There’s no definition to the cloud. Nothing to get a fix on or to find hope in. No gap in which to poke a nail and peel back the grey. It has been like this for a while and a fine invisible drizzle that is cold on the skin seems out of place in July. This is Welsh rain. It’s like walking through mountain fog. Even the hills here are picked at with fingers of mist that blur the tops of the trees.
Sixty miles across the county, Wales is dry. Our father tells me so. (He used to art in Devon but moved to the mountains, which is better because the M5 grates). I will take the girls to see him and nain in a few days – the first time that we will have crossed the border and seen the mountains since the start of the lockdown. In fact it will be the furthest that we have travelled since the new year.
It is only a hundred miles but it doesn’t take much more than twenty to leave behind the plastic circles and enter a world where there is more nature than humanity and the circles are easily avoided. It is easier to breathe and the sky is bigger. The ground doesn’t tremble with traffic or the air taste like motorway.
The front of the old house looks east towards England and there is a line of hills, the Long Mynd, that I can see from my early morning walks. There’s some sort of symmetry in that which I would explain to our father but I don’t think he’d get it.
What I want to do with these Notes From the Edge pieces is to track the adventure of summer and show that fifty yards, twenty miles, a hundred miles, or 5,650 miles are all far enough from home to get out of the bubble and find the magic. It’s all about who you take with you in your head.
I have a final few words on Lusaka…
In front of each of the little houses the ntembe. On the table piles of potatoes or three or four bananas. In the shade, behind the table, a person. A dusty city full of people. A world full of sentience; of thinking and hoping. Do they dream, these people? I wondered what a reasonable dream would be in a place like this. What was even possible to achieve? I had worked my way out of my own poverty and developed an idea about how well I had done to sit in my book-lined study in my detached house with two cars on the drive. But I was humbled by this and with each turn of a corner wondered how much more I could take in and process. I wanted to see it all; I wanted to gobble it up and know these people. These beautiful people at the very origins of all of us.
At George Compound we paused to watch a football game on a bare patch of land on the edge of the slum. There were at least fifty players and not one of them was wearing shoes. The ball, when we could see it, was crafted of plastic bags tightly woven and regularly in need of quick repair. There was no referee but also no arguing.
Plastic was everywhere. It was a blight on the countryside and clogged the streams, caught in the fences and gathered in corners. It is another sign of how far apart nations can be in the hierarchy of need. It would be a national talking point back home – prominent figures would head campaigns to control the litter: dropping litter back home can incur a fine that is equivalent to three months’ wages here. There are more pressing things to worry about. We bought a brisket that had just been hammered out of shiny tin from the front of one of the huts. It was 15Kw – about 20p. I gave the man 100Kw because I felt guilty about the football. I felt guilty about it all.
And yet I am in love with the place. There is something about the spirit of the people that I love; about the women that draws me towards them with something deeper than I have felt at the passing glimpse of a girl on the street in England. It would be a while until I would work out what it was but the tug in my chest would linger with me for all of the time that we were here.
It was more than the smile, but these people knew how to smile, and more than this: they knew how to use their smiles. Each checkpoint we were stopped at, each shop that we entered, each interaction we had with the locals, I felt that we were instantly put in our place by the surly dark stare of someone immensely more savvy and confident than ourselves. It was a look of setting things in place and we all of us wilted at it and knew our place instantly. And then, with the speed of an African sunrise, the melting of the ebony and a smile like none I had ever known would light up the day. He greeting: “how’a’you” was one that resonated throughout our trip. It was a happy greeting – a polite greeting and one that expected a response. “I’m fine” was the usual return along with the same question back. It was a beautiful thing.
A Lusaka market clung to the edges of the buildings and unfurled tarpaulin made a tunnel of the stalls and kept out the sun. A woman selling fish and nuts and plastic combs demanded money when we took her photograph. She also sold chitenge – rectangular sheets of colourful cloth that were used everywhere – wrapped around the slender figures of the women, wadded in between their heads and the loads that they carried, as shade above this market. I had decided that they would be easy to pack into my rucksack and carry home as gifts. I bought six at about $2 each. A crowd gathered as the transaction gathered steam and I pulled down her original $20 asking price. It’s tricky at the start to argue with these people, such is their need for as much as they can make. But they also know that in our belts we carry more than a year’s takings, so it is easily forgivable. As I took out my wallet and counted through my notes a $10 bill dropped onto the floor and was blown along in the dust. In a flash a hundred children’s writhing black bodies had pounced on it and I gave it up for gone and paid the lady. A tug on my shirt made me turn and look down into the smiling face of a small boy. He held out my $10 dollar bill for me to take. I let him have it and smiled myself as he took off down the alley pursued by the mob. I wasn’t sure if I had done him a good turn at all.