In that desolate place dark with grief, you’ll not only find people who have lost someone dear, but lonely people who have lost their way. A different kind of grief but just as real. Through years of gradually losing the security of close relationships, my identity, and my will to live, I reached my lowest point.
How different life had looked twelve years earlier when we moved to New Zealand. I had been full of optimism for a new life glimpsed on a campervan holiday the year before.
In a whistle-stop tour of North and South Island, we had taken in the best of New Zealand. On North Island we had been awestruck by Auckland’s Sky Tower views; Bay of Islands’ magical dolphins, Coromandel’s hot water beach, and Rotorua’s Maori culture and volcanic lakes.
A trip across the Cook Strait on the interisland ferry took us to South Island and Marlborough Sounds’ serenity, the Tasman’s cobalt bays, the wild West Coast, and Hokitika’s jade carvings. Turning inland, we were dazzled by Wanaka’s autumn splendour, Queenstown’s mountain backdrop, Glenorchy’s Dart River, Milford Sound’s surreal fiords, and Arthur’s Pass through the Southern Alps to Christchurch. We had soaked up 100% Pure New Zealand, entranced by the peace and beauty of the place.
But living in another country is a different story and ours didn’t have a happy ending.
We weren’t without blame. We uprooted our life from a small market town in Bedfordshire and transplanted it to a sprawling city on the other side of the world. Leaving nothing to chance, I researched Auckland life in books and on websites. I knew every suburb’s housing, schooling, sports facilities, nature reserves and demographic.
Where to Live in Auckland even told me how long people lived in a suburb before moving away, indicating how much they loved the area. People rarely moved away from the East Coast Bays on Auckland’s North Shore – it would be perfect for our family. We looked to replicate our English life but with warmer summers, palms instead of oaks, and a safer environment for our children as they hit adolescence. Apart from the difficulty of leaving family and friends, I never considered there would be downsides.
My husband’s employer had kindly arranged for us to stay in a motel in Takapuna, a trendy beach town on the North Shore. Crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge with the sunlit glass of the city behind, lazy blue water with leisure boats, and the promise of golden sands stretching up the east coast, I was flush with optimism. I would always feel a sense of hope crossing that bridge, even when my life took on the greyness that sometimes dulled that view.
My husband started work a few days after we arrived in Takapuna. I busied myself registering our children in local schools, finding a doctor and dentist, and reading the North Shore Property Press cover to cover each week. We lived out of suitcases and spent every weekend in other people’s houses in a packed schedule of open-home viewings. In England, seeing one property in a weekend had always felt like a major achievement. The purchase process was fast in New Zealand too.
Four weeks after falling in love with a single-level brick and cedar house, our children started new schools and we moved into our first kiwi home, camping with air beds and plastic chairs until our container arrived. Not only did we have a garden with lawns to trim and beds to plant, but we had wild native bush with tropical palms and ponga trees. It was ours to hide in, meander through, or tame if we wanted. As we sat on the sun-baked deck looking over tree tops to the distant ocean, our future rolled out in tropical bush and glittering seas as we breathed the happiness of hibiscus and frangipani.
When our container arrived, we unwrapped our hopes with its contents and put our expectations in place with the furniture.
After the immigrant’s honeymoon, the high cost of living hit hard. There’s only so much you can find out from websites and books. We moved several times in the next twelve years, in what we realised with hindsight was a knee-jerk reaction with a chain of events that would change our lives.
If I could go back in time and change one decision, it wouldn’t be the one that led us to New Zealand. It would be the decision to sell our first house that had become a much-loved family home. I would have tried harder to hold on to it. I should have recognised that my tears on signing the contract came from deep attachment, not just to bricks and mortar but to our new life within those walls. I had never been emotional about selling a property before.
We moved to a rented house we thought would be home until our new house was built, but instead we were forced to move out just six months later, on Christmas Eve. With so little choice and houses snapped up soon after they were listed, we had to take a house further away from work and schools.
For nine months we lived in a soulless plaster-clad box with steep sloping garden and the occasional shaft of sunlight. By the time our new house was ready – 18 months after we sold our tropical oasis, the strain was starting to show. Over the next two years, the upheaval of three moves in three years, our daughter’s unhappiness at school, and the pressure of my husband’s promotion at work picked at our sanity.
During an extended period of sick leave, he decided to leave his job so we could make a fresh start working together like we used to when we first met. Optimism energised me once again.
But we had learned nothing from selling our first kiwi home. I convinced myself that a house is material and I wasn’t so attached to the East Coast Bays that I couldn’t move away. We had moved to New Zealand hadn’t we? Moving to the south of the North Island should be easy by comparison.
But more of me was invested in our new house than I dared admit. Although the house was much smaller than our first kiwi home, I had watched it go up right from the first turn of earth. We had chosen the smallest plot of land because it was the only plot with trees. The house design was changed because of the gradient and the protected native trees, then the build was delayed by extra engineering work required, but the garden wouldn’t be alive without birds.
A weatherboard house with large windows for light and a garden with birds was perfect, but our relationship was buckling under the strain of never really feeling settled in New Zealand. At first, it felt like we were on holiday. I felt awe every time I drove home from Takapuna, snaking around small bays on the elevated coast road with views across to Rangitoto Island.
I couldn’t believe this place was my home – it was both beautiful and alien. And that was the problem. Each year we said we would give it more time, but each year the fish-out-of-water feeling hadn’t left us. We argued constantly. Our family home wasn’t a happy one and our children were suffering because we couldn’t sort ourselves out.
The next new start was a radical one. With a garden that by now was flourishing with native plants and birds, it was heart-breaking to sell our home for less than we paid for it, but we didn’t want to miss this new opportunity. Another couple were suddenly ready to step in if we couldn’t meet the deadline.
Looking back, we can see how foolish we were to believe a slick salesman with a briefcase of dirty yet legal tricks, but his genuine enthusiasm had hooked and blinded us. We sunk a big chunk of money into buying a Belgian chocolate café franchise in a city in the middle of nowhere – a city that John Cleese couldn’t wait to leave when he passed through.
This small city was blessed with a Victorian park in a riverside setting that would be a haven for me in dark times, but that was the only gold in a silted stream. We found the prevailing local culture of mediocrity, materialism and conservatism highly toxic.
The words of a customer stick in my mind to this day, “living here sucks the life out of me.” Her words seemed over-dramatic at the time. I had only just moved to the city, excited on opening our store in a new wing of the shopping centre. But six long years later, the place had almost sucked the life out of me.
After several months of new store novelty for our customers, reality set in again. Our rent had been set during a retail peak, but with the effects of an economic downturn and an attitude where value is measured by quantity, trade fell away as people sought the biggest bang for their buck. The quality that was our franchise’s trademark was irrelevant in the shopping mall with fortnightly half-price sales and wall-to-wall bargains.
We tried to sell the store, half-heartedly at first because we don’t give up easily. We changed the menu, adding Turkish bread with fresh, tasty fillings, and healthy salads to balance the decadent chocolate drinks and desserts. We were the face of the business, always there serving our customers and making conversation, ‘going the extra mile’ and making sure smiles hid our fear.
The money from our house sale was seeping from a leak we felt unable to plug as we propped up the business. We had a run of buyers, but they all got cold feet – no doubt excited like we were but not so much that reason was swept away by emotion. The extortionate rent we had no control over was killing our business and our life.
I was becoming more anxious, more depressed. A couple of years earlier, when we knew the situation was hopeless and before we had to move out of a rented property yet again, I started drinking. Not much, but too much for me and out of character. I would think back to happier times when I had family and friends to share my ups and downs, my laughter and tears.
Our son had been studying in the US for two years and I missed him more than I could have imagined. My mum no longer travelled to see us, her health problems getting worse. I had made my first trip back to the UK in the October, and by New Year’s Eve, homesick and filled with cheap fizz and despair, the feeling of hopelessness was unbearable. Intoxication spewed forth negative self-talk until I was out of control. Whether it was just a cry for help doesn’t matter. I frightened our daughter and son in a stupid moment.
Ashamed but resolute, I stopped drinking – a promise to our children. I found ways of coping – running in the park and studying for a degree in English and Creative Writing. I ran and wrote and stayed afloat, though I had nothing to swim for.
With little money now, our son could no longer come home for university breaks. It got to the point where we hadn’t seen him for over two years. After graduating, our daughter worked full-time and no longer helped out in the café between fieldwork trips. I missed her smile and her support. We couldn’t take a holiday away from the café – even a day off was often scuppered by staff sickness. With so little freedom, it was like being in prison, except we had to watch others lead normal lives every day.
“After six to nine months you’ll be managing the business rather than working in it,” the franchise rep had assured us. Six years later, we were still very much café assistants. Some of our young staff were better off financially than we were.
Feeling trapped and more alone than I had ever felt, it was then that I put my grief into words, a creative process that has helped me cope over the years. I posted it on Medium and the heartfelt responses gave me comfort. It was a tiny boost.
I reached out to our family doctor who knew about our situation. “What I would do if you won a significant sum of money?” he asked. I usually refuse to take part in pointless fantasizing, but I trusted he had good reason for a silly question. I said I would give some to the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and the Kakapo Recovery Programme.
“Yes, that’s fine, but what would you do for yourself?” I told him would go back home to England. He looked at me and with genuine care he said: “Then that’s what you should do.” He made it seem so simple. It wasn’t, but it was a turning point. My doctor had given me clarity for the first time, and permission in a sense.
I had two more appointments with a counsellor and we talked about the barriers to making it happen. For the first time in so long I felt empowered to act rather than wait for something to change. I worried that my husband would say it was impossible, but he too had had enough.
We had no choice but to liquidate or risk more serious ill health. It was a devastating time – our staff were like extended family. We couldn’t tell anyone, which made it worse. I value honesty and here I was with knowledge that affected our staff and customers, but I had to keep quiet if I wanted to get back home.
We borrowed money for the shipping container and flights. We had just one month to finalise the transportation of our belongings, clear and clean the rented house, and clear out our store on the last trading day without anyone knowing, such is the gut-wrenching nature of liquidation. My husband couldn’t help that last trading night as planned because he was recovering from a biopsy – another stress in the mix.
I felt like a criminal, recorded on CCTV loading stock into a van, but we had been advised we needed to remove all perishable goods from the premises. We gave the stuff away to friends and food banks – I couldn’t bear to look at it.
In the final week, our precious cockatiel had a serious health scare and we thought he might not be able to come with us. It was the most stressful week of my life. Even though we weren’t breaking the law, I imagined us being stopped and stuck forever.
I wasn’t sleeping. I thought I would crack. Our daughter was struggling with not being able to tell her friends – she told only her two best friends and her supervisor. This wasn’t fair on her and the guilt was crushing. It wasn’t how we had hoped to leave a country that had given us many wonderful experiences in earlier years, especially with wildlife.
When we first opened the store, we planned to sell up after two years, take a final campervan tour of our favourite places and return to the UK in time for the Olympic Games in London. I had been in the 400m relay squad in the Los Angeles games and had experienced the incredible atmosphere. What a chance to see the games in our home country. But it wasn’t to be.
We missed the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years later. I coped with that of course, but we couldn’t miss our son’s graduation. That was unthinkable. We hadn’t seen where he had spent the previous two years of his life studying for his master’s degree. We had waited four years until his bachelor’s degree graduation to finally see the Philadelphia campus that had been such a special place for him. We had to be in London for July 2016.
We set the date. Our parents were so relieved they could finally expect us home. When we left they were healthy, but now old age and ill-health made returning home more urgent.
I felt no sadness leaving the city John Cleese called the suicide capital of New Zealand. I did feel a pang when we arrived in Auckland and even now as I write, emotion swells. I think back to when we first arrived – to the bright blue sky and palm-lined avenue leading from the airport to our new life.
The 23-hour flight to London via Los Angeles was the longest journey as our little bird Rocky travelled alone in cargo. To my relief, he had seemed better for the couple of days before the flight. We couldn’t leave without him but every jolt and judder gripped my stomach. Heathrow couldn’t come quickly enough.
Tired from the journey and the stressful and secretive circumstances in which we left, our homecoming was subdued. There was no-one to meet us as we came through Arrivals, but we had finally made it home. At the Animal Reception Centre, Rocky was there to greet us so loudly that everyone could hear. That was the best welcome.
Financially we lost everything in New Zealand. The future looks nothing like we imagined at this stage of our lives and I’m anxious about that. But we came home with Rocky, each other, and resilience. We can start re-building.