The immigration official waved us over as the girls and I drove slowly off the ferry from Ireland to Wales. There are no real immigration controls between Ireland and the UK, it’s one of those amazing European phenomena of the permeable border. How they actually control who is in which country I am always confused by. I assumed this must be a random immigration control check, looking at documents, rego papers.
It had been one full day since Mel had left the four of us. Jet setting off on a well earned solo adventure – Prague, Budapest, a music festival to see Florence and the Machine play then on to Paris. The plan is to rendezvous (hopefully) at a train station outside of Paris in a week. But we are doing that one old school – we don’t have local SIM cards, so no working mobiles. 5pm at Amiens station it is – and if she’s not there, then, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Mel was dropped at Dublin airport with a few last minute tears of uncertainty (from the girls and maybe a sneaky one from Mel) then we were back out the doors and into the van. The airport having provided a rush of excitement. Everything so clean and ordered with its shiny glass surfaces, smooth pathways, lifts and reassuring order. No matter how much I have travelled for work and play – airports still give me some strange rush. Everything from the smell of aviation fuel wafting through the car window even when you are still miles away, through to the flashing information boards and long lines. Probably mostly it’s the fact that everyone is in a heightened emotional state. They are all going somewhere different or returning home to everything they know well. Both beautiful states of mind to be in.
The car was pretty quiet for the drive back along the M50 towards Dublin. Our final destination the small port of Rosslare 150km away where we would get the car ferry back to Wales, then a few days in the UK before crossing into France for our planned rendezvous.
The immigration officer stuck his head in the car window with a smile and I reached for our passports that were sitting on the console.
“Hi There!” he said. “Just a quick check, for child safety. You know, a car traveling with one adult and several children. What’s your relationship to the children?”
I was a little taken aback, so my answer may have come our as nervous, uncertain or sort of forced casual.
“They’re my daughters” I answered a little incensed that he should even be asking me why I would be driving around with three strange children in the car. Who the hell did he think I was?
And like a text book procedure from his child protection training to “Identify the emotional state of the children and the veracity of the adults claims” he stuck his head further in the window and addressed the girls.
“Having fun girls? How was the trip?” He said loudly
The trip had been terrible actually. A large swell had been whipped up overnight so Ellie and I and spent three out of the four hours on deck breathing deeply or sitting inside staring at the horizon so we didn’t lose breakfast. So needless to say the car was a little subdued, hungry, itching to move on.
The girls sort of went mute in the face of this stranger asking whose children they were and how their trip was. Their silence making me feel strangely guilty of something – like maybe they were hiding the fact that they weren’t actually my children. But we passed the inspection without having to reach for passports for proof and he waved us on.
I drove off wondering how often they come across children being relocated forcefully due to custody struggles or worse. I was left a little awed by how important that guys job was. The ONE time he stops a car and becomes a lifeline for some poor defenceless child makes everything worth while. Every time he stops someone like me and asks a strangely offensive question about what I am doing driving around with three strange children. Well that’s worth it.
But it also drive another realisation home. That now our little party was not normal. There I was flying solo and now we were an abnormality. The balance had been shifted. The vibe changed. The patterns shuffled and mixed up.
I have actually been looking forward to it. We have all literally been living in each other’s pockets for over a year. We have settled into routines and roles. For the most part these have worked amazingly. Especially between Mel and me. They always say that travel is the ultimate test of a relationship. All the stresses, new environments, changes, uncertainty. So all in all I am amazed that things have been so smooth. Not just smooth, but emotionally exciting. As if all the change has added energy not drained it.
But change is good. Being alone is good. Altering the energy of a group is good. So I was almost as excited for Mel as she was. Just imaging her walking Prague streets with no time frames, no demands, no requests, no one to think about but herself, gave me a rush of excitement. When we skyped today she looked tanned, bright eyed and energised. It was working.
I was even excited to be flying solo with the girls. There is something romantic and dreamy about flying down highways on my own, with my three daughters by my side and behind me. Loud tunes, drifting off into our own worlds, coming back, laughing, doing the logistics of where to stay, where to eat, where we should get to tonight.
But there is also this idea of facing the challenge of being along and responsible for them in a strange land. There is a group of people who I admire more than mountain climbers and explorers. Those are the single parents of this world.
Every parent knows it’s a hard job. Yes of course filled with sheer mind boggling magic – but also bloody hard. The combination of logistics, planning, responding to constant physiological needs that if not satisfied bring moods or irrationality. Food, water, toilets, fatigue….and on top of all that you have to supply unconditional emotional support and somehow not forget to also have something that resembles fun.
It’s all consuming even when your wingman/woman is immensely capable and a brilliant parent. Even then I still get tired and lost. But to do it alone, day in day out, with no reprieve and no one to turn to and groan with over a glass of wine. I am in awe of that.
So when the plan for Mels side trip arose I secretly looked forward to testing my mettle. Tasting that life alone, if nothing more than to know I could do it and remind myself of how inspiring those parents are.
So we have done it. We are parked up by the roadside near the Eurotunnel station. Tomorrow we set off for France to Meet Mel who at this very minute is immersed in the mosh pit (?) at Florence and the Machine. It’s late and we just pulled in. The girls are already asleep due to a late one with their second cousins last night (a beautiful sight). I have just poured a battered and beaten can of Kilkenny Cream that limped with us from Ireland. Dropped several times out the car doors when we stopped and the usual assortment of “stuff” falls out, cartoon style. I don’t know how I went – the girls will need to be testament to that. I know I got flustered, uptight, and overloaded when everyone wanted everything and I wasn’t even sure of the plan myself. I definitely lost my cool when a hungry and overtired Tully Rose got short tempered and demanded food at the PRECISE moment that my blood sugars plummeted and I needed food, and couldn’t think straight for myself let alone three other edgy individuals all looking at me saying “I’m hungry!!!”. If it didn’t feel so bad to hypo it would have been quite comical. Tully crying, ham and rolls scattered across the bed in the van, me slumped on the bed with my head in my hands gobbling lollies, Ellie and Zoe avoiding it all being very, very quiet.
There were times when all pretence of trying to be the worlds most amazing parent failed and I felt proud of just getting them all fed, showered, teeth cleaned and asleep. I sat up alone after they were asleep thinking “Yea….a win!”
An overwhelming feeling of success because I had got three children to bed.
But amongst all that dry logistics of living there were gems. Zoe spinning AC/DC at full blast through small English towns, the bizarre wonder of the St Columb Major carnival, belly laughing as I drove with Ellie riding shotgun next to me, hours of parks and swings with nowhere to be or go.
Hopefully that is what will stick. It always does in children’s minds. The parents saviour being the positive selectivity of the human mind. How when they recall events and times all the bad bits seem to seep away and they are left with shining moments of family joy.
I had better get to sleep. We still need to get up, find out way to the check in and get our passports ready again. It’s exciting stepping out of the familiar English speaking world again. Back to feeling on edge and immersed in someone else’s world, not one very similar to my own. Then we have to get off in Calais and somehow find our way to Amiens. I have told the girls that they all need to sit up front on the bench seat with me all constantly chanting “Stay right!! Stay right!! Stay right!!”
We may just make it yet.