All in a Day’s Work

driving to the shops

I invariably wake in those dead hours. 3am. It’s hard to get back to sleep with squadrons of mozzies bombarding and thoughts whirring. I do, much later, and then it’s difficult to rise at 7.

I wish I could stay in bed I say to husband.

You can, he says, there’s nothing you have to get up for.

Which is precisely why I must get up. He doesn’t understand; he works a nine to five with the incessant demands of global conference calls and meetings.

I operate in a void. Getting up is imperative to getting going. Keeping Going.

So I get up, down my tea, and walk the dogs.

Today I augmented the usual routine of dog walking/chasing fundis tails/gardening … with a trip to Mafinga.
Mafinga is the closest town of any scale close to where I live. For close read 40 miles. For scale read a sprawling tin roofed village that has morphed as a town full of the usual Chinese tat and enough basic provisions to keep one going between visits to the swinging metropolis of Iringa (80 miles away …) where you can buy butter. Which you can’t in Mafinga.

I slipped and slid across the farms and met the asphalt road with relief. Tanzanian tar roads are better than those to the north but any speed one might pick up is compromised by eternal police checks; the cops lurk in bushes and leap out wielding speed guns. Apparently the vigor with which they do this is the consequence of a government directive that the first three fines, of about ten quid each, are bound for the top. The rest they can take. It’s why we have fat policemen in Tanzania; a thin one is new on the beat.

Along with inevitable police checks are inevitable accidents. Today I met one truck on its side and another that had driven directly over a huge culvert and smashed into the forest, the occupants quite unscathed clearly as all sat cheerfully on top of the tarpaulin waving at passersby.

Mafinga’s single ATM was out of action. As of six weeks ago. According to the sign on the door. Shows how often I get out. ‘Try Makambako’ said the askari on guard the – presumably – empty cash dispenser from his reclining position in the shade. Makambako is fifty miles away. Lack of cash limited options somewhat as I was forced to eke out the little I had on essentials: 25 litres of diesel, mainly so I could get home, telephone credit, mainly so I can stay connected (and sane), 5 kgs of chick mash for growing and greedy quail, jembe for gardener Atinas who says the last one broke because I made it work too hard. It note. Not him.

But the visit to Mafinga, despite reduced spending power, was not wasted entirely. I was to rendezvous with the farms store manager, Wanda, who has hair the color of gentian violet. Wanda had sweetly agreed to assist in purchasing rudimentary essentials so that we can move into and camp in our own house as personal effects still incarcerated in transit. Wanda was afraid her taste may not match mine so wanted my input.

We will buy plates first of all, announced Wanda. Right I agreed.

The tiny shop we entered was floor to ceiling cheap houseware.

Can I see your dinner plates asked Wanda importantly?

The sales lady behind the counter produced a plain white plate.

Is it ok, asked Wanda, proffering the plate.

Is there anything else, I asked?

No, she said, this is it.

Oh. Right.

And thus we trailed around Mafinga: with Wanda pointing out what was available, assuring me there was nothing alternative available, me, in that case, acquiescing, and after ten minutes being dispatched; ‘that’s all now’, said Wanda, ‘you can go now’.

I have thus acquired 6 white plates, 6 entirely ordinary water glasses and a set of stainless steel cutlery.

How could Husband assume I have nothing to get up for?

PS I have absolutley no idea why the truck at the top won’t get up. Unlike me.

Growing Green Fingers

Camellia Sinensis or the Tea Bush Blossom

I am astounded at this new found passion for gardening.
Is it an age thing I wonder?
Or an imperative I must develop to fill long, damp, often lonely days?
My nails are engrained with dirt. The knees of my jeans eternally mud caked. My wellies well-worn.
It’s good therapy said my husband in defence of his own green fingered habit years ago. Years ago when I was younger and faster and busier. Much, much busier. Far too busy to garden goddamnit!
I cannot go into a garden now without the compulsion to thieve overcoming me. I furtively pull up bulbs or snip quick cuttings. My secateurs are permanent companions. My mother in law said it was mandatory to steal from other gardens, ‘things grow best when nicked’, she said. The satisfaction of witnessing transplanted ferns furl new green or bulbs sprout promisingly lime-life is a new delight to me.
On a moist Saturday afternoon, when the mist shrouded the tea and drizzle laced the air, we came upon the long lost home of an English tea planter. How loved it must have been once; the evidence abounded in the garden, packed with lilies running riot, creepers clambering without restraint, shrubs gamboling across a lawn where the grass was high and wet. I pulled and tugged and cut.
The garden that I am striving to develop, landscaping beds, planting lawns, cultivating vegetables, it won’t be mine forever. It might only be mine for a handful of years. If that. Is this frenzy of planting about keeping busy?
Or about putting down roots. Literally. Metaphorically?

The Hazards of Gardening Pt II

I am acutely conscious of driving myself daily. As if an invisible pair of spurs were digging in and propelling me forth. It’d be easy, too easy, to succumb to the slipperiness of empty hours in a far away place. Who’d know?. Nothing to hang onto and pull myself up by. I don’t have a real job, not one with a boss and an office; I can write in pajamas in bed assuming I’ve fought hard enough for the commission in the first place. My children are all but grown up, they provide reassuring background noise via Skype and email, phone and Whatsapp (mum, please can I borrow fifty quid; mum could you read my personal statement; ma when did you say Gran’s birthday was) but the urgency of their demands is filtered by distance. I miss them and I miss the punctuation their presence lent to my days. Now I look for stepping stones in my day, prompts to lead from one occupation to another, in lieu of the fullstops and dashes, hyphens and semi colons that school runs and swimming galas and book week once provided.

Today began with a walk in the rain, the cloud strung low in the valley like smoke. Have I ever walked in the rain in Africa I wonder? Willingly. Wittingly. Donning boots and jackets and sporting an incongruous pink brolly and setting out purposefully into the wet. As opposed to being caught in a tropical storm, the kind that races in and catches you unaware as the sky tips from brilliant sunshine to bruised blue in minutes. I felt absurdly English.

I felt less absurdly English when I encountered a snake up the house whilst I was chivying fundis and gardeners and pulling up weeds (having abandoned my secateurs for now …). I stepped back and exclaimed loudly. I didn’t think any self respecting snake would take up residence here, in the mist and the rain and the cold. But there he was, tightly curled, waiting for the sun (he’s got a long wait …). A foothold.

He lent, that bright yellow and black snake, a purpose to the morning as I sought, via social media, the internet, to identify him. I conclude, Mathilda’s Horned Viper, a rare find and amongst the world’s newest snakes: identified less than two years ago by a British conservationist. Something in me feels a small thrill: that I have seen something so few have?

But is it enough that that was almost all (if you discount the nagging of plumbers and painters) I did with my morning? Of what significance is one small sighting? But I am not here to change The World. I am here only to change mine, to keep mine turning. The snake provided – in the void in which I rattle – something new to talk about, something to read up on. A bright little focus.

The rain continues to fall so that the day is soft and green. The lilies I have planted will thrive. The rosemary hedge will take root. The soil around the agapanthus that I plan to lift and split and redistribute in new beds will grow soft and yielding.

And Mathilida’s Horned Viper will wait coldly for the sun …

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The Hazards of Gardening …

The house on the hill, that overlooks tea and forest and into which we will move, was built by a Nazi (the mantle of one of its six fireplaces still bears the shield that bore a swastika, until the British removed it). It’s endured years of neglect and is my job to oversee its rehabilitation: the fireplaces have been stripped of thick oil paint and restored to original brick, the verandah sloughed of ugly grey plaster so that pretty old marbled stone is excavated.

The garden hides secrets of a past too, but is unkempt and wild. I need to tame as I rescue: so I carefully unearth agapanthus and azaleas and sweet tangerine headed lilies to transplant. I attack my task with vigour; Atinas, the ancient and long standing retainer of this place trails in my determined secateur wielding wake.

Yesterday the enthusiasm overcame and I sliced the top of a finger so deeply that blood spurted all over me and my wellies as I sat hunched in mud, clipping cuttings.

‘Did you mean to do that?’ asked Ant when he spied finger swathed in bandage that evening.

Yes. I wanted to see what would happen.

‘Of course I didn’t you idiot!’

I pulled off a boot, ripped off a sock and used it as a tourniquet to staunch the flow. Then I raised my arm above my head and continued to stride around the garden issuing instructions to Atinas: what needed to come up, which bulbs needed splitting and where the roses ought to go.

It only occurred to me later what a startling image I must have provided: one arm in the arm, as if waiting to be selected during question time, a crimson stained sock about my finger and blood flecked secateurs in my hand …

house from road

Your Younger Self?

I’ve been to this place before.

Not this farm exactly.

But one like it. A long time ago, but not far away. Ridiculously green tea and inky dams and hedges full of pinkforagirl, blueforaboy hydrangea.

I was smooth of skin, my hair long and glossy. Radiantly expectant – of life: mine and the one plumply growing inside me; my belly full of the 22 year old son who towers over me now.

I was impatient, hasty, demanding. The necessary selfishness of youth. I can see that now: as my older self reflects.

But I wonder what my 25 year old self would think of the older alter ego were she to meet her now?

Would she think her too tolerant of a far flung life? Too accepting? Meekly trailing in her husband’s wake? Or would she consider her resourceful? Brave? Inspiring?

I don’t know.

I do know, for sure though, that she’d observe this older woman and definitely think her roots needed doing and a slick of lippie wouldn’t go amiss …

inky dams

Jam and Tea


So why the move?

And the Tea bit?

What about the Jam?

Well. The move seemed inevitable. After so many. New leaves. Fresh starts. Clean page. All that jazz.

The tea?

I’m surrounded by the stuff. Absurdly green for Africa. Abundantly, aburdly, rudely green.

As for the Jam.

A metaphorical making of …

Life’s changed shape. A bit. It seemed right my blog should too.