Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Putting Bread on the Table

April 18, 2008

Hat says, ‘There’s something wrong with the bread; I don’t think it’s meant to look like that’.


She means the bread I’m making; the loaf that is ready, judging by penetrating beep of bread machine, but has yet to be removed and sliced for breakfast.


I got it for Christmas from Best Beloved. The bread machine. He gave it to me because we cannot always buy bread in the Outpost and because he could not bear for me to attempt to make my own unaided as I did in manner persuaded to me by Isabella Beeton when at 23 and newly married and naïve I thought the ability to make yeast come alive with fat bubbles and elevate dough to glossy springiness was fundamental to a happy marriage. Luckily it was not: though the yeast stayed stubbornly flat and the dough was the consistency of a cannon ball and the bread utterly inedible, though best beloved suggested I sell it to demolition mobs that were breaking down old buildings in the city we lived in then – Dar es Salaam – in favour of newer ones, we have remained together.


So. Almost twenty years on and because we no longer live within a 20 mile radius of a reasonable bakery, I was presented with a bread machine. Something small and dainty and sparkly in trademark blue Tiffany bag might have been nice to own, might have impressed my friends, something from Prada might have done too. But neither are of much use in hard-line, out-lying Outpost.  So a FastBake it was instead.


The family watched as I fastidiously measured the ingredients for the first attempt into the tin with the precise little measuring spoons provided and regular reference to recipe in accompanying booklet. They observed as I carefully set the timer and they applauded when my fat, light loaf appeared on the breakfast table the next morning.


Three months later, though, and I had become a little slapdash. Remembering there’s no bread for breakfast at 11pm when you’ve had a few glasses of Red isn’t a good approach to cooking. In my rush to get the necessary done – ‘I must just put the bread on’, I’d say importantly to BB when he enquired (by hollering through house) if I was planning on coming to bed anytime that week – I began to carelessly gauge amounts, quite disregarding the ominous little warnings in booklet: Please use measuring cup and spoons provided accurately. I also cut back on the salt – two tablespoons of it – since I thought it’d please my doctor if I did so whilst simultaneously displeasing gathering cellulite which I understand thrives on a diet stacked with sodium secreted into benign looking foods like homemade bread, for example.


On Hat’s ‘I don’t think it’s meant to look like this’, I got up to examine the fruits of my midnight labours. And she was quite right: bread’s not meant to look like that. It’s meant to look arched with pride and deliciously, inviting promise. Not slumped with soggily, grey misery.


Hat is quite a stickler. Unlike her sloppy mother.


‘I think we should look them up in the book again, Mum’, she said, ‘the instructions, she pressed.


I did.


Under Troubleshooting.


Who’d have thought you could troubleshoot a loaf of bread?


It said: if you are so slovenly you can’t be bothered to measure things out properly or if you think you know better than us and begin to invent your own recipes or if you ditch the salt because you a vain cow who would rather have sleek thighs than feed her family properly, your bread will sink disastrously in the middle and be hard and lumpen and you might just as well use it as demolition fodder. Or words to that effect. I got the message though.


I made my bread at 7 last night. Before I was too tired to see my way around the kitchen and before the Red had interfered with my eyesight so that I was unable to decipher the calibrations on the cups and spoons. 


I will – as a consequence – be able to set before Hat for breakfast today a loaf that has risen to perfect roundness, a loaf with a firm, brown crust and innards the consistency of warm marshmallows upon which her butter will melt just as she likes.


And I shall be able to bask in both her praise and a very, very rare glow of domestic and maternal success.




I am going away for a bit. Far away. For a fortnight. I shall begin my journey tomorrow and arrive at my destination 48 hours later. I like to think I’m going where I am because I’m needed there for now, might make a difference. I’m not sure I will.


But I have to try.


How to communicate with a teenager

March 14, 2008

My son, who will be seventeen this year and who is prone to that syndrome peculiar to many teens and certainly most boys, monosyllabicism, has forwarded me an enlightening email. His apparently ambivalent attitude towards conversation (unless he needs something, obviously) and the fact he’s at boarding school for most of the year means I get quite excited when I receive any communiqué  from him: a text asking that I call, a banal Forward in my Inbox.

Ordinarily I bin most Forwards. I tell myself they are time-wasting and since I’m able to time waste perfectly adequately on my own, I don’t need any assistance from outside. That said, I have read 3 of same this morning.

Anyway. son and heir sent (in response, no doubt, to demands from his father, ‘when are going to bloody well write?’) one of those questionnaires that asks things like what time you got up (5.55 in his case), what you usually eat for breakfast (a lot) and what you listen to (Disney classics and a bit of Beethoven, spelt bathoven in case you were about to be seriously impressed by my musical prodigy who – by the way – wouldn’t know who Beethoven/bathoven was if he came and bit him on the bum). Aside from discovering nothing about my son’s taste in music and something about his eating habits (he hates burgers I read), I also learned he wants to visit India; if he was a crayon he’d be dark green and that his favourite restaurant is local Tabora Hotel (‘because it’s such a surprise when your food arrives’ which it is).

His sense of humour was evident, what pets do you have revealed ‘2 cats, 2 dogs, a tree (?!) … oh. And two sisters’ and hair colour? Bald, apparently. It’s dark brown. As were his vulnerabilities: when did he last shed tears: he last cried on receiving results to recent French test, I discover. I doubt he actually cried but it does show he cares. I think. I hope?

So. If, like me, you become frustrated at your teen’s reluctance to provide details about what’s going on in their lives, wing them an asinine email: you have no idea what gems you might unearth.


Bottling Memories

January 31, 2008

We went for a walk yesterday evening, Hat and I; we drove to the plot of land adjacent to husband’s office, a few acres forested with enormous mango trees and overlooking distant kopjes sheathed in green where the dogs can race about, chasing vervet monkeys up trees from where they laugh and tease. Often we see mongoose here, peeping from their burrows in termite mounds. But they’re gone in a trice: the scent of the Labradors has sent them back down to the bowels of the earth from where we hear their indignant scolding: ‘why don’t you bugger off and leave us alone, and take those sodding great beasts with you’.

We have to drive across town before we can walk.

I think I’ll wear my new glasses’, said Hat as she donned a fragile contraption fashioned of chocolate wrappers and tin foil.

She spent our short journey waving and smiling at all the Africans she saw on the shabby little streets of the Outpost. Most waved and smiled back, some looked mildly startled to witness a child sporting psychedelic spectacles gesticulating madly out of the window. Occasionally she experimented with a royal wave:

‘Look mama, this is how the Queen waves’ (how does she know?).

‘Do you think the queen has a mobile phone?’ (where do children’s questions come from?)

She wears her glasses for the entire duration of our walk. Peering down into anthills willing the mongoose to come out. I imagined them staring back up, unseen from their hiding place in dim mud interiors, ‘Good God! What on earth is that?!’ they’d have exclaimed to one another in horror.

‘The grass is much greener when you’re looking on the bright side’, she told me.

That’s got to be a good thing: especially in Africa.

Driving home, the dogs sated, Hat began to recite nursery rhymes. And I joined in, teaching her the mutated versions we learned at school, 

 Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men said,

‘Oh no! Not scrambled egg AGAIN’!

Hat squealed with laughter, ‘that’s so funny Mummy’.

There are moments, little fleeting moments in life, like bubbles: you want to catch them and hang onto them forever, but you know they’ll only pop. I wonder couldn’t we bottle those brief, perfect memories, preserve them forever, like scent. Then, when disillusioned, or sad, or tired, we could uncap their precious contents and allow them perfume our disenchantment away? 

I wanted to bottle yesterday evening.


 Hat and I are going away for a few days: Hat to school, proper school, so that she can engage with children her own age, me to have my highlights done.

Granted 500 miles is a long way to travel for a play date and an appointment with your hairdresser, but needs must.

Not least because Hat responded, when I queried what the population of the Outpost might think of a child wearing enormous homemade spectacles leaning out of a car window waving frantically, ‘they will say, oh look, there goes that nutty child. With her even nuttier mother’.

Yup. Time to get back to the real world. For a bit.

Rose Tinted Spectacles

January 26, 2008

We are eking out our Christmas chocolates (not because we are saintly in our approach to all things confectionary  but because Treats – butter, cheese, nice fat roasting chickens, good chocolates – are hard to come by in the Outpost); we’ve got to the Quality Street: saving the best till last.

Quality Streets elicit teeth achingly sweet memories of childhood: my favourite then was the flat golden wrapped toffee. My choice has matured to the big purple one with the nut in the middle.

After supper Hat makes her selection with infinite care.

”Can I have three?”

”No, you can have two”.

This just slows up her deliberations because I’ve limited her choice.

”Have this one”, I proffer …. ”and this one”. (They are the Chocolate Orange Creme and the Strawberry Delight: which husband and I hate and she loves; imperative to have a lover of the orange and strawberry chocolates in any family or you’ll have to share the Caramel Swirls and Vanilla Fudge).

I digress.

Hat unwraps her chocolates and as I watch her smooth the colourful cellophane of each one to flatness on the dining table I am struck by another memory.

”I used to do that”, I tell her as I watch, ”when I was little.  And then I used to make spectacles using the coloured paper as lenses”.

Hat smiles, ”did you mummy?”

”Yes, I did, look”. And I pick the red wrapper up and put it to an eye. My world has gone pink.

”Rose tinted spectacles”, I say.

Hat, who is experimenting with a blue and a yellow asks, ”what does that mean?”

People who look on the bright side of life are sometimes said to be wearing rose tinted spectacles.

”I’m going to make some glasses like that, Mum, I’m going to make some with …. ” and she thinks …. ”green on one side and orange on the other.”

I laugh again.

”And then, when we go to Arusha I’m going to go to Shoprite (the largest supermarket in town) wearing my glasses and I’m going to wave at all my friends” (and she gets up from the table and minces around it waving at unseen crowds like a red carpet treading celeb might).

”People will think you’ve gone potty living in the bush” I tell her, “wearing your home-made glasses with different coloured lenses!”.

“So what?” she retorts, ”I shall them I’m looking on the bright side”.

So what indeed. Perhaps I’ll make some for myself.

A Unlikely Visitor for Supper

January 21, 2008

Last night Sir Jack came for supper.

I hadn’t expected a visitor, Hat only alerted me to possibility of a guest whilst she was wallowing in her bath:

 Can one of my friends come round, Mum?

Sure. Where are you going? (Hat, of course, disappeared when both Madame Marcia and Marcella made their appearances)

My friend is the captain of a ship, I’m going to have supper with his crew.

Oh. Right.

Later, making scrambled egg (which is what constitutes dinner in the home of failed Domestic Goddesses), guest shambled into the kitchen.

He was wearing a large hat which obscured his face and walked with an obvious limp. Whilst on one foot he wore a boot (which looked remarkably like one I own), the other leg appeared to be missing both foot and boot.

Hello, said visitor gruffly in a really dodgy Cockney accent (not dissimilar to the one Hat had been practising for a couple of days enquiring whether she sounded ”English”), ”I’m Sir Jack”.

Oh hello, I said, trying not to giggle as I proffered a hand to shake. A hook (which I swear was the curled end of a metal coat hanger) shot out in response.

Good grief, I said, what on earth happened to your hand Sir Jack? … And your foot come to think of it. In fact, where is your foot?

Not wishing to be forward but unable to help myself, I tugged up the leg of my guest’s voluminous trousers (not something I would do ordinarily, really). I thought I caught a movement, a foot hastily retreating up inside the leg of his pants, but perhaps I’m just being uncharitable. For all I saw was a stick. A peg leg.

”Bloody sea lion”, said Sir Jack, ”ripped off my hand and my foot”.

Heavens I said, why did it do that?

“It was sitting on the X”.


”Yes, yes”’, he said impatiently, ”on the X Marks The Spot on my treasure map, had to move it off so I could get to my gold, innit?”.

Oh dear I say with as much concern as I can muster (despite swallowing laughter).

”It’s not funny, you know, bloody thing’

Your language, I remonstrate, is shocking.  I never swear, I say (madly crossing fingers)

No, he replies as quick as a flash, you just speak French instead.

Did my daughter tell you that?

She might ‘ave.

He stalked about my kitchen as I bunged bread into the toaster and opened a can of Baked Beans, his peg clipping against the floor.

And then I swore I heard him pass wind.

”You filthy bugger!” I said, feigning outrage.

“I seen a lot more filthy things in my time than you áve young lady”, he retorted without a trace of shame.

Having introduced Sir Jack to husband we all sit down to eat our eggs on toast.

I am aghast at my guest’s manners. They are beyond shocking. He eats with his mouth open and scoops food up with the fingers of his one working hand.

Would you like a drink, Sir Jack? I enquire

 Gin. He says.

We’re out, says my husband shortly.

I watch his slovenly manners for a bit longer and then can’t resist commenting, ”your table manners are shocking Sir Jack, do you get many invitations to dinner?”

”You try eating with a hook”, he says.

I keep quiet after that.

Dinner over and Sir Jack gets up and lumbers off. As an afterthought he tosses a 2p coin onto the table, ”keep the change”, he instructs gruffly.

Ooooh thanks, I’ll try not to spend it all at once.

Seconds later Hat skips out to join me in the kitchen where I am clearing up.

”How was supper with the crew?” I ask.

Disgusting, she says, and they ate like pigs, no manners at all.

Funny that, I say, Sir Jack’s were lacking too.


My daughter’s forays into the world of Make Believe are a new thing. They have made their debut in our lives since we made ours in the Outpost. I cannot decide whether they are born of a desire to be entertained, to entertain us or because, like me, the isolation is driving her ever so slightly potty. But it doesn’t matter. For they are always a happy distraction and every visitor she introduces us to is a wonderfully, colourful character whose brief presence is hugley welcome in a place largely devoid of company.


Empty Nest

January 17, 2008

There is an abandoned cricket bat in the back of my car.

It’s a metaphor for the sudden emptying of the house.

My son forgot it there. I’ll leave it where it is; lying behind my seat. Then every time I open the rear door to dump or retrieve shopping I shall see it and can briefly imagine him home and ready to bat a ball about.

We came home from our school run to find the house too tidy. Too quiet. Too jolly empty. Tiny pokey rooms have found big voices in their echoey amplification.

You can see the floor in Amelia’s room; no longer is it strewn with shoes, discarded clothes which she optimistically hopes will grow legs all of their own and make their way to the laundry basket unaided. No longer is there a cockroaches’ banquet of cereal bowls encrusted with muesli under her bed (remnants of midnight feasts, my daughter a hungry owl who makes nocturnal forays into the kitchen whilst we are fast asleep). The carpet in her room is no longer tangled. It has been pulled regimentally straight as if to compete for brownie points with the hospital corners of her bed. Drawers and cupboard doors are closed, no longer regurgitating their contents in colourful ribbons that hang out waiting to party with the debris on the floor. Why do I nag her to tidy her room; it’s very neatness now a miserable reminder she isn’t here.

And Ben’s, smaller, is similar, clinically spic and span. His bats (all but one) are standing to attention in the corner of the room, no longer languishing on the floor waiting for a game, waiting to trip me up. His shoes lined against the wall, toes pointing orderly ready to salute. I sit on his bed and notice a stray sock peeking out from beneath it. It has gathered a happy amount of dust.

I have regained control of the TV remote: no longer do I have to catch snatches of news between cricket test matches and rowdy music from pop bands with unpronounceable names. But dour monotones issuing forth from BBC World don’t make me want to dance, not like Mika does, until Amelia begs me to stop: ”Maaaaaarm, you’re so embarrassing!”.

The scatter cushions on the sofa are no longer scattered because a teen lies sprawled in their place. Instead they’re sitting up stiffly. All plumped and pompous.

Hat says, ”school’s OK Mum but I prefer the holidays”.

I know what she means.

Why don’t you play in your brother and sisters’ rooms I ask. She looks a little doubtful, their territory, clearly marked (doors plastered with Keep Out signs and lewd skull and crossbones) is usually out of bounds. Go on, I urge.

She does. Ben’s bedroom floor is now a deathtrap of Lego shrapnel and the miniature residents of her doll’s house for whom she is building a hotel, she says.

Perhaps she and I can escape there one weekend?

Back to School

January 10, 2008

Tomorrow, before dawn, six of us will squeeze into the car with an indecent amount of luggage, a picnic brunch, some bedding (because one cannot expect even the best hostesses’ linen cupboards to stretch to accomodating a brood of six without supplementing sheets and towels) and we will drive the 750 klm towards school in the north.

Mum will fly back to England on Sunday. And the big kids will go back to boarding school on Monday and we three, Hat, Husband and I will turn tail and drive the 750 klm home early on Tuesday.

The car will be quieter. Our brunch will be a rather solitary and solemn affair and there will be leftovers for the first time in a month.

Just as there will be too many dry towels.


December 27, 2007

My protracted silence has been borne of many things – Christmas amongst them, naturally. A house bursting happily at the seams too, strewn with discarded wrapping paper and the scatter cushions I acquired when I aspired – long ago – to be a proper housewife lie, well, scattered but not elegantly upon tidy sofas, rather as ankle twisting ambushes across the sitting room floor.

The mince pies are dwindling. I thought about Kate Reddy, the heroine of Allison Pearson’s book I don’t know how she does it as I crossly and hotly pummelled shortcrust pastry and urged it unwilling into pie tins: Kate Reddy buys her mince pies, decants them from giveaway packaging and – in a bid to appear a proper mother – knocks them about with a rolling pin to make them look a little more homemade. I didn’t need to knock mine about; they looked knocked about all by themselves. And I’m not sure I projected the image of proper mother as I made my own, swearing in frustration as bloodyminded pastry sprang back into the shrunken shapes I was trying to avoid or clung to the worktops in a desperate last attempt to dodge a hot oven. No matter; they are being eaten.

We sourced our Christmas tree in the bush during a picnic when it rained and the dog ate the roast chicken, we decorated it outside where it looked quite ordinary until night fell and the strings of lights reflected merrily in our small pool. Christmas Eve came and my children – presumably to prove my lessons in trying to live with a Glass Half Full approach to life were reaping reward – hung pillow cases for Santa in lieu of stockings: why, after all, hang something so meagre when – being the optimisists your mother aspires to mould you into – you could aim much higher.

Christmas lunch was mellow, cold roast chicken and ham alternated with chilled beer and dips in the pool, and all between cloudbursts. The rain which falls in torrential sheets as I write has, in recent days, drowned the services of the internet, the telephone and the satellite television connection several times.

So the year fades. And all before I managed to write a single Christmas card; does the time really pass faster as we get older or does it just seem that way?  Will I manage to compose a Round Robin letter in the New Year to crow about my children’s achievements and aspirations (which include Amelia’s second ear piercing in 2007 and plans for a belly ring in 2009). Or will good intentions lie scattered – like the cushions and the mince pie crumbs – across a floor strewn with discarded wrapping and damp towels?


Wet Towels

December 14, 2007

Hat and I have finished school for the term. I don’t know how much she’s learned. So long as she enjoyed it. She sweetly tells me that her vocabularly is broader now that she’s homeschooled.   That’s not because I’m any great orator, but because Hat has a keen ear for new words.

She asks me, ”how do you spell schrewin, mum?”

How do you spell what!? I want to know.

”You know, schrewin

I don’t darling, no. I don’t even know what you mean.  Where have you heard the word used?

”You. When you say to me after I’ve had a shower, don’t leave your wet towel schrewin all over the floor”.

Oooooooooh! Strewn!

Today, we will drive 5 hours to Mwazna on Lake Victoria where we will spend the night, ready to collect Hat’s big brother and sister when they arrive by plane from their school in the north east of the country tomorrow morning. Hat is beside herself with excitement.

And I relish four weeks of picking those wet towels up.

Just as well …

December 11, 2007

Bang on cue, as if to remind me that it’s as well I a) glean some kind of job satisfacation outside of the minimal amount proffered by writing and b) am not entirely responsible for putting all the bread on this particular family’s table, I receive another rejection. Of sorts.

 In September I entered a memoir writing competition at Kingston University. In October, oh joy, my manuscript Refugees of Empire was amongst 15 short listed.

Today I discovered that mine was amongst the five that didn’t get a final mention. That means no winnings (useful for school fees) and no chance of publication (useful for school fees, and when feigning to be a writer).

I’d like to be able to tell myself the subject matter wasn’t sufficiently PC, how could it be: I’m the progeny of bloodycolonials, I’d like to believe a publisher wouldn’t dare take my story on board but alas I fear that it’s a merely a question of the manuscript lacking merit.

No matter.


No point in calling yourself a writer if you can’t take rejection firmly on the chin; it’s par for the course, after all.

But just as well I hadn’t given up the day job eh?