“It’s too early to be getting up,” say my sons, dragging themselves out of bed in the 7am dark: these boys who till recently rarely slept past six.
The first week of January comes as a minor shock to us all. Surely we can’t be expected to go back to work and school so soon after Christmas? I wonder if the long hours of darkness are doing something to our brains, some S.A.D. vitamin-deficiency thing. My Facebook feed is flooded with selfies of brown feet against turquoise water and golden sand, kids in sunhats and rashies: inhabitants of an impossibly distant planet. But on our planet, apart from the groggy mornings, the boys complain surprisingly little about the return to school. I watch for signs of mid-winter displaced-person blues, but if anything, the kids seem happier and more settled than ever.
Hapless, on the other hand, girds his loins and heads grimly back into the project management fray. The two-week break has helped, but the problem now is boredom, frustration with process, rather than stress. Fundamentally he’s no more enamoured of his career choice now than he was when he last quit a full-time job, just weeks after Number Two Son was born. In the absence of a better idea, however, he leaves the house every morning with an air of weary stoicism, and quietly begins to buy lottery tickets in the weekend.
Overall, though, there’s a sense of buoyancy in the household. If things shake down as we hope, the year ahead could be all kinds of fun. Inspired by the success of our Paris jaunt, we plan holidays in the Cotswolds, southern France, Canada. I lock in a couple of girlie trips away with friends and have to restrain myself from krumping round the bedroom with excitement.
Even the openly homesick Number Two Son votes to stay Europeside long enough to get in a few more adventures. Turkey, perhaps, in 2017, or Thailand, or South America. I conceive a madcap idea to do part of our homeward journey on a freighter ship. All the fun of a leisure cruise without the tosspot factor! (C’mon Hapless, imagine being able to tell people you’ve sailed the Suez Canal!)
For now, though, we settle into a weekly rhythm of rambling explorations and a family meal out: curry in Brick Lane, dumplings in Chinatown, lunch by open fires in riverside pubs. The boys make fine distinctions between the local kebab shops: this one does a better mince doner, this one has spicier chilli sauce, this one cuts the cucumber too chunky.
Freshly motivated by the prospect of more travel, and with a growing wishlist of personal indulgences, I climb back on the networking/jobhunting treadmill. There’s a little steady freelance work, calls from freshly energised recruitment agents. Another couple of job offers to turn down; a role or two I might have wanted but which don’t go anywhere.
And I surprise myself by starting the year with a little solid daily writing. It’s as if a bubble of something has risen to the surface: I’m finally ready. I hardly have to force myself at all. Suddenly I’m in a groove that feels exactly right: mornings doing proper writing, afternoons working or work-hunting.
At home my favourite place to write is at the tiny rickety table in the rippled-glass bay window of our bedroom, half a floor above street level. Sitting at the exact intersection of two quiet streets, just high enough so no one passing notices me, I command a queenly view in three directions. People come and go: neighbours, supermarket vans, scaffolders, painters, broadband installers. There’s the hearty shorts-wearing postie with his red canvas barrow; local Hermes courier Alex, who always looks up at me and waves; the little officer-capped parking warden with his neat high-vis vest and trim grey beard, who pauses between permit inspections for a luxurious scratch deep between his buttocks.
(I fantasise about the day I catch a dog owner in the loathsome and widespread practice of bagging their dog’s shit and leaving it, tied with a neat plastic bow, at the foot of the nearest lamppost. They’re all over the area, these foul little rainproof packages, occasionally encountered with a nasty sliding sensation underfoot. I imagine myself bursting out the front door, wielding Firstborn’s cricket bat and whooping with righteous vigilante rage. “Who do you think’s going to pick that up, you filthy bastard!” I’ll do it too, you wait. Maybe without the cricket bat.)
But it’s too cold on wintry days to sit by the window, in the icy draught between the single-glazed Victorian sashes. I retreat instead to Rustique, Tufnell Park’s self-styled ‘literary café’, where there’s free wi-fi and powerboards for laptop chargers and it’s perfectly okay to sit for two hours on one coffee. It’s unrepentantly untrendy, with its 80s Mediterranean decor and classical-radio soundtrack, filled with bookshelves and loners tapping at laptops by the light of mismatched table lamps. On my second visit the proprietor greets me like a regular and remembers my coffee order. Even two lattes and a fat tip make it a cheaper morning than by-the-hour at the freelance hub.
It’s a lovely life, if I can sustain it. And just as much I adore the weekends when we have nothing at all planned. No deeds to do, no promises to keep. We drag the boys out on epic walks, bribing them with promises of lemonade or lunch at the halfway point, gleefully extending our route for bad behaviour. (“Right, you two, that’s an extra kilometre for fighting. And that’s another one for swearing.”) Kicking down the cobblestones, along lanes and canals and high streets, through parks and squares and big tangled estates.
One Sunday we wake to a thick dusting of snow. It gets us up and out the door with uncharacteristic efficiency, racing against the rising thermometer. We have a glorious day, a sort of Platonic ideal of a winter Sunday: a lengthy ramble and plenty of snow-frolicking on Hampstead Heath, brunch at 2pm followed by hot baths, an afternoon in our PJs, home-cooked enchiladas and sticky toffee pudding for dinner. Me, my boys, a perfect bubble of memory. Ba-da-da-dah-dah-dah-dah, feeling groovy.