It’s late August and I’ve barely finished the six loads of laundry from our Barcelona holiday when I fall down a wormhole of work. When I emerge again, it’s winter and we’re only weeks from our London departure date. My copywriting business, relaunched slowly over the previous year, has hit its stride, and for several months I’ve been almost daily fielding new client enquiries, word-of-mouth referrals, repeat business and follow-ups from networking contacts made months ago. And now we’re going back to New Zealand? Really?
The work itself is interesting and diverse: renewable energy investment, tech recruitment, tenders for international haemostasis and colorectal medical conferences. Also home-baked human-grade meat cakes for dogs (“Good enough to feed your kids!”). My stress levels spike intermittently and some days I’m paralysed by anxiety; other days are actually fun. I pinball between swearing I never want to do this horrible work again and thinking I might’ve got my professional mojo back. Is it possible to be mildly bipolar, just without the super-energetic euphoric bits?
Theo the nanny, with his freshly-minted First in Economics, steps into the breach left by Jolie’s abrupt departure. He gets us through the end of the summer break, takes over after-school duties and helps me survive the boys’ final half-term holiday. Early in the new arrangement he finds himself suddenly homeless: something that happens, it seems, to 21-year-old Balkan-accented jobbing actors, just as it did to young careerless Kiwis with impractical degrees. Might he stay with us for a few days? A week max?
Mindful of our own debt in the universe’s great ledger of dossing karma, Hapless and I know we have to pay it forward. For two awkward weeks our Bulgarian manny occupies the couch in our narrow living space, getting to know us better than he ever wanted. Last thing at night and first thing in the morning he’s sitting silently outside our bedroom door, writing mysterious plays on his laptop while family conflict and chaos churn around him. He never quite offers to wash dishes or cook dinner or do extra babysitting, though he does waive his wages for the duration of his stay. In the middle of one Monday night, his inscrutably zipped luggage and militarily-neat folded clothes disappear to Battersea; he reports for babysitting duty as usual on the Wednesday, and the whole odd episode is never mentioned again.
As the weeks accelerate towards our departure date, I go into a FOMO frenzy of ticket booking: stand-up comedy, hit-and-miss experimental theatre, highbrow drama. Tamsin Grieg nailing a Tony Kushner political and ideological tongue-twister; Glenda Jackson as an arsey and frail King Lear; Richard Dawkins at the Southbank Centre on ISIS; the New Yorker’s copy editor Mary Norris on commas. At a literary prose slam I’m the first person in the world to own (thank you, dear sister) the new poetry collection by the stunning, sexy Sabrina Mahfouz, who signs it for me with a special note and a knee-weakening smile.
I go Promming at the Royal Albert Hall – seven quid for a standing ticket high in the gallery – and lean luxuriously against the balustrade, drinking in the swooping curves and gorgeous colours of the circular interior. The soaring choruses of Zadok the Priest send me all a-goosebump, knowing its debut at the coronation of King George II took place, if not quite in this building, then no more than a couple of miles away, in similarly splendid surroundings.
I take the boys to dance, magic and musical stage shows, Christmas panto at the glorious Hackney Empire, though they make me sing candlelit carols at Southwark Cathedral by myself. They like the theatre outings, but ordinary weekends become a new battleground as Hapless and I drag them out on some last-chance London outing or other.
“You promised if we agreed to go back to New Zealand you’d let me and Dad do lots more London fun stuff!” I plead. “Without complaining!”
Our mutinous offspring are unmoved; they know the flights are already booked. They declare themselves sick of walks, sick of parks and ornate buildings and street performers and free museums and markets and random art installations, sick of oddball people-watching and lemonade in pubs and historical facts and the fact that something world-changing happened seventy, a hundred, a thousand years ago on this very spot. One son protests loudly, profanely, sometimes violently, the other passive-aggressively, taking twenty minutes to put his shoes and socks on, being unable to locate his hoodie, his tube pass, his drink bottle, his earbuds…
Once we’re out and everyone’s testosterone and cortisol levels have subsided, the boys grudgingly enjoy themselves. Occasionally they admit they’ll miss the place. Firstborn shed real tears the day we announced we’d booked our tickets: the same child who used to cry when we checked out of motels and on the last day of the school year. For him, though, the timing is particularly unkind. In the months following his Leave vote, he’s bonded hard with a group of musical misfit teens at school and is enmeshed in genuinely meaningful friendships. When the time comes, nothing can ease the pain of the final goodbyes, which he feels with all the misery of multiple simultaneous heartbreaks.
A teenager himself now in every sense except chronological age, my oldest son looms over me, reeking of his dad’s hand-me-down aftershave, cracking his knuckles against his jaw in an unconscious apelike tic. His voice creaks downward, his habitual monologues now delivered sotto voce and all but incomprehensible, though the sardonic tone is frequently clear. With his jaw squared and the dark sketchings of hair on his upper lip, he’s mistaken for a girl less and less.
Firstborn bookends his UK chapter with another emergency visit to the NHS, though this time the broken elbow comes right implausibly quickly, and he’s cast-free and back to full Metallica-slaying/brother-injuring capacity in a couple of weeks. Adamantly opposed to beginning Year 8 again – which, now that his mates are all Year 9/10/11, is beneath his social as well as his academic dignity – he’s enrolled at Western Springs College for 2017. Number Two Son, meanwhile, intends to settle back into his old groove as exactly as possible: old school, old friends, old neighbourhood, old routines. His challenge will be adjusting wherever life has moved on without him.
In a further quirk of narrative symmetry, Hapless is begged to stay on at his publishing company, declines, and is instead persuaded to return in January for a few months. After a family holiday in North America and a couple of beachy weeks in Auckland, he’ll return to London, sentencing me to both another stretch of solo parenting in Auckland and another single-handed double house-move.
Another year ahead, then, of growing no moss, of new patterns of family life and uncertain household income and a chance to renegotiate the tension between creative dreams and economic reality. And the thousand things to love about a leafy seaside suburb in a laid-back harbour city in a small, beautiful, peaceful country at the bottom of the world.
On our final weekend in London we go for a last afternoon walk with friends on Hampstead Heath. As the sun sinks towards half-past three we stand on Parliament Hill, saying our goodbyes to that spectacular skyline. We tell the buildings off like beads: the ones we’ve been up – Gherkin, Walkie-Talkie, London Eye – the ones we haven’t – the Shard, St Paul’s – and closer in, the familiar mansion blocks and steeples and estate towers.
I think about my complex, many-layered love for this city: its obvious glamour and picture-postcard iconicism, its teeming diversity and endless capacity to surprise, from its bleakly inhabited dirty corners to the gilt-edged smugness of the City. I love its collective humour and tolerance and mildness, the stoicism with which its inhabitants swirl around each other, the friendliness reflected back wherever tiny human connections are made. I love its fondness for pomp and pageantry, its benign, solicitous civic governance, its presumption of shared cultural experience as a necessary public good. Moving around London I feel part of something huge and organic, something purposeful and in constant motion and greater than the sum of its many million parts.
I’ll miss this, I think, a dozen times a day, routine moments rendered suddenly poignant. This will be gone, all but forgotten: descending an escalator into the sweaty embrace of the tube; stepping from a bright warm building into a dark headlight-lit afternoon and the smell of damp brick and chilled emissions. Zigzagging through the flow of commuters on a morning run, waving from the doorstep as a big red bus stops at the crossing for NTS and he dashes off to school. The whole place will go on without me, just like this.
But we have to get our boys back to the land of light and the outdoors. We need to winkle Firstborn out of his cramped lightless basement and get those ridiculously long limbs moving again. We need to rescue Number Two Son from his incipient oikness, surround him with gentler, kinder kids and give him the chance to belong again.
The bare trees are black against a dazzling orange sky as we walk back down the Heath. We take our chilled fingers and noses home through the dark streets, towards light and warmth and one last week of this strange concrete- and climate-constrained indoor life.
It passes in a blur of packing and goodbyes and last-time-we’lls: the last football game, band practice, supermarket delivery, school day, pint, legendary Aces and Eights pizza. The last homeward commute along this or that familiar route, the last night in our barely-fit-for-purpose flat. We farewell colleagues, neighbours, babysitters, teachers, coaches, classmates, teammates, friends old and new, one by one cutting the guy-lines that anchor us here. We collect leaving cards, hugs, promises to keep in touch. I hand in my swipe card and unloop my keys.
And now we’re getting on a plane. A fortnight’s homeward journey via North America for a white Canadian Christmas and a New York New Year. Then three days into 2017, our sons will experience for the first time that special sensory dislocation of stepping from Auckland’s international terminal into a blare of antipodean light, breathing air heavy with salt water and earth and the scent of green things growing. Gazing and gazing out a car window at the low, boxy cityscape reeling past, its ticky-tacky brightness and youngness at once alien and impossibly familiar. And then the joys and challenges of carving out a new life in a familiar place; the chance for these kids who’ve lived in five houses in three towns in four years to grasp the deep pleasures and finite parameters of home.