If I was to marry an Australian and move over there I had to learn to swim. I hated water. Not just hated – feared. When I was about six or seven I’d been with my parents in a rowing boat on a river in Somerset. It had capsized and I can still recall being underwater and drowning and somehow being pulled out and the next thing I’m sitting in someone’s bathroom being comforted. But if I had to learn to swim then learn I would. At the time we were living in south London, with a public pool filled with muck, pubic hair and excrement. However, I was fortunate enough to have a good teacher who made me confront my demons. Within a couple of months I could swim a width. Victory.
So, swimming wasn’t an issue.
What about the heat?
My father, always a pragmatic man, reminded me Australia was a hot country. Would I cope? I don’t know, I replied, but isn’t being warm better than being cold? It saves heaps on heating bills. I doubt that convinced him but I was certain Australia was the way to go. Buy acreage. Build a house. Live the simple life. I am a romantic in outlook.
In 2003 we finally took the plunge and put the house on the market. Over the 16 years we’d lived there we’d made huge improvements: an extension at the rear that led directly on the garden and, just finished before we decided to sell, a master bedroom in what had been the loft, complete with en-suite. And, of course, my ‘art studio’ at the end of the garden.
South London was a good place to live. Sure there was crime and violence. Police helicopters would buzz around some nights, searchlights hunting out someone on the run; and we were burgled once by an intruder who got in over the garden fence, slipped in through an open door while we were upstairs, snatching a laptop and a handbag. Then there was the afternoon I returned to find the street cordoned off and police cars stationed at either end. There had been a shooting and it was a few hours before we were let back in, while police patrolled up and down the road far into the night.
But these were isolated incidents, part of living in London. You took it as it came and just got on with things. A few of our Australian friends, especially those who had not travelled, would ring us after some particularly bad incident, a bomb going off or a particularly hideous murder, and ask if we were okay, believing London to tumbling into anarchy and not safe after dark. They watched police shows like The Bill, co-incidentally filmed not far from where we lived, their suspicions confirmed.
Our neighbourhood was culturally diverse. Our son was in the minority as a white kid at school. Not that it mattered one jot – one of his best friends was from Sri Lanka. A couple of doors up from us was a Caribbean family, their daughter a distinguished athlete. They lived next door to Derek, a retired tradie who was always on at the ‘blacks’ and teased them in a roguish way without malice. There was no political correctness here, no need of it, because everyone got on with one another, like people do, helping out when needed, leaving one another alone most of the time.
The house the other side of us was owned by a church and had various tenants, though for a long time there was a family there with three teenage kids who worked and studied hard and were hardly in the garden, which I always thought a little odd. The church didn’t spend on maintenance but when it did come time to redecorate we were taken aback at the sea green colour chosen for the window frames, perhaps because it was going cheap at the hardware store, a colour no one in their right mind would select. When they left a young couple moved in, whose humping antics we could hear clearly through the party wall most nights. They didn’t stay long and were followed by a Ghanaian couple who we never saw until after the birth of our daughter. Seeing so many cars and visitors calling at our house, they knocked one morning thinking there had been a death in the family and wanted to offer condolence. Some months later we knocked on their door and they answered holding a baby we had never known was due.
My father kick started the sale. The agent’s board had been up for some weeks and, though there had been a few viewings, no sensible offers had been made. It was the end of summer 2003, our plans had been to be in Australia by the year-end but that was looking unlikely. Then one Sunday my parents came to visit. Dad was still out the front fiddling with something and when I went to find what was keeping him found him talking to a young couple. They lived in a flat around the corner, had noticed the sign and were interested. My Dad, who had spent his life as a salesman, said: Why not come in now and take a peek? He looked at me encouragingly, biding me to agree, which I did, though the house was a mess, Sunday lunch being prepared and not a bed made anywhere. Everything a house shouldn’t be when showing around prospective buyers. This didn’t bother my father who guided them around, extolling this and that feature, as I made the rear and gradually fell into the pitch.
That night we received a phone call. They would like to make an offer.