Archive for September, 2021

Last of the Light

September 24, 2021

Mum keeps asking, during our conversation, ‘Where’s my soup?’

I have timed this call badly – in the middle of her lunch.

She is staying with her brother and sister.

She keeps calling my uncle by my brother’s name. She is astounded they share a mother. 

‘Horrified’, says my uncle, ‘horrified we share a mother’, and he laughs. So that mum does too – uncertainly, but a laugh, nonetheless.

‘Where’s my soup?’ She asks again, and then, for about the 3rd time during this brief and fractured conversation, ‘How are you, love?’

I tell her: ‘I am fine. Busy. It is dry’.

The rains are a long way off and as I talk I look out on a lawn which is torched yellow by wind and sun; when I walk across it, with bare feet, I curl my soles upwards to avoid the sharpness of desiccated grass: a bed of nails.

But she’s not interested. She’s not listening. She is buttering bread. She keeps stretching across the screen to reach for things. She knocks the device sideways so I end up staring at the ceiling.

My aunt helpfully sets me upright.

‘Anyway’, says mum finally, ‘I think you sound very busy, I think I better leave you to it’.

I smile, ‘Sure ma, chat in a day or so’.

And as I hang up I hear her again, ‘where’s my soup?’

I tell my sister later – I say, in a text, ‘very dissatisfactory conversation with mum, she was more interested in her food than me!’

My sister sends me a chuckling emoji: ‘me too, yesterday she kept asking when supper was, she wouldn’t shut up even when she was reminded that she’d just had two enormous bits of cake.  At least she’s enjoying her food’.

At least she’s enjoying her food. 

Her view on the world is getting narrower and narrower, there’s just a little chink of light now: as if a door has been left ajar and a shaft of brightness splinters a dark room hopefully and illuminates a slender slice of it. 

What when a gust of wind blows and slams that door shut, what then?

The Story of a House

September 19, 2021

I have done this untold times.

And here I need to stop and count how many, on my fingers: twice before the Outpost, twice there, once then, and again then, oh, and then, and up here, now. Ten times. Could I really have done this ten times: taken an old home and made it new.  Pulled down walls, put up new ones, ripped out plumbing, installed electrics (for none of the original inhabitants of these houses could ever have imagined the need for so many sockets – to charge all the devices that keep us tethered to our worlds, even as we float about them in the ether). 

There is a sort of reverence every time I consider a new-old place where somebody once lived. Once loved. Lived in. Loved in.  Did they decorate a Christmas tree in this room, I think, as I consider a wide, light sitting room, bowed windows so that the day streams in? Were there children? Did they hang stockings above that mantelpiece. Was this wooden floor, unpolished and scuffed now, like a mirror then, was is strewn with warm rugs? Did the wind whistle through its roof as insistently as it does now?

I always consider the people that came before. Why were they here? What did they do? How long was this their home? Did they love it? Where are they now? I know that sometimes I step from one room to another in the company of ghosts. I feel a chill, and I smell bats. Always bats.

When I polish this floor, for I will, will it gleam, admire its reflection in newly washed windows?  Will it?  Can I feel its soul now, this house, which has stood abandoned, often for years, if I stand still and silent and listen, will I respond with heart. Will I blow the life back into it?

And then I laugh, ‘a single bathroom in a three bedroom house!’ Ant laughs too – was ‘en suite’ even a thing back then, back whenever it was that somebody with hope and vision and exactly the right feel for a place so that they built this house perched where its occupants might drink in the view with sundowners, whiskey light with whiskey and soda. Did that happen here? Was there laughter? Or were there tears?

It feels like a gift, this being granted the time and space to step back into a dusty old life, look at some other family’s yesterdays through the prism of old-fashioned taps (glorious) and window winders which I want to steal and secret away like talismans. 

When I walk through the garden I will find there testament to every gardener that has ever dug green fingers into bloodred soil. So that their nails will be blackened with the cleanest dirt. I find bounganvilleas with trunks as thick as a man’s thigh, knotted, gnarled, aged, but whose blossom is still vibrant and hot so that it litters a desiccated lawn like confetti. I find lavender strung with blueness and bees. And a hidden orchard where a crop of loquats are fattening and tiny peaches hard as stones.  And pepper trees, always pepper trees under whose puddled shade a baby might have slept in a pram, or lain and watched the sky through a latticework of leaves.

When I leave, lock the door, will the house resume its voice – for all houses have one I have found, in the window rattles and sticky door clicks, in faucets that squeak and floorboards that creak. And every person whose ever lived in them has grown to be comforted by the familiarity of a home’s language.  

Once they understand it, can interpret it.

I always try to listen carefully.

Mountains. A Metaphor for the Invisible Woman

September 18, 2021

Sometimes my mountains retreat. Like ghosts. They melt to nothingness on hot horizons. Are burned clean away by the glare of sun. Or shrouded in mist or haze or dust so dense they blur as invisible. 

I put my flattened palm to my brow then and scan the line where heaven and earth meet, where I know my mountains stand, where, if I squint, I tell myself I must be able to see them. I must.

But they are gone. Bashful as brides, they have retreated behind some obscuring veil.  

I feel untethered then, without them, my north and south, those necessary guiding points of a compass. As if some anchor has come loose and drifted off.  Sometimes you know where you are. And sometimes you do not.

But some days when I walk, in the soft pearl of dawn when the world is cupped neat and ordered and sharpened with a chill, my mountains are razor cut against the ceiling of sky that the sun is just peeling back. As it slides in on the east and long fingers of light grope and feel their way towards the dark western edge, the top of Meru is pinked, a blush against the palest, palest blue. A kiss, I think.

Or in the evening, when the day has settled into itself and leans long and languorous as shadows are stretched thin and taller, no longer that shuffling squat of noon, I see them then, standing tall, heads thrown back, their profiles pencilled dramatically and black and bold. 

They are beautiful.

Sometimes I see my mountains and sometimes I do not.   But I need to remember, they are always there. Tall and strong and solid and sure. 

Even when they are not. 

Jam-making. Again.

September 10, 2021

My sister makes jam. She makes it with a devotedness that involves experimentation and the regular tweaking of recipes, adjustments that she records in a notebook for the next time. She cannot bypass her Syrian green grocery without slowing her pace to see what he has on offer. Blueberries for conserve, tomatoes for chutney, a plump heel of ginger to candy so that we can suck on it between cups of tea, its syrupy bite nipping the inside of our mouths.

She stuffs plastic bags into jacket pockets when she goes walking, just in case: in case she stumbles upon windfalls or bushes bowed with blackberries which bruise her fingers blue as she plucks them greedily, occasionally stabbing her skin so that a bud of blood swells. She has collected the necessary accoutrements of a serious jam maker: a proper preserving pan, the right sort of thermometer. She nags friends to keep their empty jars. She rescues her own from the recycling bin. Her kitchen is often heady with the treacly scent of boiling sugar, surfaces streaked strawberry pink and sticky.

I ask her, ‘Why jam? What do you love about it? Where did you find this passion? When?

‘I love it all’, she says, ‘the whole process: the finding the fruit, the deciding what to make, the trying out new recipes, the testing and tasting’. When I stay with her, I bear witness to this, these sampling sessions, piles of warm toast at breakfast as we try the latest batch and she fastidiously takes cognisance of comments and criticism: ‘this is too sweet …. this too runny’ and then – of a Lime, Lemon and Ginger Marmalade – ‘this is perfect’, exactly the right balance between tart and sweet, the consistency obediently spreadable.

‘I love being able to gift friends something homemade.’

She tells me she began to experiment with jam making when she ten or 11, ‘when we lived in Sotik’, a lonely tea farm in Western Kenya. The garden was forested with fruit trees – loquats bowed branches so that you could pick amber berries and suck their flesh clean off shiny stones, and mulberries stained bare soles black. Its warm fecundity, though, in a place where sunshine and regular rain conspired to make everything grow thick and fast – especially the tea where new growth was plucked regularly and tossed into the back borne panniers of the pickers – was in stark contrast to mum’s mostly barren internal landscape; our new geography’s isolation stripped it back to bleak nothingness; she spent long months unwell. One year six months at a stretch, no respite.

‘I did it because I didn’t know what else to do, because there was all this fruit … because I had to do something.’

She knew. She knew then, even so young, the imperatives of Keeping Busy.

My sister is a scientist. A chemistry teacher: she interprets the mysteries of matter and reactions and the Periodic Table to teenagers.

But by the time she was one, long before she stood in a lab conjuring magic in test tubes for her students, she had mastered the alchemy of happiness.

She is one of the happiest people I know.