Today we welcome guest blogger and writer, Jeniann who spent her childhood in Africa and has agreed to share her memories here, whilst she writes her novel. A child in Egypt is the first part in the series.
We settled into our new life easily. My mother, having interviewed a long queue of prospective maids, realised that unless she could find one who spoke English, my sister and I would run rings round them. Already we were picking up basic French and the rudiments of Arabic.
The problem was, we were rapidly becoming little street urchins and our friends were children living in the apartments and street kids. It was some time before my parents realised our patois was peppered with pretty colourful expletives. We had to be controlled and by someone who not only would report back, but would be prepared to administer a quick clip in response to bad behaviour. Almost immediately, Mum inherited Fatima from a British family who were moving on.
Fatima was tall; she probably stood eye to eye with my father.
She was thin, hard faced, with glittering black eyes and a large beaky nose. She stared down into my mother’s eyes. My mother stiffened and stared back; upwards. “My old Mem said I was good, yes?” Mum tried to give a superior “so so” nod, but since Fatima had her pinned up against the icebox, it was more of a feeble pecking motion.
“I will begin now, I don’t work Fridays and I leave at six. I cook Halal food, you will love it.” “Oh” said Mum “I do the cooking.” “No, you pay me to cook, so I cook. This will be my kitchen and you can’t cook in here.” My sister tried to creep into the kitchen to hide behind Mummy’s skirts. Fatima’s face lit up and she knelt down and smiled. “You are beautiful” she said, “I will love you” She looked up at me and glowered sternly. “You will look after my little girl when I am busy”. Crushed and disappointed I nodded sullenly. I was not going to like this woman one bit.
Memory fails me, but I imagine the next few weeks were difficult for my mother. All her married life, she’d been queen of her ménage, now she’d been usurped by a tyrant, who ran her and the household like clockwork. Then she realised she was free to do whatever she liked. In the morning, we’d wander through streets lined with brightly coloured villas to take tea with her friends. In the evening, Fatima would prepare our evening meal then depart. After dinner we’d change out of our tops and shorts into little frocks white socks and buckskin sandals and head for town.
“Ala tool” (straight on) we’d shout “To see what’s on” said Mum “Ce soir” we’d finish joyfully. We could now speak in three languages! My father would sing lustily as we bowled down the boulevards, while my sister and I would wave like the new Queen Elizabeth to our admiring fans.
At night Cairo became a different world. In the soft darkness, the streets were scented with jasmine, car exhausts, and the grilling of spicy meats on charcoal fires. As we neared the Gehzirah Palace, the dim lamp lit shops were replaced by bright electrically lit glass stages filled with elegant fashions or furniture.
The scents changed as well.
Jasmine still lingered, but was mingled with the scent of expensive French Perfume and cigar smoke. We would walk up the marble steps into a world of make-believe. All the ladies wore impossibly high heels and wonderful silk gowns. As they spoke they wielded long amber or jade cigarette holders, some of which were fitted with black and gold cigarettes! “I’ve told you before. Don’t stare”. Clutching my stinging head, I’d hide behind Mum so she couldn’t see me ogle the beautiful people. I wished my Daddy wore such soft shiny suits. Not the tarboosh though, he’d look like Tommy Cooper.
We sat genteelly on brightly embroidered divans to drink our cokes. To the waiter’s annoyance we always demanded they be opened in front of us, and then we would prize away the cork lining. If we were lucky, there would be an image of a coke bottle or maybe the dream prize of five Egyptian pounds. I actually won another coke once. Mummy made me pour half of it in my sister’s glass. My first prize! I leaned sulkily between the cushion glaring malevolently at the cuckoo that was my little sister.
The party around us swirled on and on. Sometimes a friendly waiter would borrow us and sweep us into the kitchens where we could nibble on the mezes being prepared for the grownups. Eventually, tired and fractious we would return to our parents who would look up in surprise and guilt. We’d been forgotten.
My child life was punctuated with scents, sound and food. Oh yes, especially food. On weekends we would go to Groppis and the English Cake shop. In Groppis they served strawberries all the year round, sherbets flavoured with rose water and pistachio ice cream. My little sister adored strawberries as did my mother. Although rationing had ended in Britain a two or three years before, supplies were still being sold on a seasonal basis and very little in the way of exotica arrived in the local grocer’s shops. So whilst Britain slumbered under a blanket of snow, my little sister gorged on summer fruits.
Sadly, excess had its price and she contracted a severe form of amoebic dysentery. I was convinced that the little mite was dying and much as I thought I hated her, I held my breath for three days praying that if she got better I’d never tell her ghost stories or tie her plaits in knots again. Two weeks later promises forgotten, I was sent to bed for hanging her dolly by the neck until it was dead. Fatima was incensed. She told me her brother had a camel train going to Libya and I would be on the next one if I ever made her baby cry again.
Actually Fatima did have a baby of her own. He was a chubby little Michelin man with a rosy face and a couple of teeth. When she came to babysit, sometimes he would come along too and after being fed would be tucked up in one of the armchairs. Before bed, he would be fed. We used to watch with amazement as Fatima would massage her huge breast, squeeze it a few times and thrust it into the baby’s open mouth. We knew better than to tell anyone about our experience. Breasts in our world were never mentioned, let alone seen. That night we pinched our little nipples until they throbbed, but we couldn’t persuade them to produce the smallest drop of milk.
To my mother living in Egypt in the fifties was not without its dangers. She was convinced that we’d be kidnapped and sold into slavery that we’d contract cholera or malaria or we’d be mashed to pulp by lunatic sun maddened lorry drivers.
In fact the Heliopolites loved children to the point of soppiness. Wherever we went, we were hugged and kissed our cheeks were pinched and our open expectant mouths were stuffed with sticky sweetmeats. As we played on our hired bikes around the apartments, people would hang over the balconies to watch what we were up to and if we vanished into the gloom of the under croft for more than a few minutes, we’d hear… “Children come out! What are you doing?” We’d drop whatever we’d been doing to gaze upwards innocently. Then round and round we’d ride, a tribe of street urchins bent on mischief.
We never got sick again, and we were never run over, though one little friend of ours was knocked over by a car reversing out from one of the garages. Though unhurt, he screamed so loudly we all joined in. Only the promise of cakes and a coke at the local cafe quietened us down. Fighting over who should hold the money, we darted off for our treat. Mummy soon heard all about it and decided that I being the oldest was the ringleader and I was soundly spanked. Actually, cowardly me had lingered behind the others and had only scuttled after the others when the man had gone to the lifts.
Did I eat my share of cakes?
Of course I did. But that wasn’t the point was it?