11 January 2014

Waking up

Birmingham

When I found the house we were staying at in Ampthill it was nearly nine. I parked the car and looked up into the sky: stars, how long had it been since I'd seen stars. The house was kept by Yoko's friend and her husband, whom I had never met, but was suddenly eating dinner with as our children, the beautiful half-Japanese children, chatted away with one another in Japanese. We ate curry rice, Japanese style, and we all slept on three twin mattresses they had out for us on the ground. The children slept immediately, exhausted from chasing me through the airport.

And then everything was like it was before. We had left on the 29th of December and returned on the 31st. A year passed, but what is a year. Yoko's friends rang and showed up unexpectedly with bags of clothes for the girls and good wishes. I kept telling the story of Malaysia to people who asked why we came back. It's become a simple story, one that is more understandable every time I tell it, and everyone is understanding: well, at least you had the experience, at least you took the risk.

Life here was frozen in 2012 and all I do now is reanimate it. Visit the bank, e-mail the HMRC, call the Internet service. There are a few new steps to make. Birmingham is new to us, and when I came up to make a snap decision on our house, I did it too quickly, picking the first house I was shown, the one I had picked out while house shopping in the heat in Kajang. I had forgotten about the things one needs to keep in mind when shopping for houses in the UK. When Yoko saw it for the first time on Thursday, she said it was まあまあ, or 'okay' or 'passable'. It was dirty, yes, but we could clean it. I texted the landlord back and forth and Yoko cleaned for a day while I went to work. I came home and it looked completely different, like it had been salvaged from the brink of disaster. Yoko quizzed me about the things she had changed to make it better.

I worked on getting schools for the girls all week, calling here and there, making applications, and finally, with the help of a woman at the city council, finding two open spots at a school 1.1 miles from our house, barely walkable. When we took the kids to apply, there were nothing but good vibes from everyone we met. We could start tomorrow if we wanted to, they said, and we visited Naomi and Mei's new classes, full of a much more diverse student body than we had seen in the schools closer to our house. Naomi and Mei both beamed, and I felt suddenly better about this part of our return: schools resolved in days, not months. The only question now is whether it's walkable or not. Nothing to pay, no checks of passports. They just start.

Malaysia just disappeared. When people ask me if it will be difficult getting to my new university from the house, I try to remember the bus ride to campus in Malaysia. I sit in the Newman refectory with my subject head. I don't know how much to say. There are feral dogs in Malaysia, in the refectory, which is really a terrace that looks out into the palm oil plantation. You aren't supposed to feed them but some students do. I settle into my office in a brick building called Oxford Hall. There are no Indonesian women polishing the name plates. No one is in the office: it is, after all, looked down upon to travel when you don't need to.

Nothing is raw and uncovered, but wrapped in brick and tradition and wool. You won't see a dead body in the street: this is neither a good nor bad thing, it's just the way that it is. A large clock in the new ASDA superstore near our house counts down the minutes until the next cleaning check will take place and you trust, with some amount of certainty, that it will actually be checked at that time. There are aisles and aisles of wine and beer.

I carried our luggage from point to point until Thursday morning when I got the last of it into the house, Yoko and the girls stuffed into the back of the car as we made one final trip from the hotel. For the whole of the week, I had been feeling the touches of a flu, but I ignored it, as the father mule does, and pushed on. After getting everything into the house, I stumbled to work for a departmental meeting, contributing when I could, but thinking that I was just about to pass out. When it finished and I finally got out of the office, in my grey coat, I was shaking so hard that I had to sit in the car waiting for it to heat up and willing myself to make it back to the house, to the bed, where I could sleep and sweat out the fever.

The things you forget and remember about life in a certain place are telling, I suppose. I had forgotten my January sicknesses, the inevitability of flu season. The sound of the heater going on and off and worrying about the cost of gas this winter. Such British concerns: in Malaysia energy is free. Now to wait under the duvet as my body recalibrates, remembers how to cope with these different shocks. Give it some time and only the body will remember. 
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