The first cigarette I smoked was a Marlboro. I was twenty-one. I didn’t feel sick and I didn’t feel dizzy and I was on ten or fifteen a day for the rest of my twenties. Living in Luanda, quite a stressy place, I could smoke two packs a day. My preferred brand was YES. They came in a gold box marked with a red dot like those stickers art galleries use to indicate that a painting has been sold. At some stage, I had to go to the medical centre because I was finding it so hard to breath. A Cuban doctor examined me. He told me that unless I wanted to die young I should give up immediately. During the consultation he sucked on a cigar. If anything, this made me take him more seriously.
I still think smoking looks cool. I still miss it. And I kid myself that smoking may have saved my life. Cigarettes are a useful negotiating tool at checkpoints. I’ve never met a soldier who wouldn’t accept a cigarette.
Now, in my head, I see grass as tall as I am and a red road stretching into the distance. Far ahead, we can see the explosion expanding into the sky. Another ambush. A coach-load of young army conscripts. I’d watched them loading up the day before, so cocky and excited about the prospect of fighting, boasting that they would be the ones to kill Jonas Savimbi. When we heard the landmine detonate, I saw my father sitting in a deckchair beside a swimming pool in Provence. He was wearing a straw hat and taking notes from a book with a gold fountain pen. There was an abundance of bushes of pink fragrant flowers.
Colette and Violette were sisters. They were short, although not unusually so for Mediterranean women of a certain age. Colette was the worker. She was also the teacher. With patience, she helped me get to grips with the subjonctif. She also trusted me with the key to the door to the wine cellar. Violette did very little apart from grind fresh meat for the cat each morning. She also kept an eye on the pet tortoise, and would encourage me to feed it the remains of the day’s vegetables. When the sisters took me on special day trips, for example to the beach, it was always Violette who drove. In second gear. The whole way! But although they had very different personalities, they were in absolute agreement about the young Algerian man I’d met in town. He was not allowed to visit the auberge ever again. You could call this a turning point in my life.
The man who told me I was a natural, was made for telly and would go far, instigated another major turning point. It was a BBC training session at White City. I was learning how to make news packages for the screen. I ended my little report on Ivory Coast’s war with a shot of two women walking barefoot away from the camera. On their backs, they were each carrying a heavy stack of wood. “Far from the bureaucracy of United Nations negotiations, ordinary Ivorians continue to be weighed down by war. This is Lara Pawson reporting for the BBC.” The cliché was what he really admired. I knew I had to leave.
I wear a yellow badge with the words We Are All Migrants printed in blue. A barista in Salisbury pointed at it and laughed. A man in Finsbury Park station saw it and thanked me. A third person, someone close to me, said he hates badges like that: It might as well say We Are All Monkeys.
One of my regrets is that I didn’t take more photographs. Although I was based in Angola for over two years, and have since travelled there for months on end, I hardly have any pictures. I don’t remember taking any in Ivory Coast either, or Mali or Ethiopia or Niger or Burkina Faso. I did take a few in Ghana, but I sold them to a glossy inflight magazine. I didn’t take any of the French sisters either, or all those men who helped transport us from London to Budapest. I tell myself it doesn’t matter because memories of moments fill my head. But would I have more accurate memories if I had more photographs?
I only learned how to truly sit on a horse when I was told to keep my eyes closed. I was living in a hamlet in Somerset with an old man we called The Major. Every morning, starting before seven, we’d take turns to train on top of one of his thoroughbreds. The horse that really taught me how to use my weight and balance and breath was a blind stallion.
Yesterday, I was with a very dear friend. She said, without hesitation, I think I am losing my sight in one eye.
One night in the town of Ndalatando, we were invited to attend a dance. We spent most of the evening seated at a table at the edge of the concrete floor. We drank beer and talked quietly and followed the silhouettes of young couples dancing kizomba. There was no electricity. A few disco lights ran off a small generator. Shortly before midnight, for the final dance, the young women came to the floor holding red carnations. The flowers were a symbol of love, we were told, given to the boys the night before battle. But I have it in my head that they were flowers for the grave.
Where have all the flowers gone? We used to sing that at school, my sister and I. It was the seventies and that was a seventies song.
By the early eighties, when we were teenagers, I used to be able to make my sister laugh so much she’d wet her knickers. Sometimes, on the way home from school, I’d start making her laugh just as we got off the bus, to see if she could make it all the way up one road then the next without losing control. If I tried really hard, I could probably still make my sister wet her knickers from laughing today, but I don’t see her enough and when I do, I forget to try.