29 January 2014

Sinners in the hands of an angry god

All wicked men's pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do.
At the end of War Lane, coming out of Harborne, there is a double roundabout that leads all the different directions our new life goes: one up Victoria Rd to the terrace house on the right, one up Tennal Rd towards the girls' school, and one down, Northfield Rd, toward the University. We walk through it in the morning, the girls and I, me pushing the bike and Naomi or Mei sitting on the back. I ride home through it in the evening and there is a small off-license, the War Lane Cellar, owned by Asians who advise me on real ale. Last week, Naomi wanted to go for a walk so we went, holding hands and going up War Lane after buying candy and Worthington's in a can.

Last week, in three days, £6,000 left my Lloyds account: part for the visas and part for the car. The feelings of panic kept coming at the same time every day, around one or two in the afternoon after I had worked the morning, and my mind wandered off to all the things left undone. When we went to Malaysia and when we came here the first time, I had put things off for months, particularly getting a car, afraid to spend the money, but this time I did it right away, not wanting to go on like I had in the past, putting off the inevitable. After I had paid the money for the car — after it was taken out in a second by a handheld debit card kiosk — and after I turned off the ring road in Kidderminster headed back toward Birmingham, I felt like I had finally not repeated a mistake of my past. Like I had learned something.

When the car insurance came through and, on Saturday, we gave our fingerprints and pictures at the post office in the city, the things left undone were minimal. I argued again with the tax office in Malaysia and with the HR at Nottingham, and on Tuesday I had completed the last thing I had worried about: moving the final bit of money from my account in Malaysia to my account here. Twenty-eight days from when we landed: less than a month.

Although Naomi cried and fought going to school, by the end of her first week, she had friends and homework, and I helped her make compound words while we all sat in the small reception room. Mei runs off to her classroom now, forgetting to hug me goodbye. Yoko's friends came one weekend, then mine this weekend. We do the things you do in Harborne on a Sunday: take a walk up to the High Street for coffee and cakes, the children running in front and behind.

For the first time in seven years, things appear stable: nothing to change or do except to do what I am doing now better. I can go home without the feeling of something undone, no problems to solve or institutions to fight for the time being. I cancelled all the job alerts I was receiving: I will be here for at least three years, I can stop thinking about the next step for a moment and think instead about something else, the things people think about when they are not constantly under threat.

The silence is a thing you could almost touch. Even today, after working all morning, I went out into the rain to smoke my pipe. I stood on the edge of the awning at the gym, looking out at the terrace houses of Bartley Green, the rain coming down in the gloomy way it does here. I remembered my father-in-law on the sofa, sitting outside before we moved, the feral dogs beyond the gate in the dark. Somehow, we are all the same people, in the same world.

21 January 2014

Panic and settle

Newman University is right on the very edge of Birmingham, in Bartley Green. When you come in through the main entrance, a plasma TV shows the next buses and an energy certificate for the building. There is a Starbucks kiosk and when you go into the library, to the first floor, the front wall is complete glass, overlooking the Bartley Reservoir and beyond it, the edge of Worcestershire. As you go back into the campus, the new development of the front fades into its own history, red brick from the late-60s and early-70s, like the core buildings at the Open University. My office is in the newly renamed Oxford Hall, tucked away from where students might normally come, in a corridor that has been quiet for the last three weeks. I asked for a standing desk, and the maintenance man, a certified pipe-fitter who has been with the University for years and years, cut the legs down on a narrow table they had in the shed, and I soon was standing to work.

Birmingham as whole feels familiar. I get off at University Station from Birmingham New St, but instead of going left towards the University, I go right towards Harborne, where we are living. The new terrace house on Victoria Rd is nothing like the terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. There are no bars on the windows or gates. You turn one lock on the front door and one on the back. After we cleaned it up and the refrigerator was replaced, the house warmed up and suddenly felt inviting. The boiler is on all day, pumping hot water into the radiators, and the Pihlajas sit in a single reception room, under blankets, watching Japanese television on YouTube and waiting the winter out.

After looking for schools for a week, we put the girls on a waiting list at the local Church of England school and enrolled them in the closest school with open space, a comprehensive primary school on the top of Tennal Rd away from the middle class safety of Harborne. Where there are more Asians and the white people wear track suits and can be ruder than those in Harborne. All the language of British class and race came back quickly: Asian means Southeast Asian, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi. There are no East Asians. 

The school seems good, I said to a woman in a green coat waiting with her daughter today, and she said, It's improving: another euphemism.

Last year, 2013, has just disappeared. It's simpler to leave it out when answering questions for insurance companies and on applications for various things. Our last address was in Booker Ave; Taman Sri Minang was just something that I imagined. I bought a bicycle from a man that met me in the Birmingham Airport bus station, and I took it away without thinking too much about the interaction. I bought a car from a dealership in Kidderminster, two train transfers away in the countryside. In two weeks, I have made more big decisions than I can, and am starting to feel the stress in moments of panic. I keep faking stability for the girls, for Naomi in particular who cries in the morning. I'm sorry, but you must go to school. I want to let you off, to let you stay back. I want to let all of us off, but we can't. Get up again, go again; this year will be our year, I promise.

14 January 2014

Drawing on top of a drawing

The sickness in the house is improving: the kids one at a time starting to get up at the right times. The feeling of sickness and things still not done ― the visa applications, pushchair and car to buy, the book manuscript unfinished ― leave everything untidy. There is still time, of course, but how much time is difficult to tell. The children are still waiting to start school, and I am running errands, feeling panic in supermarkets as I suddenly realise what I've done. This turbulence will end in a couple of months, but it will be a couple of months before it ends.

Today, I left the untidiness to drive the rental car back to the shop, pleased that I had not run it into a wall after a year of driving the small, automatic Hyundai Matrix. I felt like I had accomplished something, until the energetic young woman with an American accent carefully looking at the paint job asked me where the hub caps were. There were hub caps? They're gone? She treated me with more suspicion than she needed to as we circled the car, with the obvious answer that they had been stolen somehow not good enough for her. They took my £200 deposit and promised to return what they didn't use, but I was angry with the tone of the conversation and sat on the shuttle bus back to the underground, thinking about what I should have said. What the hell would I have done with a set of Corsa hub caps, I'm a doctor of linguistics, goddammit, a university lecturer.

They dropped me at the station and I stood in line to buy a new Oyster card, trying to remember the way up to Camden and listening to a middle-aged American couple talk loudly with the station attendant about their credit card and where they would need to transfer to get to their hotel. I went down to the platform to wait and found myself in the midst of my people again, a North American group of college backpackers, having a stupid discussion about saving money. We're everywhere now, I thought, you can't escape us. I tried moving toward the front of the platform, only to hear the original couple now at the map repeating lines from the transcript of every middle-aged trip to London: I know you know where it is, but I want to know too.

Of course, I also had stood on that platform as a college student, with a stupid haircut and a wide-eyed stupid excitement about a day in the city. Big Ben, of course, and the House of Parliament. Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. I had even brought my own stupid journal to write my stupid thoughts about Virginia Woolf. After fifteen minutes of sitting in the park, in the brisk spring air, I had stupidly thought I'd gotten it, finally, really understood Woolf.

On the train a couple of high school lovers kissed and held each other, making love in public the way that teenagers can. Another couple, an older woman and her husband, kept looking on disgusted, the teenagers at first oblivious and then defiant when someone moved away from them. The girl was wearing blue tights and looked vaguely like Mei might one day, I thought. They got off in the city, and the older couple looked relieved, but I found myself caught up, the way one remembers being in love and resenting people who resented you for it.

I looked for shoes at the British Boot Company, the first shop to sell Dr Martens and flexed my own British shoe knowledge for effect, Oh, in Northampton? when the shopkeeper told me the Solovairs were made in the old Dr Marten factories. This of course wasn't my first time in the shop, I had been many times. I had lived here, you know, when I was a PhD student. For four years ― I worked in London too. I would walk from Camden to Euston. Philip and Frank and I ate where we did last year in December: I kept joking that we needed to completely repeat the past, this while looking in the mirror across from me and realising I was probably wearing the same shirt I was at that time, albeit fatter now and more foreign.

I wanted the shoes I liked to fit. I willed them on my feet but didn't have the courage to commit to them. The shopkeeper reminded me that leather stretches, but leather doesn't stretch, rather it is stretched. The shoes I was wearing, I said, they were this tight and it took me two months to break them in. I walked sock-footed into Malaysia.

When I got on the train home ― home now in Birmigham ― at 8:43, I had forgotten the£200 and was remembering instead everything I still had to do. Tomorrow would be another day of little progress as I was seeing a man about a bike and returning to Milton Keynes ― Milton Keynes where I did not alight on this ride home, but instead looked out at the window and remembered. This new life is a sketch, with old experiences like tracing paper underneath to check the accuracy of the lines. My own ghost standing on the platform there, thinking about a thesis chapter and scowling in the rain. The same story getting played out: when I was 19, through my 20s, and now into my 30s. How many more hundred rides on the Piccadilly line will I watch the teenagers get younger and my own memories deeper and deeper. I should have bought those shoes: any shoes worth having are worth hurting for.

11 January 2014

Waking up


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. 

02 January 2014

The beginning

When we landed and the children were sleeping, I looked out at the tarmac and grass: no snow, the sun going down. The plane slowly emptied and we waited, as you do with small children, for the polite and rude people to file past, their karma from the flight built up like a weight on them to be lifted or carried onwards, depending on how they treated those around them. I had too many bags because the children were on full adult tickets with full allowances and we exploited every kilogram and centimetre we could. I took two trips off the plane, the woman on the bridge stopping me before I could go back on. We were the last off, the Malaysian staff looking impatient and I thought suddenly, You get to see the culmination of your country's rejection of me, the final bit of coughing up as I stumble out of this plane, loaded down like a pack mule. 

I dragged our luggage through the airport, the children groggily following behind with Yoko, their determined father out in front. Pioneers pushing westward. The waiting corral at immigration was full, but moving efficiently as these things do and the Sikh man watching over the operation took pity on me, the father mule, and waved us through. I was then standing before the immigration officer experiencing the moment I had dreaded for six weeks. He took the passports, the cancelled passports with the student visas, and said the words I had heard in my head a hundred times before as I imagined the conversation: 'This visa expires in a month. Are you still a student?' No, I said, pulling out the documentation, the letters from the University and trying to explain the choices I had made the last year, how they made sense in my head at the time. He nodded, they did make sense, the letter made sense, the story made sense. Let me check our fingerprints. Look at the children's faces. Did you enjoy Malaysia?

And then the other side. It was over like that, ten minutes and it was done. We gathered our bags, and I put all of our things on three carts, pushing two myself. We walked through customs, the man in front of us being stopped before half of the bags fell off one of my carts in the doorway, holding up the flow of people out. I'm sorry, I apologised profusely while annoyed people with simple rolling luggage pushed past me. I tried to get everything back together, the perfect piles of luggage on the carts. Yoko's friend was there to pick us up as she promised: the Japanese everyone was speaking suddenly became very warm and friendly, pictures taken with all of our beautiful half-Japanese children who look like twins. They got in her car and drove away, leaving me with the baggage, and suddenly, in a moment it was there. I was sitting in a Vauxhall Corsa driving through the roundabout, driving north to 'The North'. There was the sign. BBC1 wishing everyone a happy new year, encouraging people to call in if anything momentous had happened in 2013.

I went north and stopped at the rest area on the M1, pulling on my grey coat and the Romeo and Juliette Puritos I had bought in KLIA for RM45. I stood in the cold, looking at my reflection in the window and feeling a kind of peace and silence that has eluded me for a year. Like I had been treading water for so long and suddenly, inexplicably felt the ocean floor under me. I could stand now, on the tips of my toes, and rest a bit. I could see the coast on the horizon. Now, to just inch that way. Make slow, steady progress. If there is any sense of home, this is it, in my long grey coat with the waist taken in.