One should always keep an eye on the sky.
Even on a grey day.
When I think of Mum, I see her in a garden.
Some of her homes didn’t have one. Then she had to be satisfied with window boxes and potted plants.
She occupied the extra time with sewing and cooking, her other great skills.
If anyone could turn a wasteland into a garden, it would have been Mum.
Here she and my father’s colleague Mariella cast a disapproving eye on our new residence at rue Dr Hahn in Phnom Penh.
It was a challenge.
Mum soon got things growing.
Although one end of the garden was not touched. Mostly because the house was on a corner which was a convenient location for mobile food stalls. And when the owner’s had a call of Nature they just hopped over the wall.
We didn’t go down there.
A previous tenant had hanged himself from a tree down there, but we didn’t know it at the time.
Sai See our maid used to arrive early and sit on the veranda till Mum opened the door. One morning she was in a great fright having been assaulted by a ghost.
My parents thought she had fallen asleep and dreamed about her abusive husband.
But the next tenant’s maid also claimed to have been attacked by this ghost, which was when the story of the suicide came to light. The tree was felled and offerings were made to calm the spirit.
Beyond the garden wall, the food stall owner’s washing line. Everything happened on the street in those days.
My friend Ed. One of the first Americans I met. I thought he was very cool. I may be confused but I seem to think he talked of living on a ranch with horses.
It was what I dreamed of!
Every time Dad played The New World Symphony, I conjured images in my mind of the Wild West.
Our corner of rue Dr Hahn was also an assembly point for cyclo-pousses.
Sabrina and I spent a lot of time riding around in them. Sometimes we shared, but as you can see it was a tight squeeze even for 9-year olds.
When we had the money, we each had our own and persuaded the drivers to race which they seemed to think was great fun.
There was never any reason for our parents to worry about us being off alone. The cyclo drivers were always very kind to us.
How lovely to live in such a world.
Perhaps that is why my memory of Cambodia is so special and why the coming genocide was so incomprehensible.
An early gardening lesson?
Oh no. Sabrina and I dug a hole searching for treasure. Bits of indeterminate old metal. Most disappointing.
The tree behind me was I think a flamboyant, named for its bright red flowers, the blooming of which in May signaled the coming monsoon.
Sai See at Quay Sisowath where we first lived in Phnom Penh.
Our flat was one flight up and I shall never forget watching Sai See carry a crate up on top of her head. Supplies that had arrived from Hong Kong.
All Westerners were expected to employ servants. I hate the word but the work was much sought after.
Wouldn’t it be fun to know what they all said to one another about their employers?
To us, Sai See was more of a friend even though we had no common language.
Mum soon taught Sai See about afternoon tea which happened around 3 o’clock or whatever time it was when my parents rose from their siesta.
In the afternoon heat, not much work got done. The institution of a siesta was something my parents adapted to permanently, maintaining it even after they returned to England many years later.
In Laos where the heat was still more oppressive, even I could not remain upright in the afternoon but I always rose feeling sluggish and headachey.
In Cambodia, Sabrina and I never stopped until we ran out of steam at the end of the day. We were children, after all.
When we moved to rue Dr Hahn, there was a servant’s quarter attached which Sai See used for her afternoon rest and sometimes overnight.
What I liked about this arrangement was that she brought her cat Kliang there.
He was the first cat I got to know properly although Sabrina’s mother was very fond of cats too. Their Siamese cat Mao soon attracted a group of admirers and numerous hangers-on.
One got named Sputnik which is how I always remember the year the rocket was launched.
My two buddies.
When my father was transferred to Saigon in 1958, his colleague Mariella stayed on in Cambodia for a while, so Sai See remained in her employ but I don’t know what happened after. Mariella was a hopeless correspondent so her news was always out-of-date.
When I asked my mother, she told me she had believed that Sai See was unwell and that she might not have lived long.
There was no way to find out and I was sent off to boarding school which gave me other things to think about.
But my thoughts have often gone back to Sai See. I picture her still, with my mother in the kitchen. Both of them laughing.
At the time of our departure from Cambodia, my biggest sadness was saying goodbye to Kliang.
Sai See and her devoted friend Mr Heah (5th from right) saw us off at the airport. I didn’t know enough to be sad then but ever since, farewells have always been difficult.
Well well, I went astray again.
This is not the memory that came to mind in my neighbour’s garden.
Just the one that came up this morning.
Where I’ll get tomorrow is anyone’s guess.