When the mister came home with the unexpected job offer, moving to Abu Dhabi seemed like a good idea. I had just been through two tumultuous years: my first novel accepted; the discovery of our secondary infertility; my youngest child waved off to school; the responsibility of moving my ‘childless’ grandfather into aged accommodation; packing up and selling his house; and then, in the last month, watching my father die, thus becoming an ‘adult orphan’ before I turned forty.
Who wouldn’t want to round that out with a move halfway around the world?
I did have reservations – human rights, heat, cars – and while the mister’s gains were clear, I had much to lose and less to gain. I told myself that overall it didn’t matter. Here was an adventure, an opportunity, a chance to show our children things that we had never seen. Who would say no?
This, I told myself, was a chance to create my ideal life, a life in which I would have nothing more to do than care for my children and write. I pictured the days: I would walk my children to school through new and fascinating streets, then return to my desk where I would write productively and inventively for every school hour, stopping only for a morning coffee accompanied by a pistachio-packed pastry. After my productive, word-filled day, I would collect my children from school and we would go to an art gallery (hadn’t there been a Picasso exhibition during the mister’s last visit? Weren’t they building a Louvre?) or simply wander home through the still-new, ever-fascinating streets, trading ‘guess whats’ and ‘you won’t believes’.
Then we moved.
I love big cities, but I found this one inhospitable, incomprehensible. My identity – already fragile – collapsed as I felt myself become a human-rights activist complicit in human rights abuses; an independent woman cast in the role of expat wife; a shopping-phobe in a society defined by malls; a fledgling comic in a world without alcohol.
Grieving and lonely, I lost perspective.
I started telling myself that I had been cowardly, that I had ‘agreed’ to move, not because it was an adventure, but because of all the things I didn’t want to face: shifting family dynamics, difficult work projects, the bad reviews that I was now convinced my novel would get, a fortieth birthday party haunted by my parents’ ghosts. I had moved so I could avoid these things.
Even when my children were settled into school, I couldn’t find any writing momentum. I had thought that a lack of commitments would free me, but without any deadlines or recognisable structures, I floundered. Instead of the inspiration I had anticipated from this new environment, I felt stifled by the reality of life outside a democracy. With even my harmless Flickr site blocked, I self-censored, then silenced myself. After a short flurry of activity at the beginning of our stay, weeks soon passed with not another word written.
Meanwhile, this was not the experience I had hoped to give my children. We made cross stitch patterns, played backgammon and baked muffins every night. But there’s only one public library and you can’t take children’s books out, and the LuLu Island boat has been cancelled.
The rambling walks I had envisaged were hampered by the heat and the constant stares from curious, disconcerting men. The Louvre hasn’t even been put out for tender.
I was grieving, lonely, frustrated with my writing, feeling incredibly stupid for ever moving here, and sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two energetic boys who didn’t always bounce.
I started shouting again, snapping at my children for doing nothing more than being children. I cried most days, drank too much, and had no idea how I was going to survive the years I had committed to.
But I had to do something. The crying, the drinking and the temper were not good for any of us.
It seems strange that, in this environment, I decided the answer was to stage my first solo comedy show. Yet it does have a kind of logic. I had been messing about on the edges of comedy for three years, and it was time I either gave it away or pushed myself past the ten-minute set. I had half a script of tested, well-reviewed material with a plot I liked and a character I loved.
At the same time, I was looking for somewhere to spend the Abu Dhabi summer, when it is fifty degrees, schools close and expats flee. At two o’clock one morning, I thought, ‘Ireland doesn’t get hot, nor does Scotland,’ and probably because I was preparing for a quick trip and a small appearance in the Adelaide Fringe, my brain thought to itself, ‘How about Edinburgh? You could take in the Fringe, the boys would love it and you could have a look around and see if you might one day put on a show.’ I do believe my brain just said ‘put on a show’ in the way it has sometimes said ‘study medicine’, or ‘be a park ranger’, or ‘actually make a living from something’ – that is, they were mere words, not actual ideas. But I suppose it was two in the morning, and at two in the morning anything is possible.
If I did briefly ask myself, ‘But what about the children?’, I answered that here was a way to reject once and for all the art-versus-children dichotomy. Here was a chance to teach them that work and life are not things to be balanced, but that work and life and art are all part of one glorious, seamless whole.
It was two in the morning. It seemed like a good idea.
Our first stop was Spain. My script wasn’t quite finished, but Edinburgh was still two months away and Spain would be both motivating and inspiring. We would explore castles, museums and squares in the day. In the evenings, I would polish this sentence, finish that, and marvel at the flow of my new but fully formed ideas.
My lads would mimic the scratching of my pen, creating a collection of notebooks that I would treasure, looking at in years to come while dreaming of our Spanish days. We bought a packet of FaberCastells and notebooks from a papelería on Calle Mayor. But kids these days … independent thoughts. Youngest boy opened his book, played a few games of hangman, then went back to Tintin. Eldest boy began sketching. Sketching? He’s never seen me sketch.
He sketched inside this church, outside that cathedral, in front of this museum. He sketched while I checked the map, when we waited in lines, before the tapas arrived. Book after book filled with the intricacies of his mind. Over his shoulder, waiters and tourists marvelled with me.
Meanwhile, my script stayed in the suitcase. Who knew that travelling solo with two young boys (one constipated) while you reclaimed your once-fluent Spanish would be this tiring? My journals filled, but with rambling, unfocused thoughts.
‘Do you plan your drawings?’ I asked my eldest.
‘No, Mum.’ He sounded shocked. ‘You just have to start and then the ideas come.’
‘Do you like all of your ideas?’
That question puzzled him. Later, as I watched him flicking through his sketches, I hoped that he would not remember this day when his own mother, on a clumsy search for Chauncey Gardiner, had planted the first seeds of his creative doubt.
When one sketchbook was finished, another had to be found. He wanted his sketchbooks small enough for the palm of his hand, spiral-bound, with unlined pages. Small and spiral-bound is easy. Unlined, impossible. By July, we had searched Madrid, Burgos, Comillas, Cudillero, Leon and most of Galicia, but the perfect sketchbook had not been found. There was a lot of making do.
The mister joined us in Galicia. He marvelled at the sketches, too.
‘And how’s your script?’
‘Oh, you know.’
‘You’re gonna be great.’
In Salamanca, a sketchbook was lost. Worse, it was the sketchbook he had made by tearing his best drawings from other books and binding them with string. It was a present for his granny. We retraced our steps, but the book was gone.
All afternoon he pulled my arm tight around his shoulders.
We went to stare at the carved facade of the Universidad Civil. ‘If you spot the frog, you’ll have good luck,’ I said.
The frog was not immediately obvious amongst the people, animals, skulls and swords. The boys began running in circles around me. I kept looking, and as I looked, as I continued to not see the frog, I felt an odd sensation. ‘But I’m supposed to see it,’ I was thinking. ‘I am owed that luck. I am more worthy of it than the woman with plaits, the man in shorts, those lovers holding hands.’
As I watched all of those people whispering to each other, nodding with satisfaction, walking away, I realised that ever since I’d read about the frog in my guidebook, my very soul had been convinced that I would see it. As if seeing it was my entitlement. I will see the frog, then in two days, we will spend a week in Andalucía. The mister and the boys will swim in the waterhole while I am ‘in rehearsal’, creating the kind of show about which people will one day say, ‘Remember that time we saw her, and no one had heard of her, and there were only eight of us in the audience? Remember that?’
This will happen, because that’s what I’m entitled to. Would I be doing it otherwise? My father has died, I have moved to a place I do not like, but I’ve taken the road less travelled, sustaining myself on my journey by drinking the lemonade that I have made with my lemons. Oprah would be proud of me.
So where’s the bloody frog?
The boys started slapping at each other, then at the mister, then at me. Hungry children trump a lucky frog. ‘I really wanted to see that frog,’ I said, still disbelieving.
‘Don’t worry about it, Mum. I mean, I’ve never spilt even a grain of salt, and look what bad luck I’ve just had.’
His hand was in mine.
‘That reminds me,’ I said ‘I’ve got a present for you.’
We stopped. I took it out of my bag and handed it to him. A sketchbook I’d seen in a window an hour before. Spiral-bound, a round frog on the cover, it fitted in the palm of his hand.
‘Mum! No lines.’
‘So you’re doing sixteen shows, right Mum?’
‘And your show goes for forty-five minutes, right?’
‘What’s sixteen times forty-five?’
‘Well, start with sixteen times fifty.’
He didn’t even use the back of a serviette, although he did have to stop chewing his marshmallow to think.
I looked around, trying to make sure at least someone else was witness to this cleverness.
‘I think that’s right,’ I said.
‘Yes!’ Both boys clenched their fists.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because that’s how much DS we get. Eight hundred minutes.’
It was said with such jubilation that everyone in the café must have heard. I wanted to defend myself to eavesdroppers: ‘The mister’s being my tech guy, so how else will I keep them quiet for forty-five minutes for sixteen nights? Anyway, it’s not eight hundred minutes. That’s rounded up.’
But there’s the DS (that’s a Nintendo double-screen, a small games console), and then there’s the television in our flat, a great brute of a thing, dragged up two flights of winding tenement stairs by our puffing letting agent earlier that day.
‘That’s a disaster,’ I had said when they’d told me (last minute) that there was no television in the flat. I guess they’d believed me.
I am an uptight middle-class television mother. I don’t use screens to anaesthetise my children. But what else to do? The mister wouldn’t arrive for ten days, and I absolutely had to work. No yard, no babysitter, and while my boys do read, make cubbies and play Cluedo, they also run and wrestle. Cluedo always ends in tears.
I didn’t just need them not knocking on my door. I needed quiet. I needed, more than I needed anything else, to work through my script. To look at it word by word and immerse myself in it just a little bit more. Only screens will buy that kind of quiet.
I justified myself in countless emails to the mister. ‘Whatever works,’ he said.
Then, one night, when I was standing at the sink doing two days of dishes, I heard Muriel Spark’s biographer on the radio. I had forgotten that Muriel Spark left her child with her parents. She couldn’t be the kind of writer she wanted to be and care for her child, the biographer was saying.
I was shocked at the thought of this ‘abandonment’, but was I any better? Wasn’t bringing my children to Edinburgh just a way to justify a trip that would otherwise be nothing more than an indulgence, an ego-driven quest for self-identity? Hadn’t I brought my children simply because it transformed the experience into a more noble thing, an exercise in artistic enrichment?
And it wasn’t even enriching, because my boys were here in Edinburgh and they weren’t doing anything they couldn’t do in Abu Dhabi or Adelaide. Worse, here they were, cooped up in one small room, with no yard for soccer or cricket or mixing potions of mud with added stones.
‘I’m not broadening their horizons, I’m limiting them,’ I thought.
If all of this sounds more tortured than it needs to be, it’s probably because I was funding the trip with the money my father left me, and by this stage, I had given that money too much meaning. I had spent too much time telling myself that my mother died when she was forty-six and never lived on a kibbutz, and that not a moment of my life, not a moment of my children’s, would be wasted. Especially those moments that were paid for by my parents’ unlived dreams.
That’s fair enough, I wrote in my journal, but if all this agonising isn’t a waste of time then I don’t know what is. I’m here now, whatever my motives might have been, whatever else I could have done, I have to make this work.
To make it work, I would have to do two things at the same time, but do them separately. Writing and mothering. It would involve screens.
So in the mornings, the boys settled down with toast and jam in front of SpongeBob DVDs, I worked on my script and the writer in me was happy (as happy as she ever is). I loved working on my script. It made me laugh. It made me think of my mother’s laugh and of thenight my father saw me perform at the Melbourne Town Hall.
In the afternoons, the lads and I rambled around Old Town’s medieval streets and went to the Brass Rubbing Centre. At Our Dynamic Earth, the youngest boy pressed all of the interactive buttons, then asked, ‘Yes, but when will they tell us where the very first dinosaur came from?’ We ran home through Holyrood Park and around (but not up) Arthur’s Seat. We saw thistles and our umbrellas blew inside out.
After a week, the mister arrived. ‘We’re in Edinburgh, and I’m a roadie. Me. A roadie.’ He laughed.
I said: ‘It’s good to have another person in the house with arms long enough to reach the kitchen sink.’
My youngest boy quickly realised that commission-based flyering wasn’t the deal he thought it was. I had said that for each person he convinced to come to the show, I’d give him one pound. After only one day he was demanding fee-for-service.
‘One pound per hour.’
I had known this time would come, because I have been in his shoes. My dad’s politics saw me cycling Port Pirie’s streets, pushing pamphlets into people’s letterboxes and filling the gaps on election day how-to-vote rosters.
‘A new Trixie Belden,’ I would say. ‘Only if I can get my ears pierced.’ We started the dealing, my youngest boy and I.
‘Fifty pence per hour,’ I countered. ‘Fifty pence is over one Australian dollar.’
‘Yes, but we aren’t in Australia, are we?’
We settled on a daily fee. It doubled his weekly pocket money and my financial loss was already so great that it made no difference to my bottom line.
On my opening night, we stood on the Royal Mile, the four of us. Flyering. The mister gave away two flyers and I managed a couple more, but mostly people ignored the two of us. Meanwhile, those flyers flew from the children’s hands. Almost no one said no. Nearly everyone said thank you.
‘I think it’s your clothes, and the way you speak, Daddy,’ my eldest boy said. ‘Also, you’re not the cutest.’
‘That’s a good ploy,’ a roving flyerer said, nodding towards our boys. ‘Better than a brightly coloured t-shirt,’ he said, pulling at his. The resignation in his grin told us that he had been here before.
The children weren’t a ploy, but when the cast of yet another production walked past, this time in boxer shorts, I agreed with the mister:
‘Glad I don’t have to walk around in my undies.’
‘Are they allowed to walk around in their underwear?’ our youngest boy asked. ‘Isn’t that offensive?’
We were a world away from Abu Dhabi’s robed malls. A few hours later, there wasn’t anyone at the show who hadn’t pre-bought tickets. No walk-ups, flyer in hand.
After the show, we went out for a celebratory meal.
‘Mum, giving out your pamphlets is the best job in the world,’ my eldest boy said after the first slug of his fizzy orange drink.
Later, we walked home through Old Town’s streets, my boy still holding flyers in his hand, offering them to strangers with his polite question: ‘Would you like to see my mum’s show? She’s hilarious.’