Return of the Natives

Tuesday 9th 2007 January saw us leave Houston, Texas, for a return to Blighty after almost three and a half years in the U S of A. The departure had been hanging over us since the previous May and, after delays, uncertainties and corporate miscommunication it had begun to take on a definite air of unreality. All the girls visited us over the summer and enjoyed great indulgence on the premise that this was a final fling. By early December a packing date of Jan 3rd had been agreed but after a very enjoyable Christmas and New Year spent with friends old and new and during which very little was got ready for leaving, it seemed impossible that we would actually be quitting Chapel Square Drive and a dream home into which our furniture and our lives had fitted like the proverbial glove. It was unimaginable to be living anywhere else and a heart wrenching parting loomed. By the afternoon of Friday 5th Jan the house was stripped and cleaned and all our worldly goods either packed into a 40 ft "hi-cube" container or boxed as airfreight awaiting express transport to the UK. The house was still lovely but no longer ours and it was possible to walk away dry eyed. The next two nights were spent at the Hampton Inn on the Katy freeway, our first port of call after moving to Houston and therefore a satisfactory closing of the circle. The Hampton's signature aroma of mingled coffee, air freshner and cleaning products remains the scent of possibility and new beginnings. Our final 2 days were spent with friends in Cypress. Again, sipping tea in the familiar cathedral-ceilinged living room, one doggy pal heavily ensconced on my foot, the other simultaneously mournful and eagle eyed for the titbit he was by now very confident of receiving, it was unthinkable that this would no longer be a weekly occurrence. The next and final day brought another hurdle to be got over; the sale of my car, my beautiful, luxurious, trusty silver Mercury Mountaineer, leather seats, 6 disc CD player and 16 miles to the (American) gallon. I never thought I would boast about a car let alone shed a tear for one but Texas, biggest and best of US mainland states, has the power to change your thinking (even my environmentally conscious husband heated hot tubs and threw glass and plastic into the trash with the best of them). Well, I've done the first but the latter never happened. I handed over the keys and walked away without even a backward glance to the consternation and relief of He Who (on these matters) Must be Obeyed who, I suspect, had secretly feared an embarrassing collapse in the CarMax parking lot. A self-preservatory numbness got me through goodbyes to very kind friends and on to the evening plane to London, packed to the gunnels, c**p food, c**p films and no aisle seat. B broke his hard and fast rule of no alcohol when flying and ordered a single consolatory G&T; I sucked my fruit pastilles and flicked through the celebrity mag I'd begged for at the airport. After a respectable number of hours had elapsed, like co-conspirators in a suicide pact, we took the over the counter sleeping pills which, we hoped, would help us through the interminable twilight hours until breakfast one hour out of Gatwick. B fell immediately asleep; my head was willing but my legs, as ever, would not submit. I tossed and turned for hours and, had I been sitting behind me, would cheerfully have strangled myself. I was just drifting off when we hit a brief but stomach dropping pocket of turbulence and a small brown claw exerted a vice-like grip around my left wrist. After I had allayed the fears of the elderly Asian lady occupying the coveted aisle seat and listened attentively to the whispered account of her former life as a tobacconist in Greenway Plaza, sleep and the promise of blissful oblivion was left far behind, along with Our Very Big Texan Adventure.

So to Middletown via Brighton where 2 very grumpy people and their 6 pieces of very cumbersome luggage were allocated a room on the 7th floor of the Preston Park Travel Lodge, accessed via no less than 3 non-automatic doors, a lift which said it was going to the 7th floor but actually didn't stop until the 8th, a flight of stairs and 2 more doors not counting the one to our retreat. And this on top of no toilets at Gatwick immigration, no working lifts and the usual inexplicable 40 minute wait at the Hertz desk. An afternoon and evening spent in the company of our three lovely daughters proved the perfect restorative and next morning we were ready for home and straight to Convenience Close, circumventing ye olde Victorian Hotel by dint of taking over the rental of our former tenants' furniture. No nasty surprises were in store, in fact, quite the reverse as our house was in very good condition and, more importantly, very clean. There was a little wear and tear to the décor but this was hardly surprising after 5 families had been in and out in as many years. In fact the house was very welcoming, warm and spacious (more than half empty of course) quiet and efficient. We remembered all the things we'd liked about in the first place and I for one was particularly appreciative of the excellent plumbing which far surpassed that of both our Texan houses - no need for single thickness loo roll, buckets and an old wooden spoon here. The very next day B was off to work in our only car so I decided to get busy on the domestic front with a little washing in the eco friendly front loader (I just hope the newly weds in Spring are enjoying my profligate but oh so user friendly top loaders). An interminable period later I opened the porthole to discover that a red and white (rented) tea towel had turned a couple of B's limited supply work shirts and, more importantly, a rather nice white broderie Anglaise blouse to a sickly shade of sugar almond pink. Sandra Dee was not the look with which I was hoping to wow my old friends and acquaintances but at least I have the underwear to match. Damn, I thought things were going a bit too smoothly. After all I had managed to keep us fed and clothed during the evacuation of the Houston house with only one very minor slip up whereby I had apparently allowed our very nice Mexican packers to spirit away a large quantity of paper plates, cups and plastic cutlery left over from a 4th of July celebration and that night had to cook, serve and eat bacon and egg butties with the help of only a battered old frying pan (carefully reserved for the purpose) 2 teaspoons and some kitchen roll to the derision of my resident dinner guest.

Back in Middletown, in unseasonably mild but blustery weather, I decided to attempt the rehabilitation of some atrophied thigh muscles and walk into the village for a spot of shopping. I set off full of confidence through the eerily quiet and empty Onceuponafarm estate in search of the recreation field which would give me access to the village but soon fell foul of the Labyrinth of Nastiness (Daughter no 1) which once, infamously, swallowed up my directionally challenged cousin for a mind numbing and obviously very scary two hours. Aware that my progress or lack thereof had been monitored by a trio of oriental gentlemen delivering leaflets door to door, the only discernible human life for 4 square miles, I accosted one of them and had almost finished my querulous inquisition when I realised he had pressed a Chinese Take Away menu upon me and was relentlessly thanking me for taking it off his hands. Eventually it dawned on me that during the past 3 or more years the addition of a further several hundred houses had changed the local topography and I had simply turned prematurely into the wrong culdesac. Ten minutes later I arrived triumphantly in the village Post Office which I immediately noted was still being run by a fellow parent from ante natal and toddler group days. As my arrival was unexpected, she didn't offer an exactly rapturous welcome but greeted me, just a little dubiously, I thought, "Oh, Hello, didn't you go away somewhere?" "Yes, I gushed, "I've been in the US, Texas, actually". "Oh, how was it?" "Just wonderful" - sceptical raise of eyebrow. As I posted the last of my Houston knitted scarf production to innocent relatives, I pondered on this exchange and came to the chastening but enlightening conclusion that my appearance had been not only unexpected but also just a little disconcerting as I struggled to quell a Donald Trump comb over, mascara tinted tears streaming down my windblown cheeks and the rivulets of sweat seeping into the collar of my lovely full length wool and angora coat which was not only far too warm but had signally failed to disguise the evidence of three years' over-indulgence. Not, perhaps, the best advertisement for life in the Lone Star State. Hopefully, I won't be flogging Shanks's Pony for much longer though. Having not driven in the UK for over 2 years, I sat and passed the B School of Driving exam (Move over! Watch the curb!!) and on Saturday was allowed to test drive various (very small) cars. Sedate progress up and down the Leicester road in a 1.25 Ford Fiesta (after which a 1.4 Vauxhall Corsa performed like a Formula One racing car) was a novelty but can't beat taking a V8 for a spin on the I45.

Wednesday brought double joy in the form of the airfreight delivery and the return of my erstwhile feline companion (or, as some prefer, familiar) the beautiful and oftimes elusive William. Expected between 12 and 2 pm, the boxes arrived at 10 am but I was ready for them - ie I was awake and dressed. We are now the happy recipients of double quantities of bedding, table mats and (colourfast) tea towels, one pair of mud-caked trainers, 4 empty decorative green tea flasks, one jumper apiece and no swimming costumes but at least we have a bottle opener. Oh, and a portable radio/CD player, the only electrical appliance I was allowed to bring from the US on the grounds that it was dual voltage. So it was a pity it blew up as soon as the Electrical Expert plugged it in and a blessing that my new pills have proved so very helpful. Later that day I was opening the door to my dear William and his equally dear foster parents who had given service above and beyond for over 3 years and were eagerly looking forward to hanging up the litter tray scoop. So well had my William been looked after that I had resigned myself to many patient hours devoted to wooing a disaffected and recalcitrant member back into the (new, improved) bosom of his "blood" family. I need not have worried, however, as William made it abundantly clear that he knew all about this house, quickly revisiting all his favourite places and awaiting the setting up of his toilet and dining facilities in the utility room. So kindly disposed was he to his new/old surroundings and the humans that came with it that when I retired that night I found B and William taking up all the room in our not very big rented bed and was obliged to spend a cramped but contented night clinging to the edge of the mattress. Alas this charming vignette of Merchant family life Mark V111 was but fleeting. The very next evening William and I were happily knitting (the needles were in the air freight) in front of the telly, when B, safely, as we thought, engrossed in his TV/internet provider research, literally blew his chances of any further bedtime bliss with our newly restored furry friend by unleashing one of his (simply infuriating) hurricane strength sneezes and catapulting poor William into a midair tail spin, culminating in an undignified belly flop down the back of the sofa. He now sleeps on the landing in a spot where he can keep the central heating pipes warm.

One thing I had been looking forward to in the UK was some serious television - content not quantity. Never having been an Emmerdale fan, I know there are those of you who will be shocked to hear than I no longer have the stomach for either East Enders or Corrie although I thought I could detect some slight stirrings of interest in the Archer's omnibus this Sunday (although this is of course radio, not telly). Naturally, while awaiting cats and boxes, I have dipped into daytime TV only to find (surprise surprise) that it is the same produced for the cognitively challenged catalogue of house buying/antique hunting/make-overing dross. And I am at least one series ahead of ER, Desperate Housewives, Medium et al so no joy there. The program which has really stopped me in my tracks this week, however, has been Celebrity Big Brother. Well, not the actual program which I have not watched but the unbelievable furore surrounding some supposedly racist remarks made by one very silly, disturbed young woman to another - because anyone who signs up for this "entertainment" either needs their head examined or a new agent. For those of you across The Pond I'd better explain that a white British girl of little education and less common sense called an Indian (Bollywood) actress "a poppadom" a sort of giant crisp (or) chip and mandatory accompaniment to any Indian meal in a British restaurant. Suddenly questions were being asked in Parliament and also of Gordon Brown (Prime Minister in Waiting) during his official visit to India. Indian families were interviewed across the two continents, one righteously indignant matriarch asserting that no self-respecting British lady would permit herself to suffer the heinous epithet "fish and chips". Well, apparently I must suffer from low self-esteem although I think I know someone who would beg to differ. The whole thing seemed to me an obvious if pathetic media scam to boost the falling ratings of Channel Four, sorry makers of an even sorrier program. When I heard Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, announce on BBC Radio Four (the former respected "Home Service") that the fact that some 7 and a half million viewers had tuned in to see "the racist" ejected from the Big Brother House meant that "our society has come a long way in the last 30 years", I was ready to throw my hastily resurrected battery operated wireless at the wall and jump on the next plane into George Bush International. When people over here ask if we didn't find people over there a bit, well, strange, all I can say is "they ain't got nothing on us"!

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