Matmata


The decks have been hit running and I think I like it. Most summers kick off with a compulsory week at home recovering from the wicked routines of the school year. It takes this week to refocus the lens. To wash and hide all the nasty little uniform pieces. To stash lunch boxes on top of presses. To empty school bags with unread notes crumpled and mixed up with pencil shavings at the bottom of them. To realise and allow ourselves to wallow in the glory of another good year, done and dusted. This year we hopped over the unwinding week and took off like the clappers the day after the school broke up. I grumbled, most uncharacteristically, about the poor person who had to switch violently from organising and stashing and hiding, to finding and cleaning and packing. For seven. Oh and yes, for the last chance saloon prep for the NCT on the day the school broke. Hoovering and cleaning and dipatening and revving the smoke out of the lungs of the tired old jeep. Twenty she is now. As knackered as I am. At 5.10pm she passed and this gave a lift to the self-pitying grumbler. If she could do it, rise to this critical test, then so could I. And if I collapsed altogether in the middle of packing we could always go on Sunday instead. Which gave me the added juice to get on with it. Despite my mother visiting to bid us adieu and telling me how frighteningly tired I looked. It had been a big week, I reminded her, with marque 3 graduating from primary and marque 4’s birthday. She knew, of course, but seeing it all in action, the busyness of it, seemed to startle her. A protective streak in her called out for me to put my feet up and have a cup of tea. I had to say no. If I sat down I’d never get back up. A mother of four herself, she has no memory of being as busy as this. Hopefully I’ll be the same down the line. There’s a reason for the premature departure. Of course there is. I jiggle it in my mind. But no. There is no other way. 

We arrive and it all begins to fade, gloriously. How could it have been only this time last week that we were standing in the school car park for the guard of honour for marque 3 and his year? The sun stinging the shoulders of parents taken by surprise by its intensity. The stifled gasps of emotion. The damp eyes behind the sunglasses. I won’t, I told myself and a school gate Mum friend. Not this time. I won’t get upset, because it’s our third and we’ve done this before and he’s ready to go. He’s happy and looking forward to embracing the newness of secondary. So I won’t. Certainly not. I glance around at the parents for whom this is a first experience. Poor things, I think. All the stingy surprises. Then I see them. The boys. Walking for the last time through the glass encased corridors and I am gone. Taken away on a puff of emotion. I will never again see him walk that walk. They emerge. The clapping and high fives from their younger schoolmates begins. They pass proudly wearing their class-mate autographed yellow P.E. tops. He approaches. Beaming. Slapping the hands of the fifth class boys, those next in line. He’s ready, you see, I tell myself. Ah god, I hear myself say. 

This day last week. How is that possible? The emotions of it receding now into sepia. Here they all are moulding an entire village into life. Team working. Delegating. All five. Burying themselves with fervent digging. Disappearing. Half bodies. Underground systems and living spaces. Overground bridges and roads. It reminds us of Matmata, a village in southern Tunisia. We travelled there – pre marriage and kids, naturally – on an overnight bus for the thrill of sleeping in a sand cave underground. They were built in a bid to escape the intense heat, and are known to many as the filming location of the Bar scene in Star Wars. We stare into their creation and we remember. The freedom and the dangers. The day-time hike into desert scrubland, ascending a scree filled hill in terror. The pack of wild white dogs – wolves or hyenas – running yowling towards us. Arming ourselves with stones while backing further up the hill. Is this how it will end? Missing a train and hitching a lift instead with a local in his clapped out front seated van into the middle of nowhere, in search of the ancient Roman city of Dougga, and him telling me, whispering, while my boyfriend stepped out and consulted the map, that I’d be better off with him. Is this how it will end? 

The brothers collaborate and encourage their own Matmata into life while ignoring my pleas to rest for their ham rolls. Take a break, lads, for goodness sake. They strip, bare chests, while I search for a second hoodie of theirs to put on. My fingertips are becoming numb. A freezing summer’s day. 

‘Why don’t you buy us spades any more Mum, this would be so much easier with spades’ marque 4 pipes up from his cave. Because you’re too bloody big for spades, I do not say. I hadn’t actually noticed. It’s true, we no longer need buckets and spades. Perhaps I should be emotional about this too. But I’m not. The dog keeps a watchful eye. Barks relentlessly at a cow trying to join us on the beach. No. This beach is just for me and my crew, he says. Quite right too. The cow backs away. The dog accepts bits of ham from the unclaimed rolls. When will all this team work lark be done? Do we want it to be done? In years to come, we know, they will not be having this sort of fun together. They mould on, trying to force a canal up to it, and then one of them shouts that it’s time to swim. Swim? It’s grey and cold and there’s a drizzle set to descend any moment now. They screech and laugh into the ice as if at an alcohol infused stag party. I dance a jig to keep the blood circulating on the shore, while thinking this time last week. This time last week I was ironing a white shirt and polishing black shoes for the evening graduation Mass. We are in a whole other country now. Thankfully. 

One thought on “Matmata

  1. Another lovely piece, Ellen! Reading it in Portugal and thinking same thing, “this time last week.” You really capture that feeling of summer time, all that lovely time stretching out ahead! And time to remember past “times out of time”, ordinary time that is. Congrats to the Marques on wonderful feat of engineering in their Matmata, looks amazing!

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