Missing you already
This morning, I woke up to a flurry of WhatsApp messages from back home.
I’ve been a member of a book club since 2004. Last night, it finally met up face-to-face for the first time in over a year. Without me.
When I turned on my phone at 6.30am Auckland time, 19 messages were waiting in the group chat. The host, Jess, was celebrating her 60th birthday so there were photos of cake, fizz and joyful smiles that showed just how happy they were to be together again after months of COVID-induced social isolation.
It was the first time since I’d left that I felt something approaching home sickness and I guess it won’t be the last.
When I arrived in Auckland I wasn’t sure what to do about WhatsApp group chats. I have two family ones. One is with Phil and my two sons, to keep in touch with what everyone is doing while we're here in Auckland. The other is with my younger son and his girlfriend, who are living in my house while I'm over here. We use this to check up on any post that's arrived and for regular updates on their cat, Piper.
I’d left most others as they concerned events or situations I'd no longer be around for. Muting chats is no good for me. I don't have notifications on anyway and seeing that I have unread posts unsettles me. I have to click to get rid of them, which rather defeats the point.
I’d stayed in the book club chat because, if I'm honest, I didn't like the idea of something I'd help start continuing without me. And I wanted to know what books were being chosen, with the idea of reading along and maybe talking about them in separate chats with friends in the group.
The other group chat I haven’t left is called Stuff. This is made up of local friends of a similar age, who share similar life experiences and hold similar views. Diverse we’re not.
I would say most people, including me, would regard us as fully paid up members of the London liberal metropolitan elite, apart from the fact that we're split almost 50/50 between those who went to university and those who didn’t. Most of us live in Walthamstow and have done for years. Those that don't probably did at some point.
We paid our dues when Marks & Spencer down the market shut down and reopened as a Kwiksave, the cinema closed and the old shopping arcade was demolished, leaving a pile of rubble in the centre of the town for years. We've earned our bacon jam and community weaving lessons that 'New Walthamstow' offers.
One thing we have in common is that the women in the group worked while bringing up our children. (So did the men, but that kind of information rarely get mentioned.) In fact, many of us met through our kids attending the same nursery.
Friendships forged at toddler parties and play dates endure 20 years later. Those kids are now all adults and their work here is done.
I ended up part of the group when, together with my then husband, we replaced a couple who’d made the mistake of moving to Crouch End.
When I discovered that my by-then-soon-to-be-ex-husband had been having an affair with a woman in the group, they were both banished with immediate effect and the remaining members rallied round, offering a concerned ear, practical support and wine when needed.
Some individual components of the group may have changed over the years, but a solid core remains, holding members old and new together.
We’ve experienced illness, death and divorce. We’ve watched our kids grow up, our hairlines recede and our waistlines expand, shrink and then – in my case – expand again. We’ve celebrated 40th, 50th and now 60th birthdays together. Some of us have learned to play bowls.
We realise how lucky we are to have each other – and how indebted the group is to those who drive it and spend a lot of time and effort making sure we have places to go and things to do together.
Giving all that up, however temporary my time overseas may be, has taken a lot of soul searching.
Leaving my kids in the UK has been tough, though they’ve both carved out lives for themselves and seem happy and sorted enough for me not to feel too guilty about abandoning them. Cutting that link to my friends is equally difficult, but in a different way.
So staying in the Stuff group chat is my way of keeping connected. I’m sure I’ll regret it at various points, particularly when I’m feeling down or doubting my decision to move here. But as long as I’m a member, I can tell myself that I have a life to return to when I’m ready.
If they’ll have me. Auckland is a hell of a lot further than Crouch End.