The beginning of the holidays, instead of smoking the kids out of the neighbouring houses, seems to make them vanish altogether. Where have they all gone, we wonder – off to the seaside, perhaps, or Spain, or to visit their grandparents in Lincolnshire, or to school holiday programmes or whatever working Londoners do with their kids over the summer. The streets are silent, though from time to time we hear the thwack of football on concrete or the shrieks of arguing siblings from invisible nearby gardens.
I feel my sons’ isolation acutely: no friends or cousins to run around with, no toys or games until our shipping boxes arrive, no one for company all day but me and, teeth-grittingly, each other. We hold it together surprisingly well. The novelty of the backdrop clearly helps, and even the days we go out to tackle chores – buy milk, join the library, get keys cut – turn into mild adventures. Determined to distract the boys from their solitude, I pour my energies full-time into the role of playmate, entertainer, tutor, mediator, counsellor, tour guide, football goalie, finding reserves of patience and humour and stoicism I never knew I had. It’s hard work, requiring continuous focus and endless stamina, but it’s great, finally slowing down enough to properly enjoy the company of my mad, loud, funny, clever boys, not trying to do anything else but be there for them.
By day, I’m a poster girl for mindfulness. It’s only late at night that I feel the clutch of panic at not doing anything, not writing, not earning, not taking up any of the opportunities opened up by my recent minor writing successes. I talk myself down night after night: This is your job right now, I remind myself, trying to simply observe my feelings of tension with non-judgemental kindness and curiosity. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.
I add nurse and saint (as in patience of) to my list of roles when Firstborn breaks his arm. It happens at the end of a long and lovely day exploring the regenerated area around King’s Cross, which I remember as an addict-infested wasteland; my morning commute when I temped there 15 years ago required stepping over prostrate junkies and puddles of piss and puke to get from the tube to the office. Now it’s all human-scaled urban design, activated street frontages and family-friendly play spaces and fancy Eurostar amenities. The boys and I spend the day cavorting in fountains, looking at sculptures, picnicking on the canalside, ‘pond dipping’ with nets in a little hidden wildlife reserve. We’re wandering back to get the 390 bus when we come across a little play park filled with large foam blocks designed for preschoolers to climb on. This, of course, presents many hilarious possibilities for danger-loving bigger boys, who immediately begin to stack them into an obstacle course they can fling themselves over, Ninja-Warrior style.
I’m in the process of trying to coax them home to get dinner on when an ambitious leapfrog over, in Firstborn’s later words, ‘a giant green foam dildo’, goes wrong and he lands heavily on one shoulder. It’s instantly clear something’s wrong. He gets up and runs towards me, white and shocked, before his legs buckle and he sinks onto the grass. On my knees beside my writhing, gasping, swearing ten-year-old I have a huge whooshing moment of realisation of just how small and isolated I am in this vast city, no car no one to call no idea where the nearest A&E is no NHS registration not even a GP practice (fuck, it’s been on the list of things to do for two weeks now). I do the only thing I can do, which is dial 999 and have a long, tortured, repetitive, useless conversation with the emergency services operator, who seems to be looking at an old map of King’s Cross and can’t find either the park or the street coordinates I’m shouting at her, and eventually, after asking me to repeat the mobile number I’m calling from twice – honestly, what’s the point of having every move we make tracked 24/7 if the one time you want Big Brother to find you they bloody can’t – tells me the ambulance will be there ‘in abowt sixty minutes, and if you end up making your own way to the ’ospital, can you please call us back so we can remove you from the list’.
Kind strangers call us a minicab and keep the curious bystanders back and find us water so my shuddering son can swallow a paracetamol and help me tie a makeshift sling and talk soothingly to us until the Russian cabbie arrives. He backs up his MPV onto the footpath so we can ease Firstborn into the back and then drives us gingerly to University College Hospital just the other side of St Pancras. There we’re dealt with kindly and cheerfully by NHS staff, not quickly but not slowly either, and by 6.30pm we’re blinking outside in the blaring chaos of Euston Road at rush hour. They haven’t cast the arm, which is broken clean across the top of the humerus, so my poor brave boy has to tough it out with just a sling for stabilisation. Nevertheless, we’re skint and stupid enough to catch the bus home – it goes from directly across the road, a mere 10 lanes of traffic away – which Firstborn endures heroically.
After the first few sunny days trapped inside it begins mercifully to rain, making being grounded marginally more bearable. We limp up to the shops in the drizzle – Firstborn can manage no more than a wincing shuffle – to buy a deck of cards from the nice Turkish man at the odds and sods store on Fortess Road, and spend the next few days watching reality TV and playing round after round of Texas Hold’em.
Six days after his accident Firstborn heads off to school for a week’s Year 7 induction, sitting forlornly on the sidelines while his fellow freshmen play dodgeball and go kayaking on Regent’s Canal. There are other activities he can do, though, cooking and chess and Spanish and crafts, and eventually the other kids thaw enough to ask him about his accent and his sling and to demand proof that he is, in fact, a boy. There’s no instant bonding, but he finishes the week happy enough at the prospect of starting school in September with a few acquaintances to sit with in the lunch room.
Meanwhile, our banking dramas crawl closer to resolution. For the first ten days we hear nothing at all, though we were promised a next-day call, and efforts to follow up are hopeless. I can’t even get connected to our branch; all calls go through an automated system in Scotland, there’s no such thing as a branch phone number and bank employees have access to internal emails only. Trying to think creatively, I write a handwritten letter (we don’t have a printer) to the one kind person at the bank who had been helping us, mark it ‘Private and Confidential’ and post it to the branch’s physical address, hoping it will bypass mail screening processes and somehow make its way onto his desk. Days go by. I’m considering going back to the branch and staging a sit-in.
Then, on day eleven, my phone begins to ring. I hear personally from the complaints officer, the branch manager, our account manager (who has eventually received my letter, days after its delivery). People have been on holiday, ill, away at conferences; everyone is apologetic and sympathetic. Their systems have failed us, they tell me, and they’re doing their best to put it right. They give me their DDIs, though they won’t be able to answer them: ‘But you can leave a message, and at least there’ll be a record you tried to get in touch.’ Our case is referred to the complaints department in Yorkshire. Sweet broad-vowelled girls called Lisa and Lucy keep me in the loop. Electronic records don’t go back far enough; there’s been a litany of mistakes; they’re continuing to investigate and they’re saw sorreh. All these nice people, trapped between rigid layers of bureaucracy that seem to frustrate them almost as much as they frustrate me.
Eventually Yorkshire Lisa gets back to me with good news. The bank is paying back our full debt, plus a little bit of compensation, and will work with the debt recovery agency to clear our credit record. The catch is that the process will take up to eight weeks, and I can’t reapply for banking access till after than. (It was only another glitch in the system that allowed Hapless to open an account when he arrived in February.) Once my record is wiped clean I can ‘manually’ apply for a debit card, but may still be declined by their Lending Department. It seems my reputation at Lloyds will be stained forever. Oh well, there’s always Barclays.