My plants: I returned home a day early from France to surprise my boyfriend on his birthday. My friend and I were pretty incredibly proud of ourselves for pulling it off with details like: keeping my phone off in case he heard the UK ringtone, and getting my child to lie. I sneaked into the restaurant where she was toasting him with a cocktail, hid behind the bar then jumped out of a metaphorical cake. But not before I’d nipped home to check my plants. Sometime over the last year, I appear to have become serious about plants. A friend donated his houseplants to me when he changed his life, and I pay particular care to these ones – I am a devout water mister, and recently invested in rooting powder so I can inflict cuttings on strangers. Entering garden centres with my mum is like walking into Topshop with Beyoncé – everything she touches turns to green. As we parked last week, she texted her friend for a reminder of the manager’s name. It wasn’t until she was approaching us that the reply came. The woman called out from beside the alliums, delighted. I scrambled to open the message, and held it discreetly in her face. “Lovely to see you… Grabby!” my mum read, loudly, her eyes a particular shade of frantic. She has since turned off predictive text.
Being alone: I took a train along the coast for a part of my trip, opposite two German Interrailers whose legs remained entwined and who broke off dreamily from their phones to kiss every 15 minutes. When they got off somewhere near Nice, I realised I was alone for the first time in a week and shivered with warm glee. The feeling lingered and I dipped into it across the following days, little sherbetty dabs to keep me going. Because while holidays are delightful, they are usually group affairs, with a whole salad of dynamics to clamber over before lunch. Once home, it is entirely acceptable to drop your child off at one house and your boyfriend off at another and then lie spreadeagled on your own bed in a hand-towel with the window open listening to a podcast about murders, and so the secret holiday begins.
The banality of suburbia: No grand mountainscapes here, no scorched land erupting with lavender, simply the polite fall of summer rain on to loft extensions and the vague promise of apples. Lawn mowers perform their relentless operas long into the afternoon. We drove deeper into the suburbs yesterday, to join the queue to enter the car park of a pick-your-own farm. We ended up in the overflow of the overflow, ie, the onion field, and patiently queued again to collect our cardboard baskets, and again to enter the strawberries. Though it came with its fair share of joy, the overall experience – seeing the crops decimated by exhausted families, the blank eye contact with other mothers similarly dressed in their Sunday worsts, the dads desperately shovelling raspberries into their mouths to blast through to a brief clammy high – was vaguely disturbing. The breathing exercises you learn for pain relief when you’re about to give birth continue to be useful throughout the parenting life, if performed correctly. The long in-through-your-nose, out-through-your-mouth can get you through three or four aisles of semi-kicked beetroots. Within this meditation, the taste of stolen blackberries on your tongue, you are reminded very precisely of the choices you have made.
Not eating proper meals: On and on the meals rolled on holiday, as if we were sitting at a sushi conveyor belt rather than rustic table in the shade of lizards. There was a cheese course at breakfast. There were lunches the size of Wales. There were dinners in which it was necessary to take small naps, and bread that needed to be eaten before dawn. So, I am delighted to return to the land of cereal for tea. I revel today in Marmite on toast, in dipped biscuits and leftover pasta and failed omelettes. I revel today in eating the wrong things at the right time, and leaving a knife balanced on the sink because there will be more toast later. This is freedom.
The lack of pressure to enjoy myself: Even if you forget to take photos, holidays are designed as a camera roll of distinct and already-nostalgic memories. A weekend at home with good drying weather, less so. There is excitement to be found, yes, in a city that is half adult escape room and half adolescent knife-crime, but no expectation that I should explore it when there is sitting to be done. My daughter and I spent the morning mopping the tiled floor, then oiling it, then removing the oil because it smelled of “ladies hair”. It was fine. And so time passes here, in fine yet unphotographable moments of solace and dishwasher tablets. We talked about the holiday as if it was something that happened to us when we were young. We brushed the cat. It was fine. We argued about telly. It was fine. Every year I forget that this is what holidays are for.