‘Don’t drink that,’ says my husband shaking his head and screwing his forehead up in distaste at the generic silver and black can in my mum’s hand. ‘Soda Water pulls the minerals out of your body and leaves you more dehydrated. Drink this,’ he hands her a bottle of Perrier.
We are perched on stools in the lounge in Hong Kong. It seemed to be the least offensive place for us to perch, given that my girls’ ‘spirited cuteness’ was currently being viewed as as an affront to the many people tapping furiously into laptops or sleeping on the chaise lounges.
Mum laughs and looks around us. It’s like being in a luxury hotel, chandeliers hang from the ceiling and staff stand at the ready behind four different buffet stations, offering a wonka-sized selection of doughnuts, ice cream, noodles, and antipasto.
‘This is my daughter’s life,’ says my mother, waving around the bottle of Perrier, ‘and this is mine,’ she says holding up a silver and black can of soda water.
I’m still not sure if the joke is funny or sad, but the jet lag and exhaustion fuel a sense of hilarity that has us all doubled over in hysterics. Well, except for my husband, he just looks confused. But then he often misunderstands jokes. Humour or ‘umour’ as he likes to say, is not his strength. He’s really very funny, don’t get me wrong, but his delivery is usually a little confusing, and other people’s jokes, well, they tend to create confused look that he is currently wearing. Recently, I bought him a t-shirt that says ‘sarcasm’ on it, so now we just point to it as needed. That, of course, he found really funny.
On the plane, the girls indulge in unlimited screen time. Through their Sophia the First and Doc McStuffins trances they do little else but eat cheese and press next. Emirates, are a wonderful airline to fly with children. ‘We’re like nannies,’ says the beautifully coiffed air hostess, the silk sash sitting elegantly by her face. She brings the girls the fancy cheese from first class, and I wonder if I might just leave her in charge of my girls and check in with her at the end… I don’t of course, instead I let her feed the girls to within an inch of their lives. By the time we land in Amsterdam, I’ll have little blocks of Brie and Gouda for children. I’m sure I should intervene and I really want to care, but I might make it through a whole movie and i haven’t done that in years. I hit play.
A gloriously orange misty sunrise, like a Berocca tablet just beginning to fizz, greets us. It is beautiful, and it is bloody cold. I tear through the suitcases trying to find jackets and scarfs and hats for the girls. I have no idea how to dress for this kind of cold. I quell the panic attack that is threatening to take hold and shivering, I zip the girls in to everything we own.
I cannot get my jacket out though, it’s stuck. My husband wraps his jumper over my shoulders, and stands there in short sleeves, pretending he’s not cold. He waves the driver over and the men all work on what is possibly the most challenging game of Tetris any of them have ever played. One van, seven people, 13 pieces of luggage and six pieces of carry on. We all fit, just, and whilst breathing is now a luxury, we find ourselves hurtling down the wrong side of the road, to a whole new life.
We pull up in front of a flat fronted, typically dutch house. The peaked roof towers above us. There is a strange hook hanging from the middle of the roof, and a debate begins as we all try to guess what on earth it is for.
‘It’s for moving furniture,’ says the driver, and we laugh thinking he is joking. A week later I see someone moving into a house, and the removalist’s are in fact using this hook as part of an antiquated pulley system to haul the larger pieces of furniture up to the right floor, and then they go in through the windows. The stairwells of dutch houses are too narrow for furniture, something we learn later as we attempt to move a large chair from one floor to another.
The men busy themselves with feats of strength, unloading and carting the luggage about the house, while the women take care of the children’s emotional needs (read: the kind of marathon tantrumming that jet lag and moving countries can inspire) and stare open mouthed at the five floors that apparently comprise our new home. If this is what the ‘Perrier’ lifestyle looks like. Count me in!
The house is gorgeous, like some kind of Vogue Living dream. Great swathes of light bathe every level, warming the monochromatic interior that celebrates the house’s history while still seeming modern. I’m in love. I never want to leave. Is it too soon to say that?
‘Now this, this is a kitchen you can keep clean,’ says my Mum, running her hands along the long marble bench tops, and opening and closing drawers. She might be right. She might not be too, cleaning is not really my strength. I can create; meals, messes, wild culinary experiments, but cleaning up after them, well that’s not something I attack with quite the same fervour.
Stepping through the kitchen, which I’m convinced is the size of my first apartment, I find a sunroom. I’ve always wanted one.
‘It needs a chair,’ says Mum, voicing my thoughts exactly.
In the hallway, we are greeted with stairs. They go up, and up and up, and they are stupidly steep. I am definitely not fit enough for this house.
‘You’re bum is going to be better than it was when you were 20,’ says Mum. I laugh, but when my youngest takes a tumble down the first set of stairs, my love of the house falters. My daughter screams, refuses ice, and asks in a tiny panicked voice ‘do I have to go to hospital now?’ — the memories of her tripping on the stairs in Australia and slicing her forehead open on the skirting board just two months ago are too fresh for us both. My husband was in Amsterdam when she fell.
It was me who held her while she bled, who comforted her in the car as we drove to the hospital, who reassured her while the doctor checked the wound and decided she needed to surgery. It was me who gave her the medicine so that she wouldn’t remember any of it, it was me who clasped her protesting arms as the anaesthetist held the mask over her face and it was me who refused to look away even as her eyes asked me how it was that I could betray her this way. It was also me who lifted her rag doll body onto the bed and walked away, leaving her with strangers. Seven minutes, the surgery lasted, but it was my worst seven minutes and it is the reason we are all here now, together, in Amsterdam.
‘It’ll be okay,’ says my husband giving me a hug. I smile through tears that I don’t let fall.
I can do this. I’m not going to be beaten by a bunch of stairs. Twenty minutes later, she somersaults like a trapeze artists from two thirds of the way up the attic stairs. I leap up and catch her mid turn.
‘Good catch, Mama,’ she says, afraid but completely unharmed.
I sit down in a heap on the floor, my youngest in my arms.
I was diagnosed with PTSD with panic attacks two weeks ago. I’m barely stable on my medication. When I took my dose this morning, my brain froze and reset itself, ‘unusual’ my doctor tells me, ‘but not uncommon. Usually it happens when people are withdrawing.’ I get it all the time. It feels like a panic attack only colder.
I’m drowning in cortisol and I just want to be somewhere familiar. Somewhere safe. It’s ironic, because nowhere actually feels safe. ‘I cannot do this. I cannot stay here.’ I rant, not looking up. ‘It’s not safe. That could have killed her.’ Anger feels stronger than helplessness.
Mum shrugs, ‘it wouldn’t have killed her, might have done some damage though.’
She wants me to laugh, but I cannot.
‘Let’s just give ourselves some time to adjust,’ says Mum, as though I were 5. And to be fair, I am on the floor, a mere regressive moment from banging my fists. ‘And in the meantime, we’ll get safety gates.’
‘I want two sets of safety gates,’ I demand of my husband, as I come back into the kitchen. ‘Do we really need..’ he starts, and then takes one look at my face and starts typing on his phone. ‘Done,’ he says.
The safety gates arrive, in all their glorious ugliness the next day. Of course, they don’t actually fit the width of the staircase. Quick response times are one of my husband’s strengths, attention to detail is not.
Mum was right, as Mums so often are. We adjusted, we adapted, and we got used to all of those stairs. Months later, I still call out, ‘slowly on the stairs,’ ‘pay attention’, and every time I hear their little feet running on the floorboards my stomach tries to force itself up my oesophagus. My daughters roll their eyes at ‘Mama’s anxiety’, ‘we are,’ they call out sweetly. The safety gates remain in a cupboard downstairs, a metallic memento of my ‘we’ve just moved to Amsterdam, and I’ve absolutely no idea what I’m doing’ panic.
Over the next few days, (read: weeks and months), I spend way too much time, at Ikea and the garden centre, and trawling websites for ‘just a few select decor items.’
‘Whatever makes you happy,’ says my husband every time I start a sentence with, ‘My love, I was thinking, what about a…’ But over time, this house becomes our home.
It’s quite fun, this living a ‘Perrier’ lifestyle.