Paradise Regained

My school days were definitely not the happiest of my life, but my time at university may well be a contender for that position. I read English at Merton College, which is the oldest and (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful colleges of Oxford University. What was there not to love? I met my now husband in Fresher’s Week, we fell deeply and pretty much instantaneously in love and we have been a couple ever since. I also formed some of my closest and most enduring friendships. My ‘job’ was to read, and my workplace was a series of beautiful medieval quadrangles and libraries. And it’s not that I look back now and realise how lucky I was; I knew it at the time. Every single day I realised how blessed I was to have been given the opportunity.merton-college

When I left Oxford it felt like a bereavement. The culture shock of exchanging my 13th century room and days spent in the Bodleian Library studying Chaucer for a 1970s flat in Birmingham and a junior management job in a hospital in West Bromwich was fairly severe. Add that to my close-knit friendship group being scattered around the country, and the usual learning curve of living completely independently with all the food shopping, bill paying and house cleaning which that entails and it isn’t hard to see why I look back at that period of my life as a fairly difficult one.

During my early twenties I visited Oxford fairly frequently – first of all there were friends either taking four year degrees or doing post-graduate work, and then my brother, four years younger than me, also studied there. I went to see the people I cared about, but also because I couldn’t resist; it was basically the psychological equivalent of picking at a scab. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable; always feeling far more bitter than bittersweet. Eventually our visits tailed off as the people I knew also graduated and were debarred from this particular Eden.

Of course, time heals everything, and it certainly cured, in large part, my deep sense of nostalgic regret. I became far more accustomed to the ‘real’ world, my jobs grew progressively more interesting, I made new friendships while realising that distance didn’t have to mean the end of the old ones, and in due course I had all the excitement of buying and furnishing my first house. By the time my daughter was born I had pretty much entirely ceased to mourn Oxford, and there was now a new contender for the position of happiest period in my life. Carrying my baby for nine months, giving birth to her, and being there day by day as she grew is far and away the most intense joy I have ever known. Unlike my time at university, though, it is far from being carefree because it is tempered by equally intense panic and fear – is the baby still moving, breathing, is she feeding enough, why is she coughing like that, is this normal, am I getting it right? I certainly haven’t had time either to visit Oxford or indulge myself in philosophical reflections on the nature of temps perdu. 

Until this weekend. This year, Merton celebrates its 750th anniversary, and as part of the celebrations to mark it, the college hosted a weekend of dinners, brunches, lectures and a family garden party. My mother-in-law generously agreed to babysit Anna on Friday and Saturday nights before bringing her up to Oxford on Sunday for the garden party, so my husband and I were footloose and fancy-free. I almost wasn’t looking forward to it. The closer we come to the arrival of our second child, the more intense is my desire to make the most of this last period as a family of three, and to relish every moment with my precious girl while she is my precious only child. I know (or hope I know) three becoming four will be wonderful in all sorts of ways, and Anna is incredibly excited about her new role as big sister, but our family dynamic will undoubtedly change, and so I want to appreciate what we have now before it does. Clearly accepting change is something I still need to work on…

However, once we were there, walking down the streets which are still so heartbreakingly familiar I was so glad we’d gone. So glad to have the chance to remember who I was before I was Mummy, and for us to remember how we were as a couple before we were parents. We firmly eschewed the lectures. As my husband said, we spent three years avoiding them as much as possible when they were free, it seems ridiculous to start paying for them now. Instead we wandered the streets and the water meadows, browsed endlessly in Blackwell’s, ate enormous quantities of cake and had dinner with a good friend from undergraduate days who is now studying for his PhD.

I went to a beautiful service in the college chapel, giving thanks for 750 years of communal learning and intellectual endeavour. I defy anyone not to feel a thrill as the original, handwritten statute, so many hundreds of years old, endowing the college was displayed and read out. And I couldn’t help but feel proud to have been a tiny part of that continuity of the “House of the Scholars of Merton”. Even though I didn’t go to many lectures.

The formal and  traditional service with its readings from the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and, for light relief, a little T S Eliot, was in sharp contrast to the cheerful mayhem of the next day’s garden party, but it was equally lovely to catch up with many more friends, a lot of them now with their own children, whilst watching Anna scamper around on the Fellows Garden lawn; my past and present coming seamlessly together.

Which is probably in summary what I’ve gained from this weekend. For half the time since leaving Oxford I couldn’t think of it without a sickening thump of regret, the other half I didn’t think of it at all because I was too busy living in the present. Now I feel I can reflect on my time at Oxford happily, as a crucial part of what made me who I am today, and be glad that although I am more than content in my current roles as mother, mother-to-be, wife, writer, unpaid housekeeper and cook, there is a still a place which is a tranquil and tangible reminder that I am also Helen, and that my new identities don’t extinguish my old one.

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That was the summer

It’s been a long time since my last blog, and the summer holiday has passed in a whirl with barely a chance to catch my breath, let alone do any writing. It was Anna’s first day back at school this morning, and walking through the gates it felt as though the last six weeks hadn’t happened. It definitely did, though, and has been an incredibly busy time.

We travelled to seven different European countries by train (France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, Spain), in a crazy, action-packed, fun-filled sixteen days which encompassed learning (and then rapidly forgetting) how to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you in five different languages, eating schnitzel, strudel, goulash, sheeps cheese filled dumplings, mussels, pizza, spaghetti, paella, salt cod croquettes, tortilla, custard filled croissants, sea snails and a LOT of gelato, swimming in the sea, exploring Roman remains and a mountain top theme park, Venetian calle and Spanish ramblas, and journeys by high speed train, sleeper train, metro, coach, bus, taxi, boat, gondola, tram, funicular railway, trolley bus and aeroplane. We were variously attacked by vicious mosquitos, over-active automatic doors and poisonous seaweed. We watched the sun set over the river Danube, took a boat the length of the Grand Canal and ate tapas in candlelit Spanish squares. It was utterly magical, and we created a lot of very happy family memories.

There were lots of adventures back in the UK too, with trips to Liverpool, New Brighton, Speke Hall, Chester Zoo, the Museum of Childhood, innumerable playgrounds, and the Festival of Love on the South Bank. Anna completed the Magical Maze summer reading challenge at our local library and a week’s crash course of swimming lessons, baked a chocolate hedgehog cake, picked and ate vegetables from Grandad’s garden, and built a zoo’s worth of Lego animals with Uncle Matt. We had playdates with friends (ours and Anna’s!), I met my oldest friend’s gorgeous new baby boy and we said goodbye to my cousins-in-law who moved to the US a few weeks ago. We went to our twenty week scan together and Anna had her first, rather grainy, view of her new sibling. Lest all this sound too blissful, we also had no less than six increasingly fractious trips to different shoe shops in what seemed like a doomed attempt to find school shoes which fitted Anna’s feet and both mine and Anna’s practical and aesthetic requirements. After all that, the weather is so nice today that she has gone back to school in slightly-too-small sandals! There were also a few sessions with the nit comb and then a trepidatious visit to the hairdressers where, thankfully, we were declared nit-free and Anna had a hair cut which should hopefully enable her to actually be able to see her new teacher today.

So now I’ve got that back to school feeling. We waved Anna off in the playground – she and all her classmates seeming to have grown several inches over the summer – and although I’ve been looking forward to school starting and a little time to myself, I’m now counting the minutes until 3.10pm when I can find out how her first day in Year One went. 

If all continues to go well with my pregnancy (twenty-four weeks, five days and counting!) then I have a window of a little over three months to get our lives sorted out. In no particular order I have to: edit my short story, write the first draft of my third novel, get our old baby stuff down out of the loft, discover it’s been attacked by mice and/or moths and replace half of it, transform the spare room into a nursery, start taking some kind of pregnancy-friendly exercise, stock the freezer with wholesome meals to minimise our reliance on takeaways come January and make sure all our preparations for Christmas completed by the end of November so that I’m not trying to wrap presents while breastfeeding a newborn. Oh yes, and try and stock up on the naps and early nights which will soon be in short supply, whilst also spending lots of quality time with Anna in her last few months as an only child. Which all sounds perfectly do-able. Happy September everyone!