In Africa once we lived some distance from the city-centered US Embassy, out near a Bossa village.
Our closest white neighbors were on the main road a mile back towards town from our compound.
They were British; he worked as an accountant with the local airlines.
Not long after we arrived we invited them over for a meet and greet, just like you’d do in Dayton when you moved into a new neighborhood… fire up the grills and give them neighbors a hot dog and a beer.
They walked over a back route near the African bush and were announced by our guard at the front gate.
Since this wasn’t Dayton exactly, we fixed gin and tonics at the bar, the usual drink of choice for expats in West Africa, and we settled on the back porch, where Brenda and I were captive audience to their stories.
For the previous 17 years they had lived from one end of Africa to the other, preferring – all things considered – east Africa around Nairobi, Kenya to all the rest, including this place.
The wife had a theatric way of speaking… as if she was on stage playing to a standing room only crowd. In telling her stories she often paused for effect. Sometime she would use the back of her right hand as if to throw her hair off her brow. In her heavy, cultivated British accent she’d say something like “Well… it was barely dawn and the hyenas were still barking outside,” emphasizing all the adverbs and verbs. She’d pause, fling her hair back and tilted her head to one side, looking off into the distance as if the barking hyenas had captured her thoughts.
Her husband had his own practiced way of supporting her stories.
He’d say, “…there was a bloody patch of jungle in close to the north side of our house, you see, and that’s where the hyenas would be.”
“… when the doorbell rang downstairs…” she’d say, suddenly looking off in another direction.
“We lived in a large two floor bungalow of the classical French colonial design and I had bought those door bells from a Portuguese merchant in Lewosonshimbo,” he’d say seriously looking at his wife to continue.
“… so I went down the stairs from my chambers and flung open the front… doors…” And she would throw imaginary hair off her brow again with the back of her hand.
And it never stop… she never took a time out anywhere in the evening and said this put-on way of talking and acting was all make believe. We came to realize this was the way our closest neighbors really were. Hyenas, pauses and forced air around verbs. This Africa drew some interesting people.
When they left that first time Brenda said, “Now there you go. That’s why you join the foreign service. To meet all the neighbors there are in this world.” Walking away she was shaking her head, saying, “What a pair.”
Periodically we got in reel to reel movies at the Embassy. They were for our personal entertainment and for use with foreign contacts. This was before VCRs and limitless video gadgetry.
Once we got a movie and invited our British neighbors and another Columbian couple that we played bridge with, Max and Sara Alverez, to our house for a viewing. It was an unusual mix, I noticed each couple was looking at the other as if they were the strange ones.
The party-hardy background music from our tape recorder did not meld us together. Once, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” came on and the Alverezs turned their heads one way – the Brits turned their heads the other. You could imagine they were thinking, that’s a strange “song,” but maybe goes with these strange people the Parkers know. No one said a word while that song played… our guest listening trying to follow the words so as to make sense of it.
It was an extraordinarily odd evening. Like having a couple of zoo animals in from different sections of the zoo. English was the common language, but everyone had their own way of expressing it… and everyone had different things to say. Nothing much in common… other than Brenda and me, sitting conspicuously in the middle.
As I would come in most afternoons I noticed that our British neighbor – I’ve forgotten his name – would be outside in short pants working his rose garden. Sometimes he would be smoking a pipe. I’d blow my horn and he’d look up and wave in an exaggerated manner. Very British, I thought.
One afternoon, I was home from work and the British lady showed up with her full-bodied daughter, just in from London, where she had flunked out of nanny school. I couldn’t imagine why or how a person could flunk out of nanny school, although our two kids told me she had bad breath, as if that explained it to them. And I couldn’t imagine the parents telling people that their daughter had “flunked” out of a school that taught girls how to be baby sitters. What did she do, you reckon? Drop a kid? Couldn’t fold a diaper?
There was a beach near our house that was kept clean by a French couple who ran an excellent seafood restaurant near the entrance to the beach parking area. It was where many expats went week-ends. The Soviets came occasionally, though they always tended to stay close together. Chinese never.
We often went with the Alvarezes and sometime saw our British neighbors there. One day, I was playing in the surf with the kids when the British mother sat down beside Brenda, who was reading a book under our umbrella.
She asked if Brenda had noticed her new two piece bathing suit. It had a bright flora design and was tight, not in a sexy kind of way, but tight around the hips and under the arms. Brenda said that in fact she had noticed how attractive the outfit was. The woman leaned in and in a conspiratorial whisper said they were a bra and panties set her daughter had brought her from London. No one would ever know, she said, if she didn’t go into the water, and she smiled as if she had getting away with something very clever.
She left and I returned from the ocean to flop down beside my wife who told me about the visit from our British neighbor. I looked around sharply to find her sitting under her umbrella down the beach, looking back, smiling. And then she looked away with her chin in the air as if she was the Queen of England flipping imaginary hair off her brow, sitting there in her bra and panties on the public beach.
A day or so later I was coming in from the Embassy with a couple of movies and the projector, which I had only for this one night. Someone else had asked for the movies the next morning. I saw the Brit out in his rose garden and on a sudden impulse I pulled to the side of the road to ask him and his family to join us to see the movies. As I pulled to a stop, he looked up, took his pipe out of his mouth, smiled big and boomed out, “Aye, James my boy. Good to see you.” And he walked out to the car. As he approached I noticed that the white shorts were his boxer underwear. There was no doubt. He was wearing lace up shoes, socks and boxer shorts out working his flower garden. He came up, leaned in at the window, chatting the whole time about how “bloody good” it was to see me. It took me a second to gather my senses and I was asking if he was free to come watch movies, when his wife burst out of the house, wearing her flower print bra and panties and joined her husband by my car.
And I’m thinking about how bizarre this is… on the side of an African road I’m talking to my neighbors who were wearing their underwear. But then I realized that this Volkswagen car seat was set low to the ground… and my mind is screaming to itself… please don’t stand up… and as they discussed coming over, they stood up… and I’m looking right at their crotch, just inches from my face.
Without thinking, I said, “Oh for the love of Mary,” and they leaned back down and said in the most proper British way, “Pardon?”
One night we were eating supper when we heard someone come up to the gate outside, mumble something to the guard we couldn’t understand, then run up the stairs to the front porch, down the porch to the kitchen, through the kitchen and burst into the dining room.
It was the neighbor’s daughter who had flunked out of nanny school. The full-bodied 19-year-old. It was the monsoon and it was drizzling outside, like it did for months. She had run all the way from their house, to ours, and she was only wearing some short pants and a t-shirt.
She stood there, her t-shirt wet, her ample chest heaving as she gasped for breath, and she said, “My mommy… just killed herself.”
And I just couldn’t take my eyes off her chest. I said, “Oh, I’m so, so sorry about that. I, ah, I, ah, really am.”
Brenda said, “WHAT? Your mother just killed herself?”
Turned out that the woman had taken a full handful of Valium after a day of drinking wine and had gone into the bathroom, locked the door and had fallen down. Nothing the daughter could do would roust her. And the father wasn’t much help because he was drunk too.
Brenda called a friend, the CARE nurse assigned out of the Embassy, and they met at the Brit’s house where they forced open the door to the bathroom, found the woman lying in her bra and panties and the nurse pumped the woman’s stomach.
She survived and probably is still out there in Africa somewhere, living life large in her mind. And good on her. We’ve rarely had neighbors we’ve enjoyed more.