1. York, Christmas 2004
We're in York here, sitting on Prog Rock's sofa, newly Prog Rock's, rather than my mum's. None of us, bar possibly Lashes, is looking our best, but that's hardly the point; we're smiling, soudés (welded, literally. United, I suppose). It was strange, I remember, the first time I spent any amount of time in York since the early weeks after my mother died a year before, the first Christmas we made any tentative attempt to celebrate. It's strange constructing new rituals, or deciding not to have any, when the heart of the old ones is gone. The decisions all seem peculiarly significant and pointless all at once. We flew across from Paris for the holidays, I remember Prog Rock collecting us from Leeds Bradford airport. We had a good time, I think, as good as we were capable of, anyway at such a wretched time in our lives. I had just turned 30, and if I remember correctly, at this point, we had already decided we were moving back to the UK, that we had to cut our losses in Paris and accept that it was not going to work. It had been a terrible year, and it was about to get worse, since in this picture I was in fact already pregnant, thought the nausea I was assailed with was just Christmas overindulgence. Six weeks later this was happening.
I love this picture.
Fingers is looking out of the cardboard rocket Violet and I bought at the V&A village fête, and that she then decorated one afternoon with the boys. The V&A fête was amazing, insane, hilarious. Violet won a Nintendo and we laughed and laughed all evening. Fingers looks absolutely angelic here, but if memory serves he was in fact absolutely kicking my ass at this age, having the most amazing temper tantrums. He would lurch tyranically into the kitchen when I was trying to make dinner - we were living in a truly lovely flat in Spitalfields, all open plan, on the top floor of a block on Spital Square - and bang his head against the cupboards until I gave him crackers, the whole thing taking place to a soundtrack of the endlessly repeated DVD "Here Comes A Digger", for earth moving equipment mad Lashes. I could still sing every word of the theme song for you.
I was sliding off the rails around this time, had stopped eating, was working like a maniac, consumed with a kind of vast, unfocussed anxiety. I find it quite hard to piece the chronology together, actually. I just went to look at the timing of the deal I was working on at the time, and I think this must have been some time in August. This makes me realise just how long things were bad; I have compressed this period in my mind, only remember clearly the strangeness of short winter days off work, going for therapy, reading Scandinavian thrillers in bed and drifting aimlessly around London drinking coffee until it was time to collect the boys from nursery. I was only finally signed off work sometime in late October or early November but I think I was already seeing the Special Lawyers Shrink ("you'll be worried about letting your clients down"; "you'll want to get back to office as soon as possible") in late August or early September.
I'm cooking my dinner as I write this - pasta and spinach béchamel and parmesan. Back then, I would no more have eaten pasta, or cheese, than I would have flown. Breakfast was coffee, lunch was miso soup, dinner stir fried vegetables and nothing else. I can dimly remember how it felt to be hungry all the time, how concave my chest was, the constant headaches, the odd certainty that every gramme I lost was going to come back eventually, that it could not continue, that I was sabotaging my own equilibrium. It was such a strange time; there was massive relief to be back in London, a new and wonderful love affair with Spitalfields and the East End generally, an unwinnable struggle to work full time in the City and look after two tiny children, and a series of aftershocks from the previous 18 months - mum's death, Fingers's birth, moving to Paris, living in Paris, an abortion, moving back to London. So many decisions in such a short space of time. The not eating was a sort of 'fuck you' to responsibility, to adulthood. I always knew it was temporary, partial, that there are responsibilities that you can't, and never actually want to, run away from. But I do remember what a struggle that whole period was, so it's odd to have such a joyful photograph of it. Violet was wonderful, amazing. The beautiful pompom rocket was a typical Violet gesture.
This is the missing photo from my series of front door school shots, the very first one, before we painted the door blue, first day at the Gulag, and what a voyage of discovery that would prove to be. We had been in Brussels for about six weeks at this point, Fingers was two and a half, Lashes four. Looking at this picture, they look terribly little to go to school; they were. I look pretty happy; I was. I'm wearing a bracelet I lost weeks later, very sadly, a beautiful diamond bracelet the CFO bought me. I should never wear jewellery. I'm looking quite good, I had put on weight. It was a pretty hopeful time, a summer and an autumn of possibility. I loved our new house, new neighbourhood, and we were discovering it all together. It felt like a good decision. I still think it was, on balance, though I do wonder how we would have fared if we had stayed in London.
I think a lot of our family mythology comes from this period; first 'proper' Christmases, the time-we-went-to-the-circus-and-it-snowed, the short, but rich life of Julius and his unfortunate demise, driving to the middle of Flanders, and coming back with 4 baby tortoises, trips to the miniature steam railway, sitting in the Parc du Caca in the summer. We're still in the process of working out how you preserve the mythology, recreate, change the rituals now our family lives in two houses. It's like that Christmas 2004 all over again, and we're stumbling towards a new normal. I struggle with it, want my children to have the kind of comfort and certainty that we all project on childhood. I fret that my house isn't homely, have done for years. But I think that now, finally, I know that you can't force that sense of safety, of belonging. You can't jolly it into existence, and actually, you don't need to. So this year, my children won't open their Christmas stockings on the end of my bed; they're diving in Egypt for Halloween. But so what? The essential stuff, the kindess and constancy and the trust, the knowledge they are loved, is there. It's always there, in fact, always changing, but always there. Family is a hardy beast. The rituals are, what? Window dressing, or perhaps metaphor. It's nice to realise I have learned something in the past 6 years.