Normal summer transmission resumes and London goes back to being grey and warmish and intermittently drizzly. We settle into a routine: Hapless heading off for the daily commute, the rest of us tackling ‘summer school’ – a little daily homeschooling and light masochism. On the days none of us can stand it another minute, boys and I roam London’s free attractions: museums, galleries, parks, landmarks, which we find exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. I readjust to the facts of daily London life I was never nostalgic about: the dark brown scale that forms on the top of your cup of tea; the unpleasant soapy mildness of the tap water. The fact that when it rains it doesn’t so much rinse the footpaths as mobilise the grime, so that a gritty black sludge coats your shoes, or, if you’re game enough to be wearing jandals, your feet.
After lulling us into a false sense of it’s-all-a-bit-tough-but-it’s-going-to-be-okay, the city winds up and pitches us, not a curve ball exactly, more of a vicious fast ball to the solar plexus. In other circumstances it would be darkly comic: on a routine visit to the bank it transpires that our account wasn’t closed properly when we left the UK in 2003, and after twelve years of monthly £12 account fees plus overdraft penalties, we’ve racked up a debt of £1600 which has since been referred to various external debt collection agencies. What penalty amount it may have subsequently snowballed into is currently unclear, but what is clear is that our credit rating is royally fucked and that at least for now I can’t get access to a bank account. Which means I can’t work in the UK, and which might screw Hapless on the tax front too.
We start the shoveling-shit-uphill process of trying to get recourse or at least assistance from the bank – we’ve got proof that we informed them of our NZ address, and that they never sent any letters or statements there – but because they sold our bad debt in 2010 to who-knows-what bovver boys and their crowbar-wielding cousins, it’s likely to be out of their hands. Attempts to phone the bank to find out what’s happening are futile: one afternoon I spend forty minutes on hold and am disconnected twice before I give up. Only in the UK, we think, in the moments when the light-headed tingling panic subsides. Only in the fucking UK.
The shock brings other anxieties, till now kept to just-manageable levels, to the surface – Hapless’s job uncertainty, the relentless setup expenses, the tanking NZ dollar, the series of looming body corp bills back home. For now there’s nothing I can do to help – not till September when the boys start school – and the logistics of managing work and kids in a city where nothing is physically or systemically easy are almost too daunting to think about.
We get our first glimpse of the schools we’re subjecting our kids to, and I’m unprepared for the extent of the culture shock. We attend an end-of-year music event at Firstborn’s local comprehensive, and though we’ve joked about it, it really does feel like something out of Grange Hill – only with less posh accents, scruffier uniforms and none of the 80s innocence. The teachers are all ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’, even to each other, with no apparent irony. The kids on stage, an even mix of black and white, are delightful – funny, shy, swaggering, awkward, genuinely talented – but I look around the parents in the audience without a flicker of social recognition. I feel like a tourist, a toff-nosed imposter, with my middle-class preoccupations and prejudices, my carefully casual clothes and my blow-dried hair and my small-talk smile, and I’m grateful for the camouflage that my accent, my unclassifiable foreignness, affords me.
The primary school is more of a gentrification-in-progress mix, and we look at the posher parents and wonder where on earth they’re all sending their eleven-year-olds. We haven’t been able to identify any nearby private or grammar schools, which means the older kids are being packed off on trains and buses and private shuttles to schools inside their parents’ comfort zone, a location clearly beyond the local school zone. It’s difficult for us to believe that’s really a positive solution, not without proof there’s anything seriously dysfunctional about the local. What we’ve seen of the comp kids, after school in the streets and park, has been great: teenagers laughing and jostling and kidding each other without aggression or profanity or discernible tension, polite to me and kind to the boys. And the atmosphere in the school hall on music night was fantastic: appreciative, enthusiastic, supportive of each other’s stumbles. A small, awkward black kid, all wristbones and spectacles, got up on stage looking like classic fresh bullying meat and delivered a fluent, swaggering rap as the room erupted into whoops and cheers. An obese white girl, hair scraped severely back, delivered a beautiful Etta James rendition, and it wasn’t just her parents yelling and clapping, it was the other kids, proud to claim her along with the pretty blonde duettists and the bands covering the Foo Fighters and Bruno Mars and Years & Years.
Our boys seem relatively undaunted at the prospect of settling in, keen to make friends and get stuck into school life, confident that their music and football obsessions will provide easy points of connection. Since we arrived they’ve spent all their carefully hoarded dollars-converted-to-pounds on their hearts’ respective desires: the new-season Arsenal strip for Number Two Son, and a new Epiphone Les Paul guitar, ‘signed’ by Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses, for Firstborn. By happy coincidence we’re living in the heart of Gooners territory, and the Arsenal shirt starts conversations wherever Number Two Son goes, from the drunk on the bus and the assistant in the post office as well from the neighbourhood kids. He enjoys the football tribalism and banter, and claims the territory like a native.
He’s freaked out, though, to find himself the centre of fascinated attention on his first school visit. The kids crowd round him, putting a friendly elbow on his shoulder or an arm around his neck, talking to him in accents he can’t yet fathom. ‘Owahya, orrigh’?’ say a few of the parents, and he looks at them in blank horror. ‘They’re asking how you are,’ I whisper. ‘Just say “orright” back.’
‘I wish they’d leave me alone,’ he says later, but agrees he’d far rather this rapturous welcome than silent indifference. Anyway, he’s got other things on his mind: ‘The school dinner was horrible,’ he says indignantly, ‘and the kids say Miss Khanum is the strictest teacher in the school.’
What have we done, I keep thinking, and then I remember my parents took me to live in Nepal when I was seven, and it’s not much more challenging than that. At least none of us has contracted giardia yet. (Though both boys do have mild tummy upsets, darkly predicted by me and caused, I tell them, by their habit of picking things up off the footpath or tube platform to show me and then five minutes later licking snot off their fingers.)
But next week is the start of the holidays, when we hope the kids we see heading off to school in the mornings will be around more, available to be lured into games of street football and parkour and maybe – just maybe – invitations to play.