In the last week of August this year, our (nearly a) year long global adventure mid-life-crisis trip well and truly came to an end, with a bloody large, horrible and so intensely sad kick in the face.
The Tuesday in question started in what had become a fairly normal morning for us over the last year – moving home! This time we were moving from our Leeds ‘friend/holiday flat’ in Chapel Allerton to a shared house in Saltaire with people we didn’t know and even a rental contract! Pat had just started a full time job in a factory based in the beautiful World Heritage Site of Salts Mill; I was about to start a new contract doing business development on a new strategic planning tool too. Moving did not feel a joyous occasion right from the start. We both knew that were being charged way over the odds for our new accommodation. And it all felt so long term, something we had not had to cope with for what felt like ages. I didn’t want to leave Leeds but it didn’t feel fair at that stage to ask Pat to commute as he was working shifts, sometimes starting at 6am when my 1 and a ½ hour long commute each way to do business development work for a Vicar on a new strategic planning tool was only a couple of days a week. This time our move was more cumbersome – a car full rather than just a backpack and a couple of bags each. Pat, to be fair, was fairly excited about the move, looking forward to being back in his manor; I was just fed up and unhappy.
Car packed, I popped to the local supermarket to buy a thank you card for Deborah who we had been living with. I’m stood at the tills waiting to pay, scanning through Facebook to see the latest news. And then I see a post. It’s from the daughter of my friend Annie who we saw in Melbourne. I have to double look because my brain doesn’t quite compute what I read. I hand over the money for the card and suddenly my brain understands; as I buy a thank you card, I read that my friend had died the day before. I run back to Patrick, tears now flowing freely and can hardly explain to him why. The car is parked on double yellow lines, full of our stuff. I tell him before we can move I have to let other people know. I realise what a shock this will be. I knew Annie was very seriously ill, indeed hearing her news had been one of the reasons why I was so down on our 2nd stay in Thailand, but she had asked me not to publicise it. My shock was though that she told me she was doing really well when we last emailed. I used my weight blog to write my own tribute to her.
So our first few days in Saltaire become very much for me about Annie. So many people in the UK were devastated by her death. And the very strange connection was that suddenly our trip around the world became the link, as people in the UK realised we might not even have heard had it not been for us having been in Australia. I was honoured to attend her UK funeral, where her ashes were buried in her favourite part of England. The short, wonderful afternoon we had spent with Annie in Melbourne seemed, quite literally, a life time away,
Settling back into normal life…..
And so we settle back into normal life. Pat is given a new job in the factory and gets taken off shifts, thank goodness. But he finds the new job more than a little tough at first. We try to get our social life going with the small number of friends we have in Saltaire, going out to the local left-field watering hole, Fanny’s. On our first day I walk into Shipley to buy some coat hangers and amazingly bump into one of them, a friend I had been in constant contact with throughout the trip. I get to meet her new son for the first time. I have words with myself; maybe living in Saltaire will be OK after-all. It’s beautiful – honestly, it really is a fabulously gorgeous place. Autumn is here and Saltaire in the dusk has a look of a Dickensian novel. But it’s quiet, not much going on. I keep trying unsuccessfully to diet but I don’t have much motivation. On days I’m not working I often walk into the village to meet Pat from work; on more than one occasion we end up in a local bar, Don’t Tell Titus, large glasses of red wine setting us up for the evening as we both stoically try to look for the positives in being back to normal life.
Used to living with hardly any stuff we don’t mind that we still don’t have much (its still all in storage in our loft) – just a few outfits each and essential day to day living things like a duvet cover and a couple of towels which we left with a mate. The couple of suitcases we managed to get from the loft thankfully included some baggy jumpers, some thermal vests and our coats. I still can’t get in most of the other clothes we rescued; getting dressed earlier in the morning is so much easier when you don’t have much choice.
I seem to spend half my time travelling to Leeds; the anticipated savings of Pat not having to commute cancelled out by me going the other way. We are both droopy – we don’t even really celebrate our wedding anniversary despite living in the place where we met and got married.
Welcome to our new home……
So at this point, I think our new home has to become the main character in this story! Basically, our home is a shared house. We have our own bedroom, we’ll be sharing with another lodger Carl. The Landlord, Fred, tells us that he is around and about, but as our room is his bedroom he’ll be staying at his girlfriends. When we first looked round, large parts of the house were undecorated and Fred tells us he is in the middle of decorating. It’s a sunny day and he shows us a lovely balcony at the back of the house. There’s a large table and a big sofa in the kitchen dining room, light streaming in, so I imagine I’ll be fine working and writing at the table during the days whilst everyone else is at work. The day before we had been to look at another room in a shared place. Words to describe that place are unpublishable. So Freddie Towers (as it will become known) seemed pretty OK.
I try to negotiate down the published rent as it seemed quite pricey – £375 per month. Fred tells me that actually that’s single occupancy; £575 for a couple. We manage to get it down to £550. We are so desperate to find somewhere to live that doesn’t tie us into a 6 month contract that we say yes despite that amount being pretty much what you would pay for a swanky flat in those parts. We were clearly blinded to the many faults of the house.
First up, the lack of decoration become more obvious with each day. No carpet on the stairs (which I found scary as I struggle with steps early in the morning due to my dodgy knees). No bath. The walls in the main living area are stripped of wallpaper, bits still hanging off. There’s a really old 70s fire in the living area with a mantelpiece which isn’t attached to the wall, just propped up. We show our mates pictures of the fire and everyone says “miser rate” when they look at it; it’s pretty much a museum piece. The carpet in our room and the hall screams the worst (and not at all kitsch) 70s rented accommodation and we are almost daily blinded by the swirly patterns. The washing machine is in the cellar – I get totally spooked everytime I have to go down the dark, damp exceptionally steep steps. On the plus side though, the water is always hot, the wifi is strong and we really like the other lodger Carl who is not only a top bloke and great company, but a serious cook who is so generous with his food he ends up feeding Patrick a lot with meat delights.
Best of all though is the main front room …. not. This is really Fred’s domain, and wasn’t part of the shared house when we were showed round, but it is where the TV is. Fred had grown up in this house and this room looks to us like its not changed over the decades. 70s and 80s furniture is crowded in. There’s a TV cabinet with doors that don’t close or open properly, and the occasional modern thing like a floor lamp which will later play a part in this story when Fred tries to accuse me of breaking it – which I did not, and am still angry about! The orange or brown walls and furniture are covered with family photographs and to be honest if feels very shrine like. I occasionally go in on an evening to watch the TV but never feel comfortable, indeed I often feel spooked and scared. The family photo tributes are not just confined to the front room; in the hall there’s a large frame with pictures of Fred’s mum over the years, each picture lovingly dated.
Fred is very present. During the day he’s often there, generally fussing around, ostensibly decorating. He likes to talk and I think wants to engage in idle chatter. I find this hard. I am working really hard on a difficult funding bid and the work is challenging in itself. I am trying to develop other work options too. So from his perspective I must seem more than a little uncommunicative as I sit at the table, listening to the radio through my laptop, typing away. I just want to get on with my work. I never sit out on the balcony – the lock is at the top of the door and I can’t reach.
Fred goes round cleaning things up, putting things away. If I leave my coffee out of the fridge he asks me if he can put it away. The cafetiere gets washed out straight away after making a cuppa. He occasionally goes into our room when we aren’t in (decorating!) but we also suspect to check up on us. He also pops round seemingly for no reason, again I think to check up. I tell Pat I don’t think he can decide whether he is a landlord or it’s still his home, even though he doesn’t sleep there. I can’t help wondering whether he secretly thinks we should feel honoured to live in the house, not, as we do, fleeced by what we think is excessive rent.
I find sleep really hard most of the time – worrying about some of the the work I’m doing, getting woken up by the water pipes which seem to run across our bedroom ceiling just above our heads and clack and whoosh everytime Carl goes to the toilet at night. At night I spend many hours thinking about Annie.
I am cold so much of the time I put on the heating in the communal areas and in our room; Fred I’m pretty sure goes round turning off the radiators as I keep finding them off. I find myself struggling with feeling ill pretty much all the time and end up having to spend quite a few days in bed. One day I finally say I’m cold when he comes in and wants to turn off the fire in the living area where I’m working. Later that day when I go upstairs a picture frame which could not be further from our taste with a thermometer in it has just appeared on the dressing table in our room….. Neither of us feel like it’s our home. After a few weeks the escape committee doubles its membership from just me to two; even “Mr I’ll put up with anything that’s not too horrible if it means an extra hour in bed in the morning” has had enough.
Work, work, work…..
It’s not just the house we find a challenge, we are both finding work really hard to adapt to working again. We both learn to get up early but we both find it hard going and we are totally whacked out. I get totally stressed out about some work I’m doing, after a sleepless night sometimes waking up crying. But in time we settle in. I get used to the long commute for one of my other jobs and use it as a chance to catch up with TV downloads but find the very early, dark, cold starts a total pain in the arse. We know we can’t complain though. We both feel lucky to have work so quickly and after all this is just normal life …… better just get used to it! I start to get my head around the work I’m doing and it all starts to feel more comfortable.
But where are the changes?
But despite both of us being so grateful for having found work, things all feel very joyless during that time. I am desperate to move back to Leeds and I feel all the good intentions we had of using this as a chance to make the changes we want in life have just, very quickly, almost run away at turbo speed. I apply for some freelance contracts and daily monitor opportunities lists for potential jobs. I am angry and frustrated, much of my anger aimed at Patrick having, in my mind, ‘forced’ me to move to Saltaire and take work to pay what feels like exorbitant rent. I am working more than full time now on freelance work, not all of it even paid. I’m hardly getting any writing done and I can’t find time to meditate. My broadcasting skills are rusty and I don’t have time or space to get them back up to speed. I’ve worked even when ill and despite all of this we are totally skint and worried about finding our next rent payment. Fred has got too much and I now spend days when I’m working at home in our room, either trying to get warm under the duvet or just hiding in my room.
I sign back up to re-join the singing class I’ve been going to for years but after the first session I don’t manage to make it due to a job interview I don’t get and then ongoing sickness. We quickly start to lose contact with our friends in Leeds. Only one couple make it over from there to see us and I realise if I want to see people we have to go to Leeds. I feel all the terrible isolation, and to a certain extent the bitterness about this that I used to always feel living in Idle. After the session I had meeting publishing agents which I had to diet for, my eating starts to get seriously dysfunctional, swerving from almost starvation through to real bingeing. One day I will eat 3 chocolate bars and a bag of crisps before tea-time. I can count on one hand the number of bags of crisps I have eaten since my big diet about 5 years ago.
I shout at Patrick. “What was the last year all about if not a chance to do the things we want and take some more risks. If we can’t, in our current position, what hope does anyone else have? It’s like we have just settled back into our old life – except only the crap bits. At least before we had money.” We both fear that the arguments that were so much part of our lives before we went traveling will return.
Time to get back ont’radio……
When we first got back I was really pleased to get a few interview opportunities about the trip and also about managing weight. In the first few weeks I felt so optimistic that it would gather pace. I made proposals to the Guardian website for pieces about the trip, backpacking at our age, dealing with crisis etc. I contact Women’s Hour and other programmes, full of optimism. The story isn’t taken up.
Now as I’ve admitted before in this blog I never thought I would return to live permanently in the UK after the trip. My dream, that we would meet someone who would realise my Yorkshire accent – so current at the moment in the USA – would be exactly what they needed on their station. So the idea I would go back to volunteering at BCB was not something on my agenda. But I am nothing, if not fickle and the lure was too much. After the adrenalin of my first show I was asked to cover different shows here and there; after a couple of months I’d managed to blag a regular slow, jointly presenting one Drive Time show with a great broadcaster called Ash. It was great to be back.
It felt to me I was often a bit tongue-tied but I got back in the swing. Me and Pat decided that I would stop applying for lots more freelance work I didn’t really want as I was happy with my 2 days a week working for the Vicar – and that I would instead concentrate on broadcasting, doing as many shows as I could at BCB. I recorded some voice overs and set up a new voiceover page on my website.
And then the thing I have wanted for so long happened. On a visit to BBC Radio Leeds to do a contributor slot on a show, one of the producers asked me if I would be interested in doing some roving reporting on the weekend breakfast show. Would I? Do bears go in the woods and all that? Seeing my first BBC pay in my bank account was a great feeling. The good luck continued. I got offered a well paid speaking gig too and more reporting on the Breakfast Show. I was so glad that I had chosen to stay strong and concentrate on basically building up my future as a professional mouthpiece.
My second BBC session doesn’t exactly go to plan, reasons out of my control, but I know I have to be strong about how I deal with it or I worry I’ll lose my nerve. For once I actually take my own advice!!! The night before I’d given the speech to a school prize night where I said that often life doesn’t go our way, “but in a way that’s when we get tested about what kind of person are we.” I tell the students. And, repeatedly myself, over the next few days.
And now for the big question…..
And so we come to the big question which some of you may be asking.Anyone following this blog or who knows us that our attempts to become parents were at the heart of the difficulties that we had which led to our decision to go on this trip. We were, in fact, approved to adopt a few months before we decided to go, but we felt we were so bruised and raw from the approval process that we put it on hold. The arrangement was that we would contact our social worker as soon as we got back. When we would meet up with people upon our return the most common things said would be “I wont ask about your trip because I already know all about that”, swiftly followed by “And what’s happening with the adoption?”.
So a couple of weeks after we get back we phone our Social Worker. We are put through to her ansaphone without being told she is on holiday. We wait for her call which obviously doesn’t come. We finally make contact a few weeks later and she seems pleased to hear from us but can’t offer us an appointment for over a month.
So almost 2 months after we get back we meet with her. It’s all actually pretty easy and its really nice to see her. They still want us to go ahead and the new checks they will need do are pretty straight forward. The main thing is that we need to have some more stability in our lives. If we decide to rent a house then we need to have a long contract and we need to have some stability in our working lives. We talk seriously about Pat being the one to stay at home with me working part time if we go ahead. Again we leave it that we will get back to them when we have made decisions.
So we both sit heavy on the knowledge we have two massive decisions to make – where we will live and whether we do go ahead with the next stage in matching us with a child. My experience in Saltaire has just enforced how much I don’t want to go back to live in our house in Idle when the current rental agreement comes to an end; Pat does.
All roads lead to Leeds…..
Then out of the blue a new offer comes up – just as they have throughout this journey. Our lovely mates, Cal and Iona, and 3 of their kids, 2 of them just 3 and 5, have sold their house but not yet found their new one. They are going to look at a house in Leeds for rent for 6 months. Its big enough for us all, for us to even have our own living room. Maybe living with 2 small children we both love and adore would help us be clearer about the adoption decision. We grab it with both hands; a wonderful idea.
We go round Leeds collecting some of furniture we lent to people when we went travelling, including our lovely huge telly and our own bed and mattress. We buy a few things like bedside tables and lamps and we get some bits and bobs from other people to help out. We move in. It feels so exceptionally spacious to us – a whole sitting room of our own. We once again marvel at how wonderful our friends are and we feel very lucky.
And now, this is it…….
And so now here you find us; as Winter takes hold and we head into December, we kind of now have a routine. I have sorted out my dieting, lost a stone already and this morning could actually put some of the clothes in my wardrobe on, though I still have about another stone to go to get back to my pre last pregnancy weight. I’ve got what I feel is a ‘proper’ hairdo again and have even started to feel my usual funky. Pat has accepted the commute though he is still struggling with the early mornings and is quite liking his job, but not for ever I’m sure. We have spent more time with friends and family which has made us so happy.
Somethings, it feels, have come full circle. The house is great and I love the fact that its very near both where I grew up and also by the first house I owned with my first long term partner, David. Being with our mates and the wonderful children is also just so great; I adore hearing their little gentle tap on our living room door as they ask to come in. The other night I even put Borgen on hold to watch a magic show!! I am adoring our huge telly, especially now that I have managed to link it to my laptop and can watch everything on watch again on the big screen. I’ve also landed some more freelance work with my favourite organisation and with whom I started my career, Citizens Advice Bureau, back in Bradford (my professional stomping ground) and with lots of people I knew and worked with years ago. December will be busy but now I have a couple of days a week work after Christmas when my contract with the Vicar ends and there may be more with him then too. And best of all I have more BBC shows booked in the diary, and lots of time off over the festive season so I can be available at short notice if needed for any stand-ins. Here’s hoping….
I’m even nearly adapting to the cold…. 😛
In a few weeks I’ll be 45 (and me and Pat 90). Me and Patrick are stronger, so connected and more in love with each other than ever. But never, in my wildest dreams could I have predicted that at the age of 45 I’d be living in shared rented accommodation; fairly skint; grabbing bits of work here and there; absurdly happy to get a chance at a job which most people do when new and shiny and just out of university; still not a mum. We still have a couple of massive decisions to make about our future and everything is uncertain, but despite all this I’m feeling pretty optimistic and good about life, and wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened over the last year or so. Patrick feels a bit more uncertain and the best word in the English language (after ‘poo’) discombobulated.
I can’t help continually coming back to the wonderful phrase I’ve used in my presentations and trip descriptions: Jump And The Net Will Appear. We maybe back in the UK but we are still jumping…….
Coming very soon: The Year in Summary and our guide to backpacking for anyone over 30!!