Reading Between the Tiles – One Liner

When an upside down cast iron bath shoots out the front door like a bullet, clearly something is wrong.

The house did not have a hallway. Opening the front door landed you straight at the base of a narrow staircase with an Everest style gradient. Should you suffer from vertigo, a stair rail, smudged with the grime of a thousand finger prints, availed itself on one side. To the right of our entrance was a galley kitchen and to the left a dining room, masquerading as an office and storage space. Squeeze past the deliveries – boxes of produce waiting to be priced – and you’ll find a door that leads from the house to right behind the counter and the till. On days when my sister and I were bored and Mum busy in the shop, we’d drag a chair up to the one way mirror and take turns spying on the customers.

I tried to enter the house via the shop but on seeing mum, in stony silence, stacking boxes of soap, thought better of it. So back to the front door in time to hear dad hollering

‘Don’t just stand there, help me get this up the stairs. All I need is for you to make sure it doesn’t creep back down’

A series of ropes were wound around the wooden framing holding a new bath upright. I watched my Dad do penance with this heavy load, heaving it up the incline with giant grunts (and all the time prayed silently it would not let loose and flatten me).

Bath fitted; taps connected; a single row of tiles slopped along the edge of the tub and a bunch of flowers tossed at the wall by way of floral wallpaper. Then an ‘I’ll be off’ while grabbing his suitcase to catch his flight back to Lusaka.

We’d moved to England eighteen months prior, bought a grocery store and this was to be our new life. But Dad still had business ties in Zambia and so he regularly commuted between the two countries.

Still the bathroom wasn’t right. Mum found a minor chip in a tile; the wallpaper peeled in a hidden corner under the basin and she slumped off to bed each night; skin angry red from its soaking, covered by a flannelette night dress and with thick socks on her feet. 

I don’t know what was said. She was away five weeks and returned to my sister and I with a duty free bag and a photograph. 

“But how can we live in that?” my sister and I wailed.

Dad will get it done and you’ll have your own bathroom. He’s going to build me an ensuite. It took me ages to find the right tiles,’ she confessed.

The contents of the bag? Quality Street chocolates for us and Je Reviens * perfume for Mum. A closed sign went up on the shop door; packing cases filled the dining room and the steam from the bathroom became light and heady. Our lives in Dursley passed as quickly as the floral, powdery wafts of Mum’s new scent.  

So in 1976 we became a two bathroom family living in Lilayi – on the outskirts of Lusaka. Most nights were so hot that my sister and I chose to cool off in the pool before bed. Our ablutions took a mere two minutes for teeth cleaning. Mum however, routinely disappeared behind closed doors to a ‘Rosie your bath is ready’ and floated out flushed in her silky negligee to bid us ‘Good night, don’t let the African bugs bite.’

I poured my heart out in secret letters:

I miss you. I hate it here. We live in the middle of nowhere and have shortages of basics, even soap!!!! I’m working on my parents to send me to boarding school – then we can see each other again.

A parcel arrived from my friends in England – a cake of soap – Imperial Leather in its distinctive red and gold origami packaging. Mum laughed at the joke … and never stopped laughing. I on the other hand still fail to see the hilarity of being uprooted again. In 2018 I stumbled across the soap, still in its packaging, stuffed between layers of my mother’s jerseys. Whatever was she thinking?

Notes:

** Perfume by Worth, translated in English as “I Will Return.” “Je Reviens” means more specifically “I’ll be right back:”

This is part three of my series ‘Reading Between the Tiles’. It’s about the unconventional love letter my father, awkward with words, wrote to my mum and how she let it wash over her. Chapter one is here. Chapter two here.

Below are archive images of what the house became.

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