Our First Trip Back

It is Thursday, February 27th and Mattie and I are back in the UK, headed towards our old home town. My brother-in-law, Tom, has picked us up from the airport and as we approach Lewes he asks, ‘Do you want to go through the town centre or via the bypass?’ ‘Through the town centre,’ Mattie and I reply in unison and soon we are driving past the Georgian terraced townhouse where we once had lived.

I often had wondered how I might feel on seeing the old house. Surprisingly, I seemed to feel nothing, though I did feel a little sad to see the greengrocer’s, up the road, newly boarded up. ‘How did you feel on seeing the house?’ I later asked Mattie. ‘Nothing’, she said. Perhaps our exhaustion after a long night flight, the drizzle and the greyness of the day contributed to our apparent non-reaction. Lewes seemed smaller than in my memory and when we got out of the car at Tom and Molly’s home, located on a hill overlooking the town, it felt cold, too. We both began to feel much better after a hot shower and change of clothes and later, when we walked into town, the drizzle had stopped and a glimmer of sun cast a warm glow over the town’s higgledy-piggledy chimneypots, tiled rooftops and Harvey’s brewery out of which a cheery plume of steam rose. After a light lunch in Le Magasin café – which had been a newsagent’s in my time – we strolled up the high street. I noted that the furniture-cum-coffee shop, which had hosted the launch of my book Dear Mummy, Welcome, was now an expensive-looking boutique, causing me to wonder about the former owners, a lovely couple, who had helped make that book launch such a memorable event. Walking on, yet more shops seemed to have been turned into expensive curio shops, and a notice on the toyshop that Mattie once had loved announced its imminent closure. Later we popped in on my old friend and neighbour, Christine, in her cosy terraced cottage and afterwards I saw Caroline who lives in the old coach house around the corner. I enjoyed being back in houses once so familiar to me. Mattie had left early in order to meet her cousin Mei after school. I hoped their reunion would go well…

That evening, it was lovely to see my sister who had just returned home from work. Strange, but it seemed like five minutes, not two years, since we had last been together. Over supper of chicken pie, with chocolate pudding for dessert, we all caught up: Tom was now a newly graduated teacher, their eldest daughter was applying for university, and a boisterous mongrel and several cats had joined the fold. Mattie and her cousin, Mei, seemed to get on as famously as they always had, give or take the odd scrap…

At the weekend, Mattie’s birth sister, Jay, came to Lewes for the afternoon and for the first time I was struck by the likeness of the two siblings; even Jay’s dark brown hair had the same hint of red in it. Jay was pleased when I remarked on it, saying, ‘No-one ever told me that before.’ After lunch at Pizza Express Mattie took Jay to meet Molly and family up on the hill.

On Sunday, my sister and I took the girls to the church we had once attended. The first thing I noted was that all the pews had been replaced by chairs. Disappointingly, I hardly recognised a soul and even felt a little out of place – until after the service the vicar came and hugged me. After church, Mandy drove us over the Downs to Ovingdean (at the time covered in a dense sea fog) where we were to have Sunday lunch with friends Gillian and Donald in their cosy, converted barn. We arrived early so first we had a walk along the seafront during which Mei smilingly reminded me of the times I had often taken her and Mattie to the beach and had barbecued sausages. ‘Yes and you even used to ask me in winter if were having sausages,’ I laughed. During Sunday lunch – Gillian had cooked a delicious roast followed by fruit crumble – I reminded Mattie, who insisted on wearing a peaked cap emblazoned with the word ‘Geek’, that Donald used to play nursery rhymes on the piano for her and Gillian had sung lullabies. After lunch, we watched a short video of their recent trip to Canada and Donald reminded me that in 1992 I had brought over an album of my photos of Peru to show them. ‘My goodness, you have a good memory!’ I laughed.

The next day I made a trip, alone, to the National Gallery in London whilst our old next-door neighbours, Jo and Ann, took Mattie to an animal sanctuary that her foster mother Jenny (she sadly died several months before we emigrated) had often taken her to as a child. Mattie had rarely asked to go back to that sanctuary and it struck me that she must have had Jenny in mind. Later, Jo and Ann cooked a chicken supper for Mattie and me, followed by strawberries and meringues – this meal had become something of a tradition over the years.

Next day we journeyed to Worthing, where we spent a lovely few days with my parents’, enjoying Mum’s cooking and, for me, many a good walk on the Downs at Cissbury Ring; thankfully, it was not too muddy. Mum and Dad were in the process of moving and I was relieved to get a look inside the flat they planned to move to whilst there. We also met up with my brother, David, as well as my eldest brother, Nick, and his wife who live just outside Chichester. Nick took Mattie and me for a lovely walk around the yacht harbour, during which we saw a black swan. Nick, who has been a GP for most of his life, told me how anxious he felt about his imminent retirement. We later enjoyed a cosy supper – roast pork with salad and a choice of several yummy desserts – at Nick and Melanie’s home in Birdham.

Back in Worthing, Mattie and I met up with my youngest sister, Caryl, and her little son, and Mattie stayed on to spend the night with them whilst I returned to Lewes. Interesting that the moment I stepped off the train, for the first time since our return I felt at home – even though in the narrow street that led back to Molly’s, what had once been an Indian restaurant now had become a wine bar, and another new shop had opened that advertised 50 different types of tea. That evening, Molly and I dined with several mutual friends at a vegetarian ‘pop up’ (a new word to me) – a sort of supper club, situated near a duck pond close to where I had first lived in Lewes. I recalled, with some amusement, that the ‘pop up’ was located in what had once been Ron’s, a grocery shop where I often bought cornflakes and kindling. I wondered what had happened to Ron, the grocer with the raucous laugh, who had been part of the Lewes landscape for years before closing shop. At the Lamb Inn where we all had gone for an after-supper drink, I was surprised to bump into a former running friend from my pre-adoption days. It struck me how my life had changed…

On our last Sunday in the UK, whilst Mattie amused herself with Mei, I enjoyed a glorious sunny day and walked over the Downs to the village of Firle to meet friends down from London. (Mattie and I had done a similar walk early in the week when it was damp and that day there had been a log fire burning in the pub fireplace.) I always loved Firle and I remember a photo I had taken of my parents, outside Firle church, shortly after I moved to Lewes in the 80s. They looked very young in those days and whilst writing this blog I realise that they were the same age then, that I am now. A strange thought.

Mattie’s and my hectic schedule continued and the next morning we went up to London to see a friend, and later the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Strolling through Covent Garden, I showed Mattie the tiny office in Great Queen Street where in my twenties I had worked for a small advertising firm. Mattie took some photos of the Royal Opera House where, shortly after I adopted her, we had seen a ballet. Mattie didn’t remember the ballet; she was only four at the time. Before the show we met my friend Ruth for lunch at the Boulevard Brasserie, chosen partly to celebrate her recent purchase of an old farmhouse near Bordeaux. Ruth had recently been through the mill health-wise and I was above all pleased to see her looking so well.

The next day, Mattie and I walked along the River Ouse en route to The Blacksmith’s Arms to meet two old colleagues from those Covent Garden days. The pub had once been a drinking pub frequented by locals and walkers and run by an elderly gent with a twinkle in his eye. Now it is run by two middle-aged women and is noted for its cuisine; no-one appears to stand around the bar any more. My friends, who had never met Mattie, each gave her a little gift before she walked the short stretch back to Lewes to do some shopping. After catching up over a delicious steak and kidney pudding and treacle pudding, we three also went into Lewes for a stroll around Grange Gardens, prettily covered in daffodils and grape hyacinths. (During my trip back to the UK I was always struck by the spring flowers, so different to those in San Antonio.) I pointed out to my friends the Elizabethan building that had once housed Mattie’s nursery and the mulberry tree that she had liked to climb before it was cordoned off.

At the end of that same afternoon, Mattie and I were invited by Tim, a theatre designer and now owner of our old house, for a cuppa and to look around – Mattie had particularly wanted to see her old bedroom. The house looked very much as we had known it except that the handsome Victorian garden wall between ‘our’ house and the neighbouring one had recently fallen down (I felt relieved not to have the bother of it). Mattie’s old bedroom, it turned out, was now Tim’s studio, complete with drawing tables and maquettes. She amused him now and then by exclaiming, ‘Oh that’s my old paint mark!’ or ‘That’s my nail varnish stain!’

Time was running out fast and during the last few days I took Mattie and Mei into Brighton, allowing them some time on their own to go shopping whilst I met my sister, Caryl, for a drink in The Lanes. That evening, Mum, Dad and my brother, David, came round to Tom and Molly’s for supper. Mum brought a large, fluffy Victoria Sponge for dessert and afterwards Mei and Mattie sang a duet based on Your Song by Elton John.

On our last day in Lewes, Mattie and I popped in to see our former optometrist, Julian. He had always offered Mattie a chocolate ‘eyeball’ taken from a large glass jar at the end of each visit and had always stressed that she take just one. I laughingly recalled that Mattie’s fist was usually full of chocolates each time she left the shop. Grave-faced, Julian now informed Mattie that he had been unable to obtain chocolate ‘eyeballs’ for some time now. Afterwards, Mattie went window shopping and I made my way to The Brewer’s Arms, an old pub on the High Street where Mike (during his visits to Lewes) and I had been known to share a steak sandwich on a gloomy day. Unlike most others, the pub had hardly changed and I felt I was in the Lewes of old as I read the paper and reflected on my years in the town. I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting more of my old neighbours: Alexandra, now well into her eighties, looked so much frailer than two years ago but Tony and Tere who had formerly lived opposite to Mattie and me, looked just the same as ever; they were in the midst of renovating their idyllic new cottage at the foot of Lewes Castle.

Our last evening, sadly, arrived. As a treat, Molly and I took the girls to Prezzo’s, an Italian restaurant where in the past we had often dined (the pasta arriabiata and the sticky toffee pudding tasted just as good as I remembered). Molly recalled that it was in a branch of Prezzo’s, in Eastbourne, that we had celebrated, the day I was approved by the Adoption Panel. ‘How do feel about Mattie leaving?’ I asked Mei at the end of the meal. ‘Mixed emotions,’ she said, and added, ‘I feel a bit empty.’ Mattie, in response to the same question, shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. Molly then mentioned that her family hoped to visit us some time in 2015. We look forward to it.

Early next morning we were up at six and soon heading our way to Heathrow where we just had time for a quick hug with Molly and Mei before Mattie and I caught the flight back to San Antonio. We both felt sad at leaving family and friends behind, but at the same time a little excited at the thought of going home …

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