While she loves expat life in New Zealand, Charity Norman has come to dread receiving a fateful phone call from home in Britain
Not long ago an old friend phoned to tell me that her father had died. This isn’t unusual in itself, of course; she and I are of that age.
Yet for me it was a particular sadness. This was partly because I had met and liked her father, but also because she and I have something in common: as Englishwomen living in New Zealand, we are both based on the opposite side of the world from our own families.
When his long illness suddenly worsened she’d dropped everything and taken the first available flight home. It’s an awfully long way from Auckland to London. Too long, in her case. She arrived at Heathrow to be greeted with the news that she was too late.
This scenario is familiar to many expatriates, who answer middle-of-the-night phone calls with a frisson of dread. I know someone who keeps a bag semi-packed and passport on hand, ready for That Phone Call. You might call it paranoia, but that would not be fair. It’s a perfectly rational fear, fuelled by guilt.
It was a decade ago that I announced to my parents – then in their seventies – that my husband and I were planning to sell our house and move here, bringing with us three of their large crowd of grandchildren. I believe they thought us mad.
They didn’t pretend to be overjoyed at the news, but they were grown-up about it. “I’m sorry you’re packing up,” said my father, with his customary selflessness, “though I can understand your reasoning.”
Perhaps they remembered that they too had left England when their first child was a baby. They spent years in Uganda as Church Mission Society partners, and six more children were born to them there. I was the last of the seven.
Their journey by sea took weeks; there was no nipping home, no Skype, no texting. My poor grandparents had to be content with reels of shaky cine film, in dire need of editing, across which cavorted seven children with African-sun-bleached hair.
My mother never saw her father again. He became ill and died unexpectedly. I am only now beginning to grasp what that must have meant for her.
Our own decision to emigrate was made after much thought and was, on balance, a good idea. I was a barrister, working long hours and seeing too little of our children (they remember a “posh woman in black, who ran in and out of the house shouting, and sometimes read us stories”).
My husband is a New Zealander, so visas weren’t a problem. In those days the currency market was in our favour and the cost of living lower here. We were lured by sun, space and the delight of adventure and change.
All of these considerations have proved valid, but they’ve come with a price tag attached. My large and close-knit clan has been absent from our daily lives. Family photos no longer include us, and our children have grown up without knowing these important people.
Worse still, I am not there as my parents battle the stresses of ageing and ravages of Alzheimer’s. I do visit, and of course there’s the telephone; but I can’t just drop by for a cup of tea.
I can’t spend an hour helping my father in the garden, chatting or asking his advice about this or that. I can’t invite them over for Sunday lunch. Those precious years are slipping by. One day the phone will ring, and I will drop everything.
Just before we left for New Zealand we had a final outing with my parents. They spent a day with us, ending at the London Eye. We were to go our separate ways immediately after we disembarked.
They were heading home, while we’d arranged to spend our final night with a brother near Heathrow before flying early the next morning.
I still have the souvenir photograph, snapped by an automatic camera from outside our glass bubble, just a few minutes before we said goodbye. We didn’t know it was being taken.
The seven of us huddle in a group, looking out of the vast window. My then four-year-old daughter is wearing her favourite golden cardigan, and squinting up at her beloved granny. Two small boys crouch on the floor at my father’s feet with their faces pressed to the glass. They look bewildered.
Not one of us is smiling.
ED: I thought this article captured nicely expat life.