If you were born in Malaya and raised in British East Africa, if you find love in Australia and adventure in Brazil, if your past is a place that no longer exists, then who are you?
Dining on Crumbs, a memoir, is a story that spans several generations of adventurers, as I come to terms with my wild and often mysterious family history. It is an honest portrayal of the nomadic life of many expatriate families of my generation: sometimes heart-breaking, often very funny.
Dining on Crumbs was born of my yearning to understand why the people and places of our childhoods irrevocably shape the choices we make and the adults we become. Crumbs are the morsels of life that keep passion alive. If you allow them to become a feast, then you will suffer indigestion.
She hesitated, but only for a second. “Well—I was doing a striptease on a table in a restaurant in Dar es Salaam…”
My look demanded an explanation.
“Brandy, darling. I was intoxicated with brandy…” Seeing the disgust on my face, she started to l augh.
“So how does my father come into this?”
“He was with another party at a nearby table.”
“Yes?” I waited for her to continue.
“The manager threw me out of the restaurant.” She started to laugh again.
“Miles, your father, followed me out and introduced himself.”
“Were you dressed by then?”
“Well, I had on very pretty underwear, lace—”
Her eyes had taken on that faraway look. “We were madly in love, you know. Not many people experience the passion your father and I had.”
It wasn’t long before the knot was tied between the Pocket Venus and a man who was the spoiled baby of his family. They married at the end of July 1950. The wedding venue was unusual. The taxi driver made a mistake and took them to the VD office instead of the DC’s, or District Commissioner’s.
VD, venereal disease, instead of DC was not a promising start, I thought.
Their honeymoon, a working one for my father, an aspiring white hunter, was like a scene from Out of Africa. A camp was set up by an entourage of staff along the banks of a picturesque but crocodile-infested river where hippo came to drink and wallow in the mud. On its banks the newlyweds sipped sundowners until dawn. Huge mysterious shapes emerged from the water to graze on the dewy grass in the moonlight. The muddy beauties flicked their tiny ears and ground the grass between their peg-like molars. Massive jaws yawned open. My mother and father sat mesmerised by the awesome feast just feet away. Then the bloat of hippopotami would retreat on their little stumpy legs to the lake, slipping into the black water and sinking like submarines patrolling their territory.
My father wanted to be part of the golden age of African safaris. In the Old Africa, white hunters were infatuated with risk, careless in love and drank like real men. They dined—indeed feasted—on crumbs. Women revered them and they had built an almost god-like image for themselves. White hunters inspired writers like Hemingway and movies were based on them featuring the starriest of stars, such as Clark Gable. Stories of their exploits were full of danger and romance.
During their honeymoon my parents drove hundreds of miles to parties where guest indulged in a little white mischief that lasted several days. Then they returned on roads that dwindled into tracks, before arriving back at the isolation of their camp in the wild. My father would leave his bride alone when he went out to recruit workers from places like Nachingwea and Songea. He could be away for days, but when he returned to the camp, the honeymoon would resume. My sister Caroline was conceived during this happy time.
‘I was in the right place at the right time: Carnaby Street, Christmas 1969. Oh my sweetLord warbled dishy George Harrison over the loud-speaker as I disappeared into a chicken-run of feather boas. My avid fingers caressed velvet pants, plastic jackets and sweeping maxi-skirts. Sergeant Pepper Beatle suits hung on racks waiting for my magical mystery tour. I flicked through dozens of packs of tights of every colour and pattern known to woman.
“Carol, check these out.” I held up a pair of slinky pin-striped trousers. As I stood in the changing room in hippie garb, my sister grabbed a Union Jack top-hat and plonked it on my head. I gazed at my strange reflection in the looking glass.
“Oh my sweet Lord—I’m the Mad Hatter.”
“You kids meet me in the pub on the corner. I’ve had enough of this circus,” bellowed Jake as the music changed to Honky Tonk Woman.
“Let’s go to Lyonsfor tea instead,” interrupted Mother, as if promising us a rare treat.
But first Carol and I wanted more shopping. We each linked to one of our mother’s arms and plunged in. We framed her little face with ridiculous hats and draped her tiny frame in teeny skirts and vast scarves. It was such fun. Intoxicated with Carnaby Streetfever, laughing and loaded down with glossy Union Jack bags filled with the latest gear, we set off to find Jake and his pint of ale in the Shakespeare’s Head.
“Now,” said Mother excitedly, dragging him out, “a lovely English cup of tea.” We entered the Lyons Tea House through some impressive glass doors. Inside a long serving bar was stacked with trays. Customers lined up, took a tray and ordered what they wanted from the woman behind the counter, cafeteria-style.
“Jake, this isn’t a real Lyons Tea House, is it?” said Mother. She couldn’t keep the disappointment out of her voice.
“Yes—this is it, mate. Your famous Lyons Tea House,” he assured her.
“Well it’s certainly not what it used to be,” she said indignantly.
“Shall we get a tray and order?” I asked.
“Well—if we have to,” said my crestfallen mother. She sat down gingerly on a grubby chair. “This is not what I expected. I remember white tablecloths, gilt chairs and even an orchestra playing.” She looked about as though she might spot something familiar. “The maître d’ was in tails and the waitresses were impeccable.”
At the counter Jake started to chat up the pretty black waitress. “Jambo memsahib. Habari yaku? Baridi sana,” he said in Swahili. (Hello Madam, how are you? It’s very cold.)
“Yer what Sir?” she replied.
When he returned to our table, Carol told him he was showing his age and background.
“Just because she’s black doesn’t mean she speaks Swahili. She’s more English than you are.”
"Well, Blimey O’Reilly,” said Jake.’
‘The seas were calm as my husband Seppel steered the Lara Craig, the boat we had built in our backyard, out of the St Kilda marina on her maiden voyage. She was the first new presence in our lives. I stood on deck swollen-bellied, looking like a spinnaker before the wind and shading my eyes from the bright afternoon sun.
“Now what?” I asked.
“We’ll try her out and see how it goes. After all, I’ve never sailed before.”
“You know Austriais a land-locked country.”
Well! That should bring on the labour pains.
A visit to the doctor confirmed that my blood pressure had indeed shot up. It had not occurred to me that Austrian Seppel had no practical experience. Imagine, the captain of your ship never having actually gone to sea!
Our baby didn’t seem to want to make its way anywhere. The medical team decided to induce me.
I huffed. And I puffed. And I blew.
“Again,” urged the doctor.
And I huffed and I puffed and I blew.
“Once more,” encouraged the doctor, leaning up against the door in the labour ward of the Royal Women’s Hospital, his arms folded.
I went on and on huffing and puffing and blowing. Then all at once sugar and spice and all things nice was out into the big wide world. Our daughter Lara was born at 10.15am on Saturday 14 January 1978. She was rosy and perfect, with ten little fingers and ten little toes. She had two beautiful little ears and a set of amplified lungs that alerted my moo boobs that she was ready for a feed.
This perfect little creation was wrapped in a blanket and taken from the land to the sea where she was to begin her life. She slept happily in her cradle wedged in a cupboard to stop her being tossed about by the jerking and jolting motion of the boat when seas were rough. In fact the constant rocking motion sent her to sleep and she woke only to feed.
I was fortunate that she demanded so little of me because there were a thousand other things that needed my attention.
“You go on the tiller and I’ll direct you into the marina,” said Seppel.
We motored slowly towards it, manoeuvring fourteen tonnes of displacement.
“Now gently does it. Give less throttle. Good. Less and less.”
“OK,” I said, decelerating.
“More,” he said. “More!”
As I gave considerably more throttle—boom! crash! bang! crunch!—we slammed into the dock.
“What the fuck are you doing?” shouted Seppel.
“You said more!”
“I meant more less!”
“What the fuck is more less? Means nothing to me!”
“It means lessen the throttle more.”
With his best accusing look he said: “From now on, thumbs up is more and thumbs down is less.”
Without a word I saluted and then gave him the third finger.
“Understand that?” I screamed as I stormed down below.
(From Births and Berths)
Jackie and her husband Seppel’s Queensland resort, Sejala on the Beach
‘I was still scribbling furiously in my notebook while lolling in splendour on the top of our hill, gazing out at the billion-dollar views, when the silence was interrupted by a noise that was distinctly human. I knew it couldn’t be either my husband or Shaky. They were working.
Suddenly a large pale-skinned boy appeared at the top of the thirty-nine cement steps leading to our dream home. He stood outlined against the raspberry-pink and white gingers.
“Oh my God! This is awesome!” he announced, taking in the full sweep of the view. “Sorry to disturb you, Ma’am, but I’m looking for a frog.”
That’s how I welcomed our first north American visitor. He had arrived by water taxi, a dugout canoe with an outboard motor. Jeremy was a marine biologist studying frogs. He was on the trail of a miniscule green frog that is supposed to live only on Isla Popa.
“Oh yes—we’ve got lots of those. I can show you exactly where they are,” I told him.
I noted he was hung with cameras and barefoot.
“What size shoe are you?” I asked. We had a selection of rubber boots lined up upside down so that snakes, spiders, scorpions and ants didn’t set up home in them. Because we humans often can’t see any evidence of snakes or other creatures we don’t imagine they are spying on us as we gape at the beauty of the jungle. By this time I knew better. We had even seen a jaguar. This large spotted cat came purring up to the front steps one night and left its paw marks permanently imprinted across our not-quite-dry cement front step.
Jeremy had very large feet but I found him a suitable pair of boots.
“Do you live here permanently, Ma’am?”
“Oh, this is awesome! Can I take a picture of you, Ma’am?”
“As long as you don’t show me off as part of your frog collection.”’