1 - Things Fall Apart
It’s late on a Sunday evening in early March 1992 and Esti has finally fallen asleep in her cot. Ben is reclining in the middle of our double bed, wide awake. He’s almost four-years old and overexcited about staying in a yellow hotel that looks like one of his latest Lego creations.We’ve spent the evening eating exotic chocolate cakes in the café, inspecting the mini-bar and riding up and down in the glass elevator. Now he’s on a sugar high. He’s decided that the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo is the classiest place in Bosnia. Fortunately he doesn’t yet know that it isn’t the architecture, or the chef, that is about to make it world famous. I grope my way around the room in the half-light and climb into bed next to him. There’s a crackle of gunfire outside the window. He sits bolt upright in bed:
“Hey! What’s that? Guns? Wow!”
I pull him back down and switch on the radio. It isn’t the first time he’s heard gunshots, and in his opinion, they add to the general excitement.Outside the people of Bosnia have been voting in a referendum that will decide if the country will break away from Yugoslavia and become independent. On the BBC World Service, we hear that the polls have just closed and there are reports of barricades going up all over the city. I retell the story, Newsround-style as the battle lines are drawn up. While we lie in the dark room listening to the TV crew next door spooling and rewinding their tapes, there’s more sporadic gunfire outside the window.
“Where’s Dads?” asks Ben in a whisper. Tim, his dad and my husband, is out theres omewhere, but exactly where I have no idea, so I decide to say nothing. I hold Ben close.
When Tim finally comes back, I jump out of bed to greet him. Ben leaps into his arms. Other people’s husbands are guaranteed to come home from work in one piece. Mine is not. It makes him more precious. In a few days he will come within moments of losing his life.
So what are we all doing here as the country descends into anarchy? Well, yes - that’s a good question. I know it’s exactly what my mother would like to know, but since I haven’t called her, she hasn’t had a chance to ask. I don’t feel like making excuses, even if the story is actually quite simple. It’s half term. Tim had to go away for work and we came too but somehow I know she won’t buy that story this evening.
When I met Tim Judah, the man who was to become my husband, he was the arts correspondent on the student newspaper and spent his time writing reviews of incomprehensible, arty French films. I was the news editor, plotting with a friend how we could both get a job at the BBC and become world famous. Tim went home and told his flatmate that I was the most ambitious person he had ever met. Now he’s a foreign correspondent covering a conflict that has already claimed the lives of a long list of journalists. How did that happen? Did I corrupt him? Leave him slightly unhinged? The moment we graduated, he left the country. Maybe it’s living with me? As for my career – well, I’m a housewife and in the past few years I have come to accept that, if sometimes things are a bit crowded in our marriage, that’s because I’ve had to learn to share my husband with the world’s frightened and starving masses. I can’t compete with the allure of somewhere far away, especially if it’s in deep political chaos, preferably at war. That why I’m in Sarajevo. It’s the only way of getting a family holiday. I can hear you thinking: “God, she’s an irresponsible mother! What are you doing, you fool?” Thank goodness tonight neither my mother nor Tim’s father are here to pass judgement on me. Okay, I admit maybe I am a little bit irresponsible and Tim is slightly crazy but as for who is to blame – there is only one candidate. It is Ben, that angelic looking little boy who is now curled up in his father’s arms fast asleep. He brought us here. If he hadn’t been born, life might have been very different.
Let’s just rewind the clock two years. It’s a grey November morning in 1989 and I’m late for work as usual. As I grab my handbag and bend down to kiss Ben goodbye, the hem of my coat brushes across the tracks of his wooden train set and derails a coal truck. He looks up expectantly but instantly realises that I am about to go out without him. He stares up accusingly,clutching an engine in both hands. He’s almost two. The babysitter scoops him up in her arms and starts stroking his hair. I want to snatch him back but all I do is give him a quick hug and then slam the front door of the flat in his face. I can see out of the corner of my eye that there’s a large blob of snot on the smart astrakhan collar of my coat but I haven’t got time to wipe it off. I run down the stairs as quick as I can. I can hear him crying as I slam the main front door.
On the other side of the road, I turn around to wave at him. He’s at the window. I knew he’d be there. I can only see his head. He gives me a mournful smile and a little sad wave. His sandy coloured hair is sticking up in a tuft. I hover around on the edge of the pavement grinning and waving pathetically for a minute or two in apology and then trudge off to the tube station with a heavy heart. I’m twenty-eight.
When I met Tim he had a black leather jacket and in his pocket was a bunch of little badges that he had collected in African tin-pot dictatorships. I thought he looked rather Italian. He was exotic and irresistible. In order to get him to ask me out, I set up a magazine on Soviet and East European affairs and made him the arts editor. Then I organised two complimentary tickets to a film about the French Revolution. He was supposed to ask me along. He did. To my surprise he spoke fluent French and slumped in the back row. I snuggled down next to him and had no idea what was happening on screen. He wasn’t Italian at all but half French.
After I met Tim something extraordinary happened. The world that had seemed so huge and far away suddenly shrank. It was almost as if I could hold it in my hand and look at it. My parents had grown up in the same village but Tim had relatives scattered across the globe. The Britain where I had been brought up was traditional and closed. Having Irish blood was suspect enough let alone anything else more dangerously foreign. It was a country where the shops shut on Wednesday afternoon and having a wooden, Habitat dining table was the cutting edge of chic. It was 1984. We had fallen in love and he left to spend two years at graduate school in America. Most people assumed it was all over – long distance relationships don’t last. Rubbish! Tim could speak three languages beautifully, had travelled all over the place and recognised the flags of countries I didn’t know existed. I spent all my money on tickets to the States, determined to prove them wrong. We partied in New York and went to Florida for the weekend. Then I was given a place on a prestigious BBC training course and when Tim came home we moved in together. I was convinced that a glittering career in London awaited me. I would do what all young women were supposed to do in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain; have a career, a family and look like Princess Diana.
Everything was fine until Ben arrived unannounced.
I first realised something was up when I started feeling sick and kept nodding off. At first I thought I must be ill, so I went to the doctor, something I only ever do in dire emergencies. When he told me I was six weeks pregnant, I was frozen in panic. I took days to thaw out but once I warmed up I just knew it was a boy called Ben. I had to have this baby. A warm rosy future lay ahead. I would have a beautiful baby then return to work and be promoted. I’d never felt so focused in my life, so sure of myself. So I called Tim, who was in Congo where there had been a revolution or something like that, I didn’t care what exactly. As far as he was concerned this was the important thing going on in the world and the first big break in his journalistic career.
It was 4am. I was on a night shift. The news took an unnervingly long time to travel to the heart of Africa. I could feel mile upon mile of empty nothingness and I could make out dark palm trees silhouetted against the night sky as I sat with the receiver in my hand waiting for him to say something. The space between us felt dangerous and immense.Eventually, he stammered:
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
Why wasn’t he? Unfairly, I had forgotten the paralysis that the news had induced in me.
Tim wasn’t alone. The world isn’t as modern as it pretends to be. The next day I marched into the office to tell my boss the good news. He’s a small, middle-aged man with gold-rimmed spectacles.
“Don’t you think you might be better off having an abortion?” he asked. I was shocked by his audacity.
“You’re being very headstrong. You need to build up your career first and have a life.”
I couldn’t believe it. I heard this from nearly everyone.
“You’ll find it difficult to manage this job and a baby,” he added ominously. There was a general consensus that as an unmarried mum, I would be a failure. It was deeply insulting. I argued back.
“My father was an obstetrician. His motto was: ‘Everyone should go home with a prize.’ I can still hear him starting the car in the middle of the night to rush to the hospital to make sure a baby was delivered safely.Babies are something to be treasured. I want my prize and I want my job. I’ll prove you wrong.”
My boss looked at me sadly and shuffled the papers on his desk.
There was something much nastier in the air though. There was also general agreement that if Tim and I got married the union would be a disaster as he was Jewish and I was not.
“I’m an atheist and the last thing I want to do is get married,” I told my mother.
“Mixed marriages can be difficult,” she replied.
“That’s old fashioned rubbish. What about love and friendship? Anyway what about you? Gran wasn’t too pleased after she brought you up as a Catholic and you went and married a Protestant. I’m only having a baby.” It was rather as if I was having teenage tantrum but I could see my mother was genuinely worried.
“But what will the child be?” she asked me. “You need to think about these things, dear.”
“Who cares?” I said.
“An awful lot of people, I’m sure,” she added forebodingly.
“My baby will work it out for himself,” I replied petulantly although I did glance down at my stomach and wonder what he would finally decide he was. Then I dismissed it as totally irrelevant. That was a mistake.
Let down, defiant and above all disgusted with Tim, who was still floundering about in a sea of shock and uncertainty, I packed my bag and left the unmarital home to lick my wounds and plan my next move at mysister’s house in Birmingham. I was going to bring up this baby alone, whatever everyone thought. To my delight, at 3am one morning, Tim arrived and drove me back to London. He spent most of the time looking at me and smiling rather than watching the road. Six weeks of dithering had left him a new man who couldn’t be bossed around - not even by me. He’d decided to ignore the ripples of disapproval in the air and take a chance. In fact, I think he quite likes doing things that other people don’t. He told me that he loved me and told my sister that that meant everything would be“fine”. She looked a little unsure and thought he had no idea how complicated life could be. I thought everything was very romantic. Most people thought things were off to a shaky start as we’d challenged the conventions of everyday life. I didn’t think about what was going to happen next. Neither of us did. Ben seemed to have taken over, although at this stage Tim thought our lives couldbe in the hands of a daughter called Miriam. I wonder if she would have taken me to Sarajevo?
Once he had installed me back in our flat, Tim immediately left for Paris, where his sister lives, to hunt out stories other reporters had missed - among them one about a man from Mali (most of which is in the Sahara), who designed pullovers. Then, at the beginning of January,he discovered some more eccentric Africans across the Atlantic and bought a ticket for New York.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back at the weekend,” he assured me as he stuffed a change of clothes into his knapsack and rummaged inthe top draw for his passport. I didn’t see him until March 28th.
“Do you think he is ever coming home?” joked my mother anxiously.
He did, but he took the long way round and caught the last of the civil war in El Salvador. When he got back I was surprised that he had started putting sugar in his coffee. Three days later Ben was born.
Almost two years have passed since then and here I am standing in the Tube station getting into a muddle shovelling coins into the ticket machine. I feel slightly wobbly, as if I’ve got a permanent hangover. Life has been a bit blurred atthe edges since Ben arrived. I’ve been working back-to-back shifts with Tim, as we don’t have enough money for a full-time nanny. The key to having it all and managing work and life in a harmonious balance is cash. We don’t have any and if we are lucky we get to spend one evening together once a week. Tim is caged in and restless. His “fine” seems some kind of distant, heavenly goal. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ben wakes up constantly at night to see which of us is at home. Last night he woke up every hour, on the hour. I’ve been so run down that I’ve even been back to the doctor who has sent me to the hospital to have tests for all kinds of terrible diseases. I have none of them. It isn’t just that I’ll do anything for a good night’s sleep or that the money for a nanny would solve my problems. I’ve simply got a son called Ben and so this is my last day at work. He’s won.
It’s been painful and I’ve cried a lot as I’ve changed from the most ambitious person in the world into amother who wants to bring up her baby herself. I loved the way my mother was always there for me. I’m sure I would never have wanted to be left with a nanny. Most of the nannies I’ve met are mind-bendingly boring. The odd thing is, yet again, my mother is horrified and thinks I’m throwing away my education.I don’t care, because I am not. I am escaping a dead end. I have no intention of dumbing down. Ours will be a two-way relationship. I am going to be spending time with Ben and he will be spending time with me. It’ll be the two of us against the world. Whoops! It’s the three of us. I forgot Tim! As the train pulls into Lancaster Gate with a lurch, I think: “Yes, I’d love another baby.” As the doors shut, I wonder what is wrong with me and so does everyone else but Tim.
By the time I wander into my office, I’m feeling far guiltier about leaving my job than I do about leaving Ben with the babysitter. That’s one life. I’ve left that one at home and I have just walked into the other. In this one I am supposed to revel in the long hours and the low pay. I’m an editor of the BBC World Service programme, Newshour. Everyone here thinks I’m crazy and throwing it all away for dirty nappies and mountains of ironing. All I know is that somewhere out there is real life. I want to go out and find it - with Ben. It’s a world full of bright, vivid colours, deep passions and overflowing with ideas - not cluttered up with people like my colleague who commutes to Brighton, has a bottle of whisky in his briefcase and is so bleary-eyed after three days at work he can’t utter a coherent sentence.
The office is a filthy, tatty, unkempt place with old wooden desks and grey telephones. I sit down gingerly. It’s odd but I feel as if I no longer belong here. The programme doesn’t go on air until 10pm and there isn’t much going on in the world. The afternoon slips by as I alternate between worrying about what to fill the airtime with and about how Tim and I will make ends meet. I dig about in the box of tapes where we store reports that correspondents have filed but were deemed too boring to play. Maybe there’s something in here that can fill five minutes? I don’t care anymore. Rifling through the box, I wonder if I really will be as broke and bored stiff as my boss predicted when I handed in my resignation.
“You won’t have much intellectual stimulation stuck at home,” he said knowingly. “You could feel cut off from the world and short of money. My wife has found it very hard.”
A vision of his wife and children in a Dickensian debtors’ prison shot into my mind and I asked him rather rudely:
“Do you think your children are boring and not worth your time?”
He looked lost behind his spectacles, as if he was trying to remember what they were like. But the scariest bit of all is that he still might be right. What if I do turn into a lonely, depressed housewife? He was, after all, right about me not being able tohave Ben and hold down this job but I’d rather not think about that now. So what, who cares?
This job isn’t very exciting. All I do is phone up people and ask them what is going on. I don’t doanything. There’s a whole world out there but I experience things at long distance. I’m too tired to get to grips with it all but am saved from facing up to life’s dilemmas by yet another phone call.
For months, while I have spent my spare time cooking up homemade baby purée and doing Fireman Sam puzzles, demonstrators in communist East Germany have been demanding the freedom to travel abroad. Last summer the Hungarians opened their border and thousands of East Germans fled to the West. I put down my coffee and pick up the receiver. It’s Matt Frei, our correspondent in Berlin. He’s just been at a press conference and is in a state of high excitement. The East German official fielding the questions was asked when new laws permitting freedom to travel would be introduced and he has answered that, as far as he could see, they came into force immediately. I am so dopey that I can’t grasp what is going on.
“Rosie, thousands of East Berliners are storming through the crossing points in the Wall!” he shouts down the line. I wake up with a jolt.
All my life Europe has been divided in two. If you lived in the West you rarely visited the East. Those left ont he other side of the Iron Curtain were prisoners. Now the walls of the gaol have suddenly collapsed. I never thought I’d see such a thing. It’s as if politics has suddenly gone zero gravity for a night.
By 11pm when the programme finishes, the Iron Curtain has fallen and I have had a wonderful evening. Soviet domination of Europe is a thing of the past. How can Ben compete? Perhaps it’s not such a bad job after all. I pick up my handbag and walk out of the office. No one bothers to wish me well or even say a proper “goodbye”. I’m a write off. When I get home Tim and Ben are cuddled up in bed, fast asleep. There’s no room for me. I feel left out and think that I’ve just done something rather reckless. I’ve become a rebel. I won’t live by Thatcher’s rules.
Unfortunately, communism in Europe doesn’t disappear overnight. It isn’t immediately clear either what difference the collapse of the Berlin Wall will actually make. The ripples of change spread slowly eastwards and just before Christmas protests against the Stalinist regime of the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu break out in Romania. They are brutally suppressed. Hundreds of people are shot, bludgeoned and stabbed to death. The West holds it breath. The Cold War seems far from over. Indeed, it may have just entered a new, far more dangerous stage, but my main problem is not chasing an opposition spokesman for a quote but finding a man to fix the washing machine.
While Ben and I hang around at home waiting for the engineer to come we have our first serious fight. I want to watch the tyrannical Nicolae Ceauşescu address the crowds in Bucharest but he wants to watch Fireman Sam. As soon as I press stop on the video he reaches over and presses the play button. Things aren’t going Ceauşescu’s way either and the crowd starts heckling him, just as the engineer rings the bell. Twenty minutes later and £75 poorer I make it back into the sitting room and find, to my surprise, that the news is still on and Ben is glued to the screen. A helicopter is hovering over the great big grey building from where Ceauşescu was speaking and is trying to whisk him to safety. There are running battles in the streets below. Ben turns round with an impish grin on his little, round face. We sit down together and watch quietly.
No one knows much about what’s been going on in Romania. It’s been a police state and a virtually closed country until today. The few journalists who’ve been allowed in have come back with Orwellian tales of Romanians sitting huddled in their kitchens with their coats on, warming themselves in front of the gas cooker wondering who in their family is the police informer about to have them arrested for telling an anti-government joke. As Ben starts running his fire engine up and down the coffee table in front of the TV, I tell him how the people are angry because they have nothing to eat. I wish he would say: “Wow! This is a dramatic event in post-war history,”or something similarly profound but he’s too busy with his toys and I don’t know enough about Romania to keep his attention. I switch off the TV and we go to the park.
A few weeks later the boiler breaks down. We haven’t got the money to fix it. I was the one with a full-time job. Tim is a freelance with an uncertain income that has virtually dried up. We are broke, unemployed and carried awayby the romantic idea of having another baby. This is the only exciting thing going on in our lives or, maybe, there is just nothing else to do. We are stalled at a dead end and I think that I am probably to blame. It is time for some clear thinking and decisive action so Tim goes to meet the foreign editor of the Times. I idle away the afternoon playing toy cars and worrying what will become of us. About 5pm he comes bounding back up the stairs, his eyes shining with excitement.
“You’ll never believe it! He pointed at a map of the world and said I could go to Khartoum,Santiago or Islamabad or, maybe, then he paused for a minute and said ‘Do you fancy Bucharest?’ It was just like a scene out of Scoop! I couldn’t believe it. I almost fell off my chair!”
Here is my husband standing in front of me reeling off a list of exotic places. South America sounds fun but I already know where we are going. The bloody revolution in Romania is a massive story. The whole ofBritain turned on their TV sets after Christmas dinner to watch the pictures of Ceauşescu’s summary execution. Thousands of Romanians have been left dead or injured. One foreign journalist has lost his life. Tim is as good as packed already, although I still have my hand on the front door to let him in.
He has dark brown hair and a handsome face that reminds me of the Mediterranean. He believes that you can go anywhere and do anything. He is convinced that anything is possible and, thanks to Ben, I am to be a stay-at-home mum in a communist tower block in post-revolutionary Romania. I can’t believe my luck!
Tim is gone within the week. On the way to the airport I tell him he had better make a go of this because I’m pregnant. He grins and, fired up, disappears into the terminal. A few weeks later he finds a flat and tells me to book a flight as soon as I can. The odd thing is that every time I try to call him to tell him when we are arriving, an elderly lady answers the phone. She doesn’t speak a word of English. I can’t imagine Tim has moved in with a Romanian granny, so I assume I must keep getting the wrong number as she’s always there, even late at night.
Since Christmas the revolution has turned sour and it appears that it wasn’t really a revolution after all but a coup d’etat in which Ceauşescu’s cronies toppled him and took control. It’s not at all clear that communism is dead and buried. It might be about to seek its revenge. Romania is the new frontline in the battle against the “Evil Empire”. When I tell my oldest friend we are off, she takes a deep breath and looks horrified.
“I hope you know what you are doing, Rosie? You can’t take Ben there, can you?” “Don’t worry. I’m pregnant,” I add sounding slightly manic.
“Oh my God! You’re crazy,” she says as she puts down her coffee cup with a sharp clatter.
Maybe I am a bit, but I am not going to pack Ben in cotton wool and hide him at home in case seeing something out of the ordinarytraumatises him. Who cares if there’s nothing to eat? All I want is for the three of us to spend time together and Bucharest sounds fine to me. There are more toys than anything else in my suitcase.In fact I haven’t been too sure what to pack. What is the weather like in Romania?