I’m trying to remember when I turned 10. I think we had just moved from Zambia to South Africa, a very different animal in every way. I remember sitting slouched on a chair in the St Catherine’s Convent staff room, meeting Sister Jane Francis for my interview. I don’t think I had ever met a real nun. I peered at her down my nose, curious. It was a little school in a tiny farming town called Empangeni. My mother wouldn't send me to the local Afrikaans school "run by the bloody Nats." It was a rainy day. I wore Lee jeans tucked into my gumboots, which were covered in mud and a Rhodesia Is Super T Shirt tucked into the jeans. I wanted to look like a horse girl from the north. And I did. I remember my mother saying to me “Sit up, darling! Stop slouching!” I was ten. I was new. I spoke differently to everyone. They said “Police poss the jem.” I called coloured pens, neomagics. They called them kokis. They called biros ball points. My language was so different. So was my world. I came from a 1970’s Zambia, slightly jaded from the last spluttering fireworks of liberation and the fading splendor of a newly founded independence. It was a Lusaka of AK’s, ivory on the streets, armed robberies and afros deluxe. My mother was fiercely liberal and took great pains to point out the apartheid architecture of South Africa whenever she could. It was utterly incomprehensible to me.
I dreaded my first day at the convent because you had to wear white socks and black shoes and I didn’t know any Afrikaans. I was used to beige socks, brown sandals, navy blue pleated skirts and sun hats. I don’t remember any birthday parties when we went to South Africa. I only remember the boarding school ones. That’s odd. I do remember the Christmases, though.
And now here, on the hill, the last born, the girl, is turning 10. “I can’t wait to be a double digit, mama, ” she said, eyes shining with expectation. (Confession: I hate children’s birthday parties. Period.) We decided to have this one over the week end, because her real birthday is this Thursday and everyone will be at school. So I took a deep breath and told her to make her list. The Birthday List. First born, the 16 year old, helped her design the invitations. I told her to be sensitive when she handed them out so nobody would feel uninvited. We all know how we feel about that now, don’t we?
I’ll spare you the insanely boring details of “and then they did this and here is the cake" and the inanities of all that was said.” There was nothing for it, but to spend the day by a swimming pool. The heat has been insufferable, white treacherous days stretching into one another. The children tumbled like otters in the water for hours, taking breaks to lie like lizards in the midday sun on the hot rocks, munching on cake and pizza and sipping periodically on hot sodas because they’d forgotten to leave them in the shade. When the sun started its fast track west, I piled them into the car and we headed for the hills. They slept in tents, made a fire, roasted potatoes and marshmallows and ate the left over pizza from lunch. I told them ghost stories, all the favourites: the Zanzibar Flip Flop Man, The Office Ghost and Mohammed And The Silver Bicycle Searching For Fatima one. I was allowed! For once! I realized they are much loved, in fact. And I gleefully realized I am an excellent story teller. I know how to scare ten year old people good and proper.
I left them sitting around their fire, shoes forgotten despite stern scorpion warnings, and watched a dainty paper moon float up over the salmon pink snows of Kilimanjaro in the twilight. My ribs softened into ribbons in the warm summer night wind. The appaloosa sighed nearby. Yes. This was a good double digit party. The children were free, barefooted, wild, dirty, riotous and high, runnin’ on sugar ‘cross the moonlit hill.
I left last born, with her head peering out of a tent crammed with girls, saying, “Mama I feel like vomiting.” I said, “Too many sweets. Fresh air’ll do the trick. Just make sure you vomit outside the tent, hey? ”
“Thank you mama. This is the best party I have ever had.”
I walked quietly down the hill, following the pathway down which the horses have cut, which winds through the short tufty grass, remembering the Nairobi morning, almost ten years ago, when she arrived; how my heart burst through my bones when that little fat baby girl was handed to me, her hair in tight black curls, her fingers curly with her little wings neatly folded against her perfect spine; how she latched onto me, furiously and with intent, her neat black eyebrows still and arched. Who knew that love could grow so giant?
My little beautiful baby girl.
And now she’s 10 already. A Double Digit Girl.
In the quiet hours of the dove grey morning, the owl visited, hooting soft as velvet, his talons scritch scratching on the tin roof. He hasn’t been for a long time. What invisible scrolls has he left for me this time, I wonder?
Kitchen Board: Tuesday 29 January 2013
it's already been a busy old week, as you can see. the "hela" is going to be a slight problem. barclay's bank has blocked my account along with thousands of other ones because we hadn't handed in our details, ya know, passport info, work permit info, salary slips, residential details and on and on and on it goes. so they just blocked the accounts WITHOUT WARNING. rather a tetchy problem what with pay day comin' up. still. the world keeps spinnin', we're all double digits, some bigger than others, and kesho ni kesho. (google it goddamnit. you should nearly be fluent by now) And today, just after lunch, sitting in another English literature class, the thunder rolled and it rained and rained and rained and my heart danced up up up and away to where the giants played bowls in the sky.
toodely toot, y'all and bisous X.X.X. double ones, obviously, smack on yer lips.. x j