At the beginning of the second week of Dutch school, I find myself in sole charge of our three children, because My Lawyer husband has gone away with The Job He Won’t Have To Travel With.
We moved from London to Amsterdam for this geographically stationary position of his. So far, The Job He Won’t Have To Travel With has taken him to several different countries in a few short months, and this time it has taken him to the west coast of America. The time difference is 9 hours and it is unlikely that we will speak to each other.
We made sure that this trip away did not coincide with the first week of Dutch school, which, of course, is the most important week. The six year old and the eight year old are at a Dutch basisschool (primary school), whilst the three year old has been signed up for two mornings a week at a Dutch preschool at the end of our street.
Basisschool issued us a list of the things that each kid would need; pencils (no felt tips), scissors, glue, eraser, pencil case, white-soled shoes for gym. We examine the list over and over again; best be prepared. No one wants to be the new kid doing gym in their underwear. Mickelle, who is My Only Friend in Amsterdam, told me that this actually happened to her son when they started at Dutch school last year. For one whole term, her son did gym in his underwear, until one day, their teacher mentioned that, if he wanted to, he could bring some gym clothes and some white-soled shoes. My Only Friend Mickelle told me this story at a pancake house in the middle of the Amsterdamse Forest, where she also bought me sangria at midday. She is a good find. I hope to keep her.
So the first week of Dutch school went as well as anyone might have hoped. The eight year old told me that he recited the Lego Movie in his head during class because he could not understand anything that the teacher said, and the six year old cried herself to sleep every night because she so desperately missed her friends back in South London. In case we didn’t quite get the message regarding her emotional distress, the six year old also resurrected an imaginary friend who we hadn’t heard from since preschool. The imaginary friend is Bawby, a tiny pirate fairy princess who has apparently spent the last three years in South Africa. Maybe she had one of those Jobs You Don’t Have To Travel With. In any case, Bawby is back with us, tearing our toilet paper into tiny pieces and leaving it on the bathroom floor.
One positive aspect about that first week was that it didn’t rain. Literally, I mean. Obviously, figuratively speaking, it was a fucking monsoon. But in meteorological terms, it was fine, so we were able to enjoy the school run in Steve the Bakfiets, our trusty cargo bike, completely dry but for the odd drop beneath our eyes. We survived the hardest week.
So. My Lawyer has fucked off to San Francisco to tell people that they cannot do most of what they want to do. That is his job. I remain in Amsterdam, telling our kids that they cannot do most of what they want to do. That is my job.
For one week, we’ll be pissing people off on both sides of the planet.
As I go to bed, having marshaled our kids through the day with a series of disappointing restrictions, My Lawyer is waking up, preparing to do the same. What a team, I think. We’ve taken our despotic nay-saying global. There’s nothing we can’t navigate with appropriate regulatory action. Try us!
“Okay,” says the universe, leaning back in his chair, stroking his white cat. “I’ll give you a go, Mrs Amsterfam. There will come a storm, and fuck you up it will. COME! COME ON AILEEN!”
There’s an awkward silence.
“Sorry,” I say, “Did you just say, come on Eileen?”
“AILEEN!” rages the universe. “With an A! It’s the meteorological system for – oh, I can’t be bothered. Just – you’re going to have a shit week. That’s all I’m saying.”
Too ra loo…. chants my brain. Ra too ra loo rye aye.
Oh Christ. I hate that song.
When the universe trash-talks at you, defense is the best form of attack. On Sunday evening, I double-check the lists; pencils (no felt tips), scissors, glue, eraser, pencil case, white-soled shoes for gym. I make some modifications to the first week model; we learnt, for example, that supplying water as the packed lunch drink, whilst mandatory in the UK, is deemed miserly and cruel here in the Netherlands, where every other child quenches their thirst with chocomel.
My kids won’t do PE in their underwear, and now they will not dine without chocomel. Steve the Bakfiets, almost as high-maintenance as my kids, is kitted out with his wet-weather gear. Come on, Aileen, I think, as I batten down Steve’s hatches.
Too ra loo, ra too ra loo rye aye.
You might not know the story behind Dexys Midnight Runner’s Come On Eileen. There’s no particular reason that your experience of this supernova earworm should extend beyond hollering the chorus incoherently in a sweaty circle of unfamiliar teenagers during fresher’s week, struggling to extricate your shoes from a sticky floor, wondering if you will have to pretend to like this song every other night for the next three years (you will). The story of the song is apparently thus: Kevin Rowland, lead singer of Dexys, met a girl called Eileen when the pair were 13 year old, and they began a relationship. You in that dress, my thoughts I confess, verge on dirty.
The video for Come On Eileen features, as Eileen, the sister of someone from Bananarama being followed – some would say stalked – by Rowland and his bandmates, through a town devoid of emergency services and clothes that are not dungarees. In the closing line of the song, Eileen finally thinks: ‘Oh fuck it, I’ve got nothing better to do, I’m inexplicably naked beneath my dungarees and it’s getting cold, so I might as well go to the pub with him, where maybe he’ll get so drunk he’ll pass out and won’t follow me any more and I can get on with my life.’ We’ve all been there, right? #metoo, Eileen.
What I’m saying is, we are all a product of our environments, and now A/Eileen is chasing me through the streets of Amsterdam like an eighties pop star obsessing about his thirteen year old childhood girlfriend. No, it’s not a normal thing to sing about, but it was the eighties, and apparently this is a legitimate excuse. There are some differences; I am appropriately clothed, and have not at any stage embraced the new wave of dungaree-wear, so deeply engrained is my aversion to the biggest hit of Dexys Midnight Runners.
But some things do not change, and the length of a woman’s rope is one of them; we will swing from that last knotted fray until we’re close enough to the ground that the fall might not cause any lasting injuries.
I find the end of my rope on Wednesday morning, after more than 72 hours of solo-parenting, during the second week of school in a new country, in the grip of a three-day storm. I stand in the rain, holding up Steve’s rain-cover so that the kids can jump in from the doorstep. The three year old peers into Steve, examining the seat suspiciously.
“There’s a drip!” he cries, as he has done each morning this week.
I reach in with my sleeve to dry the drip. My arm is so wet that I spread more water across the seat.
“WHAT YOU DONE?!” shouts the three year old.
We are running late. I manhandle all three kids in to Steve. The three year old cries, and the older two complain about the noise.
I have not yet bought waterproof trousers. When we arrive at school, I look like I’ve been wading. I peel myself away from the tearful six year old and turn to see the eight year old walking off to his classroom, with a brief backwards wave. The rain outside has eased from monsoon to moderate, and the three year old’s caterwauling has subsided from torturous to tolerable. It is possible that neither has changed, and that monsoon and torturous have become my new normal; in any case, I have one more errand to run before the three year old and I can return home to wring ourselves dry. I must cycle to a locksmith to cut a spare key.
I do not know where the locksmith is. I follow my iphone map, squinting through the wind and the rain, and I come to a large road, ungoverned by traffic lights, that I must cross. I look right, left, and right again. I see it is clear, and I move Steve forward on to the road. Right, left, and right again, like all good schoolchildren learn in the UK. But I am not in the UK. I am in the Netherlands. The traffic is coming from the left, and here comes a bus.
The bus screeches to a stop maybe half a metre from Steve’s cargo box, which contains my youngest child.
“Look, Mummy,” says the three year old. “A bus!”
I cannot reply. My eyes meet the driver’s; he raises his eyebrows, but he is not cross. He is driving a bus through Oud Zuid Amsterdam where he must encounter confused expat road-crossers every other day. I heave Steve back, and the bus trundles on. I do not breathe until I’ve made it across safely, and outside the locksmith’s, I finally exhale, my tears hidden amongst the raindrops.
Inside the shop, I hand my iphone to the three year old to keep him occupied and the locksmith cuts the keys that I have asked for. The shrieking key-cutting machine drowns out everything else, and I close my eyes, enjoying the temporary sensory deprivation.
I open my eyes and look at the brass service bell on the counter. My face is puffy and distorted in its reflection. I imagine what I would do if hitting that bell took me back to my life in South London, back to our little terraced street which had one parking space for every fifty people, back to my West Norwood tribe of women who shared their frayed ropes, no matter how little they had left themselves.
If that little bell could take me home at this very moment, I would pound the merry fuck out of it. I would not think twice.
“Mama,” shouts the three year old, brandishing my phone with disgust. “Dora gone.”
A message has popped up on my phone. It is from My Only Friend in Amsterdam, Mickelle, who bought me sangria at midday at a pancake house in the forest.
Are you surviving? She asks. I reply: I am not.
My Only Friend Mickelle is typing. I love that iPhones tell you this. Someone heard you. Someone is answering. Come over after school?
School finishes early on Wednesdays. The four of us stagger into Mickelle’s apartment, storm-ravaged, dazed. The kids scatter.
“I wanted to bring something,” I say regretfully, empty-handed, rain dripping from my nose.
“Don’t be silly,” says Mickelle. “I have wine.”
When you move schools, cities, countries or continents, you’ll be issued a lot of lists. Pencils (no felt tips), scissors, glue, eraser. Registration numbers, recommended local services, forms of identification you need to get your bank account, drivers license, redirected post. What you won’t find on any of these lists is the one thing that you’ll need more than anything, and that is somebody to drink with in the early afternoon. And that goes if you’re not emigrating, too.