Legion d’honneur

Last month my father was the recipient of the highest decoration in France, the legion d’honneur. This medals were awarded at Yorkshire Air Museum as a way of honouring and thanking those who fought and risked their lives to secure France’s liberation during the Second World War.

I had always known he landed on a Normandy beach in 1944 and had heard some of the ‘funny’ stories of the war, perhaps because the horror of war was not a story anyone would want to tell. Even when I had watched Saving Private Ryan many years ago and Dad had said that he had been on the next beach, I had hardly wondered at how he might have felt, perhaps because the imagery in this film was linked to an American flag and an American story.

Only when our family sat listening and watching as five, frail British nonagenarians were awarded their medals and I saw the emotion in my father’s face, did the enormity of what they had experienced sink in.

 

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Freshi

In Zanzibar one of the greetings is ‘Mambo?’ which could be responded to in various ways. My favourite was  ‘Freshi’. I have always thought this was a great answer to a greeting. It is so much more colourful than the standard responses of ‘good’ or ‘fine’.

It evokes in me a memory of those  years I spent on that island; idyllic in so many ways, yet struggling with its identity, and struggling on its road to development while trying not to get lost in the influx of tourism and all the positives and negatives this industry has created.Zanzibar Market

Fresh Produce in the Market, Zanzibar

 

The market was always a somewhat chaotic place; a cacophony of colour, movement and noise, with the constant bustle of people searching for and buying their wares, chatting, gossiping, calling out their sales pitch and of course the constant greetings.

 

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Possessions, Possessions, Possessions.

What was my most precious possession?

I sat in a home surrounded by many beautiful objects and possessions that had been collected throughout my life and felt a frown form on my brow. Was it the Han dynasty horse’s head I’d bought in an antique shop when living in Singapore, pre-mortgage and pre-children, with a large disposable income? What would I feel if it fell off the mantelpiece? Two thousand years, gone, smashed into little pieces of brown clay on the redbrick hearth; an ignominious end. I’d be annoyed and a little upset at its loss, nothing more.

Han Dynasty Terracotta Horse Head

Han Dynasty Terracotta Horse Head

 

So then I thought again.

Could it be my wedding ring. The story about that had also started in Singapore. We were to be married and at that time living in Brunei. In the mid-nineties there weren’t many shops in Brunei and all the jewellers favoured the yellow 24 carat gold – not for me. My husband couldn’t get time off work and I had to go to a scuba diving expo, so I went to buy the rings on my own. I’d been living in S E Asia for six years and I experienced the worst bout of food poisoning ever, after eating from a buffet in an up-market hotel on the second night of the expo. I spent the next two days in bed at the home of some friends, albeit in the most amazing colonial plantation house that I was unable to appreciate; I spent most of my time with one or other end of my body over the toilet. Eventually I was forced to get out of bed and go shopping for the rings.

Luckily many of Singapore’s shopping malls revolved around a theme and I knew where to go. The first jewellery mall in Chinatown was full of shops with, once again, predominantly garish yellow gold. The toilets weren’t very swish either. I’d had to run into them twice in less than an hour. Already beginning lose energy, I headed by taxi to one of the more expensive malls on Orchard Road. I’d seen jewellers on the upper floor, and I remembered that they had great toilets. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the price, but as I broke out in a sweat and felt my stomach turn once more I decided that with two weeks to go before the wedding, and a flight booked for the following morning, it was all or nothing.

I glided up the elevator as my stomach twinged again and eyeballed the toilets. Two sets on one floor – wonderful. There were about ten shops. I didn’t go into the first three. Just looking in the window told me enough. The next one had a possibility. When I went in for a closer look I was disappointed; not my style. A cramp got the better of me and I walked smartly to the nearest toilet. It was a false alarm, but I wasn’t feeling good. Opposite the toilets I glimpsed an interesting shop front. Then I saw glistening silver amidst the gold. I rushed inside.

The shop assistant placed the plush velvet tray in front of me. Platinum, he told me. The price tag rose. I picked one out and tried it on. It fitted perfectly, but my husband-to-be wanted a matching one. Would he like it? He’s said, white gold, simple and plain. This was plain except for a fine zigzag of yellow gold and it was platinum. I hadn’t even asked the price. A wave of nausea and strong cramp went through my body. I pulled the ring off and muttered something about toilets to the bewildered shop assistant, then sprinted out of the door. It was fortunate that they were so close. Five minutes later I returned to the shop and ten minutes after that with relief, I glided back down the escalator with two small jewellery boxes gift wrapped in a stylish bag and within, two rather expensive rings.

 

My wedding ring & henna art

My wedding ring & henna art

 

The ring went on to be the subject of a few other stories. I now wear it on my right hand after an incident with a dog and a puppy on a windy beach and a lot of blood, sand and a swollen finger. I’m attached to it – in more ways than one, as it is now stuck on the aforementioned right finger, but attached so much I couldn’t live with out it, no.

So which possession was more precious to me?

In the eighties I went as a volunteer to live on the island of Zanzibar. At a time when I only had the possessions that fitted into a suitcase, I was given a small painting by a friend there. This watercolour, since framed, has travelled with me from country to country and home to home. When I revisited Zanzibar on numerous occasions I always called on this friend who had gone on to become both a successful artist and well known personality that tourists and travellers sought out for his artwork and his knowledge of the history of the old buildings in the Stonetown.  This postcard-sized painting reminds me of the times I spent with this humble and intelligent man, the lunches always accompanied with copious amounts of incredibly hot chili peppers and a glass of red wine, the walks through stone town when he pointed out intricate balconies and buildings falling down from lack of repair, the late afternoon talks on politics, writing, art and history sitting on the inside ‘veranda’ of his ‘Arabic’ style house, where the breeze flowed through the central courtyard up through two stories to the open skies. The time he and my father  – both of similar age and both blind in one eye took turns trying to pour wine into a glass without spilling any and showing each other their differing techniques. And always, the image of knocking at his door and waiting for the key to be thrown down from the shuttered windows of the living areas above – that must have been in later years, as before the doors had been always left open. Yes, it was precious but only in the memories it held.

 

Zanzibar Stonetown

Zanzibar Stonetown

 

Possessions. Possessions. Possessions. I have so many, yet what was most prized? When I look about me yet again, I wonder what I would do if I lost all of them. What would I really miss? I think it would have to be my photos. Their preciousness is not in their material value, but in that the images are irreplaceable – at least not the older ones that were caught pre-digital days. Their value was in the moments, the glimpses, the occasions and the memories that my mind struggles to keep intact.

Maybe my most precious possession has to be my memory, for without it how would I know who I am?

 

 

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Singing Wren

“What’s going in that pot?”

“Dad wants to put the bamboo in it,” I say for the fifth time in twenty-four hours. My gaze falls on the large Malaysian plant pot across the lawn at the far side of the garden.

“Oh” Mum continues wiping the glass of the outside table. It’s smeared with cheese and the debris of yesterday’s eating.

I watch her and wonder how her brain is now working. What would it be like to start to lose your memory? Outwardly she appears the same if not a little older and more shrunken. She jokes that she is shrinking each year. It isn’t a joke. She visibly shrinks before our eyes as she reaches the last of her octogenarian years and moves towards her next decade. What do you call someone in their nineties? A nonagenarian. That sounds wrong. It should be some not none.

She pauses on her way up the steps to the back door leading into the kitchen, tilts her head, listening. “Oh, he’s been calling for his mate all week.” She sets off again as the bird’s high-pitched song dances around the garden. “Poor thing.”

I look around scanning the rose arch, yew and hawthorn hedge, the scattered shrubs and summer flowers, searching for the wren. I know it is a wren for she told me yesterday when we walked around the garden. She had named the plants and knew which season they would be in flower and the colour and size of blossom, which ones were scented and which ones they’d placed in the wrong spot, where they couldn’t flourish.

A lifetime of knowledge.

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