Nairobi Airport departure hall, Kenya, September 1974, eight o’clock at night. I’m thirteen years old and all I can take with me is Stinky, my teddy bear. My mom says he’s such an awful yellow colour that you’d think he fell into a bin of turmeric by mistake. She’s embarrassed because she thinks I’m too old to be holding a teddy bear at the airport where we might bump into someone we know. I don’t care. I want to rub her nose in my misery. It’s her fault that I’m going away again. I could have swung my dad around, I know I could have. Last night he came out to sit with me on the veranda steps and asked me why I hated it so much. He’d left it a bit late but that’s how my dad is, when he’s got time he asks questions like he really wants to hear what you have to say. It was nice in the dark with the eagle owls hooting in the trees, their round eyes looking down at us, and the fruit bats flying between peach trees, just a flutter of wings slicing through the night.
I told him about crazy Mrs Logan, the boarding house mistress with a terrible temper, who threw all my clothes over the banister because my cupboard was untidy, and how the other girls egged on by Elizabeth McFarlane, the prettiest girl in the boarding house and also the biggest bully, called me a frizzy red-haired African, and how they drove me mad because they said I must be an albino black person. There were things I didn’t tell him too, how I wet my bed as if I were three years old like Jimmy because I was always scared, how Mrs Fynn made me kneel on the cold cement floor of the laundry the whole morning after Georgina Thomas, the boarding house prefect, showed her my wet sheet and mattress. Instead I told him how I had to write a 1000 word essay starting with the words ‘I must not swear’ because I said ‘bull-dust’ to a prefect, which she said was unladylike. My dad laughed then because I learned the word from him; if my mom said anything he told her it was better than some other words he could have used. How could I tell my dad I wished I was Jimmy with my mom crooning songs into his hair, Jimmy who got to stay home and have Rex sleep on his bed every night? In the end I hardly told my dad anything, only the stuff that would make him laugh. I didn’t want him to be sad when I left. So we hugged and said good-night and went inside, but I bet he would have let me stay if it was just up to him.
With the whining of jet engines in the background I look out the aeroplane window and see Jimmy in my mom’s arms, and my mom is holding his chubby arm up to wave and my dad is waving, and they’re all smiling as if they’re pleased to see me go. Only Stinky understands.
~ ~ ~
For a moment I’m thirteen again as I stare at the printed invitation in my hand. I can’t quite make up my mind what to do with it. I’m split in half. Half of me wants to turf it into the bin. The other half wants to go. This half of me is the half that’s not afraid of anyone or anything, it’s the half of me that rushes impetuously into things without thinking. It’s my other half that deals with the regrets later. So I’m torn. My husband has absolutely no sympathy for my problem. He tells me I’m being ridiculous. We’d been planning a holiday to Ireland for years. This is a good excuse to go, before the kids get too big, to show them where the maternal grandparents came from. My husband is big on family. He genuinely can’t see what the big deal is about. When we first met I refused to fall asleep next to him in the same bed in case I had a bad night and wet my bed; I haven’t wet my bed for years now but the memories aren’t gone. He knows I still have nightmares about the place, but he thinks I should face up to it. That’s the way we’ve brought our kids up; to face their fears. I start planning a holiday to Ireland.
It’s strange going back now that I’m all grown up with kids of my own. It’s a beautiful old school, still well kept. I’ve left the family in town looking at museums and having ice creams with Dad. Dad understands, he shoos me away as if he’s my psychologist. I want to see it on my own first. I want to see the girls in their uniforms with their book bags slung over their shoulders as they walk from the boarding house to the main school building. I want to see the immaculate green lawns give off a peculiar green glow that colours everything. I tread around softly, a ghost, I enjoy it that people look through me as if they have no interest in my presence.
The husbands are invited. I start to panic. I say I can’t go. My husband opens my wardrobe and tucks me up against him while he holds different items of clothing up so we can both see the effect in the mirror. Eventually he’s satisfied; he lays a long sea-green silk dress on the bed and tells me to get dressed; tonight I’m going as a vamp. I haven’t seen him like this for a long time; tonight the devil is in his blood. The dress has only been worn once before; it is a provocative dress, a dress of the night made for seduction; my tumbling red hair falling over my pearl-white shoulders has never seemed so proud. My children rush in and fall back in astonishment.
My husband is something of a wit on a good night, and on this particular night he’s in exceptionally good form. He sweeps me around the room, and is excessively polite when I introduce him to old school friends and teachers, but as soon as they have moved on he demands to hear the story attached to the individual. Some of them have become rich or famous, or both. They are mostly well-groomed and well-manicured and the ones who are not have cultivated an air of eccentricity and breeding instead. Georgina Thomas the boarding house prefect. Mrs Logan the boarding house mistress. Elizabeth McFarlane the chief bully. Mrs Fynn the flinty headmistress. He calls my past tormentors various epithets like fat, ugly, nondescript, boring, vapid, bottle-blonde, sad senile bitch, and brings me glass after glass of red wine. I start to see them like he sees them; there is nothing intimidating about the stuck-up old bats. He whispers in my ear frequently and brushes his lips over my forehead, making me giggle. My tall husband stands next to me in his best man evening suit and tells me I am gorgeous and sexy, that I have the beautiful wild spirit of an African woman and that he adores natural red-heads, always has, always will, that every man there envies him. I end up believing him. Who wouldn’t? I can see them watching us surreptitiously, envying us our happiness, wondering how I of all people did it. I stand in that room and pulsate with power. I have it all, and they have withered to the status of vanquished memories.