‘Do you want to live in White Waltham, Shrivenham, Didcot or Medmenham?’
This was my husband’s question to me 10 days ago, from a flat in Surbiton, where he and my daughter have been living for the past two months.
To row back a bit, in early March, as mounting speculation suggested schools and international travel might soon shut, my husband went to collect our daughter from her boarding school. The closure of flights in and out of Saudi was announced as he was flying to London; we have been separated ever since. There has been no way of them returning to us and we have nowhere big enough to live together in the U.K.
We were supposed to be leaving Saudi in the summer anyway so we are now relocating to the U.K. early. Because Jack is being sent overseas for 6 months without us at the end of the summer, we can be housed anywhere in the U.K.- a seemingly enviable situation for a military family used to being told where to live but, in this scenario, it just added uncertainty to an already uncertain situation.
‘I don’t want to live in any of those places. I want to live at Benson, where I researched and applied for schools,’ I explained.
But I knew as I objected that there were no quarters available there now. Corona has changed so many things for so many people. The location of our next home isn’t the worst by a long way but it felt very unsettling to have to abandon our plans and make a new decision with no notice.
‘We need to pick one of the others,’ my husband said.
I cried a lot that night. I wasn’t very nice.
There have been a number of occasions lately where I could say the same thing. It was true for the whole of the first week when Jack first got stuck and I knew we weren’t going to be able to see one another for a very long time. The anger and frustration were all-consuming. The ‘what ifs’ loomed large. ‘What if’ we had acted sooner, even by a day?
‘Why don’t we just do ip dip sky blue? Decide our home that way,’ I suggested. ‘I haven’t even heard of White Waltham.’
After more grown up ideas from me as to how we might determine our future, involving maps and pins, we plumped for Medmenham.
The next day we were told there were no quarters at Medmenham.
‘So why was it ever suggested?’
‘I don’t know. How about Shrivenham?’
The following day revealed there were no quarters for us there either.
‘I think we’ll have to pick Didcot.’ said my husband. ‘
‘OK,’ I agreed.
‘We need to choose schools for the boys ASAP,’ he said.
‘I’ve already picked schools!’
I was very much invested in those schools. I nearly lost my license in the hunt to find the right ones, popping back to the U.K. in February to do some research in one of the most exhausting trips of my life. My husband had suggested I hire a car to view the new schools as they weren’t easily accessible. It was meant to make life easier (not sure why we thought it would, given my track record with rental cars) but it didn’t.
Five schools and five head teacher talks later, I congratulated myself on a job well done as I drove the car back to Hertz. Until, that is, I found myself passing through a green light alone; no other cars followed me. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong but it didn’t feel right. I got the hire car back to the gloomy car depot, grateful to be getting rid of it, wondering if any unfriendly cameras had clocked me.
‘I’ve filled the tank,’ said the woman ahead of me in the queue at the car rental reception, swirling the car keys around her finger. I’m sure she was a very lovely person but she sounded like a massive know-it-all as I suddenly worked out what this meant for me.
A face smiled out from the poster on the grimy wall next to me, issuing an uninviting invitation in a speech bubble. ‘Let us fill your tank for you from £179.’
I groaned inwardly.
‘Where’s the nearest petrol station?’ I asked, heading for the door.
‘Ten miles away,’ beamed the organized smarty-pants who had remembered to fill up her car.
The traffic was heavy and I only had an hour. I trudged back to my little rental. I was tired, school-info-overloaded, low on driving practice these last 3 years and fed up. That was my explanation to my husband later on, anyway, when I fessed up to more possible driving violations, somewhat negating my petrol saving and risking a tonne of points. He was very sweet about it, even when a bus lane fine managed to find its way to me a couple of weeks later. (He’s getting me driving lessons when we get back to the UK.)
After a lot of soul-searching and phone calls, we were offered a house in Didcot. We can move into it a week from now.
‘I’m going to make new school applications for the boys now we have a quarter,’ my husband said. ‘So where shall I choose?’
‘Ip dip sky blue? I suggested. I know Tescos in Didcot. I know it’s massive power station, now no more, and the Esso where I have occasionally filled my car with petrol, something I can do, just not when the penalty for forgetting is nearly two hundred pounds. But I know nothing about Didcot’s schools.
I sent out a FB plea for help and a friend of a friend gave me an assessment of the local primaries.
‘Don’t pick that one, whatever you do,’ the friend of a friend advised. ‘Just don’t pick that one.’
‘That one’ is the school closest to our new quarter. I told my husband. I infected him with my negativity.
‘Maybe we could send him to a prep school?’ he texted me desperately.
‘Shall I sell a kidney to pay for it?’ I wondered. I managed to text back something more helpful, suggesting we don’t remortgage the dream house we were on the point of buying before the government told everyone to stop buying houses. Maybe there was an alternative to prep schools and organ donation.
Jack and I spent days talking about when the boys and I should leave Saudi. We eventually decided to wait until we got a quarter. That was the one promise that brought peace- knowing we would be able to move straight into our own home.
I slowly started to pack our villa in Saudi. I booked the removal company. As they can’t currently fly anything out of the country, we don’t know when we will receive our shipping so I sold a lot of our stuff to buy replacements in the U.K. We waited. We tried to make plans, to navigate changing airline and government policy. We waited some more.
There was a flight announced for this week, arriving before we get our new quarter. We decided to hold off but yesterday, when I woke, I suddenly felt sure that we were supposed to go. It gave us twenty four hours to pack. It would mean leaving before the removal men came. Five of us would have to squeeze into a 2 bed flat and try to respect one another’s personal space, which isn’t something 5 year olds and tweenies do.
But it felt right. I could no longer picture us in Saudi. I tried to imagine our remaining time there but my mind went fuzzy. I could sense our future approaching, scooping us up into arms that would carry us to the U.K..
My husband rang the airline. As I packed, I was confident there would be seats left for us. There were. It was a scramble and tiring but all day long I felt a peace. I didn’t panic. I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I did stop a couple of times to wonder if I could physically do it because I am flagging. This has been a tiring two months. I haven’t slept well with 2 room mates who haven’t wanted to be alone since Jack left.
Everything fell into place. Kind people helped me. An awesome man, to whom I will always be grateful, told me not to worry about anything. He booked a car to the airport for us, organized travel documents, offered to oversee the packers, even take down my pictures; he told me it would all be fine.
Today I woke 5 minutes before my alarm. The boys excitedly ate choc ices on the trampoline for breakfast. We had time to spare before the driver arrived, a rare thing for me at the best of times. The airport experience was uncharacteristically straightforward (if you exclude the 15 minutes we delayed those passing through the security checks. They need to say if fidget spinners aren’t allowed in hand luggage. We certainly made a very long queue very fidgety.)
As I sit on the plane now, my heart is full. In all the uncertainty, out eldest son decided that he wants to go to the same boarding school as his sister, which is a short drive from Didcot. He was accepted within two days of us applying. He has met his house parents on Zoom, Christians who share our beliefs and values, offering to help raise our son together. Our son’s new happy place is asking a friend to play football on the school sports pitch with him after lessons.
The school application for our youngest son is pending. When I was trying not to get arrested by Oxfordshire traffic police, I decided to call in at a school out of catchment because it was Christian. A sunny headmistress, about my age, with the same faith, showed me around, telling me she sends her teachers home once a week at 4pm with no school work ‘because happy teachers make happy children.’
We have applied there because it turns out that it’s not very far from Didcot. There’s a space so we are hoping he will get in and, if he does, I will forever wonder if dropping in there really was my idea or the prompting of one who could see beyond me and the plans I was making to his own perfect plan.
As I reflect upon the past 2 months, I wonder why I haven’t been able to dig deeper into my faith during this latest challenge, show the Blitz spirit we have heard so much about and which we remember today on VE Day. I have fallen into bad habits, I haven’t often prayed and I have been almost unable to read the Bible. It’s gone blurry in front of my eyes, where the news and FB, weirdly, haven’t. I haven’t lost faith but it’s been very hard to access.
In December I went on a Christian retreat and I explained how worried I felt about my nest being disturbed this year with an international move, totally oblivious to how hard it would actually be shaken. The retreat was in held in the leaders’ own home and they gave me a decoration from their Christmas tree, a gold star. They said it didn’t look strong but it couldn’t easily be broken. They said I would be strong enough to cope.
I am not strong. At all. But the Bible teaches that ‘when we are weak, then we are strong’ and that was what they were encouraging me to remember. When we run out of our own strength, it creates an opportunity for God to demonstrate his strength.
And that’s what I believe has happened here. I have run out of strength. This time of challenge hasn’t been a test to see if I would break. It’s been a season enabling God to show me how strong and how faithful he is. Where I have been weak, he has been strong.
I don’t believe God ever does anything to harm us but I do believe he works all things together for good when we trust him with our lives, transforming situations that threaten to overwhelm and break us into fertile soil for his purposes and his plans (Romans 8:28; Jeremiah 29:11). When various twists and turns seem cruel and random, he is never thwarted, Even when I was tantrumming, he didn’t turn away. He touched me though my faithful family and friends, through their prayers, through the words of a song (at the end), thoughtfully sent me to by two super-special ladies. He’s held me close on this journey, so close I haven’t always been able to see him.
I realize afresh how deeply I love him. What an amazing, kind and loving Father he is.
On my list of things I had to do before I left our villa today, I wrote ‘throw away the tea towels.’ I haven’t been able to buy new ones since the lockdown and they were shameful- I didn’t want anyone to see their holes and curry stains. Some amazing friends came to pray with me yesterday before I left. They gave me a gift. It was tea towels! I laughed with a God whose sense of humour connected, in that moment, softly with mine- I will provide whatever you need, even new tea towels, he whispered.
The wrapping paper said ‘After the rain comes the rainbow.’ I have kept it. It’s in my luggage. When we land in the U.K. in 2 hours, I will look across skies that have, at times, been torn up by storms and war, uncertainty and fear, for that multi-colored promise, declaring that there is a God who will weather it all for us, if only we will let him, a good and gracious King.
(PS 5 days later we found out our youngest got a place at our first choice school!)