I turned 12 in a country a world away from where I grew up. My family had been spending a sabbatical year in the US, New England mostly. It had been a year of travel and immense and varied landscapes, of being popular at school for the first time (an experience the reality of which never truly sunk in enough to be enjoyed) on account of being “foreign”, and having an “exotic” accent, and eating with both a knife and fork.
In Connecticut we’d lived in a house with a lake in the back garden, a wooden house, with a fireplace that actually worked. There was a real forest over the road, and in winter there was snow and ice, and in autumn, trees which turned brilliant colours and dropped their leaves, changing the landscape entirely. It was utterly different from Africa. The year our family spent in the US for years afterwards delineated our lives into things that happened either before or after.
When we returned to Africa a few months after my twelfth birthday, we returned to the house where I had been born. I’d continue to live there until I left to be married.
It was a beautiful house, really, thinking back – it had leaded light windows, high ceilings and solid walls, pitched rooves and a bricked exterior grown over with a small-leafed creeper. It was double-storeyed, with the bedrooms up a turning flight of stairs that had, like the rest of the house, parquet wooden floors with loose parts which rattled in sequence a few minutes after someone had walked over them. It wasn’t eery, though; the house was too full of noise and family. Ghosts would have been disgruntled by the lack of attention and left for more hauntable pastures.
My mother always said the house was too small for us, though. I suppose she meant there were too few bedrooms, since there were 6 of us and three bedrooms. It didn’t seem small to me, and in any case, I loved that house growing up just for being what it was; the place we’d always lived.
Being the only girl child, I had the privilege of being the only one with a bedroom to myself. I hated it. My brothers and I, when we’d shared a room in our younger years, had spent many whispered hours after lights-out playing games with torchlight on the ceilings, and besides which, I didn’t care to be left alone with the anxiety. I got used to it eventually, though. It was a tiny room, but it had the best view in the house.
We were situated on a ridgeline, and the back of the house on the top floor, where only the bathroom and my bedroom were, looked out across an undeveloped landscape of valleys and hills. Later on, squatter settlements sprung up there in the bush, and the regular calls of the muezzins drifting over from the mosques were interspersed with the sound of automatic gunfire stuttering up from the valley. But before that, I’d look out from my window, especially on moonlit nights (because the moon also laid claim to that valley) and think of Mowgli and his jungle.
It wasn’t that far-fetched a fantasy. As youngsters it was drummed into us to look out for mambas and boomslangs and black widow spiders. I remember one time a king cobra was discovered in our hedge by a very jumpy gardener. Gangs of vervet monkeys regularly raided our suburban gardens for fruit – one bite of each before it was dropped to the ground; homeowners hated the buggers. Once, I attempted to see off a monkey in the avocado tree with a shooing and (ineffectual) waving of the arms. The cheeky blighter, affronted, came chattering angrily down the branch towards me, her reprimand more persuasive than mine, because I went scuttling back into the kitchen and shut the door.
There was a night when a man was killed outside the gates of that house. I heard the shot, a clap which made me jump, but I couldn’t place the sound, so I went on with my business and would have forgotten about it, except that the adults hastened out as the sirens came, frowning and looking grim. I followed them, pulled by a horrified curiousity, expecting to be scolded and sent back inside by my mother. At first, she, distracted, didn’t notice me padding alongside her in the dark, but when she did I received the anticipated flea in my ear and slunk back in, secretly relieved.
There was another time, years later, when I was alone in the big house with its iron bars on every downstairs window, when I spied out of the window a squad of policemen armed with automatic weapons advancing through the garden. I was happy to see them, actually. I’d had a man knock on the door ostensibly looking for work, and hadn’t seen him leave the property though I’d been watching, so I was panicking slightly, as I’d been trained. Turned out, a neighbour had been nosy enough to see the stranger arrive and not leave, and suspicious enough to call an emergency. Life was steeped in bloody horror stories in those days of violence and paranoia. We kept living like strangers and conquerors in the land, locked up behind walls and burglar guards against the barbarian hordes. Bravado isn’t lack of fear. I guess that’s why you need a squad of armed men to deal with a lone intruder. That incident was pretty much a non-event, though. No sign of the man was found, and the sergeant looked either disappointed or annoyed to have been called out for nothing, I wasn’t sure which.
When I left that house in the autumn of ’94 to begin a dysfunctional family life of my own, it was also in the throes of our international move. Within 6 months, the family had relocated across the world to New Zealand. In the commotion of immigration the sadness of not only leaving home but saying goodbye to it forever, barely registered. In the years since, StreetView has allowed me to walk down those familiar roads again, even though I’ve never been back. The technological magic of the warlock Google. The property has changed now from a family home to something more fortress-like. There’s a sense of disconnect, the distortion of a memory – but it’s an acceptable loss. Life goes on. But there’s no house that will ever stand in the gap left by a childhood home. Isn’t that just how things are?