24 December, 2003, Dongola, Northern Sudan.
I am sitting outside Lord’s Hotel in this dusty town, which nevertheless looks like a metropolis to me with its gold shops and its tarmac after a week of riding along the Nile. The hotel is a one-story, concrete building, one of two hotels which have sprung up to catch the nascent tourist trade after the recent opening of Sudan’s northern land border. I am nursing a stomach bug I have picked up from ill-advised drinking of riverwater, feeling wan and wondering if I will ever have the urge to eat again. It’s evening, and there is a buzz of tea drinking and conversation at the tables standing on the street outside the hotel. I am reading, or writing something, keeping an eye out for other whiteys, since I have been on the road for a bit over a week and I know that the boat from Aswan to Wadi Halfa came in 2 days ago.
And here they come- 4 of them, carrying a gigantic bottle of Cola to drink their Christmas Eve toasts. Two Czechs, Marcin’s friend Anka, and Marcin himself. He is wearing a pale blue scarf and a pair of glasses with thick black rims, and sending an sms from an ancient Nokia. I will carry a deep affection for all these items (scarf, glasses, phone) long after they have gone out of circulation.
This story is one which I never tire of telling myself, and it never fails to give me a frisson. Over the next decade, I will meet this man again, fall in love with him, live with him in 2 countries and travel with him in countless others. I will learn to speak to him in his own language and have the hilarious pleasure of hearing him use Australian idioms. He will be the father of my children. This moment, this harmless Christmas Eve sighting of a bespectacled European going about his business, is simultaneously so casual and so momentous that it fascinates me. It carries the ungerminated seed of my whole future as an adult, with a husband and a family, and I don’t know it.
My classes with one of my students resemble weekly therapy. My heart sank when I heard the familiar refrain of conversation, no grammar; generally people who specify this have no idea what hard work it is to keep up a conversation for an hour with somebody who doesn’t know that the subject should precede the verb. I don’t like the pressure to think of something to tak about, and the nagging feeling that I should be teaching, and not just talking.
But it has worked out for us. We like each other. She makes me a coffee and we talk. She is an entrepreneurial soul who likes to travel, who has a rich social life, who is not afraid to take responsibility for keeping the conversational ball rolling.
She has teenage children, one of whom is a 17-year old boy who worries her immensely. He has no friends, she says, no plans. All he wants to do is sit in front of the computer. He has no passion, no talents. But mainly, she worries about the friends. She thinks that these years will set the social tenor of the rest of his life; that if he doesn’t learn now how to be with people, he never will. I feel the anxiety emanating from her in great waves. She is not an especially emotional type- a long, angular beauty with an unrepentant taste for cigarettes, she is wry rather than melodramatic. But this son of hers bothers her. We come back to him again and again, as she tries to come up with a solution: therapy? bribery? boot camp?, always ending with a confession of helplessness. Neither of us says it, but I feel she doesn’t like him very much.
I go back to my own uncomplicated babies with a feeling that is half relief and half awareness that it’s only a stay of execution. My concerns about them at this point are relatively simple, mainly centering on food and sleep and how to stop them falling on their heads too frequently. They’re so easy to love, and it occurs to me in the wake of these lessons that it might not always be the case.
Christmas shopping for our godchildren with two one-year olds in tow. Unusually, we haven’t been given specific directions on what to buy them so it takes longer than usual. We have already been to the doctor so Maja and Janek have been imprisoned in the pram for hours; when we get to the mummy cafe with attached shop, I let them out to roam free. Maja chases the local dog and starts to pull its tail. Janek falls down the stairs on his head. At this moment my friend who lives around the corner calls and asks me to bring her over some cigarettes and because I am convinced I have recently hurt her feelings by mercilessly mocking her purchase of a down miniskirt, I do it.
Me and Marcin put the babies to bed and leave them with our friend while we go out for a Christmas drink with his old housemates. This is such a rare event for us that we stroll a bit on the way, even though I am wearing stupid shoes and freezing because vanity has won out over practicality in the wardrobe stakes. We saunter along, my hand in his pocket, talking about nothing much, eyeing the fake neon waterfall on Plac na Rozdrożu. I like him, I decide, as I look at him for the first time in a long time without two big bald heads interfering with my view. When we get home around 11, my friend is pacing in my dressing gown- Maja is in her arms, a pair of gleaming snot trails visible under her nose; Janek is running backwards and forwards in the hallway on his hands and knees and whooping like a baboon.
I get an sms from our friend Marek; ‘Kasia, Szymon and the goat will be at your house at 7.’ We have been either entertaining or out every night during the week, and under normal circumstances might be able to refuse this tempting offer, but not at this time of year. Kasia, Szymon and the goat arrive as promised, so when I get home from work at 8, there is already a goaty fragrance floating down the stairs.
We go to Pruszków for the weekend. Janek screams all the way, pissed off at being in his car seat, and since the screaming is going so well for him, he keeps it up for the rest of the night. The next day Marcin goes shopping for Christmas supplies and I stay home with them. I realise where the phrase ‘watching the kids’ to mean looking after them comes from as I lie down on the floor and stare at them with my mouth open.
If I had to describe my mental and emotional state at this juncture, I would have to say that I have been comprehensively humbled. Almost every illusion I have ever held about myself has been shattered. That my relationship is stable. (It has shaken like a leaf this year). That I am patient. (That I ever held this illusion is laughable. I lose my shit an average of twice a week, sometimes horribly). That I am fair. (Whoever’s not screaming, that’s my favourite. It’s that simple.)
Gone are the days when I can comfortably think to myself that other people’s children are annoying because they have raised them specially that way, or have neglected to take simple steps to prevent them from being annoying which of course I myself would take. Also gone are the days when I can tell myself that I will not be one of those people who is consumed by their children- not in any psychic sense, but in terms of pure logistics. I really did think to myself that I would just pop them in a corner with an old stick to play with and hop back on my bike. I can never, ever judge another parent with that satisfying sense of complacency again.
I expected to love them, to be fascinated by their tricks, to feel a strong urge to protect them. Nothing surprising there. What I didn’t expect is to feel so furious so often, to be prey to my own infantile tantrums. I also didn’t expect the significant cognitive impairment that comes from an ongoing sleep deficit combined with an overwhelming focus on one particular thing. There are still days when the idea of feeding them for the third time and cleaning up afterwards fills me with a kind of paralysis, and when the thought of planning my lessons for the week makes my mind go blank.
Compared to the very early days, though, I would have to say that I am well adjusted. Crossing the footbridge to the shop for some flour after the babies had fallen asleep yesterday, I had a strong, physical memory of these expeditions when they were very young; of being frozen with shock, and getting no relief from leaving them for a moment, because I knew I would have to go home and get back on the merry-go-round again and I felt utterly unequal to the task. I can enjoy it, now. The insane and constant feeling of guilt is long gone, the panic has faded. I am someone’s mother, and saying it no longer makes me feel like an imposter.