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Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

December 4, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I might have given the impression with my posts about books on three successive days last week that after finishing Alexandra Fuller’s wonderful Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood on Sunday, I would return to Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement or Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia. (What’s the deal, anyway, with these colonic titles?) And that was indeed my intent. But instead, still under Fuller’s spell, I downloaded and began reading Fuller’s more recent memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, finishing it yesterday.

Once again, Fuller’s mother Nicola Fuller is the star. But whereas the first book was told from the perspective of Alexandra Fuller as child, the second one assumes the mature perspective of the adult Alexandra. Thus, even though some of the most dramatic moments in the family history are repeated, and even though I had just read them less than a week before, the second telling was just as gripping, with new emotional impact.

The second memoir fills in many biographical details, such as how Alexandra’s mother came to Kenya as a child, how Alexandra’s father arrived in early adulthood just after World War II, how they met, and how they came to the farm in Rhodesia where the first memoir begins. And it brings the story of her astonishing parents up-to-date. Reading the two books in succession worked out well.

Allow me to include two brief passages, one from early in the book, one from near the end, that give a sense of Fuller’s writing. In the first, Alexandra recounts Nicola’s childhood in Kenya.

My grandfather worked as a government agricultural extension officer, going off on safari for two or three weeks at a time to remote parts of the country and leaving my grandmother and Mum “up country.” To begin with, until they could find a proper house, the Huntingfords lived in a tiny rented bungalow on the grounds of the Kaptagat Arms, the estate of Zoe Foster, whose husband had been a white hunter in Uganda.

“The husband was gone by the time we showed up. I think he had been eaten by a lion or gored by a buffalo or whatever happened to those white-hunter types,” Mum says. “Anyway, Zoe seemed perfectly happy. She had two sons, a beautiful blond daughter called Mary and lots of animals. There was always a vicious but effective mongoose resident in the house, excellent for killing snakes — just like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Oh, and her garden was the most exciting in the whole area — a stream, a maze, beds of rhododendrons and roses, lavender and peonies, and a vivid lawn strewn with hippo and elephant skulls that the husband had shot over the years.” Mum’s voice takes on a singsong quality, as if she is reading from a storybook. “It was fantastic. I used to run away from our bungalow, which was on the edge of the estate, and go over to the main house and play in her garden with my first best friend, Stephen Foster.” Mum smiles at the memory. “Stephen and I used to take turns pushing each other on his tricycle. We wore matching romper suits. We had tea parties. We went everywhere together, hand in hand.”

“Stephen was one of Zoe’s sons?” I guess.

Mum frowns. “No, no, no,” she says. “Stephen wasn’t her son. Stephen was her chimpanzee.”

There is a small appalled pause while I try — and fail — to imagine sending one of my toddlers off to play with a chimpanzee (quite apart from the Jane Goodall abuse-of-the animal concerns).

“Weren’t your parents worried he would bite you?” I ask.

Mum gives me a look as if I have just called Winnie-the-Pooh a pedophile, “Stephen? Bite me? Not at all, we were best friends. He was a very, very nice, very civilized chimpanzee. Anyway, my mother didn’t worry about me too much. She knew I would always be all right because everywhere I went Topper came with me.”

“And Topper was?”

“A dog my father had rescued,” Mum says.

The second passage describes Alexandra’s parents’s return to the Isle of Skye for a funeral.

Dad led the procession to the Trumpan Church, followed by the vicar, followed by the hearse, followed by Auntie Glug and Uncle Sandy. Dad, accustomed to covering long distances on rough African roads, kept up a decent pace, weaving expertly around the baleful sheep as if they were potholes. “The vicar was flicking his headlights at us like mad because he wanted us to slow down, but Dad thought it meant we should go faster. I think it’s the only time a hearse has gone whizzing through Skye on two wheels.”

The little funeral procession, slightly breathless from what had felt to most of them like a rally-car race, gathered around the grave next to the ruined church.

The one theme of the books not represented in these excerpts is the loss that is a constant in Alexandra’s parents’ lives — loss of family, of animals, of land, of country — and how they summon the strength to get on with their lives time and again.

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