The screams were so blood-curdling that no-one in the waiting room could have failed to wonder what horrors lay beyond the closed surgery door. Inside the room, I was doing my best to coax my nine-year-old daughter Lily into having her travel injections.
I explained that with the places we were planning to go, it was crucial that we were protected against typhoid and yellow fever because they were pretty deadly diseases and, I tried to remain breezy as I watched the nurse inch forward out of the corner of my eye, it was really important that she had the rabies jab just in case she got, you know, scratched by a monkey.
It was perhaps not the most reassuring thing to say and, as Lily’s hands clasped defensively around her spindly arms, she wailed loudly to be sure that everyone in the GP’s surgery fully understood the strength of her feelings, “But I don’t want to be SCRATCHED BY MONKEYS!” she protested. It was a fair point and not for the first time my confidence in ‘the big plan’ began to ebb away.
What had I been thinking? Why did I think taking a child out of school to go backpacking around Latin America was a good idea? And not just any child, my daughter – a girl who fizzes with raw energy and is as opinionated as I am.
My daughter, Lily, captured by Juliet McKee
It took a further hour of histrionics to get the first needle – an epic parenting fail – if we couldn’t even get through an appointment at the travel clinic without a monstrous tantrum how on earth would I fare halfway across the globe with her? I had to remind myself why this trip was worth the risk, Lily would learn lessons that couldn’t be taught in a classroom, she could become fluent in Spanish, we would be able to visit volcanoes and chocolate farms, see exotic animals in their natural habitat – but more than all of this, we would be able to spend this precious time together free of the demands of work and school.
It is a huge cliché but the moment you become a mother, other parents look wistfully at your newborn and tell you to appreciate each moment as it goes so fast. This is, of course, virtually impossible to do when you are lost in the blizzard of everyday life and now, with my baby almost in double digits, I know how it feels to glimpse a childhood slip away unable to stop its progress whilst you finish your mortgage application, tax return and the myriad of other tedious tasks that suck up your adult time. When I say ‘childhood’, I am of course referring to the golden years before your child becomes a teenager and more often than not decides that you are the most embarrassing person on the planet. This time is fast approaching for me – I feel as if I am in the last chance saloon of parenting with only a couple of years between me and the cold shoulder of the teenage girl. This trip then is something of an attempt to cling on to a year of the mothering time I have left although as I leave the doctors surgery in a state of post-tantrum trauma quite frankly, I wonder why I am bothering.
A kind of grieving
To be honest, the decision to go travelling with Lily has also emerged out of a fog of grief and a compulsion to get out of London rather than from a burning desire to visit anywhere in particular. To say it has been a difficult year would be an understatement, for me it has just been the worst. In January, I was made redundant from the BBC along with swathes of other production people in a process that had dragged on miserably for months.
It was a death of a thousand paper cuts that sucked the very life blood out of me and – as a single mother – took away all of my financial security. Alongside this, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know what that meant immediately (or what a pancreas even did) but soon discovered that pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of all cancers and that 74% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis.
There was no escaping those terrifying statistics but, despite the odds, my dad had rounds of chemo and opted for a major operation to remove the tumour. There seemed to be a glimmer of hope but when the surgeon opened him up he discovered the procedure was too risky to perform and so there was nothing left that anybody could do for dad except try to navigate as peaceful a path as possible to the end of his life.
Friends forever – Ruby, Cissie and Jade at Lily’s leaving party
Dad was a bon viveur whose anecdotes always seemed to revolve around eating – the pleasure of a fish supper on his camping trip to Spain or the gourmet delights of the buffet breakfast on his all-inclusive Caribbean holiday. My visits to him and his wife were always firmly centred around a boozy lunch or dinner but, distressingly, the disease robbed him of his ability to eat more than a mouthful of food taking away his primary pleasure and eroding his very life force. After a period of deterioration, he was admitted to a geriatric cancer ward – a place that both dad and I found hugely upsetting – populated by elderly men in nappies, dribbling their food, unable to swallow.
These were men from commuter belt Surrey who would have been bank managers and city workers in their time, all reduced to adult babies being cared for by a truly heroic crew of immigrant nurses. It was distressing to see how these men were ending their days and during visits to the ward, there was also no escaping thoughts of one’s own mortality.
We did manage to get dad out of hospital and home for Christmas but he was so emaciated that I found him frightening to look at as ,with each passing week, I could see his skull defined more clearly than his face. I didn’t know how a person could be so thin and still be alive – it was overwhelming to see my parent in such a desperate state with the thread between life and death so palpable. Dad somehow managed to remain dignified and upbeat in the face of such a brutal disease – even when opening his eyes took a monumental effort, he managed to gather the strength to shake the visiting doctor’s hand and I was so proud of him for showing that strength of character. In truth though, our relationship had always been incredibly troubled and in the last few weeks of his life, powerful and contradictory emotions bubbled to the surface which I found difficult to deal with.
I loved my dad but it is fair to say that he wouldn’t have won any parenting awards. He walked out on our family when I was a teenager after a long-term affair that had gone on for much of my childhood. The morning of his departure coincided with my English O’level, but so disengaged was he with family life by then that he had no idea I was in the middle of my exams.
Lily and her friend Jessica
As he was nearing the end of his life I didn’t feel ready to rake over the anger I still felt towards him, the sorrow that he had not been there for me when I needed him most and the sadness that our relationship would never be what I’d wanted it to be, so when I was offered a job producing a major new TV drama I grabbed it with both hands.
Tired of London, not tired of life
I knew the freelance project would be all consuming but was grateful for the opportunity to throw myself into work and avoid the more disconcerting emotions I was experiencing. Work has always been my salvation – I’d become a single mother when Lily was a tiny baby but (with the help of a wonderful nanny) had managed not only to keep my career going, but to produce a BAFTA-winning drama whilst she was still less than a year old.
However, in keeping with the trajectory of this year, my new freelance project came to an abrupt and ugly end just a few weeks after my dad’s death and succeeded in ripping away the last of my emotional defences. For the first time since I’d become a mother I abandoned my post, took to my bed and left my nephew (also my au pair) to deal with my daughter.
Lily at her leaving party with her friend Astou
Not only did I feel body-slammed on a personal level by all that life was throwing at me, but around me the wider world also seemed to be going very badly wrong. At the Ariane Grande concert in Manchester beautiful young girls, the same age as Lily, were targeted by a nail bomber. Shortly afterwards came the Borough Market attack just a mile from my home and there was hardly time to draw breath after these atrocities before fire engulfed the Grenfell Tower.
Along with the rest of the nation, I felt shaken to the core by these events and a deep sadness for the people caught up in them. There was no comfort on offer from our political leader and seemingly no solution to the terror attacks. Contrary to the popular message of ‘keep calm and carry on’ I simply felt defeated.
The Grenfell fire felt like the inevitable consequence of a society that places profit over people – a flaming beacon of injustice illuminating everything that is wrong with London right now and it is not an exaggeration to say that it made me feel repelled by my own country. My thoughts turned to making my own personal Brexit and it wasn’t long before leaving the country seemed like the only solution to what I was feeling.
A rainbow at the airport as we head off on our adventure
In search of sunshine
And so, I am going – I have sold my car and my furniture, rented out my flat and I am going travelling with my girl. As far as I am concerned it is a sane reaction to an insane world but I am not going to lie, making it happen has been a monumental task and now, with just a few days to go before I board a plane, I feel weird, wired and exhausted from the effort. In recent weeks, there has been an outpouring of comradery from the women in my neighbourhood.
Friends, neighbours and mothers who have heard of my plans are stopping me in the street and in the playground and hugging me. They are congratulating me on the adventure ahead are giving me the strength to carry out my plan. With every embrace, I feel more tearful and remember what I love so much about my corner of south London and the extraordinary community around me. At a leaving party for Lily, I look at all of her incredible, spirited friends and feel revived by their youthful energy.
They are sad to see her go and I wonder again if I am a terrible mother – if it is a good idea to take her away from the girls that are so important to her. I don’t think these doubts and churning feelings are going to go away until I get on a plane but know that, for my own sanity, I must do just that.
Next stop Buenos Aires.