‘Are you having a nice time?’ An old friend, older than my two teenagers, calls me when I’m on the train from Bath to London, and asks me this. Am I having a nice time? Two weeks into a long trip with my family to the country our kids were born in could not honestly be described as nice. Wonderful, stormy, intimate, revealing and beautiful. But not nice.
This trip to Europe was my idea. I felt it was time that we came and said hello to family and friends who we hadn’t seen for three years. Somehow, particularly over this last year, picking up the phone for an international call has felt too momentous, especially at the end of a long day.
And so here I am, in D Carriage of First Great Western, on the 11.43 to Paddington. My son is in the next carriage sending messages on his phone and my husband is somewhere down the front of the train, working in First Class, which is fine by me.
Am I having a nice time? My daughter, currently writing a diary of our trip with coloured textas at my side, is having a nice time. She misses surfing and above all our dog. But she has taken in a huge amount and thanks me often for bringing her. My son feels more complicated. He tells me daily that he misses his boat and his friends, and the cycling/camping holiday he is missing out on. And yet he is wonderful company and I love being with him over long stretches – something which doesn’t happen when we’re at home and he is in and out of the house.
Out on a Scottish tarn, in sleet, he walks in step with me and tells me that he wishes he was at home in Hobart. I hold my breath, forcing myself not to react. In my mind I tell him how ungrateful he is. And yet in my heart I know that he feels bad about wishing he was elsewhere. But then, I tell myself, he also wishes that he didn’t have to do Economics next year at school. And that his father didn’t lose his temper at stressful moments when travelling.
Thankfully he is mature enough to know that he has no choice over any of this. He didn’t choose to be born in London, to have a mother who adores him, or a father who is devoted to beauty and who gets ‘stressy’ at problems of everyday life. And me? I realised early on that his would be our trip, not my trip. I knew that it would be up to me to make it work, to hold everything together, and it has been.
On our first day we went hiking to a lake that I’d never have gone to on my own, yet relished seeing with my kids. In five years’ time I won’t be someone my son will want to climb a mountain with. (Will he still climb in shorts on a two degree day?) Even my daughter will be moving on by then, although this I can’t quite admit.
The UK rolls by outside the window of our train to London. My daughter is up to day eight in her texta-written diary. This evening old friends will come round for a drink to our flat in London. My hair is greyer. They are sure to notice this. Our children are much taller, and are no longer children at all. They are sure to notice this too. My life isn’t amazingly successful. I don’t know what I would have become, had we not gone to live in Melbourne over twelve years ago. Our friends, I expect, will be full of their own feelings. The hope and glory of lives well lived. Not polished by conviction, but distilled somehow. Just like mine.