Packets of goodwill arrive from unexpected quarters

The parcel slip is tucked against the front door of my cottage, a white ticket against the green iron panes.

"Please call at Counter No. X for a packet too large for private box/street delivery - Zimbabwe Posts and Telecommunications Corporation."

I've always loved getting parcels. For nearly two years now, my friends and family have faithfully sent out brown paper packages to remind me in Zimbabwe of them, and of home.

They're not big parcels. Our communal letter box - which serves at least 20 other people - is the size of a bird nesting box, so any mail larger than a telephone bill has to be picked up at the post office.

They're not valuable, either: sometimes parcels go missing. But when I open them, I'm invariably delighted by the sender's ingenuity.

My friend Claire, now a busy Spanish lecturer in northern England, sends packets of vegetarian spread. "I know you can't get them over there," she writes. Smelling them, I'm immediately transported to the windy steps of our university library where we used to meet for lunch several times a week, sandwiches in hand.

Jenni, a scriptwriter in Italy, sends me Italian shampoo and deodorant. I think of her when I use them and of the language courses we took together in Florence when we were 20. We stayed in a carpetless pensione - the stuff of "Room With a View" - just a street away from the River Arno.

My little sister sends me mascara and a skirt she got on discount during her Saturday morning job in a clothes shop in Bond Street, London. She says it's in memory of the times I used to send her "treats" from Paris, where I worked soon after finishing my degree.

Mum sends me "mum" things - a dish towel decorated with birds for my bird-mad husband, a flea collar for our kitten, and new toothbrushes on a (very) regular basis.

Mum's always been worried about the state of her children's teeth. When there's no more toothpaste, she's warned me, worried by news reports of widening shortages in the country, just use ash. Thankfully, that's one gem of maternal advice I haven't had to try out yet.

But it's Mum's friends who've been the biggest surprise.

I never really noticed them before. Mum's friends were always there in the background, their children and their husbands slipping in and out of my life during conversations over the family dinner table.

To me, I have to admit, they were the "gray ladies" - not just because they were mostly silver-haired, but also because they were shadowy figures whom I knew, but never really got to know.

Now, Mum's work colleague of 15 years and her two daughters collect trial packets of posh hair conditioner and face cream to send me, worried by Mum's reports of a life far from luxurious.

Auntie Iona packs up dehydrated soya mince and rosehip teabags. Pat sends me jelly packets and marshmallow chocolate powder. "Never tried it myself so hope you like it," she writes on a tiny handpainted notelet.

Auntie Elizabeth e-mails to tell me of life back in the English town where I spent most of my school years. "So far we have not had it too cold though we do have a harsh nip in the air come 4 p.m.," she says in her last dispatch.

I read words like these from the heat of an African summer, my second Christmas in the tropics just weeks away. It'll also be my second Christmas away from my family, those I love and miss, and friends I didn't know I had.

But their carefully packed parcels keep us close. And Mum has promised to try to send some Christmas pudding.

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