Unwritten Tales

May 24, 2017

I am distracted as I pull books from shelves, wipe fine dust from their jackets with the back of my sleeve; every book tells a story, a tale quite separate from the one writ within its covers.

Babar the Elephants describes sitting at my paternal grandmother’s knee on a farm far away, listening as she read, wondering that none of the elephants I’d ever seen ever wore suits or bore luggage in their trunks.

Dr Seuss rattles with rhymes that we chanted then giggled as we demanded Green Eggs and Ham for breakfast.

A dozen books on Irish mythology, gifted by my maternal Granny in a bid to stick some proper identity to a barefooted wild child with hair as pale as straw and skin the colour of toast. A dozen more to describe lives in India where she lived, and which she loved.

And hundreds gifted to my children by Mum. Hundreds. Whole collections by the same author, whomever was current favourite – Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz – books to illustrate a newly adopted hobby – sewing, cooking, playing the guitar. I want to cry when I pluck these from shelves and stare as their titles swim. I want to cry for lost years, for babies grown up, for a home once filled with noise and energy and now full of silence.

And I want to weep for the bitter irony that my beautiful mother bestowed upon my children her love of words and reading only to lose the same to illness.

I heap piles of the children’s clothes onto the floor and whatsapp images, ‘what do you want?’ I ask. There is halfhearted interest.

Days later, I photograph the bookshelves, ‘let me know what you want me to keep’, I ask. There is an immediate outcry, ‘not the books’, wails Amelia, ‘anything but the books’.

And I know what she means. I will dust them off and pack them up.

For their stories.

For the ones we cannot read.

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Beautiful Broken Brains

May 19, 2017

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When Mum had her stroke, there was a scramble to learn. To learn about the anatomy of her brain so I understood where this injury had occurred and how it had manifested. To learn about how the trauma had affected her sight (not the same as just closing my right eye, I discovered; her field of vision was much more compromised than that), to learn a new vernacular that included words I’d never used before – occipital, hemianopia, alexia.

I resorted to hack mode: consulting with Google in the wee hours of deepest, inkiest nights. I sat with her therapists to observe how they conducted lessons that might bring back her words, prompt language she grappled with to the forth, teach her how to read.  And all that meant engaging with professionals who peppered their conversation with big words and complicated science that I struggled to make real sense of: real meaningful, ‘stand in my shoes’ sense, especially given sleep deprivation and the general hurlyburly that comes with trying to catch up with shock and change.

I wish I had seen Lotje Sodderland’s film months ago.

A beautiful, vital 34 year old, London living Lotje survived a huge stroke that tore through her brain in much the same was as Mum’s did, ripping up well worn routes, blazing a new, chaotic pathway through blinking neurons so that the fallout was catastrophic and confusing.

She catalogued her recovery in default medium  – the one she’d used for years: film, video diaries, art. And the end product is an extraordinary illustration of the after effects of her stroke on her vision, her words, her battling to make sense of things, to bring some order to this new life.

I implore you to watch it, to learn as a layperson what stroke can mean. I implore you to watch it to witness grace and courage as Lotje battles on, a fabulous smile firmly in place on her lovely face.  I implore you to watch it because like Mum, Lotje had a stroke for no reason. Unprovoked. It can happen to anybody; there was forty years between them.

Are you ever Too Old?

May 16, 2017

When you’re twenty you’re invincible. Fit. Beautiful. Fast. When you’re twenty, you’re going to live forever.

Three decades later, you tiptoe around life, careful not to trip, mindful of stepping on landmines. Three decades later and you’re aware of every ache, every anomaly.

An anomaly sees me explaining my symptoms to a London cardio. ‘It feels’, I say, ‘as if a big moth is trapped somewhere between my throat and my sternum’. He straps me to a monitor which I must wear for a week, shows me the button I must  punch every time the moth stretches its wings to fly, every time it flutters.  I do as I am told and when I return I am wired to more lines and instructed to ride a bicycle, hard, up a virtual hill which grows steeper by the minute. I do. I pedal until I can pedal no more, until my breathing is so laboured I can barely speak.

‘As I suspected’, says the cardio when he pronounces his findings, ‘ectopic heartbeats’. And perfectly normal.   If I’d had them at 20, I’d have been living too hard, too fast, too eternally confident that I was going to live forever that I wouldn’t have noticed. Thirty years later and I move at a more sedate, cautious speed, slow enough that I feel the blips.

I cannot decide whether my growing sense of mortality is because I mind that the years are racing by – mind not for the lines which etch themselves into my face but for the slipping of time when there is still so much to do – or because I need to be here to shadow my children, to be there to catch the fallout when they need me to be there to catch it.

I toy with a new project, ‘am I too old’, I ask Ant, ‘to start something new?’

‘You’re never too old’, he says.

I must live, it seems, mindful that my physiology is a little frayed at the edges, but with the confidence I’m going to live until I’m 100.

There’s still time.

Protect my Bubble

May 1, 2017

 

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England is warm so that cherry blossom rains down in sunshine and breathy gusts, and tulips nod huge heads sleepily and blue skies are laced with white ribbons of jet stream. I shop with Hat. We buy her a new laptop. I know about youthful haste and cracked screens, ‘insure it’, I urge. She purchases the plan recommended by the instore team: Protect my bubble.

And then England is cold and I train it down to London and from my window watch rape seedoil fields of yellow so brilliant they throw their light to a low slung, grey bellied sky so that it is reflected back a neon glow. I wrap tight in a city I have loved for as long as I have known it, for its colour and pace and heady human soup, a mix of glorious international flavour and I steal a day with my oldest friend in the world. We drink wine in the pub and as she leaves she reminds me to pick up my glasses and I giggle at the gathering years and wonder at the glorious ballast that come with knowing a person for so long that each time you see them you pick up the thread of the conversation you last left.

And then it is the weekend and Ant is here and we gather our children to us – I as a hen, clucking and pulling her chicks in beneath outspread wings –  in a cottage that we make our own for a brief, rare, special few days and we walk and we talk and we laugh – god we laugh. We prepare dinners together, too many of us squeezed into a kitchen too small and not once do I worry that too many chefs will spoil the broth.  We curl close on a sofa and watch a movie. We walk in a wood that a kind neighbour in the village recommends as I buy armfuls of Sunday papers – ‘we live in the house opposite’, he says, ‘oh lord’, I gasp, ‘I hope we haven’t been too loud?’. Not at all he laughs and he tells me about the bluebells in a forest, ‘there’s a sign on the gate, NO ACCESS, just ignore it and bore on through’. I laugh and we do and the lilacblue of the flowers is insanely lovely. We order pints in a pub warm with a fire and laugh some more.  Loud. Long.

And I think, protect this bubble, protect my bubble, so that I might hold it to my fingertips and admire the light and the colour and the delicate preciousness that must always pop with the nudge of time.

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The Art of Picking up Dropped Stitches

April 15, 2017

I am trying to separate it out, unknotting strands that become chaotically tangled.

 

Stitches dropped by the stresses I am trying to field.

 
Which do I cultivate intrinsically, cooking up a storm internally so that it’s my doing that my chest constricts and I battle for breath. I focus then. Lie flat. My palms on my abdomen. Breathe deep, I sternly tell myself. Enough self-remonstration and eventually I can feel the eagle trapped behind my sternum where its wings beat painfully morph and migrate as a soft cloud of manageable butterflies to my tummy, which obediently begins to rise and fall in smooth, deliberate, synchronization of thoughts reined, heart rate tamed.

 

I am trying to understand what I can control. What I cannot. And which responses to what I cannot control I can master better. A riddle.

 

I must – I know – lean to control the speed at which I live, hastily, always urgently trying to Fix what I mostly cannot. So that my bare foot, polish on painted toenails chipped, is pressed less urgently to the accelerator so that I do not hurtle out of control.

 

I do that alot: I do too much too quickly without thinking. It means I make mistakes. Alot. Rash decisions, commitments I cannot honour, not without dropping more and more stitches, losing the end of important threads. It means there is not enough time – despite my having an abundance of the stuff as I rattle in an outpost – to collect my thoughts and order them to compliant, tidy, rank.

 

But what of all the stuff I cannot control? And there is so much of that. A perpetual anxiety for my precious, darling, far away babies; my gently unravelling mother who one day is with me and the next a step further away so I am never entirely sure what I will deal with, a wonderful husband who is so strung with a big, unwieldy, job that I am often at a loss of how to support (you can’t Fix everything it turns out) that I must take cover from the inevitable fall out of his own stress. I worry about the past – how much have I wasted? – about the present and, especially, about the future. Which means I am Projecting which I ought not for that is useless wasteful energy spent on things I cannot know how to control, much less Fix.

 

Is this because of the person I am? The physiology of one who is wiry, woundtight, strung high? Is it because my memory of life’s side-swipes is more acute so that I catastrophize? That every dimple in my roadmap has the propensity to explode as a disaster? Is it because I expect the worst and strap myself tightly in (unlike my darling Ant who expects the best but prepares for the worst).

 

My GP says, ‘you’re Blood pressure is far too high’. So I swallow the pills he prescribes each morning and try to remember I ought not to accelerate a racing heart with real coffee. I sip decaff with distaste and wrinkle my nose.

 

I know what will order all of this. 522 words later, a single page of letters which have conformed to the shape I need them to be. Over these I have control. Over my words I have command. I must let them manipulate gentle power over me. Writing by its very nature demands solace, space, silence. It requires an emptying of headspace of the extraneous. It demands exactly the focus I need to slow my racing physiology, my scattered emotions.

 

Here, on the page, is the only place i can line them all up, give them a long, hard look, wag a finger in the direction of those that are slinking sideways and out of step.

 

I must write. I must write more.

Everything and Nothing

April 2, 2017

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When we walk on the dam, we must drive first.  We load the dogs into the back of the car, in a lather of frenzied excitement so that they rush hither and thither to make sure you’re really coming, that you are really gathering up hats and shoes.  I almost never wear shoes. The dogs know something’s in the offing when I lace sneakers up. This morning the sky is hugeblue. Huge. And clean; rinsed of cloud.

We whip out on the new ribbonsmooth tar road, the rose Natal grass softly fringes its hard edge and blushes in clouds of pink.

It is a beautiful, beautiful day.

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This time a week ago I was a long way from dams and dogs and acacia trees fat and green at the thin edge of a slender wedge rainy season – half what we had last year and not nearly enough. I was in the Capital. Stocking up. Groceries. Butter. Prescription meds. I had my hair cut, my toenails painted so that my feet would look prettier than they normally do in their birthdaysuitbareness (given usual absence of shoes. See above). Ant told me to try not to gawp in supermarkets, he laughed as I stopped dead at the entrance of shiny new Food Lovers Market, my empty trolley coming to an abrupt halt; the shelves dripped Aladdin jewels of multi-hued fruit and veg that we never see in the outpost, ‘close your mouth’, he said, ‘you’re giving yourself away’.

The country mouse comes to town, I thought.

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At night, when I cannot sleep, I dig my earphones deep and listen loudly in the secret silence to the murmur of far away voices. Podcasts a boon, carrying a distant world into mine. My latest favourite: the BBC’s Book and Authors, I love Harriet Gilbert and her guests’ dissection of a Good Book. I discover many new joys here, in the dead hours: Imtiaz Dharker‘s poems and Jenny Offill’s, Dept. of Speculation, a sparse novel about marriage and motherhood, with language deliciously taut so that you know she has carefully weighted every single word and wasted not one.

‘The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.’

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Talking words and books and language, I shouldered my way onto my Creative Writing course. I bullied, begged, cajoled, leaning hard against a door until I got my foot in and then wriggled my way through. I start in October. Course books already gather on my desk and the exercises they prescribe read as keys to unlock the block that descends too often now, in the void in which I tend to rattle.

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Best of all, my Hat is home. Briefly. For Easter. Long, lean, all grown up, half a head taller than I but small enough still that I can envelope her in an embrace and inhale the sustaining scent of motherhood.

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I began this blog ten years ago. What a journey. Thank you all for keeping me company x

The Rearranging of Celestial Furniture

March 16, 2017

At this time of year, when the rains are here, our night skies can be spectacular. Big banks of cloud that have bulked all afternoon – so that we know the sun that bakes our backs as we walk the garden is the type that conjures storms – huddle on our horizons, bruised and brooding, like a sullen crowd that gathers menacingly, shoulders thrown, expressions darkly glowering.

I gaze heavenward, my palm shielding my eyes, ‘do you think it will come?’ I ask Mum, ‘the rain’. Mum squints up: I hope so, she says, it’s too warm.

Sometimes the sun wins out and dissolves the clouds away, stares them down with hot glares so that they skulk to some other lucky person’s horizons and by dusk my sky is peachy pink and eggshell blue and you’d never know there was ever the promise of glorious rain.

But some evenings the weighty congregation of clouds win out, they drop their black shoulders and storm the sun and push it clean from the sky. Their rough eviction is championed with applause that rumbles and growls and cracks loud bright whips to hurry it all on so that the night is illuminated with a thousand bolts of hot white light as it hurls itself to earth.

And I lie in bed and listen to the gathering pace of raindrops on my tin roof, like a featherlight dance of fairies at first, tiny feet that race above me and quickly gather weight and speed so that soon all I can hear is a roar, like a train, and I can smell Africa don her earthy scent in celebration as the blackness of my room burns neon with every flash and the rain pours down.

By dawn the sky is smokegrey, stilled, silent; the storm and her entourage with its victorious clapping and loud shouts and bright lights has ambled off to deliver her show elsewhere. I skip out across a wet lawn in my barefeet to inspect the rain gauge. Sometimes it will be almost full, others barely wet and then I will report to mum, over breakfast, ‘all blow, no go that Ma, just 5 mils’.

Yesterday she asked me, ‘what makes the thunder? is there something solid up there, it sounds as if something is being moved around’. I tell her, ‘the lightening, Mum, that’s what we can hear’. She looks doubtful.

And memories rush in. When I was little and storm-watched on the farm with dad, he taught me to count between lightening strike and thunder clap, ‘one … two … three’, the number of seconds that lapsed, he said, told you how near, or far, the strike had been. Sometimes in the Outpost there is no time at all, between one and the other, I have watched lightening strike trees, the electricity poles, the road directly in front of my car. I have heard it and seen it all at the same time, no ‘one … two … three’; no warning.

I think of Mum’s reasoning that something so loud must surely mean something more tangible than the lightening speed of electrons and I remember that when we were little, she told us that the crash of thunder was the sound of the gods rearranging their furniture and I imagined them, backs to a bulky wardrobe, shuffling it to a new corner.

Mum’s stroke means that her view of the world is sometimes a little off, except that at times I think her logic is spot on. That’s exactly what thunder sounds like: like something solid and heavy and concrete being hefted around above us.

Come and Gone

March 14, 2017

Visitors come and visitors go and almost immediately it’s hard to believe they were here at all.

My sister C and her youngest arrived a week ago. And left yesterday. They travelled from their African Outpost to mine and the days rushed past in such a blur I cannot now remember what happened from one day to the next.

It was a joy to hear my small, too-quiet home ring with the sound of a child’s laughter, to watch K swim, to listen to her ceaseless chatter, to observe her, too-long -limbed, unbrushed hair, starfish sprawled on a bed rendered still and silent only because she had a book to hand. Immersed in some other far away world.

And I think of my Hat and how she filled all my Outpost days first time around. Ten years ago: I first arrived here ten years ago.

We walked on the dam, we ate too much ice-cream, we watched telly that made us laugh, we swam endlessly, we played cards and we teased Mum so that she responded in mock horror: ‘don’t give Gran another biscuit, she’s verging on the morbidly obese as it is’. K shrieks with mirth, my sister giggles at Mum’s expression. Precious, precious days of nothing and everything. Family touching hands, re-connection, brief, blessed. I want to distill these days, to bottle them as heavenly scent that I may pop the lid and inhale deeply whenever I need to feel less lonely.

And when they leave I am momentarily unhinged. A day of floating aimlessly. Until I can find my groove, where my head goes back down, my shoulder to the wheel and I get on with the business of Getting on with It.

Fat Africa

March 1, 2017

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The southern Serengeti is fecund with life. Everything is fat: the wildebeest as they trail to and fro across these vast plains, so big you wonder that you don’t fall clean off the edge, honk and bleat and call. This is an ancient, circuitous route: each year a million of them meander across the savannah driven by primal instincts to eat, to breed. Almost all of the females are accompanied by a calf, pale newborns with black faces. They tumble to the ground on delivery and are up and racing almost immediately, such is the urgent life into which they are born.  We are always just too late to witness this extraordinary wild miracle of birth: the calf is getting to its feet, the afterbirth still evident.

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The zebra are even more more fatbottomed than ever. The grazing here is plentiful, newgreen and tender. They eat, noses to the ground but rear pretty head up and skip skittish when they hear our vehicle, plump girls in a dance hall. Then from safer distance they regard us bashfully through long, long black lashes.

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We come upon a male lion reclining in the shade. He is the most handsome specimen I have ever encountered, his eyes bright amber, his skin unmarked,  his mane thick and glossy and fully, L’Oreal Lion I think, because he’s worth it?

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A little way off we encounter the youth, four plump males lolling, siesta still. They are so well fed – all those meandering wildebeest, heavy with life, all those zebra with their generous derrieres – they wear rolls around their middles. I have seen lion torn eared from fights over food, I have watched lioness savagely, hungrily, rip the last shreds from a carcass.  Here we find still born wildebeest still intact, not even the vultures are hungry enough to pick them apart.

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Dung beetles roll their prizes – perfectly round brooding balls of dung, plentiful now on these well-fed plains – each pair busily tumbling so that when I pick them up in my hand I can feel the tiny might of their efforts in my palm. The females will lay their eggs inside.  The dung beetle is related to the scarab which the ancient Egyptians revered: the god Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it up above the horizon.

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Our rising suns here are clouded in blankets of cloud which settle low on long horizons and deliver their bounty of rain each evening so that the greenness of this vast spreading place is topped up a little more. This is fat Africa, a place of such perfect balance that even in the harsh dealing of death to the weak and the slow, everything seems sated.

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And we do too as we bounce the five hours home.

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The Drama of Storms

February 18, 2017

So the rain came down.

After two weeks of suffocating, sittingonyourchestinthemiddleofthenight heat so that you almost can’t breathe, the rain came down.

For days I have watched, and willed, hulking clouds nearer, pleading with them to bulk up blackly. And every evening they dissolved on my horizons and left just whispers of white against a cornflower blue. And the heat grew.

But last night the rain came. Here, in the Outpost, it comes with pomp and ceremony, no timid drizzles, no bashful shower. Here it announces its arrival with an orchestra of sound and light, thunder crashes as cymbals I can’t see and the lightening which is as a searing strobe illuminates my room as hot phosphorous and neon that burns my eyelids open, and then it’s gone and I’m plunged to inkdark again. Briefly.

And then the rain comes and you will it to stay so that dust may settle and heat may dissipate, for a few days at least, and you hope this is not all show no go.

I listen to fat drops fall on the tin roof, a clamour of applause and I feel the cool envelop the room and I smell Africa quenching her thirst.

And later I hear the storm move on, I picture a busty opera singer, a diva, bouncing from the stage to her dressing room, all bossy instructions and high notes that fade as she moves down a corridor to a place I can no longer see or hear her.

With sun up I skip out onto wet, wet grass in bare feet and lift the rain gauge to see what was delivered: an inch, a whole glorious dust laying, heat stealing, promising inch.