In the schematic of my life marriage is an economic contract, no more, no less. This view is entirely traditional and conservative. I harbor no romantic illusions; emotions are messy and transient. People may feel all sorts of things, but true love is expressed through discipline and hard work.
I am by all accounts quite difficult to know, whether judged as friend, mother, daughter, partner, colleague. But I give as much as I get. The people around me are hugely problematic and adorable in equal measure; we often struggle to take care of each other. If you have been following this journal or reading my published work you might grasp that my life has been a carousel of crisis – but no matter what happens I hold on and even enjoy the ride.
Except sometimes the horses stop moving and I notice that I have been swindled in the particulars of the ticket. Without exception this requires compensation; I am an equitable sort of person, not a sucker.
The six dire years in Cambridge absolutely demanded restitution. From whoever I deemed responsible, which in this case was twofold: the company who moved us here, and the husband who accepted the job.
My price for remaining in the UK (as opposed to absconding back to Portland, or destinations unknown) was precise and simple: I required a home of my own.
Remittance. Settlement. Bribe. Not too much to ask – in fact, quite cheap, considering.
This flat is mine, and anyone who hangs out here is required to follow my rules. Including picking up their dirty laundry.
My coffee break has been cruelly disrupted by a film shoot every single morning. When I step outside my own front door I trip over celebrities. Literally. Shouldn’t they be…. caged, or something?
Best part of my new dwelling (brace yourself): hot water on demand. With a mixing tap! Quiver at the luxury!
Oh, and I painted the whole flat a tasteful cream colour selected from a “heritage” palate. Does this mean I’m a grownup now??
One significant deviation from past moves: living in England erases my anxiety about hiring someone to shift my shit. I just feel like a displaced foreigner, instead of a class traitor!
Though professional movers are never amused by my antique scientific equipment and dental prostheses collections.
On my final full day in Cambridge I spent the morning on the river, had coffee at Savinos, ate a picnic lunch next to the gravestones at Great St. Mary’s, bought water at Bacchanalia, picked up dinner from Nasreen Dar.
The first person I met six years ago was Rick, going on the sound principle that bike mechanics are my kind of folk. He has since moved from the market square to his own shop so I stopped in to chat and inhale the smell of metal and grease. This is the only place in town I have ever felt truly welcome (blame – or thank – a childhood whiled away in a petrol station) but this fact just underscores the reason I need to leave.
You might notice the lack of a farewell party, or any kind of parting from friends. That is easily explained: I have none. Or rather, I have the few I knew before arriving six years ago, and they will always know me.
The academics (and their families) I met have departed to new careers. Locals, townspeople? They don’t much like me. Except for the bike mechanics, and I’m not sturdy enough to join their bike polo and cross-country adventures.
It would be painful to contemplate this fact, but the fault is mine: I hate this town in principle and practice. My disdain is clearly communicated in every gesture, and what sensible person wishes to get tangled up in that kind of mess? I would not want to be friends with me, here.
Right now I feel a wrenching loss, but it is not related to Cambridge. Oh no; I regret what I left behind when I abandoned my life in Portland.
Circumstance, desire, and DNA dictated my departure and I have no regrets about the decision. I just wish I had appreciated what I had at the time. I didn’t know; I didn’t understand.
Somewhere in the muddle of moving my daughter received a package from her paternal grandparents. The contents included copies of the videos they shot when we all lived in the same town.
I was pleased to sit down with my grown-up child and watch the scenes of her evolving life, from a tiny little mewling scrap of a human to the robust and fleet-footed wonder she became. She was an exceptional and entertaining child; we had wild fun all the time, adored each other completely. I am hugely thankful someone recorded those moments.
But I was not prepared in any way for the unsettling experience of seeing myself on screen.
The first tape opens with me sitting in the office of the lumberyard holding the baby, talking. Even calculating for the intervening years and geographic distance, the scene is shocking. My voice was pitched much higher, my accent was a looping rural drawl. My hair was long but wispy, not yet fully grown back from the cancer years.
And, while you can’t see the scars, you can see the damage – the way I keep my arm tucked under the baby because it wasn’t strong enough to hold her. The way I flinch at every unexpected noise. The dazed, stricken expression on my face.
I was terribly young, looked far younger, and no passerby could have misunderstood the degree of physical pain I lived with. I looked sick. I was shattered.
Every scrap of documentary evidence indicates I was only about half alive by the summer of 1990, and I certainly would not have chosen to stick around to see what happened next. But the arrival of the infant who has grown into an indomitable and talented twenty year old was the decisive moment, the point at which everything changed. Irrevocably.
I didn’t leave home then, in fact I retreated – dropping out of school, moving back to my small hometown, marrying the father of the baby. But the videos, offering up glimpses from holidays, family gatherings, birthday parties, show us all changing.
The baby, of course, was brilliant, at all times, in all ways. The adults in the vicinity acted as best they could. James appears every so often, sitting at the kitchen counter silently reading a magazine. The husband is spotted at an airport in his military uniform, fresh out of special forces training, looking more baffled than anything else. He exits for a couple of years then shows up again, captured on film saying not much at all, rarely talking to the baby, never looking at me.
And I hover somewhere near the camera offering up a constant monologue of bright shiny sarcasm. Adjectives, adverbs, what my mother would call ten cent words, flowing corrosively and endlessly. It doesn’t really matter: nobody is listening.
Except the baby, and she finds my commentary amusing.
Once I recovered from the injuries I became the whimsical sort of teenager who literally jumped with joy, exclaiming Hot diggity! as I opened Christmas presents. True, I was impetuous, intolerant, and used too many big words. But if you like that kind of thing, my monologues were pretty funny.
The mystery I have never solved is what went wrong, why it all fell apart. These tapes show what I remember: over the course of three years I went from weak to strong, changing in all perceptible ways. I was still myself, but better.
And that is probably the answer.
Until this week I never really wondered what broke up my first marriage, consigning it to the category “too young, too stupid” and refusing to discuss the devastation that ensued.
I’ve never invoked questions of morality, or even honour. I’ve never publicly or privately acknowledged that the father of my child abandoned her, failed catastrophically in his duties. The lack of financial support is not the point. He could have visited, called, sent letters. He could have been a friend.
Instead, he declared that I would be a good mother, then left me to the task.
I’m picking up the keys to my new house on the twentieth anniversary of my first failed marriage, and there is a piquant satisfaction in that fact. My daughter is older now than I was when she was born. She is launched, in academic terms fathoms further than any of her parents at that age. The struggle to raise her was worth it, and look where we ended up!
Though it just occurred to me that someone owes me a really big apology for 1992.
Merging one boat, one house, one studio, and sundry storage units scattered across two continents into a single second floor (translation for stateside readers: third story) inner city residence? Not recommended… or at least, not as a leisure activity.
I’ve spent the last few weeks rushing about frantically packing, unpacking, purging, arranging, harassing, and otherwise falling to bits while keeping the rest of the crew in good working order.
I’m good at this kind of thing – obviously, since I do it so often.
Though everything you might imagine to have gone wrong has in fact happened. Is it difficult to locate a suitable home in central London? Why yes. Harrowing to raise the down payment and secure a mortgage when banks are not in a mood to lend? Yep. Chastening to convince the local council that relevant zoning decisions are absurd and should be amended? Uh huh.
Annoying to keep the whole thing a secret for six months because the outcome was unknown? You betcha.
It was all quite tedious, rather boring, and possibly offensive to those not in a position to purchase a property in central London. Worse yet, not interesting to write about, unless you like economy porn. And I’m not that kind of girl.
There is at times an enormous gaping chasm between my perception of a situation and what an objective observer might report. One example: I cling with bloody shredded fingers to the notion that I am working class, despite all evidence (education, income, career, tendency to scamper off to the Riviera on a whim) to the contrary.
Usually this distortion makes no difference in real terms except that I am inclined to say critical and highly offensive things at dinner parties. Or, you know, live on the radio. Whatever.
But sometimes the disparity between truth and experience is impossible to ignore. For instance, I believe that I am a cautious, deliberate, settled sort of chap.
Yet I have moved 21 times in 20 years. Not including interstitial escapades.
I’ve been anticipating the current move, but had no clear notion of which country I would choose, let alone which city I would end up in. Borough, district, neighbourhood? Niceties, and nothing more.
I looked at the flat I just bought for a mere ten minutes, six months ago. I only know where it is because I have a map.
Now this will be an adventure!
Sold boat. Bought flat. Moving to London.
Moving to Cambridge was a whim, an adventure. Remaining was pragmatic – I lacked funds to find a new home. My visa (and hence eligibility to apply for citizenship) was contingent on the job of another person, who was determined to live in a town I loathed. I prioritised allowing my children to grow up with their father. Etc.
There is no easy way to describe my problem with Cambridge – one of the most beautiful yet wretched places I have ever visited, and certainly the worst place I have ever lived. Through six years that felt like a dozen my hatred of the place was the only thing keeping me sane. I knew that there was something wrong, and like having cancer, I could appreciate the learning experience while hating the pain.
I deserve congratulations only for my willingness to speak the truth. I watched friends who claimed to find the place pleasant deteriorate: addiction, divorce, and similar suicidal gestures are a commonplace.
My own behaviour in the city has been less than exemplary. My normally high ethical standards slipped, my casual truculence was converted to deliberate cruelty.
I’ve managed all manner of nonsense for years, but I am exquisitely finished. Done!
I would say that it does not matter where I move, so long as I get out of here. But I stopped believing that kind of fairytale awhile ago.
I’m a restless, agitated sort of person. I require privacy, anonymity. I like coffee, crowds, movies, and museums. Someone recently accused me of being cosmopolitan and I was flummoxed by the charge – but that might be the solution to my ongoing existential crisis.
I was born below sea level and grew up in a forest, but I want more than anything to live and die in a real city.
What of the other complications and concerns? My daughter is moving to London in a few weeks. My son is willing to move wherever I go. Husband? He can make his own decision for his own reasons. If he wants to follow me, fine. But it will be on my terms, to my chosen destination.
And I’m going.
Ever wondered what life on the river looks like? Ever yearned for adventure and destinations unknown…. or at least East Anglia?
Well now your dreams can come true: click here for details about about how to buy my boat!
What do you get for your money? Oh, so much… like:
A 35 foot traditional narrowboat:
With a fixed master bedroom suite:
Foyer featuring abundant provision of shelves:
Open plan galley and guest quarters:
Cozy woodstove for chilly evenings:
Spectacular views of the River Cam:
Numerous options for entertaining guests:
Easy access for cruising the Fens:
Privacy, autonomy, and above all, the cheapest way to live in the historic environs of Cambridge, England:
I’ve opened my storage units and started to purge.
I started with the most mysterious and formidable corner of the archive but thus far there is no trace of hidden treasure, photographs of dead revolutionaries, or cryptic love letters in a language unknown.
However: great-grandma Saima’s steamer trunk is rehabilitated and ready for adventure!
This morning a stranger complimented my new spectacles and I was so startled I poured 16 ounces of boiling hot coffee down myself.
While this reaction is largely down to the fact that I am a twitchy oddity, the fact is, strangers don’t talk to me in Cambridge. My normal conversational skills are in the “nonexistent to poor” range and never exercised.
In other news, I am homesick today. I will be treating the malaise with interrogative requests, right hand fork wielding, and US style comma placements.