This is a post about being an emigrant, and making a new home, and then having to leave. It’s about my husband and my children. And it’s about the weather – because I’m Irish, and I live in Dublin, and that’s what we talk about.
We moved to Oxford eight years ago. We were young, we had been married for a year, and we were completely alone. Oxford was everything I had dreamed of, and more. It was romantic and majestic and magical, yes – but it was also home. Every crack in the pavement was familiar, but it still hadn’t lost its mystery and excitement for us. It has a special smell – I know, I know, but if you blindfolded me and whirled me around and plonked me down in Queen Street I would know where I was immediately.
I miss it. I miss seeing the colour the top of Tom Tower change with the sky. I miss the grit and grime and brashness of Cornmarket Street and the graceful swoop of the chapel towers and the Anthony Gormley statue that looks like it’s having a wee when it gets rained on.
We didn’t think we would ever leave, but we had to follow the work. Dublin came a-knockin’.
“So you’re going home?” people said.
Not home, never home, I thought. Dublin was a mystery to me. I had spent a few drunken weekends there, for gigs and concerts and courses. A long time ago, in my dusty academic phase, I presented a paper at a conference in UCD. I had taken the odd shopping trip there with my mother – days spent trawling the vintage shops for impossibly high shoes and drinking Singapore Slings in a hotel on Grafton Street. But that was about it. I didn’t know anything about it – where the best schools are, where to get a car serviced, where to buy good bread. All the small jigsaw pieces that made up the whole picture of our life in Oxford were being shuffled up and put away. I was going to have to work out a new puzzle.
So we moved. That was exciting. We were carried forward on the momentum of the sense of potential and possibility. All the grief and heartbreak at leaving our home and friends (and it was significant) was tempered slightly by that excitement. And then we got here.
Our house – a prize we had snatched at eagerly, sight unseen, in the chronically undersatuated Dublin rental market – was filthy and uncared for. The oven bore carbonised remnants of the previous occupants’ meals; hair and grime had accumulated in the crevices of the gruesome leather couch; a sad, single child’s sock festered down the back of a radiator. We spent days scrubbing and cleaning, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth (ours and the children’s). We blasted Radiohead albums as we clambered on countertops to clean the top of the kitchen cupboards. We oversaw a constant stream of workmen who were drafted in to repair the holes, fix the plumbing, shore up the crumbling wall.
And then the rain started.
Dublin rain, though.
Sheets and sheets and sheets of it. The streets were slick and greasy with it; the sky was dense and swollen with rainclouds; car lights and streetlamps flickered feebly under the assault of the pounding raindrops. It was July.
The despair I felt at every gloomy morning, every soggy afternoon walk, every night lying sleepless as the rain lashed at our single-glazed windows. Every day I thought it would end. Every day it kept raining.
It was on one of these sodden miserable weekends that I stormed out of the house, two small girls in tow, and got on the Luas for the first time. My husband and I had never argued before we had children. I remember being pregnant with my first daughter, watching him prepare my dinner as I languished on the couch, and thinking about what a piece of good luck it was, to get to have children with this kind, clever, gorgeous, funny man. I still feel like that. But I could never have imagined how days and months and years of sleep-deprivation and monumental worry and being physically touched out and emotionally wrung out by my children would impact on my character. I still cannot believe how quickly I can go from moderate good humour to a towering blinding spitting frenzy of rage and despair. Yes, I’m a melodramatic Irishwoman, and it normally passes after I’ve had a cry and a hug. It doesn’t normally get to the point where I flounce out into the rain and get on a tram. I can’t even remember why I was so cross. But flounce I did, and in the manner of all good flounces, found myself carried on a tide of rage-fuelled adrenaline until it petered out abruptly and I was found myself cowering from the rain in a bus shelter and wondering what to do next.
Time for exploring, thought I! And what better balm to my soul than to surround myself with vaguely sinister stuffed animals at Dublin’s famous Dead Zoo?
My children were delighted by the tram and even more delighted by the museum.
The small girl showing her joy at the exhibits.
We meandered alongside the tourists and grimaced at the pickled insects and oohed over the Sunfish and stared wide-eyed at the monstrous skeleton of the Irish elk. I felt a sense of peace. It was still raining, but it didn’t feel so unfamiliar anymore.
On our way home we stopped into our local shopping centre. It was heaving with weekend shoppers, all desperate to escape the downpours. In the food hall, I gathered up my groceries and went to pay.
The sales assistant was a middle-aged woman with perfectly done blonde hair. She was warm and fragrant, a confection of pink lipstick, perfume, and kind eyes. Her fingers were loaded with rings and dextrous as she scanned the food. She chatted cosily in the unguarded, disarming way that is particular to Irish people – something I have always done myself, but am unused to in others after so long away from it. Suddenly, she stopped scanning. Her bejewelled hand thumped the weighing scales, hard. “This oul’ thing,” she muttered. “It won’t work for me today”. Brandishing my bag of potatoes, she asked me how much I thought they might cost. No idea, said I, and offered to run back and check the ticket.
“Not at all, not at all,” she insisted. “I’ll put them in as a euro. Sure why should you be put out, because of this boldy oul’ machine?”
I left, unexpectedly teary. I can make it work here, I thought.