It’s only life

“I’m sorry,” says the HR Manager from our parent company who’s been parachuted in to make precisely one quarter of us redundant. I stare at her wordlessly. I can’t believe this is happening; I love my job, I love my team, I love the world of publishing that took me six long months to claw my way into in the first place. I have rent to pay. She pushes a letter across the table to me, and finally the tears come.

“Something will turn up,” my dad says when I call him later that day. “Life has a funny old way of working itself out for the best.”

And less than a week later I’ve secured myself a job at a start-up publishing house, working for someone who turns out to be not only a truly inspirational boss, but who in time also becomes a trusted mentor and friend. I learn a terrifying amount from him in a short space of time, about book design and editing and publicity and scheduling, about 90s indie bands and cricket and world politics and what behaviour I shouldn’t put up with from my boyfriend. When I decide to leave the publishing industry altogether, eighteen months later, it’s Mark who suggests I try Communications as a career path, it’s Mark who coaches me before my interview, and it’s Mark who buys me my first celebratory glass of wine when Anthony Nolan call me to offer me a job as Communications Officer.

Six months in, our director advertises internally for a PA. Our receptionist Robin applies and we all cross our fingers; everyone loves Robin. But he doesn’t get it; our director chooses the Australian girl in our HR team, who none of us know. “I can’t believe you didn’t get the job! They’ve made such a mistake,” I tell Robin when we’re in the pub later that week. But a month later Caroline starts, and a month after that Caroline and I are completely inseparable, and two years after that, I go to stay with her in Australia for a holiday.

It turns out that I’m good at my job; I earn two promotions and three pay rises in quick succession. I start a relationship with a colleague, which drags on for the best part of three years and which ends so painfully that I feel I have no option but to leave. “I have to look at this as an opportunity or I’ll go under,” I tell Jaxx one night a few weeks later, as we drink gin after gin and I try to explain why I’ve decided to move to Australia. “Caroline’s out there, there are always Comms jobs available…and if I don’t like it, I can always come home.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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I was scared of dentists, and the dark

A boy takes a girl out for a drink. In an anonymous pub in Camden, they sip their pints and stare shyly at each other, and think, “I like you.”

10,000 miles away, I wake up to a new day in Australia, three days into a three week holiday. I snooze my alarm, read a little, shower, have a leisurely breakfast. I have no idea that my life has just changed forever.

***

The details don’t matter, but suffice to say there was heartbreak. There were tears and wine and pizza and more tears and blinding hangovers and long exhausting phone calls and waking up every morning not knowing how I was going to get up and face the day. And in the middle of all of that, there was a new start.

I was exhausted when I landed in Sydney, worn out from a 24 hour flight and four months of putting on a brave face. My heart ached for everything I’d lost and how much I was leaving behind. There was no plan, really.

***

Here in the sunshine, I heal. I go for long dinners by myself. I read ferociously. I remember that I have opinions of my own, and that they’re as valid as anyone else’s. I interview for a job I want, and they ring me five minutes after I leave their office to tell me it’s mine. I move in with strangers, and they become my friends. I take our dog for long rambling walks every morning before work. I sweat in the heat, and every day my skin turns a little darker. I sleep better, for longer. There are no more nightmares. There are no more tears.

***

Ask me about this year and I’ll tell you about watching my tan lines deepen, about drinking ciders in the sunshine, about driving through sun-dappled back streets in my housemate’s car. I’ll tell you about waiting for the bus in the early morning sunshine, the look on our dog’s face when you catch him upstairs, the smell of burgers cooking in our back yard.

I’ll tell you about the feel of sun-warmed sand on my feet, about beating hangovers with a swim in the ocean, about a Christmas party held in the blazing sunshine. I’ll tell you about the moment my boss tells me that they’d like to sponsor me, about making plans for next Christmas and knowing I’ll still be here.

I’ll tell you about the Sunday night Skype dates, running through Central station at rush hour, walking home with bare legs and no coat, about crossing the Harbour Bridge at 6am and seeing the sun rise over the Opera House. I’ll tell you about the road trips, the boat trips, the moment you meet someone and something clicks inside you and you can see in their eyes that they’ve felt it too.

I’ll tell you that I’ve remembered who I am, where for a long time I’d forgotten; that I know what I’m capable of, where before I wasn’t sure. And I’ll tell you how happy I am, how peaceful – but you’ll already know, because it’s there in the curve of my smile, the pitch of my laugh and the light in my dancing, sparkling eyes.

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Fortune, people talking all about fortune

Facebook chat, five days ago

“Why haven’t you blogged about Australia?”

“Because I’m scared that if I write about how ridiculously happy I am, I’ll jinx it.”

“Don’t be paranoid! What’s it like?”

“Sunny when I wake up.”

“And…?”

“Warm when I walk home in the evenings.”

“Fine, don’t tell me then!”

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I can’t stop bloody smiling.”

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Chances, people tell you not to take chances

The house hunt starts in Bondi, where I’m temporarily living. The thought of being five minutes away from the beach appeals to me: “You could learn to surf,” I think. “Be one of those people who get up early to hit the water before work. Have long, wavy, sun-streaked hair. Say ‘gnarly’ a lot. Do other stuff that surfers do.”

The first viewing isn’t a success. “If you’re 45, that’s definitely the kind of thing you should disclose in your advert,” I hiss to Caroline as we make a hasty exit. “More importantly,” she replies, “did you see the massive pitchfork he had lying in the hall?”

The weather gets progressively worse over the next few days; grey and wet and cold. Bondi doesn’t suit the rain; the streets are deserted as plastic awnings flap wildly in the wind and the grey water crashes furiously onto the rocks. It reminds me of a bleak Southend seafront in mid-December; I can’t live here, I think.

Tuesday dawns; another grey sky and a day of job-hunting await. I have two house viewings later this evening, both in Paddington, both found by Caroline and both, conveniently, a five minute walk from her house.

“Today is not a good day,” I email Caroline a few hours later, with a rant about CVs and recruitment agents and typing on an iPad. “Fingers crossed that one of the house viewings works out, because otherwise I’m quite tempted to get on a plane home.”

In a bid to improve my mood, I leave the library and wander along Oxford Street to Paddington. I’ve still got an hour to kill so I sit in a pub on the corner, read my book, drink a glass of wine, devour a chicken salad. On the dot of half past seven, I’m standing outside XX Hopewell Street, pressing the doorbell.

“Hi, I’m Simon,” says the guy who answers. “And this is my girlfriend Hannah. Charlie, our other housemate, isn’t home at the moment, but he’s basically the same as me.” And with that he shows me around the house, a gorgeous terrace with high ceilings and a small patio that catches the sun in the mornings. The kitchen is new, the bathroom clean, the spare room small but bright.

After the tour, we lounge on the sofa and chat, and I already feel at home. “Do you want a cider?” shouts Simon from the kitchen. “Nah, I’m good,” I say. “I’ve got another viewing so I better head off. I’ll let you know later this evening if that’s okay?”

But of course there’s no contest, and half an hour later I text Simon to tell him that I’d like to move in. Two days later, I do.

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Life will be the death of me

My room is a cheap hotel cliche. A small double bed in the corner, which falls apart the first time I lie down; the fan is attached to the ceiling with brown tape; a garden table sits under a cracked window pane; the fridge hums loudly in the corner, sounding for all the world like it might suddenly take off. A blackened smoke alarm on the the ceiling, next to an unidentified box that flashes green and red throughout the night, while an ominous cobweb dangles in the corner. The bedside table sits on the opposite wall to the bed; it holds a lamp that sparks when I switch it on, and a bumper can of insect killer. “That’s for the huntsmen,” says my host, Ryan.

“Right,” I reply. “And is it likely I’ll see one while I’m here? Only…I’m not so good with spiders.”

“I always find they come out right after I’ve had a bottle or two of wine!” laughs Sarah, his partner, leaving me none the wiser.

When they leave, I shower. The water is either scalding hot or freezing cold, with seemingly no inbetween; when I finally get it to stay a reasonable temperature, it slows down to a weak dribble. In my room, I dry off to the sounds of the airport motorway outside and the guest next door spraying his deodorant. “Thin walls,” I think idly. “Better make sure that Spotify playlist’s up to scratch.” Naturally, when I turn on my iPod, Phil Collins blares out.

Later that evening, I end up in a tiny pizzeria down a side street, devouring what may be the best marguerita I’ve ever eaten and sipping a glass of ice-cold rose. I lose myself in my book as I eat, and when I’m finally finished, I’m surprised to see that two hours have skipped by. I ask for the bill and head home, pulling my cardigan against me to ward off the sudden chill in the air. When I get back to the room, I enter cautiously, checking each corner carefully for a waiting spider.

What with the motorway, and the fridge, and the fact that the curtains may as well be see-through, I don’t get much sleep, but I wake up full of excitement – my first full day as a Sydney resident! The sun glares down over the city as I discuss my CV and possible jobs with a recruitment agent, sort out my Australian bank account and apply for my tax file number. Efficient, I think. Getting into the swing of things already. Later, I meet Caroline for too many drinks, a bucket-full of chips, and a long overdue catch up. “This is great,” I say to Caroline just after midnight. “Love Australia. Looooove iiiiiiit.”

But I don’t sleep well that night either, and I feel out-of-sorts and unsettled come the morning. I take myself off to the park, then the harbour, then the cinema, and once I’ve walked home I’m feeling better. “Have an early night tonight,” I think to myself, “and then a busy day job-hunting tomorrow. You’ll be fine.”

But this time there’s the motorway and the fridge and upstairs’ creaky floorboards and rain lashing my broken window and roadworks, and while I’m puzzling over who would let roadworks take place in the middle of the night, I look at my phone; it’s 7.15am and I still haven’t slept. As I watch the grey morning break over Sydney, feeling as if the bags under my eyes have been carved into my face, my mind whirs, worrying about money, flats, jobs, and money again; wondering if I’ve really done the right thing.

And then I think of Nora Ephron’s admonition to “be the heroine of your life, not the victim”. I remember that I’m not the first person to move to Australia and I won’t be the last. That this is, after all, what I signed up for. That once one thing falls into place, the rest will follow. That I can always buy some ear plugs. And I remember the good luck card I received from my Grandma the day I flew, telling me how envious she was of my trip; how she and Grandpa always wanted to go to Canada but never made it; how she hates being old, because she’ll never set off on an adventure again; and how homesickness is just that – a natural emotion to be accepted, not a sign that I’ve made a dreadful mistake.

Of course you’ll be fine, I think. Grow up; stop being silly and melodramatic. So I haul myself out of bed, shower, and head to the little cafe down the road, where they already know my name and my order and they greet me with a huge smile every time I walk in. And after bacon and eggs and fresh orange juice, I wander out to explore some more of the city that is now my home, while the sunshine dances through the trees and music plays somewhere in the distance.

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Send me on my way

Moving country is six different spreadsheets, logging everything from your finances to the clothes you’re taking, storing, dumping. It’s crossing something off your to-do list and feeling smug, before adding eight more items and feeling instantly overwhelmed.

It’s getting quotes for gas safety certificates; it’s arranging landlord insurance; it’s applying for an Australian bank account; it’s finally sorting out the lights in the second bedroom; it’s sitting on your floor on a Saturday afternoon carefully unscrewing your tall freestanding lamp to replace the bulb. It’s realising that you’re better at DIY than you thought.

It’s cancelling your direct debits; it’s buying new suitcases; it’s telling your Dad that you’ll only have four boxes to take home and then calling him straight back to triple it. It’s staring at your bookshelves crammed full of books and realising, sadly, that they all have to go to the charity shop. Not the hardbacks, you think. The hardbacks stay.

It’s taking two bottles of champagne to your friend’s for dinner, because it needs drinking; it’s giving your friends free rein in your wardrobe, because you’ve been holding onto clothes and bags and shoes for a “just in case” that hasn’t come. It’s waking up in the middle of the night worrying about running out of money; it’s doing the sums once, twice, three times; it’s the sense of relief when your managing agents email to say that they owe you a £300 refund. “Googling fridge freezers. YOLO,” you tweet.

It’s the cold clutch of fear when someone says, “Isn’t it really hard to get a job in Australia?”; it’s the sudden knot of terror that you won’t find a job, or a flat, or make any friends AND OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING? It’s saying, “Let’s face it, if it doesn’t work out, I can always come home,” but hoping against all hope that things go your way. You don’t want to come home after six weeks.

It’s lying on your best friend’s sofa on a wet Friday evening, warm, slightly drunk, a bit sleepy, completely content. “Leaving my friends behind is the worst thing,” you tweet later that night, too many drinks later, and in the morning you delete it, because you have to focus on the positives or you know you’ll never leave.

It’s realising that your friends fall into one of two groups: those who say, “Oh my god, that’s so exciting! You’ll have the best time!” and those who say, “Good on you. You’re brave – I certainly couldn’t do it.” Of course you could, you think – all you have to do is get on a plane.

It’s preparing yourself for the amount of time you’ll spend alone by spending more time by yourself than you’ve ever done before, and realising that even as someone who naturally gravitates towards people, you enjoy your own company just as much. It’s tying up your loose ends, making up with a ex when you can’t remember why you ever fell out, arranging farewell drinks with a friend who was once something more.

It’s watching your tan lines fade, and realising that in four weeks’ time, they’ll be back and more prominent than ever. It’s feeling your forehead prickle with sweat on the train to work, and thinking, “Better get used to this…” It’s the thought of escaping to the beach every weekend, to bask in the sunshine like a small English lizard. It’s the realisation that it’s not four weeks, it’s three and a half.

It’s the smile you can’t get rid of, it’s the stupid tune you’re constantly humming, it’s the light in your eyes and your endless good mood and letting things wash over you where once they would have upset you. It’s browsing Australian job sites and thinking, “I could do that! Or that! Or that!”; it’s booking your first week’s accommodation and leaving the rest up to chance; it’s the excitement of not knowing where you’ll end up or what you’ll be doing. It’s the prospect of saying goodbye to your friends and family and colleagues, and knowing you’ll cry but hoping you don’t.

But most of all, it’s the thought of the moment when you step off the plane in Sydney, 36 hours after you wound your way down the Piccadilly line to Heathrow. You’re tired, your clothes are crumpled, you need to brush your teeth. You switch on your phone and text your parents to say that you’ve landed safely as you wait for passport control, where the passport official winks at you and tells you, in the lazy Australian accent that makes your heart sing, to have a great day. Baggage reclaim, where you heft your bag onto your shoulders, and then you’re in Arrivals, surrounded by families and handwritten signs and people hugging in delight. You stand for a second, taking it all in. And then you take a deep breath, shift your bag a little higher on your shoulders and you head outside, blinking in the early morning sunshine. It’s begun.

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Go on, go on, your choice is made

Friday 26th April

You cry when you hug Caroline goodbye. You cry during the twenty minute cab ride to the airport, you cry while you check in, you cry after you clear security and G buys you a bottle of water. “I don’t want to leave Australia,” you sob, and G looks on helplessly, holding your boarding passes and passports.

Thursday 25th April

Today is Anzac Day. Caroline hands you a bacon and egg sandwich and an ice cold cider at 10am, and an hour later seven of you squeeze into a cab and head to a pub garden in the suburbs packed full of locals playing Two-up. Bets ring through the humid air: “Ten bucks on heads? Anyone got ten bucks?” Everyone cheers each time the coins thunder down, and you cheer too, standing on your tip toes to see over people’s heads. At first you’re too shy to place a bet and ask G to do it for you; later, you’re down thirty bucks, waving your money in the air and screaming along with the crowd.

Later, when you’re drunk and your cheeks are sunburnt and it feels like you’ve been in the pub forever, you and G devour a hotdog before heading back to the bar for some more cider. Even when the sun starts to drop, it stays warm; you push your hair up into a messy pony tail to get it off your neck. Around you, people drink and flirt and start betting 50 bucks a go.

Before you know it, it’s 10pm and you’re all in a cab heading back into central Sydney, to the bar where Stef works. You neck vodka redbulls, egg each other on to do a shot, and another one, and another one. “I don’t want to leave!” you shout to Chris above the music. “Don’t then. Change your flights,” he replies.

You drink and dance and chat to strangers like they’re your best friends, and then you glance at your watch and realise that it’s 1am and your cab’s coming in an hour. Sixty minutes later, you’re standing on Caroline’s doorstep, suitcase at your feet. You’re still dressed in the clothes you’ve been wearing all day, your make up’s smudged from 15 hours of drinking and dancing, and you can feel the sweat on your back start to cool. You gather Caroline into a tight hug as the cab driver beeps impatiently, and that’s when you start to cry.

Saturday 27th April

You arrive back at Gatwick on Saturday morning; the skies are as grey as your mood. You wake up at 4am every morning during that first week back, and you lie in the dark watching the dawn break over another day, wondering what you’d be doing if you were still in Sydney.

You go back to work, you see your friends and family, you start running again. The sky stays grey, and you cover up your tan with 100 denier tights.

Tuesday 21st May

A couple of weeks later, you read the following:

Let me tell what Nietzsche said in his book. He said that there is no after-life in the normal, religious sense – no heaven, no hell, no purgatory. But there isn’t “nothing” either. Instead, after we die, things simply start again from scratch. We live our whole life again, exactly as it was, nothing changing from birth to death. And then the same thing happens again and again and again, on and on for ever… if true, is this a pleasant idea? If you had to relive your life exactly as it was – same successes and failures, same happiness, same miseries, same mixture of comedy and tragedy – would you want to? Was it worth it? - The Universe Versus Alex Woods

And then it hits you: you love your family, your friends, your flat, your job. You love playing netball on Wednesdays, you love that first gin on a Friday evening, you love your friends popping in unannounced because they only live round the corner. You love drinks in the Duke and dinner in the Crown, you love lazy weekend lunches in the Eagle and wasting entire Sundays in the New Rose. But you can see yourself doing exactly the same thing in twelve months’ time, and twelve months after that, and suddenly you yearn for something you didn’t know you were missing; a sense of adventure, of freedom, of setting out not knowing what lies ahead. And that’s when you decide.

Thursday 20th June

One Thursday evening a few weeks’ later, you have dinner with your family in a restaurant high above the bustle of Spitalfields. You talk about your younger brother’s new job, your elder brother’s decision to move out of London with his girlfriend, your youngest brother’s trip to volunteer in Tanzania. And then: “I think I might move to Australia for a year,” you say. “Do a bit of travelling, work for six months…”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” says your mother, taking another sip of wine.

“We’ll come over for the Ashes!” Hen adds.

And that’s that.

Friday 21st June

On Friday, you tell some friends; on Saturday, you tell a few more, on Sunday, you apply for your Working Holiday visa and an hour later, it comes through. On Monday, you do some sums on the back of an envelope, and on Tuesday, you hand in your notice.

“What happens if it doesn’t work out?” asks Jaxx.

“I come home,” you reply. “But better to have given it a go than not.”

And then you’re crying and laughing and hugging because, four months after you landed, you’re heading back to Sydney, back to the beaches, the smell of the ocean and the gleam of the Harbour Bridge in the midday sun.

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