Now things have quietened down, I’m slowly beginning to try to process and make sense of everything that’s happened over the last four years or so.
I’ve found I have very little specific memory of last year, especially last summer. It’s all a blur – losing my Mum, agreeing to let E have what he wanted re the sale of the house so I could fund Oldest Daughter’s MA (and, as a result, leaving me with nothing for the kids/my future), moving house, dealing with Oldest Son’s acute distress at what he saw as his Dad’s abandonment of him, hugging my grandson for the first time, helping Youngest Daughter adapt to motherhood, watching Youngest Son anxiously, hoping that his good cheer was genuine, not a coping mechanism, dealing with a 9-5 job that I found increasingly mentally distressing and emotionally disheartening, Brexit, Trump, Covid, Christmas… I can remember it all, I can’t remember anything.
The other day, Youngest Son was putting his school shoes on and pointed out that they were now too tight. I’d been convinced that they were still too big for him. I had a sudden flashback to he and I in Tesco on a sweltering late August weekend. School was due to start in a week or so, and we were living in a house full of boxes and unassembled flat packs. I was exhausted – work couldn’t allow me any time off because we were so busy (I’d had to take time off in early July to be with Mum when she was ill and taken two days for her funeral in early August so I’d only been granted a half day to let me move house and I’d had to move the move date from a Friday to a Saturday because more time off was just not possible), I had no clean clothes (we had a washing machine but no washing line, or tumble drier, so everything was damply hanging on a clothes horse by the back door). There had been no school since the covid lockdown and Youngest Son didn’t fit any of his uniform, so we were desperately trying to grab what we needed so he could start school in shoes that fit and trousers that didn’t skim his ankles. As it was the end of August, everyone else had done their school shop, meaning there was almost nothing left and we were faced with a selection of about three pairs of shoes – two of which were too tight, one of which was too big. In desperation we opted for the larger pair, hoping that an extra pair of socks would help until we could get another pair, or his feet grew.
It was such a vivid memory. I could see Youngest Son’s face, stressed because he hated the shoes he was trying on, anxious because he was going back to school after months away due to lockdown, and concerned because he could see that I was getting distressed about not being able to help. I could sense l the hot, claustrophobic atmosphere of the clothing department – sale items crowded on the rails and rows of leathery smelling, too big or too small, shoes. I could feel myself getting agitated, face flushing, panicking slightly because this was the only day I had free to get shoes for him before he started back at school. I could sense the welter of emotions that were threatening to overwhelm me – resentment at E and the situation he’d put us in, fear about what next (we only had the house we were in for a year), anxiety about work, dread about going home and facing the box mountain, pain and grief over the loss of my Mum who was on my mind for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and irritation and anger at myself that I was so inept and disorganised that I couldn’t even get Youngest Son a simple pair of fucking school shoes.
Jolted back to the present, I stared at Youngest Son, cramming his feet into his too-small shoes, and asked if they were the ones wed bought in August. The memory seemed so far away, so strange, that it didn’t seem possible it was less than a year ago.
It also bought back a memory of another school shoe shopping trip, from almost exactly ten years before. The contrast between the two trips couldn’t have been stronger. Ten years before I’d thought my life was perfect.
Ten years before, I was also late getting the school shoes, this was also because we’d also just moved, but things couldn’t have been more different. Ten years before, I wasn’t in the cramped sales aisle at my local Tesco, I was in a glittering Shopping Mall on Orchard Road in Singapore, with four flushed, excited and dazed but very happy children. Youngest Son was far from the lanky, rangy, loping teen with a severe case of lockdown hair, who was trying to find shoes for his too wide feet. He was a four-year-old, with chubby knees, angelic blue eyes and a head full of white-blond curls. Oldest Son was seven – still fair haired in those days – and roguish looking. Youngest Daughter was nine – her dark eyes intense and curious and Oldest Daughter was twelve, and already taking on the co-parenting role that her dad’s desertion would later formalise. She was helping me – holding Youngest Daughter’s hand, looking out for shoe shops and planning what she’d need for her first day in her new school.
Ten years before I’d thought that our problems were over, I thought that life was finally working out. Instagram wasn’t a thing then, but if it had been, my life was perfect Instagram fodder. I had four very young, picture perfect, children (I have a set of pictures taken of them just before we moved to Singapore and they look like something out of a Boden Catalogue). I had beautifully decorated house in England, with an amazing garden. I’d just moved to a shiny Condo in Singapore – all marble floors, white paintwork and glass screens with a balcony that looked over skyscrapers towards Orchard Road and a pool and a gym that I used every day. Life. Was. Perfect.
I often wonder how I’d get on with this version of Me – this Me from 2010. She’d seen heartache – it was just over two years since she’d discovered E’s first affair (well, the first affair that she knew of), and that had thrown her whole world into disarray. She knew she was lucky. She didn’t take anything for granted or think she was any better than anyone else because she had more things and opportunities, a nicer house, than other people. But she was still clueless – she had no idea of how lucky she actually was, of the pain that life can dish out, of how tenuous and fragile the happiness that she possessed in that moment was. She was slightly arrogant (an arrogance that would cause her, and her children, more heartbreak just months later when she decided to tackle her kids’ school on an issue that, with hindsight, really didn’t matter that much) – she felt that she had principles and that she should stand up for those no matter what. She had no real concept of picking her battles, of stepping aside and calmly assessing a situation of realising that there are some battles, no matter how ‘right’ she is, that she just can’ win (something that the 2020 Me, struggling in Tesco, had developed something of an expertise in). She was sweet – she was absurdly grateful and happy for the chance to live in Singapore, and she was loving every single second of it. But she was oblivious. This wasn’t her fault, she had no experience of the kind of hardship or pain, that others faced, and whilst she was compassionate and kind, whilst she meant well, she was clueless. I think 2020 Me would have been faintly contemptuous of this oblivious creature, living her beautiful, carefree, life. A year on, I feel kinder towards her, but she still seems alien, strange, Not Me. She’s also beautiful, sort of untouched, there is a charm to her innocence and an attractiveness to her open hearted, good nature. I hate what’s going to happen to her. I hate that someone is going to hurt her, and the children she adores, so badly. I can see her in that Singapore Mall – smiling at her beautiful children, promising them McDonald’s (a McDonald’s, that along with the shoes she’s buying, she can afford without checking her bank account balance), and looking forward to getting back to her lovely Condo and maybe going for a swim later. She’s loving every second of this new life she’s made, and I want to hug her and tell her to look after herself, to not fight the school in a few months’ time, to do everything she can to stay there, in Singapore, for as long as she can, to be wary of E and what he tells her about his job, to tell her (she’s always on a diet) that’s she’s beautiful and perfect just the way she is.
I kind of want her back – she was Me, but I’m not Her.
Of course, I’ll never be Her again. But I’m also not the flushed, stressed, anxious, grieving Me that I was in 2020. I think, now, in 2021, I’m still grieving, I’m still processing everything that’s happened, with E, with my Mum, with the kids, and I’ve realised that this processing is going to take me a very long time. I think I’m wiser, and sadder, than both versions of Me that were buying shoes ten years apart, but, as the kids and I settle into our E free lives (these days he barely contacts them at all and it’s been over a year since any of them saw him), I’m beginning feel to the kind of hope that Singapore Me took for granted and Tesco Me thought had one forever. That hope feels a bit like Singapore Me is hugging me right back and telling me to keep going and telling me to trust that everything will be ok. Maybe I’m still a little bit Her after all?