helen hayward

life writing

Month: January, 2015

Packing up


The last two days of our trip are spent with friends who now live in the Netherlands – one in the Hague and one in Rotterdam. The Hague is even more of a fairytale than Amsterdam, especially through the eyes of our artist friend. Wheeling her bike through the cobbled streets of the old city, she points out the café where her paintings are currently hung, the concert hall where her twin boys sing in the choir, and the route through the castle where she and her husband cycle after an evening at the cinema.


Rotterdam the next day is, well, freezing. An icy wind bites through our clothes, soaking us even before we reach an American restaurant that overlooks the harbour. I sit opposite the old friend who once sat opposite me in cafes in London as I breastfed my son. Today he is flanked by his five-year-old daughter, with a smaller daughter at the other end of the table next to his charming partner.


Sixteen years’ worth of conversation doesn’t pour from my lips. I feel irrationally cross at having to share my friend with this table full of families, half of which is mine. My friend, it strikes me, doesn’t seem to mind. He is completely taken up drawing an octopus on his paper placemat. His daughter at his side draws a fairy on hers, and my daughter, his goddaughter, draws a small yacht. Before long we are laughing and eating, having left aside all the things that it is now impossible to talk about, like the coats and scarves we leave at the door.


Amsterdam puts on some sun for our last day. My son can’t disguise his excitement to be returning to his boat and his girlfriend, though in which order I can’t tell. I have started wondering about how the tomato plants in our vegetable garden are faring, and what I’ll be able to get for Christmas lunch on Christmas eve. My daughter is quietly desperate to see our dog, and to go surfing.


Only my husband is in two minds about leaving. ‘Why don’t you stay on for a few weeks?’ I suggest. ‘I have thought about it’, he replies. ‘But I don’t think it would be wise’. ‘Why not?’ I ask. ‘Well’, he says, ‘I think that it’s the kind of place that it would be all too easy to take up smoking again’. ‘Oh’, I reply, thinking to myself that this doesn’t seem a very good reason.


That night, the taxi to the airport booked, I lie awake thinking. It’s a Saturday night, and the odd reveller on their bike makes a lot more noise than they would during the daytime. What, I ask myself, has this trip been about? Why, as my son’s eyes so often asked me, did we make this trip? Did we come to show our kids that the world, their world, is bigger than their life in Tasmania might lead them to think? No, probably not. Did we come for a family holiday, to play board games, hike, and tease each other on long car trips? No, not really. Did we come to find out whether our family would hold up under pressure of travel? No, not intentionally. Did we, as I told friends back home, come to see my husband’s family, knowing how hard it is to keep in touch by phone? Well yes, partly. Did we come to see old friends for the same reason? Perhaps.


But ultimately we came for another reason, the same reason why I have made every bold decision in my life – to leave Australia, to work in the areas I have, to try to conceive, to marry, to move back to Australia, and to write about what I do. I decided to make this trip because I felt that it would be interesting. And, of course, it has been.


My husband has come out of our trip a little worse for wear. He has managed to do some important writing, which is no small feat. But at a price. He has often felt sidelined, even though his need to continue working made this inevitable. Resenting this, he has blown up now and then without seeming to understand why. And the fact that we have largely forgiven him has made him feel even more complicated.


My daughter, meanwhile, has been changed by this trip. She has been wonderful yet demanding company, and has seen what the sting of her tongue can do. She has given up the idea that, like Peter Pan, she will never grow up. She and I have talked through the minuitae of her life, sometimes driving me nuts with boredom, sometimes amazing me with her insight. And she has frequently thanked me for bringing her away, squeezing my hand, describing our every day in her exercise-book diary, and taking copious photos.


Her brother has been less gracious, moaning daily about all the better things he could be doing back home, even while apologising for doing so. And yet I know that he has got things from being here with us. I feel a lot closer to him than before we left, when exams and boats and camping and friends meant that I only ever saw bits of him, and never for more than a few hours. Selfishly, I have relished his company, basked in it even. And I’ve really enjoyed his music.


In the end we made this trip because I wanted to. One particularly gloomy wet Sunday in Hobart, well after my husband had given up any hope of travel, I went upstairs and told him of my decision as he lay in the bath. ‘Really?’ he’d said, surprised. ‘That’s great’. A pause. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I am sure’.


And now that our trip is nearly over, and we are waiting for our return flight to Abu Dhabi, what, I wonder, have I learned? I have learned that travelling with teenagers and a writer husband is tricky. I have learned that, even as he continues to leave himself out, my husband feels the odd one out in our family. And I have learned that there is a small part of me that would like to be left behind in Amsterdam, where I would never make school lunches again. Most importantly, I have learned that the world is a far more wonderful place than I’d remembered it.


Perhaps, I think to myself, as I count my three carry-on bags and line up obediently for our flight, that was what our trip was for. To remind me that a beautiful life in Amsterdam is still possible to want.


Dinner in Amsterdam


It is unlikely that many mothers and daughters go shopping for bras while on holiday in Amsterdam. But that is exactly what my daughter and I do the next morning. After my son disappears on his bike to explore, my daughter, with a determined look in her eye that I have come to respect and fear, tells me quietly what she wants to do.


Her mouth goes down at each side. ‘I’ll never find a bra that fits me. I just know it’. ‘Yes you will’, I reassure her. ‘We’ll just have to look a bit harder’. And that is how, after asking around, we find ourselves in the basement of a busy department store in the middle of the city. I soon realise, however, that the joke is on me. Because it’s not just bras that my daughter is interested in. Leggings and t-shirts are now on her radar too. Everything, it seems, is a possibility.


At last, there they are. Sports bras without underwire in plain colours. After hunting for them in Bath and London we find what she is after in the middle of Amsterdam. There is only one catch. There are no fitting rooms. It just isn’t that kind of store. ‘How’, I ask a young sales assistant, ‘do you try them on?’ ‘Oh’, she replies with a grin, ‘what some people do is to buy a few, try them on in the jeans shop across the road, and then return the ones that don’t fit’. ‘Right’, I say, returning her smile and heading for the till. My daughter, hopeful at last, shows a new tenacity. She promptly finds the jeans shop across the road, picks up a top from a rack as we pass, and makes her way to the fitting room. Fifteen minutes later I breathe a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.


The next morning I attempt to buy my son some trousers. It is freezing along the canals, and even he is embarrassed to receive so many comments about wearing shorts in winter. ‘But’, he protests, ‘I hate shopping!’ ‘So do I’, I reply, ‘but even you will like this shop’. And he does. As soon as we enter the Swedish outdoor shop I leave him to browse. Before long he has found a number of things that he likes, including a camping stove. But alas no trousers, and certainly not the dull yellow ones that I pick out. And he refuses outright to replace his trusty old rain jacket that no longer keeps the rain out. But he does choose a grey sweater that will keep him warm on his boat in a storm, plus a beanie for his girlfriend.


That evening, after another long day of soaking up the city, my husband and I go out for dinner. But not before I run back to the Swedish outdoor shop to buy a checked shirt for my son and a fox sweater for my daughter – that they picked out that morning but I refused to buy. My husband is upset. ‘Can’t dinner with me be a priority for once?’ he asks petulantly. ‘But’, I reply, refusing to be made to feel guilty, ‘I want to give our kids something that they really want for Christmas’.


The restaurant gives us a table by the window, where my husband is waiting when I arrive. It is the favourite restaurant of friends, one of whom is in bed with flu and so unable to share the table with us, which makes the staff even more attentive than they might have been.


For the first time since we had dinner together in Scotland, my husband and I are alone across a table. Only this time there are no antlers on the wall. And my husband’s family are far away, not even making an appearance in our conversation as the plates are carefully placed down and later taken away. I ask my husband how he feels about being in this beautiful city and he tells me, eyes shining, how much he loves it for its beauty and coherence. He loves that it is no big deal that most people are well dressed. He loves the buildings and bookshops and cafes and the casual elegance of daily life.


‘And how’, he asks intently, ‘do you feel about being here?’ ‘I love it too’, I reply. ‘For all your reasons, and a few more. I particularly love the doors’, I say. ‘I drove our daughter crazy this morning, taking photos of them’. ‘And’, he asks, looking hopeful, ‘would you like to spend more time here?’ I smile, knowing what he is driving at. ‘I really don’t think I’d be good at living in two places’. ‘But’, he persists, ‘it could work’. I look down at the tablecloth, out at the small street, and back at my husband. ‘Perhaps I can think about that when our kids are a bit older and don’t need me. But I really can’t imagine it now.’


‘Besides’, I go on, ‘it’s worse than that.’ Tears shoot from my eyes and I feel grateful for our quiet corner table. My husband waits. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks kindly. ‘Well’, I reply, ‘when I’m here, and feeling so at home, I can’t help wishing that I was living here all the time.’ ‘But that’s great’, he says, clearly pleased. ‘But it’s not’, I say, ‘because I also want to be thirty-five and living here with no family’. ‘Oh’, he says, laughing. ‘I see’. But it’s not funny for me, and tears continue to roll down my cheeks. My husband gets the eye of the waitress and orders another glass of wine.


‘I get so much from the time I spend with our kids’, I say. ‘But I feel worn down by them too. It’s not that they are unkind. But they patronise me without meaning to. They bring up my age all the time, and imply that they feel sorry for me for being so old, so past it, or simply for not being as young as they are. ‘But’, interrupts my husband, ‘Amsterdam is full of stylish middle-age people. That’s partly what I find so appealing about it’. ‘Yes’, I agree, ‘there is that. But our kids don’t see that. Perhaps the beauty of Amsterdam is that it appeals to a whole range of people in quite a direct way.’


‘But of course’, I say, changing tack, ‘these are only my impressions. Besides, as our kids grow up they will stop having to compare themselves with me all the time. I won’t be the butt of their projections. I’ll still have a few chips and bruises, but I won’t feel them so keenly.’


‘In any case’, I say, ‘I don’t know what it would be like to live here for any period. I might not even like it, even if it were possible. And what would I do? It’s just that I can’t help wondering about, and longing for, the woman I might have been if I had lived here all those years ago and had a quite different life.’ My husband smiles his understanding and my tears stop falling.


It is not such a bad wish to have, I think to myself later that night in bed. Even my kids are old enough to feel sympathy for my vision of my more beautiful life. They wouldn’t tell me to pull myself together, or upbraid me for being ungrateful for the life I already have. And so I won’t either.


Big canals


Sixteen years ago my husband and I stayed in Amsterdam overlooking one of the big canals. Pregnant with my daughter, I fed my son from glass jars and changed his nappy on the bathroom floor. But this never took away from the beauty of the streets on stepping outside.


This striking beauty is still here. The doors are still painted in gorgeous tones, built up by multiple coats of enamel paint. The sight of bikes outnumbering cars still refreshes. Cycling upright, without helmets, men and women of all ages go about their business. Picking up kids from school. Stopping off to shop for food. Talking gaily into mobile phones. The contrast with the fug of London traffic, which we have just left, is delightful.


Even my husband’s impatience at the delay of the young man sent to give us the key to our apartment doesn’t bother me. Nor the drizzle. Nor the four flights of narrow stairs, although I do promise myself never to travel with a heavy bag again.


After bagsing bedrooms we head straight out, as darkness and more rain, falls. My husband disappears to work before supper while my kids and I walk down a few canals to the supermarket. Before we even reach it I have promised my son that he can hire a bike in the morning.


By now we are all starving and I cook pasta in the tiny kitchen as soon as we get back. My husband’s key turns in the lock and we sit down to steaming plates. It isn’t a brilliant meal but, considering we got off the train three hours earlier, not embarrassing either.


My husband sighs loudly as his fork meets the plate. It’s the sigh that I have come to dread. I let it pass. He sighs even more loudly. ‘What’s wrong?’ escapes my lips. A pause. ‘Well’, he says, staring at his plate. ‘We have just arrived in this wonderful city, and I’ve done some really good work in a café that I didn’t want to leave, and now this’. And he stares down at his bowl of wholemeal penne with tuna and leek and flakes of parmesan.


My daughter frowns darkly. ‘Don’t worry, Daddy’, says my son, shifting gear. ‘Tomorrow you can do all those things’. ‘But you know we are all tired’, I say, feeling got at and so failing to find the right tone. ‘And you know that our kids aren’t mad on eating out, especially after a long day of travelling’.


‘I know, I know, I know’, he says. ‘I know I’m being stupid’. My daughter, the hungriest of us all, pushes back her chair and shoots up the ladder to her bedroom upstairs, sobbing as she goes. Her bedroom door slams. A cloud of silence hangs over the table. A long minute passes and my husband slips away from the table, leaving my son and me sitting across from each other, smiling comfort and rolling our eyes.


I climb the ladder and open my daughter’s bedroom door. ‘May I come in?’ I ask. No answer. She is crying, face to the wall. ‘I’m so sorry’, I say. ‘Your father can be super annoying’. No response. ‘He’s just disappointed not to have more freedom. And he loves this city so much. We all do’, I add, into the silence. ‘I don’t care’, she blurts out. ‘He always spoils things and I hate him for it’.


An even longer silence follows which I decide not to break, partly because I don’t know what to say. And then, straight from her heart into mine, she looks at me and says, ‘I wouldn’t have married him’. ‘Oh God’, I think to myself, looking deep into her blue eyes in the middle of her tear-stained face, the blue of her father’s eyes. How, I wonder, has our family trip come to this?


I go downstairs and ask my husband to come up. He tip toes into my daughter’s bedroom, sits on the opposite bed, and says nothing. I try to make peace between them but, realising it is too soon, I don’t stop my husband when he gets up to leave.


I lie on the bed and hold my heaving daughter until her tears subside. Half an hour has gone by since my husband left the room. I stare out at the rooftops. Despite everything, even these please me. I stroke my daughter’s arm and tell her not to worry. It is, I tell her, so understandable that she should be angry. Her father, I say, struggles with family life. This isn’t anyone’s fault. It isn’t his fault that he is forever worried about his work, and that this comes out in unhelpful ways. And nor is it her fault that she has no sympathy with this.


Eventually she stops crying. Not, I decide, because of anything I’ve said, but because she has no tears left. I go downstairs, make her a hot milk drink, and sit with her while she drinks it. I tell her that she’ll feel better in the morning and that I love her. Then I visit my son next door. He has taken the silver computer into his bedroom and is busy looking up Dutch boats for sale. He smiles wanly and makes room for me to perch on his bed. ‘I wish Daddy wouldn’t do that’, is all he says about the scene at dinner, and I silently thank him for it.


Downstairs my husband is sitting with his head in his hands. ‘Why don’t you go out for a walk?’ I suggest, hoping it might settle him. ‘You could take a book and read somewhere’. ‘You wouldn’t mind?’ he replies. ‘Not at all’, I reply, thinking that it will give me breathing space.


After he leaves I make myself green tea and check emails. I look at the guide book and work out what the three of us can do the next day, leaving my husband to work. The Maritime Museum looks interesting, and just the right distance for walking. I hug my son goodnight and go to bed, keeping an ear open for my husband’s key in the lock, which turns quite a lot later. He and I touch without words, and I soon fall sleep.


Amsterdam looks even better in the morning. After hiring a bike for my son, my daughter and I head east along one of the big canals. As the Maritime Museum finally comes into view, my daughter catches sight of her brother’s stripy beanie, as he leaves the large wooden ship on the dock and reenters the museum through a side door. When we meet up with him, inside the museum his eyes are lit up. ‘It’s great’, he says, ‘although I’ve already seen most of what is on display. Let me show you’.


It is dark when we leave the museum, and head back along the half lit canals. The city has done its magic on us all. Even dinner goes smoothly. It is still raining, but we are used to that. And we have moved to another apartment, leaving the bad memories of the night before behind.


Again my husband goes out for a drink on his own, once our kids are in bed. Twice he asks me to go out with him, and twice I make excuses. ‘I’m too tired’, I explain. ‘We did heaps of walking today and I really don’t feel like going out again’. ‘Even with me?’ he asks, persisting. Well, I reply, sounding unconvincing, I really don’t want to leave our daughter in a new apartment. And anyway, I end, we are having dinner together tomorrow, and there’ll be lots of time to talk then.


But I don’t tell him the real reason for my not wanting to go out. I really am tired and do want our daughter to feel safe. And I really have forgiven him his outburst of the night before. It’s more that I need some time on my own, even more than time with him. It has always been that way, even before we thought of having children. I still need to hear my own heart beat, to have my own down time, before I can find it in myself to be giving to anyone else. Even to my husband. And especially to myself.







A growing collection of books, bought by my husband in second-hand bookshops, mushrooms on the window sill. My daughter is the first to comment. ‘Are you going to buy another bag to take home all those books?’ she asks him. ‘No’, he replies, ‘I thought I might dump some of my clothes’. My daughter catches my eye and grins. We both know that he will do this. What is a pair of shoes, or a sweater, compared with an unsoiled copy of Plato’s lesser known writings, or an out-of-print collection of CP Snow’s essays?


In the end we all leave a few things behind in Bath, in a black plastic bag with a note for the Op Shop, before dashing for the train. Standing on the platform my husband’s face drops, as the 10.41, bound for Birmingham, fills up with standing-room-only passengers. Guessing his thoughts, I suggest that he buys a First Class ticket for the 10.43 to Paddington, so he can work onboard. ‘Would you mind very much?’ ‘Not at all’, I reply.


The train arrives and, cursing my heavy suitcase, we climb aboard. After just over two weeks away, which feels like a month, we are finally bound for London. Unlike the 10.41 to Birmingham, our carriage is comfortable and not busy at all. My daughter does some drawing, my son texts on his phone further down the carriage, and my husband, up the front of the train, buys a few hours’ peace.


An old friend, with whom I often talked about how to juggle work and family, back in our twenties, calls to say she’ll be coming to our drinks that evening. ‘I’m so glad you can come,’ I say, flattered that she is making the trip from Oxford to see me. ‘I can’t wait to see you’, I add, meaning it.


Last time we walked past St Paul’s, three years ago, scores of people were camping on the forecourt, in protest against the government’s support of the banks in the wake of the financial crisis. This afternoon St Paul’s is ringed by popular shops. The free market has also prevailed in the pizza restaurant across the road. My daughter orders a spelt pizza, my son a mushroom one, and I, a fancy salad nicoise. The imposing front of St Paul’s, seen from the side, takes up the whole window.


After getting us badly lost, during our last stay in London, neither my son nor daughter trust me with directions. I laugh and hand over the map, and stand back as they squabble over the route. A cycling bus passes, with twelve laughing passengers peddling madly to catch the lights. Eventually, almost upon the Thames, the Tower rises up in front of us. ‘Shoot’, I say, looking at my watch. ‘Friends are coming for a drink in an hour’s time’. My daughter, fed up with seeing people, pouts. Quite possibly my son feels the same, but doesn’t show it. Instead he rips the map from his sister’s hand and directs us flawlessly back to Spitalfields in half the time it took us to get down to the river.


Once we are within ten minutes’ walk of where we are staying, I relax my pace. ‘I’ll feel much better friends coming for a drink,’ I tell them, ‘if I have something to give them to eat.’ My son and daughter linger near the door of the health food shop that I used to frequent in my twenties, clearly struck by the thought that their mother bought almonds and cashews from this chain of health food shops well before either of them came along.


All my nervousness disappears when the ding-dong front door bell goes and our first friend arrives. As soon as she pulls off her coat, a stream of other friends follow, looking more themselves than ever, full of questions and exclamations and general wonder at the course of life.


My daughter, stubborn as ever, takes a prolonged bath at the top of the house, just as she threatened she would. My son, who three years ago would have holed himself up in his bedroom, jumps straight in, chatting easily and broadly, solid in his passion for sailing and boats and for life beyond school.


Three years ago we saw all of these friends. But separately, over a week or so. Having them in two rooms is far more intense. Before long something else strikes me. Although I am flattered that they have come to see us, I also get the feeling that they have come to see each other, just like in the old days.


A German woman, who was in a baby group with me in Belsize Park, is particularly intense. There is something that she wants from me. She has, she tells me, read bits of my blog, which for me means that she knows quite a lot more about my life than I know about hers. This gives our conversation a directness, an edge, that keeps me on my toes. She has, she explains, been very successful in her psychology coaching business. Very successful, she repeats. Lots of travel, a large company, so large that her husband, equally ambitious, has joined her in it. However a few years back she suffered a knee problem, forcing her off her feet for nearly a year. For the first time since childhood she had to slow down, stop traveling, and stay at home.


She doesn’t dwell on herself for long. As a psychologist, she tells me, she sees a lot of people, particularly women, who hit middle age without a keen sense of what they are about. They know who they are, but not what they are. They have lives, she stresses, and good jobs. ‘But’, she finishes, eyes rolling, ‘they are on all these drugs!’


Even though I am drawn into various conversations like these, I cannot still the nagging thought that whatever conversation I am presently having is preventing me from another conversation that I might be having with someone I may not see for another three years. My goddaughter, I notice in the corner of my eye, has popped up in the kitchen. And could that be my husband’s old friend from Oxford, standing by the lamp?


My oldest friend arrives, breathless from a poetry reading. ‘They were all just children’, she says. ‘Luckily when I told them, at the beginning of the meeting, that I was visiting old friends from Australia, they kindly let me read my poem first.’ We embrace and she takes off her coat. ‘And what a beautiful house’, she says warmly. ‘I just love the colours, and all the paneling. Could I possibly have a peak upstairs?’


‘Next time you all come to the UK’, says another friend, born in Melbourne and living with her four children and lawyer husband in Wimbledon, ‘you must stay with us in Dorset. We have a boat and plenty of room. And it’s always such fun in summer. You simply must come in summer and see d us at our best!’


Eventually I give in and join friends who are leaning against the narrow walls of the kitchen. My daughter, after pleading from me, has finally joined us. And it is there in the kitchen that the party ends, a few hours’ later. Friends leave in clumps, bracing themselves for Friday night public transport. And then they are gone.


My son, husband and I clean up with only a bit of chatter, before eating a late supper. An hour later I am staring at the ceiling in bed. I can still feel my friends’ frames in my arms. I can feel their cheeks against mine, moments before letting them go into the night. Why, I ask myself, did I ever let them go?


And yet I know why. I know that my life has gone in another direction. I was never, I tell myself, going to spend my whole life in London. Even before having a second child I knew that my days in a small flat were numbered. I knew that another life was waiting for me, with a house and a vegetable garden, a clothes line, possibly a dog and a beach not too far off. I knew that these would be my reward if I could bear to break off from my London life.


So although I cry – ‘What’s wrong?’ asks my husband, groggy from sleep – it isn’t unhappy crying. It is closer to wonder. Amazement that the life that my husband and I chose, twelve years ago, should now be more real than the life that I had with these friends in London for nearly twenty years. I stare into the night a little longer, silently wish them well, then turn on my side and sleep.

Bike shop (trip 5)


 In my kids’ eyes the city of Bath doesn’t make sense. All these people scurrying round in the rain, before disappearing again, shopping bags in hand, like rabbits down a burrow. What, their eyes ask me, is it all for? Their disappointment is obvious. It’s clear to them that none of these people are going sailing. They aren’t going surfing, or even hiking. So, they silently wonder, what can their lives be about? And the fact that my husband and I seriously contemplated bringing them both up in this city is beyond them. What, their faces plead, can you have been thinking?


My husband, on the other hand, loves Bath nearly as much as our teenagers dislike it. Buoyed up by the architecture he has loved since boyhood, he is completely at one with the buildings and streets. More to the point, he is finally at work on the book that he found it impossible to write at home. Thankful and relieved, I am careful not to ask directly how it is going, knowing how touchy he is about it. But then, I tell myself, if I was trying to write philosophy, I too would keep it to myself.


My kids and I leave him alone as much as we can, knowing how guilty he feels to be absorbed with his work on what most people think is a family holiday. But there is another thing, too. My husband is not one for long walks. Nor is he particularly adventure loving. This means that the three of us know that we will probably have a better time without him – although we are careful not to say this out loud.


Besides, my son and daughter don’t do cities anymore. (And they definitely don’t do museums, even when it’s pouring with rain.) And so, on the third day of our stay, we leave the city behind and head to the coast, to a place called Breen Down, an old military fort at the end of a long headland.


With the headland in view, we drive past thousands of permanent caravans, berthed in grids, waiting patiently for summer crowds. Never have I seen so many caravans. How, I wonder out loud, can so many people think that this long pebbly soft beach is worth spending their summer holiday at? But then, as the caravan parks roll on and on, we grow thoughtful. It dawns on us how privileged we are to live alongside pristine, protected and classless beaches at the bottom of the world, with hardly a caravan park in sight of the beach.


We leave the car at a deserted fish and chip shop and climb the steep wooden steps on to the headland. As soon as we reach the top wind and rain, and then more wind, blast us. As usual, my son strides ahead. My daughter, in a mood, walks behind. I quietly regret my choice of destination. Again I have been fooled by a guide book.


Two thirds of the way down the spine of the headland, my son turns back. Saying nothing, the wind is way too loud for anything less than shouting, he grabs my hand. I am already holding my daughter’s. Even once we stumble down to the fort, the pelting rain and intermitten hail doesn’t let up. Although the setting of the fort is like something from a Jane Austen novel, even a quick read of the information boards makes it clear that real soldiers spent significant parts of their lives at this windswept outpost, waiting for the Germans, equipping guns, and doing night watches.


Hungry and wet, we return to Bath. I suggest lunch in a café I have read about, and they agree. As soon as we sit down and order, a bike shop across the road catches my son’s eye. I, meanwhile, have my eye on the hairdressers next door. But both my kids forbid me to ask for an appointment. ‘You look much better with your hair a bit longer’, my daughter insists, almost accusingly.


When we enter the bike shop, with its funky music, white painted floors, and carefully directed downlights, the manager is discussing the logistics and cost of shipping a bike back to Sydney for a friend. My son’s eyes light up. When eventually the discussion at the counter comes to an end, the manager picks out a frame for my son, reaching up to take it off a wall stand. My son’s diffidence melts away. His shoulders move back and he is clear-eyed. He looks totally convincing astride this handsome bike.


‘Can I’, he asks. ‘Can we?’ he repeats. I smile, suppressing my automatic, ‘Of course we can’t’. The manager chats on, making this purchase seem if not likely, not impossible. Good humouredly he shares snatches of his own life. The seven bikes in his garage, the unassembled bike he shipped back from Canada, his morning commute along country lanes, and the two further bikes he covets.


The half hour we spend dithering in the bike shop does more to convince my kids that there is more to life in Bath goes than commuting and shopping, than any other experience of our stay. How is it, I wonder, that bike shops are now so cool? During my childhood they were dingy smelly places, full of inner tubes and metal frames. Today they have good music, a nice aesthetic, and are run by men with a quietly philosophical outlook.


‘But’, I point out, exasperated, ‘we’ll be on the train to London in the morning’. My son looks at me, his fantasy punctured by his suitcase-pulling mother. ‘Of course’, he says, and his shoulders move forward. The manager smiles. He places the bike frame back on its stand, and I thank him warmly. Thinking he won’t forgive me, a few minutes later my son surprises me with a crooked smile. I return his smile, squeeze my daughter’s hand, and we wind our way back to our steep street in the dark.




Churchyard (trip 4)


A large stuffed moose head hanging high up is my daughter’s favourite. The reindeer head, all alone on another wall, is mine. Stuffed with taxidermy material and covered and stitched in heavy wool, my impulse to buy it and take it home is as strong as my awareness that this would be folly.


We leave the shop with a large stuffed robin, but no moose or reindeer head. The thought of lumping one of these through customs, and stowing it in an overhead locker, wins out over my fantasy of having a reindeer head from the Northern Hemisphere watching over our Christmas at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere.


My son, who is mad on sailing, has come along in the car solely to look at the boats moored on Lake Windermere. However heavy rain and early dark have made this impossible. Instead, while his sister and I admire the moose head in the shop, he sits slumped in our hire car, switching idly between songs on his phone.


When we get back to Grasmere, with just enough time to cook supper, my father-in-law’s partner asks if they might stay on another night. ‘The roads are so wet, with snow forecast. And your father-in-law, though he would hate me for saying it, isn’t as young as he was…’. Apologising for my thoughtlessness, I immediately agree, and she jumps up and kisses me.


I dream up another meal for us at home, while father and son go out for the evening. I’m terribly aware that although they long for each other’s support, for complicated emotional reasons they seem unable to give it. Perhaps I am mistaken, for they do encourage each other. But not unconditionally. Could it be that they don’t quite approve of each other’s work? It is no business of mine, I know. Yet I’m alive to this eddy, and feel real sympathy for them both as they disappear once more into the rain.


While they are out, my son and daughter slurp soup in front of a DVD upstairs, and my father-in-law’s partner opens up to me. Without probing on my part, she describes her life so far. Her gifted but wounded Russian husband, her two very different daughters, her work in embassies, and her hopeful attitude to life. She tells me all this with such warmth and urgency that I am under her spell. ‘Ah, Helene’, she says as the evening closes, ‘you are such a good listener’. I smile and nod, glad that she has been able to lose herself in me, if only for a few hours.


The next morning, our last in Grasmere, my kids and I pack up the house and meet my husband at the village church. ‘I’m on holiday’, I tell myself, as I lug a heavy bag of rubbish up the steep slope to the bins, and clean up the kitchen out of respect for the housekeeper.


It takes a while to meet up with my husband in the village churchyard. Where, he immediately wants to know, is our son? There we are, standing next to a very old church, within calling distance of Wordsworth’s grave, with my husband stamping his feet, partly from cold, but mainly at not knowing where our son is. But our son, I think to myself, could perfectly well be travelling on his own, has no real need of his parents, and is almost certainly not lost. My daughter, on the other hand, less understanding of her father, leaves the churchyard in a huff and takes a track that skirts behind the village.


After piling into the car I drive straight to Kendal to buy the reindeer head, plus sandwiches for the motorway. The reindeer head is, I feel, mine by some kind of aesthetic right. If, of course, there were such a thing. Then we drive for hours on soulless motorways, getting on each other’s nerves and wishing the miles would magic themselves away, which they don’t. My son punishes us by refusing to play ‘his music’ – which my daughter and I have become dependent on. We don’t even try to play the car games that kept us amused on the drive down from Scotland. Nor do we get off the motorway, except at an ugly truck stop for petrol. I grit my teeth and push on, willing away the ache at the bottom of my spine.


‘Why are we staying in Bath?’ my son asks from the back of the car, as darkness falls and we leave the motorway for the Lake District. ‘Because’, I explain for the second time, ‘it’s your father’s favourite city in the UK, apart from Edinburgh. And’, I add, ‘I like it too’.


Slowly, maddeningly slowly, the traffic snakes into Bath. We find where we are staying and park our car in the busy narrow street. Except for the fact that the apartment, an Air bnb, is inexplicably full of flies, the place is completely lovely. Even my son, who tells me repeatedly that I care about all the wrong things, likes it, and promptly takes the top bedroom.


Early the next morning I awake to the sound of hurrying footsteps. Half of Bath seems to be rushing down our street into the town below, staring into mobile phones as if they were crystal balls. Where, I wonder idly, doing yoga stretches, can they be going in such a hurry, barely looking up from their screens?


My husband departs to work and, after a glance at a guidebook, the three of us head through town and up the hill for The Skyline Walk. When I stop to ask directions from a man turning an old Volvo into his drive, my son pulls out his phone and heads back down the hill, as if to rule out any possible connection.


The beginning of the walk, or at least where we calculate the beginning of it should be, is devoid of signposts. It is also unremarkable. Perhaps it’s the grey sky. Perhaps it’s not knowing if we’re on the right track or not. Perhaps it’s having been spoiled by earlier walks in Scotland, and of course Tasmania.


Eventually we stop for a snack in a deserted adventure playground, at the bottom of a hollow in the middle of a beech wood. At first we just do the tyre swing. Then it’s the ropes course. Then it’s a timed ropes course, which my son determines to win. Before long my son is out of hand on the tyre swing. The silent pressure of being nice to family and friends is flung to the wind and he is his old boisterous self. Only sadly today he is too heavy for me to push to any height on the swing.


The young man who my husband still mentors stays with us for a couple of days in Bath. He has now spent more time at Oxford than my husband ever did, and he seems subtely changed by it. But his throat is sore, and he is taking penicillin. Rather than worry about his weird sounding voice, I make us all a thick chicken soup for supper. Then it’s time for a few games of Monopoly Deal, before turning in early.


In the morning there are familiar scurrying footsteps on the street below. I open the shutters and look out, curious. Well dressed men and woman are walking, some nearly running, down the street. ’Where’, I ask my husband, who is lying in bed, ‘are they all off to?’ ‘London’, he replies, as if surprised that I didn’t know. ‘Oh, I see’, I reply, realising my naivety. These young men and women are rushing to their desks in London, to jobs which finance their lifestyle in Bath. So that, I think to myself, is how the cafes and boutiques keeps their doors open, their lights and heating turned up high.

Another hike (trip 3)



Clachnaben beckons the next day, a small mountain that was the favourite of the local scouts when my brother-in-law was a boy. The stony path, when eventually we find it, is streaming with water. Parts of it are frozen into thick sheets of ice. My son strides ahead, becoming a speck on the path that snakes around the mountain. My daughter, complaining of period pains and nausea, walks slowly. I suggest stopping but she refuses, soldiering on. Looking up, I spy my son on the highest point of the mountain, on the top of a rocky outcrop, his head in the sky. I hold my breath and smile.


Gingerly, my daughter and I join my son on the rocky outcrop. The view is breathtaking. Two fighter jets speed past, splitting our peace in two.


The ice fight that I start never really gets out of hand. There are rocks to hide behind and my son is less madcap than usual. Besides the ice is too heavy to throw anything but small shards. Once more my son strides down the path, his thoughts far from family, so that by the time my daughter and I reach the car he has doubled back to find us.


When we get back my mother-in-law announces that she will be driving home the next day. Have I, I wonder, talked enough, shared enough, with her? Kind, tactful, loving, she has made no demands. She understands that our children are now teenagers and that much harder to draw out. She knows that my life, and marriage, has its strains. But she doesn’t probe or judge. Instead she makes cups of tea and takes herself off into another to do word puzzles, when enough is happening in the kitchen. Or she offers to take my husband, her son, to the café where he has taken to working each morning. Or she makes a list for morning shopping in the village, and heads out to fill it.


On our last night in Scotland my husband and I go out for dinner. The country house hotel is quietly grand, with roaring log fires, partly for effect above the central heating, and moose heads on the wall. Risking being the sole diners in the large oval dining room, with its wooden floors and shuttered casement windows, my husband and I take a table near the fire.


Having left Scotland at the age of seventeen, and never returning for longer than a visit, my husband describes what it feels like to be a welcome stranger in the country he was born in. He works hard to express his feelings. He sighs. I can never, he tells me, fully understand how he feels. I agree, silently wishing that the conversation might turn to me. But we persist, and I leave our dinner in that beautiful room a little the wiser.


Before driving south the next morning, the three of us walk up Scolty Hill, while my husband writes in a café. Our little ritual. I can’t face a long drive without a walk first. Besides I want to say goodbye to the town, and our stay in it, on foot.


Up until today, my son, daughter and I haven’t enjoyed our visits to Scottish castles. They don’t look their best during winter, and the three castles we’ve visited so far have been – bar the flying foxes – joyless mouldy places. Stately yes, but inspiring no.


Stirling Castle, atop a sudden hill surrounded by cliffs on one side, is a joy. I know this because we all spontaneously want to explore the courtyards and castle inside the stately ramparts. We are rewarded immediately. The castle has a quiet majesty, an aura, that buildings in Australia just don’t have. Most of all I love the cliff-top rose garden behind the castle keep, and imagine the stories that must have unfolded in it.


It is dark and wet when we finally find the track that winds behind Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, and drive up it to the house we are staying in. When we find it the drive looks so steep that I don’t even consider driving the car to the house. My son and daughter find the hidden key and light up the house, long before their suitcase dragging parents open the door. A tray has been set up for tea. There is central heating, three bathrooms, and generous beds.


While I get the hang of cooking in the kitchen, banging cupboards in the kitchen, the others play a board game with hoots and bangs. We eat gratefully and – with no technology to keep us up – collapse into bed.


The next morning the three of us walk a steep track, past Postman Pat farms, to a high up tarn. It is wet yet wonderful, another world. Walking around the boggy tarn, or upland lake, I follow in my son’s large footsteps until I squeal as my feet disappear into the spongy marsh. Again I feel a swell of gratitude that I have two teenagers who still love doing what I love doing. I know they feel the beauty of our the lake because they take lots of photos, my son surreptitiously on his phone, my daughter fiddling with the settings on her metallic blue camera.


I chose to stay in the Lake District with my father-in-law in mind. A long weekend at Grasmere, no matter the weather, seemed the right setting for what I knew would be, on booking the house from Hobart, an important few days. Thankfully I was right about the house. And, as it turns out, the dire weather.


My father-in-law and his French partner arrive only a little late. Despite a long drive, they are immaculately turned out in tweed suits, and I inwardly salute them. My father-in-law’s French partner is once more charm itself, kind, warm, interested and supportive. Within minutes I feel as relaxed with her as I feel awkward with my father-in-law, despite having known him a lot longer.


As we sit at the long wooden table my husband carves a roast chicken, all the while trying to keep the conversation flowing, despite the undercurrents that pull us in different directions. My son, who longs for his friends at home and the cycling holiday they are now on, eats quickly. Does he, I wonder, ever ask himself how he will get on with his father in thirty years’ time? My daughter, just to my right, where she feels safe, gives me a long look. Why, her look asks me, can’t why family life be easier? I meet her gaze and smile encouragingly. At the end of the table my husband puts down the carving knife and fork. He, I know, is hoping to connect with his father, who clearly longs to connect with him. And my father-in-law’s partner? Well she, like me, just wants everything to go well.


That afternoon it doesn’t just rain, it hails. Not satisfied with a light storm, it buckets down with rain, even though my husband and father-in-law have headed out for a walk through the slippery garden, in the dark, to the lake below.


My daughter, sitting cross-legged on her bed upstairs, has tears in her eyes. ‘Please stay with me’, she begs. ‘I can’t’, I explain. ‘I must go down and have tea with your grandfather’s partner. They have driven such a long way to see us’. ‘Please’, she persists. ‘I’m lonely up here by myself.’ ‘I’m so sorry’, I say. ‘It’s a lovely room, and we have done such a lot of travelling and walking. Besides you have all your drawing things. Draw me a picture of the lake before the light goes off it, or that bird on the drain pipe. You will always remember this view, and this cosy bedroom. And I promise I’ll come up and see you very soon’.

Lake (trip 2)

william mountain


Next morning after breakfast I tell my husband that I would like him to put his writing first, even before family. Even before me. He hugs and thanks me, and we both look each other in the eyes. As he heads off to a café to write, my son, daughter and I head off for an adventure in the mountains nearby. My husband is a writer, not a hiker, and the challenge before him is as big as any mountain.


My daughter asks if we might see the Royals at Balmoral. My son scoffs. Instead we walk out of Ballater on the wrong road, under my son’s direction. His sister grabs the map off him and takes us out of the town over the bridge. Still no sign of a walking track. Now it’s my turn. Diving into a café I ask two pleasant looking men to look at our map. They laugh and tell me that we are in the wrong town. Instead they suggest a walk by a lake just outside Ballater, and give me directions that even I can follow.


The road twits up to a plateau, surrounded by a band of small mountains. As we pull on hiking boots the sky clears to blue, our first sight of sky since arriving. The bitter cold of the morning gives way to perfect walking weather. We take the track to the left of the lake, leaving the paved track on the right of the lake until last, in case dark falls before we reach it.


My daughter, as if smitten, stops countless times to take photos – running to catch up with me and her brother, who scoffs at her. Undeterred, she keeps stopping, taking it all in through the lens of her camera.


Once we reach the end of the lake we fall into step, relaxing together in a way that is familiar from previous hikes. Out by that lake, with the moon on our right and mountains all around, everything seems possible. I say a silent thank you to a world that has allowed us to walk, arm in arm, with a lake on one side and mountains on the other, the moon coming up before the sun goes down.


The following morning, after my husband writes over coffee and the three of us walk up Scolty Hill, we set of for my father-in-law’s studio near Perth. As usual it is raining. We are all nervous. The car still feels like a minibus to drive, and I wonder if I’ll ever get used to taking up so much of the road.


The table is set and wonderful smells from the tiny kitchen greet us. My father-in-law can barely contain his excitement to see us. The candlesticks gleam, fruit sits on silver salvers, and an important bottle of wine is ceremoniously opened in my husband’s honour.


My father-in-law’s partner, an ex-French diplomat, has taught herself to cook since our last visit, and she spoils us with a delicious lunch. By the time she serves dessert, my son is announcing his intention to sail round the world with friends on leaving school. One of his friends has a suitable boat, he says. And no, he replies with a laugh, they won’t be attacked by pirates. They’ll sail through the Panama Canal and avoid Cape Horn.


I can hear my heart beating. This is news to me. I glance at but don’t catch my son’s eye. Clearly this announcement is aimed not at me, but his grandfather, who for the first time since we sat down to lunch pauses to take in what he has heard.


Sitting in my father-in-law’s studio, an ex-saddlery, my heart sinks. My son could have told me about his plans to sail from Tasmania to Norway on the hike yesterday, or at any time in our kitchen at home over the past month. But instead he announces it over lunch at his grandfather’s studio. It doesn’t help knowing that he announced it to head off his grandfather’s question about his future – although he doesn’t know what he plans to do with his life, he does know how he wants to spend the year after next.


I clean up the kitchen with my father-in-law’s partner as my son disappears up the wooden stairs into my father-in-law’s studio. She and I chat and confide, as openly as ever. Drinking coffee from small cups we talk about what it is like to share our lives with men who are devoted to their work. Men who are driven yet anxious about their creativity, and who, so understandably, fret about how their work will be received.


The track is muddy as the three of us walk up the hill behind my father-in-law’s studio in the dark. My son tells me more about his plans, making it a somewhat less scary prospect. It’s his girlfriend’s father, he explains, who is planning the voyage. It won’t just be his friends. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘I see’. He puts his arm through mine and apologises for surprising me. With my daughter on one side, and son on the other, we skip down the farm track – and I silently pray I won’t slip.

Castle (trip 1)


Edinburgh is plunged in darkness as we emerge from the terminal late afternoon. Leaving warm stale air behind, an icy wind bites into our bare faces and hands. Heading for the hire car office we walk Indian file, trailing suitcases and back packs, dazed to be using our legs after a day and a half of flying.


There is, alas, no trace of the car I so carefully booked three weeks ago in Hobart. My husband raises his eyebrows, sighs and finds a seat. My two teenagers feign patience and also find a seat. An hour later we set off in a car far larger than the one I booked, closer to a minibus than a car.


The highway north is teaming with rain and cars. Feeling excited and scared, I stare at the lane in front, fishing under the dashboard every now and then for the elusive high beam switch. At last the Sat Nav directs us off the highway through a string of small towns, and then on to a smaller road. We make a steep ascent, climbing so high that thick mist surrounds us. Slowing to a crawl, we chase the tail lights of the car in front. Still we climb, the fog even whiter and thicker than before.


My husband’s temper frays. He curses the Sat Nav for directing us over a mountain pass in order to achieve the fastest possible route. My son tells him to calm down. My daughter snorts. I train my eyes on the road ahead.


As we swing into my sister-in-law’s drive, the only lights on in the house are upstairs. When I knock on the kitchen window there is no response. Next we try the sitting room window. Still nothing. Then my mother-in-law switches on the kitchen light and beams a smile through the window.


My sister-in-law, who spent the day making beds and getting her house ready for us, warms soup and bread, all the while making welcoming gestures. We eat gratefully and fall into beds in various rooms.


Frost covers the garden the next morning. A pale light, so different from the blue sky we’ve just left, gently illuminates the bedroom. Children’s giggles waft across the hall.


After breakfast my brother-in-law takes my son and I up a small mountain, rising out of the forest behind the town. Leaving the dog walkers behind, we take a path that runs with water from recent rains. I stop to exclaim how beautiful the land around is – bare birches, brown heather and green pines are spread out below. My son strides on alone, leaving my brother-in-law and me behind. By the time we get to the top of the hill, deep in conversation, my son is waving from the top of the tower. ‘You’re so slow’, he calls down the spiral steps.


That afternoon my daughter, who has spent the morning playing babies with her two young cousins, accompanies me to Tesco’s. The choice is overwhelming. No wonder nearly every small shop in the town is folding. Next time we visit, I think to myself, Tesco’s will be selling mortgages and funerals, along with slabs of organic cheddar and Aberdeen Angus beef sandwiches.


It’s my husband’s birthday the next day. I give him an electric razor, a duty free present, and a DVD. My daughter gives him a watch from Tesco’s. He thanks us warmly, pointing out that they are both what he calls self-improving presents. On the breakfast table downstairs his mother has left two presents, a book about Raphael and two boxes of chocolates. Neither of these, I note, are self-improving.


Feeling hopeful we set off for Stonehaven, a small coastal town just south of Aberdeen. However as we enter the town and park my husband’s face falls. Wearing leather-soled shoes and a woollen coat, he struggles with his umbrella against a fierce wind that whips off the sea.


While he heads off in search of coffee, and a quiet cafe to work in, my son, daughter and I zip up our rainjackets and take the cliff walk to Dunatter Castle. Buffeted by wind and rain we round two headlands before the castle appears, like an apparition, a grey sea crashing below. We pass a determined Italian couple carrying a pusher down two hundred steps to the entrance of the castle. It’s a wild and glorious walk there and back, with plenty of mud and wind.


Returning to the town harbour, I know immediately that something is wrong with my husband. ‘It’s my birthday and I didn’t choose any of this’, is written on his face. My suspicion is confirmed when he describes the town centre in wildly unflattering terms. Deciding not to risk lunch in the town, I suggest a short drive to Aberdeen. Admittedly I have another motive. A city of the size of Aberdeen, I tell myself, is sure to be awash with mobile phone shops selling cheap phones that will make our trip easier.


However little do I realise quite how big Aberdeen is. When at last we reach the city centre, an imposing set of buildings hijacked by chain store glitz, parking is nearly impossible. Thinking a guide book might help a hungry family of four find somewhere special for lunch, I head for a big bookshop. On the first floor of the bookshop my husband explodes. Surrounded by best-selling book titles piled up for Christmas, a number of which are by his peers, he stamps his foot, seething with what looks like anger but could be disappointment. My daughter, after pleading for a sandwich at the bookshop’s café, disappears. My son, momentarily mature, escorts his father down the escalator and waits outside for his sister and me to appear.


The Scottish Rough Guide’s number one café in Aberdeen is taken over by a women’s raucous lunch. We take the table by the window and, struggling to make the best of things, order lunch moments before our combined blood sugar collapses.


Clearly this is not the day my husband had in mind when he woke to pale light this morning. If the publishing world isn’t against him, his wife quite possibly is. She must be, his expression suggests, to even suggest finding a mobile phone shop before returning to the underground carpark after a pleasant but unmemorable lunch.


‘Did you have a good day?’, asks my sister-in-law cheerfully, on our return. ‘Mostly’, I reply, and bring up photos of our walk on the computer screen. ‘Oh’, she says, ‘it looks lovely’. ‘Yes’, I reply, ‘it was’.