“Tell me again where you’re going,” says my Nan, pouring me a Bacardi and coke with significantly more Bacardi than coke. “Your dad said something about North Korea?”
We’re in her kitchen, a few miles from Heathrow Airport, where every few minutes planes roar over so low that it feels like they might take the roof with them; the kitchen we’d sat in when I was 11 and taping my first interview for a school project on family histories, when we talked for hours about growing up in wartime London because her mother couldn’t bear to let her be evacuated and I realised that real life is seeped in better stories than anything I could invent. The moment, I suppose, than sowed the seeds for a career as a journalist.
“Vietnam,” I said, smiling. “Mostly, anyway. Definitely not North Korea. Dad keeps mixing them up.”
“Got a job when you get there, then?”
“Nope. All freelance stuff. I’m got a couple of regular gigs but mostly it’ll be pitching stories as I go.”
“Got somewhere to live?”
“Er, no. I’ve booked a hostel for the first few days in Thailand but after that I’ll be all over. Wherever the stories take me, I guess.”
She nods and looks down at her cigarette. I brace myself for the inevitable response. I’m mad, it’s dangerous, I should stay at home and get a job and save up for a deposit or pay off my credit card or have a baby or generally do something that doesn’t involve pissing off to a faraway land to pursue a faraway dream. But she doesn’t say any of these things. Instead, she flicks the ash and shoots me a look that’s full of mischief, and she says: “Good for you, darlin’!”
“When we was young we’d go all over,” she tells me. “Fly somewhere and rent a car and drive. Half the time we didn’t know what country we was in. We thought, if we can’t find somewhere to stay we’ll just sleep in the car, it doesn’t matter. We went to Amsterdam one time, just drove all through Switzerland and down the Italian Riviera and everywhere. Nearly crashed into a lorry in a tunnel at one point. And your Granddad took a wrong turn and drove straight through the middle of a whadyacallit, a piazza, sent all these chairs and tables flying, all those people having coffee screaming and jumping out of the way. Best holiday of my life. Oh, you gotta do it now, haven’t you, when you’re young?”
And then she laughs and says, “You’re just like me. We have to roam, you know. It’s our gypsy blood. It’s our gypsy blood makes us do it.”
Later that night, after we’ve all hugged and joked and said our tearful and tipsy goodbyes, I’m almost to the car when she runs out after me and grabs my hand.
“Here,” she says firmly, pressing a wad of notes into my palm. “This is for you.”
“Oh Nan, I can’t!”
“No, I’ve decided. It’s for you.” Her eyes swim with tears. “You make a really good go of it, now, won’t you? A proper adventure. Send me a postcard.”