Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Return of The Native

Last night I couldn’t sleep. I gazed wide-eyed at the ceiling, listening to the waves and the caw of the gulls. It didn’t irritate me; each push of sea against the shore made me breathe a tad deeper, it felt peaceful. Alert to the world outside my window, I was filled with a restless energy for dawn, so I could get up and explore my surroundings. I’ve been away for over two years, and I've missed it.

Confession time: I haven’t always loved Suffolk.
I was born in “Up North”, transplanted at the tender age of seven, because of my dad’s work with the NHS. When we arrived in Ipswich I sounded (with my Yorkshire accent) and looked (carrot hair) `different`, and the playground can be tough if you don’t fit in. I missed my family and friends. In Hull a latch-key dog named Ringo had adopted me, and I was heartbroken at having to say goodbye to him. It wasn’t a happy beginning.
Initially we lived in one of the doctor’s flats on Pearson Road, along with several cockroaches, then we found a house in the Chantry area. Slowly, I began to make friends, and my parents bought me a dog who wasn’t Ringo but Rufus. I started to settle.
I’d just taken my O levels when my parents decided to buy a hotel in Felixstowe. Having been made redundant a few times, Dad wanted to be his own boss and Mum (then a school nurse at Thomas Wolsey in Ipswich) is a fantastic cook, so she thought she’d be up for the challenge too. It’s no small thing, giving up two careers to run a hotel, and I admired their ambition, but the move meant I was once again in a town I didn’t know.
I decided to continue my studies in Ipswich, taking the train each day and biking to Westbourne, dossing round friend’s houses as often as I could to avoid returning to a place I couldn’t think of as `home`. I thought I’d leave someday soon and never return.

I was wrong. Seven years later I was studying for my Social Work qualification at UEA, in Norwich, and was offered a placement at the Felixstowe probation office, so I moved back for six months. I decided, as a way to meet people, to take a film course in Ipswich and on the first evening I met Andrew.
Also a migrant to Suffolk at a young age, and also someone who’d left for University but wound up coming back, our life stories were twins. Within six weeks I knew he was the man I wanted to marry, and everything I felt about the county changed changed.

It was during my maternity leave, whilst I was writing The Woman Before Me, that I began to feel part of the community. I joined the writing group that meets at the library, as well as various mother and toddler groups. I knew people, and I knew my way around. And when in 2005 I became a full-time novelist I felt supported by local bookshops and books clubs. This sense of belonging was priceless.  
Often, in the evenings, Andrew and I would push the pram through town and down a particular street to admire the houses. They reminded us of the homes we’d seen on our honeymoon in New England, and one in particular looked like it had a view of the sea. “If any of these ever come for sale, I’d buy it,” I told Andrew. But I knew it was just a fantasy.
Thirteen years later I was walking past an estate agent just as he was placing a new advert in the window. I recognised the house immediately and called Andrew.
“It’s for sale,” I said. “We’re viewing it tomorrow.”
Three days later that, after much financial wizardry, the mortgage adviser told me we could put in an offer on our dream house. Excited, I called Andrew, “We can do it!”
“We can’t,” he said. “The firm are moving me to Luxembourg. Or they’re making me redundant.”

Luxembourg. I couldn’t even place it on a map. I didn’t know what language they spoke. And I boarded the plane on that first visit full of doubts anxiety. I didn’t want to uproot my kids, like I’d been uprooted. I wanted them to grow up around their grandparents, to have the sense of `roots` that I had lost.

Against all expectations, Luxembourg bowled me over. The main square, the Place d`Arms, is lined with restaurants and outdoor seating, all around a bandstand area. The old city is built around a valley, looped by the original fortress walls. The shopping area is classy, with designer shops like Gucci and Dior next to wine boutiques and chocolate shops. It’s like a city from a storybook, and as we sat in the square that first evening I felt that maybe this could be a new chapter in my life, if only I was brave enough. But I had a condition: I still wanted to buy the house, even though it would mean renting it and someone else living in it whilst we were away. This was my safety net, a foothold in Suffolk.

Four months later we moved to Luxembourg, enrolling the kids in the nearby International School. With them making new friends, and Andrew busy at work, Luxembourg was less structured for me. After I’d done all the usual things that moving home requires I joined the gym, made friends and went for coffee. But very quickly I found these things weren’t enough. I started work as a volunteer at the local prison, one of only three Brits on the team, and made links with local social workers and police.
One morning I was dropping the kids off at school when I noticed several security guards hanging around. And a poster advising parents not to let their children travel to school unaccompanied. I discovered that there had been three attempted kidnappings in the past week, and people were nervous but very little information was available. It was a lightbulb moment: I knew I had found the subject for my fifth crime novel.
I began to research, reaching out to locals for their stories, and to professionals for their expertise. I even had an audience with the British Ambassador, Alice Walpole, of whom I asked just one question: “what would you do if a British girl was kidnapped?”
This research took me into the darker parts of Luxembourg, the areas where drug addicts and prostitutes live, and also the refugee hostels. I was privileged to hear their stories, and hoped I could do justice to them. I also had a stint in hospital, which changed the course of my novel so it looked at several aspects of Luxembourg life.

In November `Nowhere Girl` was launched at an event hosted by the British Ambassador in her Luxembourg residence. In her welcome address she told the audience of social workers and police, scout leaders and nurses, how I had come and asked her my question, and how she couldn’t answer. This was why she wanted to host the launch; unbeknownst to me everyone in the room had been asked to contribute to a new Child Protection policy, published that day. I felt humbled, and also delighted. It was a wonderful occasion, and also a perfect way to say goodbye. I was coming home.

So, the adventure is over. It wasn’t always rosy or easy, but I wouldn’t have changed anything.
I’ve been home since Easter, and it’s been busy, with a lot of focus on the upcoming Felixstowe Book Festival. Two weeks ago, along with fellow crime author Daniel Pembrey, I spoke at the Luxembourg Embassy in London, with Prince Louis of Luxembourg in attendance. The icing on the cake of my Luxembourg adventure.

As I sit here, looking out to the sea from my dream house, I know I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to live somewhere else. But I also know that it’s true what they say; there really is no place like home.  

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