The freedom of East Africa was found in its vastness, its vitality. It could be lonely and frightening facing all that space outside, all that unbridled energy, but when I found you, when you took me in your arms and whispered that you’d always be there for me, then I could face anything, challenge freedom to take me as far as it could.
Now inside the heat is suffocating, bottles of pills lined up on the table beside me. I perch on my green high back nursing home chair, a municipal execution chair marked by mediocre geriatric styling, the indent of my presence on its plastic seat shrinking with my body and with time. Escape for now is through my window, to the grass clipped to a regulation No3 back and sides, the flowers choked and collared with brown council labels, the stunted trees staked and padlocked to the ground. But the birds don’t care, the messy pinching pigeons sprawling out their thick feathers and dropping slowly onto the barren beds; the small birds, finches and sparrows, with their tawny flutter and nervous flitting between the skeletal branches; sing song harpies, their synthesised cooing and high-pitched peels climbing from here to the graveyard and beyond.
So different from the ugly squawking and unimaginably bright colours of the birds back in Africa, I feed them with scraps, seeds and stale chunks of bread like an infamous Daily Mail rodent lady. Once the pigeons and scavenging seagulls have fought and shrieked and taken their pickings the smaller birds arrive onto my windowsill, poised and pretty, still-framed on the edge of time. I watch and wait for one more Spring day when the first migrating swallow with its long tail feathers will arrive from the East and fly across the sky like a small boy’s perfect paper plane gliding on a gust of wind.
I am out there early morning, the hard frosted March ground unfamiliar and bony cold through my slippers, the trickling purple veins across my legs standing out like tributaries on the moon. An oncoming milk float makes its steady procession up the hill, the rattle of bottles, the drone hum of its old school Singer engine spinning and whirring, making me drift.
Before I lived in Mombasa in a large white house above the sea. I had a driver, I had a cleaner, I had a husband, and I had you, my love. ‘If I could keep you in my arms and kiss you now I’d die happy ‘ are your words I hold inside.
I first saw you at a dance at the club. You and your family had just arrived from England and yet you seemed at home already. Dancing with different women, so light on your feet and sure in your lead, you kept your gaze directly on each one as you moved them around the floor. Your wife stayed at a table, head down, nursing a drink, but I couldn’t keep my eyes away. At the bar at the back of the room you asked me my name and what I did. No one asked women what they did back then and I wasn’t sure what to say but I regretted that you didn’t ask me to dance.
Remember how we’d escape to the hotel by the Indian Ocean run by my friend, Chantelle? She understood and said nothing. We parted again after a few nights, each parting accepted, those were the times for acceptance, but each time was a heavy stone against my chest, making it hard to breathe or swallow.
On the cruise ship back to England I danced with David, my husband, but thought only of you, the endless grey banks of waves shifting through the ballroom window, my cheeks slapped with a flush of wine. Back in our cabin, seagulls covered our route though the porthole window, turning in the sky, dropping, flicking off the top of the ocean and rising again, then gone.
You wrote letters, collected, piled and ribboned together in an old biscuit tin secreted still at the back of my cupboard, musty clothes, the ink fading on papers yellowing at the edges. Your hands were delicate, your pen sure and swooping, making patterns with letters and words that made me cry, laugh and want to read again and again. I’ve brought them out today for one last look.
I wipe away the ice dust and sit on the nursing home bench, and the first morning light comes on in a house opposite. The yellow streetlight above hums for a moment before it’s snuffed out.
It is very cold. My head swoons, my heart bleeds and trickles before momentarily faltering, a weak rush into my mouth, my lips cracked, untouched. I run Vaseline on my rough lips with my fingers; a pale luminous pink where once was blood and red, the waxy exotic caress of lipstick.
Over a low walled fence a small boy, in a grey blazer with a faint yellow trim along its collar and around the blue crest of his cap, is staring at me.
‘Are you all right?’ he asks.
‘I came out to feed the birds.’
‘But there aren’t any. And it’s really cold!’
‘Are you going to school?’
He stares at me, and then runs away, the peak of his cap skirting the top of the wall and into his house.
I never had children. David and I never wanted any but you had three. I know that’s why you never saw me again.
I feel as if my legs don’t belong, aren’t connecting, and in my line of sight the grey nursing home seems to be resting on it side like a stricken tanker. How I come to be lying on the grass is anyone’s guess, thin icy blades cutting through the gaps of my stiff fingers, my face scratched and pricked against the doormat roughness, a small sip of rain.
When we arrived in England and I realised there was no going back, I lay in my bed for ages, feeling the drudge beat of the washing machine from below, the heavy pallor of grey English skies suffocating against my window pane. I missed you, the sound of your voice, your words meant only for me, your touch meant only for me.
Up above the sky fills with white, soft cotton threads falling, tickling my lips; thrilling.
‘Jennifer, Jennifer, what are you doing? Roy, come and help, Jennifer’s fallen over again.’
Young Mary, I like her. She always means well; far too good for Roy. She’s made her bed with him I can tell. If I could speak in a way she might listen I’d tell her not to settle for second best.
‘He’s no good.’
‘Who’s no good, Jennifer?’
‘Roy, Jennifer’s saying you’re no good again.’
I feel his strong arms around my waist pulling me up.
‘You’re as light as a bird,’ he says.
‘Then she should be able to fly,’ says Mary.
‘Free as a bird,’ he says and laughs.
And then I’m back on my Zimmer, being helped back towards the home again.
A blast of hot air as we go inside. Your letters are waiting as they drop me back in my chair.
The words make no sense on the page but seeing your pen I can hear your voice again, and you’re with me once more. I see a swallow standing on my windowsill. He relaxes his wings and looks in. I hope he waits until they come and collect me for dinner.