of a small word: memories, isn’t it. Subtle, unobtrusive, soft. It doesn’t barge into the conversation and demand attention. We let it slip into our dialogue unnoticed, slide glibly from tongues, in trite cliches.

Holidays are about making memories, we say.

Hang onto the memories, we urge.

But do we? Do we actually pay enough attention at the time to retain the experience? To file it carefully so that it can be easily recalled when we need it? Or are we too busy trying to capture it in the lens of a camera (as opposed to the aperture of our minds?) to actually pin it down for keeps?

This time last year my life was full fat. Home at the beach was fit to burst at the seams, everybody bunked up everywhere with everybody else. Meals were raucous occasions as the young descended on lunch like locusts on a field. There were never leftovers. You had to hide to find peace to read a book or snatch a nap.

This year the house is rackety empty. Beds still tightly, coldly made. Leftovers are all we eat. This year I must take my sustenance from last year’s memories – of noise and laughter and fights over card games, of a surfeit of presents and presence (this year there will be none of either in my home – ‘shall we just not do gifts?’ I say to Ant).

And then I find myself reaching into the furthest, darkest recesses of my mind, poking about in dark, dusty cerebral corners for the brightest shards of the past to illuminate a darker Christmas. I take my memories out then, the ones I didn’t know I’d stored or where I’d stored them for I didn’t know how badly I would need them or so soon.

And there they are. My children. The longing is visceral. So real I can almost taste the salt on my tongue and feel the sun on my skin. I can hear the drum of the surf and the whisper of the tide, as if I am holding a shell to my ear. I can smell the sea and if I hold still, if I concentrate really hard, if I still my breath and listen, yes, there is it: I can hear my children laughing.


December 9, 2020

When a storm sweeps in, it smudges the mountains so that their profiles are obliterated; you’d never know they were there. I drive home from town and the rain is torrential; I can’t see the road meters in front of me – never mind the mountains – I slow to a crawl and watch the water rushing across the plains, forming shallow lakes.

Later, when it’s passed, I pull on wellies and whistle Jip up who tears around the garden like a mad thing, round and round she goes in ever deceasing circles wearing a huge dog smile: walks after the rain are best, she races back and forth through puddles delighting in their wetness and the sound they make as she rushes through them.

The cloud has lifted and sky is Omo washed bright and rinsed pale blue and the mountain is silvered with new snow.

And I watch until the light is low. And then I go home and a muddy Jip slumbers by the fire I light in the hearth and chases guinea fowl and partridge and occasionally a jackal.