We’re back. After eight-and-a-half years in Amsterdam the Thomas family has returned to Blighty, although for the girl of 12 and the boy of nine the move is not a homecoming but a brave migration to a new life.
Last July they were still throwing on their mufti and walking hand-in-hand across the bridge to an undemanding primary school with no kitchen. Next week they begin the second half of an academic year in which they have had to get used to putting on uniforms, going to different schools, staying there all day, and coming home with work to do.
It has been a steep curve, but the unaccustomed academic pressure – along with the company of other children who relish it – has been vital in fending off the melancholy. In the rush of adjustment there has simply been no time for looking back. I was banking on this effect, but I’m still grateful to see it working. And the food helps, too.
When I was small it was the smell of school lunch that stirred up the homesickness and put tears in the eyes and a brick in the tummy, but my children are different. My son is a lip-smacking trencherman who looks forward keenly to the communal midday scoff, while the girl’s only complaint about her school – delivered, I might say, with a plaintive wail in week one – was that the authorities had caved in to the zeitgeist of the trendy middle class and instituted Meat-Free Monday. I know that in the coming years placating my daughter will become a full-time job if I don’t watch it, but for now I’m quite happy to begin the working week with bacon sandwiches for breakfast.
We have settled in Oxford, where I went to school and college, and where I also lived as a sporadically solvent bachelor freelance well into my 40s. Coming back as a family man embarking on his seventh decade was always going to be a bit of a shock, but luckily circumstances landed me in the new house four days ahead of the pack, and I had a chance to adjust on my own.
Over a couple of pints of the bitter I’d been missing all these years my favourite landlord merrily told me about all the other old regulars who had died while I’d been away, though their numbers were as nothing to the conjured hordes, living and departed, who jostled around me and barked my name from high windows as I walked the streets of my youth. I don’t have to ask “Where are they now?” They’re here. The other night I even saw my self from 40 years ago, laughing and chatting away with some jolly young girl at the other end of the pub. But I know he didn’t see me, because I’d remember.
“Why did you move back?” This is a question I hear a lot from neighbours and fellow school parents, and not delivered in innocent curiosity or by way of making polite conversation. For Oxford, and particularly the lonely Lib Dem constituency in which we live and educate our children, is pretty much Remain Central, and what they actually mean is: “You lived in the most liberal country at the heart of the greatest humanitarian experiment in the history of the world, and you voluntarily returned to this racist hellhole where aspirin and Chablis will shortly be unobtainable?”
I simply reply “For the schools,” which is actually most of the truth, because I doubt there is anywhere on the Continent that could rival, by our specific balance of criteria, the best of the British independent sector.
Of course we’ve halved our weekly grocery bill while doubling its scope, and know that our votes count again; and anyway, this is our children’s heritage, and that matters to people everywhere. This is why the centralisation of the EU is so unpopular with its citizens, causing levels of lunatic populism, even in the Netherlands, that are unknown in Britain. (Ukip? Pussy-cats.)
But mostly I don’t get into that. You’d think these enlightened cosmopolitan types would be all agog for the views of a veteran press and politics hack who voted Leave and lived in the palpitating heart of the eurozone for the thick end of a decade. Not a bit of it. If I do start ranting, I sense that only my grey hairs have saved me from a nutting, and that’s just with the women. I shall not enjoy watching the unfolding tragi-comedy that the EU has scripted for itself, and I shall not enjoy being blamed for it, either. But, gosh, I’m glad to be home.
Vienna: A Novel by Nick Thomas was published by Resource Publications in January and is available from Amazon
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