A sample of writing by Amanda Buchan
The dinner party had entered the last drinks and herbal tea stage “We must go” she said, “I need my bed, and my earplugs.” She grinned round the table, “I can even hear him snoring through the wall of my room!” The casual information that they no longer shared a bed was not lost on the other guests, or on him. He reacted with his apologetic smile, he did not look at her but rose, rummaging for the car keys.
“Drive safely, see you soon, sleep well!”
“Come on Fatman, I have to be up early.” They left, she reeling a little; he opening the car door for her.
The hosts closed the door on the cold night and the departing pair “She despises him, doesn’t she? He never stands up to her. Do you think he just still adores her? It’s pathetic isn’t it?”
“ I have known him since we were kids, and I still don’t know what goes on inside his head. He is what used to be called an honourable man. Perhaps that’s it.”
In the car, they didn’t speak. With no audience, she had nothing to say. He looked straight ahead at the road.
At home, she made herself a mug of coffee. “Couldn’t you have been a bit more interested in what everyone was saying about the film? You just listened to Paul boring on about his children all evening. Oh well, birds of a feather I suppose. What on earth would you have been like if we had had children?”
It was then that he looked at her. She knew it hurt him, more than her public references to his weight, his snoring, his receding hair.
Like most married women, she had imagined what it would be like to be without her husband. She imagined the relief, the freedom. She had married him when she needed him, he was generous and reliable and in the early days, even attractive. It soon wore off, they shared no interests, he never managed to play tennis even passably, he did not earn a large salary and she did not understand his humour. He liked learning languages and books about religion. He was interested in birds. He was weird. She sensed a hidden superiority beneath his humility, and hated it. But each time she thought of escape, she considered the fuss of separation, his pitiful despair, and more important, the possible censor. His old friends of course, they were as weird as he was, but he was oddly popular with most of her friends too. This possible loss of approval, coupled with inertia and convenience had always prevented her going to the point of throwing him out, and of course he needed her, desperately, couldn’t live without her. Actually that was one of the most annoying things, his commitment, his dogged devotion, his hurt look.
“Oh don’t give me that hurt look” she sighed.
He brought her tea in the morning. He always brought her tea. The weekend would be tennis, and cinema with friends. Breakfast was on the table. He was already dressed and making coffee.
“You aren’t wearing that old jacket again, it’s too tight, it looks ridiculous.”
“It will do for the journey. I won’t need it in Finland. I should explain, I am going to Finland this afternoon.”
He didn’t sound like him. Her voice came out in an angry bray “What are you talking about? What do you mean, Finland?”
He spoke very rationally, matter of fact, almost casually, “I mean I do not want ever again see that orange kimono, or live with your horrible taste in pictures and furniture, or walk into a room together with you, or hear your shrieking laugh or notice the moustache which is appearing on your upper lip, or smell your perfume, or hear your ignorant views or remember every day, every hour what a stupid, stupid mistake I made ever fucking you, and then stupidly, stupidly believing that I should stay with you.”
There was silence. He continued almost smiling, “It will no doubt make you laugh, but I have found something worthwhile, so I am going to it. I do not wish you well and all the platitudes one ought to say, I do not really wish you anything, except away from me. The lawyers will be in touch about the flat. You can keep it and everything in it.”
“You have mayonnaise on your cheek, can’t take you anywhere!” He brushes his cheek, “No, the other side.” She is smiling but he is embarrassed and thinks he can see she is also embarrassed. He is sure he embarrasses her, even annoys her, he hates it and it happens more and more; flies undone, food on his lip, glasses dirty.. nothing terrible just rather embarrassing. Ageing.
She used to admire him so, listen to him with shining eyes, his opinions were right, she respected him, she quoted what he said to others. He was her mentor. Now, she was becoming the slightly impatient friend of an old colleague.
He did not dare to wish it back as it was, but he does wish it, angrily he wants to mount the pedestal again. He wanted to say something sharp, authoritative. Instead he says “Oh Dear, you must be ashamed to be seen with me, ‘a beautiful woman like you with an old crock’, that’s what all these people must be thinking” He looks around the restaurant, that probably was what they were thinking, stupid, dull people.
She smiles, “Nonsense” and touches his hand. She has beautiful hands. She wore a ring he had given her, plaited gold, one of her favourites. She always wore something he had given her, whenever they met.
They parted at the door, a cheerful little embrace in case someone was passing, and then they went, he to Elizabeth and she to her flatmate. It was like so many evenings together, but it was decisive, he had perhaps imagined too much but he knew that night and hated it that time was overtaking them.
London is perhaps the easiest city in the world in which to conduct an affair, indeed it would be quite possible to conduct several without anyone discovering, and no doubt people do, but theirs was more than an affair. To start with it was 12 years now, “Longer than many marriages” she had said. He lived in Highgate and she in Fulham. They worked in adjacent buildings near Millbank. It was very easy to meet for dinner anywhere in the huge diverse city and stay in a hotel. Hotels were paid to be discreet.
She had been a trainee when he was already very senior in the bank. She was so bright, so eager, so promising, and 18 years his junior. He was respected, admired and very good at his job. The attraction had been mutual, each hardly believing the other would be interested. It was the beginning of the most important thing in both their lives.
They talked, and sparred with ideas, they laughed, they made love. Often, they went to a hotel after dinner, and left in the early hours. They only stayed together if Elizabeth was away or they were together out of London for a conference or an overseas trip. He loved those times, when he could go to sleep with her curled next to him and awake with her there.
Early on they had agreed, he would not leave Elizabeth. He would not hurt her and the boys, and she agreed. The guilt of smashing up a long and good natured marriage was more than either of them could countenance. But in that agreement they both knew lay the seeds of an end which was, he knew, approaching.
She had told him, that she wanted children. He said it was impossible, it would wreck her career, looking after a child on her own, and he already had two. So that was that, but that also lay in wait, in the seeds of the end.
He did not want to be the one to finish it. She knew this and knew that for his sake, he must be. He needed it to be be his responsibility, his gift of a life to her. And she knew he would lose most. She would not be single and childless for ever; she would make a new beginning. He could make no beginning, he would concentrate on Elizabeth and the boys, and retirement.
After their dinner, for a short while, they saw each other more often than ever, as if frantic to make the most of the time they could still allow themselves. She suggested a new restaurant, a joint presentation at a conference, for a short painfully precious time they carried on, and then he waited a week, and then he told her. That it was finished, that he would love her for ever. There was no argument, just terrible pain, the disbelief that the most important thing in their lives was over, that they were committing a joint suicide.
They glimpsed each other now and then at meetings and in corridors, and then she asked him to lunch. In an unemotional formal restaurant setting she told him she was marrying an architect. ‘Nothing near banking’ she smiled. “He loves you?”, “ Very much”. “ You him?” “Nothing like as much as I love you, but enough”.
He refused the wedding invitation.
In the spring, she wrote to ask him to be the Godfather of her newly born daughter. He was touched. He and Elizabeth went to the service in a pretty country church, and to tea and cake and champagne afterwards in her parent’s house in Dorset. The architect was respectful to them, adoring of his wife and besotted with the baby.
They were about to leave, he presented her with an antique silver box, “ For trinkets or earrings or whatever, when she is older.” Inside was a ring of plaited silver. She kissed him, and took his arm and led him into the damp garden, “Just for a minute”. The Wisteria dripped on them, and a blackbird sang. She looked up, a big tender triumphant smile,“ You know she is yours don’t you? ”
Part of a Memoir
When I was six we left Khartoum and went to live in Kuwait. It’s the first place I remember vividly. We lived in a building called The Political Agency in a flat above my father’s offices, in a walled compound overlooking the sea.
Kuwait is one of the hottest countries in the world. Nothing grew. It never rained. There were no trees. We had 2 air conditioners, one in my parents’ room and one in the sitting room. Children accept what is presented as home. Kuwait was home and extreme heat was normal.
Kuwait was just still a walled city, being catapulted into modernity by the oil. Dhows still sailed into the harbour but the rich Kuwaitis drove Cadillacs. Instinctively I loved the remains of the old city and hated the bulldozers that destroyed the mud walls and carved wooden doors to make room for the office blocks.
My father visited the Ruler and the ruling family regularly, my mother visited the wives. Sometimes my sisters and I changed into dresses and went with her. The Kuwaitis complimented my father on his excellent Arabic, my mother took lessons and conversed about children over coffee and cakes in the wives’ quarters. The cakes were very sticky and sweet and whenever you took one, a cloud of flies rose off them. I couldn’t speak Arabic except a few greetings and some bad words the servants’ children had taught me, so I and the ruler’s shy little daughters, smiled silently at each other and ate cakes.
My sisters loved dolls. I loved animals. I wanted a horse and a dog and a cheetah. There were very few animals in Kuwait, apart from goats and stray dogs, but I discovered dung beetles. My father told me the Arab legend about the dung beetle who fell in love with the moon. I was enchanted and collected the humble black beetles and kept them in a box. Every day I let them out and raced them along a dried up gutter. Most of them escaped but I spent happy hours finding new ones, comparing them and naming them.
There were scorpions too. My parents worried that I might pick up a scorpion instead of a dung beetle so my father obtained a large black scorpion and put it in a bottle so that I could inspect it. I was fascinated, it looked huge, its deadly curled tail threatening us through the glass, it was dignified and dangerous and I will never forget it. It was however completely unlike my dung beetles. I was astonished and indignant that anyone thought I could have confused them.
When I wasn’t playing with the dung beetles I went to an international school. It was run mainly by English teachers. We had English books and English stories and I remember learning by heart a poem that began ‘January brings the snow, Makes our feet and fingers glow…’ There were children of many nationalities in the school, including Kuwaiti children but we recited this astonishing poem right through for all the months of the year. I still wonder what we thought of ‘February brings the rain, Thaws the frozen lake again’ or , perhaps worse, ‘June brings tulips, lilies, roses, Fills the children’s hands with posies’ but we all chanted about snow and thaws and posies. I do not think there was any attempt to teach us anything about where we were and there was no other school for the disparate bunch of children passing part of their childhood there, fitting into nowhere.
I went to Sunday School at the American Mission. Mrs Scudder, the fat American missionary’s fat wife and mother of fat polite Teddy Scudder who went to my school, taught us action songs, ‘ Here’s the chicken eating, pecking at the sod, Here’s the chicken drinking, Saying Thank You God!’ What was the sod? My father used to get me to recite these rhymes to him afterwards, because I learned them with a strong Texan accent and it made him laugh.
One break time I was sitting on the floor with another little girl. Other children were sitting and standing around us. My friend said ‘I hate Teddy Scudder, don’t you?’ As she spoke, I noticed feet in brown sandals a few inches from us. Without looking up, I knew the boy standing in those sandals was Teddy Scudder. In an early practice of diplomacy I said ‘Oh I think he quite nice’.
I had a birthday party a few weeks later. Teddy Scudder gave me a silver snake bracelet.
We had a car and a driver. The driver used to collect us from school. Normally my parents did not allow us to eat in the car, and never, never during Ramadan but the driver sometimes bought us Chappatis as a treat. The delicious taste of the warm moist dough munched in the back of the car will stay with me forever. On the other hand, we would sometimes go outside the city at the weekend to a little beach house in the midst of nowhere, nothing but desert and blue sea. When we did, the caretaker who lived in a black tent nearby, would welcome us with fresh milk from his goats. I hated this milk but my parents insisted that we not only drank it but appeared to enjoy it very much. The caretaker would beam and offer us a second helping. Once the milk was drunk, the weekend was a wonderful two days of freedom away from the protocol of work. Adults and children, we swam, played games, scorched our feet on the sand and slept under the stars.
The ruling families still had slaves. It was very discreet, the slave families had usually been with the ruling families for some generations, and it was said they were very well cared for and perfectly happy; part of the family really. They were however still slaves, and at least one was not perfectly happy, as he appeared one night at the Agency asking to be freed. Even as a child, I remember a quiet flurry of arrangements. He was hidden somewhere in the Agency for a day and then a car took him across the border and we heard nothing more of him. Which border, and how far? Did they ever try to catch him? Did my father give him money? Did he tell Whitehall? Did the ruler know what had happened?
We were in Kuwait during the Suez crisis. My father represented Britain. I learned far later how angry and frustrated he and many of his colleagues were by what was decided in Whitehall. There were riots. The Agency was surrounded by a wall with a sentry box. We watched from upstairs as crowds carrying banners in Arabic shouted outside. The sentries would never have kept them out if they had tried to break in, but I do not think, looking back that the Ruler would have allowed it. He could not however control all the anti- British and anti -American elements. My father persuaded my mother to take me and my sisters to Europe. There was no telephone contact. I am not sure whether my mother told me or I overheard the letter from my father being read aloud, but he wrote telling her that the Agency had been set on fire at night when he was asleep. The fire had taken hold in the sitting room and would have spread but someone woke him and they put the fire out. It must have been started by an Agency employee but they never found out who it was. I do not remember any fuss being made of this event, and my mother remained completely calm.
Some months later we returned to England, almost my first visit. We stayed in Hove, near my grandparents. I cannot imagine anything further from Kuwait than Hove in almost every way. I was introduced to television and hot cross buns and my grandfather took us to Brighton Pier, and I discovered to my great surprise that my mother could drive a car and cook.
After a few weeks we went to West Africa, and Africa became home.
Observations on a work trip.
I’m in Bourbon, the coffee bar at Kigali airport. I got here early. Not much to do but watch. Quite crowded. The most watchable is a large light skinned, middle aged black lady in a green and yellow print dress. Big red sulky lips which are talking and laughing and expressive. Fat arms and a good cleavage, a huge silver necklace and painted arched eyebrows. She gesticulates with the hands and fingers, pressing home the points. Her companion leans back in his armchair, his hands folded, responding to her tirade of conversation with a word or nod now and then. He moves his knees, with nerves? impatience? But mostly he listens, his eyes on her face.
She’s surrounded by luggage. Wagging her fingers at him now, folding her arms now, scowling with concentration. He is passive. He looks away.
A sprinkling of sleepy Europeans. White, travellers in T shirts and backpacks. A few businessmen, African, in suits and ties. A couple of tables of young Rwandan girls with immaculately braided long, long hair. One old black lady with her grown up son. She wears an orange shawl wrapped over her head and her dark glasses are perched atop of it, and her normal glasses on her nose.
It’s night time, what’s she want her dark glasses for, ready on top of her head? She is not so old now that I see her face, It is sad, worried.
I wonder how long I am going to continue doing this. Waiting in airports, looking back over the trip. This one wasn’t bad but 3 weeks is too long, and why was I there? The contribution I made could have been done in 4 days, but they wanted someone there. The first week was lonely. Dinner most evenings alone, eating late after preparing for the next day. Once I left it too late and the restaurant was closed, but I didn’t mind. Went to bed with some biscuits and an apple inside my mosquito net like a cosy private tent.
The second 2 weeks out of the capital, and up the 2 hour drive to the foot the Ruhengeri mountains, with marvellous views of the river valley and the minutely terraced and patchwork cultivated hills. It is always cloudy and grey here, but this time there were a few short periods of sun in the morning, and then a downpour in the afternoon. I and 150 members of staff from the Ministry of Education for a workshop, and Lionel, a consultant from France via North London, and Celestine, my local Rwandan consultant. Charming, multilingual and more capable and efficient than anyone else.
I wonder what they think of me? It is very difficult to know what Rwandans really think, they are well known for this. Celestine often tells me so.
And do they ever wonder what I think?
I have been waiting nearly an hour now. The big yellow and green lady is still in full flow, her face is fascinating, her expressions extreme: scowls, eyebrows raised in scorn, in dismay, fingers pointing wagging, waving, head in hands, then smiling wearily, head then nodding up and down to accentuate her point. I watch her exhausted companion with some compassion. I will never know what she was talking about.
I get a call from Celestine and Lionel. They miss me. They are having dinner together to mourn my departure. I am touched. I miss them too.