Thirteen years in one post. Can it be done?
Life in Camden was great. I lived around the corner from a colleague, and great friend, and I was finally close enough to the centre, to get the best out of living in London. I had no intention of getting into another relationship anytime soon, and felt very calm about my whole situation, for the first time in a long while. I rekindled friendships with my family on my father’s side, who I had been out of touch with for years. I also took the opportunity to meet single friends, and relatives, for excellent meals out, in the raft of new and exciting restaurants appearing everywhere. I spent some time with women I knew, but not as a couple, just as good friends. I no longer had to turn down any invitations, and attended every party and leaving drink going. My life was full of fun, and I was on a social merry go round. I even spent some of my savings, and went to visit a friend who was living and working in Beijing. I finally got to see the Great Wall of China. One tick off my list.
Then there were the lonely weekends. Four days off, no plans, everyone busy, and feeling that you could not just turn up to places, uninvited. I started going to the South Bank, to galleries, and the NFT. I spent a lot of time in bookshops, or cinemas, and watched countless DVD films at home as well. I would wander around in Soho, having coffee and cakes, or a glass of wine, at an outside table. But then I eventually had to come home to the flat. After that first summer, full of new experiences, and endless meanderings around London, I was feeling flat. My crew mate suggested that it might be an idea to go out on the occasional date, and he had someone in mind. I had been alone for eight short months, but it had felt a lot longer. I realised that I did want female companionship, even though I was really annoyed at myself, for ‘giving in’ so soon.
My mate’s wife worked with a woman who was divorced. Although she was nine years younger than me, she had children, and her own house in Hertfordshire, and was very mature. At least he considered her to be so. He was sure that I would like her. ‘She’s right up your street’, he assured me, indicating with a rotation of his hands, that she had large breasts. He knew little else about her, save that he thought that she had two daughters, and he had seen evidence of a warm and bubbly personality. He gave me her phone number on a piece of paper, and told me that she had said it was alright for me to call. At the time, I was unaware that I had been described to her as being ‘blond and muscular’, neither of which was remotely accurate.
I had not been on a blind date since I was fifteen, and had never telephoned a complete stranger, with a view to asking her out. It took a while, and a bottle of Merlot, for me to muster the courage; until one evening, I picked up the phone, and rang the number.
When she answered, I was apologetic, and immediately gave her the opportunity to end it right there, if she had been cajoled, or otherwise pressured into accepting my call. She was not at all concerned, and happy to talk. I tried to be self-deprecating. My hair, what was left of it, was grey, not blond, I confessed: and I was not at all muscular, despite doing a physically demanding job. I smoked a great deal, and drank far too much red wine. I had extreme political opinions, watched films with subtitles, and had two failed marriages behind me. I was not much of a catch I told her, of that I was certain. She was pleased that I was so honest, and very open about myself. However, she would shortly be going into hospital for an operation, and could not arrange to meet anytime soon. I also discovered that she had not two, but four children; identical twin girls, and two boys as well. I took this as a polite brush off, and said I would ring her after her surgery, to see how she was. We left it there, and I reflected on four children, with all the attendant complexities that this could bring.
I called as promised, and found her friendly, and pleased to hear my voice. I sent flowers, because that is the sort of thing I do. To me, it was polite; to her, it meant a great deal. She said that she would like to come and meet me at the flat in Camden, but would prefer to come with my colleague and his wife, to avoid any awkwardness, or being put into a situation where she was uncomfortable. Besides, she was not a Londoner, and did not know her way around. This meeting was arranged for a future date, and I said that I would supply pizzas and wine, and not cook a huge meal, as I would be in the kitchen all evening if I did that. On the night, they arrived with all my colleague’s small children in tow, as they had not thought to arrange a baby sitter. In the tiny flat, we had his small kids charging around, a baby crying in a pram, and four adults, in a somewhat awkward situation.
After an hour or so, I contrived to have to go to a local shop for more supplies. I was convinced that she did not like me, as she had not once held my gaze. I asked him what had been said when I was out of the room, and he assured me that she liked me well enough, and had indicated to his wife that I was someone she would like to see again. Returning from the shop, I set out with renewed confidence, and got her into the kitchen, to talk away from the others. She was more confident away from them, and chatted freely. I told her that I would like another, proper date, and she agreed to come over the following week. Because of the parking restrictions in Camden, and her lack of knowledge when driving in London, she would get the train. However, she had to be back at a reasonable hour, as she would be leaving the older boys in charge of the girls. Her youngest, the twins, were 11, and the boys 13, and 16.
We then began a winter of dates based on this plan. I would collect her from Euston, and we would go out, or eat in. I would then drive her back to Hertfordshire, where her car was parked at the local station, before turning round, and driving back. It was agreed that I would not meet the children for a while. The recent divorce had been acrimonious, and they were all unsettled about the break-up, and having difficulty coming to terms with it. From the start, I was aware that this relationship was very different to all the others I had known. Julie was happy in my company from the first meeting, and showed no inclination to want to do anything, other than to be my girlfriend. She was unconcerned about my political views, as she didn’t really have any. She showed no interest in my collection of foreign films, but was happy enough for me to watch them. When introduced to friends, she was immediately relaxed, and never once tried to be someone that she wasn’t. Her life was controlled by the need to care for her children, and I was the break from that routine. To her, I was a very different type of man to those she had known before. For me, she was uncomplicated by opinions, controversy, or deep-seated attitudes about things. She was like an open book, and willing to try anything.
My Mum had to go into hospital for various problems. I had told her that I was seeing Julie, but they had not met at that stage. I took her on a hospital visit, and they had their first meeting beside Mum’s sickbed. They were soon chatting as if they had been lifelong friends, or even family. When she got out of hospital, Mum said to me, ‘you ought to keep that one, she felt like a daughter to me, and I am sure she would always look after you.’ I was beginning to agree with her. Later that year, I suggested that Julie accompany me on a trip to Singapore, to visit an ex-pat friend. I would pay the air fare, and it would also be possible to visit Malaysia at the same time. She was very keen to come along, and arranged for her children to be looked after by their father. The holiday was great. She was happy just to be there, undemanding, uncomplaining, and wandered around with a sense of wonder. It was really refreshing.
On our return, it was decided that it was time for me to be around the kids more. I had met all of them, in different situations, but not all at once, in the same place. So, a weekend stay at the house was arranged. I need never have worried. They all treated me as if I had always been there, and despite talking constantly about their dad (they still hoped for a reconciliation) they were friendly, chatty, and inquisitive. The girls thought that our age difference was amusing, and made much of the fact that Julie was only nine, when I was eighteen. I actually enjoyed the time there, despite the noise, which I was totally unprepared for.
I was now 49, and no longer happy in the Ambulance Service. I had realised that I had to get out, while I still could, and was still capable of getting another job. Julie supported the decision, as she could see how tired the job was making me, and how frustrated I was getting, with all the changes going on. I applied for three jobs, not expecting to get any. I got interviews for all of them, and attended two, being successful in both. I chose to work for the Metropolitan Police, as the Control Room vacancy offered, was in West End Central, nice and handy for Camden. To the great surprise (and undoubted relief) of my employers in the Ambulance Service, I resigned, and started my training for the Police just before Christmas. There was a new year around the corner, with a new girlfriend, a new job, and my 50th birthday to come. Things were finally looking up.
To celebrate my 50th that year, Julie paid for us to go on a trip to Rome, and we had a marvellous time. She also left her job at a bank call centre, and moved into working in a branch, not far from her home. That proved to be a positive move, as she enjoyed the customer contact, and proved to be very popular with her colleagues too. I was getting on well in my new job, and enjoying working for the Police. My age and experience had left me well-prepared for this new role, and I was also getting on well with my workmates. Life was not all flowers round the door though. Julie’s children were getting older, and becoming temperamental teens, with all that goes with this awkward age. I found myself having great difficulty in my dealings with them. As I was not their father, they understandably felt disinclined to take any notice of my opinions. However, as Julie’s partner, I was often asked, or expected to intercede, and this frequently led to conflict.
I was learning more lessons. Children always come first. No matter what they say or do, or how they behave, they will always be forgiven. I would be asked to speak to one of them, and then judged to have been too harsh, after the event. This constant balancing act was almost impossible to get right, and still is. I decided that if I could not be a substitute parent, then I would try to be their mentor, and to be regarded as a friend, and not another part of the control group that managed their lives. This strategy paid dividends immediately. Helping with homework, allowing use of my laptop, encouraging new ideas, or potentially unrealistic ambitions, and being a shoulder to cry on, outside of parental disapproval. This all worked well, and I was soon at a completely different level in my relationship with them. This continues much the same to this day, although they are all much older now, so lead their own lives, to a large extent.
The next New Year, we were at a loose end on 1st January. I suggested going shopping, to the local town centre complex. Julie was not bothered, ‘what do you want to buy?’ she asked. ‘How about an engagement ring?’ I ventured. She began to cry. I had never asked her to marry me, though we had discussed a long-term future, and the prospect of marriage, at some stage. She was very happy, and we went off to buy the ring, accompanied by her girls. She loved that ring, and still does. She has never tired of it, and always states that it the best thing that she has ever owned. Two weeks later, on her birthday, I included a copy of the French film, ‘A very long engagement’, with her other presents. She got the joke. It would be some time before either of us were ready to take that step. With the engagement official, and our future set to eventually be a couple, we moved on to the next stage of our relationship; living together.
A move to London made sense for Julie. She could transfer easily with the bank, and London Weighting would mean a substantial increase in her salary. It would cost her nothing to stay with me, except a contribution to the weekly shop. With the youngest children now 16, and both sons working, she could leave them to manage during the week, returning at weekends, to get groceries, and check on the house. If anything serious happened, her ex-husband was nearby, and the journey by car from Camden was only 45 minutes. She hoped that it might give them a sense of responsibility, and help them to mature. This did not go as she had hoped. With news of her impending departure to Camden, her oldest son decided to move out, and fend for himself in his own flat. There had been many arguments at home anyway, and he set himself on a path that would mean lack of contact with most of the family, at least until a recent reconciliation. She explained to the others that she needed the extra pay, to cover the bills, and to keep the house going. The alternative would have been to give it up, and apply for social housing.
They did not take it well, and considered that they had been abandoned. I was surprised. I had thought that they would embrace the freedom to have friends round, watch any TV they liked, and eat meals when they wanted to. Julie was adamant that it must work, and told them that they would have to try their best, and she would be home at the weekend. Of course, they did not make it easy for her. Constant phone calls, complaints from neighbours about loud music, and absolutely no attempt at even a vestige of housework. They soon damaged various items of furniture, and let the place go completely. We did what we could at weekends, but I was still working shifts, and could not always be around to help. It was a difficult time, and left us with various stresses and strains on our relationship too. As well as this, my mother was becoming increasingly frail, and much more dependent on me to help her. We seemed trapped between a duty of care for her children on one hand, and my Mum on the other; pulled from both sides constantly, and usually at the same time. We saw out this difficult time, which lasted for almost two years, until the girls left college, and rented their own flat. Their brother moved in with friends too, and the house was now empty. At least we could get a discount on the Council Tax, as it was officially unoccupied.
Things slowly stabilised. We both got on better with the kids, now that they had jobs, and their own homes. I had transferred to The Diplomatic Protection Group, and got a new interest at work. At the same time, Julie changed branches, and things began to improve for her also. It was 2007, and for my 55th birthday, I was taken to Ghent, for a great short break holiday. I was now beginning to consider retirement at 60. We had been looking in the Lincolnshire area, where we had friends to stay with. Property was cheap, and we could buy for cash, even if we had to sell Julie’s house for a lower price. There was a good chance that she would be able to transfer up there, and it no longer mattered that we were near to her children, although my Mum could not be left in her present condition. For the next couple of years, we were in a kind of limbo. I could not leave London, as my Mum refused to go with us. There was no point in retiring from work, if I had to stay in Camden, so there seemed little point making any plans just yet. We decided to set a date for the wedding, that would be something to work towards, and to look forward to.
We settled on September 2009, which gave us over a year to arrange things. Julie’s house was to be put up for sale, and we had a very rare, and most welcome lucky break. Before we even contacted the agent, a local person asked to buy it. He was prepared to overlook all the faults, as he was a builder by trade, and would sort them out. He also paid the full asking price, without quibbling, as he really wanted to be close to his family in that area. You couldn’t make it up, it was as if we had written the script. With the money from the sale safely invested, we booked the wedding, at a nice hotel in Kent. Despite having three previous marriages between us, we decided not to skimp on anything, as all the other weddings had been low-key, tight budget affairs. Our only concession to economy was to marry on a Thursday, as this saved a quarter of the cost of an identical wedding over the weekend. When the day came, it was really wonderful; even the weather played along, and we had a lovely day. All those closest to us were able to come, and in the evening, extra guests too, mostly from work.
During the ceremony, my Mum made her famous faux pas, and everyone saw the funny side. A few days later, we honeymooned in a fantastic hotel in Marrakesh, and we were both never happier.
We then had some interesting news. We were back in touch with Julie’s oldest son, which was a positive step. Then the girls announced that they were going to live in Norfolk, as they had a friend there, and could find work. The younger son had lost his contract at his job, so had decided to return to college, and to retrain completely, with a view to working in Film and TV production; which would mean going to university in 2011, all being well. This all boded well for us moving when I was 60, if that could still happen. We started to look at property in Norfolk, an area we had never really considered before. I began an arrangement to pay a carer for my Mum, and she urged us to make the move when we could, as I would be able to drive down to London every couple of weeks to see her anyway.
We found a place we liked, and a house we thought we could live in. After some protracted negotiations, we took possession of this bungalow, in July 2011. The intention was to stay here at weekends, waiting until I was at retirement age, or Julie managed to get a transfer with her job. All this happened more or less at once. Her offer to work at the local branch came through for December 2011, much sooner than we had expected. She moved here then, and I followed in March 2012, one week after my birthday and retirement combined. My Mum died at almost the same time. It was as if she did not want her illness to prevent our move. We are now looking forward to the rest of our lives together, in the peace and quiet, and slower pace, of rural Norfolk.
When my Mum said ‘third time lucky’, I reckon she got that right…
2000-2013, in one post. I managed it.