When I was 8 I hatched a plan with a school friend (with whom I spent hours and hours acting out scenes from Grease) to move to Hollywood when we were 18 and become actresses. We had it all worked out. We’d waitress and before long we’d be spotted by a producer and become movie stars. Easy Peasy.

Well, it’s not been quite that easy, it’s taken a bit longer than I originally hope but I’m finally going to Hollywood! And although I won’t be speaking the words I will be writing them – which is WAY better.

John, Alula and I got our visas and are moving in ten days’ time to California. I’m terrified and elated in equal measure. John is just excited and can’t wait to get there, and Alula is only going along with it because we promised she can get a hamster called Apricot once we arrive.

We left Bali just over a year ago because we both had some exciting work opportunities arise in London. John has been busy for the last 18 months helping create a whole new bank from scratch (look out for Tandem Bank coming this year) and I had five books out in 2015 for which my publishers wanted me on the ground to do PR, and was also working solidly in between as a screenwriter. I’ve now got film agents in both London and LA, which is why we’re moving there – so I can pursue work opportunities in La La land.

We thought we would stay only 6 months in London but it ended up stretching out. What we did discover was that while London and the UK in general has been brilliant for Alula it really doesn’t work for us as a family. 2015 was not a happy year – in fact, it’s been the worst year of our lives in many respects – a year of transition and heartache and missing friends and failing to find our feet.

A slow creeping sadness set in for me, which at times I thought would swallow me whole. Alula hated school with a passion and spent days crying beneath her duvet. John suffered with a crazy commute and no time for himself. One of the biggest changes I noted in myself was a decayed sense of wonder and a loss of the self-belief that had charged me through five years in Bali and allowed me to write, write, write. My inspiration vanished, along with it all sense of joy, and for the last five months I have barely managed to write a word.

It’s only John’s constant unwavering belief, the wise words of my amazing girlfriends and the occasional beautiful email from a stranger that have helped lift my gaze once more over the parapet, that have encouraged me to keep dreaming and, more importantly, to keep daring.

So John and I went back to the drawing board, like we did six years ago when plotting our escape from the UK the first time, and we wrote up all the things we were looking for in our lives. Much like the first vision board this one too had sunshine, nature, community scrawled at the top – all the things we found in Bali.

So why not go back to Bali? people asked. Because in our gut it doesn’t feel right. We’ve moved on and our path is definitely calling us elsewhere. We’ve always loved California and in terms of our careers, which have both gone great guns in the last couple of years thanks to the seeds we were able to plant during our time in Bali, California is the place to be.

Many people stare at us like we’re crazy or mistakenly think we’re fearless when we tell them what we’re doing, but we have learned to tune them out and focus on creating a vision and then pursuing it with all we’ve got. It’s not that we aren’t fearful. I am, at least. John seems to have preternatural courage. As Elizabeth Gilbert has recently written in her book Big Magic, fear and creativity go hand in hand, and if you want to live a whole-hearted life pursuing that which makes you come alive, then you will feel fear. Learning how to make space for that fear and stop it from holding you back is the key.

So once again our house is a flurry of packing activity. It seems like only yesterday we were packing up boxes in Bali and only the day before that that we were packing up boxes in south London. We’re hoping that the answer to Can We Live Here? will finally be answered with a hell yes.

I’m pretty certain that it will because: a) sunshine b) ocean c) half and half.

(The three things I need in my life to ensure complete happiness (besides John and Alula obviously).

I know that some of you will be mumbling under your breaths ‘yeah, and the land of Trump, drought and mass shootings…’ all very good points indeed. I’m heeding them and ignoring them though because a, b & c.

She just wants to be normal I know, but that’s difficult verging on impossible when you have a feminist, socialist mother mouthing off about the Royal Family, organised religion and David Cameron while you’re trying to read the latest Jacqueline Wilson in the back of the car.

Today in Brownies they celebrated the Queen being the longest reigning monarch or whatever it was.

‘Did you know,’ Alula announces, ‘that when the Queen got married the Guides in Australia sent all the dried fruit for her wedding cake as they were living on rations here in England.’

‘Oh PER-LEASE,’ I screech. ‘You really think the BILLIONAIRE royal family, with all their obscene wealth and castles and priceless art collection and the Crown Jewels were on rations during and after the war? You think they couldn’t find some raisins and currants for a cake?!’

Alula rolls her eyes, wishing no doubt that she hadn’t mentioned it.

‘I like our Prime Minister,’ she comes up with next. ‘He’s good.’

‘What?!’ I blurt loudly. What on earth is she talking about? Is Brownies turning into a recruiting ground for the young conservatives? I know it’s a Tory stronghold in these parts but now I’m worried. Are they perhaps slipping something in the water? How else can you explain such indoctrination… unless of course she’s being contrarian and trying to wind me up.

‘Why do you always have to be so loud and shouty about politics and women and religion?’ Alula yells at me.

‘Because,’ I splutter, ‘they’re important issues. I’m passionate about politics and things that affect women’s rights. I get angry when I see unfairness, like rich people trying to make life easier for the rich and harder for the poor and men trying to control women’s bodies and choices. And so should you!’

‘But you can’t tell me not to like the Prime Minister or the Queen.’

‘The prime minister put his willy in a pig’s mouth.’

‘What? That’s disgusting.’

‘Hah!’ I yell victorious. ‘Now do you still think he’s good?’

 

‘I just want to be NORMAL!’ Alula yells at me as I’m driving her to school.

‘What’s so good about normal?’ I ask. ‘And anyway, what do you mean by ‘normal’? What is normal?’

‘I don’t want to be the kid who has lived in London and then Bali and then here and then somewhere else. I just want to be NORMAL.’

I almost swerve into oncoming traffic. ‘But you’ve had an amazing life. You’re so lucky! Who wants to live an ordinary life when you can live an extraordinary one?’

Alula glowers at me in the rear view mirror.

‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all,’ I quote at her. ‘That’s Helen Keller.’

She pauses. She read all about Helen Keller last year at Green School and I know she ranks her up there with Taylor Swift and Jacqueline Wilson in the pantheon of people she most admires.

‘I don’t want an adventure. I just want to stay put.’

Hmmmmm. We are at an impasse. I’ve pulled the Helen Keller card – my ace in the hand – and had it thrown in my face. I’m all out of platitudes. I think about singing ‘Shake it off’ but whenever I open my mouth these days Alula yells at me that I’m embarrassing her (If everyone in the universe was wiped out tomorrow by Smallpox except for Alula and I, she would still cringe at everything I say or do and scream that I’m embarrassing her. I can’t draw breath these days without her wincing in humiliation.)

‘Are you anxious about moving again?’ I ask her because I am guessing it probably boils down to this. We are asking an enormous amount from her: to pack up and leave another place and start all over again.

Guilt comes in waves but at the moment the waves are Tsunami sized.

We still have no clear plan for moving yet, it’s all up in the air, but we are hoping to be gone before Christmas. It’s a lot of change for a lifetime, let alone one year.

We moved back to London for some brilliant work opportunities and work has been fantastic… but now we have no life. There is no balance. We have no time for anything except working, school runs and trips to Tesco. John works 12 hour days, sometimes more. We feel as if we are treading water, struggling to keep our heads above the waves. We are stressed, unhappy and I wonder most days why on earth we ever left Bali. Was it worth it?

Yes and No. I’m not sure. I miss my friends so much even to think of them is like being kicked in the gut.

‘I don’t want to go anywhere else,’ Alula says.

I sigh deeply. ‘I know,’ I tell her. ‘It’s really hard on you. But this morning you told me you hated school.’

She scowls at me.

‘And listen, there is no such thing as normal. Everyone has a different experience. Some kids move every year if say, their parents are in the army. And other children are forced to become refugees if they live in a war zone. Imagine if that was your life. You are really very lucky. We are so privileged.’

We park and I walk her grumpily up the hill to school.  After I call John and agonise with him over our choices and what it means for Alula. Should we just stay put?

But the next morning, as I’m helping Alula get dressed for school, she flops onto the bed. ‘When are we leaving?’ she asks. ‘I can’t wait.’

 

 

At the time it seemed like a good idea.

‘Are you sure mummy that this is going to work?’ Alula asked sceptically.

‘Of course,’ I told her, contemplating the cardboard box that I’d strangled with parcel tape. ‘It’ll be fine. I’ve bubble wrapped it all. And I wrote FRAGILE on the side of the box.’

Alula frowned. And we watched as the nice man at Ubud post office carted off the box containing her entire collection of Lego including a cruise ship, Veterinary office, bakery, stables, pooch parlour and ice cream stand, and tossed it into the international shipping pile.

I contemplated the forty quid it had just cost us to post it to the UK and patted myself on the back. Considering a Lego set costs roughly the equivalent of a three bed town house in south London it was certainly cheaper than re-buying it all when we got back, and there was no way I was giving up valuable clothes space in the luggage for Olivia and friends.

CUT TO: three months later….

‘IT’S ALL IN PIECES! MY LEGO IS BROKEN! MY LEGO! MY LEGO! MY LEGO!’

CUT TO: four months later…

‘MY LEGO! MY LEGO!’

‘Why not pretend that an earthquake hit your Lego Town and now they have to rebuild it? Only, you get to be the architect this time?!’

‘NO! It needs to be rebuilt exactly like it was.’

‘That might be impossible.’

CUT TO: five months later…

Alula is staring mournfully into the plastic coffin that contains her roughly 5 million Lego pieces – the sad remains of what was once a gleaming, pristine Lego world. She pulls out a random Lego dolphin and a fragment of roof.

‘I’m so sad about my Lego mummy.’

CUT TO: six months later…

‘What are you doing Alula?’

She has clambered onto the kitchen worktop by the hob. Last time she did this her knee knocked the gas knob and we only found out about it six hours later when John caught my hand just as I reached for the light switch.

‘I’m writing in the calendar,’ Alula announces.

I peer closer. ‘What’s THE GREAT REBUILD?’ I ask. ‘And why is Daddy doing this every weekend for the next three weeks?’

Alula looks at me over her shoulder and grins.

Poor John. Poor, poor John.

The sun is shining! For the first time in days the sky dawns a decadent blue.

I scowl, then tramp down the stairs cursing loudly. Because it doesn’t matter what colour the sky is. We’re not going to be seeing it after all. No. We’re going to be underground, in the dark, crawling through caves. Can you hear the joy in my voice at this prospect?

I have woken in a grump, wishing I’d never let John sway me into agreeing to this. I’m still in a grump an hour later when we pull down a rutted road and spot a boy unloading gear from the back of an old Fiesta.

‘He looks about twelve,’ John and I say at the same time.

I frown. We’re about to be led into the biggest underground (mainly unmapped) cave system in the UK by a boy who hasn’t yet hit puberty. This day just gets better and better.

Alex turns out to be 19 not 12 and he does his best to answer my rapid-fire questions as we step into our boiler suits and try on our helmets:

‘Has anyone ever got lost in there?’

‘Has anyone ever died in there?’

‘Do I have to squeeze through any narrow tunnels?’

‘What if I get stuck?’

‘Has anyone ever got stuck?’

‘What do you mean it took eight hours for them to get rescued?’

‘What happens if I need a pee?’

‘What happens if you fall down a hole and break a leg?’

‘Has there ever been a cave in?’

‘What qualifications do you need to lead people down here?’

‘You’re not yet qualified?’

‘You’re three years off becoming a PE teacher?’

By the time we spot the cave entrance I know more about Alex than his own mother and Alex, clearly exhausted by my interrogation, has sprinted 100m into the distance. It’s OK, I think to myself, I’ll have him in the cave. He can’t run anywhere in there.

Alula glowers at John and I. She is deeply unimpressed by the boiler suit action and the rather fetching helmet she’s being made to wear. ‘You look like a ghost buster,’ I tell her.

She refuses to pose for a photograph.

We have to duck and scuttle in order to enter the cave system. Already I hate it. I grit my teeth and decide to enter into the spirit of things because in the cave it’ll be too dark anyway for anyone to see my scowley face. Plus, as I tell John, at least it will be good for the blog.

As soon as we get inside I start visualising all kinds of scenarios I could work into future books or films – dramatic and romantic YA scenes involving trapped teens (who all look older than Alex), exciting rescues, dangerous dares that go desperately wrong. I even let my mind wander to a dystopian future involving life in underground caves and a zombie vampire race that has evolved and picks off innocents, dragging them to a sacrificial chamber … I get quite carried away and smack my head on a stalactite.

Alex makes us climb, scrabble, scramble, slide, slip and crawl all the way to an underground lake.

‘It’s 90 feet deep and people dive here,’ he tells us.

‘Why?’ I ask, frowning at the murky water.

‘Because,’ he answers, not understanding the question.

‘But why?’ I keep asking. Because WHY would anyone want to dive in a freezing, pitch black lake? It’s completely beyond my comprehension. There are no fish. No turtles. No coral. There’s only the prospect of death. And hypothermia. Also, what a hassle carrying an oxygen tank all the way down here. If I had been allowed to carry anything (which I wasn’t) it would have been chocolate. And spare batteries.

Luckily Alula announces at this point she is desperate for a wee. Thank god for nine-year old bladders. ‘We need to get back,’ I tell Alex in the voice of someone who would happily go caving for another ten hours but is sadly having to give in to her daughter’s bladder’s silly demands.

He takes us back via the ‘Mud Slide.’

Great, I think with relief, a slide. That sounds easy. No more bloody climbing or squeezing head first through puddles bloodying my palms and cricking my back. Just sliding. Even I can manage to do that.

But no. The slide should be renamed the ‘Ten Rounds with Mike Tyson You’re Too old For This Get Me Out Of Here Death Trap’. I manage to slam my entire right side into a jagged rock wall. At speed. The pain is eviscerating. For ten seconds I can’t breathe. Neither can I move. Remembering our ante-natal class I suck in a breath and then pant out. Tears smart. I force myself to move – by pretending the vampire monster beasts from that movie The Descent are behind me. I channel my inner YA heroine. But I’m shaking so hard from the adrenaline and pain that I slip and manage to slide again onto my ass. My lip wobbles. I think of the beach, dappled by sunlight. It wobbles some more.

John gives me a leg up onto a ledge and then we spot blue skies. Though there’s another horrible crawl on our bellies over rocks and crags to reach it.

I limp to the car and peel my boiler suit off to admire the purple lump that’s bloomed on my thigh.

That, I make a vow to myself, is the very last time I ever do anything requiring a headlamp and a boiler suit.

Unless of course I ever get the chance to be a Ghostbuster.

Evidence caving

This bruise is as big as my hand. And it hurts. A LOT.

‘The next time I suggest a holiday in the UK please remind me of this.’

Suppressed laughter erupts from John. I kick him.

‘I swear to God this is the last time EVER I go on holiday in the UK. Why, why the hell did I ever think it would be a good idea to spend our summer holiday in the UK? This is shit. It is utterly shit. I hate it. It only ever sounds good on paper. In reality it’s always shit.’

‘We thought it would be good for Alula to see some of England,’ John reminds me.

Yeah, I think to myself, that was pointless. She’s not seeing anything of England as it’s all too shrouded in fog and rain to be visible. Two weekends ago we were at a wedding in Scotland and it might as well have been the arctic. I almost died of hypothermia waiting for the wedding march to strike up. In July we were in Cumbria for a family reunion and I needed thermals and a bloody good sense of humour to make it through.

‘Is it too late to cancel next week’s cottage in Cornwall and book a flight to somewhere hot?’ I muse out loud.

‘It’s 1.30 in the morning,’ John yawns. ‘Go back to sleep.’

‘I can’t sleep. I’m too depressed. It’s raining. It’s not going to stop raining for another ten days. I don’t want to drive all the way to Cornwall just to look at it through storm-lashed car windows. Why do we even pretend to have a summer in England? We never have summers. We could be lying on a beach in the Med right now but instead we’re holed up in a cottage in Devon in the rain with the heating on full and all our clothes steaming on the radiators. And it’s AUGUST need I remind you.’

‘It could be worse. We could be camping.’

That is true. But what is also true is that it could be a whole lot BETTER.

I’m giving the Grinch a bad name and I know, I know, I really do that I’m supremely lucky to even get a holiday. First world problems. I know this. I also know that it’s all about attitude. I could try to be a bit more Pollyanna about it, but it’s not in my DNA. I spent an hour this morning listing off all the things I was grateful for in an attempt to ward off the angry blues. But… I’m really, really over the fucking rain. There is not that much to do in Devon and Cornwall in the rain. We spent yesterday wading down Topsham high street. My hood wouldn’t stay up the wind was lashing so violently. Eventually I let the rain whip me, realising this was what my A’Level English teacher meant by pathetic fallacy and letting my depression lead me into the cheese shop where I bought a pound of Gin-laced chevre.

‘Aren’t you lactose intolerant?’ John asked me when I deposited it in front of him.

I frowned. I’d forgotten that in my pathetic state of fallacy. I ate the cheese anyway, lactose intolerance be damned. I ate a whole bag of fudge too. Thighs be damned. And then I ate some oysters and some whitebait and some sole. (You can see where I’m going with this. The scales back home are going to be tested after this ‘holiday’).

‘Caving,’ John suggests when faced with yet another 15 hours to fill with rainy-day activities.

I glare at him.

‘What?’ he says gamely, ‘It’ll be great fun. You have to crawl through tunnels and there’s an underground lake.’

‘It sounds awesome,’ I say, the sarcasm thicker than the fog pressing its clenched fists against the windows.

I Google: ‘Things to do in Devon when it’s raining’ and am told not to despair as there are so many, many wonderful things to do in Devon in the rain. Hurrah! I think, letting a stupid flash of hope ignite within me. There’s the Marble Museum I’m informed (as in the game marbles – not the quarried stone). And, if that doesn’t tempt you (though I can’t think why on earth it wouldn’t) there’s also Kayaking or surfing (‘You’re wet already!’ the website chirps.)

Fuck you, I yell at the computer and slam the lid.

I cave in to the caving, which should be read as a sign of how depressed I am. I’m saying yes to caving because crawling on my belly through cold, dark, enclosed underground spaces while wearing a clammy, frigid wetsuit a stranger has peed in is preferable to being above ground being drizzled on, or driving around fighting with the heater in the car as the windows are too fogged up to see through. And, let’s face it, anything sounds better than looking at coloured glass balls for two hours wishing I was dead.

Still, I wake at 5.30am and start manically Googling Last Minute holidays in Mallorca on my phone.

‘What are you doing?’ John asks blearily, one-eye open.

I switch off the phone, recognising that last minute holidays somewhere hot will cost an arm and a leg and I just spent all our savings on cheese and fudge.

‘Promise me,’ I say, rolling over and sighing, ‘that after this we will only ever holiday somewhere hot for the rest of eternity?’

‘Deal,’ John says.

The BBC Breakfast studio is really small and really dark and they seat you a good three feet away from the presenters so you feel as if you are talking to them across a chasm. Also that backdrop is painted on the wall. Who knew!?

I had spent the previous thirty minutes before appearing on air in the make-up chair chatting to the lovely lady who was plastering foundation on me like a builder trying to repair cracks in a crumbling wall.

The poor woman had her work cut out for her but she did such a great job I almost didn’t recognise myself when I looked in the mirror. Possibly the entire BBC licensing budget just got spent on foundation and hairspray. Sorry people. When they cancel Eastenders you’ll know why.

I really wanted Liz the make up lady to come and live with me and make me look like that – like an airbrushed version of myself – every morning – but she has to be up every day at 4am to make Bill Turnbull look pretty.

As I was sitting in the make up chair feeling a bit nervous and trying to practice not swearing the producer came to check I was all set.

‘OK,’ she said, looking a little anxious. ‘Now it’s a live broadcast so please be aware there is no swearing.’

‘Do you tell that to all the guests who come on or did you read my blog?’ I asked her.

‘They tell it to all the guests,’ the make up artist informed me as she dusted me with another layer of powder.

The producer nodded but admitted she had also read my blog. ‘All under control,’ I told her, smiling while my heart started to beat faster. ‘Don’t worry about it.’

Just then the TV in front of me splashed up with ON NEXT: SARAH ALDERMAN

‘What the fuck?’ I screeched. ‘I mean… um…. what? They’ve spelt my name wrong. Do you think that might be fixed?’

My amazing publicist ran off to get it sorted and I sat back in the chair and asked the make-up lady what had happened after Bill Turnbull uttered the c-word last week on the sofa. I wanted to know what the ramifications were… just in case.

‘Everyone just laughed,’ she reassured me.

That made me feel loads better.

Shortly after I appeared on the couch (Christian was the loveliest and Naga is so impossibly beautiful in the flesh you wonder if she might be a Synth) I started receiving tweets. Two people told me that they had just quit their jobs upon hearing me (and if you are one of those two please don’t sue me if you end up impoverished and living on the streets). One person told me I had sexy legs. And two people tweeted me to tell me my voice is annoying.

John tells me my voice sounds like Jane Seymour after two G&Ts and a strong coffee. (I want to know how he knows this is what Jane Seymour sounds like after a couple of stiff drinks and a double shot of espresso.)

I ignored the haters – WHATEVER – Jane Seymour played MEDICINE WOMAN.

After the show I felt infinitely less stressed. It had been an exciting but exhausting couple of days. Four radio shows and a TV interview down and I was ready for bed, after first stuffing my face.

But then I got a call saying I was wanted on Sky News this Sunday. So, with a sigh, I’m back to crash dieting, panicking about outfits and practicing my not swearing routine.

 

Watch the BBC interview here.

 

And if you really fancy it you can listen to me on the Claudia Winkleman Arts Show (she’s ever so teeny tiny).

And if you still haven’t heard enough of me rabbiting on I’m also on the brilliant Stephen Nolan’s 5 Live show (around the 1hour 40 mark).

And if you want to come and meet me face to face and hear my annoying voice I’ll be at Stanfords in London this Thursday! being interviewed by the divine Myanna Buring (she of Downton and Ripper fame) and signing books (yes, any and all of my books).

Oh, and if you have bought the book THANK YOU! I made it to #1 in Travel and into the top 100 on Amazon. If you have the time to leave a review I would be ever so grateful (obviously only if you’re giving it 5 stars… otherwise you’re alright, don’t worry about it.)  : )

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