Apologies if I sound a little frazzled. We’ve just moved house. And I don’t mean just around the corner, we’ve moved half way across the world from Beijing to London after thirteen years in China (long story). When we were about leave Beijing, I told my children, who have grown up in China and who were sad to leave their home, that we were like snails, that we would carry our home on our backs. So yesterday our home arrived, into the empty shell of our house. Removal men hoisted heavy boxes packed with books as though they were the weight of a new born baby. Among the things that had made their way to us across the sea, through high seas and pounding rain, all carefully wrapped in sheets of packing paper, were half a broom handle and what appeared to be the contents of our vacuum cleaner. In they came through our door, object after relentless object, bringing with them layers of Beijing dust and even thicker layers of memory.
Objects are rarely given life in literature. But when our dining table arrived in our empty kitchen, it brought with it the people who had sat there with us, in particular my children’s friends, Prudence, Danna, Leah and Jamie who grew to feel like family in our thirteen years in Beijing. They could have been there in the house with me, their presence was suddenly so real. I thought of them, then, in Beijing, We dragged a large stuffed tiger out of another box. Once beloved, its fur now thick with years of grubby hands, its glazed eyes surrounded in green felt tip eyeliner, my teenage daughters turned their noses up at it: it has no place in their lives or on their shelves now. We’ve all moved on.
For me, being back in Britain is an invigorating prospect. As a writer, it’s my incredibly amazing job to indulge my imagination. So for years I’ve sat in Beijing at my desk writing about life in Britain thousands of miles away. Sometimes, when I’ve glanced up and caught sight of the world outside my window, it’s been a jolt, as though I’ve suddenly been transported through time and space. Perhaps we are all like snails in this respect too, that we can carry our worlds with us, in our imaginations and in our memories. But imagination needs its fuel, too, its raw material. I find it daily, now, in the conversations that I have with people I encounter, and the conversations that I overhear on buses and trains. I’m back where I need to be to write the kinds of stories that I want to write. Stories like Carnaby, which I wrote last year about a teenage girl who lives on a condemned council estate, and whose mother is murdered. Or like Splintered Light, about three teenagers whose lives collide twelve years after a brutal murder in which they were all tangentially involved. These are stories set in Britain as young people experience it today.
But still, leaving Beijing has been like a bereavement. When we left Beijing, we invited close friends, and our children’s close friends, to a party in a traditional courtyard. It was a rare Beijing evening, clear and fresh. In that moment, it was inconceivable that we could leave our home, our friends, even that city which is as harsh as it is sometimes beautiful. I spoke briefly, and said that what we had learned in our lives of moving from city to city was that our friends kept reappearing, that this was a comma in our lives, not a full stop. And I hope I said – I certainly intended to say, but can’t remember whether I said it in the intensity of the moment – was that expatriate populations like the one we were part of, where people of diverse nationalities gathered in a foreign city where they were all temporary residents, made for excellent friends. Few expatriates take their friends for granted, either those at home, so far away and so badly missed, or new friends in their adopted home, who protect them from loneliness and become, in many cases, like a second family.
I had feared that in moving back to London, making friends would be hard for us and for our children. But London is a collection of diverse newcomers too. We have found people open to friendship. So, to neighbours who have taken the initiative to welcome us, and to the girl at my daughter’s new school who went up to her and said, ‘Are you on your own? So am I,’ we owe a debt of gratitude. We are beginning to feel as though we are at home.