The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Libby’s Life

A spoonful of imagination helps the expat life go down: In tribute to our 7 columnists

Sugar spoon by jppi (Morguefiles); jet painting by Prawny (Morguefiles).

Sugar spoon by jppi (Morguefiles); jet painting by Prawny (Morguefiles).

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, as summer draws to its inevitable close, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the talented individuals who write columns for us from an expat or otherwise displaced perspective.

Curiouser and curiouser! If it weren’t for them, we’d know a great deal less about the contours of the kind of creative life that is lived across two or more distinct cultures.

Fiction, fantasy, food, photos, theatre—oh my! Our columnists also serve as the Wizards who can help the rest of us transform our travels into a trip down the Yellow Brick Road.

(Yes, Dorothy has now joined Alice as a Displaced Nation heroine.)

Without further ado, they are, in alphabetical order:

1) Andrew Couch

COLUMN: Here Be Dragons
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT ANDREW: He spent this summer developing the Peanut Butter Bar WordPress app, which allows you to attach sticky bars to the roof of your site that stay visible no matter how far a user scrolls. (“Smooth” is free. “Chunky,” which has more features, costs $15.)
COLUMN PURPOSE: Andrew demonstrates, through snippets of his own writing, the possibility of collecting materials for a fantasy novel from a life of international travel.
MOST POPULAR POST: Andrew’s first, “The expat life as fuel for fantasy writing,” perhaps because his concept is a little fantastical.
WHY YOU SHOULD FOLLOW: You will never look at your displaced life in quite the same way again but will see yourself as the protagonist in your own Alice or Dorothy story, a story you’re not only living but could (should?) be writing…

2) Beth Green

COLUMN: Booklust, Wanderlust
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT BETH: She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life.
COLUMN PURPOSE: Beth selects books with particular appeal to international creatives.
MOST POPULAR POST: Her first, about the Dublin Murder Squad series by ATCK writer Tana French, perhaps reflecting Beth’s own passion for mystery (she is also a member of the Sisters in Crime mystery writers’ association, another interesting fact about Beth).
WHY YOU SHOULD FOLLOW: The peripatetic Beth has a correspondingly eclectic taste in books, sampling everything from psychological mystery to journalistic memoirs of China to biographies of eccentric female travelers of the past century.

3) Elizabeth Liang

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT LISA: Lisa spent part of the summer in Iceland, putting on her one-woman autobiographical show about growing up as a TCK, Citizen Alien.
COLUMN PURPOSE: Lisa profiles Adult Third Culture Kids with unusual talents. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of them find success as actors, just as Lisa has.
MOST POPULAR POST: Lisa’s interview with Laura Piquado, an actress in New York City who grew up all over the world and told Lisa she is now

dyak and atheist, Muslim, Christian, Bahá’í, Jain, Egyptian, Italian, Canadian—there is nowhere in the world that has ever felt foreign to me.

WHY YOU SHOULD FOLLOW: Because they weren’t originally expats by choice, adult TCKs can teach the rest of us a lot about the glories as well as the challenges of leading a displaced life. Plus Lisa’s gutsiness in developing her own TCK show gives her creds. She and the show are terrific! I know because I’ve met her and seen it.

4) Meagan Adele Lopez

COLUMN TITLE: The Lady Who Writes
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT MAL: Meagan Adele Lopez (nicknamed MAL) is both Anglophile and Francophile (she once lived in Paris). Talk about open-mindedness!
COLUMN PURPOSE: MAL writes about what she wished she’d known before setting out to write and self-publish her first novel, Three Questions, based on a romantic adventure that started at the end of her first expat stint in the UK (in Bristol).
MOST POPULAR POST: MAL’s first, suggesting that expats may easily be able to find a novel in their novel lives. Note: MAL has just wrapped up her six-post series for us.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Rather like Dickens, MAL calls on elements from her thespian background (she used to be an actor in Hollywood, no less) for writing a novel. Her characters are real: she imagines “dining out” with them!

5) James King

COLUMN TITLE: A Picture Says…
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT JAMES: James now lives in Thailand but during his previous expat stint, in South Africa, he ended up settling in Capetown, where he still has a house he’s renting out but would like to sell. Anybody interested?!
COLUMN PURPOSE: James tries to coax expats and other displaced types for whom photography is a creative outlet to tell the stories behind their favorite photos.
MOST POPULAR POST: James’s interview with Irish “ruin hunter” and photographer Ed Mooney, which generated a whopping 32 comments.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Why people feel compelled to take photos and what their favorite subjects are turns out to be a great window into the displaced mindset. Kudos to James for developing the series in this new direction.

6) JJ Marsh

COLUMN TITLE: Location, Locution
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT JJ: She plans to attend the Chorleywood LitFest on November 16th, 2014, wearing a toga. Hey, carpe diem and all that!
COLUMN PURPOSE: JJ interviews well-known authors who are expats and/or set their books in far-off lands about the role of place (location) in their imagination and subsequent writings (locution).
MOST POPULAR POST: JJ’s interview with Amanda Hodgkinson, who finished her first two novels, 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk, after relocating with her family to southwest France.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: JJ commands respect in the writing world for her own achievement in crafting a European crime series featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs, in which place plays a major role (she thinks of it as a “character,” she says). This must be why so many other authors are willing to share with her the techniques they use to transport readers to other, more remote parts of the world. Her columns are invariably illuminating.

7) Joanna Masters-Maggs

COLUMN TITLE: Global Food Gossip
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT JOANNA: She is a school friend of Displaced Nation founder Kate Allison. Want another one? She is half Irish and half English, which surely qualifies her as a TCK?
COLUMN PURPOSE: Joanna provides the inside story on food that comes from having lived as a trailing spouse in eight very different countries for more than 16 years.
MOST POPULAR POST: “There’s no taste like home,” in which Joanna confesses that she’s been so busy trying to cook the local food for her four kids that she neglected to introduce them to traditional English dishes.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Her repeat expat life has turned her into a creative chef extraordinaire. She knows how to make her own clotted cream (and provides a recipe) should homesickness strike, but is equally adept at Texas Barbecue Brisket.

* * *

In other news…

Have you checked out our Pinterest pins lately? We’ve quite the collection of displaced reads, movies and people, eg:

We can take you on a trip out of this displaced world should you wish to be further displaced; or for those who prefer a fantasy metaphor for their escapist tendencies, check out our Alice in Wonderland and Follow the Yellow Brick Road boards.

IT’S FOOD! is one of our most popular boards (natch!), as is World Parties, Holidays & Celebrations (hooray!). We also have two boards that celebrate the spirit of two previous blogs by me and another Displaced Nation founder, Kate Allison:

Speaking of Kate, you may have noticed that after producing episodes of her novel Libby’s Life on a regular basis for a couple of years (90 episodes, can you imagine?!), she is now updating the story on her author blog and aggregating those posts every so often for the Displaced Nation audience.

Last but not least, if you haven’t caught up with our Displaced Dispatch lately, take another look. Besides links to the latest posts, we have ORIGINAL contents by yours truly, exclusive giveaways (there’s one on now!) and candidates for the monthly Alice Awards.

Yes, we are still doing our Alice Awards and have now added an occasional Wizard of Oz column about repatriation: “Emerald City to Kansas”. We’re a busy (dis)place!

STAY TUNED for the announcement of August Alices.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with original contents, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related post:

LIBBY’S LIFE #91/#92 – The Stepfordization of Maggie

Maggie’s house used to feel like my second home. Every part of it was an extension of her, my “other” mother: the black wood-stove, the teapot-cats she didn’t have the heart to throw away, the colourful patchwork quilts draped over rocking chairs and love-seats.

I loved the stove’s smoky smell that wound through the house, even in summer, and clung to my clothes after every visit. So similar to cigar smoke, which I cannot bear, but so comforting in a way that tobacco residue never is.

I loved the china cats, gathering dust on the shelf above the kitchen window. They were as ugly as they were useless; cats of any material were never designed to hold hot liquids, and during afternoon tea, as Maggie tipped them over to pour, they would dribble incontinently over her plates of digestive biscuits and slices of Victoria sandwich.

And the quilts? I loved, simply adored, the stories that each quilt told.

“Now this white taffeta here, that’s from my wedding dress. Well, I say ‘dress’, but there wasn’t much of it. You couldn’t get more than a couple of patches out of it. It was the Sixties, and the skirt was noticeable more by its absence than presence. The blue seersucker, though, is from a party dress that Sara wore when she was five. It had a Peter Pan collar and puffed sleeves, and she looked like Miss Pears in it. And see this lime green? That’s part of the shirt I was wearing when I decided, just like that, that I’d had enough of Derek. I packed a bag for me and Sara and we left at midnight, like a pair of Cinderellas, while he was on night shift.”

The last story, about a patch of lime-green cotton commemorating her independence, is the one that keeps coming back to me as I sit with Maggie now in her living room.

Correction. This is not Maggie’s living room. Not anymore. It belongs to someone else who lives here now.

It’s as if the lime-green shirt lost its life in vain.

Gone is the wood-stove, replaced by a wall fire resembling a plasma TV.

Gone are the ceramic cats in the kitchen. The shelf where they used to sit has also gone, and in its place is a calico Roman blind. The countertops, which used to be barely visible for all the bric-a-brac — half-opened letters, a basket of middle-aged Golden Delicious, assorted supermarket receipts and special offer coupons — are clear of paraphernalia and smell faintly of lemon and ammonia. Only a coffeemaker and a toaster grace the surfaces.

And gone are the worn wooden rocking chairs and threadbare love seats, usurped by two cream, leather sofas, the type with angular seats that dig into the backs of your knees, and backrests that are too low to lean your head on.

Naturally, the life-history patchwork quilts are nowhere to be seen.

It’s like an “after” picture on a home makeover program.

Very sleek, very chic, very neutral. Devoid of personality.

Devoid of Maggie.

Well — devoid of the old Maggie, the Maggie who lived here a few months ago, the one whose personality was too big for this little cottage.

Since her ex has been living with her, though, her personality has been on a starvation diet.

The new Maggie twists slightly on her unforgiving sofa, and asks in a too-bright tone if I would like some tea. The old Maggie would have simply put the kettle on with nothing being said. Her Miss Manners style of etiquette is infectious, though, and I find myself answering:

“That would be perfectly lovely, thank you.”

She rejects my offer of help in the kitchen — something else the Maggie of old would not have done — so I stay seated and watch her walk into the kitchen. Even her dress code has changed: no more dirndl skirts or hippy kaftans, no more peasant blouses or wooden beads. I remember, when we first met, my impression of her was “Biba meets Miss Havisham of Great Expectations.”  Today, a first impression might be “Botox meets Liz Claiborne of Stepford Wives.”

What, I ask myself, can make a strong woman like Maggie turn into a drone?

It’s a rhetorical question. When you take into account the variables of Maggie’s life, only one has changed: her companion. Her ex-ex who, even when absent from the room as he is at present, keeps Maggie in a zombie-like trance by remote control.

Maggie’s personality started to alter quite a while ago, of course. My own diary pinpointed the moment as early as last September:

I have no idea what witchcraft Maggie’s ex has spun on my friend, but in the four weeks she was in the Keys, Maggie changed. She’s never been one to show or act her age — “Age is but a number” she is fond of saying — but since she came back, she’s been nearer in mental age and outlook to Jack than to me.

I did wonder if she was becoming prematurely senile, until I saw Maggie and Derek together one afternoon. Then I realised what had happened.

They’ve teleported themselves back forty years. She is behaving as she did when she was nineteen, and he thinks he’s the dashing young state trooper who stopped a redheaded English woman for speeding in a borrowed Corvette.

And it won’t work. You can’t be teenagers when you’re drawing a pension — at least, you can’t be the same teenagers that you used to be. By all means, have a second youth; but the key word there is “second”.

Reliving their first one will end in a pool of tears, I’m sure of it.

Ignoring Miss Manners’ probable advice to stay put on the sofa as my hostess had indicated I should, I follow Maggie into the kitchen.

She looks up as I approach, and I could swear that her expression is one of alarm.

“Let’s have a nice chat while the tea’s brewing,” I say, leaning cosily against the counter. “I haven’t seen you for ages. Not even in the shops, although I’ve seen Derek there a few times. How are you doing?”

Maggie’s alarmed expression returns to one more bland. She smiles and nods once to acknowledge her satisfactory wellbeing, and counts out spoonfuls of looseleaf tea into an angular, stainless-steel teapot that resembles not a tabby cat but part of a car engine.

I stare at the stainless steel monstrosity — no doubt an example of engineering perfection that it wouldn’t dream of dribbling over teatime cake and biscuits — and rage quietly to myself. How dare it decide that Maggie’s old china teapots weren’t good enough?

The answer to that is: it didn’t. Something else did.

Someone else did.

“And how is Derek?” I ask. “You haven’t kicked him out yet?”

Maggie’s eyes widen. She looks around furtively before replying.

“Of course not. Why would I do that?” she says. “We’re just getting to know each other again.”

She pours boiling water on the tea leaves, lets it brew for exactly two minutes, then pours me a cup. It’s not her usual brand of bright orange PG Tips. This stuff is pale grey with a slice of lemon floating in it, and it smells of lavender potpourri.

“The house looks beautiful,” I lie, after I’ve taken a sip. Not only does the tea smell like potpourri, but it tastes like it too. “Very tidy. Very clean. Very…” I can’t think how to describe the new, angular, clinical style that is so out of place in Maggie’s cosy home.

“Very not me, I think you’re trying to say.” Her voice is barely audible.

It’s the first sighting I’ve had of the real Maggie for several months, and in my surprise, I almost drop my cup.

“So why did you do it?” I ask.

Maggie purses her lips: Shush. Then she jerks her head slightly towards the door in the kitchen that leads to the den.

“Can you talk?” I whisper.

She shakes her head.

In a louder voice that will carry to the den where her ex-ex presumably is, she says, “Derek and I have plans to go out very soon, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to stay long. But before you leave, remind me to give you the CD you lent me last summer. I do apologise for keeping it so long.”

Again, a pursing of lips to silence any bemused reaction on my part. I’ve never lent Maggie any CDs. Ever.

I swig back the remnants of my lavender-flavoured tea and Maggie hustles me towards the front door. As I step out onto the porch, she thrusts a CD case at me. I shove it in my handbag without looking at it, get in the car, and head off home to see the children who have been tormenting a local high schooler who was foolish enough to volunteer to babysit.

Later, after dinner, I tell a slightly bored Oliver about the mysterious changes in our old neighbour. “And then, just before I left, she gave me a CD she says I lent her…but I’ve never lent her any CDs.”

“What was it?” Oliver asks.

I rummage in my handbag, which is a large sack-like affair in which everything falls to the bottom in a jumble of loose change, gas receipts, and Happy Meal toys, and pull out the CD case that Maggie had given me.

“A Beatles album,” I tell him, and hold the case up for him to see.

He squints. “I can’t see without my glasses. Which one?”

John, Paul, George, and Ringo; dressed in blue uniforms, holding their arms in various semaphore positions.

“‘Help’,” I say.



Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #93

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #90 – The Other Woman

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

4 observations after 3 years of holding up a mirror to expat (& repat) life

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, I wrote a post in celebration of the Displaced Nation’s third birthday, which occurred on April 1st.

For three years we’ve held up a mirror, as it were, to what we’ve been calling the displaced life, writing and commissioning posts on what motivates people to venture across borders to travel and live.

During the past three years, here’s what our looking-glass has revealed:

1) We aspire to be the fairest of them all.

If our site stats are anything to go by, the Fountain of Youth myth is still alive and well. We may not be searching for water with restorative powers on our travels, but we never tire of reading about Jennifer Scott’s top 20 lessons she learned from Madame Chic while living in Paris, TCK Marie Jhin’s advice on Asian beauty secrets, or my post summarizing beauty tips I picked up on two small islands, England and Japan (three of our most popular posts to date). Heck, even 5 tips on how to look good when you backpack still gets plenty of hits.

2) We mostly just want to have fun.

The popularity of two of Tony James’s Slater’s posts—one listing his five favorite parties around the world and other other telling the tale of his attempt to overcome language barriers in pursuit of an Ecuadorian woman—suggest that good times and love still rank high on the list of reasons why people opt for the road much less traveled. That said, some of us worry about going too far with the latter, if the enduring popularity of my post four reasons to think twice before embarking on cross-cultural marriage is anything to go by.

3) But we love hearing stories about international travelers with a higher purpose.

Most of us do not venture overseas in hopes of changing the world, but we are inspired by tales of those who once did—how else to explain the golden oldie status of 7 extraordinary women with a passion to save souls? And our fascination with the international do-gooder of course continues to the present. Kate Allison’s interview with Robin Wiszowaty, who serves as Kenya Program Director for the Canadian charity Free the Children, still gets lots of hits, as does my post about Richard Branson and other global nomads who delve into global misery. Perhaps we like to bask in reflected glory?!

4) Last but not least, we think we know things other people don’t.

Indeed, the most common phenomenon that has occurred when holding up our mirror to international adventurers is to find our mirror reflected in theirs, and theirs reflected in the lives of people they depict, ad infinitum, in a manner not unlike a Diego Velázquez painting (see above). In my view, this mise en abyme owes to the conviction among (particularly long-term) expats that in venturing so far afield, they have uncovered things about our planet that are worth examining, reporting, and creating something with, be it a memoir of what they’ve experienced (think Jack Scott’s Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey, Janet Brown’s Tone Deaf in Bangkok, or Jennifer Eremeeva’s soon-to-be featured Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow), a novel based on their overseas adventures (think Kate Allison’s Libby’s Life or Cinda MacKinnon’s A Place in the World), and/or an art work that springs from what they saw and felt when living in other cultures (eg, Elizabeth Liang’s one-woman show about growing up a TCK).

In short, although many of us can relate to Alice’s feeling of having stepped through the looking glass, we also aren’t afraid to hold up a looking glass to that experience. I often think of Janet Brown telling us she almost went home “a gibbering mess” upon discovering that her Thai landlord was spreading salacious rumors about her, but the point is, she survived to tell us about the experience in her gem of a book. Surely, that’s the kind of hero/ine Linda Janssen has in mind for her self-help book The Emotionally Resilient Expat?

* * *

No doubt there are even more insights our three years of running the Displaced Nation have revealed, but I’ll stop here to see what you make of this list of traits. Does it strike you as being accurate, or perhaps a bit distorted? (Hmmm… Given this site’s proclivity for humor and sending things up, how can you be sure this isn’t a funhouse mirror and I’m not pulling your leg? Har har hardy har har.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LIBBY’S LIFE #90 – The Other Woman

Travel - Map Of The World  By Salvatore Vuono/

Travel – Map Of The World
By Salvatore Vuono/

Note to Libby readers: this week, you can download Libby’s Life: Taking Flight FREE at Simply enter the coupon code RW100 at the checkout to get your discount. 


This week’s Libby’s Life comes from Oliver.

The phone buzzes in my hand, and I look down at the telephone number on the screen.

“I have to take this one,” I say to her. Even to my own ears, I sound apologetic. “It’s someone from work.”

As I get up from the sofa and head to the kitchen to take the phone call, she pouts and says, “You don’t have to lie to me. I know it’s her on the phone. Libby.”



Libby’s voice is echoey. She must be in the study which is empty at the moment, ready for its transformation next week into habitable living space. I love our new house — more than I thought I ever would — but it is an almighty money pit.

I pull the kitchen door shut so that our conversation won’t be heard. Or, more to the point, so that Libby won’t hear the other voice.

“I’m here, love.”

“Oh good. I thought the line was breaking up for a minute there. Are you all settled into your hotel?”

“As settled as you can be in a hotel room. It’s no fun, being on the road.”

“No fun for me, either,” she says. Poor Libs. I’m not at home much, these days.  “What do you say we go away for a couple of days when you’re back? One of those indoor water resorts, maybe, where we can pretend it’s summer? I’m so fed up of the snow.”

“Sounds great.”

Actually, it sounds hideous. The last thing I want to do after a fortnight on the road is to go away again to another hotel, even if it’s with Libs and the kids. Today, I had a six-hour flight from Boston to Heathrow, checked into an airport hotel for the next two weeks, and immediately got back in the car for an hour and drove here. Not that Libs knows about the last hour of that journey, of course; as far as she’s concerned, I’m still holed up in an anonymous room at the Heathrow Radisson.

A clattering of glasses behind me from the cosy living room, and the faint pop of a cork being ejected from a wine bottle. I know she’s been saving a special bottle of Rioja for my visit – it’s one from the year I turned 21. I cup the speaker part of the phone with my hand in case Libby can hear the sounds as well.

“Libs, can I phone you back in a couple of hours? I’m expecting a call from work — everyone’s still in the office where you are, obviously — and then I’ll need to get a few jobs done before they all go home.”

Libby agrees cheerfully and without question; if I felt like a turd before, I feel like King Turd now.

A few whispered niceties and exchanged promises of commitment, and I click the screen to finish the call.

Back in the living room, I pick up the glass of ’97 Rioja from the coffee table.

“Cheers.” I smile at her, but she’s already spoiling for a fight.

“You could have left that phone call,” she says, pouting again. Christ, this woman has a lower lip like a soup plate. “You didn’t have to answer it. We were having such a lovely time together.”

I briefly close my eyes.

“Don’t be silly,” I say. “Libby called to make sure I’d arrived safely. She’d be worried if I didn’t answer.”

Not to mention suspicious.

A sniff, a sharp tilt of the head to point her nose at the ceiling. We are past the pouting phase of the sulk now, and she’s going to make me suffer. I should be used to this by now and therefore able to ignore her, but I can’t. I seem to have stereotyped myself into the role of Peacekeeper.

“Come on,” I say, annoyed to hear a hint of pleading in my voice. “Come on. Let’s not spoil it. We don’t have that much time together.”

“And whose fault is that?” She fold her arms and stands in front of the fireplace.

“It’s no one’s fault!” I say. “It’s just how it is! I can’t change things. You’re here, and I’m over there, in Woodhaven.”

“You could change things. If you really wanted, you could change things.”

This is getting to be such hard work. I came over for a pleasant evening, to drink some wine, to have something to eat, to make up for the dreadful argument we had last time I saw her, but here we are, arguing again already.

“I couldn’t change things,” I say. “Not yet. I’m under contract to stay there for a few more years, as well you know.”

And frankly, it’s easier for me to see her in England while Libby is safely in Woodhaven. Keep the two of them apart. Libby would be none too pleased if she knew where I was today.

There’s a silence, and she stares down into her wine glass.

She seems to be getting over her tantrum — until she speaks again.

“You could always leave her. I have no idea why you married her in the first place.”


It’s so difficult, juggling a life with two women: Libby and her. I don’t know how other men manage, although plenty do, I suppose.

But I can’t let her last comment pass me by. Even though there are things I have to sort out with her after our last meeting – things that Libby won’t ever know about — I can’t let her get away with that last remark.

I stand up and rummage in my jeans pocket for the car keys.

“Right, that’s it. I’m off. I’ll come back when you’re in a nicer mood. Give me a ring at the hotel when you feel like being more rational.”

I head out of the living room to the front door, the one I painted white, years ago; the one that still has a gouge in it where Jack rammed it with his little wooden tricycle, the one through which, for a laugh, I carried Libby, hours after our wedding.

I’ve almost shut the door behind me, when her words run through my mind again — “You could always leave her” — and suddenly, I’ve had enough of being nice and being reasonable and trying to please everyone. Grow a pair, Oliver, for Chrissakes. Just this once.

I open the front door again. She’s sobbing in the living room, but I’m not taking any notice.

“And when I come back,” I shout; the sobs ebb a little, because she’s probably waiting for me to apologize and say it’s somehow my fault that she’s being a vindictive, possessive cow, “that spare bedroom had better be empty of all wildlife and reptiles, like you told me and Libs it would be, three months ago. Do you hear me?”

The sobs stop completely. I wait a second, nod to myself, and softly pull the door shut behind me.

Yes. My mother heard me, all right.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #91

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #89 – Catching up

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

LIBBY’S LIFE #89 – Catching up

It’s snowing in Woodhaven.

I sit at the antique oak desk in front of our dining room window and watch the flakes fall onto the deck. They linger for a few seconds before dissolving into the wooden boards, but it won’t be long before they gang together into a hefty depth; eight inches of the little blighters before dawn tomorrow, if the weather forecast is correct. The outdoor thermometer, which gave a springlike reading of 45 degrees two days ago, now stands at 28 degrees, and the mercury is dropping fast.

Wait! Rewind.

I’m sitting in the dining room in Woodhaven. The room into which I wouldn’t go alone three months ago because it was the favourite spot of Jack’s invisible friend, Em.

How things have changed.

Yes, I know. It’s a while since you heard from me. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year — they’ve come and gone again for another year. But I’ve had a break, and you know what?

I needed it to regain my sanity.

When you won’t stay in a room, or even an entire house, because your kindergartener has convinced you there’s a nine-year-old poltergeist in it, you need to remember where you last left your sanity. It’s not as simple as remembering where you last left your car keys.

So this break was not just a vacation, it was a necessity. A necessary break to convince myself that cold dining rooms are due to ineffective central heating or over-effective air conditioning, not due to a spiritual cougar dreamed up by my five-year-old son because he can’t get a real girlfriend yet.

A break from watching my good friend Maggie turn herself from Germaine Greer into Betty Crocker, as she misguidedly resurrects her long-abandoned marriage to Derek Sharpe. Someone (me) needs to tell her (soon) that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely; that you can be lonely even when you’re not alone. An ex-husband who wants you to be his house-servant in your twilight years is not a satisfactory trade for being alone; indeed, this particular ex is not even a good trade for being lonely. I have so much to tell you about this man — but not yet.

And lastly, a break from Woodhaven, a break from being a foreigner. Instead, a few weeks in good old Blighty where people understand my accent and don’t incessantly comment how “adorable” it is.  (I get so tired, in Woodhaven, of being told how adorable I sound. I’ve even made a “two strikes” rule about it: if, during our third meeting, a new companion is still trying to copy the way I say certain words, there will be no fourth meeting.)

But, you might be asking, what’s happened chez Patrick since November?

After the Sandra-snakes-and-snails fiasco — another topic to elaborate on later — Oliver jetted off to Rotterdam to see his customers, and the kids and I stayed at a hotel near my mum’s place for a few days. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than staying in the parental home; something I should have remembered from the last disastrous time I stayed there with Jack, just before we moved to Woodhaven, nearly three years ago.  While I love my parents because, well, they’re my parents, I would never want to live in the same house with them again, not least because it would result in news stories with intriguing headlines.

Elderly couple missing for two years found in their own freezer. Daughter pleads not guilty; says it was suicide pact.

Teetering along a fine line between “elderly” and “borderline senile”, my parents have forgotten what it’s like to have small children. After an afternoon involving one twin trying to eat a block of toilet cleaner (the sort that hangs from the rim; George thought it was a lollipop), the other twin sinking her teeth into the plastic bananas and pears in Mum’s fruit bowl, and Jack adding crayon stick-figures to the leather-bound journal in which Dad was writing his memoirs (as if anyone would ever read them anyway!) Mum and I tacitly agreed to meet at more neutral venues in shopping centres. Not Dad, though, who made a big deal of cancelling all engagements in order to rewrite his memoirs into a brand new, unsullied leather-bound journal.

When I’d spent more hours than is humane with Mum in “neutral venues” — mooching round Primark and M&S was her idea of an entertaining afternoon for small children and, being reliant on her transport, I couldn’t argue — Oliver finished his business in Rotterdam and came to rescue us. He turned up in an ugly, green Renault people carrier rather than on a white charger, but after a week in Primark and M&S I’d have loaded me, the kids, and the luggage onto a Shetland pony and trotted all the way to Heathrow.  Oliver had even managed to get us all tickets on the same flight to Boston, which was a relief. Going to the supermarket on my own with the sprogs is hair-raising enough, never mind going on my own with them across the Atlantic.

A few hours of assorted children crying at frequent intervals, squeezing into aircraft bathrooms to change nappies, and playing “I Spy” with Jack until even he got bored (“I spy with my little eye something beginning with A-C.” “Another Cloud?”) and there we were…back in Woodhaven.

Back home.


Yes. A couple of years ago I couldn’t think of  Woodhaven as home, but something keeps changing. The combination of paying a mortgage to the bank instead of rent to Melissa H-C, and the cold-water-splash reality check of visiting Milton Keynes — somewhere I used to call “home” but isn’t any more — made me realise where home is.

It’s not where you’ve lived, but where you make a life. Life is here, in this funny little house with the wood panelling, temperamental wiring, and uneven floorboards. It’s where my children are, where Oliver is — most of the time, anyway.

I look up from my journal. The snow is settling now; about an inch has gathered on the deck since I started to write.

The children are in bed, and Oliver is away, as usual, this time in Seattle. A floorboard creaks behind me, but I don’t turn round. This old house creaks all day long; the rise and fall in temperature and humidity in a wooden construction makes unexpected noises inevitable.

If it isn’t merely the falling outdoor temperature — and at night, alone, my stern self-admonishing to grow up and stop being so silly can lose its power — well, that’s OK.

Our home is where we’ve made our lives, of course.  But many other people made their lives in this enchanting house before we came along. I can understand if some don’t want to leave yet.

As I’m always telling Jack, George, and Beth — it’s nice to share.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #90

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #88 – A silver trail

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

LIBBY’S LIFE #88 – A silver trail

It’s a cozy enough scene, I suppose, if one were to look at it quickly through the living room window. Granny, Beloved Son, Doted-On Grandchildren and, OK, Tolerated Daughter-in-Law, all sitting in squashy chairs and sofas around a real (gas) fire. Tea and biscuits on a tray on the coffee table. Everyone chatting together, like people used to do before TVs and iPads and smartphones came along.

You could paint the scene and put it in the National Gallery: a snapshot of family life at the beginning of the third millennium.  A couple of hundred years later, some author would see it as an escape route from writer’s block, and write a book about it – a bit like “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”, only this would be “The Family Without Facebook” — and the idyllic life of the Patrick family would be immortalized in print as well as watercolour, on paper. Or whatever they make books out of in the 2200s.

The story two hundred years hence, of course, would be nothing like the reality of today. The reality of our get-together is less idyllic than it appears from that quick glance through the window.

Although pictures can say a thousand words, those words sometimes get lost in translation.

*  *  *

Oliver, in the armchair to the left of the fireplace, leans forward, his elbows on his knees. He’s tired and cross, annoyed that he’s had to come back to Milton Keynes for an emergency family summit instead of having a child-free lie-in tomorrow at an anonymous airport hotel. He should be so lucky. Since I opened the door of the fourth bedroom, the children and I have been staying in one room at the local Travelodge.

He looks in Sandra’s direction – at her left ear, her right shoulder – but doesn’t catch her eye.

“You do understand, don’t you, Mum?” he says.

Sandra sits rigidly upright in an identical armchair on the other side of the fireplace, folds her arms, and lifts her chin up. You don’t have to be an expert in body language to hear “Defiance” screaming from every limb placement.

Playing with a toy Ferrari on the floor at her feet, Jack announces excitedly to the room that he can see right up Granny’s nose and it has hairs growing out of the left side.

Sandra drops her chin a little to make her nostrils less obvious, and hunches her shoulders as she hugs herself. In doing so, her stance loses the defiance and becomes defensive.

“I said, you do understand?” Oliver repeats his question, but his voice is gentle. He is a much nicer person than I am, at least when it comes to dealing with his mother. “You see that we can’t let you keep—”

“They’re not doing any harm!” Sandra hugs herself more tightly as she blurts out the words. “They’re just minding their own business, in the spare room. I don’t see how any reasonable person can object to that.”

“Yes, but, when we agreed that you should live in our house, it was on the understanding that you didn’t keep–”

“You didn’t say anything about it.” Sandra hunches over even more, looking like a naughty child who’s been caught stealing chocolate biscuits after being told she can’t have any. “You only said ‘No dogs’.”

Oliver nods slowly, seeming to consider this miscarriage of justice. “That’s true,” he says at last. “When you put it like that, I suppose we don’t have any grounds to…”

Oh, for goodness’ sake. I leap up from the sofa.

“When Oliver said ‘No dogs’,” I say to my mother-in-law, pointing my finger at her, “it should have been perfectly obvious that he meant ‘No dogs, no cats, and no Boris The Tarantulas. Certainly no geckos, no turtles, no rats or mice, no giant African snails or any of the other slimy creatures you’ve got living in our spare bedroom, and —” I pause to take a breath, and the last part comes out as a semi-scream “— most definitely not a six-foot boa constrictor on the loose.”

“Libby.” Oliver tries to take control, but I’m on a roll. I shake my finger at Sandra again, and she cowers into the armchair.

“Are you incapable of using common sense, or does everything have to be written into the lease? Ah, yes, I forgot. Oliver didn’t want you to have a lease, did he? You’re family, he said. You’ll look after the house, he said. Clearly,” I say, shooting a slit-eyed look at Oliver, “having an exotic pet collection in what will be Beth’s bedroom in a couple of years is his and your idea of looking after the house.”

Oliver’s expression and body language echo those of his mother. Two naughty children caught in the biscuit tin.

“The animals…they’re not actually doing any harm in the spare bedroom. To be fair,” he adds.

I try counting to ten, and get as far as three. I’m not in the mood to be fair.

“When I went into that room to look for rainboots,” I say, as evenly as I can, “that giant snake had escaped from its box and was curled up under the radiator.”

“That’s why I call him Houdini,” Sandra says. “He doesn’t like being in his tank all the time.”

“It’s not a tank!” I shout. “I might not mind as much if it were a real, actual tank! It’s a plastic box, just like the one in the attic that we used to keep our rolls of Christmas wrapping paper in, and its lid is loose, just like that one…” I stop. “I don’t believe it. It’s the same box, isn’t it? You’ve recycled our storage bins into serpent bungalows.”

Sandra nods reluctantly. “I put the wrapping paper through the shredder and used it as bedding for the rats. It seemed the least I could do for them, give them a nice colourful bed before they were fed to Houdini. Now that the wrapping paper is gone, I give them the colour magazines from the Sunday newspapers.”

Surreal. I’ve had a lot of imagined conversations in my life, but not one of them has been about interior decorating styles for rodents on death row.

“What else have you done?” I ask. “What else has been recycled? Is the conservatory now a bird sanctuary, or the oven a retirement home for aged scorpions?”


I wave at Oliver,  a dismissive “shut up, I’m not finished” flap of the hand.

“And this living room,” I continue. “Very convenient that you choose to get it decorated three days before we arrive, isn’t it?”

“That’s going too far.” Oliver stands up. “Mum had this room done to keep the place nice for us. It’s terrible of you to say she had ulterior–”

“It was the snails.” Sandra’s voice cuts across Oliver’s protests. We both turn to stare at her. “The giant African snails. I put them on the fireplace.”

Oliver and I look at the fireplace. I’ve always hated it: a relic from another decade, stucco-covered brick. We’d kept intending to rip the thing out and replace it with something nicer, but it was such a messy job that we never got round to it.

“You put the snails on the fireplace?” Oliver’s confusion matches my own. “What were you doing? Roasting them for supper?”

Sandra shakes her head. “I’d run out of eggshells.”

Oh, right. She should have said before. Everything’s perfectly clear now.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask.

Sandra sniffs. “Will and Kate — that’s what I call them — they need calcium for their shells, and I usually give them eggshells to eat. But I wasn’t very well, and I ran out of eggs and couldn’t go out, so I took Will and Kate out of their tank and put them on the fireplace, because that white bobbly stuff has calcium in it.”

“It’s true,” Oliver murmurs at me. “I’ve read about it. Florida has an infestation of those creatures, and they love the stucco on the houses there.”

“And then because I was poorly, I fell asleep and when I woke up, they’d gone for a little walk all over the walls.”

“Leaving a silver snail trail behind them.”

Sandra shuffles around in her chair and gazes at the carpet.

“And other things too. So when you phoned and said you were coming, I thought I’d better get the decorators in.”

Oliver turns to me. “Those things carry meningitis. And they’ve been crapping all over our living room walls.”

Much as I am sickened at this idea, I’m pleased that Oliver has switched from being Dutiful Son to Dutiful Husband. He finds it difficult to play both roles at once, but, to paraphrase a great Prime Minister, he will always do the right thing once he has exhausted all the other possibilities.

“They can’t stay,” he says to Sandra. “Either they go and you stay here, or they go and you go with them. But they can’t stay. Fergus and Boris are one thing, but Houdini and Will and Kate are another. I don’t care where they go, as long as they go safely. I don’t want to read in the newspaper a few days from now about cats and Yorkshire terriers mysteriously going missing in Milton Keynes. We’ll come back in a few days to make sure they’re gone, and I want that spare bedroom returned to human living quarters.”

“But they’re such good company!” Sandra wails. “They’re my babies!”

She could be right, I reflect. It would explain an awful lot.

*  *  *

“Now what?” I ask Oliver as I open the hotel room door at the Travelodge. “The kids and I can’t stay here for the next week and a half, and I’m not sure I could bear to stay with my own mother, even if she’d have us.”

We bundle the three kids inside the room before one of them decides to make a break for it down the corridor.

“We’ve seen the house, we’ve sorted out the problems. Stay here for a couple more days until I can get you an earlier flight, and then go home. I’ll follow in a week or so when I’ve finished my work in Europe.”

I think about this. It would mean being without Oliver in the house in Woodhaven for a while.  Just me, Jack, George, Beth – and Em.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this week, it’s that there are worse things to have around the house than centuries-old spirits of nine-year-old girls.

Em, at least, does not spread meningitis or slither around on my living room walls.

“Sounds good,” I say.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #89

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #87 – Behind closed doors

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

LIBBY’S LIFE #87 – Behind closed doors

I wish she wouldn’t do this.

I wish my mother-in-law would be uniformly odd and infuriating all the time, so I can feel justified in complaining about her and accusing her of doing terrible things to my Sophie Conran wallpaper.

Instead, I bear the guilt of having to look at our beautiful, newly decorated living room — an elegant duck-egg blue I would have chosen myself – in our old house in Milton Keynes. If I’m honest, the place looks nicer inside after two years under Sandra’s care than it ever did under ours, especially after Jack added his own interior designs with crayons and dirty Tonka tyres. Maybe the house exterior needs a bit of TLC, but I suppose an outside paint job is our responsibility.

Oliver stands next to me, oozing smugness from every pore, and I want to slap him. He glances sideways at me, smirking with triumph.

“The house looks wonderful, Mum,” he says. “You’ve really looked after it for us. And the living room – it must have been done very recently, because I can still smell the paint.”

“They only finished two days ago.” Sandra crosses the room and adjusts the new, silver-grey, slub curtains so they hang evenly on either side of the patio doors. Surely they aren’t real silk? They look as if they could be. Even if they’re not, they’re a major improvement on the unlined drapes we’d left behind. “I’d decided to get the house spruced up, one room at a time. It seemed like it was the least I could do with me living here rent free. The decorators had just arrived, and then you phoned to ask if you could all come and stay. That’s why I was a bit off with you and had to let you know later if it would be all right. Didn’t want the kiddies sleeping in a house where there’s lots of paint fumes.”

Another puffed-out chest from Oliver, another I-told-you-so look in my direction, another pulled punch from me.

Except — and God forgive me if I’m wrong — this is Sandra talking. Sandra who, when Jack was a newborn, thought it was perfectly OK to feed him a bottle held in one hand and puff on a Benson & Hedges held in the other. Sandra, who thinks Red Bull is an acceptable beverage for a three-year-old. Yet suddenly she’s worried about her grandchildren inhaling paint fumes?

Either she’s taken a crash course in child care, or she’s up to something. Oh, come on. You know what I mean. What are the odds of us phoning her just as the decorators arrive?

There’s no point voicing my suspicions to Oliver, though. He’ll just say I’m being paranoid and nasty, and that nothing his mother does is ever good enough for me.

Without any concrete proof, he’d be right, too. But those nagging hunches persist.

Oliver runs outside through the rain to get the luggage from the car, while I show the children round the house. Jack, of course, spent the first three years of his life here, and he remembers parts of it, like the cupboard under the stairs where he once managed to lock himself while playing an overenthusiastic game of hide and seek with Fergus. I can tell he’s enjoying feeling superior to his brother and sister, whose first time it is here. But all the furniture Jack remembers is in Woodhaven, and this house in Acacia Drive looks very different with Sandra’s eclectic taste.

I say “eclectic”. “Eccentric” or “hippie” would be another way of putting it. A bead curtain in the kitchen, a hammock in the home office, a poster of Jimi Hendrix gracing the dining room. The important thing, though, is she hasn’t changed the infrastructure of the house, and any redecorating she’s done – only the living room, as far as I can tell – has been in keeping with our taste.

Jack and I are showing the twins Jack’s old bedroom (it’s still got his Lightning McQueen lampshade hanging from the ceiling, and Jack is very excited to see this old friend) when I hear Oliver trundling the suitcases into the hall and stomping his feet on the doormat. You forget how much it rains in England when you don’t live there for a while, and it occurs to me, too late, that rain gear didn’t feature highly on our packing list.

“I’ve put you and Libby in your old room.” Sandra’s voice wafts up the stairs. “The children are all in Jack’s old room, and I’m having the spare room while you’re here.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but bedtime will be a nightmare if all the kids are in one room. They’ll never get to sleep.

“Could I put Jack in the little bedroom?” I call to her. “Move his mattress in there?”

Sandra’s face appears over the banisters, looking up at me. “It’s full,” she says. “I use it as a storeroom. I’ve been collecting, um, china, and there are lots of breakable things in there. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve kept that room locked. I’d hate the kiddies to hurt themselves.”

“You see?” Oliver mutters at me as he heaves the two suitcases on the double bed. Goodness, but it feels weird to be sleeping in someone else’s bed, in what used to be our bedroom. “You see? She’s looked after the place beautifully. She hasn’t even got any weird animals – not a tarantula in sight! You were worried about nothing.”

I don’t answer him.

My experience with Sandra is that, sooner or later, something will turn up to fill the worry void.

*  *  *

Oliver stays with us for a couple of nights before he heads off to his series of meetings in Rotterdam, and promises to be back the following weekend “if he can.” I’m not fooled by this. “Can” will soon turn into “I’ve got work to do and I’ll be more productive doing it in the hotel” which loosely translates as “I’ll be able to have a weekend lie in at the Marriott.”

The past two nights were sleepless for us both, due to all three kids operating on Eastern Standard Time and refusing to adapt to GMT. At least, as far as bedtimes go. They still haven’t got off to sleep before 1 in the morning, but are nevertheless happily bouncing around at 6:30am. Jack, in his leading role of big-brother-who-has-lived-here-before, has taken it upon himself to heave each twin out of its travel cot in the morning, and if I don’t get up to keep an eye on them all, that lovely duck-egg blue living room will need its paint touching up sooner than Sandra anticipated.

Sandra herself we don’t see much of, which has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s peaceful without her, of course. She’s got herself a little job now, working as a cashier in a pet superstore a few miles away, which I suppose explains why she hasn’t got a menagerie of her own anymore. She’s not there during the day to look after any dogs or tarantulas that her weirdo friends have foisted on her.

A curse, though, because it leaves the kids and me with a mobility problem – we can’t go anywhere. Sandra takes her car to work, and Oliver returned our hire car to Heathrow.

“You won’t need it, will you, Libs?” he said before he left.

“Not at all!” I said, throwing myself back into English living. “I’ll show the children what it’s like to get on a bus at the end of the road instead of driving everywhere! I’ll take them on a double-decker. They’ll love it.”


“Taking the bus?” Sandra said with a smoker’s cackle, when I announced our plans for the first day on our own. “What bus? That bus route closed about two months after you moved to America. If you want to get a bus into town now, it’s a mile and a half to the nearest stop. That’s a long way in this weather.”

“Never mind.” I waved my hand around airily. “The rain will stop.”

Except it didn’t. Since Oliver left, we’ve been prisoners in our own house because my packing list didn’t allow for days of torrential rain. The children have only sneakers in the suitcase, and it hardly seems worth buying three pairs of wellingtons just to use here. We’ll never use them back home. In Woodhaven, you either need sneakers, flip-flops, or snow boots. Never wellingtons. Besides, we need wellingtons to get to the shops to buy wellingtons. It’s a vicious circle.

As an aside, when I had to explain what wellingtons were to a blank-faced Jack, I knew he’d crossed an invisible nationality line.

Coming home, it seems, can be even more of a wrench than living away.

 *  *  *

In the middle of Day Four, as I look out of the window at more rain and black clouds and listen to the sound of three children with raging cabin fever, I remember about The Box.

The Box, or rather, a series of Boxes, is stowed in the attic in this house. It contains things like outgrown clothes of Jack’s, Christmas decorations, small electrical appliances that we couldn’t take to the USA but didn’t want Sandra to use, and — if I remember rightly — old clothes that Oliver and I used for gardening and decorating. Clothes like, for example, rubber boots. And I’m pretty sure that I never got around to throwing out Jack’s old, sturdy shoes. I bet I can find things up there to fit all four of us.

The hatch to the attic is in the spare bedroom. After making sure none of my offspring is strangling the other two, I walk upstairs and open the door.

At least, I try to, before remembering with a sigh that Sandra has locked this room safely away from prying little fingers.

I hunt around in kitchen drawers and bedside tables for a key — in the process discovering that the house’s tidiness is indeed only skin deep — but have no luck.

“Sorry, kids,” I say. “It’s another day in paradise. Yet another day of CBeebies.”

Jack’s memory comes to our rescue, however.

“It’s like when I locked myself in the cupboard under the stairs when Fergus and me were playing hide and seek,” he says. I’d told him the story only yesterday.

“It is indeed–” I begin, and then stop.

Because, if I remember rightly, I used the key from the spare bedroom to get him out. I remember talking calmly to him, telling him to wiggle the key on the inside of the cupboard door and pull it out, darling, so that I could put the key in the outside and turn it myself and let him out… I’d tried all the spare keys in the house, hoping that one would fit and that I wouldn’t have to call the fire brigade.

So if the key to the spare bedroom works in the understairs cupboard lock, that means it should work vice versa. Right?

The key to the understairs cupboard is still in the lock. I take it out, fit it in the spare bedroom’s keyhole, and — Yes! The key, with a bit of persuasion, turns. One step nearer to raingear and freedom.

And then, as I push the door open and step into the room, I understand exactly why Sandra wants to distract us with freshly painted living rooms, and why she keeps the spare bedroom locked, and why she isn’t keen on her grandchildren — or her daughter-in-law, for that matter — having access to it.

Given the choice between our resident poltergeist and what Sandra has in here?

Come back, M.

All is forgiven.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #88

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #86 – Where the heart is

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono /; “Suitcase” © Tiff20 at – used under license; portrait from MorgueFile

Happy Halloween! A cauldron of 6 cautionary tales for the intrepid traveler

Image: Lake View Cemetery /

Yesterday’s Halloween post by Anthony Windram, about the top 5 ghostly settings from literature and film, got us thinking again about the ghostly and ghoulish, the mystical and macabre, the dark and demonic.

Our thoughts, however, did not turn towards the new and original, but to the jaw-clanging skeletons in the Displaced Nation’s very own Crypt.

At which point…someone (Kate Allison?) suggested that we pile all of our Gothic Tales of Old into a cauldron and chant “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” All was going well until one of us—must have been the American—broke in with:

Stirring and stirring and stirring my brew…

Just as she screeched “O-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o”, 6 apparitions arose from the pot: 6 terrifying tales from the Displaced Nation’s deep dark past. Each said they were there to teach travelers a lesson.

And here is what they told us:

1) The Ghost of the Mysteriously Misplaced Post

I am the ghost the represents the post titled The Displaced Nation’s Halloween post is…mysteriously displaced!, composed on Halloween night two years ago by ML Awanohara, whose blood was curdling because:

Kate Allison was supposed to post today, for Halloween…but then, pouf, she vanished without a trace!

As readers who are paying attention know, Kate has now posted 80+ episodes in the life of a fictional British expat family living in New England, called Libby’s Life. Two years ago she vanished before uploading the latest episode because of a freak snowstorm in Connecticut, her adopted home.

She finally resurfaced on On All Saint’s Day—in a MacDonald’s! (Has she gone native, or what?)

Travelers, here is the lesson I’m here to impart for your sake: Truth is stranger than fiction, where so’er you roam.

2) The Ghost of Quizzing Others on Their Supernatural Sightings

Hello there, I am the ghost that arises from THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels … have you ever seen a ghost?, which was composed by Tony James Slater just over a year ago. He impressed with his self-knowledge when he said: “I’m about as psychic as a cheese.” But then he went on to say:

And then, just occasionally, I have dreams when I’m visited by the spirits of people I’ve lost….

Is there any wonder there were no comments and no likes on his post? He scared the bejeezus out of most of his readers.

Still, point taken, and I’m here to impart an important lesson that you international travelers may not have fully considered: As you traverse the world, bear in mind that any ghosts you meet will be people you know (and left behind), not strangers.

3) The Ghost of Compiling a Master List of Grim Reapers

Greetings, I have emanated from the post called Grim Reapers around the globe: 7 creatures that say “Time’s up!”, composed by Kate Allison just over a year ago. Kate reported on the surprising number of cultures that maintain some version of the mythological conniving female who lures men to their deaths.

As frequent visitors to this site will know, Kate has a way with words. For instance, she described
Sihuanaba of Central America as follows:

Seen from the back, she’s an attractive woman with long hair; from the front, it’s a horse. (No jokes about Sex and the City, please.)

But even Kate’s rather offbeat humor could not dissuade from the freakishness of some of these figures.

As far as lasting lessons, this will have to suffice: Next time you get lost in a canyon, try blaming an ancient ghoul. Depending on where you’ve landed, as well as gender, you may just about pull it off.

4) The Ghost of Delivering a Screed against Princess Diana Dolls

A cheery hello to one and all, I am the ghost of Anthony Windram’s EXPAT MOMENTS: The Doll Collection, which he wrote almost exactly a year ago.

As anyone who came across it may recall, Mr. Windram was most distressed to find himself at a bed-and-breakfast in NEW England (he is from Jolly Olde) where the innkeeper has put her prized collection of “individually authenticated” Princess Diana dolls on display in the sitting room. He tossed and turned all night, even heard scratchings at his door.

Now, as regular visitors to this esteemed site know, Mr. Windram is no fool. On the contrary, he has has a mighty brainbox. Which is why I’m so stunned that he allowed himself to be frightened by a set of Lady Di figurines. I’m sure they were only there to cover up the fact that the house is haunted—by a young and rather vigorous ghost, which is how ghosts tend to come in America (just ask Libby). The real take-away, then, particularly for those who venture into the New World: Avoid American B&Bs like the plague if you want a decent night’s sleep.

5) The Ghost of the Expat Criminals Exposé

ML Awanohara showed some temerity in writing a post entitled What did Agatha Christie know? Expats make great criminals back when this blog first started.

As the ghost that arose from this post, I’m here to say she hit the proverbial coffin nail soundly on the head with this assertion:

Just as we don’t like to think of rats being part of the animal kingdom, we don’t like to think of conmen, pirates, gangsters, and terrorists being part of the group we have loosely defined as “global voyagers” … But trust me, they are a part of it — as are murderers.

Which leads us to the lesson I’ll impart today: Just because you’re in a part of the world where marrows tend to thrive, don’t assume the likes of Hercule Poirot will turn up and save you.

6) The Ghost of Finding Travel Inspiration in Margaret Drabble’s “Red Queen”

Not long ago compared to other posts in this collection, ML Awanohara wrote FOOTLOOSE & FANCIFUL: Margaret Drabble’s “The Red Queen”, explaining how her views of Korea had shifted after reading a book by Dame Drabble depicting a period of bloodshed and horror in the 18th-century Korean court. A real-life tale made more vivid by Drabble’s considerable fictional powers, in which the Prince is a homicidal maniac, and his father, the King, a stern Confucian. The King ultimately decides to murder his son in a style so dramatic that ML couldn’t get it out of her head next time she went to Korea. She remains haunted to this day.

As the ghost of this post about a ghost, I find myself torn. On the one hand, what kind of person would read Drabble—that serious, hip, intellectual British novelist, who likes to come across as one’s brainy, Cambridge-educated best friend—to get a handle on what the Koreans are really like? Apples and oranges—or marmite and kimchi, I should say.

On the other—and this is the lesson I’ve come to deliver: Never hesitate to use a Cambridge-educated Brit as a resource for novel sightseeing ideas.

* * *

Readers, have we got you thinking twice about those travel plans? Do let us know in the ca-ca-comments. Hey, at least we spared you the horrors of Sezin Koehler’s 15 films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced; Tony James Slater’s 5 travel situations that spell H-O-R-R-O-R!; or Kate Allison’s Global grub to die for, including a rather scrumptious recipe for fried tarantula, which goes down a treat in Cambodia.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation, with our weekly Alice Award, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!


LIBBY’S LIFE #86 – Where the heart is

I twist around in the passenger seat of our rented car, which Oliver is driving at 25mph past some M1 roadworks, and look at the children. All three are fast asleep, their mouths slightly open. Jack is snoring. If only they had been like this on the red-eye flight from Boston last night, I think; instead, they chose to be “those children” who fidget, cry, kick the seats in front, and provoke people in the seats behind into making loud comments about kids needing to be banned from transatlantic flights and why do babies need European vacations anyway.

“They’re going to see their grannies, you small-minded, provincial hicks! We are a global family, unlike you, who apparently have never travelled outside your hometowns before!” I wanted to yell — but, of course, I didn’t. I didn’t yell it because it would a) have been rude and b) not the whole truth.

Yes, the Patricks are having a spontaneous couple of weeks in the old country, and the children are going to see their grannies. But that’s not all of it. Not by a long way.

The real reason we are here is that, with the nights drawing in and the autumn winds howling around the eaves at night, I don’t want to be alone on Halloween in our antique Massachusetts house after Oliver leaves for a long business trip to Rotterdam.

Not while Jack is still carrying on animated conversations with something or someone only he can see, I don’t.

It wasn’t difficult to persuade Oliver to let us come with him, because his mother has been dropping unsubtle hints about visiting us at Thanksgiving. Given the disasters that occurred last time she spent Thanksgiving with us, when I ended up in hospital twice — first with turkey-poisoning and then with a sprained ankle — Oliver was happy for an opportunity to avoid more medical bills. Four extra plane tickets seemed like a bargain in comparison.

It wasn’t just the thought of living with Jack’s pretend friend that made me want to pay a visit to Blighty, though. Getting Jack out of the awkward environment of his kindergarten class also played a part.

Patsy Traynor, flouting the wishes we voiced at the parent-teacher meeting, went ahead and arranged for Jack to see the school psychologist on a daily basis, without telling us. This subterfuge might have gone undiscovered if I hadn’t called into school one day with Jack’s forgotten lunchbox and found him sitting in the admin office with a grey-haired man, drawing a picture of a girl which he’d labelled “Mi Frend M”. When Jack saw me and jumped up to give me a hug, the grey-haired man hastily tried to hide the evidence of Jack’s art therapy, but it was too late. Words were said, threats were issued, and sabbaticals from school until the permanent teacher returned from sick leave were planned. It’s kindergarten, for heaven’s sake — what is the worst that can happen if a child misses a few months of kindergarten? He fails nap time? Two weeks away from school while everyone cooled down would hurt no one, least of all Jack.

And then the final reason: last month I was reading my diary and came across the New Year resolutions I’d made at the beginning of 2013. One of them, quite overlooked in the drama of having to find somewhere else to live in Woodhaven, was this:

2. Go to England and see what sort of a dog’s dinner Sandra has made of our house.

When Sandra moved into our house, in July 2011, she was supposed to stay for just a few months until she found somewhere permanent to live; yet here we are in October 2013 and she’s still dossing around there, rent-free.

Oliver has been no help at all. He doesn’t see it as an issue.

“It’s not a problem,” he kept saying, whenever I suggested it might be nice to have a paying tenant to help with the mortgage. “Money’s not everything. She’s keeping the place aired. It’s someone we know. She’s looking after it.”

Except I now know he has no idea whether she’s looking after it or not. He’s never been inside the house since the day we moved out. Although he visits his mother on trips back to the head office, I found out, after some careful questioning, that she always finds a reason to meet him in a coffee shop or pub, rather than at the house.

“And you don’t find this arrangement suspicious?” I asked him.

He gave me a blank look. “Should I?”

For someone who is supposed to be intelligent, Oliver can be very dense at times. Particularly, as we already know, when it comes to his mother. He doesn’t find it suspicious that she, a woman who once covered herself and some swinger friends with white emulsion and daubed hand- and buttock-prints on the wall of the spare bedroom in a previous rented house, would prefer to meet Oliver in Starbucks or The Dog and Duck? Please.

Initially on this trip I’d planned on staying with my own parents and paying a surprise afternoon call on Sandra, but when I phoned Mum to break the glad news that her daughter and three grandchildren were descending on her house, the short notice of our impending visit sent her into a flat spin with a migraine.

“If only you’d given us more warning,” she kept saying at the end of the phone call. I could hear pill bottles rattling in the background as she looked in the medicine cabinet for Nurofen. “But the spare bedroom needs decorating, and Jack will have to sleep in your old room, and it doesn’t seem right to make a five-year-old boy sleep in a room with pink wallpaper, so that’s two rooms we have to strip and paint before you can come.”

Only my mother could think this a reasonable excuse.

“Stay with mine, then,” Oliver said, after I’d clicked the phone’s off-button as hard as I could. (I miss the old phones that you could bang down when you hung up on someone.) “It’s our house, after all — she can hardly refuse to let you and the kids stay because the bedrooms need decorating.”

He was taken aback, therefore, when Sandra was nearly as uncooperative as my own mother when he told her we were coming to stay for a few days.

Oliver, as well as being dense, can be very naive.

*  *  *

Oliver signals right, and we turn into Acacia Drive. It’s more than two years since I’ve seen the street where we lived for such a long time, and it feels both familiar and foreign at the same time.

We park in front of our house. It is not, I realise with a little shock, quite our home any more.

It’s not just because the paint on the front door is peeling, or that Sandra hasn’t pruned the yellow rosebush I was so fond of.

It’s as if a little of the love has faded.

It’s like bumping into an old boyfriend after a few years and wondering what you saw in him, and why you wasted time and energy crying when he dumped you at the school dance for that tart Zoe Watkins.

“Are you glad to be home?” Oliver asks. “It must be hard for you, coming back to the house with someone else living in it.”

I look at the house again. The picket fence we put up to stop Jack from running onto the road has lost a post and looks like a gap-toothed kindergartener itself.

I wonder what Sandra has done or not done inside, and am sadly surprised that I don’t care as much as I did even fifteen minutes ago.

“Not as hard as you’d imagine,” I say.


Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #87

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #85 – A trick of the light

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!


LIBBY’S LIFE #85 – A trick of the light

Talk about déjà vu. January 2012 all over again.

I sit on an uncomfortable plastic chair on one side of a teacher’s desk. On the other side of the desk, in a larger, more padded chair, sits Patsy Traynor: Jack’s ex-preschool teacher and now kindergarten teacher. Behind her is an expansive window, west-facing, and the afternoon sun blasts through the glass, forcing me to squint if I want to read her expression. This is a little intimidation trick of hers that I’ve encountered once before; although in this case forewarned doesn’t mean forearmed.

A hostile silence hovers between us as she opens a manila folder labeled “Jack Patrick” and runs a fingernail down the middle crease — her shell-pink nail varnish is chipped, I note with satisfaction — then picks out a sheet of paper with the heading “Behavioral Report”.

She looks up and smiles. I don’t smile back, because it’s not a friendly smile. It’s a smile of pleasurable anticipation, and the pleasure belongs only to her.

“Mrs. Patrick,” she says. No cosy first-names today, although she knows mine well enough. She looks down at the report in front of her. “Mrs Patrick. I asked you to meet me here today because—”

“I know why you asked me here,” I interrupt her. “Actually, the letter you sent home with Jack was addressed to both me and my husband, so if you don’t mind, we’ll wait until he arrives before we start.”

The smile falters a little, and she looks pointedly at the clock on the classroom wall.

“The appointment was for four p.m., and we are already running five minutes late.”

“Some people work full-time,” I say, and smirk to myself as Patsy swells up with indignation.

If you really want to piss off a teacher, simply insinuate that their workday finishes at three-thirty.

I fold my arms and sit back in my chair, waiting, avoiding catching Patsy’s eye. In the far corner of the room, inside an igloo-shaped tent, Jack is ordering around Beth and George. He’s trying to make them sit still and listen to his newfound skill of reading a Dr. Seuss book about dogs and cars. Beth and George aren’t impressed with his instructions to stay in the tent when there are so many exciting playthings outside it to scatter and destroy; George registers his disapproval with a determined “No!” (his current favourite word) while Beth lets out a high scream. There is the sound of a hard object hitting the floor with some force. After a pause, Jack’s voice cuts clearly across the room:

“If you don’t behave, I’m going to tell M and she will break your favourite toys.”

I feel rather than see Patsy’s smug moue, and I squeeze my eyes shut. It’s a defensive reaction, against both Patsy and the sunshine behind her that dazzles me.

Hurry up, Oliver. I need some backup here.

On cue, to my relief, the classroom door opens and Oliver strides across to the desk. He’s in his best suit, not for Patsy’s benefit but because he’s been meeting new customers today, and is still in professional work mode. He exudes brisk confidence and an air of brooking no nonsense.

I’ve never been so glad to see him in all my life, and that includes the time he was late for our own wedding because his best man was in the throes of an almighty hangover and drove to the wrong church. Oliver must also have had an almighty hangover, because the pair of them waited outside for half an hour before realising that a locked church, a lack of guests, and no vicar might be significant.

Oliver shakes hands with Patsy, introducing himself, then, before sitting down, he moves to Patsy’s side of the desk and twiddles with the venetian blind behind her chair, moving the slats so that the sun shines upwards instead of directly in my eyes.

“Better?” he asks me.

We exchange small, conspiratorial winks, and I bite my lip to stop myself laughing at Patsy’s expression. Her face is red and her eyes very wide, as if she can’t believe that someone has had the gall to do now what she should have done out of courtesy fifteen minutes ago.

She picks up Jack’s Behavioral Report again, although with not as much assurance as before. Oliver seems to have flustered her.

“I asked to speak to you both because of issues Jack is having in the classroom. He appears not to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction, and while we encourage strong, lively imaginations, we do try, at this point in child development, to make it clear to our students that the two viewpoints are separate.”

“So in other words, you’re saying Jack is a liar.” Oliver slices neatly through the spiel of edu-jargon.

Patsy’s face reddens further. “Not at all, but—”

“In that case, you must be saying that he’s telling the truth?”

“Not quite, but—”

“You must be saying one or the other. Which is it that he’s telling you? Fact or fiction?”


“Fact or fiction? Quick!”

Oliver’s not giving Patsy a chance to get a word in. He reminds me of Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction: “Say ‘What’ again! I dare you! I double-dare you!”

“Imaginary friends are one thing!” Patsy bursts out. “But his obsession with this particular friend, whatever her name is—”

“Her name’s M,” Jacks voice says from inside the nylon igloo, and I stifle a giggle with my hand. “M, like the letter M.”

“—This obsession is out of hand. And I would like your permission to refer him to the school district’s educational psychologist for further assessment.”

Oliver stands up. “If that’s all you called us in for,” he says, “you might as well have phoned. Because the answer is No. Jack is not a liar, and he’s not a psycho either. You, on the other hand, I have always had my doubts about, and I’m not about to take child-rearing advice from someone who accepts bribes from parents. Come on Libs. Kids!” he shouts in the direction of the igloo. “Time to go home now. If we have to be in a madhouse, I prefer the homegrown type. No wonder homeschooling is so popular,” he adds to Patsy.

* * *

“And then what?” Maggie asks me the following day, when Jack is at school and I’ve taken the twins to see their adopted granny. Their adopted ex-grandpa, thank goodness, is busy in the back yard, splitting logs for Maggie’s wood-burning stove.

I shrug. “We went home, and Oliver sat down with Jack and lectured him long and hard about differentiating between fact and fiction.”

“So he was only standing up for Jack against Patsy at school. He doesn’t really believe the story that there is the ghost of a little girl in your house. Although you do?”

I think back to the day we found the shattered Dresden shepherdess. It was in the centre of the dining room floor, a long way from the shelf where I’d put it. To get to its final resting place, it would have had to jump seven or eight feet through the air. We don’t own a cat, and to my knowledge, there had been no freak earthquake that morning. And yet, all my life, I have pooh-poohed the idea of ghosts and ghouls.

In other words, I am having a crisis of faith.

“I believe there is something,” I say finally. “I just don’t know what, exactly. The china shepherdess broke in the dining room, which happens to be the room that won’t warm up, no matter what you do to it. And there’s Fergus — he wouldn’t come in the house at all. I’ve heard that dogs are sensitive to… things.” I shiver, despite the warm sunshine that is shining through Maggie’s living room windows. “It could just be circumstantial, of course. Logic tells me that it probably is, and everything can be explained by rational argument. But whenever I start to explain things away with logic, I come up against the biggest obstacle — that I honestly believe Jack thinks he is telling the truth.”

Maggie nods thoughtfully, and rocks back and forth in her rocking chair. Beth, who is sitting on her lap and playing with Maggie’s long string of amber beads, leans back, puts her thumb in her mouth, and closes her eyes.

“I remember Cathy saying that Chuck had an imaginary friend when he was a little boy,” she says at last. “In that very house.”

“So you said, in one of your emails. He grew out of it, though.”

Maggie wiggles her hand in a comme ci comme ça gesture. “He was very old to have a pretend friend. Eleven, twelve. And I don’t know, but… I got the impression that he said he’d grown out of it, to humour her. I remember visiting the house once, and he didn’t know I was there, and he was talking to someone – someone who wasn’t there. He’d have been about fifteen at the time.”

I sit still, turning over possibilities in my mind. George waddles over to me and puts his head on my knee. Any minute now, he will go to sleep, standing up where he is.

“He was very keen that I read the folder of old documents relating to the house. It’s full of papers to do with plumbing and roofs, but there’s also records of people who used to live there, a couple of hundred years ago. Perhaps I should read it more carefully.”

But later, in bright sunshine, when the house is full of real people and real laughter. Right now, I’m not very keen on going back to my silent, empty house with two sleepy toddlers.

“Does Jack’s friend have a name?” Maggie asks.

“He calls her M. Like the character in James Bond. Or Dial M for Murder.”

I shiver again., then notice that Maggie has stopped rocking in her chair and is rubbing her arms.

“Are you cold?” I ask. “I thought it was just me. Shall I turn the heat up?”

Maggie shakes her head, and I see that she has lost some colour from her cheeks.

“Chuck used to love the film The Wizard of Oz. Cathy said he’d named his imaginary friend after one of the characters.”

I laugh. “Like, Dorothy? Toto? Tin Man?”

Maggie is still shaking her head. “No. Cathy always thought it was an odd choice, but assumed it was because Cathy and her husband didn’t have any brothers or sisters. He named her after the aunt.”

I stare at Maggie, and start to rub my own arms which, like Maggie’s, have sprung a rash of goosepimples.

Aunt Em.




Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #86

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #84 – Stages of youth

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

%d bloggers like this: