The boys and I arrive at Heathrow at midday on a sweltering Friday in late June. Emerging sweaty and exhausted from the brutal half-hour Customs queue, we spy Hapless waving bashfully from the crowd at the Arrivals barrier. The boys abandon their luggage carts in the middle of the corridor and fling themselves at their father, and all at once the emotion and fatigue and enforced fortitude of the last four months slams into me and I’m weeping like a little girl. I give into it – my therapist says I need to let my emotions out more – and when I blink and wipe I discover Hapless is a bit pink and wet around the eyes too.
Instead of the expected three-train journey back to our lodgings for the night we cruise into London in grateful air-conditioned comfort (forever indebted, Jen!) and a haze of sleep deprivation. The glass towers and traffic and grey-brown terraces of West London spool surreally past my window, the workaday bustle and blare of the city equal parts familiar and alien. In our friends’ hot spare room I sleep thickly, queasily, for two hours, and wake foggy but functional till bedtime.
It is high summer, full daylight from 4.30am to 9.30pm. For days we fall asleep in the light and wake in the light, reaching groggily to check the time, with no idea whether it’s 4am or seven. Our first morning we head out early, across dusty London Fields, past the fun fair carousel and the lycra’d boot camp posses and the young people smoking joints in the wildflower meadow. The trauma of the flight is already fading, as childbirth does, displaced by the new sensory onslaught.
Everything is different: the light, the lilt of the birdsong, the quality of the heat that lies heavy in the narrow streets; the road markings, the makes of the cars parked every-which-way along the kerbs, the drily helpful tone of the ubiquitous public notices. In Broadway market we walk past artisan cheeses and handmade chocolates, Ghanaian curry and jellied eels; in a coffee shop I’m greeted with ‘Kia ora!’ in an East London accent and served a convincing flat white.
In the afternoon we get the keys to our flat in Tufnell Park. Waiting for the train at Haggerston I have a moment of total dislocation, confronted by the miracle of our kids, standing beside me on the Overground platform, being briefed by their father on tube navigation and etiquette. Where did they spring from, these strapping, sweetly naïve Kiwi boys, nearly as tall as me, their voices loud with unselfconscious wonder? They’re the unlikely evidence of the twelve years that have elapsed since Hapless and I last swung ourselves around this city; this place that we felt quite deeply was home but abandoned in response to a different kind of call home.
Up till now the whole place has had a familiar-yet-foreign feeling as we navigate parts of North London I’ve never been before, our allegiances previously being firmly south of the river. But as we change tubes at Euston I turn a tiled corner into a hot blast of engine-scented, particulate air, and know at last, unmistakably, that I’m back.
At the flat we let ourselves in and file through the hot unfamiliar spaces that will be our home for at least the next year. It has the peculiar smell of English flats, dodgy plumbing and undersink damp and over-fragranced cleaning products. There are narrow crooked stairs, high ornate ceilings, a sun-filled conservatory and a little wild garden. We fling the windows wide and gaze at our new views: green and leafy out the back, tree-lined avenues of brown and white terraces out the front. The streets are peaceful, edged with cars but barely disturbed by traffic; even people who own cars use them only occasionally, and the day we arrive there are kids playing football and riding scooters in the road. But even when the streets are still, the city isn’t quiet. It pulses with distant sirens, the rush and rattle of unseen trains, the constant descending whine of planes coming into Heathrow and the clear insistent chirruping of birds.
We unpack the contents of our four suitcases and settle in. Once again we box up the detritus left by previous tenants (why do we do it to ourselves?) and find underneath a pleasant, well-equipped flat. There’s a magnificent six-burner gas hob and double oven, a large fridge and a good washing machine in – luxury! – a separate utility room. There’s also a rotting kitchen bench, malfunctioning taps and plugs and a distinctly feral back corner to the garden, but everything inside is clean and – thank the London gods – the shower pressure is fine. We’re missing a few key pieces of infrastructure – beds for the boys, for example – but the place is liveable in a bare-walled, minimalist kind of way. It could have been so, so much worse.
With the family reunited, something clicks back into place, and we adjust easily to being a four-person unit again. It’s a relief to no longer be responsible for every adult task in the house and the sole focus of the boys’ relentless quest for attention. Hapless and I work in quiet parallel to make the house inhabitable, me sorting out the kitchen and makeshift beds while he deals with the cigarette butts and buckets of stagnant dark-green liquid in the garden. Predictably, within days the boys are taking two parents for granted, and by Day Eight Number Two Son is shouting, ‘It was better without you in the house!’ after getting a bollocking from his dad. (Belied, of course, by the extra morning and bedtime cuddles, the waiting faithfully on the doorstep for his afternoon return, and ‘It’s booooring without Dad’ once Hapless goes back to work.)
We set the creaky wheels of British bureaucracy moving – ten days to get broadband on, two weeks to get me banking access – but receive mercifully quick confirmation of a place for Firstborn at the secondary school close by. We heave a sigh of relief: we’ve pulled off the logistical coup that three months ago looked impossible: a flat and schools for both boys within a safe ten-minute walk.
We take the boys sightseeing: Big Ben, London Eye, Trafalgar Square. They ride their first double-decker bus, discover the navigational intricacies of the Northern Line, learn to stand on the right on escalators. They see their first squirrel in St James’ Park, their first troop of red-liveried busby-wearing soldiers on The Mall, their first real assault rifles held by the police officers outside St James’ Palace. (Prince Charles must be at home!)
Our kids are shameless tourists, blowing our passing-as-locals cool by shouting and pointing at everything and taking photos of each other in front of landmarks, including a pair of long-suffering bobbies. Travelling with kids in London presents a grimy new challenge: how to stop them touching every surface (leapfrogging bollards, vaulting rails, trailing fingers over the sides of escalators, sitting on kerbs, picking curiosities up off the ground) and then transferring black handprints onto their faces, their clothes, their sandwiches, their parents…
Hapless goes back to work and the boys and I get on with carving out a new inner-city-suburban groove for ourselves. By Day Six the mid-afternoon jetlag queasiness is easing and we’re sleeping almost normal hours. Supermarket shopping is a challenge without the internet, requiring a bus trip, a walk and a taxi trip home. For now we live hand-to-mouth, shopping daily at the local supermarket mini-branches, relying on the vast array of cheap, tempting ready meals and convenience foods.
The boys complain at the size of the garden but are out there every day anyway, booting a football at each other’s heads or ‘only blocking’ cricket balls. Within minutes they’re jumping the fence and having their first painful encounters with the stinging nettles in the neighbours’ garden. Occasionally, when they’re quiet long enough, they spy the squirrels that chase over the garden shed and up the tallest trees. One morning I’m sitting at the kitchen table doing paperwork when two young foxes come hurtling out of the undergrowth, snarling and biting at each other, whip twice round the garden, scrabble up and along a fence and down again before tearing back into the bushes and vanishing completely.
In our first week the temperature hits a record 35 degrees. We slog through the sleepy streets of Gospel Oak to the lido (‘ly-do’) – as the English sweetly call open-air swimming pools – on the edge of Hampstead Heath. The queue, full of girls in heavy makeup, muscle-shirted gay couples, hipster student types and teenagers pushing prams beside their chain-smoking mothers, snakes around the outside of the building, keeping us in the unshaded heat for an agonising length of time. When we emerge an hour or so later after our swim – the water is far too cold to stay in long – the queue has almost doubled in length.
We do museums, playgrounds, parks, expending our energy cautiously as we acclimatise to the amount of walking required. The trick is to conserve enough for the final push home from the tube; at the end of a day of tunnels, escalators, crowds and queues, that last ten minutes can seem like ten minutes far too far. But all we can do is pace ourselves, as we gradually get ourselves fit enough for living in the big, big city.