“I’m having a real battle with my emotions,” says the ten year old.
It is the morning of the first day back at Dutch School. We are, as a family, in recovery, after a tumultuous summer of big decisions, deciding to stay in Amsterdam rather than move to San Francisco. Glasses of rosé were watered down with tears, beneath a blistering Dordogne sun. It was all very Ian McEwan. It’s hard to feel sorry for us, but I manage.
“What is it, love?” I ask. Head tilted, eyebrows arched as if in prayer. What this child has been through in his lifetime’s decade; London, Amsterdam, nearly San Francisco. What further horrors lie before him?
The ten year old takes a deep breath. “If I wear my trainers to school, my feet will be hot. Unbearably hot. But if I wear my slippers, then I will not be able to play football.”
Slippers is Dutch for flip-flops. We no longer say flip-flops in our house. What do they say in California? Is it thongs? Or is that Australian? What have I escaped needing to know?
“How about,” I suggest, “you take your slippers in your bag, so that you can change into them in the classroom if your feet are hot after buiten spelen (outside play)?”
He considers at length. “Yes,” he says. “That could work.” His hesitation conveys that his mother has not understood the complexities of this problem, but it is easier to nod along than it is to pick this apart for an already fragile thirty-nine year old with thinning hair who he saw crying on her birthday in the Dordogne.
Like I say: what further horrors lie ahead?
At the school gates, summers are reduced to sentences like operas to pop songs: We moved house, We visited family, We nearly moved to San Francisco. Some people haven’t returned, some people are new. We locate new classrooms, meet new teachers, compliment new hair cuts, observe new seating plans. The five year old has hit the big time – he’s in group two, which means he’s in the older half of Kleuters; the infant class for 4-6 year olds. He is tall, he has light-up trainers and a BB-8 backpack. He can’t lose. (He won’t learn to read or write for another year. In the UK, his peers will be racing ahead of him. This is the year in which we must hold our nerve.)
The eight year old moves up into group five. She also has light-up shoes; gold ankle boots that sparkle from toe to heel. She has brought a notepad with her, because she plans to organise a drawing competition for her classmates. She will be the judge. She finds her name at a table of boys, close to the teacher’s desk.
“This is fine. My girls are behind me,” she says, indicating to the next table.
The ten year old does not have light-up shoes. He is too old for light-up shoes. He is too old for many things, including school. Back in the UK, he would be entering Year 6, the final year of primary school. Here in The Netherlands, he starts group seven, the second to last year. Here, he must endure childhood for an extra year.
“Bye, Mum,” he says, giving me a hug.
“See you later,” I say. “Succes.”
Whilst the children are at school, I go to the chiropractor, in accordance with the middle-class character specifications of my Ian McEwan trajectory. (Pilates? Check. Too much wine? Check. Dead father, who had hair the same colour as my husband’s? Check. This state-of-the-nation shit writes itself.) Three treatment beds lie in a row. One, on the far right, is taken; the other two are free. I select the far left, because I always like to be by the closest exit, and because only a sociopath sits right next to someone when other seats are available. I lie with my face in the tiny hole on the treatment bed. I stare at the floor and listen to the other patient, who is telling the chiropractor that she is about to move “home”. I can hear the inverted commas around the word home as she talks. She knows that she is returning to a place that will have the familiarity of a particularly powerful déjà-vu, but it won’t feel quite the same.
The chiropractor fiddles with my shoulders, and asks about my summer.
“We almost moved to San Francisco,” I say.
“Breathe out,” she says.
I exhale, and my back pops like bubble-wrap.
At home, I continue this ironing out. I start with my phone, which, lacking storage space, has several superfluous American rental apps. These apps told me that we could expect to pay between 6 and 7 thousand dollars per month for a modest three bedroom house in San Francisco. Some of them had gardens. Some of them had basements. Some of them had white picket fences, some were perched on steep hills, just like our old house in London. In a parallel universe, I am arranging to ship our belongings to one of these houses. I delete.
I open the notes app on my phone. I find a list that I made of family things to do in California. My phone has changed California to Californië. I delete.
I pick up the kids. The five year old tells me that he got told off a little bit, but that “it’s fine”, as if he has come to an understanding with the teacher, about which, for my own safety, I don’t need to know. The eight year old emerges with no less than four party invitations for the coming weeks ahead, the social complexities of which do not seem to faze her. Is she even British? Is she even mine?
Baffled, I turn to the ten year old.
“Did you change into your slippers?” I ask him.
“Oh, no, I didn’t. I forgot about them actually. My feet were fine,” he shrugs.
That battle of emotions was a waste of time, then. How often we recognise comfort in retrospect. How often it is taken for granted. You know what else people take for granted? A THICK HEAD OF HAIR.
Sunday rolls around and already we are cushioned by weekly routine. I drink my morning cup of tea – always the best cup of the day – and wrestle with a niggling feeling that I’m forgetting something. Some long-standing arrangement. I rack my brains. What have I promised, to whom? Which child in Amsterdam is staring longingly at the door, waiting for a knock and the face of one of my children? Which adult is tapping a foot, wondering whether or not to send me a passive aggressive text, along the lines of Did I get the day wrong? Am I here too early? Which is British for: Where the merry fuck are you?
Surely I haven’t made arrangements on a Sunday morning. Sunday mornings are for lie-ins, families, quiet, reading…
Then it hits me. I’m supposed to be in the library. At the beginning of 2019, back when I was only 38; still in the ballpark of 35, still able to remember ticking the 26-35 box on questionnaires, still with one day a week that was my own, I made a New Year’s Resolution to spend every Sunday morning in the library. How sweet I was back then, with thick, curly hair and even the vaguest professional ambition for myself, like a child joining in an adult’s conversation. I wrote about gas-lighting gym adverts and an accident that happened in the house renovation next door to us, in which a builder nearly died. The supporting beam of the house swung down on him, puncturing his lung; he had to be carried out of the house upright, so that he didn’t drown in his own blood. That house renovation now nears completion, and the Nearly Dead Builder is back on site, taller than I remember, showing no visible signs of trauma.
I think: pull yourself together.
“I’m going to the library,” I announce to my family. They appear briefly baffled, and then recognition flickers across their faces as they recall, yes; this is something that one version of her does. She has been known to go to the library.
Stockholm Syndrome briefly takes hold, and it takes me longer to get out of the door than it should. But eventually I’m on the road, on the bike that I have stolen from My Lawyer, the winds of freedom weaving through my (remaining) hair. Central Amsterdam teems with human hazards; people wander into bike lanes, bikes skip on and off pavements. The tourists are doing this because they have no idea what they are doing; the Dutch, because they do.