Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the YearIn this sequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller returns to Africa and the story of her unforgettable family.
In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Alexandra Fuller braids a multilayered narrative around the perfectly lit, Happy Valley-era Africa of her mother's childhood; the boiled cabbage grimness of her father's English childhood; and the darker, civil war- torn Africa of her own childhood. At its heart, this is the story of Fuller's mother, Nicola. Born on the Scottish Isle of Skye and raised in Kenya, Nicola holds dear the kinds of values most likely to get you hurt or killed in Africa: loyalty to blood, passion for land, and a holy belief in the restorative power of all animals. Fuller interviewed her mother at length and has captured her inimitable voice with remarkable precision. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is as funny, terrifying, exotic, and unselfconscious as Nicola herself.
We see Nicola and Tim Fuller in their lavender-colored honeymoon period, when east Africa lies before them with all the promise of its liquid equatorial light, even as the British empire in which they both believe wanes. But in short order, an accumulation of mishaps and tragedies bump up against history until the couple finds themselves in a world they hardly recognize. We follow the Fullers as they hopscotch the continent, running from war and unspeakable heartbreak, from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia, even returning to England briefly. But just when it seems that Nicola has been broken entirely by Africa, it is the African earth itself that revives her.
A story of survival and madness, love and war, loyalty and forgiveness, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is an intimate exploration of the author's family. In the end we find Nicola and Tim at a coffee table under their Tree of Forgetfulness on the banana and fish farm where they plan to spend their final days. In local custom, the Tree of Forgetfulness is where villagers meet to resolve disputes and it is here that the Fullers at last find an African kind of peace. Following the ghosts and dreams of memory, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is Alexandra Fuller at her very best.
Nicola Fuller of Central Africa Learns to Fly
Mkushi, Zambia, circa 1986
Our Mum—or Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she has on occasion preferred to introduce herself—has wanted a writer in the family as long as either of us can remember, not only because she loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in them) but also because she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe.
“At least she didn’t read you Shakespeare in the womb,” my sister says. “I think that’s what gave me brain damage.”
“You do not have brain damage,” I say.
“That’s what Mum says.”
“Well, I wouldn’t listen to her. You know what she’s like,” I say.
“I know,” Vanessa says.
“For example,” I say, “lately, she’s been telling me that I must have been switched at birth.”
“Really?” Vanessa tilts her head this way and that to get a better view of my features. “Let me have a look at your nose from the other side.”
“Stop it,” I cover my nose.
“Well, you brought it on yourself,” Vanessa says, lighting a cigarette. “You should never have written that Awful Book about her.”
I count the ways that Vanessa is wrong, “For the millionth time, it’s not awful and it wasn’t about her.”
Vanessa blows smoke at the sky placidly, “That’s not what Mum says. Anyway, I wouldn’t know. I haven’t read it. I won’t. I can’t. I’m brain damaged. Ask Mum.”
We’re sitting outside Vanessa’s rock house near the town of Kafue. Wisely, Vanessa has grown up to be an inscrutable artist—fabric, graphics and exuberant, tropical canvases all expressed with a kind of noncommittal chaos—so no one can really pin anything on her. And anyway, no matter what happens, Vanessa always behaves as if everything will resolve itself in time as long as no one panics. Her bathroom, for example, has a tree growing through the middle of its thatched roof— very romantic and picturesque but a pitiful defense against rain and reptiles. Vanessa says vaguely, “Oh, just keep your shoes on and have a good look before you sit anywhere and you should be all right.”
The rest of the house, attached to the wildly impractical bathroom, has a total of three tiny rooms for Vanessa, her husband and their several children, but it is built on the summit of a kopje, so it has a sense of possibility, like a closet with cathedral ceilings. We sit outside where the air smells of miombo woodland and we smoke cigarettes and look at the comforting lights from the scores of cooking fires smoldering from the kitchens in the surrounding village. Occasionally we hear a dog barking from the taverns on the Kafue Road and soldiers in the nearby army camp shouting to one another or letting off the odd stray bullet. It’s all very peaceful.
“Have another glass of wine,” Vanessa suggests by way of comforting me. “You never know, Mum might forgive you eventually.”
In my defense, the Awful Book, whose full and proper title can never be mentioned in the company of my family, was not all my fault. I had felt more than a little encouraged to write it—directed, even—by Nicola Fuller of Central Africa herself. Having given up on my older sister as a potential writer on account of Vanessa’s stubborn refusal to learn how to read or write, Mum settled her literary ambitions on me. I was five when she abandoned the arithmetic section of our weekly Rhodesia Correspondence School packet. “Look Bobo,” she reasoned, “numbers are boring. Anyway, you can always pay someone to count for you, but you can never pay anyone to write for you. Now,” Mum paused and gave me one of her terrifying smiles. “What do you think you’re going to write about?” Then she took a long sip of tea, brushed a couple of dogs off her lap and began to live a life Worthy of Fabulous Literature.
Twelve years later, Mum reviewed her life and matched it up against the kind of biography she hoped to inspire, something along the lines of West with the Night, The Flame Trees of Thika or Out of Africa. On the whole, she was satisfied. In fact, all things considered, she felt as if she even may have overdone it in some areas (tragedies, war and poverty, for example). However, there remained one glaring omission from her portfolio: there had been no airplanes, and airplanes had featured prominently in the lives of Mum’s literary role models.
“And then, as if by magic,” Mum says, “My Dashing Little Sri Lankan appeared.”
My Dashing Little Sri Lankan did not really belong to Mum—although there were whole moments in the course of her relationship with him when you could have been forgiven for thinking exactly that—and there was debate in the family, some of it quite vigorous, as to whether or not he was dashing, but we could all agree that the Sri Lankan was definitely little. His real name was Mr. Vaas and he said he had come to Zambia to escape all the pain and violence of his native land.
“Then you should feel quite at home with us,” Dad said, which made Mr. Vaas look at him sharply. But my father said nothing more, returning his attention calmly to Farmers Weekly. On the whole, I took my father’s side. “As usual,” Mum said.
“Didn’t the last pilot who stayed with us fly his plane into an electricity pole?” I asked, pouring myself another cup of tea.
Without looking up from his magazine, my father said, “I’m afraid so.”
Mr. Vaas wilted somewhat.
“Don’t listen to them,” Mum said, steering Mr. Vaas firmly away from the veranda and tilting him across her garden—an encouraged tangle of bougainvillea and passion fruit vines, beds of lilies and strelitzia, rows of lilac bushes and caladiums looming over borders of impatiens. Mum’s current assortment of dogs gamboled at their heels. “My family bullies me terribly,” she said. Mr. Vaas patted her arm tactfully, for which the little man was rewarded with a voracious smile. “You and I,” Mum foretold, “will show them all what real courage looks like. We will be the Blixen and Finch Hatton of Zambia.”
Mr. Vaas blinked an SOS back at me and Dad from the gloaming.
“How’s that tea, Bobo?” Dad asked. “Still hot?”
“Scorching,” I said.
Now faded Mr. Vaas, then Mum, into the home paddock, where the dairy cattle had come into the open to shelter from the evening mosquitoes. “Come fly with me,” I could hear Mum sing, “let’s fly, let’s fly away. If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay. Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.”
Dad is quite deaf as a result of hearing too many guns go off during the course of his life, not all of them fired by Mum, so he could not hear Nicola Fuller of Central Africa but I felt it was only fair to warn him that Sinatra had entered into the picture. Dad put down his magazine. “Well, good luck to the little Indian,” he said.
“Sri Lankan,” I corrected him.
Dad lit a cigarette.
“Come fly with me,” Mum serenaded—now her voice seemed to be drifting to us from the direction of the tobacco barns—“let’s float down to Peru.”
So, encouraged by Mum’s almost aggressive enthusiasm, Mr. Vaas parked his elderly and very basic Cessna on the airstrip by the Mkushi Country Club (whose tennis courts had ruptured little trees and which housed bats in the bar) and declared himself open for business as a flight instructor. Because no one dies in this story, and death tends to sharpen the memory, I can’t now remember who else attended the flying course, but there must have been one or two other farmers and perhaps a couple of farmers’ wives. Anyway, as in almost any story that includes Mum, they are beside the point.
Mum took to flying “like a bird to the wing,” she sang, although she had some difficulty with the paperwork required to ensure a reasonably uneventful journey. “Numbers,” she confided, darkly. “I suppose I should have paid more attention when those bloody nuns were trying to teach me how to count.” Navigation and fuel loads, for example, she found “very confusing.” Still, a minor detail like her complete inability to count further than the ten fingers on her two hands did nothing to dissuade either Mum or Mr. Vaas from pursuing her dream of taking to the air all through the smoky haze of that winter and into the first burning days of spring.
The late October afternoon on which Mum scheduled her first attempts to take off and land coincided with a full moon. Mum and Mr. Vaas took the creaking Cessna down to the end of the airstrip, its wings juddering in the settling heat of the long day. She turned it into the wind and faced the rising hunter’s moon, blood red in a smoke-stained sky. Mr. Vaas talked Mum through a final instrument check and from the tiny, greasy cockpit window, she looked back at the little tin hut in which the other flying students waited and gave the world her final thumbs-up.
The plane rattled down the runway, hopping old antbear holes and kicking up red dust. It gave one or two little jumps, and then it soared upward, tipping this way and that, before clearing the tops of the msasa trees, their new spring leaves paradoxically orange, red and yellow. Mr. Vaas looked over at Mum. “How are we doing, Mrs. Fuller?”
For those other students listening in the little tin hut next to the runway, there was a crackly moment and then came the voice of Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, shaking a little with all the uncommon, crazy courage that enabled Mum to see adventure and possibility where others saw only disaster and tragedy. “Fly me to the moon,” came her voice, singing not very steady but clear enough, “let me play among the stars.”
There was a pause. Mum looked over at Mr. Vaas and smiled alarmingly. His forehead had broken out in little beads of sweat. “And it takes quite a lot to make a Sri Lankan sweat,” she said afterward.
“Take it easy,” Mr. Vaas said.
Mum’s voice came over the radio again, stronger now, “Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.”
As the little plane climbed and climbed toward the dropping sun, a brave punctuation of dark purple in a vivid red sky, Mr. Vaas gesticulated wildly. “Go back to land, go back to land!”
Mum wanted to fly over the aerial gun stationed on the Mkushi River Bridge. The Rhodesians had blown up this bridge during the Rhodesian Bush War, which seems excessive, even in hindsight, given that the bridge was at least a day or two’s drive from the Rhodesian front lines (roads being what they were). Then, in belated and approximate retaliation (the war having ended), the Zambian army had set up a permanent gunner on the north side of the bridge against the South African Defense Forces. In view of the fact that South Africa is a quarter of a continent away and the real fighting was taking place elsewhere as usual, the Zambian gunners didn’t have much to shoot at. Out of sheer boredom, they’d been known to take beer-fueled potshots at anything within reasonable range: crows, eucalyptus trees, chickens. There was no saying what they would do when faced with an actual unscheduled flight of an honest-to-goodness airplane.
Mr. Vaas became very firm. “I don’t have clearance for the bridge. Take her back down to the ground.”
“In other words,” Mum sang, “hold my hand.”
Mr. Vaas glared at her. “We land. We take off. We land. We take off. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. No bridges and no singing, for God’s sake.”
Mum looked at My Little Sri Lankan with sorrowful reproach. “We could go to Zaire,” she offered. “It’s just over those little hills.”
Mr. Vaas glared more and more fiercely. “Time to return to earth,” he said.
Mum’s eyes misted, but she nodded. “Roger,” she said. She knew then, she said afterward, that she’d never fly alone—as she had dreamed she might—across the high plateau of Zambia, down the escarpment and up the Luangwa River, elephants fanning out ahead of her, the light thinned by altitude and adrenaline into something approaching the perfect light of her childhood. “I took that little plane down and landed it and said good-bye to one more dream,” she said.
In memoriam of her dashed dream, Mum put the three volumes of Trevor Thom’s The Air Pilot’s Manual on her bathroom shelf next to Charles Berlitz’s German Step-by-Step and Commander F. J. Hewett’s Sailing a Small Boat. “Well you can’t win them all,” she says. And with her characteristic, if uneven, gift for magnanimity, she forgave My Dashing Little Sri Lankan, even after it became apparent, at least to her, that he was a spectacularly indifferent flight instructor. “As far as I know, not a single one of us passed even the written portion of the exam,” Mum says. But her chin goes up. “In any case, I flew, didn’t I? I flew.”
And it is true that no one can take away the day when she flew the plane up over the msasa trees, around the country club grounds and back down again onto the airstrip with a sunset at her tail, the bumpy landing into the face of the great, fiery hunter’s moon. The propeller spun to a halt. The cockpit door opened. Dust settled. For a moment the whole world stopped breathing. Then, while Mr. Vaas mopped his brow in the copilot’s seat, Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen had nothing on the way Mum emerged smiling from the cockpit, flashing a V for Victoria to her adoring fans, real and imaginary.
— CLEVELAND PLAINDEALER