Boo boo in select company

Boo boo in select company
Something to say?

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cars and Me

I have this theory that our cars say something about us. Particularly the inside of the cars. Kitta's  dilapidated chariot is full of empty KFC cartons and coke cans. Mixed in with that there are papers with Maths scribbles all over them in his thin handwriting. Raghu prefers to take a bus if he can and leaves his car behind. Nothing of him is to be seen in his sixteen year old Micra because he is rarely in it. It is often being used by Manju. Manju's Landrover has little-girl things belonging to her daughter: magazines with ends curling from the damp, odd bits of Asha's toys and books abandoned after reading. My Honda, also 16 years old,  smells of compost and garden things. There is black mud in the back seat and fallen leaves.The Honda is now gone to the car graveyard.

   In 2009, I went to my local garage in India to sell my Tata Safari. It was now eleven years old. The owner of the garage was a family friend and he said it gently: you might get a sale if you paste lots of hundred rupee notes on it. Since then I've rented cars when I go to India. Much simpler.

   My first car in the UK was an old Morris Minor of green-black hue, the colour of cow-dung Indians would say, which I bought from the Lab Assistant at the school where I worked. I loved it. It cost me £240 pounds. Cheap you'd think. But my take-home salary was 120 pounds a month, so I had to borrow from the bank and repay painfully at £20 pounds a month. The car was well worth it and lasted for six years until a man in a hurry drove straight into it at a cross-road in Basildon. He apologised profusely, admitted liability and two days later changed his mind. He owed me for a very long time.

   I was also in a hurry: I was taking my son to his Cambridge entrance exams and I could not hang around. A policeman visited me the evening of the accident for information. He wouldn't talk to me. Naturally. A woman and Indian at that. What would she know about cars? forget the fact that she was driving. So he harassed my son till he got fed up. 'Why don't you talk to my Mum?' he shouted. 'She was driving.'

   The Morris was a write-off and I needed wheels to get me from Laindon to Wickford and back every day. I bought a three-year old Ford Escort for £1600. I had gone up in the world, courtesy of the 1000 pounds Kitta saved up from his holiday job at the Social Security, at nineteen pounds a week. Riches! I kept the car and drove it into the ground. My friend, Bill, often borrowed it and when he was 87, he drove the Escort straight into another vehicle. It scared him so much he handed in his driving license. He died two years later of a stroke. He often said he may have had a black-out when he had that accident.

   My next venture was a VW Polo, again three years old. It went on for ever. Meanwhile I had gone overseas to work for the British Council and my children were all drivers. The British Council let me play with one Landrover after another, the short ones and the long ones. I carried so many colleagues around in them that I sometimes had to kick the back door in to get it to close. I fell in love with Landrovers, lazy hand brakes, leaking roofs and all. 

   On the road to Gbendembu, 27 kilometres from Makeni, the path was narrow and it was rocks all round. Huge boulders on the track and even bigger ones on either side. I did that trip once a week. As the landrover tilted at 40 degrees, I could rely on a flat tyre. I carried a long iron rod with me to put into the spanner to act as a lever. I jumped on the rod to undo the nuts on the wheel. Then I would call the urchins in the neighbouring huts to help me lift the tyre.

   Today I avoid driving but I like to think I can still do it if I want to. Like so many other things that have gone with time: walking fast, chasing after Asha, runng up the stairs, carrying the shopping...

   Let's not go there.





Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Foolhardy or Courageous?

In my intrepid days, when I strode the world like a Colossus, (as Mark Anthony said of Caesar), a trip to Nigeria would have been a minor matter. Like catching a bus to the Whitgift Centre. After all I had lived in Nigeria for five years, what could surprise me? 

   But now, I dread to think I have to travel to Nigeria. I have unfinished business there. The last time I went that way was in 1994, returning from a Gender in Maths (Numbers with little spokes straight or sideways at an angle?) conference in Quebec City. I had been full of vim and professional certainties. But the experience at Lagos airport was unpleasant.

   The queues, if you could call them that, were long and untidy. Near the check-in counters the anxious travellers were milling around without direction. Nobody could find the forms to be filled before you were released out of that airport Babel. The man at the counter had several stacks of A4 size forms next to him and he doled them to each passenger when they reached him. They then filled them up laboriously and he processed it. Each person took a good ten minutes to be waved through. I was in transit, I had forty minutes to catch my connection to Entebbe and nothing was happening my end.

   Between the passengers and the forms to be filled there was a low two-foot-wide wooden bench, about knee high. I climbed the surface to the other side when the man was not looking, grabbed a sheaf of forms and distributed it to all the men and women in the queue. Then I helped the passengers who were struggling with the form. At least they would now be ready for the officer when they reached the front of the queue.

   There was a Canadian lady in front of me and we both came to an unspoken decision almost simultaneously. She stood aside and shouted to the queue in a school marm voice. 'Right. Line up properly.' She made sure there was no pushing and shoving and no bunching up. When she reached the front, (the queue was moving forward fast now) she turned to me and said, 'Now you take over.' So there I was managing traffic in the middle of Lagos airport.

   In the eighteen years since I did some sillier things in my ignorance. On my first morning in Kampala I drove on the right side of the road, out of the College in Kyambogo.; I had just come from Sierra Leone, where you did just that. Three armed guards with machine guns came slowly towards me and stopped my vehicle. Prayers time, I thought; Idi Amin was not long gone from that lovely country and AK 47s always make me feel sub-human. I squirmed, explained myself and was let off with a warning.

   When I went to Makeni from England in 1983 I drove round the little roundabout in the town the wrong way round too. I should have been going right. A little Sierra Leonean urchin came up to me with a scrap of paper. 'You will die if you drive like this; maybe you come in for  some coffee,'  was scribbled on that paper.Who can resist such an interesting invitation? 'Who gave you this note?' I asked. He pointed to the hardware store opposite the roundabout . Thus began a life-long friendship with the Abihanna family. Their home became a place I drove to when I was alone or tired or merely wanted to eat food cooked by someone else.

   I haven't seen them for twenty-six years, my friend Marie, her husband, Simon, or her father and brother. But next year I shall travel to Journieh to meet them all again. Some friends are very special. 

   Marie's son Susu owes me for all the times he peed in my lap. And for the many command performances of 'Hello, is it me you are looking for?'  Marie danced in their sitting room while I sang and little Susu, now definitely Joseph would go to sleep in her arms. 


   Fireflies: Foolhardy or Courageous?Fireflies: Foolhardy or Courageous?

Friday, 2 November 2012

Untidy Lives

Mary was always the leader; Mani followed. Mary-Mani club was the bane of my life when I was in Luanshya, that lovely mining town with its nine-hole golf course and beautiful mining houses set well back in manicured lawns.

  In 1973,  Balan, my ex husband had a graceful, old, rambling, house there and I visited now and then. Mary and Mani were then nine and seven, both ready for the next adventure. Today they are in their late forties. With children, mortgage, in Mary's case, husband - all the appurtenances of growing up.

   Mary is the daughter of Thankamma, my friend who died in 1996. In Zambia Thankamma and I had a mutual help society. We looked after each other's children and without the assistance of husbands, managed a decent life. She was a widow of long standing and I had just left my husband and started living alone in a flat in Ndola. Luanshya was half an hour by car away.

   In the way that children make clean splits impossible I had too much residual business in Luanshya. There was our dog, Lassie there, my former steward was now working for Balan and mutual friends had still not decided who to take sides with.

   Thankamma and I often travelled to Lusaka together, children tumbling around at the back of the car and us gossiping over that cacophony. In Lusaka we stayed at the education department guest house and enjoyed ourselves shopping at ZCBC and ZOK. In those days you could get St Michaels good there and we bought trouser suits and children's clothes. Trouser suits had arrived in Zambia just about the time it became pass'e in the West. How were we to know? 

The Luanshya house came with my ex-husband Balan's job. It had three outhouses and a sprawling, untended garden. The steward, Fison, lived in one of the outhouses with his family of four children. The other two were vacant one - room sheds.There the girls decided to make their club. Glasses, cups, plates, spoons... things just disappeared in there and came back a few days later dusty and mangled.

One day they decided to take a broom to the room. They did a bit of sweeping and abandoned the place. As soon as the dust hit the noses, that is.

But they still had the Blue Moon Hotel (Mary was creative with names.) as well. This was inside the house on the top shelf of the linen cupboard, which was where you kept pillows and blankets.. They had to climb up to get there, sheets and other paraphernalia of house-keeping trailing from short arms. The pillows and blankets got dumped on the floor in passing. If you looked up on your way to the bathroom you saw two little heads - one a curly mop-head, the other largely occupied by two saucer eyes.

Mani got into trouble with me now and then, with Mary in the lead. Once I caught Mani sliding down the concrete banisters outside my second floor flat in Ndola. If she fell, she would have broken her head. She, of course, blamed Mary. I couldn't slap Mary, so I slapped Mani. Mani says that is the only time she remembers me slapping her. Should have done it oftener,  think, now. She insists the worst part of it was I pulled her trousers down, with her knickers, so that the slap met backside.

Looking back, those two girls grew up wild, except when confronted by their mothers. Balan's compound had a huge Poinsettia tree and they spent a lot of time under it. I worried that the pap would be poisonous. When I went for a walk in the evening  I had an entourage of two girls and a dog. Our Lassie. Lassie always left half-way to run back home when the feeding time came.

I did a part-time teaching job at the local technical college when I was living in Luanshya over a long Christmas vacation. Lassie would walk me into the classroom. I would pretend I didn't know her.

Once friends of the children came visiting because it was a birthday. Whose? I don't remember. I made a cake, and Tarun, a guest, then about 12 years old, decided to decorate it. Balan ran a bachelor home usually, so Tarun had difficulty finding the things he needed. The message on the cake was done in purple when the pink colouring ran out and there was no room to write anything after 'happy birthd.' The rest came in very small letters below. Lassie ate that cake up long before it got to the table. Just as well.

Balan pulled his hair and muttered at the vandalism in his store. But the girls were a force of nature. In those days Zambia had a shortage in many necessary things - like toilet paper. So Balan's frustration was more than justified.

The whole set-up was untidy the way separations can be, nothing quite de-linked, no certainties anywhere for anyone. And I didn't care to bring any order into that existence, dysfunctional as I was at that time.

I returned to Zambia twenty years later, in 1994, as a Maths adviser in a DFID education project. The British Council project transport was a long- wheel -base Landrover. I had a workshop in Luanshya and decided to take a look at that old house of Balan's. I was sure that the Landrover would be my credential to get into that compound.

A six-foot brick wall and tall metal gates now hid the house from view. I honked many times, but the guard who finally opened the door wouldn't let me in. Zambia had become a very scary and dangerous place and no one opened gates to unknown vehicles. Gone were the days when I could sit on the veranda ledge and read the morning away, watching the cars come and go in the house opposite.

I finally got out of the car and went up to the guard and begged to be allowed inside. I explained my connection with that house. He let me in reluctantly. The house looked diminished and dull. There were a great many children about - clearly the extended family of the Zambian owner were now living in the outhouses. The Poinsettia tree, which had caused me such grief had grown and spread. The rear wall of the house on which I had practised tennis still bore the scars of years of misuse by people like me.

I felt sad, lost. Balan had died in 1986 and those old battles with him now seemed a waste of living time. In between I had forgotten all the reasons why we quarrelled. I was well into middle age. The only thing I was certain of was that I liked my life better as a single. I was not good wife material.