Spitfire and Samphire

The celebrations continued for a couple of weeks. In my home town of Leamington Spa, the children made up for the last soggy month of convalescence in Côte d’Ivoire: balmy days spent meeting cousins for the first time, having picnics in parks, playing football, feeding the ducks and eating ‘99’ icecreams from the vans of my childhood, vanilla twirls with chocolate flakes and raspberry sauce. I spent golden mornings doing T’ai Chi on dewy lawns, golden evenings going down the road to get fish and chips. It felt a long way from Liberia.

Royal Leamington Spa, pretty as a picture

Royal Leamington Spa, pretty as a picture in July

Hanging out with my brother

Hanging out with my brother

The Jephson Gardens

In the Jephson Gardens

Singalong with Uncle Spence

Singalong with Uncle Spence

He's multitalented

He’s multitalented

Meanwhile, back in Monrovia, Sampson said suddenly everyone in the shops was wearing surgical gloves, and there were bowls outside hotels asking you to wash before entering. The Ebola death toll had reached 600 and he told me not to come back to the unremitting rain but to consider extending our tickets.

On the 23rd July, I took the children to see their legendary great-grandfather Harry, known universally as H. My Dad had told me he was in a bad way, struggling with a change in pain medication that was giving him some serious side effects. He’d last seen Ruby when she was two, and Zola had never met him. They were excited; I was trying not to be tense.

H's garden, his pride and joy

H’s garden, his pride and joy

My grandfather is an extraordinary man. He was born in India to colonial parents who seemed incapable of love and sent him away to a brutal boarding school in the Darjeeling hills when he was six. At 17, he ran away from a dull apprenticeship to join the RAF, lying about his age in order to enlist. At 18 he began training as a Spitfire pilot in Rhodesia, got sent to Suez and narrowly missed active service as the war in Europe ended just as he qualified. He flew up and down from Burma to Bangkok, Saigon, Singapore and Hong Kong throughout the last year of the war, until Hiroshima put a stop to it all. He then flew Dakotas transporting the troops back home.

H the Spitfire pilot

H the Spitfire pilot

After he was demobbed, he met my grandmother, who was six years older than him. They got married when he was 21, and once settled, he took on her two sons, aged 7 and 4, the youngest of whom was my Dad. When her first husband, their biological father, left her, my grandmother had to farm them out to relatives while she went to work; my father had no idea he had a brother until her marriage to H brought them all back together. My grandmother and H had another son, and he treated all three of them exactly the same. I will always revere him for taking on those boys, when he was barely more than one himself.

Yet, this big-hearted, most hearty-voiced of men had a fatal flaw. He was defiantly racist. In the late 70s he refused to allow his niece’s boyfriend into the house because he was black. When we adopted our son, he would not acknowledge him: although he conscientiously sent a £10 note every birthday and Christmastime to Ruby and all his other great-grandchildren, he never even sent a card to Zola.

I had decided not to make a big deal of this but was prepared to brazen it out with relentless positivity, as I am wont to do. In the event, Big H surprised us all. Despite being so weak that he kept having to close his eyes and rest while talking to me, when the children arrived, he focused sharply and addressed Zola purposefully: “So, I hear you’re a sportsman, the best in your class eh?” Even more surprisingly, shy Zola, (without the slightest suspicion of anything amiss) responded equally positively and chatted confidently. I may have been standing with my mouth wide open.

Meeting H

Meeting H

H made my Mom go and fetch his old Spitfire calendar to give to Zola to keep and then he gave him a £20 note “so he doesn’t feel left out when Ruby opens her birthday card”. Zola said a wide-eyed thank you, and H hugged him. As I took this picture, my folks and my brother were standing behind me, sobbing silently. It was all a bit Hollywood-ending.

Thanks H

Thanks H

Half an hour later, the doctor arrived and ordered an ambulance to take H into hospital. He never came back.

Too beautiful to last

1

2

3

I had been concerned that we would struggle to top Zola’s birthday party (https://africaclockwise.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/a-birthday-to-remember/), but Ruby’s 13th was the bomb. Celebrations started the night before when my Auntie Jill hosted the best pre-birthday party ever with the coolest cake, featuring knitted representatives of cousins Molly and Alfie alongside Ruby and Zola on the top.

Ruby's first summer birthday party - yes, that is a jug of Pimms on the lawn

Ruby’s first summer birthday party – yes, that is a jug of Pimms on the lawn

Cousins and cake

Cool cousins AND cake – Ruby was so happy

Look – Dolly has babies!

Look – Dolly has babies!

Classic Pearce evening

Classic Pearce evening telling bad jokes

On 27th July itself, Uncle Spence arranged the best horse-riding lesson ever for Ruby. We had a perfect Sunday lunch at ‘The Inn, Farnborough’ and went through Fenny Compton to go kite flying at Burton Dassett. Who invents these names?! The Midlands have never felt so sunkissed or photogenic; it was all so Ambridge!

Ruby's birthday riding lesson with Carole

Ruby’s birthday riding lesson

Thanks Carole!

Thanks Carole!

Uncle Spence getting the feel of the crop

Uncle Spence getting the feel of the crop

The Inn, Farnborough - YUM

The Inn, Farnborough – YUM

Kite-flying at Burton Dassett

Kite-flying at

Burton Dassett

Burton Dassett

Special times

Special times

The feeling of living in a bubble was enhanced by 10 days ‘radio silence’. Ironically almost the longest time I have been offline on this entire trip was on arrival in this first world country – some obscure setting on my laptop was blocking all internet connection. Heartfelt thanks to James in Western Computer, Leamington Spa, for figuring it out and switching from ‘Manual’ to ‘DHCP’, whatever that is.

The celebrations just kept coming

The celebrations just kept on coming – Happy Birthday Mom!

Looking good for 70!

Looking good for 70

It was a bittersweet time, hovering between sunshiny outings and hospital visits; a week recalling the fun and foibles of being part of the Pearce family, perhaps best illustrated by their addiction to bad puns and ongoing silly jokes. The first day we all piled into the (upgraded for an extra three) hire car, my Dad introduced the “I’ve got a new job” game e.g.

I’ve got a new job
What is it?
Bodybuilder
How’s it going?
I’m going from strength to strength

I’ve got a new job
What is it?
Swimming teacher
How’s it going?
I’m a bit out of my depth

I’ve got a new job
What is it?
Writing crosswords
How’s it going?
I haven’t a clue

I’ve got a new job
What is it?
Managing allotments
How’s it going?
I’ve lost the plot

I’ve got a new job
What is it?
Executioner
How’s it going?
I’m getting the hang of it

I’ve got a new job
What is it?
Lollypop tester
How’s it going?
It sucks

When the kids ran out of ideas a few days later, my brother invented a new game. Famous bands and food. The possibilities were endless: The Rolling Scones; James Brown Bread; Dexy’s Midnight Runner Beans; Sushi and the Banshees; Bjorkshire Pudding… You get the gist, off you go.

Sampson spent the first two weeks we were away going round hotels in Monrovia and asking them to start collecting waste oil for the truck. Meanwhile a top Liberian doctor had died and two infected American health workers were flown out. I wanted him to come and join us – he’d been given permission by Guinness to suspend the World Record attempt as the borders had been closed and it was impossible for the Big Green Truck to drive out of the country – but he wasn’t keen on coming to UK in summer (there’s no surf) and still wanted to check out Robertsport.

One evening, I was reminded of the characteristics that have made Britain great. We set off to get something to eat and found a lovely pub, with tables outside overlooking the river. Having spent quite a while deciding how to make the most of the special offers, we went in to order, only to be told that children could not be served after 7pm. It was five past.

“We don’t want to sit inside,” said my brother “and there’s no one else out there. What harm can it do?” “Sorry” said the young man behind the bar, “But it’s more than my job’s worth”. There’s something about this completely inflexible, stickler-for-the-rules mentality that I admire and despise almost equally. It’s why you rarely get killer epidemics in the UK; it’s also why people like me can’t live here.

By the end of the month, I was begging Sampson to reconsider his decision to stay put: Ebola deaths were at 700, Liberian schools had been closed, flights were getting more expensive and I didn’t want him to get stranded on the wrong side of a quarantine. But he said he’d spoken to both the SA and the UK embassies and had been assured there was no need to panic. Yet. Casualties had been restricted to health workers and family members of victims.

Our third week in England, we went down to London and for the first time in my life I behaved like a Proper Tourist. Ruby’s Fairy Godmother Justine took us on a Big Bus tour and a magnificent boat trip down the Thames. Zola had become quite enamoured of Big Ben, and was not disappointed when he got close up. Juzzie and I were rather surprised to recognise the accent of the policeman guarding the entrance to Parliament: he turned out to be a Sharks fan from Durbs!

The Big Bus was a hoot

The Big Bus was a hoot

Zola gets up close and personal with Big Ben

Zola gets to grips with Big Ben

Tower Bridge

Thames tour to Tower Bridge

This is PC Barnborough from Durban

This is PC Barnborough from Durban

Everything was fascinating to the kids: the Tube map, the DIY paystations, the double-decker buses. I was fascinated how easily they swap contexts: here in the city, they noticed how the rush of wind heralds an oncoming Tube train, not a tropical rain squall. They took to giant escalators like ducks to water.

Auntie Juz also treated them to a ride on this

Auntie Juz also treated them to a ride on this

The Starflyer. Eeeeek.

The Starflyer. Eeeeek.

On the open top deck of the Big Bus, I sat back in the warm sunshine and let London wash over me. I felt very lucky to see the installation by ceramicist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper commissioned by Deborah Shaw at the Tower of London: ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ features 888, 246 ceramic poppies currently being ‘planted’ by volunteers, pouring down from a window into the moat, one for each of those who died in World War I. (My camera battery died – Google it, it’s spectacular.)

The commemorations for the centenary of the war began on August 4th. Thinking back to family visits to the war graves (my Mom’s grandfather survived the Somme), I reflected upon the sacrifices made by others to give my generation the choices we have now. I have been waiting for my husband for just a few weeks, worrying about a relatively low threat compared to the wives of those wartime soldiers. My vigil is nothing in comparison. How very very blessed we are.

At the Air Maroc offices, I changed our return flight dates to the first week in September, a week before our Liberian visas expire. Back in Monrovia, Sampson emailed me to say the lady at the UK embassy was not advising anyone to leave. The situation was no worse, it was just that the Liberian government was finally taking action, and getting into gear with some travel restrictions. She’d just spoken to British Airways and they had no plans to pull out, so not to worry. He was determined to drive to Robertsport in Sean’s car to check the surf…

I was quite knocked out by the beauty of the capital, especially where it’s tarting itself up – some places, such as Old Street where I used to work, are unrecognisable. Strolling alongside the canal to Angel, past elegant cafés and designer offices, it felt more like Paris or Venice. I also have to admit that I wasn’t expecting to experience the kindness of strangers in the UK as often as in Africa and my prejudices have been shown up for what they are. Having said that, it may not be a coincidence that most of the kindness was shown by immigrants who are disproportionately aware of just how unfriendly Londoners can be: thanks to Adrián, David and Iván, the charming Spanish boys in the flat, friendly Turkish/English gentlewoman Inci who gave us a £1 coin for our trolley at Gatwick, the Slavic ladies at the Queen’s Cottage Café who took care of the kids while I spent an hour queuing to speak to the ever-cheerful Roberta a.k.a. Bobby at Lloyds Bank, Kilburn High Rd.

London offers an unbeatable range of free things to do to the cash-strapped mother. The Science Museum is at once a breathtaking building, an extraordinary resource and a fount of knowledge and inspiration. Zola was entranced by the awesome displays from history of the engine to space travel and a mural made entirely from gobstoppers. Ruby enjoyed the impressive “Fuelling the future” climate change exhibition: as well as the interactive computer games and exhibits, she got to see her name and comments flash up on the diamond display of the giant Energy Ring suspended above the gallery.

My favourite was “The Rubbish Collection” by Joshua Sofaer, an artist who unbagged and documented the Science Museum’s waste for 30 days, and then displayed it. Alongside 7.4 tonnes of paper and card, 650L of dried digested ‘sludge cake’ (produced from 3600m3 of sewage waste) and 200L of biodiesel recycled from cafés, was an enormous circle of hundreds of plastic knives and forks, a whole suitcase of clothes, about 50 perfectly good pencils and pens, a used pregnancy test (negative), a vast array of pharmaceuticals, 3 fridges, 3 wheelchairs, 27 drink bottles, 16.5 pairs of shoes and a small snooker table. There was also £40.16 cash, 3 credit cards, one love letter and 6 lunchbox post-it notes “for Nellie from Moogie xxx”. Fascinating.

On 4th August, the WHO announced that the Ebola death toll had reached 887. On 5th August, BA suspended flights to Liberia until the end of the month. By 6th August, the death toll was 932. On 7th President Johnson-Sirleaf declared a national emergency.

On 8th August, our wedding anniversary, I felt rather wobbly first thing in the morning and cried for my grandfather, remembering how, 16 years ago, despite debilitating back pain, he had travelled down to Cornwall lying prone in the back of a van to grace the ceremony with his presence. I then had a slight panic when I couldn’t get hold of Sampson via phone or email. After an hour, he was able to get online to me; all was well.

But later that day, when we were round visiting Auntie Juz, Sampson emailed again: Ebola had reached Robertsport. A woman had arrived by motorbike touching many en route. Many were about to die. It was time for him to leave.

Juz and I both got online to find the cheapest booking as soon as possible. We spent a nightmarish hour filling in forms over and over again as flights kept disappearing before our eyes. The best deal I could muster was three times the price of our tickets, over four legs, and still nine days away, but finally it was confirmed.

The kids and I took the bus back to the flat in Maida Vale and fell into bed. I was so tired, I knew that even Zola’s kicks in the bottom or karate chops to the neck would not disturb me tonight. I felt a huge relief: the worst was over, he was on his way. I fell asleep about 11.30pm.

At 11.40, my grandfather H passed peacefully away at the Myton Hospice in Warwickshire, with many of the family at his side. He was the same age as Lauren Bacall, and just as stylish.

My grand-father

My grand-father, Big H

Dude

What a champ

Thanks to all our kind hosts: Fairy Godmother Juzzie, Nick and Jackie, John and Jill, Ray at Charnwood Guest House, Harold and Margaret, Babs from Gabs. Thanks to Matt and Lucy for lending us the blow-up mattresses without which it would have been a lot less fun on the floor. Thanks to all the family who came to visit, especially Darren and Kate, Auntie Hilary, Steve and Andrew – it was so cool to hang with the cousins! Thanks to Elaine for giving us a heavily discounted room in London after Zola had an unexpected massive cat-induced asthma attack in my brother’s house at midnight, and thanks to his neighbour Gerard for letting us sleep on his sofa!

On Sunday 10th August, Hurricane Bertha hit Britain and a month’s worth of rain came down in one go on London. It was just like Liberia! The precise moment it washed over Maida Vale was as we set out to the Tube trundling our two new suitcases. How had our one small bag transmogrified into two huge cases full of stuff? I have one word for you: Nana.

Sampson’s brother Paul and the supermoon came to meet us off the coach in Plymouth. The children have spent another wonderful week getting to know their other mad uncle, generous aunt Fran, her angelic horse Saffy and their practically-human three-legged dog Minty.

Fran lends Saffy to Ruby

Fran lends Saffy to Ruby…

and Ruby gives Saffy her heart

and Ruby gives Saffy her heart

Saffy's belongs to Minty

Saffy’s belongs to Minty

Fun fun fun!

Fun fun fun!

Home

Spoilt rotten

It has been so comforting to be with Paul who’s been worrying about Sampson almost as much as me. With the children occupied with riding and grooming and trampolining and skateboarding, not to mention blackberry-picking and Wii-playing and firework-watching, I have had time and peace to write and grieve. I am so grateful.

Uncle Paul and Zola skate Plymouth Hoe

Uncle Paul and Zola skate Plymouth Hoe

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Both my brother and Sampson's are perennial Peter Pans...

What is it with our Peter Pan brothers?

One day, we went to visit Fran’s son and his partner and their recently rescued ex-battery hens (gotta love England) and took a windy walk around the coastal path by their beautiful sea-view house. Paul was grabbing handfuls of what looked like baby asparagus growing on the rocks. I learned this is ‘samphire’, a wild salad that tastes of the sea. I loved the word and was fascinated to discover that the collection of rock samphire is mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear, and marsh samphire is being investigated as a potential bio-diesel source. It’s nutritious and delicious as well. What a gift.

Sparkwell samphire

Samphire for supper

What a gift this totally unexpected and bizarrely sunny time with our family has been. What an incongruous gift, that the largest and longest outbreak of Ebola haemorragic fever in history will allow me to be here to pay my respects at my grandfather’s funeral. What a gift that he allowed us to forgive him his trespasses and forget that he ever spat fire but remember only the unconditional love he gave.

Thank you H

Thanks for everything H

 

Coming soon: Sampson’s story…

 

 

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9 Responses to Spitfire and Samphire

  1. Deirdre Prinsloo says:

    Enjoy reading your blog. I live in Rugby, my sister lives in Hout Bay. Looking forward to further postings.

  2. spencerjude says:

    Crying buckets, great post.xxx

  3. Kerstie Read says:

    Sam, you transport me to deepest darkest Africa, then straight to shiny bright England with a flick of your pen. Or keyboard, as it were… I feel like I am experiencing these countries with you, meeting village chiefs, avoiding supermassive potholes… I’m loving the personal touches, the detail… Dolly, the amazing finale of H – wow what a story, that brought tears! And your accounts are ever effervescent, even though writing so much must feel like a slog at times, especially when you were sick and having to home-school on top of it all! My darling friend, you are an inspiration to us all. We miss you guys, and Rebecca really misses Ruby and Zola loads. Happy birthday Rubes and Zola, you are both growing up into fine strapping citizens of the planet! Lots and lots of love Kerstie xxxx

  4. I too have experienced, in my own family, the evaporation of lifelong racism with the approach of death.

  5. Sue says:

    Thank you for the wonderful blogs and for educating me on a different Africa and its lovely people; I have been following you since meeting your parents in January in Fishoek. I live between Kent and Cape Town and was showing my friend, Kay, the delights of the Mother City at the time. She is a friend of theirs from Spain and we spent a lovely day together at their home and at Cape Point I have loved this particular blog about your return to your home town – so delightfully English for your children! Condolences on the death of your Grandad – how wonderful that you were there for him at the end.
    Please give my regards to your parents,
    Sue

  6. As you can see I am catching up on a few here. This post really stood out to me. Your family life – joys and sorrows – against the background of world events, both past and present. It’s a complex story and you told it well.

    I’m sorry for your Grandfather’s passing, and for those living with Ebola and its threat. I’m glad you’re safe yourselves and that you had/have that time together.

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