Friday 6 April 2012

An extract ~ Chapter Two

BBC Television
Elstree Studios

27th February 1992

Dear Sophie,
Guess what I’m doing? Another couple of weeks’ filming, playing an expectant mother in frumpy clothes and greasy hair. Not glamorous. The BBC must have me down as a permanently pregnant actress. Only this time my bump is real and the ‘wrap’ is around 2.00am.
I’m sitting outside Make-up with a polystyrene cup of tea, waiting to be used. I must be mad to give up my comfortable suburban existence, but Robert is on leave from soldiering, so I might as well earn some pennies whilst I have a resident babysitter for Atalanta.
We are now well installed in Surrey. I was quite shell-shocked at first. The outside of our quarter is perfectly hideous, but inside is a great improvement on the last. It feels more like living in an ice-cream container than a tub of margarine. And it has a DISHWASHER, yes I’m becoming quite ordinary. Just to make you feel a million miles away I’ll tell you about my local supermarket. Sophie, it is horrific – it has sixty, yes, 60 checkout tills. It takes half a packet of biscuits to get Atalanta around without whingeing.
The real walks here are great though, straight from the back door into the ferny woods. Only problem is that Teddy and his pushchair usually have to come too, so my relaxing stroll is spent heaving him over tree stumps and dykes. The Army keep spraying vanilla smoke everywhere, which is a bit weird. It turns your nostrils black.
Mum and Dad dropped in; Mum had just finished a two-hour photo session in London, dressed as a policewoman in a size 12 mini-skirt and high, black, patent leather shoes.
One of the other policewomen said, ‘There’s a man over there peeing himself.’ (laughing)
It was Dad. He got glared at, which he said made him laugh even more. Mum said, indignantly, that she was doing it for an important German advertising company and was staggeringly well paid. She wasn’t clear about what product they were promoting. By the time she reached us she was not in a good mood, demanding a hot-water bottle and a pair of Robert’s socks.
‘Daddy,’ she said, tartly, ‘has done nothing all week except strip the old paint off his boat. I hope he’s not expecting me to go onboard.’
She hates getting cold feet.
Tamzin and Jonnie came to supper. They were very naughty about the people coming to see their cottage. Tamzin took a brief look round and declared that my house looks like a squash court; it’s quite true. Perhaps I should mark out the floor with red lines.
I need to get Atalanta a tricycle for her birthday – she wants a pink one, isn’t that typical? Tamzin said her friend Raddy has a little girl who wanted a pink one too. Raddy found an old bike on the dump and just painted it herself. The child caught her at it but seemed quite satisfied, despite the fact that it definitely looked a bit ropey.
Your car has been a real help. We even managed to get £7 a month off the insurance for keeping it out of London - Damnit, you could have claimed for all that time you were staying with Mum and Dad in Gloucestershire.
I’m visualising your very different existence now. I bet you won’t want to come back, but you will have to, to meet your new nephew/niece. I’m due in June, (if you can say that).
Lots of love,

Equus Horse Safaris
PO Box, Marken
Northern Transvaal
South Africa

Dear Perry,
I finally worked out how to light a gas fridge. You say to a man, ‘Maak ’n vuur onder die yskas,’ and do you know; it works. I’m not sure why. A direct translation would be, ‘Make a fire under the ice box.’ When I needed something done at the BBC, I used to say, ‘Would you mind…’ or ‘When you have time…’ or ‘Would you be very sweet and…’ It doesn’t work here. You have to say, ‘You must make this beautifully clean; now.’ Otherwise nothing gets achieved at all.
We have a great big Afrikaans builder called Johann, who just sits in his beaten up bakkie (or pick-up truck) swigging brandy, while he watches his labourers slowly clear the ground. We have clients arriving at the weekend and need the loos, or a ‘communal ablution block’, as he insists on calling the facility, finished and working. This, he fails to comprehend.
I said, ‘Johann, would you like to collect the cement sometime this afternoon?’
He looked at me, laughed and said ‘No.’
He was so frustrating that I ended up hitting him on the chest with my pen. Standing in the middle of the bush surrounded by lavatory bowls. Word has gone around that I clobbered him, which everyone seems to think very funny. I expect it’s because they all want to ‘bop him one’ too, as Mary-Dieu would say. Anyway, you can just imagine me striding round saying, ‘Do this, do that,’ sounding more like an archetypal film director than I ever was when I was one.
There’s still terrible, green algae coming out of the taps. We don’t have a dishwasher, or a washing machine, but Sarah-Jane has found a redoubtable maid called Nelly. I asked her to teach me to speak Northern Sotho but she insisted we should concentrate on Afrikaans, saying I will suffer at the Co-op otherwise.
Afrikaans seems a very odd language. A hose is a ‘tuin slang’, which means ‘garden snake’. You don’t put water into a kettle, you fling it in ~ very descriptive. And then you have a ‘koppie koffie’ as there are no Cs. While a kop is a cup, a kop is also a head, and I’m sure I asked Johann if he was a coffee head, instead of asking if he wanted a cup of coffee. Whatever I said, Andrew, who is bilingual, walked out of the room making grunty noises. I think he was laughing. Johann must just think I’m mad. I have to say he proceeded to add six teaspoons of sugar to his coffee.
Learning Northern Sotho is worse. The word for a child is the same as for a man, only with a different intonation. In my great effort to make conversation I asked Nelly’s friend how many children she had, only it came out as ‘how many men do you have?’ It might have meant ‘how many men have you had?’ Either way, she didn’t take it well. I looked on, speechless with horror, as she put eight spoons of sugar into her baby’s bottle.
At this stage, while Nelly was busy with the laundry in an outside wash-sink Johann breezed past referring to her as a ‘Black-a-matic’.
I was so outraged I could neither speak nor hit out before he swung into his bakkie and disappeared in a cloud of dust. Sarah-Jane assured me that he was just doing it to get a rise. Although I fell for it hook, line and sinker, Nelly was completely unperturbed.
The clients seem devoid of obtuse attitudes and all seem to speak English fluently, thank Goodness. I can readily identify with them. Taut executives arrive all hot and prickly, but once you get them onto a horse and into the bush they begin to relax and laugh a bit, discarding all their tension and tight clothes.
‘This is the first time,’ one man told me as we were watering the horses, ‘that I’ve been to a place where you don’t hear manmade sounds.’
It’s true. You look out over miles of untouched bushveld without seeing a single light. Sarah-Jane and I sit round the fire watching our visitors become real people again. You would so admire my hostess skills; I get them to lie on their backs and look at the stars through binoculars, pointing out constellations of the southern hemisphere like Orion and the Southern Cross. My knowledge of astronomy is not particularly wonderful but I feel that by chatting about Taurus and Betelgeuse I’m justifying my existence as a safari guide, while Nelly crashes around with the washing up. Does this qualify as ‘Imperialist guilt’?
How do you cope with putting on endless Army dinner parties? I suppose electrical gadgets do help. I have to cook on an open fire here. Rebecca even makes pudding on the fire. When it was my turn everyone got handed a baked banana with chocolate in the middle. Thankfully they couldn’t see very well by paraffin lamp.
The bush is beautiful. You ride across wide, open plains with warthog running around; past hartebeest standing on anthills, and then drop down into gorges where great red blocks of sandstone rise from secret pools of water. There’s always a lot of barking as you approach because baboons like roosting on the cliffs at night. They have sentries who sit high up in the gnarled fig trees that grow straight out of the rocks, rocks worn smooth by the feet of their ancestors over thousands of years. We, who invade their territory so haughtily, take drinks and sit watching them as the sun goes down.
Funny isn’t it? I thought losing my job in London was such a disaster but if I hadn’t fallen ill and been forced to give up my career I wouldn’t be here, drinking all this in. I’m learning so much. Andrew has been teaching me about the indigenous trees. I can now tell you about Diplorhynchus condylocarpon, the wild rubber. It has pods, which are full of what looks exactly like Copydex and can pretty well stick your fingers together. This is not something you want to do when you’re sitting on a difficult horse. Actually none of the horses are difficult except for Sarah-Jane’s own pony Jigsaw, who is a black and white demon.
‘He’s just sensitive and highly-strung,’ she’s telling me.
He is not too bad with girls, but hates men, especially men wearing hats, probably because he was once badly treated. I suppose human personalities get damaged in the same way. But the other problem with Jigsaw is that he wasn’t castrated until he was about seven and still behaves like a stallion. He even managed to father a foal after he was cut. She is called Puzzle, and is a funny little grey and white thing.
Jigsaw is fine once you manage to get on top of him; responsive with a good sense of direction. This is a great relief when you’re leading the ride, as he thinks nothing of plunging into unknown territory. We are exploring the whole time so you need a horse that will cross marshy ground or take you up rocky zebra paths into the hills without getting lost. He snorts when we come across wildebeest. They snort back or sneeze at you. We had giraffe at the camp today, which was exciting. They must think we are most peculiar. I suppose we are.
Sarah-Jane’s partner Wendy, who looks after the marketing and accounts, drove up from the office in Johannesburg for the weekend with her boyfriend Donald. Donald is tall with bright red hair and freckles. He adores animals and thought Rebecca’s baby rat was sweet. I don’t.
‘It can’t stay,’ Sarah-Jane said, ‘You’ll have to take it ballooning with you.’

Donald is good at fixing things. Rebecca said,
‘Donald, there’s something wrong with the electricity in this kitchen.’ There was too. He found two dead rats in the fuse box. They had been electrocuted.
‘ROUSES!’ said Sarah-Jane at the top of her voice. Her bullterrier, Tigger, who normally spends the whole day asleep on the sofa, sped into the kitchen and started looking about frantically. Donald moved the fridge. There was a streak and another rodent, the size of a cat I might say, was exterminated.
‘They have to go,’ said Donald, the animal lover, ‘Or you will attract snakes.’
‘Not snakes,’ (me).
‘Right,’ said Donald. ‘The feed shed.’
And went striding over to the place where the horse food is kept. A primeval instinct to hunt rose within me as I started moving tools and Donald heaved sacks around, urging Tigger on. It was all dust and mayhem. After a completely hectic fifteen minutes we managed to find one small mouse. It was dispatched very quickly.
I don’t know why everyone is so besotted by Rebecca’s pet. She stayed behind to nurture it while we packed sleeping bags and food onto the horses and rode off to camp down by the Palala River with the clients. We had to; Johann was still finishing the loos.
It is such varied, stunning country. The vegetation changes dramatically as you ride towards the river and the view changes at every turn. We started coming across hippo tracks when we were still high in the hills. Donald told me that they’ll easily wander two kilometres from the river at night in search of grazing, but I was amazed that they had tackled such steep, stony tracks. They’re deemed dangerous, being responsible for more deaths than any other animal in Africa.
‘Apart from the mosquito,’ Sarah-Jane put in.
As there was no sign of hippo in the river we tied up the horses on a picket line and climbed along a ledge under a high cliff face to find more Bushmen paintings; little stick-like people and exquisite pictures of animals.
There were enough tents for the guests, but Donald, Sarah-Jane, Wendy and I slept out by the horses. This sounds romantic, but it wasn’t. It was smelly. The horses exude so much methane you can’t breathe. They don’t sleep much, they only need about three hours and spend the rest of the time chomping away or bickering. You’d think you could lie on your saddle blanket, but you can’t. After riding all day they’re drenched with sweat.
We slept on a groundsheet but the moon was so bright that I kept waking, thinking someone had left the light on. The next moment it was like trying to sleep in a disco. Sheets of lightning were flashing around us and rain started to come down. Donald wrapped the groundsheet round himself, but us girls barged in on the clients without any warning or any shame; Sarah-Jane and her revolver with one man, Wendy with another and me with two rather terrified girls. Luckily they all made it back.
Must go and make twelve beds and a vat of beef stroganoff.

Lots of love,


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