November 30, 2009
I am astonished to see the crowd already gathering in the hallway. I thought that I would be here early and be able to accomplish my Christmas tasks ahead of time. I had thought that the congregation would still be under the influence of every day life and would only start their period of reflection on Christmas Eve.
I was wrong. A somber throng is steadily gaining numbers. At least we are sheltered from the cold drizzle. The dark winter coats shuffle forward to make room for dismayed newcomers.
Parents make their way to the left of the cathedral-sized foyer. A childcare area has been set up and they crowd around a harrowed young man, thrusting their children towards him with pleading eyes.
“Take mine! Take mine!”
They go willingly. A label is placed on each small chest and their wrists and those of their parents stamped with tattoo-blue numbers. They go so trustingly, without a backward glance.
I notice that the elderly form the advanced guard. They seem to appear at the top of the queue as if by osmosis. I see a bird-like woman who arrived after me, shepherding her apologetic husband to the front.
A large man blocks the way. He wears the vestments of his profession, a blank expression, and the bearing of a bouncer. Most surprisingly, he holds a chunky walky-talky which every now and then, crackles to life. He turns his back on the crowd in a semblance of discretion and grunts important-sounding, but unintelligible words into it.
I wonder why a place like this needs someone straight out of the special forces? This group is clearly as docile as all the other pilgrims I have ever seen here.
There is nowhere else like this in the region and people visit from far and wide. They inhale the purified air and revel in its clean, orderly lines.
I can imagine living in a place like this. If I spend long enough here I can convince myself that this is how other people live. There is a utopian sense of well-being and community spirit. Smiling children wave from posters, ecstatic with whatever this noble institution has bestowed upon them.
The atmosphere is reflective and respectful. I can see that each person is filled with purpose. This is, after all, a time of year to think about family and remember what is important. This seems to be the place to come to do that. I can’t imagine why the wall of a man at the front needs a baton dangling from his belt.
Then I do. He steps aside and the crowd surges forward. The Bird Woman bolts out of the starting gates and ducks down a side passage, her husband scuttling after her. I follow, a few dozen people behind. My purpose should take me into the main part of the building but the tide is against me.
I watch couples separate in a carefully choreographed division of labour: trays and coffee cups, pastries and orange juice, before a perfectly-timed regrouping at the till.
Then I see the sign and understand.
“Ikea Breakfast 1euro!”
November 27, 2009
Collette has the eyes of spent love. She is 74 and has backed many a wrong horse in the love stakes.
I have mostly avoided her, or just not acknowledged her. For years I have done that. I have skirted around her snipes. She sits outside the cafe on market day with a glass of white wine. By lunchtime her glass has a queue of empty ones behind it. Sometimes she props one foot up on a chair, at least that way she has company.
Her blue eyes skip and flit from one passerby to another, searching for chinks. Sometimes she finds one and will call out,
“Jeanno! I see your wife has let you off the leash today!” to a man already bowed with the constraints of his body and the thousand indignities that age brings.
He barely looks up and it is possible his hearing aid does not capture this.
She turns to me and mutters, “He cannot leave that woman’s sight!”
Recently I have started to talk to Colette. She must once have been a beautiful woman in a wife-of-Bath way. She has a wry, gap-toothed smile on the right side of attractive and silver hair swept up into a chignon. She is curvy without being fat and wears aging clothes of good quality.
After each glass of wine Colette reaches into her bag and counts out exactly enough money for the next glass. A calibration of her day. This is her Tuesday ritual, a slow descent into blessed inebriation and a brief glimpse into other people’s lives.
Colette always invites me to join her. Mostly I don’t have the time but when I do I always leave with questions. So one day I sit down with her to really listen to what she has to say.
I soon realize that the unkind remarks are barbs on lines cast out to anyone she knows. Negative attention is better than no attention at all.
She is taken aback at having an attentive audience and lapses into uncharacteristic silence.
“Are you alright?” I ask, noting the yellow tinge to her paper skin.
“No. I don’t look very well these days” she says. She pulls her cardigan around her and she asks if we can sit inside, out of the cold.
“I was born in 1935, 9th of April”.
“I was born in Nancy, where I live for five years”.
“My mother was a housemother”
“A foster mother?” I ask
“No, she had enough of her own children”.
“My father was a forester”.
“At fifteen my mother joined the Marine Nationale”
“When I was five we moved to the Lot et Garonne, where I was schooled”.
“A village called Mas d’Agenne”
“How many siblings did you have?”
“I had 7 altogether, but one died at 6 months of meningitis”
“And where were you in the pecking order?”
“I was the seventh. I had a sister after me who died when she was forty one, she had cancer”.
“Where are they now?”
“I have two sisters in the Lot et Garonne, Yvette and Suzette. One is a widow and one is married and I have a third one, in the Gironde, but she is fully handicapped. Blind and deaf. Madeleine.”
This makes me think of Colette’s daughter, Giselle, a woman of formidable wit and intelligence inwardly and severe physical handicaps outwardly. She lives in England and visits twice a year. Colette’s favourite.
“Henri, Roland (that is the one who died), Suzette, Simone (with an e), Pirette, Colette and Ginette.” she extols, a roll call from another time. I notice that she leaves Madeleine out but don’t comment.
“In point of fact Ginette suffered so much that I believe they brought a specialist from Marseilles to inject her to finish her off. She wanted it.” I am shocked at the way Colette says this but her matter-of-fact tone belies an emotion her twisting hands reveal. Worrying at a handkerchief.
“And Henri?” I ask, taking it from the top.
“Henri is dead too”.
“He was a head man for Air France”.
“When he left the navy, he was a prisoner in Buchenwald for two years”.
“Because he worked underground for the French Resistance. He was caught by the Nazis”.
At this point in my writing I look up Buchenwald. A concentration camp with 56 000 victims , not counting 13 000 moved from other death camps. I am paralysed by the skeletal men staring out from my screen. Henri could have been one of them. I wonder what a man, released from such hell, chooses to do with the rest of his life.
“After he was released he joined Air Maroc and went to live in Rabat then he was with Air France at Orly in Paris. When he was the head man and a plane went down somewhere he was the number 1 sent to investigate the bad things about it”.
I take this to mean that he became an expert on the causes of catastrophes. You would think he would have stayed clear of them having experienced the worst that humanity has to offer, but no, he spent his time picking through the wreckage and trying to understand “Why?”.
“He had a very enviable position, but he didn’t enjoy his retirement at all. He retired at 62 and died 10 years later. He was married to a professor of English. They had three children: one is dead. She died when she was 40.”
Colette lapses into silence again. I don’t want to press these memories on her. I change direction.
“How did you end up here, all the way in the South?”
“Well, I went to England when I was 18. I did my studies as a nurse once I had grabbed the language properly”.
“Because I saw an advertisement with a friend. And that is what you do when you are 18”.
“At 21 I met my husband. We were married for 24 years and then divorced quite amicably. He would come on holiday to my house and I to his, but we were better each on our own side”.
“I organized his funeral. All Frank Sinatra. I was 70 when he died. He never wanted a church, only Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. So we arranged that with the children. His coffin went to incineration to the tunes of those singers”.
“You had three children with him?”
“Yes. Two girls and one boy”.
“Corinne was born in ’59, Giselle in 62 and Martin in 69”.
“I never had any other children. I am so badly served by the ones I have left”.
A young man with an awkward gait and wide-eyed stare comes and sits at the next table. He fixes me with dilated pupils.
“This guy is giving me the creeps” I say to Colette.
“Who him, the one in the red shirt?” she says, indicating with a dismissive jutting of her jaw a squat man on his umpteenth Pastis.
I know that Red Shirt is her daughter’s new man. Colette calls him “the Garden Gnome”.
“I tell you something. He would give half of his fortune to know what we are talking about, and I enjoy every moment of it.”
“No, the other one,” I say.
“Oh, the other one, she says, fixing him with a rude glare. He is not with us. He is not finished.” she hisses conspiratorily.
“They say I am critical but I say things for what they are. That is the difference between I and other people.”
“Perhaps he fancies you” she says, with a mischevious glint.
“I should be so flattered” I say.
She laughs and says, “Not if you saw his wife.”
“She comes and drags him out of here, insults him, hits him. He is so stupid he lets her do it. In front of witnesses.”
I am thrown by this comment on many levels. A gulf yawns open between us. Our understanding of what is right. Our expectations. The differences between what happens in the open and what goes on behind closed doors. I feel there should be no difference. She has a skewed sense of propriety.
“I raised my children in England. In Exmouth.”
“When I left England I went to Ireland. Just outside Dublin. For twelve years. I loved Ireland”, she senses a movement at the table behind us as the Drug Man gets up.
“My God, he is approaching”, she laughs.
“He fancies you,” I say, and as she shoos him away.
“I have had many lovers” she says. Matter-of-factly.
“I have had many lovers and I have never been in jail”.
“Do you have any regrets?” I ask.
“No” she responds, without hesitation.
I am taken back to a time a few months ago. Giselle was here on holiday. It was a Tuesday. Colette was enjoying her white wine, Giselle a soft drink. Colette is proud.
“Here is my daughter – come to visit me” she seems to be saying.
Her other daughter has a drink problem and likes to keep a low profile. Her son has disappeared down the sinkhole of drug and alcohol abuse in England. But Giselle is here. She chats and jokes. She shares opinions with her opinionated mother and they have a good time. I stop for a hurried chat. We plan to meet up later in the week. This pleases Colette.
Except we don’t. We don’t meet up later in the week because I do not see Colette and when I do I ask where Giselle is.
“She is dead” she says.
Her daughter and the Garden Gnome had a party. Giselle was invited. Colette was against it. The Garden Gnome insulted her, saying
“A woman of 48 does not need your permission to attend a party, old woman!”
They get drunk. Giselle does not drink. She sits at the dinner table eating stew. Suddenly she is on the floor writhing about. An embarrassed circle forms around her. Someone staggers into the kitchen to call her sister.
“Your retarded sister is having some sort of fit” they say.
An ambulance is called. It is almost too late. She is airlifted to Marseille, inanimate. Colette is told the next morning. Her daughter drives her to Marseille in silence. Giselle is on a respirator. She is brain dead. She choked on a piece of meat and no-one knew that something so pedestrian could happen to someone with physical handicaps. They assumed it was yet another peculiar manifestation of her handicap, just one more thing to set her apart.
“I had them turn those machines off,” says Colette.
“She had many difficulties with her body but her mind, her mind was always sharp. Her intelligence made her who she was”.
She indicates to Annie that she would like another glass of wine.
“You know she smashed her car, my other daughter” she says, eyeing up Garden Gnome. He has propped himself against the bar and is smoking. He seems to inhale and exhale at the same time.
“Do you really think he is curious?” I ask her, he looks the picture of nonchalance to me.
“Oh my dear! But if you only knew the intensity of the curiosity you would be absolutely amazed! Do you know he comes to shake a cigarette that doesn’t need shaking if there is a person he doesn’t know at my table and it is usually people who speak English so he doesn’t gain anything by it.”
Now I understand why she has insisted on speaking English when I have only ever spoken to her in French before.
“One night he comes to my house at half past nine. Nobody ever comes to my house. It is a thing unheard of.”
“I said what do you want? Has my daughter had another accident?”
“He says no, I have brought you a piece of sanglier, and he gives me a piece of wild boar”.
“I let it hang for a long time. It must have weighed 3kg. I had pain in my arms lifting it to the sink. I cured it and cut it off the bone. But do you think I see somebody to whom I can give a piece? Nobody in sight! I was sitting with that beast for I don’t know how long!”
And so the world shrinks. A family of ten becomes a lone old woman sitting with a piece of meat and no-one to share it with. A life lived between England, France and Ireland has been reduced to a one-bedroomed apartment and a 50 m walk to a bar. A head full of ideas has narrowed down to the motives behind the shaking of a cigarette. Love has been peeled and pared down to a clutch of songs and the flicking of a switch.
November 20, 2009
Nyasha has always been failed by transportation, starting with his own legs. His body battles with itself with each step, his good leg swinging around the crooked one in a knee-bent, rolling gait.
Nyasha giggles a lot, his hand in front of his mouth. For the winner of the “Unfunniest Life” he surprisingly seems to view his life as an unfurling, complex joke.
I was a teenager when my mother employed him. He used to come to the gate and apologetically ask for food. He was starving. He would ask in a way that this was a temporary hitch and he had a plan.
My mother used to give Nyasha food and find odd jobs for him to do in the garden. It wasn’t long before he was in our permanent employ. He wasn’t the obvious candidate for the post. In fact the post was hastily created to fill his stomach and give him a place to live and a basic wage. The main reason for having a gardener on the property was a security measure, but his diminutive stature and timid disposition did not lend themselves to this. On top of this he was bored by menial gardening tasks and could sometimes be seen yanking at the hosepipe as if there was a stubborn donkey at the other end of it.
My mother asked Nyasha why he limped. His response had been to bring his hand up to his mouth and giggle before giving the vague explanation that he had had a fall as a child. We didn’t get the joke but I think it was part of a bigger picture, the Nyasha philosophy.
There was one thing that Nyasha was interested in and to which he was slavishly devoted: Education. All his money went on correspondence courses and exam fees so that he could finish his high school qualifications. He ticked off maths, history and geography and then embarked on English literature. One day I came across him looking particularly contemplative.
“I was just wondering,” he said “about the theme of betrayal running through Tess of the D’Urbervilles”.
He would write his essays in beautiful, mission-school cursive and send them off faithfully to be marked by someone who was smiling all the way to the bank. Trading on hope.
Nyasha’s requests came thick and fast and usually revolved around family obligations. Or his perceived obligation to them now that he was earning a wage. During his begging days he seemed to have been ostracized by his family except for a sister who was close to him in age.
He often had to go back to Masvingo to help plant crops before the rains, repair the roof on his parents hut or help with the harvest. Money was always short in his family and he seemed to live on nothing himself, sending everything he earned to the charlatans trying to sell him an education or to his grasping family.
When my mother moved out of her home and I was newly married, Nyasha came with me. My doubtful dowry.
I asked him if he had ever seen a doctor about his leg and he just laughed. With his consent I fixed up an appointment and we found ourselves in the hushed, carpeted environs of my family doctor. He had a quiet stable of patients made up of the white and the well-heeled. He was perplexed when Nyasha hobbled his way into his room.
When he emerged again he delivered his verdict: skeletal damage which could only be fixed by breaking his leg in several places and attaching him to the modern equivalent of a rack. After about a year of physio he may then be able to walk tall. Nyasha brought his hand up to his mouth and giggled, bending at the waist and trying his best to contain his mirth. He had only come along to humour me and we made our way back to the car, me fuming and Nyasha laughing.
The bald truth was that Nyasha was never going to walk tall, he was submission personified. Even if he had been blessed with long, straight legs, whatever had gone before in his life would probably have still curled his shoulders forward and fixed his eyes to the floor. And the worst kind of people always picked up on it.
Bus stations in Zimbabwe are a heaving mass of sweat, noise and stealth. Practiced hands slide into bags and pockets and they always find Nyasha. Sometimes the stealth is exchanged for violence and nobody pays any attention. On many occasions Nyasha returned from his rural village with an eye swollen shut and ripped clothing. Whatever he had set out with was usually stripped from him before he found his seat on the bus.
So we bought him a bicycle. And this was a great success. Suddenly a man who had to painstakingly hobble to the shops and on his errands could fly along the road like anyone else. He even took to riding it home – 300 km or so. When the pedals broke, my mother had a welder acquaintance weld the most durable ones known to man in place and once again, Nyasha was good for go.
One memorable weekend he returned from a trip home to see his family. The saddle was missing. Apparently it had been stolen at the beginning of his journey so he had pressed on, riding all the way with a pole where a comfortable seat should have been. I asked him how he managed it. He gives his trademark titter and says,
“I did not sit down”.
Some months later the rest of the bicycle went to the land of stolen goods. He was very upset and reported it to the police – a rather futile gesture in a country of limited resources and explosive crime figures. Miraculously, the bicycle turned up and was identified thanks to its pedals. They were about all that was left of it.
I was somewhat taken aback when Nyasha asked to borrow money one day for an unusual purpose: he wanted to pay a brideprice or lobola. The sum in question was modest considering that girls from Masvingo are highly prized and command dozens of cattle and (in these days of uncertain local currency), US dollars.
A few days later he brought the lucky girl to meet me. She was a dull-eyed woman, some years older than Nyasha, with a sullen comportment. More worryingly, her arms and legs were covered in white, scaly lesions and I wondered if this was what leprosy looked like. She did not look at me or greet me and tugged at tufts of unkempt hair as Nyasha spoke.
“Are you happy about your marriage?”, I ask
The hand comes up to stifle a laugh.
“What a ludicrous thing to ask” he is probably thinking.
“There were only two left in our village” he says,
“I chose this one” he says waving a hand at her dismissively, “because she knows how to make bricks.”
They marry and it is not a match made in heaven. Her brick-making skills were more hearsay than fact and she dislikes working in the field. She does not get along with his parents and complaints fly too and fro.
Despite this a child is born of this doubtful union. A bright, delicate boy called Stanley.
When Stanley is a year old, Nyasha’s sister follows her deceased husband and succumbs to AIDS. She leaves three children. Nyasha and his brother plump for the only transport option left to them to take her on a final journey home. Another loan is required to purchase a coffin and pay the extortionate amount demanded by the only people willing to carry both death and superstition on their flatbed trucks.
The money is handed over and his sister is placed on the truck in a flimsy “collapsible” coffin. These are the bargain-basement versions and can be tucked under the arm in their collapsible form if your loved ones have had the presence of mind to die where they are going to be buried.
They head for Masvingo and when the brothers indicate the dusty turnoff, there is much shouting and waving of arms. They are chased off the truck and the body dumped unceremoniously on the ground. They are left in a cloud of dust as the truck accelerates away to a higher profit margin somewhere else. They walk the long way home, the coffin disintergrating en route.
Nyasha takes on his nephew and nieces vicariously. He sends them home to Leper-woman. She is harsh with them but he has no choice. His brother cannot take them because he too is sick with AIDS, then dies. He adds another three orphans to Nyasha’s brood. Leper-woman has had enough. She straps Stanley to her back and heads for the city. He is weaned now and she dumps him with Nyasha and heads for the hills.
Stanley is an engaging little boy. He sits for hours colouring pictures my mother has given him. I have now left the country and Nyasha is working part time for my mother. She has a garden the size of a postage stamp so doesn’t really need him but he needs her. She manages to get him a job with a good family friend and he is there still. He is very fortunate to have the job and is well taken care of but as always, his needs are many.
He has since reunited with his wife and the result of this joyful reuinion is Blessing, a fat baby girl brimming with all the health and vitality her parents lack. Blessing indeed.
This is what I wish for Nyasha: money to buy seed and draft power to feed his family, time to study, a clerical job and a great big pile of books. I wish him better luck with transport. I do not wish him any more Blessings.
November 14, 2009
I’ve left it to the last minute on market day so will have little choice.
“I’ll have two of those, please” I ask Adele,
“Les Religieuse?” she asks
“Those round ones with the smaller round blobs on top. They look like round multi-story eclairs”.
“They are called religieuse, nuns,” she says, smiling her snaggle-toothed smile.
“And one of those”, I say, pointing to a long thin, sorry-looking baguette.
“Un batard?” she says
And I have to agree as it is the solitary stick of bread in the shop that if she says it is a bastard, a bastard it is.
“Two nuns, one bastard” she says as her petite fingers fly at the large calculator.
“No thanks, that’s enough for one day” I smile back at her.
“3 euros 60, please” she says and as I hand her the money, as always, it is as if she can’t believe her good fortune, as if she is singing within herself,
“Here comes ANOTHER 3.60!” and it tickles her pink.
I sometimes see Adele’s husband, Vincent. He is as stocky and muscular as she is petite. I know he works out in a gym every day and you can see it from the bulging biceps which seem to be permanently on display when I see him outside of his workplace. They are made more noticeable by the smudged tattoos, reminders of his troubled youth.
Vincent grew up in the rough “banlieu” of Paris. He started getting into trouble at an early age and by sixteen was an accomplished car thief. During his last trial as a juvenile he was offered a last ditch attempt to divert him from a life of crime. He scoffed at it. His uncle told him that it was either that or prison so he donned a frilly shower cap and went to work up to his elbows in flour, at the back-end of a boulangerie.
He loved it. He excelled at it. He could woo the soft, capricious dough into plump, golden baguettes and work in the warm cocoon of the bakery. His day started at 3am, which was fine by him, those had been his previous working hours. This time though,he had the company of the father figure he had never had and the wondrous smells of domesticity he had never experienced in his own home.
But it didn’t stop there. One fine day, Vincent was introduced to chocolate. As the awards and pictures of him beaming from the walls attest, he is a Master Patissier. Chocolate is his pliable mistress and Vincent has become a more dangerous man than he ever was. To see him work is to watch an artist. He is totally absorbed. Each creation is perfection and he is a hard task-master to his team.
Nowadays in France things have become very regulated. There is always some EU nonsense directive to tell us what to do for our own good. One of those things is that every job requires a list of qualifications and a primrose path of dalliance to attain it. There is little room for second thoughts, for changes of direction. To be a waiter one should have attended hotel school for at least a year and everything seems to be a tangle of red tape. To become a boulanger takes 3 years, to become a patissier, more than that, and a Master Patissier qualification cannot be counted in time but rather the lightness of touch and the ability to communicate and coax your ingredients into a symphony.
So where has Vincent’s team sprung from? His able assistant, Marco, is deaf and did not complete school. He “speaks” in wild gestures and has a barking, joyous laugh. Olivier, who I often see scooting around the village in a teeny, battery-operated car reserved for those without a licence, is debilitatingly shy. He turns puce if you greet him and has a peculiar shuffling walk with his head listing to one side. He can’t be older than 20 but inhabits his body as tentatively as an old man. I have seen him scrubbing an polishing until bowls and machinery gleam. He is always busy and does not like to be diverted from his task.
And last of all there is the lovely Laetitia, Vincent and Adele’s teenage daughter. Her parents have leap-frogged her over the treacherous teens of their own youth into a school for boulangers. She works for them in the holidays and will soon be qualified.
Vincent asks me if I know of any youngsters looking for a job. There is only one requirement: they have to have a criminal record.
They are my heroes.
November 13, 2009
How do you pack? For the next stage of your life.
Changing country is good for the soul. Everyone should do it. Well, perhaps not too often, but every few children or so.
I arrived here ten years ago with three children, a small dog and two suitcases. I will be leaving with my husband, five children and an adolescent cat (said dog having given up on the challenge of yet another move).
So what to take? A move from France to Canada needs some planning because it is not worth the shipping costs to ship most things. They have to pass a test. The “Can I see my life without this article test?”, and then a second one, “Is this part of who I am?”
The aim is to reduce what we take to one suitcase each.
For advice on this I turned to an expert. Adam is a Tuareg nomad I met in Niger. He is a silversmith like the generations of men in his family before him. Whilst he doesn’t travel light when it comes to family obligations – two wives and nine children, he can carry everything he needs in a sling bag. I asked him about this and he shook his head and smiled.
He carries one spare outfit, an elaborate kaftan-type thingy with impressively long headgear to match. At night he can unravel his head topping (over 3m) and curl up to sleep under it with a bunched up bit at the top for a pillow. I asked him to show me what else he had in his bag. Here is a list.
Stuff to carry if you are a Tuareg: 1 spare tunic
1 spare pants
Tealeaves and sugar
Dates (to eat or swop for millet)
1 metal bowl
4 small glasses for tea in case of spontaneous tea
1 very sharp (and beautifully decorated) knife
I know it is rude to ask but I ask anyway.
“What about a toothbrush?”
He laughs again and gives me the opportunity to verify that his dental hygiene is surprisingly good for someone who doesn’t carry a toothbrush.
He pulls some twigs out of his pocket and hands me one.
I don’t know what it is. I sniff at it tentatively and he shows me what to do.
He chews on the end of his twig with his molars until it becomes a mini-mop and then polishes his front teeth with it. I do the same and am surprised at the sweet, fresh taste.
Then I think of something else and know I have caught him out. Of course he can’t travel with just this – where is his water bottle? How can he live in the Sahara without swigging water every 15 minutes? He must have a stash over other items somewhere.
“Water?”, I ask, with a victorious look on my face.
He pats what I think is his lower back.
I peer behind him and see a soft leather gourd.
And now I am transported back from that place of heat and wonder to our house in the wintery, provencale countryside.
Our very full house.
What is all this Stuff?
Granted, we live in a small house and we do have five children, but seriously.
But Adam has taught me something and it is revealed to me in a flash.
Instead of agonizing over each item and whittling away until I arrive at a pile of objects I can’t bear to part with, I will carefully choose what we are taking and get rid of everything else.
So what is important?
People. But I carry my People with me always. The ones who are in my family and the ones who may as well be. But this move involves a shedding of people too, the ones I have never really got to know and the ones I have, but prefer to quietly place back on the shelf.
The wonders of technology have fed all the keepers into my computer and a firmament of friends hovers in cyberspace, no matter where we are.
But what about other friends? The sofa that has cradled us all, the mixing bowl that is just the perfect size? I have to thank them for their friendship and find new homes for them.
My home has become an archeological dig of who we have been for the last ten years and our suitcases will represent sleeker, more streamlined versions of ourselves.
The time has come for us to shed this skin and step in to our future clad only in our shiny newness, receptive to the slightest kiss of light.
November 8, 2009
Patience smiles. All the time. She has a round, pretty face and when she laughs she throws her head back and claps her hands together in delight. But as far as I can see, Patience does not have a lot to laugh about.
She is a teacher at the school on the farm. A ragtag group of about 150 children, most of whom have nothing to do with the farm workers but need their stomachs filled by the feeding program. They walk the 10 – 15 km from the squalid Hatcliffe extension, an extension of the squalor of the original Hatcliffe but with more plastic and corrugated iron walls.
There are three teachers. Patience is a newcomer, the other two are older and more jaded. The pay is paltry but the job comes with a small two-bedroomed house and Patience is able to feed her family with fresh meat and vegetables off the farm. Her family consists of her husband, Able, and her three younger sisters. Her parents have both died of AIDS but she and her sisters are all healthy. She is newly married and happily so.
The house is immaculate. The cement floors are kept polished and clean curtains made from floral sheets hang at the windows. The cooking is done on an open fire outside and the single pot used for this purpose hangs on a nail near the back door.
Patience leads an orderly existence but has very little money. She is an employee of the Ministry of Education and subjected to the sinkhole of the Zimbabwean economy. Each month her salary buys less and less. Whilst her essentials are covered, her husband’s salary as a teacher in Harare does not stretch to cover his transport and that of her sisters as well as their school fees.
Patience is 23 years old and the anchor of this family. Her husband is a pleasant, mild-mannered man of the same age. I see him dressed in his carefully pressed clothes, setting off for work very early in the morning when I am coming back from the dairy. Patience has 3 outfits. I know this because she comes to my house every day at 5 o’clock to teach my children Shona. As we are about to go and live in France they won’t be using it any time soon but I want it to perculate into who they are.
Jono is 8, Amber and Tom 6. I can see they would rather be outside playing and their legs swing impatiently under the dining room table. They like Patience though and I can see that she is a born teacher.
She does not pace and hammer phrases on the anvil of small ears. She plays. She starts with the basics, and even though my children have heard Shona their whole lives, this is where she needs to start. They play Mahumbwe – or “house”.
There is some dispute because Amber is the only candidate to be mother and smugly christens herself “Amai” and Jono, being the oldest, lays claim to Baba. This leaves Tom in a demoted position and a compromise is found in munin’ina, young brother. By rights Patience should be Mufindisi (teacher) but the day she announces with a coy smile that she is expecting a baby we rechristen her Mainini, little mother.
Over the months, as Patience’s belly swells and rounds so does our friendship. A whole new vocabulary blossoms. Mwana Baby. Fara, happiness and as her due date approaches, faranuka, unbounded happiness.
I rifle through my possessions and come up with some passable maternity clothes and all the baby clothes I hadn’t been able to part with until then. We cluck and croon over them and hold them against her tummy. I even knit her a small jersey although my enthusiasm exceeds my ability. I buy her some wool, white, to be on the safe side, and soon, as she sits supervising my children, clouds of soft blankets and bonnets are conjured by her flying needles.
All the children in Patience’s family are girls and her husband was the only boy out of a family of 6 children. We are placing bets on this being a boy. I run Patience into town for her ante-natal checkups and tell her that if she has the slightest twinge to let me know and I will drive her to the hospital. This is only practical during the night because I drive into town each day to work but I give her my work number and my cell number just in case there is a problem. I will rush back to the farm to fetch her if needs be.
She throws her head back and laughs, her white teeth exposed in her perpetual good humour.
“You worry about everything” she says
“My grandmother is coming, she has had many children”.
Yes, but mothers and grandmothers have been dying giving birth for thousands of years I want to say but thrust my numbers at her again, this time to give to Able.
Mornings are busy in my house. I round up my three sleepy children and load them into the car with my neighbour’s two sons. I take everyone to school and she picks them up. I also sometimes deliver milk from the dairy to the school and on the morning in question my trunk is full of sachets of milk. I have four children on the back seat and the oldest in the front passenger seat. We set off taking care to avoid the potholes and large puddles after last nights storm.
To get to the main road we have to drive along a 7km ribbon of dirt track. This temperamental thouroughfare has been cut into a game park and often we startle a herd of zebras or if we are lucky, have to stop to let a giraffe lope across the road. But this morning there are no giraffes. As we round the bend I have to slam on brakes because there is Able. I stop on the edge of a puddle and one look at him tells me all I need to know.
“Where is Patience?”
“She is at home. She is having some pains”.
I shoo Rory on to the back seat and Able climbs in. We drive towards the school, slipping and sliding in the mud. I pray that we don’t get stuck because there is no-one here to help get me out this morning. Patience is waiting at the door. She is beaming.
“Mangwanani,” Good morning
She looks good although I can see that she has not slept much.
“Mangwanani, marara sei”Good morning I venture, how are you?
“Ndarara kana marara wo” I am well if you are well, she responds before being gripped by a contraction.
“How long have you been having contractions?” I ask, concerned by the grey tint to her skin.
“Since yesterday, and they are becoming painful”.
“Get in the car” I say, to the astonishment of my already squished children.
Able looks at me questioningly.
“You too” I say.
So Able sits in the front passenger seat and his labouring wife sits on his lap.
My little car lurches bravely forward and after a few scares we reach the main road.
I drive straight to the hospital and give Able my cellphone and a card with my work number on it.
I drop the children at school and unload the milk. I straighten out my suit, put a brush through my hair and head for work.
After my morning meeting I phone the hospital but no-one can give me any information. I think of Patience all day and am so excited for her.
Able does not call.
When I leave my office for the day I see him standing next to my car. He is caving in on himself. He is hunched and defeated.
“What happened?” I say, feeling an anger I cannot direct.
“The baby was big”
“He was stuck”
“There was no place in the operating theatre.”
I cannot move or speak.
“Then there was a lot of pain and a lot of blood”.
“They took her for an operation and took the baby out. The baby is dead.”
“And Patience? How is Patience?”
“Her uterus tore and they had to remove it.”
“She is going to be alright but she is very sad”.
“What can we do?” I ask
In truth I want to slap this man. Hard. Why didn’t he scream and shout. Why didn’t he phone me. I could have tried to move her to another hospital. Why? Why? Why? I find his meekness insulting. I want to rush to her side but know it is not my place.
“She is very sad and does not want to see anybody. She does not want to see anybody” he says, shaking his head.
He climbs into the car and we drive home in silence.
Time passes. Patience is with her grandmother.
One day I return from work and there she is, or at least a thinner more wan version of herself.
I tell the children to go ahead inside and I walk up to her.
I take both her hands in mine and wait for her to speak.
“I am very disappointed” she says, and her chin quivers.
When we are surrounded by poverty and suffering it is usually not difficult to come up with at least one way to help. But I am at a loss.
Patience goes back to work and she continues to come to the house in the evenings but she no longer teaches my children. We talk or cook dinner together. I give her books and she tiptoes around her loss.
Her visits dwindle and soon the day comes when I will be leaving the farm forever. I have not seen Patience for a few days and wonder if I should seek her out today.
I have slept badly and finally get out of bed before sunrise. Mist has settled over the garden and it takes me a while before I am sure that I have heard something outside.
I open the back door and pull my dressing gown to me. The sound is coming from the front of the house. I walk around wondering if I should be carrying a stick.
A group of some thirty children, mostly barefoot, are gathered in front of Patience. Our eyes meet and she lifts her hands and launches what feel like a thousand small voices before joining in with her own lovely voice.
Ngaisimudzirwe zita rayo
Inzwai miteuro yedu
Isu, mhuri yayo.
Huya mweya komborera
Huya mweya woutsvene
Isu mhuri yayo.
God bless Africa,
Let her fame spread far and wide!
Hear our prayer,
May God bless us!
Come, Spirit, come!
Come! Holy Spirit!
Come and bless us, her children!
I feel a tearing in a part of myself I cannot name.
Patience steps forward. Her eyes look tired but bright. She hands me a parcel wrapped carefully in newspaper.
I open it in front of eager eyes.
“I am sorry it is a bit damp still” she says
“I only finished it very late last night and then I washed it and ironed it”.
I unfurl a piece of white cloth. It is a table cloth, and on it are hand-embroidered children. About 150 of them. And at the centre there is the face of a smiling woman.
I left the farm that day with my suitcases full of resolve. The books I would send, the money I would raise. I carried that cloth with me in my hand luggage. If I hold it to my face I can still detect the faintest wisp of woodsmoke.
Weeks after I left the farm was taken over by Mugabe’s militia. The school was burned down and the teachers were beaten as opposition sympathizers.
I have not yet been able to find Patience. But I will not give up.
November 6, 2009
The concept of a laundromat in this provencale village is as incongruous as the laundromat itself. It is a customized shipping container plonked in the middle of a car park. I am here to use the big machine to deal with a domestic disaster too large to fit in my own.
An autumnal breeze chases leaves around the tarmac and I am glad of the fragrant, humid warmth this box provides. There are three small machines, one large one and two dryers. There is a folding table, a detergent dispenser and a row of 3 plastic chairs bolted to the floor.
A man of about 45 is taking up all 3 seats. He is sitting on one, has his book on another and has been ferreting in a shopping bag that sits on the third. He doesn’t notice me at first – he is preoccupied looking for something, and now he has it – a pen.
“Bonjour” he says in French I know does not belong to him.
He hastily moves his shopping and two cans fall on the floor. As he bends down to pick one up I read the label on the other – “Boeuf Bourgignon”.
Who in their right mind comes to France where the markets are groaning with an embarrassment of choice in fresh produce and buys canned stew?
“Don’t worry” I say
“I have to load the machine so I won’t be sitting down just yet”.
“You speak English he says” in an accent I can’t quite place – Norwegian?
“Yes” I reply, unnecessarily.
I too have brought my book and make a show of starting to read it. I am not going to get caught up in a conversation. I resolve not to say another word.
He has the good grace to pick up on this, leaving the field clear for me to play my game. I want to decide who this man is but the rules dictate that I am not allowed to speak to him. I have to read as much about him from the physical evidence before me. A harmless hobby. I will be disqualified if he starts to speak and punctures my theories.
This is a challenge as I am a friendly and curious sort and the confined space and shared language ups the degree of difficulty. I am using the big machine which takes forty minutes and then will need the dryer for another 20. I like a challenge.
The seats are uncomfortable. The backs are unintentionally flexible and contort themselves diagonally when I lean back and provide no support anyway. I am wearing jeans but they don’t seem to have any traction on the chair and I keep sliding forwards every time I lean back . Looks like I want to have a little nap or back away from something dangerous. So I sit up straight. Bolt upright. But my arms can’t seem to find a natural position and it is hard to see my book from that angle. So I lift it up but realize this turns me into a school marm, primly sitting reading improving literature.
He is at the folding table sorting his dirty clothes into battalions. I don’t want to observe this so my eyes slide down to the shopping bag on the middle seat. Not much in there. Some toothpaste, a liter of fresh milk, some wine…hang on a bit, this requires some skill: I drop my book and in the course of retrieving it bump the shopping. I steady the wine and yes, (Goal!) manage to read the label and this really gives me extra points! Chateauneuf- du-Pap!
So here we have someone who knows what a good drop is and drinks it after sitting down to a can of cat food. Mmm.
Oops. Back to my book. He is loading the whites. He turns the dial, and then turns it again. 90 degrees. He’ll be here for at least an hour at 90 degrees and I am tempted to tell him that he is wasting his time – we live in a hard water region and everything comes out gray anyway. But that would be breaking the rules.
He is wearing a pair of Levis and a clean, but not new shirt. Now the darks are going in. Lots of socks and a few sweatshirts. Two machines start rumbling and he steps outside. I panic momentarily wondering if I have lost my chance just when I am getting into this story but no, he is coming back with another bag.
And now he does something peculiar. He opens the door of the third machine and puts the entire plastic bag in while casting a furtive glance in my direction. I, of course, am thoroughly absorbed in my book (not) so he whips the bag away in one graceful swoop and slams the door shut. He glances again in my direction.
He starts the machine, sits down and picks up his book.
“The One Minute Millionaire”. I know about this book. I’m a fan, in fact. I am the child in class who wants to shoot up my hand and shout “Yes Miss, Over here Miss!” and talk to him about the book. But there are the rules to think about. He picks up the pen and underlines something. Damn I want to know what it is.
He is a good looking man. He certainly isn’t gay. He is no stranger to laundry – he is at ease in this domain and undefeated by the sorting, the loading, the twisting of dials. He has a family somewhere. But if he has a family why be doing your every day laundry in a laundromat. Where is his home? Families come with washing machines.
He isn’t a tourist. His clothes are those of someone who works outside not someone out to take in the sights. And if he were a tourist he would not be eating Boeuf Bourgingnon out of a tin. He would be caressing tomatoes and photographing melons. It would no longer be food but an occupation, no, a calling.
I’ve got it! The cans are for him, the wine is for someone else. He has been invited out to dinner. Just as this thought hits me his phone begins to ring. Not a fancy ringtone, just “ring riiiiing”. I want to Hi five someone.
He looks at me apologetically and I give one of those compressed smiles that isn’t a smile and frown some more at my book.
His face changes.
“Hi”, he says, the word visibly growing tendrils and blossoming.
“Really? I’m doing my laundry” and he twists around and looks over his shoulder towards the car park.
“I know, I know you offered but you know…”
Know what? I want to know. Dammit.
Then he laughs, a good laugh, a kind laugh and he turns around and waves out of the perspex window.
A young boy comes in. A beautiful boy of about 10.
“Hi buddy” he says and I know he has spent some time in America.
The boy gives him a self-conscious hug. This fatherless boy. This boy looking for a father.
He sits down on the middle seat and starts to swing his legs. There is a lot in this boy’s heart and it has to do with finding the right things to say to make this man love him.
The door swings open again and a draft bearing a perfume I cannot place precedes a woman in her mid-thirties. Then I remember. Fragonard.
“I bought everything for dinner” she says
“Are you sure you want to cook?”
and he says,
“Of course. I make a mean lasagna”, and he smiles at the boy.
And then I know that lasagna is that boy’s favorite and this man had better know what he is doing.
He is a charmer. He is between families. He doesn’t want to have his laundry done at their house because that would make a statement he does not want to make.
The woman is not bad looking. Different, but not unattractive. She is smitten.
I think he likes her too but I am not sure how much. The boy is worrying a sticker on the folding table. It is a sticker off an apple. “Pink Lady”. I smile at the boy.
He is well-dressed but his clothes are far from new. Their age far exceeds the length of time he could possibly have been wearing them.
“I bought some wine”, he says, reaching for the bag.
“Would you like to take it now?”
“Ok” she says
Her eyes dance over the label. She smiles and tucks it against her like a secret.
There is a pause.
He wants her to go. I want her to go and take that hopeful boy with her.
He is going to break her heart.
I look at him. I’m not cheating. I am not using words but I’m saying
“Look here buster. There is a child involved. It is against the rules”.
My washing finishes and I haul it out and shove it into the drier.
His 40 degree load, the mystery one is coming to the end of the spin cycle.
Vip vap vip vip vip clunk.
He tugs at the door impatiently. It makes him wait the required minute before it will open. He is agitated.
I am no longer pretending to read. I have to see what he has put in there. I can be rude. I can stare. I’m representing the female population here. He must be brought to account.
He grabs the washing and pulls it up to his chest in a tangle of trouser-legs and t shirts. He walks across to the remaining dryer and opens the door with some difficulty. He shoves the soggy ball in without separating it as I know he would know how to do.
As he is about to slam the door a t shirt drops to the floor and he bends to pick it up. It has a red stain, splatter pattern over the front. He whips round to see if I have seen it and I can’t react quickly enough to pretend I haven’t. Where could that quantity of blood have come from?
He glares at me. I want to go but it would look suspicious.
I make a pathetic attempt to read my book. He is watching me. Sideways. I feel like running from here but have a feeling he would grab me by my denim jacket and shake me.
I look down at the floor and see his dirty trainers. They are a worn white but have recently been scrubbed. They are splashed with pink stains.
I can taste the tension.
I want to warn that woman. I know she is a single mother. I want to protect that boy. I don’t know what I can say. I have a full five minutes to wait before the drier is finished.
He goes back to his book he is not reading.
When the drier buzzes I am on my feet as if to a starting pistol. I grab my laundry and start heading for the door.
As I grab the handle a hand grabs it from the other side.
“Excusez-moi” a man says as he blocks the doorway.
He sticks his head inside and says
“Hey, don’t flood the floor here now will you” and laughs at his own joke.
The murderer looks up, the Seducer of women and Hope of lost children.
He throws his head back and laughs.
“I’m never going to live this down” he says, shaking his head.
He holds up his hands “Ok. I flooded your winery, almost a whole barrel! I bought a bottle for you though – and he hands him the second bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pap”.
“A demain!” the man says
“Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow” he says smiling and shaking his head.
Then he catches my eye as I am frozen in the doorway with my bundle of washing.
“What?” his eyes say.
“You are still going to break her heart. You may not be a murderer but you are going to break her heart.”
But I say it to myself. It would be against the rules.
November 5, 2009
I am having an affair. For ten years I have gone through the motions and you have been my permanent address. For ten years I have shown delight in the offerings you have brought me: crisp croissants and coffee, plump purple figs off the tree. I have picked grapes with you and learned a whole new, beautiful language. You have shown me blushing dawns on glitzy beaches and millionaires yachts in Monaco. You have shown me Paris and the Pyrenees and I have loved and appreciated them all. But you are not my First Love.
My First Love lacks all artifice and sophistication. My First Love is not polished. My true love is undiluted color and sharp edges. Your tones are muted and tasteful.
I have praised your exquisite colognes and marveled at the alchemists of Grasse but the scent that stops me in my tracks is colored with the warm tones of quenched earth after a rainstorm.
You have given me safety and security and have spread choices before me like an array of promising cards, a winning hand. The Love of my Life prefers to play Russian roulette.
Your voice is a reassuring murmur. A constant and rapid discourse of things I soon forget.
My True Love impales me with the silent whisper of an impala, statuesque at dawn. An urgent, peaceful communication.
You pamper me and make sure I am always warm and well-fed. You attend to all my physical needs and I am forever grateful for this. But when I lack for nothing I feel nothing. My body cancels itself out. You have disappeared me.
My First Love never offered a safety net and sometimes placed me in harm’s way – I am one of many who have expressed my devotion. I am as dispensable as the ripe mupani fruit fermenting back into the savannah.
But there is always the possibility an elephant will ponderously sniff me out and pluck me up. If I have fermented enough my sweet flesh will give him a temporary high and I will have made a noble beast swoon and smile.
I am married to France but Zimbabwe you are my First Love.
Africa. Africa. Africa.
November 2, 2009
I wish I could say that I am well-read. I can’t say that and even after 10 years in France I have yet to pick up a book by Camus. I know of something that he said though and how true it is. I know it because it is taped up above the kitchen sink in a friend’s apartment and I sometimes get to do the washing up.
“To misname things is to add to the unhappiness of the world” Camus.
This irritates me for some reason. Just as it annoys me that this is a single-bowl sink and the drying rack is miniscule. And then I read it again and wonder if there is any truth to it? Am I annoyed by the sink or by the fact that I hate doing the washing up?
“I hate doing the dishes.”
“You see?” says a ghost.
I go back outside to join my friends and the conversation turns to Estelle, my friend’s aged mother. She has just called and I know it is her by the way Jean cradles the phone while he goes about doing other things. He carries the salad bowl and 4 glasses through to the kitchen, he puts some scraps out for his cat. He starts to wipe the table down with a damp sponge. Every now and then he says “Ah hah”, or “Is that right?” He puts the kettle on and his hands and face mime the question “coffee?” I nod.
He gets off the phone and says his mother now calls on a daily basis with tales of woe and paranoia. She suspects someone is stealing her money. The woman who helps her with her shopping is swiping carrots. She could have sworn that she bought five and this morning there were only three. She has to tell him so he can come and investigate for himself. So he can come and talk it over with her.
“I am lonely” whispers Camus.
Jean’s girlfriend is in a prickly mood. I ask her what is wrong.
“I hate it when he flirts with Magali at the boulangerie. Its pathetic. Does he know how foolish he looks?” She takes a drag on her cigarette and stubs it out angrily.
“I’m not a possessive person. I just feel embarrassed for him. She is half his age!”
Camus sidles up next to me
“I am jealous and have lost myself along the way. I am jealous that he will find the missing part of me in a girl half his age”.
“How’s the writing coming on?” asks Eric, a talented member of our writing group.
“I’m getting into it, it is getting easier.”
He sighs, and shakes his head. Explaining a joke to himself that only he gets.
“What?” I say.
“Nothing really. Its just I don’t know how you can put stuff on a BLOG”, he makes it sound like I am dipping my hand into a sewer.
“I want people to read my work, I value their feedback”.
“I could never do that”.
“I would love to do that but I don’t have the courage”.
“How do you know that some whacko isn’t going to track you down or might post sick comments?”
“What if no-one likes my writing?”
“I see Olivier’s wife has a new car” says Emily.
“Three liter engine!” She rolls her eyes.
“I may not have money but at least I have taste”.
“I want money, the hell with taste”.
“Its not that I resent people for making lots of money for inventing a plastic widget that holds up ceiling squares but really, they don’t have to flaunt it”.
“I resent people who make money for inventing things I could have thought up if I weren’t thinking higher thoughts. And if I had that much money I would go on a spending spree to end all spending sprees”.
The girls are getting fractious. It is time to go. Ellie puts a necklace on and says
Amelie lashes out at her “Not even true!”
“I need reassuring. I don’t like sharing attention when I am tired” nods the distinguished man in my head.
I pull her close to me and give her a hug.
“You’re pretty too” I say
We go downstairs and as I am walking to the car I see Luc going for his evening stroll.
“Ca va? Luc”
“Oh no, he grumbles. The rain is bursting my grapes. And this wind, this wind is awful. It gets into everything – the hens don’t like it and it is knocking the olives off the trees. Finished. The vines and the trees are not happy. One of these days I am going to rip them all up, save us all the trouble”.
“I am finished. I am old. I am tired. I can’t keep up with the vagaries of the weather anymore. I am waiting for the axe to fall”.
We arrive home and I take the children out the car with some difficulty. Ellie wants to get out by herself but the car is parked on a slope and I have to hold the door open. Amelie sits down on the driveway and says she needs to be carried. The wind is whipping up dust and fallen leaves and all I want is to get inside and relax at the end of a long day.
I run a bath for the girls and Amelie refuses to get in. Ellie is in but screams when I try to wash her hair. She kicks and splashes in fury and I am soaked. Their clean pajamas are also splashed.
Finally they are out and dry. They sit down to eat. Amelie picks up her fork.
“I want the blue plate!” wails Ellie.
She lunges across the table and in the process leans into her bowl of spaghetti sauce. It makes me want to cry.
“Why are you sad?” asks Amelie
“I’m not sad, I’m tired” I say.
“I’m not sad, I’m tired”.
“Malnommer les choses c’est ajouter au malheur du monde”.