Saturday, 20 June 2009


I joined Woking Speakers club a couple of months ago and pretty soon I'll be giving my first speech, known as the Icebreaker. For what it's worth, here 'tis. It's by no means the final draft and I probably won't say it verbatim, but I would be interested to know what you think of it.

Only Going Forward, ‘Cause We Can’t Find Reverse

We arrived at Heathrow at 8pm on the 6th of April 2002, me, my husband Peter and our little daughter of nearly 4, Catherine, two suitcases and five boxes. It had been in the cloying high thirties (that’s Celsius, by the way) in Abu Dhabi where we’d been staying with friends, but the lazy wind of England that greeted us on our emergence from Terminal 4 swept away the memory of being truly warm. Seven years later I have yet to get it back, but that’s another story.

Following the signs, we made our way to the bus which carried us to the car hire place. We shoehorned our possessions into the Renault Scenic and armed with nothing but the Lonely Planet Guide to England and the telephone number of the B&B I’d booked from Australia we set off for somewhere called Old Basing.

Needless to say we got lost. In fact, we got lost before we got out of the airport. It was dark, I was tired, all I can say is that it’s lucky we drive on the same side of the road otherwise we would have been toast before we made it onto the M4.

We managed to get out of Heathrow and onto the motorway. As I drove, my husband called the B&B. No answer. We tried again. No answer. I knew it was the right number, because I’d spoken to them from Oz, but the lack of a person on the other end of the line started tiny Hare Krishna bells ringing. We continued on our way, exited the motorway and the real fun began.

We came off the slip road and saw the sign to the road we wanted. We followed the road around for a bit and reached another sign bearing the road number we wanted but it pointed in two different directions! There were place names on the sign, but they meant nothing to us. We had a look at our trusty Lonely Planet guide, but it didn’t give us the detail we needed. We were stuck. We tried calling the B&B. No answer. Hmm. We took an educated (that is to say, wild) guess and picked a direction. Not far along the road we came across a snack van which by some miracle was still open. The guy had no clue where the place we wanted to go was, but he did know we were heading in the wrong direction. No problem. All that was required was a three-point turn: forward, reverse forward. I did the first bit fine, since that involved going forwards. Then I looked for reverse. The letter ‘R’ was there, plain as day on the gear stick, so I knew it had a reverse gear, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get the thing to go into reverse. We were blocking the road of course, and after struggling with the gear stick for some minutes a car pulled up behind us, just in case we weren’t stressed enough as it was. Just then, my husband remembered he had driven a car once that you had to pull the gear stick up and back to get it into reverse, perhaps I should try that? I duly did, the car obediently went into reverse gear and with much screeching and clunking of gears I got the car moving again.

We continued to follow road signs until we turned onto an unlit, narrow country lane. Trees launched themselves out of the darkness at us as we invaded their peace with our high beam. None of them could give us directions which by this time was proving to be something of a problem.

We drove for a while, stopping at various pubs along the way. They were much more helpful than trees. My husband would jump out of the car, the lazy wind would hurl itself into his vacant seat and I would freeze instantly. While I defrosted, I watched Peter chat with the people in the pub. This pattern repeated itself three or four times as we inched our way to our destination.

Eventually we found the road we wanted, but the B&B was nowhere in sight. We tried calling. No answer. The Hare Krishna bells had been replaced by Big Ben and the old boy was giving me a headache. There was a pub at the end of the road and the helpful folk inside assured us we were on the right road, although they didn’t know the B&B. We drove up and down the street, stopping at every second house asking the inhabitants if they knew where the B&B was. I went through the freeze-defrost-freeze cycle so many times it’s a miracle my fingers didn’t fall off. No one on the street had any idea where the B&B was. We were stuck.

I knew from my trusty Lonely Planet guide to England that the pubs close at 11pm, and if we didn’t find somewhere to stay by then we’d be sleeping in the car. We went back to The Fox to ask if they had any accommodation. They didn’t, but were very kind and called up another pub in Yateley which had some rooms, and more importantly was on the main road! They promised to stay open for us and we wearily made our way, nativity-like, to the inn. I barely remember the rest of that first night, I was so completely exhausted. I do remember a bed and getting horizontal at some point.

I’ve been asked many times why we came to England. I tell them we came for fun, adventure and really wild things. We’ve had that in spades. We’ve had so many difficult times, especially in that first year, but so many wonderful adventures made all the more fun by the people we’ve met along the way. Sometimes I’m asked if there’s ever been a time I regretted coming to England. I tell them yes, within about 10 minutes of arrival at Heathrow, but we made the decision to come here, just us three, two suitcases and five boxes, with a one-way ticket. Nothing like a one-way ticket to give you a bit of incentive to make it work! We came because we had, to steal a phrase, a dream, a dream to live and work somewhere different, to travel and experience a different way of life. We had talked so long and so often about making the dream come true that we knew if we didn’t take the opportunity when it arose we would always wish we had. So, with a one way ticket and a lot of determination, we went forward with our lives. We’re still moving forward. We now have three children and the little one who fell asleep in the back seat of the Renault Scenic is now 11 and speaks with a funny accent. We’ve figured out where reverse is, but we don’t have a lot of use for it.

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