On this day in 1993 (a Monday, if memory serves), a historic event transpired at Dover Ferry port, at about 10 a.m. Slightly bleary-eyed after a 4 a.m. start, a long drive, and a two-hour journey on the SeaCat across a very ‘lumpy’ English Channel (the captain’s words, not mine), I emerged onto British soil for good. I was 20 years old. I brought with me: one blue hard-shell suitcase full of clothes; one hold-all full of books, CDs and assorted knick-knacks; one small boom box (gotta have music, right?); and one collapsible box full of home-making paraphernalia such as two plastic plates, three mugs, one knife, one spoon, one fork, one small pot, and a packet of clothes pegs.
My destination? Royal Holloway and Bedford New College (as it was then), University of London. My purpose: to acquire a degree in European Studies (French and Management Studies).
Previous time spent in England? Five days in London. That’s it. I came here young and naïve, and full of hopes, and dreams, and crazy ideas. Oh and, alone. Did I mention alone?
My family thought I’d never last. I know this, because they told me. They’d given me three weeks. Maybe three months. Three years later, when I embarked on my second degree course, there was a reluctant acceptance (by my family) that perhaps I would stay on this island and build my life here.
What drew me here? I can’t really say. It was like… I don’t know, fate was calling me. It was just something I had to do. I arrived here, and I felt at home. End of story. Or, the beginning, rather!
Talking about arriving… So this first day, my first few hours, were spent in a bemused daze. Driving on the wrong side of the road through the obligatory drizzle. My first experience of a motorway service station; the smell of sausage rolls and tea and Cornish pasties assaulting my nostrils. The anticipation as we neared Junction 13 on the M25 (exit for Staines) and then drove up Egham Hill towards the college.
Finding Williamson Hall of Residence and registering my person as present on Campus. Walking into the slightly sinister breeze-block building to be greeted by a pile of laundry in the corridor, illuminated (just) by a bare 20 Watt bulb… I thought, for a second, I’d perhaps arrived in the Bronx. (I found out much later that I arrived on the heels of a great turning-over of rooms between a business conference ending and the first students arriving. That would explain the laundry, I suppose.).
Did I turn tail and run? Of course not. I sidestepped the laundry, firmly clutching my new room keys like a lifeline or a talisman, and I made my way to what was going to be my castle.
Pretty soon, I discovered:
~fused plugs (after my hairdryer had blown the fuse in the German-to-English plug adaptor, of course, not before)
~sockets with ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches (although after 20 years, I’m still liable to be caught out by an ‘off’ socket and be left wondering why the kettle won’t boil)
I learned all about:
~ milk-in-the-cup-first rituals
~lamb chops (although I no longer eat them)
~how to work a gas hob and oven (this, from the most scaredy-cat anti-gas person in the whole world, ever. Goes to prove that if needs must…)
~saying ‘cheers’ instead of ‘thank you’
~£20 telephone cards that let you make £25 worth of calls (do you remember those days?)
~saving 20p coins for the dryer and 50p coins for the washing machine!
~fitting plugs to electrical cords. I’m nifty with a pair of nail scissors and a screwdriver!
Oh, and I was surprised to find that the English love their baths. As in, the actual bath tub. In my first hall of residence, there was only one shower on each floor – but four baths, which was a slight problem for this here shower fanatic. Solution? I acquired one of those plastic attachments that turn your bath into an improvised shower. Over the years, I owned at least a dozen of those, and it was only during my most recent move that I threw the last one out!
Taking Stock (Just Quickly)
What have I been up to these past 20 years? Please bear with me while indulge myself in a little personal stock-taking. I think the occasion warrants it. Here’s a quick run-down of events:
1993 ~ arrive at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College in Egham
1996 ~ move on to St Antony’s College, Oxford
1998 ~ find a job and move to London, where I lived in Covent Garden for six months before settling south of the river in Tooting.
2001 ~ after way too many disastrous dates with men who turned out to be rather… bizarre on second or third sight, I finally collide with Jon during a rehearsal for the Imperial College Choir summer concert. (Well. Our eyes collided. We didn’t meet until the following day.)
2003 ~ get married to Jon and move to Bristol
2004 ~ fall pregnant, quit job (not causally related to falling pregnant), and start writing a certain book!!!
2005 ~ arrival of first child
2007 ~ arrival of second child
2010 ~ go back to college, in a manner of speaking, and acquire Teaching Assistant qualification from the Open University (cor, it felt good to use my brain again after all those nappies!)
2011 ~ self-publish Sophie’s Turn and start writing the sequel
2012 ~ sign with Sapphire Star publishing, move to Lincoln, republish Sophie’s Turn
2013 ~ I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a writer and published author of three books, I have two-and-a-bit university qualifications to my name, I’m a rock lover, I still sing in the shower, and I have a regular turn contributing to The Midweek Drive show on Siren 107.3 FM. I’d say, that’s not bad going!
And that’s my life in a nutshell. I made friends, I found work, I found love, I fulfilled several childhood dreams (loving husband, gorgeous kids; still working on the thatched cottage by the sea!) and career ambitions (did I mention I wanted to be a writer since I was ten?). I still have the blue hard-shell suitcase, the hold-all and the collapsible box (’tis my laundry basket to this day!). However, the last time I moved, a humble car wasn’t enough. It took a full-size moving container with close to 200 boxes plus assorted furniture to move the Wells family from Bristol to Lincoln, not to mention four professional packers, two drivers and two unloaders, *and* a car full of belongings. Isn’t it amazing how much ‘stuff’ I gathered in 20 years?
Tonight, I’m taking the family out to celebrate. I mean, 20 years, right? Surely that deserves a night out and a bottle of bubbly or two. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been on that SeaCat twenty years ago. I get that weird ‘Sliding Doors’ sensation when I contemplate how different everything could have turned out, and I shudder. Because I am happy here, and I wouldn’t want my life any other way. Here’s to the next 20 years, ’cause let’s face it, I’m here to stay!