06 July, 2008

off we go

I know I always say this, and I must sound like the most dreary layabout, but I can hardly get my mind around the indisputable fact that by this time tomorrow, I will be in my house in Connecticut (or at least in a smelly hot car service from the airport on the WAY there), and not in my house in London.

I must not get around enough! It always strikes me with a horrible lurch, and then a day or so of nervous stomach, and not sleeping, to picture not being here, and being there. And then of course I'll repeat it all in September with the thought of not being there, but being HERE. It's partly to do with leaving the cats, which I hate, and leaving my new house, which seems hard, and now leaving my perfectly good husband. Would you believe that after a year and a half of being happily unemployed, the perfect job began... last week? So he may join us in August. Five or more weeks apart? I don't groove to that. But it is not in my hands to control. I also worry about his not being here when I'm not here: if he's gallivanting off in India this coming week and Qatar the next...

Yes, he's been made General Partner in a private equity firm. In theory I know what this means, or at least I've explained it in a minimal way: "he'll find people to invest their money, and then find projects to invest it in." John rolls his eyes over the intensely elliptical nature of this explanation, but allows as how it's "sort of OK." Avery worries, "That sounds risky." I say, "Yes, but only with other people's money, so that's all right." In truth, no one could be more risk-averse than my husband, and yet adventuresome. Don't get me started on all his good qualities, when I won't be with any of them for the foreseeable future. Today we were invited to lunch by the single mother of one of Avery's upcoming schoolmates, and as we parted at the door she said to John, "If you feel lonely, give me a call and we'll get together." Then suddenly she turned to me. "Not like that sounded!" Oh dear.

Sigh. It is very odd to contemplate all the changes in our lives: a new home, a new school, a new job. Only I remain, as usual, JUST THE SAME. I suppose that's my role: remain the same so that all the planets that orbit around can orbit to their hearts' content and there will be still, clean laundry and something to eat when they come back.

I do think we could all use a vacation from the last week of mayhem. It's so funny: I started out with a very general list of "Monday: do such and such. Tuesday: do such and such." I even typed it out. Then as the hours went by the lists got more and more complicated, involving actual timed moments to find a cab, grocery lists, squeezing in a trip to the stationers' for wrapping paper for a last-minute gift. At any rate, Monday last found me roasting a chicken at 10 am., not a normal thing for me to do. This was in preparation for my luncheon guests while John and his mother were at Wimbledon (Roger Federer, Centre Court, thanks to my brilliant and generous sister Jill). My lunch was such a treat: my friend Sue, who is film and stage addicted, and our mutual friend Caroline who is similarly obsessed. No other friends in my life would agree to come to my house and natter on about Richard Armitage and Matthew Macfadyen all afternoon. I raced around during the morning Avery was at school, concocting my chicken salad, which relies on a chicken roasted JUST for the purpose: plus green onions sliced, pine nuts toasted, plenty of celery, lemon zest and red onion diced, and JUST enough lemon-juiced mayonnaise to hold it together. That with a nice cheese board and a bit of baguette... then I raced off to get Avery and her beloved Anna at school, and brought them home to throw some lunch to them and leave me with my friends! Callous, but true. In the patchy sunlight of the garden, after lunch we had tea and gossip and the fun of girlfriends. Irreplaceable, really.

From there it was a race to get the girls to the pre-play costume checks on time. And the play was LOVELY. To hear the songs from "Alice in Wonderland" not just in a single voice in the bath, but from the throats of many on stage, was a revelation. How hard they had all worked! The surly caterpillar played by Ami, the aggressive "Mock Turtle" played by Sophia, the wonderful music... and Avery had nothing much do to but wait until the next night when she would take over the narrator from her friend Julia. The memorization of the lines was deemed too much for a girl to do two nights in a row, so they split it up. She was fairly champing at the bit!

Tuesday was more of the same: a nice carpooling mother brought Avery and Anna home and we whisked them off for a celebratory lunch at Cafe Rouge, where we all told horrendous jokes and shared all each other's food, and generally wished that times like that could go on forever: when Avery and her beloved Anna could be together, laughing at each other's awful punch lines, walking along with arms around each other's necks, uniform dresses pulling all over the place, young and innocent in the sunshine. A beautiful afternoon.

Then it was onto gathering them up with all their belongings and getting them to the school early enough for makeup, and John's mom, John and I to Liberty to try to order the fabric FINALLY for our upholstery over the summer. I know it sounds callous, but the only thing more inconvenient than discontinued fabric samples is... a discontinued upholsterer. Mr Frost is much mourned, and his lovely apprentice says sadly, "This is what we always planned, my taking over, but not this suddenly. No one was ready." And so in the middle stand our sofa and bench, waiting sadly in un-upholstered un-glory. But John chose just what he wanted, and ordered it happily as I spent some unexpected shopping time with his mother. She is the ONLY person who makes shopping for clothes any fun, and I should always remember this and squeeze in some time with her to do so, since normally I'd rather have hot needles stuck in my eyes than try on clothes. But her "I can totally see this on you," always manages to get me out of my negative funk in which I am all huge shoulders in the mirror and messy hair and no makeup.

And Avery in the play... can I kvell? Simply superb. She stood perfectly still, no unnecessary gestures, no fiddling about. Her eyes sparkled like stars and her voice hit all the right notes, and she ACTED. She commanded the stage when she was in the right, and when she needed to fade she did so, but she was always in character, watching the action and jumping in when it was her time. We were so PROUD of her! Just glorious. Later one of her fellow little actresses said to me, "When Avery played the part, I could understand why I was meant to say what I said. It made sense." Somehow she invested in the part a total understanding of who she was meant to be. Good girl.

At dinner in the high street after, while John struggled with his new job via iPhone and Avery opened the gorgeous little paperweight that was her present from her Nonna, Anna's family came ambling by and invited Avery to spend the following night at their house for a farewell sleepover. Oh dear, I felt myself approaching the awful realization that as Anna's friendship with Avery came to a close (at least on that dear, daily sort of basis that is so forgettably precious), so was my friendship with her mommy Becky. No more collapsing at Becky's kitchen table with some tale or other of woe and need of support. No more meeting up after read-aloud mornings for luxurious coffees together, full of uncharitable gossip from me and helpful murmurings from Becky. No more hearing the doorbell ring and it was Becky either dropping off her own child, or children, or mine, or picking hers up, or mine. No more perfect listening ear to the inevitable crises that come with marriage and schoolchildren, moving, settling in, friendship quarrels, grocery lists, advice, LISTENING.

As if we needed any more emotion, the next day was Speech Day, otherwise known as Prize Day to the girls. I took Avery in the dreaded tube, so her newly-employed father could survive some crisis phone calls in the morning, and ended up killing time in Starbucks with several mother friends, and a drop-in from our beloved Miss Leslie, the form teacher. Again, I found myself thinking, "How can I leave these people? Our shared jokes, our gossipy quips about someone's highlight job or badly-behaved child or runaway nanny or shopping spree..." And Miss Leslie's dark sparkling naughty laughter, shying away from how she knows she will miss our little darlings... And then I remembered: it was not so long ago that I just arrived at the school and spent a lot of whingey time feeling sorry for what I had left behind THAT TIME. So surely all will be well. One can never replace the dear friends, the dear memories and times, but more good ones will come. I HOPE.

Still, it was on to Prize Day and what a glory it was! The speeches honoring the departing lovely, lovely headmistress. The chronicles from a tearful Chairman of the Board, telling of her inventing the school from whole cloth five years ago, his worrying that the school would never come off. "But I did not reckon on the Pied Piper that is our headmistress..." At the end of his speech the parents simply BURST onto their feet for the longest standing ovation, and the most tears, you can imagine. I thought to myself how the school, and the head, and the teachers, and the gulls, had changed Avery's life forever. They had turned her from a girl who tended to hide in the classroom and avoid anyone's attention, into a girl who was happy to push herself to do her best, to take one of the leads on the school play! To feel confident and win prizes and be happy. We were all in floods of emotion. To have John's mom next to me was an unbelievable treat, witnessing such a cultural divide, such a foreign and wonderful ceremony: "My Lords and Ladies, and Gentlemen, may I offer my Report of the School on its Fifth Anniversary..."

Avery won her prizes and was happy. And I took her to Anna's birthday party, while John's mom bravely took herself off in the spitty rain to shop all on her own. And well she did, because the din at Anna's party was unbelievable! Think what effect CAFFEINE will have on these children, eventually! I can't. I helped Becky arrange the pillowcases on which they were all writing messages to each other, and then pass out pieces of pizza, and then mayhem as they decided to dance to super-loud "Wicked" soundtrack. Again, though, as crazy as it all was, I saw it pass through our lives as the "last" again, of a beloved ritual. The girls, so young in their uniforms, dancing and singing, eating cupcakes and signing goodbye cards for each other, falling down hugging each other: the last of an endless round of pre-grownup up parties. Sweet young things.

I basely abandoned Becky to race home and pick up my ordered scallops at Shepherd's Bush Market and take them home to clean them. Never let it be said that I fall down on picking up a scallop order even though the job of preparing them between Prize Day and the head's goodbye party put the chore somewhere behind a Botox session in terms of priorities. No, off I went. And brought them home. And dumped them in the sink and began to open them... EEEWWW!! Simply the most disgusting, revolting, appetite-suppressing job I have ever performed. What deluded person first looked at these things and thought, "With a little parsley, garlic and spaghetti, these would be divine"? Horrible! Yet I persevered, and left the bowl of pristine little hockey pucks in the fridge, with my minced garlic and parsley in little bowls on the counter, to go meet John's mom to buy Avery a bathing suit.

And buy it we did. With exhausted feet and credit cards with numbers worn off from all the spending I had been doing lately, we got that *&^^ bathing suit, at Debenham's. Then we repaired to Anna's house to retrieve Avery and take her to school for the Senior Choir's serenade of the retiring headmistress. Can I just say: it doesn't get any more sentimental than the gulls singing, "Flying Free" all about spreading their wings and reaching for the skies... except... the head was wearing a strapless, electric blue silk gown embroidered with butterflies in sequin form, stiletto heels and... a tiara? Or did I imagine the tiara? Never mind, it felt like she was wearing a tiara. And the girls sang like little angels. I was so busy biting onto my tongue to keep from crying that I didn't even get to listen properly. And then we came home to our scallops. And I'm sorry to say: they were so BEYOND fresh and delicious that I may find myself cleaning them AGAIN someday. I don't look forward to it, but they were SUBLIME. John and his mom and I sat back in the twilight gathering over the garden and looked at the light reflected off Avery's silver cups and felt... John's dad smiling over it all.

Thursday was the crowning sobbing event of it all. I had thought I would be fine, with all the run-up of emotion to the end of everything. But saying goodbye to Becky, and watching Avery, Anna and Ellie cling to each other, mute but tearful in their distress, was simply heart-wrenching. The end of a glorious two-and-a-half year odyssey of discovery, friendship, trust, love and fun. Goodbye to that lovely bit of our lives.

But from pathos to bathos: Friday we took Avery to her little classmate's house for a Fourth of July birthday party complete with a garden full of water slides and trampolines, while I scoured Kensington for a food my neurotic cat can eat while I'm away. Yes, it turns out Wimsey is allergic to wheat, rice, soy and... wait for it... peanuts. "I'm afraid it's lights out for all those Japanese crackers he's been enjoying with his cocktails," the vet said, and well he can laugh because it's not his little darling who's suffering. But no, the food must be bought by prescription at the VET. Of course it must. Sigh. Home to prep our OWN Fourth of July party: dozens of steamed Dublin Bay Prawns with garlic mayonnaise, the borlotti bean salad, potato salad, and an ultimately rather unnecessary grilled rump steak, but a lovely salsa verde alongside. And John's mom concocted an Eton Mess for Avery. And our lovely friends Vincent and Peter arrived and we all repaired to the garden for a candlelit party... glorious.

Now... John's mom has callously abandoned us for her own life in America. We miss her desperately, and the celebratory glimmer she casts over our insane lives. And we are about to go off too. The next you hear from me... Connecticut! A whole 'nother cast of characters and events and parties and dishes and... well, you know. My life. See you there.


payotbb said...

What a lovely description of an emotional week. You really paint the picture so well. I hope your next chapter is as fulfilling - I'm sure it will be! I was really moved by what you said about the school and your daughter: I feel exactly the same way about ours so far. They don't have schools like this in the US, at least not where I come from... Our speech/prize day this past weekend was also extremely moving -- I can't imagine what it will be like when she is finishing year 6.

Kristen In London said...

Oh, thanks for such a sweet comment. We are back in Connecticut now, and the previous two weeks feels like a DREAM. A surfeit of emotion that could have lasted for months, cut short by starting a whole other bit of our lives: not so much a chapter as a sort of weird six-week hiatus that happens every year!

Isn't the school experience incredible? How I discover I am living through my child... and yet how short the time is to do so! I'm so glad you recognized something in my description and it moved you. Thank you!