They weren’t happy in Aylesbury. Mum was depressed, spending her days at home vacuuming and wiping up crumbs from our endless marmite sandwiches eaten between school and the Woodcraft Folk after school program, one of Britain’s last experiments in socialist community building. Mum wanted to move back north to York where her family was from, but Dad was from the south and just wasn’t having it. Mum was watching TV one night when an Australian cooking show hosted by Peter Russell Clarke came on the telly. Mum had been a vegetarian since she was 11, and did not fancy eating the camel and witchetty grubs Mr Clarke was dishing up. The shots of walks along the beach, exotic wildlife and the big, affordable housing blocks were very enticing though. What was keeping them in England anyway? Mum and Dad had few friends, and Dad’s computing business was terminal due to his inability to be nice to his customers. If they were going to be unhappy, they not let it be in the sunshine?
Mum got up off the settee and knocked on Dad’s attic door with a broom, where he spent his evenings making tiny model World War 2 German Panther tanks that he dreamed might roll over the whole of Britain one day. She asked him if he would consider migrating to Australia. It wasn’t the first time they’d talked about leaving. Dad had had a tough run in England. His unmarried mother had walked in front of a car when he was two, and baby Clive had been placed in an orphanage until he was adopted by an alcoholic Welshwoman called Dulcie, who, finding him difficult, deposited him in a boarding school for maladjusted boys at age 9. After finishing school, Dad had been enrolled by the headmaster in electrical engineering at Coventry Polytechnic, where he’d met Mum, a political science student who’d been desperate to get as far away from her mother as possible. Mum and Dad moved in together in a miserably cold flat. Mum had Aidan when she was 23 and me two years later. Mum had never wanted kids, but now that she had them, she figured that it would be better for us to have more space to run around in. So when Mum found out that the occupation of computer programmer was on the list for the Australian skilled migrant program, our course was set.
There are very few photos of my early life in England in the late 1980’s, despite it being Kodak's heyday. I have a single photo of my brother Aidan and I in our backyard in Bichester Road in Aylesbury. My brown hair is cut short, and I’m wearing black Wellington Boots with a red woollen jumper over a frilly white collared dress. Aidan sits beside me on a blue bicycle. If it weren’t for the dress, we’d be mistaken for brothers. Aidan looks impatient, frustrated at having to pose next to me for so long. Our backyard looks ready to crumble. The brick paving has been pushed aside by weeds, and the concrete is glistening with traces of ice. There is a a sad looking dogwood tree behind us, attempting to hide some of the ugly brown wooden gate behind it with its naked, grey limbs. Above the gate, scores of other identical terrace houses march on. I am beaming, delighted to be playing with my brother.
My family were all born in the Year of the Rooster, but I was born in the Year of the Pig. I discovered this fact on the back of a box of Fortune Cookies. While we did not follow the lunar calendar, I nonetheless found it deeply significant, an explanation for why I was the odd one out. And I was definitely considered odd. I was certain that I had been meant to have been born a boy, and I told some other children in the park that although my name was Sarah, I was really a boy and that my Mum said I could have a sex change when I turned eighteen. I worshipped Optimus Prime and He-Man, and hoped to grow up to be Fireman Sam. Dad hated my ‘tomboyish’ behaviour, and blamed Mum, who he felt had not been a good enough feminine role model for me. Mum would just sigh and say “Oh just let her do what she wants Clive, she'll grow out of it eventually."
I had a recurring nightmare about my predicament. I was walking down a dark staircase. To the left there was a crowd of boys and men yelling and banging on drums and big, heavy boxes. To the right are a group of women and girls, all playing the triangle or holding tiny, metallic earrings. The cacophony of the different sounds is unbearable, and I do not know where to turn. I would wake up screaming, often having wet the bed. One time after a nightmare like this, Mum explained to me that she too had a disturbing recurring dream about a sheepskin rug on a metal bed. She told me that the sensation of the soft wool pressed up against the hard metal bed was excruciating. It didn’t make me feel better.
Mum’s parents had moved to Aylesbury to live closer to us, and their broad Yorkshire accents jarred with the clipped outer London lilt. I loved spending time with them. Granddad taught us simple card games that he learnt in the RAF at the kitchen table while Granny cooked us lunch. She told us that the Nuns at her school said that cards were the Devil’s work, and that anyone who played them would go to hell. “Better to be in hell than to be with those bloody buggers!” she said, laughing. The pot sizzled as Granny lowered the potato scallops into the bubbling oil.
As much as I liked Granny, Dad did not. He was rude and opening hostile towards her, mocking her for being short, poor, and ignorant. There was some truth to this. When I told Granny that our cat Gollum had run away, she told me that the local Chinese restaurant had probably made off with him to chop him up and put him in their dinner. Mum told me not to listen to Dad, and that he was only mean to Granny because he'd been abandoned by his own mother. She also told me not to repeat anything Granny said to my classmates, because she was “from a different time.”
The good thing about Dad was that he was always on the go. First thing on Saturday morning, he’d get up to go out to a car boot sale to look for computer parts. If Mum managed to get Aidan and I ready in time Dad would let us come along too. Kitted out in our jackets and gum boots, we’d search the stands for treasure. Dad’s treasure would come in the form of discarded computer parts, while Aidan and I would search for Star Wars figurines and toy cars. One day I got separated from everyone after lingering too long at a toy stand. I ran around in a panic looking for Dad. I ran up to a man in a raincoat and gave him a big hug, only to discover that it wasn't Dad, but another man altogether. I was stunned, and walked off, finding Dad a few minutes later examining a grey hard disk drive.
My best friend in England was called Benji, who I loved. He had a big black shock of hair cut into a bowl shape, and we'd spend hours in his living room playing make pretend games and watching SuperTed. I was quite scared of Benji’s dad, a very strict Christian who edited the Oxford Dictionary for a living. Benjie’s dad didn’t really approve of me, but tolerated my presence after I agreed to come along to Sunday School to learn about Jesus. Despite being athiests, my parents put up no barriers to my evangelical religious instruction. Every week we learnt a new Bible story and the meaning behind it, Noah and his Ark. After learning the lesson of the importance of obeying God, you had to think about that lesson every day thoughout the week, and then tell the Sunday School teacher what it was the next week. If you did, you got a gold star. I conspired with Benjie to write down the lesson at the end of Sunday School so that we would definitely remember it for next week. My plan worked for the first week, but on the second I got caught writing down the lesson of forgiveness after class, and got a stern talking to about the importance of not cheating in Sunday School. I was so ashamed I never returned.
In our last week in England, Aidan and I went to the Woodcraft Folk one last time, and we spent the afternoon cheerfully picking up rubbish in the park, and playing a non-competitive co-operative game called Octopus in the courtyard, where players turn from fish into seaweed, and wave their frond hands about to make more seaweed. Before we left that evening the Woodcraft Folk Leader told us that we’d all be singing a faewell song to Aidan and I called "The Red River Valley" which was in the Woodcraft Folk official songbook, despite it having no connection at all to the British countryside. He began to strum the familiar melody, and 30 tiny souls sang to me “From this valley they say you are going, We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile, for they say you are taking the sunshine, that has brightened our pathways a while. Come and sit by my side if you love me, Do not hasten to bid me adieu, Just remember the red river valley, And the one who has loved you so true.”