Full Flavour Behaviour!

food, mice, gaskets and plastic sheeting
12th nov

Bob has finally started liking dinner time again; after six weeks on that compressed cardboard dog food that is the sole reserve of those dogs owned by vegetarians and paupers (or, in my parents' dog's case, those who try tins at an early age and foolishly decide to be sick on it) I found "Biltong Flavour" compressed cardboard. To tell you the truth, even I'm tempted by this stuff. Every silver lining must have a cloud, however, and for me it's the mice, who appear to have found a tremendously engaging game to play in the wall cavity by the kitchen, making a frightful racket that sounds like a dog chewing on bones (in fact, it was Bob who took the rap the first night) or perhaps a woodpecker with a masonry bit. One doesn't notice it during the day, but when attempting to go to sleep it takes on the auditory presence of the London Philharmonic practicing the 1812. And now a bleedin' gadfly is being attracted to my screen. Oh happy evening.

In actual fact, I have little reason to be irritated; I've had a pretty productive month. Three weeks ago, I acquired the only parts I needed for the Merc, being six manifold gaskets. For the amount of stress (albeit not expense) caused by their acquisition, the small metal rings were wholly anticlimactic, but they did offer me an excuse to sample Manzini on a sunny day (frighteningly hot) and visit a friend of mine who lives, bizarrely enough, five kilometers outside a small town.. and right next to a bar. It struck me at the time how I would find her situation (single with a nine year-old daughter) completely impossible if it were not for this bar; we broke for a few drinks after my regulation shower (one look at a hot tap and I'm off for a fix) and.. erm, had to go back to put Nicky to bed. Then I was thrown out; apparently they had to get up at six to prepare for a Hallowe'en theme party. Luckily enough, the bar next door is Malandela's, of which part is the local nightclub, House on Fire. I duly popped off and carried on the party alone.

Well, I say alone, but the place was full of teaching students from Mpumalanga. I don't know if it was my influence or not, but they were all back for the seventh weekend in a row. Hmm.. It almost made me want to re-open the Chillage. Water, water, water.

It took me another week to organise to fit the gaskets. My original plan had involved simply driving around and waiting for the problem to go away, but I hadn't banked on the sheer volume of exhaust that can be accidentally leaked in through the window. I drove up to the border, maybe half an hour each way, that Monday, to get the registration organised (incidentally unsuccessfully) and when I returned to the Times, I promptly fell asleep. Clearly, some kind of action was required so I spoke to Roddy, a friend of mine from the Mountain Inn, and he offered me his toolkit. I took the car around on the following Saturday, but he didn't show up, so I went out for a drink instead. On Sunday morning he was there, looking like he'd had the same idea, only earlier. We opened the bonnet, which seemed simple enough at the time, but was a gateway to a week-long sojourn for the car on Roddy's driveway.

Normally, it's easy to take the car apart and nigh on impossible to reassemble it. On this occasion, it was difficult enough trying to dismantle it in the first place. To remove the manifold, you have to disconnect the exhaust somewhere under the driver's seat, because the next join up sits so snugly next to the engine you can't get a spanner in to undo it. Then we undid all the nuts but one holding the manifold on, and realised we needed a 12mm offset ring spanner (you know, the one that looks like it's been used to open beer barrels) which, of course, was the only size Roddy didn't have. So we drove across town (in his car) to pick one up.. and stayed to watch a bit of rugby. You see how these things just take time in Swaziland? On the way back we stopped at a butchery for some steak and pap, but decided not to cook it on the fire out the back, as we'd wasted so much time already, and took it home. The car still refused to co-operate, so we ate, I had a shower and then Khanya turned up out of the blue to give me a lift. Extraordinary.

I won't dwell on the following week; it was painful for me. I was at Roddy's at twenty past five every day, and sometimes until well after dark, but the car simply wouldn't go back together. Either his Mozambican furniture manufacturing buddy had stolen the tools, or his maid had hidden the spare key, or I'd lost the bolts, or else, as on one occasion, the power steering pump refused to budge even with forty years' experience looking at it. Still, on Friday night, Roddy gave me the spare key (taking no chances) and told me that he was away for the weekend and didn't expect the car to welcome him home. Actually, he didn't, he is far too friendly for ultimata, but that was how I felt; the poor guy didn't want to look like a scrap dealer.

On Saturday I turned up early and went crazy on the car. I was a blur of activity, fuelled by Roger Waters CDs, Gun Gum and copious swearing. At one point I even called my Dad for advice. At any rate, by three I had finished and although it still stank, at least it moved. I tidied up and hit the road. Pausing only for beer and a bag of nuts, I charged down to eZulwini and dropped in on Jenny again, who invited me to spend the morning with her and Nicky at the farm.. but protested that she still had to get up early to work. I can't help feeling that at eleven p.m. she turns into a horrible ogre - Shrek style - and doesn't want anybody to know. I feel sorry for Nicky if she wakes up in the night thirsty and finds a hideous monster tapping into the laptop.

Anyway, on this occasion there wasn't anything particularly funky at House on Fire (the previous weekend had been South African reggae legend Lucky Dube, but for R150 a ticket, as I said to a friend, I wouldn't expect to see anyone less than Jah himself) so I called Yael, from the Times, who I hadn't seen in ages.

"Come quickly! We're camping at Bhunya beach!"

Oh, dear. To boot, I had forgotten that she'd just had the week off to entertain friends from her home in Israel, and they all had children. Lots of children.

I followed the bakkie to the beach (surprisingly far, even at night) and the radio gave out just as I arrived. Sigh. Anyway, there was plenty of food and Amarula (like Baileys but with an elephant on it) to go around, and eventually the kids went to sleep. Not for long, however, as the heavens opened. It is in moments like this that British people are very useful; while everyone else grabbed individual items and tripped back to the cars, I started rolling clothes, bedding and the occasional toddler directly into vast, mattress-wrapped bundles. I think it's an instinctive skill that is acquired only by those who have visited the Lake District. In fact, we managed to rescue everything by the time the 60 second squall was over. Not trusting the dryness too much, however, we left the children in the cars. The fire was still burning, so coffee was made and we all sat down on the rapidly-drying sand.

With the children sleeping in the cars, there was no hope of putting music on, but after a short while the entire group began singing. Now, don't get me wrong, it was hugely novel and very soothing, but it really struck me how this sort of thing never happens in England. Not after the kids are asleep, at any rate. Eventually, we stretched out and slept, under the stars. Personally, I think, for the first time.

I was awoken absurdly rudely by a three year-old pulling open my eyelids with sandy fingers. Bastard. It was seven, and I'd been awake at two. I dragged myself into the shade and hid from the day for three hours, and then made my excuses and drove to Jenny's. We left the Merc in town (probably wise not to tackle long dirt roads just yet) and took off to the farm in Jenny's 4x4, spending most of the journey explaining why Sheryl Crow didn't write "Good vibrations" but yes, she was singing it on this occasion. No, we can't have it again.

The farm was very relaxing and after a very strong vodka and tonic (well, it was after eleven..) or two, hem-hem, I went for a deliciously chilly swim at the river. Jenny drove me home at about five (I was in no state to pick up the car) and, after a good three hours' kip, I hitched back into town to find the decrepit old wreck, who was enjoying a beer at the Nile (ha ha), and the Benz. Finally, a good weekend.

Since then, I have started work, rather than training, at Real Image (www.rawafrica.com and SMIfA.com, along with some small touches for biggame.co.sz and nedbank.co.sz) and thrown a damp and freezing cold barbeque party for Guy Fawkes. Nobody who lived further than five miles away came, but it was very pleasant. Mind you, the microwave potato salad went down like a bacon butty at a Bat Mitzvah. The only really good bit was the thirty-by-five metre sheet of plastic I bought, one sixth of which I put over the wooden frame at the back of the house - on my own and without a ladder, thankyou very much - which kept the rain off the fire but promptly blew off in the night. Today I got up early (ish) and did it properly, with a ladder fashioned from an old gate. Roddy's stepladder was a bit exciting with a power drill in one hand.

I'm actually quite proud of it now; it just needs another section on the front and I'll be able to sit outside when it's raining (another bizarre perversion of those with Lake District holidays behind them). I just have to buy another forty screws, as large-headed nails appear to be one technology that hasn't made it to Swaziland.

Oh, and I took the car to Kwik-Fit, who adjusted the join I'd taken off below the manifold, and the car stopped leaking. I think it took ten minutes. Bloody hell. Then, of course, it took another twenty minutes to get the car off the jack because I screwed up and dropped it off one side.. don't ask. I'm still cringing.

You see? I have to wait three weeks to have anything interesting to write home about. It's the pace of the place. It's just not.. that.. quick. But you've got to love it. As long as you don't have a deadline to meet.

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