In that desolate place called grief, you’ll not only find bereaved people but lonely people. A different kind of grief but just as real. After years of gradually losing the security of close relationships, my energy and enthusiasm, and my identity, I reached my lowest point.
How different life had looked twelve years earlier when we moved to New Zealand. I was filled with optimism by the exciting life glimpsed on a campervan holiday the year before.
In a whistle-stop tour of North and South Island, we took in the best of New Zealand. On North Island we were charmed 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. We soothed our minds with Marlborough Sounds’ serenity and Tasman’s cobalt bays. We drove down the wild West Coast with mile upon mile of breakers and driftwood calling us to nature. Hokitika’s jade carvings, so exquisite, whispered native stories bound up in this land. 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 snaking the Southern Alps to Christchurch. We 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 ourselves from a small market town in Bedfordshire and transplanted our lives to a sprawling city on the other side of the world. Leaving nothing to chance, I had researched Auckland life. I knew every suburb’s housing, schooling, sports facilities, nature reserves, and demographics.
Where to Live in Auckland even told me how long people lived in a suburb before moving away. I learned people rarely moved from the East Coast Bays on Auckland’s North Shore – it would be perfect for our family. We could have our English life but with warmer summers, palms instead of oaks, and a safer home for our children as they reached 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 beachside town on the North Shore. Crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the sea below dotted with lazy boats, the glinting glass of the city behind us, and the promise of golden sands stretching up the coast, I was heady 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 with a large food retailer a few days after we arrived in Takapuna. He would have a long commute to their South Auckland offices in an industrial area near the airport. I set to work registering our children in local schools, finding a doctor and dentist, and scouring the North Shore Property Press each week. We lived out of suitcases and spent every weekend in other people’s houses in a busy schedule of ‘open-homes’. 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 on air beds until our container arrived. Not only did we have a garden with lawns and flowerbeds, but we had tropical palms and ponga trees. The bush was ours to hide in, meander through, or tame if we wanted. As we looked to the distant ocean from our sunny deck, the future rolled out before us in tropical bush and glittering seas as we breathed happiness from hibiscus and frangipani. When our container arrived, we unwrapped our hopes and put our expectations in place with the furniture.
But after the immigrant’s honeymoon, the high cost of living hit hard. Food, in particular, was expensive. There’s only so much you can find out from websites and books. We moved several times in the next twelve years, one knee-jerk reaction setting off a chain of events that would change our lives for the worse.
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, which had become a much-loved family home. I had never felt so emotional about selling a house before. I should have realised the tears as I signed the contract came from attachment, not just to bricks and mortar but to our new life we were building within the walls. We should have tried harder to stay.
We moved to a rented house we thought would be home until our new house was built but we had to move out six months later, on Christmas Eve. With houses snapped up the day of listing, we took a house in an unfamiliar suburb, further away from work and schools.
For nine months we lived in a cold plaster-clad box with the occasional shaft of sunlight. By the time our new house was finished – 18 months after selling our tropical oasis, the strain on our family was showing. Over the next two years, the upheaval of three moves in three years, our daughter’s unhappiness at school, and my husband’s stressful involvement in a company redundancy process picked at our sanity. Our support system was each other, but we all needed support.
During a period of sick leave, he decided to leave his job so we could make a fresh start working together. My optimism returned, so too my energy.
But we had learned nothing from selling our first Kiwi home. I told myself 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 North Island would be easy.
But more of me was invested in our new house than I dared admit. The house was smaller than our first Kiwi home, but I had watched it go up from the first turn of the earth, stopping each day after dropping our children at school. We had chosen the smallest plot of land on the site because it was the only plot with trees. The standard design was shrunk to work with the protected native trees and the sloping gradient, but without trees, there would have been few birds in the garden.
A weatherboard house with plenty of light and a garden with birds was perfect, but our relationship was buckling under the strain of not feeling settled in New Zealand. At first, it was like being on holiday. I felt awe every time I drove back from Takapuna, winding around bays on the coast road with views across to Rangitoto Island.
I couldn’t believe this place was home – it was beautiful, yet 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 remained. We argued constantly. Our family house was an unhappy home and our children suffered because we couldn’t sort ourselves out.
The next new start was a radical one. It was heart-breaking to sell our home, the garden by now flourishing with native plants and birds, and for less than we paid for it, but we didn’t want to miss this new opportunity. Out of the blue, another buyer was ready if we couldn’t meet the deadline.
Looking back, we realise how foolish we were to trust a slick salesman with a briefcase of dirty yet legal tricks, but his enthusiasm had hooked and blinded us. We sunk a big chunk of money into buying a stylish Belgian chocolate café franchise in a city surrounded by flat expanses of farmland.
Close to centre of this city, small by English standards, there was a Victorian park by the river. It was a special place of English and Kiwi fusion that would become a haven for me, but it 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: “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 part 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 shoppers, reality set in for us. The rent we were paying had been set during a retail peak, but with the effects of an economic downturn and an attitude where value was 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. We don’t give up easily. We changed the menu, adding new bread varieties 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, making them feel welcome and ‘going the extra mile’ with smiles hiding our misery.
As we propped up the business, we watched the money left over from our house sale dwindle. We had a run of buyers, but their feet turned cold – no doubt they were excited like we had been but not so much that emotion obscured the numbers.
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 were forced to move out of a rented property yet again, I started drinking. Not much by some measures, but enough to have an impact. It was so unlike me. I was a health nut. I thought back to times when I had family and friends to share ups and downs, laughter and tears. The more I drank, the more helpless I felt.
By this time, our son had been studying in the US for two years – it had been his dream. I missed him more than I could have imagined. My mum no longer came out to see us because of failing health. I had made my first trip back to the UK in October, and by New Year’s Eve, homesick and filled with cheap fizz and despair, the feeling of hopelessness was unbearable. Whether it was just a cry for help, I don’t know, but I frightened my family in a stupid moment with a bed sheet.
Ashamed but resolute, I stopped drinking – a promise to our children. I found ways of coping – running in the park and studying for an English degree. I worked in the café, I studied hard, and I ran. I kept my head above water though I knew it wouldn’t take much to go under again.
With little money now, our son could no longer come home during university breaks. It got to the point where we hadn’t seen him for over two years. After graduating, our daughter took a full-time job 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. I would feel jealous of mums having coffee with their son after football, or planning a road trip with their daughter.
“After six to nine months you’ll be managing the business rather than working in it,” the franchise rep had told us. He ran a thriving franchise in Christchurch, so with hard work, why shouldn’t we be successful? 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 ever, I started to put my grief into words, a creative process that has helped me cope over the years. Desperate to connect with others, I posted it online. Unexpected and heartfelt responses gave me comfort. It was a tiny boost.
I reached out to our family doctor, who understood our situation. “What would you do if you won a significant sum of money?” he asked. I usually refuse to take part in pointless fantasising, but I trusted he had a 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. With genuine care in his voice, he told me that’s what I 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 years, 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 serious ill health. It was a devastating time – staff members were like family. We couldn’t tell anyone, which made it worse. I value honesty yet here I was with information that would affect staff and customers. It felt so wrong, but I had to keep quiet if I wanted to get back home. I was in survival mode, saving my own skin.
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 the store on the last trading day without anyone knowing, such is the gut-wrenching nature of liquidation. My husband couldn’t help on our last late-night trading because he was recovering from a biopsy – another stress in the mix.
I felt like a criminal, captured on CCTV loading stock into a van with my daughter and her two friends. We had been advised 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. I think security staff, who had got to know our struggle over the years, would have guessed what was happening. They had seen other stores close.
In the final week, our precious cockatiel who had been with us for many years 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 in leaving, I imagined us being stuck forever. The thought was paralysing.
I wasn’t sleeping. I thought I would crack. Our daughter was struggling with not being able to tell her friends – she had told only her two best friends. This wasn’t fair to her and the guilt was crushing me. It wasn’t how we 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 wild places before returning to the UK in time for the Olympic Games in London. I had been part of the UK team in the Los Angeles games and hoped to experience the incredible atmosphere again. What a chance to see the games in our home country. The thought had kept me going at least.
Now we faced the possibility we might miss our son’s master’s degree graduation. That was unthinkable. He had been studying in London for two years but the campus, the library where he spent many hours, and the tiny room he slept in, were blank for us. We had waited four years until his bachelor’s graduation to finally see the university in Philadelphia that had been such a special place for him. We had to be in London for July 2016. Our family had to be together again.
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 known as 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 travelled alone in cargo. To my relief, he had seemed better the last two days before the flight. We couldn’t leave without him but every jolt and judder gripped my stomach. Heathrow couldn’t come quickly enough.
Our homecoming was subdued as we arrived tired from the journey and the stressful circumstances in which we left. There was no-one to meet us as we came through Arrivals – no tears of joy, but we had finally made it home. At the Animal Reception Centre, Rocky was there to greet us so loudly that everyone could hear. It was the best welcome.
Turning back the clock, I would have come home sooner. Living in another country has helped us grow in many ways, but financially we lost everything. I’m anxious about a future that looks nothing like we imagined at this stage of our lives. But we came home with Rocky, each other, and resilience. We can start re-building.