I was a little girl once. I still am, though my external self appears to be a middle-aged woman. Inside, among the jumble of anxieties, responsibilities and disappointments, are still a few shiny memories that not only encapsulate a moment in my long ago but also still affect the woman I am now.
That all came out rather complicated. How can I explain? By giving an example, I guess.
The Gambia, 1973. It’s the dry season which my mother, brought up in Uganda, claims is the chilly time of year. I don’t agree. I spend my days wandering about dressed only in my knickers and I’m plenty warm enough. I’m practically feral at this point – I don’t see much of my parents and my little sister, St Francis of Assisi, is in the care of our home help so I’m left to swim, explore the bush, ride horses and, best of all, hang out with a baboon called BooBoo.
Ah, the days when I knew no better. Looking back, that poor animal must have gone out of his mind tied to a tree and being teased by the tourists in the beach-side hotel I called home. Now I’d want to liberate him, then, I just enjoyed being with him. We loved each other, we were pals and I was the one human he didn’t bite.
When a second baboon appears, tied to the same tree, I absorb her into my life and make room in my affections for her. This baboon, Maxi, is a baby. She is half the size of BooBoo but there are those to whom age is no barrier and I often arrive at the tree in the morning to find Maxi taken from her side of the tree to where BooBoo can reach her. I don’t have the vocabulary to say that BooBoo is sexually frustrated but I know that’s why Maxi’s been moved. There’s always an audience that’s highly amused to see BooBoo trying to hump her. I am not amused. I separate them and take Maxi back to safety. The audience breaks up, perhaps they don’t want to take on the fearsomely prudish little English girl who, despite frustrating his desires, can count on BooBoo to protect her from any threat. And no one wants to piss off a baboon.
One afternoon, when the breeze wafting in from the ocean was barely enough to stir the strands of sun-bleached hair that perpetually hung over my eyes, I sat on a low bough of the baboon’s tree with Maxi in my arms. She’d been moved again and I’ve re-moved her. BooBoo is consoling himself with a plate of fruit that I’ve brought but Maxi isn’t hungry. Maxi is tired. Closing her eyes, she rests her head on my chest, hugs my waist with all four limbs and sleeps. And sleeps. And sleeps. I look down on my tiny companion, not daring to breathe, not wanting to disturb her. Flies fuss and flitter from the remains of the fruit to my bare skin and back again. Sweat forms and runs from my pores, I need to pee but I will not move. I believe that Maxi feels safe in my embrace, that’s why she’s allowed herself to fall so deeply asleep and I feel honoured. This furry baby has given me her trust and I will not break it even if I have to wet myself.
I don’t know how long I sat there that day. Maybe it was ten minutes, maybe it was an hour. Time is different when you’re eight, but it left a lasting legacy. Since then I have had many animals, from monkeys to lambs, fall asleep on my lap. Babies too – human babies, I mean – and I have never, ever lost that sense of being honoured when a skittish, wary creature allows itself to fall into a vulnerable state of deep sleep in my care.
The reason that I’m writing about this now is Eric. He’s two and a bit now and, even by Doberman standards, he’s a bloody big dog but he’s still a puppy. One of his most endearing habits is his need of physical contact with me while he sleeps. I have had to lift his head away from my keyboard so that I can type. He’s grumbled and moved a whole half an inch for me. The heat he’s throwing off is making me unbearably uncomfortable and he’s heavy and I wish he’d move away a bit but guess what? I won’t move him (mainly because he weighs forty kilos). Instead I’ll sit here and think about an afternoon forty years ago when I learned the real meaning of trust.