Ten years ago, Alexandra Fuller wrote an acclaimed memoir about her Seventies childhood in the country formerly known as Rhodesia.
That “Awful Book”, as her mother calls it (the actual title, never to be mentioned in the family, is Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight), pitched the colonial world of Fuller’s anachronistic parents – described here as a “make-believe place trapped forever in the celluloid of another time” – against Africa’s emerging liberation.
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, a sequel to the “Awful Book”, focuses on Fuller’s adored and defiant mother, the self-proclaimed Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, who always wanted to lead a life worthy of fabulous literature.
Nicola Fuller, who prides herself on being “one million per cent” Scottish, was raised in Fifties Kenya (pronounced Keenya). Her childhood world was seen “from between the ears of a horse”, while the adult world was seen from the bottom of a glass.
Everyone in these pages, even Nicola’s ayah, muddles through in a fug of alcohol. Her mother, who made her own fig wine, spent her afternoons walking in circles while departing guests had been known to wander into the wrong country while making their way home.
Nicola – romantic, dramatic, manic depressive – grows up with a similar thirst: “Emergency!” she shrieks when she finds her glass empty, “drought!” In 1964 she marries stoical, pipe-smoking Tim Fuller, who shares her hobbies and her love of the “leopard watched” land.
Apart from the centrality, and elasticity, of their cocktail hours, the Fullers did not belong to the Happy Valley set, described by Nicola as “cruel and silly wastrels”. Nor did they mix with the Afrikaners. Locating her parents socially is an important part of the book, and the Fullers were “pukka-pukka sahibs”, settlers in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia during UDI.
Here Tim took what work he could find – be it nightclub bouncer or fish salesman – until, in a state of inebriation, the couple bought Romandi Farm in the Burma Valley, replete with white walls, Ionic pillars and 700 acres. It was, chirped Nicola, a “little piece of Italy”.
Mozambique, with its Portuguese wines, was just over the valley. “Here’s to us,” was Nicola’s toast. “There’re none like us, and if there were they’re all dead.”
At Romandi, Nicola raises her two daughters to be English enough to have tea with the Queen, but the “fantastico” life she has planned quickly turns into something else. In 1974, Mozambique is granted its independence; the new Marxist government supports the ZANLA guerrillas fighting for majority rule in Rhodesia. The border between the two countries is closed, and civil war breaks out.
Alexandra, aged five, and her sister, aged eight, are taught by their father to use a gun and by their mother to never surrender. “Over my dead body,” is Nicola’s line on black rule. “Life must go on”. Life does go on, but at a cost. The family lose their farm and baby after baby needlessly dies, the first of meningitis, the second by drowning in a duck pond, the third through medical negligence. Nicola goes temporarily mad, and becomes, in the eyes of her daughters, “like a figure at the wrong end of a telescope”.
Nicola Fuller, the last of her kind, booms and bosses her way through these beautifully written pages, a comic-tragic patriot of no clear nationality, permanently out of place in the place she refuses to leave, at home in her own homelessness.
Her parents, Fuller accepts, belong to a generation that was selfish and short-sighted but, as she puts it, “most of us don’t pay so dearly for our prejudices, our passions, our mistakes. Lots of places, you can harbour the most ridiculous, the most ruining, the most intolerant beliefs and be hurt by nothing more than your own thoughts.”
Today Nicola and Tim live in Zambia by the Zambezi river, where they farm fish and bananas. While Tim fights a battle with the elephants, Nicola’s tilapia are famous for their peaceful, pleasant, unstressed lives.
When we last see them, he has killed a puff adder, she is straining to get the last out of a box of wine, and their daughter Alexandra has revealed she is about to write about them in another “Awful Book”.
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
by Alexandra Fuller