Friday, 5 May 2017

The New World

Thursday the 23rd of June, 2011 was my last day in England; not my last ever day in England, although it felt like it might be. On Friday  morning I was up at three for the sake of catching a flight, an undertaking which I found weird with a touch of death sentence to it. There would be no going back. I was moving to America. It was the thing towards which I'd been working for a long time, the thing on which everything had been pinned, and yet on some level I'd never really expected the day to come because I'd been lost in forward motion. I hadn't even been up at three when working for Royal Mail, and the sky was still frozen black. My dad turned up in the car around four. He was driving me to the airport because neither coach nor train would have got me there in time.

The city was silent. It was still cold. I hugged my mother, then kissed her on the cheek and tried not to cry - and we've never been one of those touchy-feely families. It seemed like I would never see her again. I think I noticed a tear in her eye.

I'd been living in my mother's place whilst selling off a load of my accumulated crap and applying for the K1 fiancĂ© visa. The K1 would grant me three months in which to get married and apply for a green card, and now it was happening - an eventuality I had somehow not quite foreseen. It was terrifying, but I kept moving because the  alternative would have been much worse. I told myself it would all make sense at some point in the future, and hopefully the none too distant future.

I was flying from Gatwick, because when I bought the ticket I hadn't considered that it made much difference. I was still thinking of airports in terms of having lived in London, but Gatwick is a shitload further than Heathrow if you're travelling down from the north on the M6. My dad and I talked about whatever we usually talked about as  dawn broke and the motorway began to fill with early traffic, and eventually we were at the airport. I loaded my crap onto a baggage trolley and we wheeled off to the departure lounge. I hugged my dad, which I'm not sure I'd ever done before because, as I say, we've never really been that sort of family; and like a wanker, I started to cry.

He understood. 'That's a proper Burty trait,' he told me, and I remembered him describing how tough it had been working on a farm all those years, getting upset over the deaths of calves and cows.

Then followed about nine hours on a plane, landing at Charlotte, North Carolina for my date with Immigration which, after the previous two years worth of headaches accrued in preparation, took all of half an hour. I handed over my envelope of documents and they took me to a room where I sat with a bored teenager in a uniform with a massive gun. He wasn't so intimidating as the bored teenager in a uniform with a massive gun who had once cadged cigarettes from me in Calixtlahuaca, but it was obvious that we were never going to be friends. It wasn't so much an interview as a conversation with someone who clearly wanted to be somewhere else, following which I was left with four hours to burn. My six o'clock connecting flight was pushed back to seven due to a surfeit of lightning, then to eight because there was something wrong with the aircraft, and then it was cancelled because apparently US Airways only had one plane, which was about what I expected. They'd done it before. My previous visit to America had briefly marooned me in Philadelphia. It was getting to be a habit.

The airline put me up in a hotel and I caught a flight to Houston early next morning. It was that or three further connections which wouldn't arrive in San Antonio until eight on Saturday evening. Bess picked me up from Houston with a two hour drive back to San Antonio. I spent the car journey and most of that first month in something of a daze. A foreign country looks very different to a holiday when it's supposed to be for the rest of your life.

I moved into Bess's apartment, a second floor flat in a place on Sunset Ridge. Sunset Ridge was a subdivision - as they are called - a complex of architecturally similar houses and flats on a hillside behind a large ritzy sign. The buildings were two storeys, stone clad with shallow roofing and a sort of alpine look. The lawns were neat, without fencing, and were tended by someone working from a main office which looked after the affairs of the subdivision. Neither trees nor bushes nor bedding plants were of any kind I recognised, and the Texas heat seemed phenomenal. I felt a little as though I had moved into a J.G. Ballard novel, and I could only wait for familiarity to set in so I could feel normal again.

The flat was a reasonable size, but too small for three of us, the third being the inscrutable kid who was seven and would eventually be my stepson. In my absence, Bess had found a house and we would be moving there in a month or so. Everything was in transition. An email I sent to my mother on Monday the 27th of June concluded:

Sorry about the sombre tone, there have been the inevitable couple of occasions where I've wondered if I haven't made a huge mistake, but I'm sure it will all look very different in a few weeks time.

Beyond such details, all that remains is a blur of images which seem alien even now, six years later: picking up a ton of Lego from the floor, and the child who barely seems to know what to say to me, instead addressing everything to his mother; smoking the last of my tobacco outside on the step of the building as colourful tropical birds hop about in the tree, unaware of how exotic they appear; dive bombed by sparrowhawks at Sunset Ridge's outdoor pool; taking shelter from the crippling heat of midday, inside with the AC up full and the lights off watching the new version of Battlestar Galactica; nothing I quite recognise in the stores and supermarkets, no kebab shop and no Asian-owned corner store; lightning flashing across the city in the evening like in a film, the city as a vista of treetops with the occasional water tower; dishes in the sink and a fridge containing only spray cheese and ice cubes...

It got better and it got easier, but it's still hard to think about those first months even now, because the shock was so profound; and this was immigration willingly undertaken as a matter more closely resembling choice than necessity, so I've been lucky.

It was probably the best decision I ever made.

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