Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Just a Mum?

December 11, 2007

On Saturday my big kids are coming home for the Christmas holidays.

I will be able to fuss over them, feed them, nag them.

And I will feel whole again.

And no, I’m not a sad old bat for attaching such a sense of self to my children: they’re what I’ve done for almost 17 years. Children are all consuming. They permeate your very consciousness so that even when they aren’t there, they are. You never stop thinking about them. Worrying about them. Wondering how they are, who they’re with, what they’re doing and whether or not they’re brushing their teeth.

As much as I call myself a writer to pretend I do something useful (when usually, actually, it’s not at all) raising three children to be the best people I can is much more so.

Once, embarrassed by my world of nappies and feeding routines and whether or not I was getting enough sleep, I referred to myself, when asked, as ”just a mum”.

Just a mum?

No ”just” about the job.

I mightn’t always do it very well – truth be known often my mothering is fairly slipshod – but it’s an important job. If only to the three people I’m trying to mould into half decent grown ups.

So. Come Saturday it’s back to the day job, the real job, the one that counts.

The one – granted – I don’t get paid for.

But then writing is hardly lucrative either.

Animal Farm

November 22, 2007

I was supposed to go home to the Outpost on Monday.

But I didn’t. Because Hat was too ill.

I awoke in the middle of the night on Sunday to a plaintive little voice by my ear:

Mummy, I feel horrid, my head is so sore.

It must have been; it was very hot.

By 8am we were in the clinic in town repeating blood tests for the fourth time in as many days. The kindly Indian doctor whom we saw decided to treat her for malaria despite no evidence of parasites on slides – ‘we cannot afford to take a risk’, he said, and typhoid, presumably for the same reason: no point in taking risks. Hat, chalk white with big black circles under her eyes, began to throw up into a plastic shopping bag.

The rest of my day was spent monitoring and coaxing sips of water into her. If she doesn’t drink, said the doctor, we’ll have to admit her and put up a drip. Hat’s seen the inside of the local hospital enough times to know she’s not especially keen on a sleepover. She drank.

By Tuesday, though, she was much better. Head less sore. Pallor less ghostly.

By Wednesday one of the flock of sheep owned by the generous friends who have tolerated our presence in their lovely home for almost two weeks obliged by producing a lamb. Whilst his mother was out grazing, Hat stepped in as nanny. The lamb, which she has named Rug, took to his day time charge with alacrity and skipped around the garden behind her. When he grew tired, Hat scooped him up and folded him into her lap on the verandah whilst she read her book.

I didn’t like having a bad headache, she confided, but I do like looking after a lamb which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t got sick.

School, needless to say, has gone by the board for now. Partly because she’s been so unwell. But also because I cannot force her nose to books and long division when there are lessons in life happening a spit from where she eats her breakfast.  Speech marks and verb identification can wait whilst she absorbs something else. She, somewhat predictably, wants to take the lamb home to the Outpost.

You can’t, I tell her, at least not until it’s weaned.

It has already, she says excitedly (for surely this means it will be hers now), all over the bedroom floor and I cleaned it up – just to prove she is responsible enough to own a lamb.

Weaned, honey, I say. Not wee’d.


Not Enough Hours in the Day …

November 1, 2007

When I moved to the Outpost, people asked, in tones of ill-disgused alarm, ”but what are you going to do all day?”

Defensively (because there’s no other way to respond a question that suggests you are about to relocate to position of exceedingly dull) I said, ”oh I’ll be fine, I’m very good at entertaining myself”.

I’m not. Not terribly. But I am very good at sort of faffing. Immersing myself in the here and now and being quite happy to plod about there. I write. Or at least that’s what I tell people I do (and sometimes it’s true) and writing is a gloriously time consuming career; I can spend hours gazing out of the window dressing daydreaming up as loftier Writer’s Block.

I had envisaged evolving as a Domestic Goddess. Drumming up 101 exciting things to do with a mango (souffle? chutney? jam?) but alas I find that geography hasn’t improved my desire to spend time in the kitchen.

I thought about learning French. But I haven’t got round to registering with Rosetta Stone.  Too busy, you see.

Doing what? I hear you ask.

Well. I get up. Anywhere between half four and half seven depending on whether insomnia has plagued or not. I drink tea. I check emails.  I get Hat up.

We whizz a smoothie for breakfast (water melon, pineapple and banana – every day because the market offers nothing else) and make some toast. I drink more tea.

We do school. Until almost lunchtime. It depends on whether or not we have any experiments to set up. We did yesterday; currently we are breeding bacteria from soup in three water bottles. Hat can’t wait to see what they smell like after three days. I can.

Sometimes there’s time before lunch then to nip to Kaidi The Arab’s duka to shop. Or practice shopping at any rate; rarely do we acheive our list so we just get what we can, stand at a counter and listen to the ding of an old till (I feel it’s important to maintain an understanding of shopping protocol, lest I forget – something my husband says is unlikely to happen). Sometimes we go to the market. For bananas, water melons and pineapples.

Husband comes home for lunch and we eat a sandwich. Or a chapati with tuna stuffed inside masquerading as trendier Wrap.  I was quite pleased with my (rare) domestic ingenuity in the sandwich/Wrap thing but poor old Husband and Hat getting a mite bored of them now I think.

After lunch Hat reads. She takes herself (and whichever author is prevailing favourite) off to the South American string hammock donated by a great aunt which is strung between two lemon trees and reads and rocks and occassionally sings. Which is truly fabulous to behold.  Sometimes she dons her dad’s sunglasses.

I can watch her from where I am Working (aka gazing out the window having succumbed to another irksome bout of Writers Block). She is oblivious of me. It’s the best way to watch a child. When they don’t know you are.

We swim in the afternoon. When the heat becomes so oppressive we can’t think straight anymore and are sliding into that sleepy place the dogs and cats seem to occupy all day, we pile into our small pool and cool off. Hat invents all kinds of mad games, yesterday’s game involved trying to float in a bucket atop the water. We sank. Sometimes we throw pennies and race to collect them. Sometimes we swim, independently of each other, she in her own watery world, me in mine.

Then, towelled dry we drink tea, Hat at her homework, me at my laptop (the reality of a deadline having finally dawned). Sometimes Hat does her homework sitting in the swing her dad made her out of an old tractor tyre.

The dogs wake from their heat induced reverie and begin to bug us for a walk, which means driving to the dam. Which we do, as the sun is sinking taking the ennervating broil of the day with it as it collapses into syrupy yellows and mellow pinks behind the mango trees and distant kopjes.

We’re home by dark, Hat is tipped into a bath as I take courage and face my kitchen in a bid to throw some semblace of supper together. She emerges with wet hair to enquire what we’re going to eat, politely (and prudently) says, ”oh yum” and disappears to play with instructions to ”put some mozzi spray on” ringing in her ears. Husband opens me a beer as I ferret in the fridge.

By eight we’ve eaten whatever it is I’ve managed to throw together. By nine I’m fading in front of the telly and urging Hat to go to bed. She is indignant. But I want to read/play/write a letter to Alice.

But you can’t I tell her, because it’s bed time and you have school tomorrow (a school she and I have dubbed the Outpost Academy of Excellence).

She makes a face. ”Do you know Mum, I am just too busy these days, I never have any time for anything”.

I’m delighted.

For as much as I was pretty sure I could muddle my way through long days in isolation, I did harbour unspoken fears about Hat being bored.

That she isn’t, that she’s trying to wiggle out of bedtime because she still has things to do, is heartening in the extreme.

Back from the Beach

October 24, 2007


This is why ten days at the beach en famille was restorative, this is what will sustain me over the next three weeks, these are the things that will deliver sanity when the Outpost threatens to drive me over the edge:

playing at being a whole family again – with all that it entails: laughter, scrapping, being briefly eaten out of house and home;

sunshine on skin sloughed by sea and sand;



walking barefoot on the beach in the late afternoon, watching the white heads of breaking waves blush quite pink at winking sunsets;

cold beer;

fish and chips and real Italian ice-cream;

sleeping soundly after too much of most of the above, stirring only when the sound of the surf rises to a crescendo in the middle of the night at the turn of tides.

None of it made saying goodbye to my big kids when we dropped them back at school any less hard – I still cried – none of it took the sting out of the two day drive home, none of it made dealing with 178 emails (most of them trying to sell me Viagra or persuade me I’d won a million in a lottery I hadn’t entered) easier. But it reminded me that as tough as Outpost living can be, escaping so that breifly you feel a milion miles away is possible.

And oh so worth it.


How to make Money

October 5, 2007

With Christmas trotting towards us at unseemly pace (even in Muslim dominated, far from anywhere, Outpost we notice this: thanks to satellite television and the calendar counting of a ten year old).

Hat works up to her point with enormous grace and subtly. At first.

”I love Christmas Mum”.

”Do you? I do too’.

”Why do you love it?”

”Because the people I love most in the world are at home”.

”That’s nice”, she acknowledges, with a smile, ”I love it more than my birthday, even”.

”More than your birthday, why’s that?”

”Because on my birthday only I get presents, at Christmas everybody does”.

”That’s nice, Hat”. (I’m a bit distracted, I’m driving to the market and trying to avoid the bicycles that straggle untidyly and dangerous along the road)

”I like giving presents, Mum”.

”Me too”

”But I’m not sure if my pocket money is going to be enough to get presents for all the people I want to buy for” (I empathize – especially given that her list is about four times longer than mine will be).

”You’ll have to save hard”.

”Could I work, do you think? Do chores?” 

”If you promise to leave less of your rubbish scattered around the house, I may up your pocket money”.

She’s not impressed; she’s talking big bucks here. And grand schemes. Grander certainly than picking up her own dirty socks.

”Why don’t I go to work in Kaidi’s shop?”

Kaidi is the Arab who runs the local duka (we arrive armed with ambitious shopping list and leave with 40 loo rolls and a Bounty to make us feel better). Hat would barely be able to see above his counter far less get at stuff on shelves. She might attract business though; nobody’s ever seen a white child serving in a shop in this part of the world. Ever.

”You can’t do that”.

”Why not? I’ve seen Indian and African children working in shops here”.

”Yes, I know, but they’re Tanzanians, you can’t work here because you’re not”.

”How does dad work here, then?”

(This conversation is going waaaaaaay off track).

”He has a work permit”.

”Can’t I get a work permit?”

”No Hat, you can’t. Let’s think of some other way you can make some money”.

Hat does. That evening she invites me into her bedroom. Once again it’s decorated with candles, much like it was when we visited Madame Marcia.  Hat, however, looks a bit different this time; she has donned something resembling a multi-coloured wig made of that glitzy ribbon smarter people than I use to knot elaborately around gifts.

”Who are you?” I ask (I know better than to assume she’s still Hat).


(We have learned about Medusa as part of our History of Art course in school; Hat has drawn a picture of her which now glowers down at me from schoolroom walls).

”You seem quite friendly to be Medusa”, I observe

She grins and proceeds with business like haste, no time for small talk, Medusa, clearly.

”Now listen”, she instructs bossily, ”I have alot of useful things here for you to buy”.


She proffers a host of small dishes and bowls which as far as I can tell in the dim light thrown by two flickering candles contain the likes of soy sauce, coriander seeds, cinnammon bark and a mixture of unpopped popcorn and lentils.

”This”, says Medusa, motioning to the soy sauce, ”is dragon’s blood. It will protect you against snakes, but will attract bats. It is 50/- a portion” (Clever, clever girl; she knows I hate snakes but don’t mind bats).

”These”, she continues, indicating the coriander seeds, ”are memories, their smell is more than enough to knock a knight from his steed. If you manage to take a sniff without dying (I do – sniff – and I don’t – expire), your memory will become 100% better” (another clever obervation about her mother on my daughter’s part: I spend my life hunting for car keys because I can’t remember where I put them, whilst simultaneously swearing – I used to say pardon my French until Hat said ”I’m learning French now, you know, and that’s not French”).

”They’re also 50/-”.

Medusa/Hat proceeds, ”these are crushed dragon bones. They are brilliant in rabbit stew and if you eat them like that, you’ll be able to jump twice as high as you can now” (that’d be handy) although dragons won’t like you much (oh dear).

The cinnamon bark is snake skin, I am told, harvested from her own tresses/gift tie and will render me ”Medusa’s new sister”.

The small glass of what looks like apple juice is – apparently – pig’s urine which will quench my thirst for ten hours but then I will always have to drink it or I shall always be thirsty. Or something like that. Which will, of course, oblige me to keep buying the stuff … a very clever marketing ploy I felt?

Hat tallies up what I’ve bought – or rather she counts up the cost of the seven ingredients she has thrust upon me presuming I have a need of all of them. She looks crestfallen.

”That’s only 350/-” she says, but then she brightens,” oh that’s far too cheap, I’ve made a mistake: everything is 100/- each: 700/- please.  You can drop it at the door as you leave”.

I do. In fact I pay her double (which only amounts to about a dollar); the entertainment alone was worth ten times that.

Sundried Tomatoes and Body Piercings

October 3, 2007

Amelia telephones – actually she doesn’t (after all, why waste money calling your mother when you can save your credit to sms your mates whilst your mother, because she could not possibly ignore it, responds to urgent free Call Me message with alacrity), I call her.

My piercing came out, Mum.

I feign disappointment.

But don’t worry, I’ve got a replacement.

Oh Amelia! I beseech, Why?

Because it’s cool Mum (this delivered in tones that remind me I am old, stupid and utterly devoid of anything approaching lukewarm, far less cool).

Does it hurt.

No. Not at all.

Who did it?

I did, during prep.

Marvellous. All that money on her education and she’s perforating her body like a sieve.

Indeed both my daughters’ educations are at the forefront of my mind this afternoon. During school today Hat began to read Anne of Green Gables and is required to keep a vocabulary list.

The word sundry appeared on the page.

I – who despite knowing what the words mean- battle to articulate a neat bitesized definition for my ten year old daughter so keep the Oxford dictionary to hand. As I begin to rifle through the pages for sundry (n. inpl. Oddments, accessories, items not needing to be specified … for the record), Hat breezily says, ‘oh don’t bother looking for that one, Mum, I know what that means’.

I’m impressed.

What? I ask

you know, she says, sun-dry, like the tomatoes you had in your sandwich.

My son, unlike my daughters, doesn’t divulge much about school life. If has put an earring in his nose I do not know. If he is misinterpreting half the vocabulary in his English coursework books I am blissfully unaware.

For now.


Madame Marcia the Fortune Teller

September 20, 2007

Last night husband, Hat and I visited a Fortune Teller. You’d be astonished at what you find in an Outpost. And no it wasn’t the kind of Fortune Teller who – because he/she is pissed or because you’ve cut in front of him/her in the traffic – flicks you a V sign and offers to “tell you your effin fortune”. This was a proper job.

Husband went in first and emerged ten minutes later, smiling. She’s good, he said, very good. Husband is a cynic so this was hard to believe. He was clutching a fortune cookie (which looked a bit like a burned shortbread biscuit) and a note, which he told me he wasn’t allowed to read until he’d eaten his cookie.

I went next and the moment I stepped inside the fortune teller’s den, all pink lighting, candles and draped scarves, I was overcome by the giggles. 

The fortune teller looked at me sternly and told me that fortune telling was no laughing matter. I stopped giggling and promised to conduct myself with more decorum. With that she introduced herself. She was called Madame Marcia, she said solemnly, as she sat perched crosslegged on a cushion with a rather floppy turban on her head, one end of which kept falling over her left eye.

She indicated that I should take a seat on a cushion opposite her. Between us, on a small stool decorated with stones and flowers was a huge crystal ball covered with tiny stars which I was so taken with I couldn’t resist touching.  Madame M reprimanded me. That was hers, she said, to do a job with, not some toy for me to be fiddling about with. Please don’t touch, she said crossly.

I stopped and, feeling rather ashamed, put my hands in my lap.

Madame M was quite vague about my future as she carefully twisted her enormous football proportioned crystal ball. So I did wonder a little about her ability to actually tell fortunes.

As our session drew to a close I asked if I could take her picture, for my blog, I said.

Oh yes, she sais, I heard you write one of those. Ok, she conceded, though I don’t normally let people take my photograph.

I whipped out my camera as she posed and when I was done she pressed a fortune cookie (looking not unlike rather burned shortbread biscuit my husband had exited with) into my hand, urging me not to read the message until I’d eaten my cookie. I thanked her and promised to do as I was told.

Not long after I’d emerged, Hat (whom I hadn’t noticed go in) came bouncing out armed with a cookie and a note and shrieking delightedly, ”wasn’t she good, Mum, wasn’t she good?”


No, of course there aren’t any fortune tellers in the Outpost. Not the kind that wear huge floppy lilac turbans and stare into crystal balls at any rate. And no, I haven’t gone nuts (yet) nor been at the Waccy Baccy or had one glass too many.

When school is over, Hat usually disappers off to entertain herself whilst I pretend to be a writer. She plays in the doll’s house or reads curled up with a cat on her lap or she cooks.  Yesterday afternoon, unbeknown to me, she baked something resembling burned shortbread and kept creeping into our little school room to pinch glue and beads and stickers.  And then, when her dad got home after work, she invited him into her bedroom by hollering at him – unseen -from the door.

He emerged smiling.

And then I was invited in.  I opened Hat’s bedroom door to find it awash with pink light, candles flickering on every surface, the floor covered with rugs and cushions and scarves draped everywhere. Hat herself, dressed in an Indian tunic sourced in the market with a lilac scarf on her head masquerading as a turban, was sitting with a serious expression on her face infront of a small stool on top of which were balanced two huge pyrex bowls, to form a big glass ball.

Husband’s fortune cookie revealed ”A great suprise is going to happen and you’ll be happy when it does”.

Hat’s, perhaps not suprsingly given her special and very personal relationship with Madame Marcia, promised ”Wealth and Fame will come to you and take you by suprise”.

Mine said, simply, ”You’re going to have a happy time with friends”.

Perhaps Madame M’s talent was better honed than I’d given her credit for: we’re off tomorrow to spend the weekend with Hat’s siblings and to catch up with some mates.

Back on Tuesday. Madame M told me so.


Life in a Washing Machine

August 26, 2007

Sometimes I think my life is like living inside a washing machine. From the languid tumble of a slow, soothing rinse, cushioned by layers of soft sheets, to the hectic speed of a hard, fast spin.

doing-school.jpgMy slow and languid days have been spent teaching Hat (we relocated to the garden when it got too hot to be inside, and she sat beneath the shade of a spreading mango tree to write a story).

bouganvillea-blooms.jpgLazy afternoons were spent observing with forced patience the sloth like growth of grass and the gentle unfurling of a bouvanvillea bloom,

or following lizards around the house marvelling at their hues – from dull greys and browns to brilliant scarlet and flamboyantly camp purple.

 chasing-lizards.jpg         of-brilliant-coloured-hues.jpg

Hat and I have embarked on an extracurricular art project: we are making a bead curtain, the selection of just the right coloured bead makes for astonishgly good therapy.  Therapy I wish I could offer the lizards which are being tormented mercilessly by cruel, beautiful Moshi who tosses them about with her paws and growls menacingly to try to stir them into more interesting action from their playing dead paralysis.


We have been alone, Hat and I, this week. But not lonely. She has me and I, thank God, have her. She keeps me busy so that I am distracted from the permanent dull ache at her siblings’ absence, from the lack of any adult company. Little girls need entertainment, feeding, stimulation. Mine needs school. And she needs, after her bath, to slather herself in mozquito repellent.

Which one do you want to use, I ask her, as she clambers into her pajamas, the spray or the gel?

The spray, she announces confidently, because it is more affectionate.

She means effective. And she makes me laugh.

The fast spin button was hit follwoing a fraudulent attempt to steal funds from our bank account. The speed exacerbated as I was obliged to hang on for a distant bank advisor, frustration mounting in direct proportion to my telephone bill.

And faster still when I realised three commissions were outstanding and all needed filing before the end of the week when I will on the road again and attention focussed on being briefly reunited with my children, not editing stories for newspapers. The midnight oil was burned. And when it ran too low for light, I set my alarm for four in the morning and worked with strong coffee at my side and Hat still fast asleep.

A brief lull today before the pace picks up at dawn tomorrow when Hat and I will pile back into the car and trek northwards for 500 miles towards evenings and playdates with friends, a pedicure, a dentist appointment, several capuccinos and – very best of all – a weekend with my big ones, to celebrate my son’s 16th birthday.

Where have all the years gone?

Down the drain?

No. Into the murkey reservoir of memories in my mind where some have frayed and faded with age and grown a little grey, but where others are still bright Ariel white for their clarity. As if just yesterday – like the day my boy was born, all 8lb7oz of him, at 7.50 in the morning, shrieking his cross little head off.


August 20, 2007

I have assumed, perhaps naturally, in light of some opposition, a somewhat defensive – and idealistic – attitude to my homeschooling efforts.

There are times – though – when I wonder whether I’m getting my messages across.

A science lesson. And I pose a question, as per my weighty Teaching Manual, ”why is it easier to remove a metal lid from a jam jar when you run warm water over the lid?”

Hat ponders this for a moment. Trying not to yawn. I am hoping she might tell me what the manual indicates I ought to hear: that the warm water causes the metal to expand which makes loosening the lid easier.

She doesn’t. She says ”because if you’ve left all sticky honey on the inside, the warm water will wash it off and you can unstick the lid”.

Not what the academics were looking for, I grant you, but hardly incorrect. Espeically given own housekeeping skills or lack of: Bovril jar in particular is a bugger to get off on account of sticky lid scenario.

Today, during history, we examined what earlier civilisations had brought us: Icarus a passion for flight; the Mexcans rubber, Leonardo da Vinci what eventually became the bicycle chain. Hat was enthralled. Less yawning.

Later – after school – she demanded a box, so, she informed me, “I can make an old fashioned chariot”.

I congratulated myself for getting message across apparently effortlessly and her for pursuing historical interest outside of the classroom.

She cut a door in the box, made cardboard strips to simulate yoke, added string as a harness and furnished her chariot with a pink silk cushion. Then she attempted to push Cat 1, Orlanda, into the box in order to give her a ride around the house. Needless to say Orlanda wasn’t keen to partake of Hat’s historical adventure and reversed back out. Unfazed Hat began to cut what she called a ”drop hole” in the top of the box but no sooner had she ”dropped” Orlanda in than she shot out. Still determined to give the cat the ride of her life, Hat gathered up a handful of dagaa – the small dried fish we get here – posted them thru the drop hole and pushed temptation into Orlanda’s path. Cat sniffed, shot in and grabbed bounty and bolted.

Hat gave up with her and – bravely I thought – went in search of foul temptered Cat 2, Moshi, who had obviously already been alerted as to waiting fate by Orlanda’s complaining for she began to struggle and growl the moment Hat picked her up. Hat – wisely – before cat took her nose off, dropped her. Moshi ran away to hide and now Hat is entertaining herself with a game of Hide and Seek with two cats.

If nothing, Hat has honed her cardboard cutting prowess and is now learning something about animal behaviour: namely that cats aren’t into history.

Wild Child

August 19, 2007


I harboured shades of anxiety about plucking a child from what was her normality – indeed normality per se – and popping her back down in a quite alien environment. 

Hat no longer goes to conventional school, she has no like-minded peers close by to play with, no birthday parties to go to, no need to host her own (oh Thank God!), no proper shops and – especially – no siblings at home now to spar with. Except for the fact we – her parents – a collection of familiar animals and her doll’s house are in Outpost with her, her life has morphed beyond recognition.

She’s just the same, though. She’s the same old happy Hat.

Yesterday, walking by the dam, armed with a walking stick and a stick of sugar cane bought on the roadside which, when she tired of carrying it, she threaded through the belt loops at the back of her shorts, Hat commented that she liked being a Wild Child.

(She means a child living in the bush, not socialite Tamara Beckwith/Tara PT Wild Child)


I like being able to take my boots off and squelch my toes in the mud and my mum won’t get cross.

(I could hardly get cross after that, could I? And I can’t see either of aforementioned Wild Children – Tamara or Tara – enjoying mud-through-toes-sensation or anything else about Hat’s wilderness for that matter)

What else?

I like having lots of wild animals.

But we don’t have lots of wild animals, I reminded her, the wildest we got was chickens from the local market (and they’ve all turned up their toes).

No, but I will collect wild animals.

Like what, I wanted to know.

Like guinea fowl, she said.

How are we going to get guinea fowl, I enquired.

You are going to get me some guinea fowl eggs and I am going to put them under a chicken’s bottom (clearly unfazed by recent poultry raising failure) and we will have guinea fowl.

And with that my Wild Child skipped off to hold hands with her dad, swinging her walking stick, sugar cane still in situ.