Happy New Year

January 3, 2010

Just to say I wish wondrous things for all of you out there.  I look forward to getting back to writing after a wrist injury.  Back in the saddle this week!

The Ghost of Christmas Past

December 10, 2009

Baking a Christmas cake in France is not complicated:  I buy the ingredients at the supermarket, I mix it all up (swatting small fingers away) and put it in the oven.  This year I will not be making one as no-one in my family is very keen on it.  It is too easy now.

Baking a christmas cake in Zimbabwe takes all the logistical training and agility of a special forces operation.

The first hurdle to overcome is the unavailability of dried fruit.  In the year in question, I neatly side-stepped that by getting a friend to bring some back from a trip to London.  My mother prevailed upon some friends in South Africa  to bring some when they visited.

Even prior to the days of multiple zeros in our hyper-inflationary economy, foreign currency was hard to come by and cost a fortune in our local Monopoly money.

What the hell!  It was Christmas and we needed something traditional!  The bright sunshine of our endless African summer was not at all Christmasy, turkeys were unobtainable and our local father Christmas’s skin tone (bless him), contrasted sharply with his white beard.  Nothing was authentic!  A Christmas cake we would have, thanks to my mother, and I would make a Christmas pudding so rich in brandy it would squirt you in the eye when fork hit fruit.

The price of butter equalled that of the Gold Standard and nuts had to be purchased through discreet transactions with our Greek greengrocer.

Once the requisite ingredients were assembled we were almost foiled once more: by electricity rationing.  A Christmas cake is a temperamental thing and should not be subjected to the vagaries of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Commission.

Christmas eve loomed.  My mother was driving to Zambia, leaving at dawn on Christmas day.  She would be bearing a Christmas cake made by her own fair hand, and a pudding made by mine.  A cake would also be coming in our direction.

There was a power cut on the morning of the 24th which lasted until her car was packed and ready to go.  But we come from a long line of adventurous folk and we stood strong.  The power came back on, the cake went in and the puddings were on the boil.  Our respective homes were filled with the wondrous smells of northern climes.

Time was ticking though and the Cake Baker needed some sleep.  A plan was hatched.  A handover would take place, with the security guard who worked outside her block of townhouses being a pivotal player.

The cakes would come out the oven at around midnight.  One of them would be packed into the car and one would be lovingly wrapped in a cloth and put in a cake tin. The tin would be handed to the tall man wearing a balaclava and bearing a truncheon.  He would be given precise instructions to hand it to the driver of a white car who would be in the vicinity in the small hours of the morning.  He would recognize her because she would hand him a parcel and point at a red car.  She would say,

“When the driver of that car comes to the car at 0400 please hand her this”.

At 0200 hours the puddings  finished their interminable bubbling and boiling.  The driver of the white car (me), handed them to the Protector of all that is Good and Right.  In return I was handed a deliciously warm cake tin.

I drove home with a smirk on my face.  Mission accomplished!

Then next day I unwrapped the cake.  I was astonished to see that my usually perfectionist mother must have prized it out of the tin with a crow bar.  The ragged edges looked like a giant rat had been nibbling at them.  Not a smooth contour in sight!  But that is when the final triumph occurred…imported Marzipan!  I covered those (rather large) imperfections like a pro and by the time the icing was on no-one knew any better.

I was just admiring my handiwork when the phone rang.  Through the crackling line from Zambia I thought something dreadful must have happened.  I heard a hysterical, choking sound and thought it was surely the harbinger of some catastrophe.

It was indeed my mother.  She was laughing so much she had to try and catch her breath.  Indeed, she had been laughing for much of the 7 hour trip to Lusaka.  She had set off on her way, thanking the pair of eyes peering out from his paramilitary headgear and had set off.  For some reason she decided to peek at that Prize Pudding.  There was something peculiar about it, and being of a curious disposition she investigated further.

It had been carefully hollowed out.

Those Christmas treats gave us more joy and laughter than any piece of cake or calorific, booze-laden bombs.

When questioned about the incident our faithful guard stood to attention and said.

“I am sorry.  I failed in my duty.”

Sticks and Stones

December 8, 2009

I’m just back from my walk to get fit when I see someone who doesn’t look fit at all.  Maria.      She is sitting outside the cafe in a slant of sunlight, her face plumper than last time I saw her, her arm in a sling.

My heart sinks.  It looks like she is back with her husband and her arm is his handy work.

She beckons for me to join her so I do.  We kiss each other on both cheeks and she smells of good perfume.  Her hair is glossy and professionally cut, her walking stick is nowhere in sight.

“You look well,” I say, for despite my initial assessment, it is only her arm that doesn’t look good.  The rest of her is better than I have ever seen her.

I don’t know how to start this conversation.  The last time I saw Maria I was trying to leave the car park and was stopped by armed Gendarmes.  They had surrounded her apartment and there was a lot of negotiating going on.  The kind that takes place over a loudspeaker and is one-sided.

“Come out with your hands in the air!”

Then unintelligible drunken rants from within.

“Put down your weapon, Monsieur”.

I am a captive audience.  I am not allowed to move, the area is surrounded.

Some paramedics emerge carrying Maria on a stretcher, her arm slung across her face.  I turn my eyes away so as not to strip her further.

There is more shouting and a sniper team move in.  They emerge with Jose (real name used so as not to protect the guilty).

He is led away in handcuffs and stays away until a month ago.  He has served a two year sentence for waving the dangerous end of a shotgun in the face of an upholder of the law.  The irony is not lost on me that he goes to prison for two years for inflicting a moment’s fear on a burley, brave policeman and nothing for inflicting a lifetime of it on his wife.

“It is good to see you,” I say.

“But what are you doing here?  Are you safe?”

Maria juts her jaw out slightly and says,

“I am quite safe, he cannot come within 50 meters of me, the judge said so.”

I resist craning my neck to see if Jose is sitting in his usual place at a bar not 30 meters away.

“He has beaten me for thirty years,” she says.

“The only person who knew was the doctor.”

“One time he wanted me to press charges.  He had kicked me in the stomach and I had a lot of internal bleeding.”

“I said no.  If I complain he will beat me even more.”

“After that I didn’t go back to the doctor.  I used to run away if I could and I would sleep in the cemetery.”

I think of the small cemetery in the center of the village.  I see it every day.  I can’t imagine where she would sleep.  The cemetery is crammed with the cold stone of the long-dead.  The only space is the narrow dirt paths that lead between them and the only shelter is given by aged conifers circled by dog dirt.

I feel bad.  I feel guilty.  At the time I lived a stone’s throw from the cemetery.  What was I doing while a battered woman cowered behind a tombstone, not more than a hop, skip and a jump away?  Helping with homework? Cooking dinner?  Working on human rights cases coming in from Africa, without opening my eyes to my immediate surroundings?

I am ashamed, and tell her so.  She shrugs and says that is all in the past and that she hadn’t wanted anyone to know.

“He’s been in jail before,” she says.

“He broke my friend’s arm – I paid his bail,” she looks at the tops of the plane trees as if they may know why she had been so foolhardy.

“He is thin now,” she says, as if this is the source of great amusement for her.

“He used to say I was only good for punching and cooking!”

She looks at me sideways.  Coyly.

“I’ve met someone,” she says, testing the water.

“He is 74 and I am only 50 but he is wonderful!”

“I have just moved to his house.  My divorce became final on 19th November and on 22nd I moved in with him.”

She picks up a crumb of croissant and smiles at her coffee cup.

“Of course he tells me he adores me so much it gets on my nerves,” but the sigh she emits tells me the contrary.

Just then a sprightly man with a round face and kind brown eyes approaches the table.

“This is Jean,” she says.

“Enchante” he replies and pulls up a chair.

“Congratulations!” I say.

“I am so pleased for you both and wish you much happiness.”

“He has rabbits and chickens!” says Maria.

“And a garden where I can finally grow vegetables!”

“You should see how she feeds me!” exclaims Jean, patting his decidedly round belly contentedly.

“What happened to your arm?” I ask

“Oh, just repairing the reminders of her husband,” says Jean.

“I had to have an operation to repair the bones in my hand,” says Maria, and I am hoping she was injured by fighting back.

“He used to slam my hand in the car door.”

Jean pats the good hand and Maria smiles at him.

“So where am I taking you for lunch?” he asks her.

“I was thinking La Terrace,” she says, as though she is used to being invited to lunch.  As though she is used to basking in the warmth of love.

Christmas Catalogues

December 4, 2009

I pick up the latest piece of macerated tree and decide to leaf through it.  Usually, its path from forest to fire is only slightly delayed through the transport, mashing and mixing, plying and printing and jaded postal service.  I use it to crouch beneath the oak we burn each evening, joined in spirit at least, with its noble cousin.

But today I take a look.  Christmas is looming and we live in a village some distance from centres of consumerism.  I need to start ordering if I am to look smug while everyone else fights their way towards the last of the Lindt, and runs out of wrapping paper.

I rip open the plastic and not one, but five items tumble out. They all vie for my attention with large red letters and underlining.  One is covered with thumbnail photos of things I do not need with -50%! stamped on each one.

Another more official-looking letter states:

“Madame, You have been officially selected!”

YOUR SITUATION: (It shouts)

  • Already a Client
  • Loyalty Excellent (unlike the copy on this flyer)
  • Earnestly chosen by our team (?)

I then see that this is not just a one-page description of my good fortune but it actually unfolds to tell me that thanks to my once having ordered some clothes pegs, I have earned a 7-piece gift set ABSOLUTELY FREE!

An extravagant printing process (which may cost someone his job) urges me to make a decision.

A grey sticker stamped with bold unfriendly font says “Non! I do not want your FREE GIFT”.

Next to it, a cheery yellow sticker says “OUI! I desire to receive my FREE gift!”

I carefully peel off the NON!  feeling strangely reticent.  As if I am doing something slightly churlish and antisocial.  I am greeted by a blank grey square.  It has unwritten words on it but I am not at liberty to write them here.

I look at the happy sticker and notice that it is in a box surrounded by dotted lines.  Am I supposed to cut this out?  I feel unsettled.  I am back in an exam room and the instructions are unclear.  The square says,

“I the Undersigned, Madame Grier, confirm that I would like to receive

A SEVEN PIECE APPLE GOURMANDISE SET

as a FREE gift.

This takes me back to my days in court.

“I present to you, your Honour, a contract signed by the defendant.  You will notice that the defendant did indeed unpeel the required sticker and…”

I read the miniscule instructions to see what I am supposed to do next to receive my apple thingummy.  Oh, I see.  I have to take the happy sticker and stick it on my order form.

The Gourmande Apple set comprises of 4 cupboard-cluttering plastic plates with pictures of apple tart on them, a plastic knife for cutting said tart, an apple slicer (what is wrong with a knife for Pete’s sake) and a particularly useless looking pie dish with holes in it.  I decide I can live without them but they have sown the seed of interest and I open the catalogue.

Perhaps this is the ploy.  They show you something utterly useless so that you will be driven to look for at least one thing that you can’t live without.

I flick through the pages with hope in my heart.  It is dashed on each page.  I look at the young women modeling and imagine their excitement when the long-awaited call comes.

“Maman!  I have been chosen!  A real photo shoot!”, and then the disappointment when she is asked to don a headscarf, or a fleece blanket with sleeves and a serene expression.  Another young woman smiles tentatively with a headband declaring her name to be “Sarah”.  I can think of other applications for this item – at last you would be able to say,

“What?  Do I have ‘stupid’ written across my forehead?” and indeed, for 4.99 you could.

A coy looking woman dons a v-neck cardigan with a lacy camisole peeking through the “v”.

“Ha!” I have been fooled.  Silly me.  So she does not have to waste precious time putting on a whole cami,  all she has to do is clip the half-moons onto her bra so it looks like she is wearing a top under her cardigan.  Sneaky. I only hope she remembers though, if she starts to feel a little warm.

As I continue to flip page after page this seam is well mined.  You can buy a collared version, a turtleneck version or a fleece.  Pure genius!

You can also buy a book on how to knit a scarf (7 euros), some knitting needles to go with it (4.99) and the requisite wool (2.50 X 2).  This rounds it up to a mere 12 euros more than you would pay at the market.

There are more kittens and puppies housed within these pages than a sizable animal shelter.  They crouch as door-stops, leer out from printed blankets in nightmarish proportions and brave the rain on umbrellas.  In France they don’t even use the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs”.

A dejected owl is my favourite.  It sits on the mantelpiece and changes colour according to the weather.  Some sort of barometer gizmo.  “Blue means fine weather!”  Pink means cloudy.  Purple – expect thunderstorms.  This also comes in the Virgin Mary format but “Attention!” This is a limited edition one.  Blushworthy indeed.

The more I read, the more I realise that this is all about artifice.  Look thinner!  Look younger! Make your dog look like a (ridiculous) miniature human/friend.  Crowd your home with useless objects so that one day you may have cause to invite people over to admire your porcelain cheese signs.  Buy one of those behind-the radiator cleaners so that you will have a legitimate way to while away some time.

Come on people.  Please.  Follow your hearts.  Do something that makes you glow.  Do not throw away your talent and time on printing, reading, imagining or having anything to do with all this monumental WASTE.  Spend yourself, not your money.  Have one knife that will cut and apple and a piece of pie!  Be busy.  Invite people over and point at the cheese and tell them what it is and where you bought it.  Talk to the person who sold it to you.  We don’t need this stuff.  We need each other.

Michael

December 2, 2009

There were two mysteries about Michael: one, was he called Michael? and two, he came to us through a domestic workers agency which just doesn’t fit with his character.

When we asked him his name he said “Mikow”, which we took to mean “Michael”.  Michael , as I am sure you all know means “Who is like God?”.

The thing is this, who decided to put the question mark in?

The liability-shy, culturally-sensitive Editor?

Anyway.  I think the question mark should stay in Michael’s case.  You see, he was far from perfect and a bit of a puzzle so not very godlike.  But then “Who is like God?”

I don’t know how old he was when he came to work for us.  He was a hasty replacement for a man who believed himself to be able to rid customers of evil spirits during his lunch break.  He would do this by lapsing into an eery wailing sound while the punter looked on in relief.  He would sit on the ground rocking to and fro with glassy eyes.  At two o’clock his innate sense of timing would kick in, he would pocket his money and come in to wash the lunch dishes.

This seemed to be a profitable sideline for him but proved to be his undoing.  On one memorable day when an elderly friends were housesitting, one of the pesky demons decided to stay in situ.  Apparently he thought the remedy for this was to go and ask our nervous friends to beat him.  Being kindly souls of meek habits they were not up for this.  They locked him out and he responded by smashing every window in the house before being carted off for medical attention.

Michael, when he appeared, a quiet old man in carefully pressed clothes seemed just the ticket.  He did not know how old he was, he informed us.  He had only one date of any importance lodged in his mind and that was 1948.  He had walked from Malawi with two friends in 1948.  Well folks, I am not sure how familiar you are with African geography so I will tell you how far that is, (Google maps have thrown up their hands on the itinerary front): it is a Very Long Way even as the crow flies.  As the crow flies we are talking 615 km give or take an escarpment or dangerous valley or two.  There will have been crocodile-infested rivers to cross and hungry animals on the prowl.  They would not have had a map and I don’t know what was driving them – Rhodesia in 1948 was hardly a vastly different prospect to Malawi.  In fact, from 1953 to 1963 it technically became the same country under the misguided experiment of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a United States of Underdevelopment and Red Tape.  A Sysiphian setback, to have walked all that way to find yourself on home turf.  Soon enough the federation quietly separated into Malawi, Zambia and Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) and Michael and his fellow ramblers settled in what is now Harare.

Michael was slow and deliberate in his movements and set about his tasks with quiet efficiency.  He was economical with words too and it dawned on me that he had never really got to grips with anything but his local Chichewa or Chinyanja.  The fact that no-one could agree on a single name for the language perhaps points to the origins of Michael’s shaky linguistic skills.

He said “Yes” a lot and nodded though, and seemed to understand.

Michael was a small man with a square body and spindly legs.  He had a round face and the milky eyes of untreated cataracts.  His hair was kept in a closely-cropped cut like a salt and pepper scouring pad.  He was always very clean and took great pride in his appearance.

During the week Michael wore the standard uniform of domestic workers in Zimbabwe – kaki trousers and a shirt.  He also had a very old and very well-polished belt which looked suspiciously like a policeman’s belt.  I wondered if his band of merry men had set upon a member of the constabulary en route but quickly discounted it.  On a Sunday Michael was transformed into a natty dresser.  He would set off in the morning wearing a shiny suite, white threadbare shirt and a battered trilby hat.  He wore beaten brogues of great quality and to round off the Blues Brothers effect, a pair of black eighties sunglasses repaired on the bridge of his nose with bright pink elastoplast.  Given his already murky eyesight, this fashion statement would frequently lead him to bump into things.  At least, I thought it was poor vision that did that.

I offered to fix Michael up with a cataract operation thanks to some American visiting surgeons.  I explained that they would take the clouds out of his eyes with a simple operation.

He said “Yes” but shook his head and carried on cleaning the windows.  When I persevered he continued to shake his head and look at me apologetically.

I didn’t have much clue as to how to run a home and was a very new mother busy with my tiny baby.  I walked Michael through a list.  I outlined everyday tasks and threw in a few weekly ones, such as cleaning the windows on a Tuesday.  He nodded sagely with each instruction and it was only much later I realized that he had committed this all to memory.  Michael could not read.

There were no Chichewa speakers in the neighbourhood and Michael found a solution to this.  He had conversations with himself.  He would shoot the breeze, chuckle to himself and then pause every now and then utter an emphatic “Right!” after he had completed a task to his satisfaction.  He would then reach into his pocket and pull out a small piece of animal horn and unplug the piece of bunched up plastic at its end.  He would carefully measure a dose of snuff into his small palm and with an impressive snort it would be up his nose.  He would then wipe his nose with the back of his hand and continue with the next thing on his list.

Michael was a creature of habit.  He never missed a day of work and seemed to enjoy his routine.  Weekdays: cleaning, “right!”, snuff and pleasant conversations with self; Sunday, outings with his two walking buddies.  Given that they were all dressed up to the nines every week I thought they were going to church.  This fitted with the humble, righteous look he had unwittingly cultivated.  In fact, he was just minding his own business and wanting everyone else to mind theirs.

He was not going to church though.  The three of them were going to check on, and then consume, their illegal brew.  Michael liked a good tipple, preferably one that had the odd fermented rodent in it to give it that “je ne sais quoi” quality, and various accelerants to help with the fermenting process.  Who wants to wait?  Pool chemicals were thought to have magical powers.

Michael was not quiet and contemplative.  Michael was catatonic with liquor.  This was not swammee Michael, this was someone destroying his brain every Sunday.  I banned him from going near the baby, my premature 2.5kg bundle of tiny boy.  I had visions of him dropping him or tripping with him.  Easier to just leave him alone.  I didn’t think this would pose a problem as aside from him announcing my son’s name in clear reverential tones,

“Jonathan Michael Richard”, he seemed to show no interest in him at all.  He became just another thing to steer the vacuum cleaner around.  I hasten to add that Jonathan’s middle names are after his grandfathers as opposed to our well-travelled friend.

One day I left Jonathan fast asleep on the kitchen counter, secure in his basinette.  Lets face it, he was hardly mobile.  Or was he?  I came back in to see Michael swishing things about in the sink and Jono the other way round.  Not only that, he was wriggling and his small fists were jerking up towards his face.  Then the sneezing started.  I could not believe how much he sneezed, his wobbly infant head barely having time to recover from one sneeze before the next arrived.

I cradled him and tried to comfort him although he was showing no distress.  Then I saw it, a light speckling over his pink baby skin.  I bent down to have a closer inspection and sneezed.

I looked sideways at Michael.

“Have you been kissing the baby, Michael?” I asked

“Yes”, he said before speaking warm words to himself in a language that was lost on me.

Security was becoming more of a worry and we decided to instal a “panic button”.  The smartly dressed representative of the company told me how it would work.  We would hand over a fairly large sum of money each month and they would instal a few strategically placed buttons.  If we pressed one of these his impressive task force would swing into action.  The first step would involve a phone call.  They would call and wait to hear the secret word.  If the word was not given, even if we told them not to come, come they would and woe-betide anyone who stood in their way.  They would save us  in return for protection money.  There was one caveat though.  This well-oiled machine took vast resources and they did not appreciate time-wasters.  Any false alarms would have to be paid for.  We shook hands on the deal and the buttons were installed.

I wondered how to explain this to Michael, whether I should tell him the secret word, etc, and then the answer appeared to me, beautiful in its simplicity.

“Michael, you see this button here, the one behind this small cupboard?  Yes, that one there, the one that is very difficult to reach?”

He peered behind the bedside table with rheumy eyes, looked puzzled and stood up.

“Yes”, he said.

“Well please don’t touch it,” I said.

“Yes”, he said.

A few days later I was in the garden when I heard the phone ringing.  My hands were covered in soil and I knew I would never get there in time, so I left it.  The next thing I knew there was a screeching of tires outside our fence and a team of enthusiastic men were swarming into the garden.  Before I could say anything, Nyasha, our hapless and disabled gardener was flattened against the wall with a baton shoved into his gullet.

“No!  No!” I shouted.

I ran into the house to see what was going on.  Nothing.  Just Michael talking to himself as he dusted our bedroom.

“Did you touch the button Michael?”

“Yes”, he smiled.

“Why?” I asked, wildly glancing out the window as Nyasha was trying to escape from a burly young man’s grasp.

“Wednesday” he said, holding up a middle finger which on anyone else would have looked downright insulting.

Wednesday.  Dusting on Wednesday.  He had moved a cupboard to dust the button, because it was Wednesday.  He looked at me quizzically as if to say,

“Duh, Wednesday, Hello – your instructions”.

I sighed and apologized to the disappointed task force.  They had clearly been hoping to see a bit of action.

Nyasha stood behind me shouting as they disappeared out the gate.

“And careful who you mess with next time,” but not loud enough for anyone to notice.

The following week I came back from work to a very sullen Nyasha.  He was wearing a woolly hat, unusual given the stifling heat of October.  He was standing next to the car and pulled his hat off revealing a pulsating egg on the top of his head.

“Oh no!”, I said, then

“Where is Michael?”

“He is lying on his bed. He has had a very big shock”.

What day was it?  Wednesday.

I too had a very big shock when the bill arrived.

The Chinese State circus was visiting and we bought tickets for our family, Nyasha and Michael to go and see this spectacular show.  It was quite an event and we had been lucky to get seats.  I told Michael about it and he said “Yes” and shook his head.

We were all ready to go and Michael was nowhere to be seen.  I found him up a ladder, cleaning the windows.

“Come on, we’re going to be late!”

Michael looked down on me from on high with infinite wisdom in the soft lines of his face.  He shook his head and held up his second finger.

Tuesday.  Windows.

After some cajoling he relented and we had to wait for ages while he went to put on his Sunday gear.  His glasses remained on his face throughout the performance and aside from some tinkling Chinese music and eruptions of applause I don’t think he registered a thing.

We decided to recruit our own security guard.  We had slunk away from our panic button contract and used a local security firm.  This contract came to an end when we came back from holiday to find that they had been running a brothel in the staff quarters and providing distribution channels for the Trio’s brew.

Out of courtesy, we asked Nyasha and Michael if they knew anyone who would like the job.  Nyasha did not and we were surprised when the usually reticent Michael said he knew of someone and he would go and fetch him immediately.  Well, immediately was a relative term because this constituted an Outing and therefore suiting up and polishing of shoes was required.

The next morning, very early, a man of great age stood before me.  His hair was completely white and his craggy face was something straight out of National Geographic.  He seemed to be suffering from sciatica or some such thing so I hurried him to a chair and gave him a cup of tea.  I had prepared some questions – previous experience, references, etc but these could not leave my lips.  I saw Nyasha out of the corner of my eye, doubled over with mirth and filling in the neighbor’s gardener on our recruiting skills.

I was wondering how to put the age issue to him diplomatically when he seemed to read my mind and with a glint in his eye, sprang from his chair and streaked across the lawn.  To my even greater astonishment he then headed for a large palm tree and shinned straight up it.  He came to rest at the top and waved victoriously.

It turned out that the person Michael had had in mind was this man’s son.  The son was not at the house and Michael did not want to lose face by returning empty-handed.  We employed the son.

It was this same son, Godfrey, who came to inform us of Michael’s death.  He had been coming back with one of his friends on Sunday night, weaving his way along a main road and they had been hit by a truck.  He had no family.  Godfrey’s father was the last remaining part of the triumverate.  Funeral arrangements would need to be made.  Food would need to be purchased for the mourners.

And so we entered Michael’s Sunday world.  We were welcomed into a Malawian quartier in a ramshackle area outside Harare.  We handed over bags of maize meal, vegetables and meat.  Women started cooking it immediately and people started to gather.  All were immaculately dressed and Godfrey’s father had set up a small bench for us to sit on with him.  The coffin was laid at our feet, a smallish pine box picked out by his lifelong friend.  A line of well-wishers formed and Michael’s friend stood up.  He had a regal bearing and spoke at length in Chinyanja.  He then turned to us and said,

“Sorry for losing your Michael”, and shook hands with each of us in turn.  My children were very young at the time but were subdued into good behaviour by the solemnity of the occasion.  The shook hands one by one with the stream of new faces.

Michael did have a family after all.  The last of his friends is surely dead by now but he lives on still in these memories.  And now you will know him too.  Goodbye Michael.  Fumbai Zvakanaka.  I will never forget you.

Cult or Religion?

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!”

Colette

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”.

 

“Why?”

 

“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”.

 

“Why England?”

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nyasha

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.

 

 

Nuns and Bastards

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.

 

“Anything else?”

 

“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.

What to Pack?

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

1 teapot

Tealeaves and sugar

Dates (to eat or swop for millet)

1 metal bowl

4 small glasses for tea in case of spontaneous tea

party)

1 spoon

1 very sharp  (and beautifully decorated) knife

1 cellphone

 

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.