Monday, 6 April 2015

"Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little."

I came to Venice fierce with grief. A messy breakup that barely counts - we were never serious or labelled or significant - and yet the loss grates, and my heart churns with anger and sorrow.

In Piazza San Marco, there must have been a dozen women with long-stemmed roses held loosely in their hands, crimson and perfect, fanged with thorns. Every other person I passed was flushed with romance. Kisses on the four hundred and nine bridges of Venice. My face is sunburnt and blank, and yet briefly today I was full of happiness.

25 hours with Sarah and Jason, dizzying and soon-gone and hectic. They have slowed, my couple-friends, their love is no longer frenetic and rushed, packed into holidays and weekends, becalmed by lengthy separations. Their marriage has changed them. They have time, they no longer part.

Their love can't hurt me. It's too familiar and dear to me, it causes me no pain. It is almost vicarious, their love and their joy. But then -

A hand resting on the small of a woman's back, or tangled in her hair. A passerby that can't seem to keep his hands off his girlfriend, and I turn breathless at the reminder of what I've lost. Lost.

He  always wanted my mouth on his. He was insatiable for me. Until he wasn't.

You are not enough, whispers something that lives deep in the circles of my mind.

Heartbreak in Venice. It fits, oddly. You wouldn't think so, but it does. There's been an awful lot of that sort of thing here, I imagine. How could it possibly be avoided? Masquerade balls and the rustle of silk. The black shine of gondolas and their stripe-shirted gondoliers, discreet as they rowed through the shadows. Sequined high heels climbing through the water doors of the palazzos. I feel so certain that there were hearts broken here.

The alleys are so narrow you must walk single file, and the sky is a crack of desperately bright blue overhead. And every so often, the whiff of corruption from the mazy green canals. The cathedral golden, 24-carats gleaming down on us, as though our Lord never slept in a manger. The campos, squares of stone tiles that once glowed with tomatoes, courtyards that once were orchards. Now the gardens are walled, kept secret. The territory of the rich. You'd hardly know they were there at all, but for the vines reaching tentatively over the walls...

My heart is a walled garden. Vines reached out to him, but my walls held firm. I still felt very distant when he kissed me, despite his muted eyes and sardonic mouth, despite his lazy pirate voice -

There are locks all over the place, on every iron-railed bridge, but I lock myself to no one. No one.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Snake in the Living Room

I tell people I’ve lived in Kenya for ten years.

It’s not true. It’s actually six years. But I need ten years to express the decade-love, my decade-home. This isn’t just another home – it’s not England, Germany, or even my birth-land. ‘Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin.’ Africa has twined me, hooked me, rooted me and condemned me. I didn’t choose this. Nomad by conscription, wanderer by heart.

I can’t categorise this place. Every time I think I know everything it is to me, who I am in Kenya, every time I shrink in horror from atrocities and swindlings, there is something new. A glimpse of betterment, of hope. But it works backwards as well. I forget the inherent dangers, too.

When we first reached Kisumu, Mum encountered a snake in her classroom, down the spiral of a notebook. She screamed, ran, and wakened me to an increased terror of Kisumu snakes. I walked on eggshells for weeks, every string or belt a snake in disguise. I didn’t see so much as a tail end, and I got over the paranoia.

Today, I was chatting to Mum in the living room when I saw a brilliant green cord lying across the white tiles near the wall. Wicked eyes, flickering forked tongue. Even as I looked at it, I couldn’t believe it was in my house. A thing like that, possibly poisonous, possibly perilous. It looked a lot like a green mamba, and a green mamba kills as well as it breathes.

Needless to say, we were quick to get onboard the table and call the askari to get rid of it.

Anyway, this story has a point. I’m trying to say that everything we take for granted can be stripped away with terrifying speed. This is true of any place, but I see it more often in Kenya. Your health can leak away before you ever see a doctor. Car accidents maim if they don’t kill outright, and no ambulance will come for you. The safety of your home (for example, from snakes) is rapidly compromised. The freedom to walk, to shop – these freedoms can quickly be lost.

British tourist companies are flying people home from Mombasa. Terrorism. Grenades exploding and murdering in Nairobi, Mombasa. Two weeks ago, a Somali couple impersonating police officers tried to lure my own mother into their car. We have heard mutterings of Westerner kidnappings in the works.

We stay on. Almost every expat does. It’s not a matter of bravery, just common sense.  Sometimes when I’m walking alone, I feel a weak, abstract fear (or gut-clenching terror, when snakes are involved) but I don’t worry much. At these times, it’s harder to be across the ocean.

I have other fears. I don’t want Kenya to consume me. I don’t want it to define me – to eternally be thirsty for African rains. Karen Blixen went back to Denmark, but she never came back to Kenya. I don’t know if I could bear to leave this place for always. But will it ever release me?

I can’t help feeling that jacaranda skies should dye my eyes blue, so the world will know I belong to Kenya.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Mutability of Value

Early this year, I lost my yellow kikoi with the flowers.

I could hardly believe it. That kikoi was soft, it featured at least one hole and it was precious. I carried it everywhere, to be slung over my shoulders, wrapped around my waist, or folded in my handbag. I’ve worn it hundreds of times in Kenya, and sometimes in Northern Ireland to brighten a grey day or mood.

It’s bright yellow, weaver-bird-yellow. It’s the only thing I own in that shade of yellow. It smells of suncream and salt, of heat and cicada-song and malaria. Mum gave it to me nearly ten years ago. So I was pretty upset to find it gone.

spot the yellow kikoi on its travels

I searched the dark cupboards, the house, the smelly Lost and Found at school, but it was nowhere. My yellow kikoi. I found myself feeling ridiculously upset. It’s worth nothing, not a penny. It’s a tatty, faded square of fabric. But I wanted it back desperately.

It got me thinking about what we value, and why. I value my computer, my Kindle and my car massively, and so I should, because they are expensive and objectively valuable. Still, they are replaceable. I could buy a new one and like it just as much.

But I wear two rings, one diamond, one tanzanite, one from Dad and one from Mum, and I cherish them as much for their familiar shape and their meaning as their metal or stones.

There’s a crippled glass unicorn – he has lost horn and limbs since he was given to me from my Granny’s display cabinet, after her death.

 A carved circle of mother-of-pearl from Jerusalem.

My bear.

An Australian boulder opal on a leather cord, with streaks of breathtaking blue.

A suede pencil case from Germany.

yellow kikoi safely home
Photo albums and home videos that return us to childhood.

An indigo scarf.

My silver Africa pendant.

A chunk of white coral from Mombasa.

A shelf of five ink-sodden, ornate diaries.

My yellow kikoi.

Imagine my surprise when I saw my kikoi around the neck of one of the parents at the school play about a month ago. I must have left it at her house when we visited at the beginning of the year. Normally, I would never dare approach someone about a thing like that – how embarrassing!

But I did. That lovely lady made sure I got my kikoi back today, a bundle of autumn-sunshine-yellow. I won’t lose it again.This length of cloth is precious. It’s Kenyan, it’s mine, it’s from Mum. It matters for all those reasons, and more. It matters a lot.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Thunderstorms, feelings and growing up

Two nights ago, a thunderstorm hit shortly before eleven, water howling down from the sky and drowning against our windows. I was still awake, but the storm was so fierce that I closed my laptop and sat up straight, eyes wide as the winds flagged and flattened my curtains. Marooned on my bed, wild winds all around me, mosquito net adrift, falling over my hair to bride me, and I’m too old to fear storms, but my fists were clenched.

A crack - a bang - an explosion of thunder, the loudest I’ve ever heard, as if the firmament shattered into pieces above our heads, and a flash of ghastly yellow lightning like death to my dazzled eyes.

I heard the next day that my favourite tree, the shapely, dignified one on the way to Kiboko Bay, was struck that night.

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. But the rules don’t apply in Africa. Only a few hours ago, the sky was dull, bloody maroon, but it was no promise of calm waters. Tonight it is storming again. The power went off when I had just gotten into the shower, so I pulled open the curtain to watch the lightning. Purple, yellow, all these bruise-coloured, breathtaking gasps of light across the sky, and me watching, with hot water and rain running down my face. Lightning grazing my skin and I feel transparent, blank-hearted, unseen beneath the light that penetrates clouds and eyelids.

It occurred to me that I could easily be struck, surrounded by water, and I mulled over the idea for another few minutes, guessing where the puddles around the house would be by the direction of the driving rain under a single orange lamp.

Thunder like boulders rolling, growling not far away. The rain washes the air clean. The curtains are soaking wet.

Yes, I feel detached. Indistinct, unwilling. When did I get so cold? So heartless? My blood once ran fiery with feeling and love, my heart extravagant. Weeping over music. Seeing literal red, trembling with rage. But I hoard emotion now, sharing morsels of wrath and adoration with just a few.

Reading my moody teenage diaries, I know this was my greatest fear. To become numb. To lose passion and desperation, replace frustration and yearning with bland contentment. I cherished those violent feelings, even as they tore and cannibalised me. I’m certain I’m happier this sensible way, overall, but what did I lose when I finally grew up?

And do I want it back?

Do I ever really want anything now? The way I did?

Monday, 10 March 2014

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Hellos, goodbyes. Wonderful to see you. I’ve missed you so much. Always praying for you. Wish we could have had more time. It’s been so lovely. It won’t be long. It won’t be long. I really hope it won’t be long.

It might be long.

To see so many people again – well, I found myself walking through grey rainy streets, happiness pouring from my eyes like light. Reunions can’t be compared to anything else. They fill me with anticipation for heaven.

Fiona’s mouth falling open. Pink-shirted Morgan squinting through her glasses. Rachel laughing silently into a cup of coffee, her shoulders shaking. Joan and John, moving slowly and carefully, but blessing people quickly and abundantly. Jessica and Rebecca at my front door, eyebrows up, bubbling with stories. Barnams’ girls full of icecream-related news and gossip. Julie’s precious children, twice the size and twice as gorgeous as last time. My sisters gesturing frantically from the car window for me to throw my suitcases and myself into the car, as if my arrival at the City was a bank robbery gone wrong. Meeting a puppy who isn’t really small anymore. Sleeping in my own excessively soft bed. Grandpa’s 91st birthday. Dinners and lunches with cherished family members. The food. Glorious glorious food.

But it was a stressful time too, featuring far too little Shakespeare and far too much angsting and huddling by the radiator, wondering how I ever survived these obscene temperatures.

I returned to Kisumu on Friday with the fresh revelation that I live in one of the most magnificent corners of the earth, to my precious mother, father and a small surprise in the form of Goldilocks (Ebonycurls?) sleeping in my bed.

Goodbyes, hellos. I didn’t expect to feel such hot, poisonous sorrow as I walked away from the silver Fiesta. I hate to leave my sisters.

When you say goodbye, a relationship immediately roots itself in the past. Everything you meant to each other, though ever-present in terms of the heart, is in the past. You can’t return to the moment your eyes met and you saw an expression on their face that you’ve never seen before. The moment your mutual dislike crystallised into mutual understanding. The moment you realised you had to get away from a certain person before they drove you out of your mind. The moment you felt truly loved.

Those moments become the past. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

You can’t change what you did, what you said. I have done many things differently than I would today. They are lost to the past, and I am divided from them by yawning spaces, greater than all the oceans. There are words, dances, text messages, kisses, emails, slaps, falls and expressions I would like to take back. We carry our regrets in our arms, close to our hearts, warm as memory.

But hey. Through a hundred pasts, I’ve had you people. Oceans and time divide most of us now, but I thank God for each of you.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Culture Shock in Northern Ireland

Sitting at gate 82, awaiting a flight to Belfast City, I feel adrift and alien. It’s the swift singsong accents, every person similar enough to a person I know in Belfast that I double take – did I go to university with her? Is he the father of my friend? The one chair space between every group, all of us ellipsised by social discomfort. Many people are talking on the phone to the very family members or friends who will be picking them in Belfast, lest they have to interact with someone who doesn’t inhabit their tiny, cosy comfort zone.

I didn’t expect culture shock. I’ve been gone a literal handful of months, and before that, I lived in the UK for four years. But I’m back now and everything is –

Everything’s about the same, I’m just seeing it with new eyes. You can walk into any shop and find something beautiful, fashionable, functional, sparkling. It’s all lit with flattering light. There’s a greater variety of light-refracting, pore-reducing, chameleonic-adjusting makeup for women than ever before. And a part of me loves this, loves that I can own a forget-me-not teapot or multi-coloured glass wine bottles or a bowl of white flowers or a strawberry husker or iridescent peacock eye shadow or caviar nail polish or a lampshade that will cast flowery shadows on my wallpaper. I could go on.

But I ask myself, how can I live in a place where so much is available to me, and be unhappy? How can you?

I have a life with a gecko that poos in the exact same spot on my bedroom floor every night, and a house that floods every time it rains, with three plain meatless meals we rotate through the week, in eternal summer. I earn less for a month of teaching than I did for a week of waitressing. And I have a life where I’ve got leftover gift bags stashed, because if you give someone a present, they must get a decorated piece of cardboard too, and I’ve got ornaments on my bedside table, and a shining beloved car.

The contrast is jarring.

You might think I’m happier in the place where I’m richest, and where I’m most surrounded by comfort. Or you might know better. What about you, anyway? Is the place where you’re richest and most comfortable the place you’re happiest by default? Have you lived in a place where you are neither of those things? Would you be prepared to risk loneliness and constant sweat for the sunsets?

In Kisumu, my skin is always visible, tangible. I know what temperature my shoulder-blades are, and the texture of the skin at the back of my knees. Here, in the woollen, duffel, duvets to protect me from cold, I am already losing contact with myself. I feel like I could float away, dandelion fluff in the breeze, if I forget the subtleties of my body.

We become sanitised. We begin to lose our humanity, and with it, our humility. When’s the last time I saw my own blood? When’s the last time sweat gathered behind my knee, and skipped down my leg? When’s the last time I welcomed the wind beating against my heart?

I could judge Belfast if I wanted to. I could say that life in this land of plenty and sorrow is wrong, that something fundamental is lost here that I can still find in Kenya. But that isn’t true. There is just as much joy and sin and humanity here as there is in Kenya.

We live with our own demons, griefs and deaths, we walk alongside them every day, regardless of how near we are to the Equator, regardless whether we wear our skins like a second-hand coat or a full-skirted dress. We live with them. God walks with us.

Western world or East Africa, the sun rises, the sun sets, we walk on. We walk on.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Post-Christmas Blue-Sky

The sky is pale blue, powder blue, baby blue, with splashes and smears of grey clouds. There is a faint lightness in the west, and right down near the lake, a dull orange stripe. The sun set long since, and a faint breeze blows through the windows and plays with my hair.

Tonight I am full of feeling, the type I usually can’t afford, the type that comes with goodbyes and the ache of past and future goodbyes.

The papaya trees are swaying. They remind me of gigantic dandelion clocks, a riot of texture on a long stalk, ripe for wishing. The wind on my skin is welcome. But I can’t summon joy tonight. Not even at the sky, the living palate of deepening blues and greys above me, the brush marks clearer than the eyes of a child.

It is the eyes of a child that led to all of this. All of me. I learned to love because of them. Christmas, the birth of Christ. The birth of salvation. It is over, officially. Three hundred and fifty-one sleeps until Christmas. But something of the spirit remains with me, tenderly. Such a blessing cannot be confined to a day. Such a blessing can’t even be confined to the three-month extravaganza Christmas has become.

Darkness encroaches now, and the song of cicadas is like bells, like worship.

We still come. We still adore Him.