Out of Africa

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Mum tells me she is reading a new book.

“What are you reading, Ma?”

And I watch her squinting to study the title:

“Out of … Africa … Oh, that was easy!” And she laughs.

She has, she tells me, been reading since lunch time. Which was four hours ago. 

She has read six pages.

I learned about readability tests when I was teaching Mum to read – the Flesch-Kincaid scores; the higher the number, the easier the read. And easier reading meant a faster speed. But, the experts, warned, at some point Mum would peak – no matter how much she practised; at some point she’d reach a speed that couldn’t be outdone. I thought, then, that if I understood the academics of teaching an adult with brain injury to read, I – we – could prove the experts wrong. But of course we couldn’t. Didn’t. Mum’s reading speed is painfully slow and yet she perseveres and I am always astounded by this : this doggedness, which I thought had been shredded by years of ruminating in Depression’s jaw.  She is determined to enjoy the story.

She tells me she is loving this one.

I tell her there is a film of the book – with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. 

“Is there?” She says – and sounds surprised.

I have watched it a dozen times – and often with her.

We watched it first in London’s Leicester Square – all of us, mum, my siblings, I, an aunt, a couple of cousins. It was months after dad died and I watched Africa rise on the screen, huge and beautiful and grazed with evening light and bruised by storm and I listened to the swell of John Barry’s soundtrack and I imagined I could taste Africa, could smell her rain and dust and woodsmoke.

And I kept watching it, on smaller and smaller screens, in smaller and smaller theatres with smaller and smaller audiences until I could no longer taste Africa, or smell her. I could only taste the cardboard taste of old popcorn and smell the sourness of a theatre poorly ventilated. 

And still she looked huge, Africa, and the music and the light and the snatches of a language I understood carved a deep, deep hole in my heart as I sobbed into the dark. 

In the end, I had to go back.

Mum does not remember any of this. But somewhere, somewhere in there, in her mind which is all tangled and loose and jangling between the gaps cast by lost memories, I know Africa still occupies a huge space. I know because she drops the odd Swahili word into our conversation. I know because she recognises something she loves in the Blixen book she is plodding though with fierce determination. 

I know because sometimes she thinks that’s where she is, in Africa: “I never knew Africa could get this cold: we had frost this morning!”

And I don’t say anything: let her believe she’s where her heart is, I think.

2 Responses to “Out of Africa”

  1. JoanH. Says:

    As always your writing is beautiful and evocative. I’m so happy that you’re posting regularly. Reading one of your posts is a gift.

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