Chasing Leaves In The Wind

Hard to believe now, but there was a time when I was attractive to women. Especially older women, but younger ones on occasion too. Unlike the good-looking boys, the sporty types, the football players, and the accomplished swimmers, all confident in their desirability, that came as a great surprise to me. A greater surprise was that they not only liked me, but lusted after me too, eager to do much more than chatting, or cuddling. Although their affections and desires confused me, I knew enough not to question their reasons. I accepted their favours, and their affections, with a sense of gratitude combined with wonder.

My mirror now confirms that this is no longer the case. I harbour no illusions these days. I am an old man, and perceived to be one. I live a life of relative contentment, and do not concern myself too much about things like passion and desire. But I still have many treasured memories of course. Snapshots of the past; fleeting moments that appear, sometimes when I least expect them to. Mostly, they are good memories of course. The excitement of a new partner, the hurried fumbling followed by mutual satisfaction. Sometimes, whole scenes play out in my head, as if they happened just yesterday, not almost fifty years ago.

As I get older with each passing year, the same memories appear to change, and for the better. Perhaps I am only searching my mind for complete positives, and that’s why. They have also decided to mainly appear when I am in bed, just about to fall asleep. As I lay with my eyes closed, they flood into my mind, and the feeling is a good one. Faces and names from the briefest of encounters, longer relationships, and previous marriages. They are happy faces, and I am happy too. But as sleep takes hold, those memories begin to fragment; they merge, and start to flutter away.

I want them to remain, so I feel as if I am chasing them, trying to hold onto the last second of time with them, as I unwillingly slip away into the arms of Morpheus. But they swirl around, elusive, one over the other, off back to wherever they came from. Until the next time.

It is like chasing leaves in the wind.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Divorce.

I saw a report this week stating that over 50% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. As I have been divorced twice myself, my own strike rate is a little higher in that regard. But I woke up today wondering if the institution of marriage is something that may one day be consigned to history.

In 1970, I was Best Man at a close friend’s wedding. The bride and groom (and me) were just 18 years old, and some people suggested that they were too young to get married. They defied the odds, had five children, and are still together today. They are the only couple I know from that time who didn’t separate, or get divorced.

I don’t suppose any of us get married believing it won’t last, or intending to just ‘give it a try’. For most people, it is a huge emotional commitment, as well as an expensive day. I didn’t get married in 1977 expecting it to last only eight years, that’s for sure. I anticipated raising a family, retiring outside of London, and celebrating my silver wedding anniversary with family and friends.
But that was not to be.

When I married again in 1989, I was perhaps more cautious and realistic, but still felt the need to show the commitment by having a proper wedding. No prenuptial agreement, and no talk of children by this time. We were both mature, and with both of us working in well-paid jobs, we could afford to live in a nice house, and enjoy a very comfortable life. But that didn’t work either, mostly because I became disillusioned with life in general, and marriage in particular. I had tried marriage twice, and failed both times. But I still believed in it as an institution, perhaps because of my background.

Even an amicable divorce can be emotionally draining. Despite having no children to consider, I had to lose half of everything I had built up over more than a decade, as well as some mutual friends, and a family I had come to think of as my own. And that happened twice. But by 1997, divorce was much easier. Some claimed it had become too easy, and couples no longer tried to work out their problems, taking divorce as an easy option. But as anyone who has been divorced can tell you, there is nothing easy about it.

In fact, I was all for the laws changing to make it easier to get divorced. When I was young, it was very difficult to obtain a divorce, and people went to great lengths to get one, including pretending to spend the night with another person, to provide grounds of Adultery. In so many cases, this left women being physically or mentally abused for much of their marriage, as they didn’t have the support, or the finances, to get divorced from husbands who treated them shabbily. Men suffered too of course. Living with domineering wives who nagged at them until any love that existed was not even a memory. So the change in the law was to be welcomed, as far as I was concerned.

When I got married again in 2009, I had learned my lesson, so took my time. We were together for nine years before we married, and both ready to share the same plans for the future. Meanwhile, the whole idea of marriage was changing around us. People could now get married almost anywhere, no longer restricted to a church, or the offices of their local council. And they could also marry anyone they liked. Men married men, and women married women. In some cases, transgender women married transgender men. Some married people that they had met online, and some from countries on the other side of the world.

It seems that marriage has never been more popular. So perhaps I have answered my own question.
But then divorce has never been so popular either…

Significant Songs (95)

The Time Is Now

I have written about this song before. It was on one of my early music posts, Pete’s Playlist 1. This song has considerable significance to me, for a few different reasons. When it was released in March 2000, I had just moved to a flat in Camden. I was 48 years old, and at the end of a crumbling relationship. It was my third move in less than three years, but it had some positives, as I was now back in central London, and closer to most of the things that I enjoyed doing, as well as an easier commute to work.

Moloko was a pop and dance band, with electronic overtones, and had enjoyed some previous success. The mainstay of their records was the outstanding vocals provided by the Irish chanteuse, Roisin Murphy. Her plaintive tones gave a distinctive feel to anything they released, and made it instantly recognisable too. As soon as I heard it on the car radio, I knew who it was, and bought the CD single within a few days. I was a little lost at the time, and the sentiments of the lyrics seemed more than appropriate.

In the November of that year, I met Julie, and we often played this song when we were together. For both of us at the time, the title seemed very pertinent. I still love this song today, as much as ever.

An unofficial anniversary

Although we were married in September 2009, Julie and I generally celebrate the 4th of November as our anniversary. It’s because this is the date we first met, fourteen years ago today, on a blind date.

In 2000, my life was in something of an upheaval. My friend and crew-mate decided that he would sort me out. He told me about a woman who worked with his wife, and said that he was sure we would hit it off. I was far from keen on this sort of dating. As he had also told me that she was nine years younger than me, I was convinced that she would not be interested. He insisted that I take her telephone number, and give serious thought to contacting her. I gave it a while, and eventually phoned, mostly apologetic to be bothering her. I need not have worried. We chatted easily, and for a considerable time. Understandably, she said that she would prefer to meet me in the company of our mutual friends. We lived almost thirty miles apart, so it made sense for them to visit as a group. The arrangements were made, and in the meantime, we chatted on the telephone, on a regular basis.

By the 4th November, we had already found out quite a lot about each other, but still had little idea what we looked like. They decided to come to my flat in Camden. My friends also brought their three children along, so I decided to just offer pizzas and snacks, to make life easier in the small flat. When they arrived, I was very happy to see that Julie looked very nice indeed. She looked younger than I had expected, and she was immediately very friendly, and easy to talk to in person. It was quite a hectic evening, with the kids playing, and making a lot of noise. At one stage, I decided to go across to the shops for something, and asked my friend to accompany me. On the way, I told him that I was convinced Julie wasn’t very interested. She was chatty, but hardly looked at me, spending time with their small baby, and occasionally glancing across. He said that he had asked his wife, and she had told him that Julie did like me, and thought that I was a nice bloke. It was like a scene played out in a school playground, and I felt very silly. Mind you, I was 48 at the time.

Later on, we got some time alone in the kitchen, and relaxed into easy familiarity. It was soon apparent that we were going to get on very well, and arrangements were made for a second date soon after. Fourteen years later, we are very happy, in our new life together in Norfolk. Married for five years, and having endured life’s ups and downs; new jobs, family bereavements, and all the usual dilemmas that modern life has to offer. From that awkward blind date all those years ago, we have cemented a relationship that will endure until one of us dies, and I cannot imagine ever being without her. We are going for a meal tonight, to a recommended local country pub. Following that, we can look forward to the next fourteen years.

Reflections on my father

I read a short story on another blog tonight. It made me think about my father, for the first time in ages.

His name was Arthur, and he was born in Bermondsey, South London, in 1920. As a young man, he joined the army, and was posted to Woolwich Barracks, home of the Royal Artillery. When he was still just in his teens, the Second World War broke out, and he went to the Kent coast, to operate anti-aircraft guns near Dover. After Japan entered the war in 1941, he volunteered for service in the far east, and was posted to India. Promoted to sergeant, and eventually to Regimental Sergeant Major, he enjoyed a relatively comfortable war. He lived in his own bungalow, and even had servants, who lived under the porch. He went big-game hunting, and played both cricket and football for army teams. He was in charge of Indian troops, and he came to have a great respect for them as soldiers.

During this time, my mother, like many young women during the war, was writing to soldiers overseas. He received one of her letters, and met up with her after the war. At the end of hostilities, he stayed on in India for some time. On the voyage home, he stopped in Durban, and developed a great fondness for the life in South Africa. Arriving back in England, he told how he wanted to join the police force there, and start a new life in the sun. My Mum was having none of it, and refused to consider such a wrench from her family. I don’t think he ever forgave her, but he stayed in London, and they married in 1947.

He found work as a maker of tea-chests and boxes. He was always good with tools, and the work was regular, and reasonably well-paid. He was popular with almost everyone, and had a wide circle of friends, as well as a large extended family. At weekends, they would all meet in local pubs, where he would sing on stage, often accompanied by my uncle. My first memories of him are of a man smelling of hair oil and tobacco, with jet black wavy hair, and an olive complexion.

I didn’t take after him, looking like my Mum’s side of the family. He was dark, and looked continental, easily passing as Jewish, or perhaps of some foreign extraction. There was talk of a Spanish connection way back in the family, but I never could confirm that. He was always smartly dressed, and as far as I was aware then, a good provider. But he wasn’t a settled man. He longed for something more, a better life somewhere.

From early on, I was a great disappointment to him. Somewhat spoilt by my Mum, I did not display the aptitude for sports that he would have liked. I didn’t seem to be able to learn to swim, no matter how hard he tried to teach me, and my abilities at football, or any sport, did not reach his standards. I didn’t ever run fast enough, or act tough enough, for his liking.

My white-blond curly hair and blue-green eyes marked me as one of my Mum’s family, not his. I didn’t realise this of course, and as a child, I thought he was amazing. I watched him work on his car, and studied how he drove it too. He dressed me in suits and ties, and I accompanied him on visits to relatives and friends. When he took us on our annual seaside holidays, he played for hours on the beach, constructing ‘cars’ from sand for me to sit in, or helping me build ambitious castles. Yet still, something inside me always sensed his overriding displeasure with me, and I wanted him to like me more.

As I got older, our relationship grew steadily worse. He often argued with Mum, and I only found out decades later, that she had discovered he was having various affairs with other women. I spent a lot of time in my room, reading books and comics, and writing on an old typewriter. In an effort to get me out of the house, he bought me a bike, and taught me how to ride it. As he did so, he hurt his back, slipping a disc. This was to cause him great pain, and necessitate operations later on. He never let me forget that he did that teaching me how to cycle.

By the time I reached my teens, he tried to get me interested in car mechanics, and various jobs around the house. When I showed little aptitude or interest in such things, he became angry, regularly declaring that I was ‘useless’ and that I always would be. There was some redemption when I did well at school, and he seemed genuinely proud of my exam results. I got the feeling that he resented my academic leanings, and comparative success, but he never let on, if he did.

He would get his own back, by making me help him do jobs and chores. Hard manual labour in the garden, or hours spent in a freezing garage, holding tools or torches as he worked on cars. At some stage, I would invariably do something wrong, or with insufficient enthusiasm, giving him the opportunity to once again exclaim that I was useless, and I might as well leave him to do it alone. One particular evening, he added the words ‘I never wanted kids anyway, you were a mistake I was tricked into.’ I let that go at the time, but it always returned in my thoughts.

By this time, he had changed jobs, and had spent many years working in the record industry. This gave him a boost in social status, and the chance to work away from home a great deal. On his return, he would present me with dozens of records, all the latest hits. But this was more about showing his ability to source this bounty, rather than the genuine desire to give me gifts. Once I was in my twenties, we hardly spoke at all. He was always out, often staying away overnight, and his relationship with Mum had deteriorated noticeably.

When I was nearly 24 years old, Mum told me that she had seen our house up for sale in the local estate agent. She thought it must be a mistake, and confronted him when he got home. He told her that he was moving in with a male colleague, and could no longer live with us. As his was the only name on the deeds of the house, he was entitled to sell it, and would give her half the proceeds. Mum asked me not to get involved. She was so shocked by it all, she didn’t even bother to fight him, and awaited her fate once he left.

Despite the disruption to our life at the time, I was actually pleased to see the back of him. As we suspected, the ‘male colleague’ turned out to be female, and he had rather boringly just left my Mum for another woman, without having the courage to tell her the truth.

A few weeks later, he was returning to collect some things, and his car broke down. He phoned the house, and Mum asked me to collect him from Sidcup, where he had left his car. I didn’t speak to him as I drove him home, and he got a taxi back to his car later, when I was out. I never saw him again, and never spoke to him again, after that day.

In 1989, I received a call from his cousin. He told me that my father was dying in a hospital in Northampton. He had Motor Neurone Disease, and was not expected to last the week. ‘You ought to go and see him’, the cousin suggested. ‘Did he ask me to come?’, I replied. ‘Not as such, but I am sure that he would want to see you’, he insisted.

‘I don’t think so Roy’, was my reply.

Significant Songs (6)

Don’t Speak

In the previous post in this category, I wrote about a significant song that makes me happy, and has romantic connotations for me. In the comments, Jude mentioned that many songs can have the reverse effect, and remind you of break-ups, and bring sad memories. She is correct of course, and I agree that these songs can be far more profound than the romantic type, as they bring back feelings and recollections that you would sooner not experience, as opposed to those that you openly seek, or welcome. They also have a tendency to catch you unawares, heard on car radios, played in bars, or drifting out of a neighbour’s window. You are unlikely to ever seek them out, and you will avoid compilations that contain them, and will definitely not play any copy you might still own.

I have been lucky in this respect. Despite two divorces, and many other break-ups over the years, I have never really associated any particular song with any single event of that nature. I consider this a lucky escape, as so much music played and enjoyed over time, can definitely be ruined by any untoward connection with unfortunate times, or acrimonious separations. There is an exception to this, though the song had less of an effect on me, it had a huge impact on my ex-wife. In 1996, the band No Doubt, fronted by singer Gwen Steffani, released the single ‘Don’t Speak’, a track which had appeared on their album, the year before. I liked this rather sad love song, written about the singer’s break-up with another band member, and bought a copy on CD single. It has some nice guitar, and very meaningful lyrics, which did not really concern me much at the time, as I just liked the powerful vocals, and the overall production.

In 1997, I had been married, for the second time, for eight years. I was forty-five years old that March, and a combination of dissatisfaction in my life, and what is probably best described as a ‘male mid-life crisis’, led me to the conclusion that I did not want to stay in the marriage. I broke the news to my wife, who was very shocked, unhappy, and reluctant to end it. She wanted to try a bit longer, and asked me to reconsider. I had set my mind though, and rightly or wrongly, went ahead. The house was sold, and I moved into a small flat, across the other side of London. As there was nobody else involved, and neither of us had done anything awful, we stayed friends. Even to this day, we are still in touch. I went to visit her, in her new flat in the South London suburbs. She had coped well enough on the surface, and was getting on with her life. However, she did confess that she often played ‘sad songs’, and this one in particular. It was only then, that I realised what my determination to move on in my life, had cost her.

I can never hear this song again, without thinking of her, sad and alone in that flat. I am happy to say that she has since re-married, and has a pleasant life in the west of England. Here are the lyrics, as well as a clip of the band performing the song.

“Don’t Speak”

You and me
We used to be together
Everyday together always
I really feel
That I’m losing my best friend
I can’t believe
This could be the end
It looks as though you’re letting go
And if it’s real
Well I don’t want to knowDon’t speak
I know just what you’re saying
So please stop explaining
Don’t tell me cause it hurts
Don’t speak
I know what you’re thinking
I don’t need your reasons
Don’t tell me cause it hurts

Our memories
Well, they can be inviting
But some are altogether
Mighty frightening
As we die, both you and I
With my head in my hands
I sit and cry

Don’t speak
I know just what you’re saying
So please stop explaining
Don’t tell me cause it hurts (no, no, no)
Don’t speak
I know what you’re thinking
I don’t need your reasons
Don’t tell me cause it hurts

It’s all ending
I gotta stop pretending who we are…
You and me I can see us dying…are we?

Don’t speak
I know just what you’re saying
So please stop explaining
Don’t tell me cause it hurts (no, no, no)
Don’t speak
I know what you’re thinking
I don’t need your reasons
Don’t tell me cause it hurts
Don’t tell me cause it hurts!
I know what you’re saying
So please stop explaining

Don’t speak,
don’t speak,
don’t speak,
oh I know what you’re thinking
And I don’t need your reasons
I know you’re good,
I know you’re good,
I know you’re real good
Oh, la la la la la la La la la la la la
Don’t, Don’t, uh-huh Hush, hush darlin’
Hush, hush darlin’ Hush, hush
don’t tell me tell me cause it hurts
Hush, hush darlin’ Hush, hush darlin’
Hush, hush don’t tell me tell me cause it hurts

 

Significant Songs (5)

If I Ain’t Got You

If any of you have ever been involved in a romantic relationship, I will bet my bottom dollar that there is a song that reminds you of it. You may not like to admit it though. You might consider it to be slushy and sentimental, to have a song that makes you come over all amorous, or reflective, but I am sure that there is one lurking there, filed under ‘Love’ in your brain’s memory banks.

When I met Julie, in 2000, we soon had a few songs that we could associate with the time and place of our new relationship. As well as our individual favourites, there were a few contenders for songs that were new to us both, and made us think about each other, when we were apart. One worth a mention, was the hit song ‘Groovejet (If this ain’t love)’, by Spiller, with vocals by Sophie Ellis Bextor. This was released that summer, before we started seeing each other in the autumn. I played it a lot, and Julie liked it too. The lyrics seemed to have a connection to our situation at the time, and we often thought it a very special song, just for for us. The other song with seemingly appropriate lyrics and theme that year was ‘The Time Is Now’, by Moloko, sung by Rosin Murphy. As we started our journey as a couple, it was as if songs written perfectly for us, were appearing from everywhere.

Of course, we were old enough to appreciate that they were just pop songs, and that the symbolism, though relevant, was just amusingly coincidental. Music featured a lot in those early days, and we would sit in my flat in Camden, and have ‘music nights’, both of us playing our favourites, old and new. As we carried on seeing each other, and becoming closer, we took less notice of lyrics in songs, perhaps settling into the knowledge that we were going to stay together, come what may. We did still have a soft spot for the Spiller and Moloko songs though, and always mentioned that they were ‘our songs’, whenever we heard them.

In 2003, I heard a new song, from Alicia Keys. I already knew of this talented young woman, and had bought her CD ‘Songs in A Minor’. This new song was instantly memorable, with a piano intro, great structure, and meaningful lyrics. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and bought the CD soon after. It was called ‘If I Ain’t Got You’, and the words immediately made me think of Julie, and our relationship. We both liked it very much, and played it often. One day, I remarked to Julie, that if we ever got married, then this song should be our first dance, such was the relevance it had for us. She agreed, and that was the end of the conversation.

Six years later, in 2009, we finally did get married; after nine years together, and many ups and downs in our lives, that we had worked through as a couple. Although many great songs had appeared in those intervening years, there was still only one choice for our first dance. And I almost missed it. I was standing outside the venue, chatting, and had to be rounded up by friends, to go in and have the first dance at our wedding. This September, we will have been married for five years, and together for fourteen. This song still means as much to me today, as when I first heard it, all those years ago.

Third time lucky: Part Five

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.

Third time lucky: Part Four

The non-marriage.

That night out with my friend was to see the start of something that would consume the next two and a bit years of my life. I should have stayed in.

Standing at the crowded bar, I was chatting to colleagues, and having quite a good time, despite the noise. I was not drinking much at all, as I had to drive back to Harrow that night, and turn up for an early shift the next day. I felt a tug at my sleeve, and looked down at a table nearby. There were three nurses seated there. I knew them all very well, and was on first names terms with each of them, as we had all been around the same casualty departments for many years. One of them was pointing at her mouth, indicating that she wanted me to give her a cigarette. I was in a playful mood. ‘Do you want a kiss?’ I asked, speaking loudly above the hubbub in the bar. She shook her head, and made a smoking motion, also pointing at the chest pocket of my shirt, where she could see the outline of the cigarette packet. ‘Is it my heart you want?’ I continued, ‘Are you trying to tell me that you love me?’ I gave up the teasing and sat down, proffering the cigarettes. ‘I will expect a kiss though’, I persevered, and she reluctantly planted a peck on my cheek.

She had recently returned to the hospital where we took most of our patients. After starting there years earlier, she had moved around, left to get married, and had recently had a child. She was now back in a senior role, managing nurses, and not always in the same department. Armed with with a University Degree, a Masters Degree, and a qualification in teaching as well; her sights were firmly set on a serious career. We had been friendly enough a few years earlier, but no more than that. I had never really talked to her outside of work before, and saw a very different side to her immediately. At work, she was confident, assured, almost brash. That evening, despite the social atmosphere, she seemed vulnerable, and unhappy. Very soon, we were talking just to each other, and ignoring the crowd around us, and those we had arrived with. She was 12 years younger than me, but that did not raise any issues, as we chatted easily, relaxed in each others company. I told her what had happened to me since we had last met, keeping it brief, and trying to add irony and humour. I even said that I envied her the marriage to her teenage sweetheart, and the birth of the son she had hoped for. It wasn’t long before she was telling me that her life was far from enviable, and that she was desperately unhappy.

This wasn’t how I had planned to spend the evening, and I looked for a exit strategy. However, something was niggling me about her, and I couldn’t leave. In fact, I felt compelled to stay, to hear her story, and to spend more time in her company. Some time later, I brazenly said that I would have done it all different, if it had been me that she had married. I told her that I thought her to be too intelligent for the man she had chosen, and that she had drive and ambition that he could never hope to match. She was from Ireland, and that background was stopping her from moving on; the Catholic guilt would not allow her to consider divorce, and her family would not countenance it either. I reminded her that it was 1998, not 1898, and that she could do as she wished, and to hell with the consequences. When it was time for the bar to close, she left with her friends, and thanked me for the chat.

I drove home, and found myself unable to stop thinking about her. As I got into bed that night, I had the uneasy feeling that I might well be in love with this woman. I discounted this idea as complete nonsense. I did have trouble sleeping though.

The next day at work, I was as busy as ever. Late that morning, I turned up at the hospital, and saw a colleague waving to me, from across the parking area. He had a message for me, written on a piece of paper. It was a phone number, and I was to call it when I got into this particular hospital. He had been sworn to secrecy, and entrusted with this delicate task. I never really knew why he was chosen, though I suspect it was because he was from an Irish Catholic family. I rang the number, and it was her of course. Could I meet in the coffee bar, main entrance, in ten minutes? I asked my crew mate to cover me for a while; if anyone asked, he was to say that I was ringing my elderly mother. I went to the meeting, for some reason, expecting to be reprimanded for cheekiness, or talking out of turn. I was convinced that I had gone too far, and that the friendship would be dissolved forthwith. I could not have been more wrong. Back in the work environment, she was in possession of her confidence once more. She asked me not to interrupt, as she had something to say to me. Then, to my complete surprise, she told me that she had been thinking about me all night, and had been unable to sleep. She had been imagining  a life with me, something that would normally never have occurred to her. She asked me if I was serious about her too, and if I had meant any of the things I had said the previous evening. I told her the truth; that I had also been thinking about her, and amazingly, considered myself to be in love with her, although I could offer no sensible explanation as to why this had happened. She wasn’t outraged, or even surprised. She simply said, ‘What are we going to do about it then?’

If I had a Time Machine, I would go back to a few minutes before that moment, and then not go for that coffee. I had no idea what we had set in motion, and no concept of the heartache ahead of me.

She was still living with her husband, in the marital home. Despite her telling him that she wanted to split up, he was hanging on, hoping it would all go away, and understandably reluctant to leave his son as well. The one good thing about this, was that she had a baby sitter, which meant we could meet in the evenings. She would not throw it in his face, but pretend to be out with friends or colleagues, a frequent occurrence anyway. Thus began a series of encounters, not always sexual, but invariably intense. Sometimes she would come to mine, having to leave early, other times we might stop at a hotel. We even managed a short break away one weekend, miraculous considering the circumstances. She wasn’t comfortable with the situation though, and eventually succeeded in getting her husband to move out. He rented a flat in the same area, and they came to an informal arrangement about childcare. We were now suspected to be an ‘item’ at work, and she feared the day when she would have to tell all, both to him, and her family.

This was also my first experience of having a partner who had a child. He was also a very small child; not yet at school, but attending a nursery when she was at work. I had no game plan for children, and simply treated him as an adult, expecting him to respond accordingly. Naturally, that was destined to fail. Before too long, I had adjusted to hours of mindless, repetitive, kids’ TV, along with the same games, played over and over, without a trace of boredom, at least on his part. I occasionally collected him from nursery, and took him to play at the park, if she had to work later than expected. The other parents around the sand pit just presumed that I was his grandfather; after all, I was old enough to be. He readily accepted me stopping over in the house, and being around a lot. Another lesson learned; kids are incredibly adaptable. I found myself choosing restaurants with a kids menu, where previously I had chosen them because there were no kids inside. I was getting used to the little terror, and I was beginning to grow very fond of him.

She faced the demon of breaking the news to all and sundry. A weekend trip to Ireland, followed by a ‘showdown’ meeting with her husband, on her return to London. The reactions were very strange, and both unexpected. Her parents only concern, was that I had been divorced before. In their eyes, that meant that I was still married, to my first wife. Apparently, my second marriage had not counted at all, as it was not in a church. This was my first experience of this medieval Irish viewpoint, held by many I encountered then, and since. They agreed to meet me though, and said that I could be invited over to the house, the next time they visited London. As for her husband, he was fuming. Not because she had a new boyfriend. He had already found solace in the arms of a young East European girl, who later had his child. No, his anger was directed at my age, and the fact that I was spending time with his son. He did not want some ‘old fella’ treating his son as family, and that was that. Although she put a brave face on it all, she was consumed with guilt. Thirty-four years of Catholicism had left its mark, despite her move to England, and progressive attitudes in other areas.

I finally met her parents, and her sister, a couple of months later. I dressed very smartly, kept my opinions to myself, and behaved impeccably. We met at the house, and went out to a restaurant, as a large group. Later, I made my farewells, and was naturally interested to hear what they had said to her. I got the news a couple of days later, after they had returned home. They thought that I was a ‘nice man’, but far too old for her. I would never be welcome overnight at their home, as I was still married, as they saw it. If I ever wanted to visit her in Ireland, I would be expected to stay in a hotel. Should we ever decide to get married at some time in the future, they would never recognise the legality of it, as she had married in church, in Ireland. I found all of this too farcical to take seriously. We had only been together a few months, and it was like coming up before the Spanish Inquisition. I was sure that they would come around, and that my loving girlfriend would not let these archaic attitudes spoil things in the long term.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nurture 1. Nature 0.

With Christmas coming up, we decided to go very public, and appear at the hospital Christmas Party, as a couple. To enhance the mood of celebration, we even booked a night at the outrageously expensive Tower Hotel, on the river in London. The party was a smart affair, at Lord’s Cricket Ground, and we arrived arm in arm, telling the world. They already knew though. Our big reveal was a damp squib, and nobody could understand why we were making such a fuss about it. The only real downside, was that the casualty staff I saw every day, were now much more careful about what they said and did. After all, I was going out with their boss.

I then had an opportunity to move. One of my friends at work had married a nurse from Belfast, and he was joining the Ambulance Service in Northern Ireland, and obviously going to live there. He wanted to keep his flat in Hertfordshire, as it was rented very cheaply from a Housing Trust, and he might later have the option to buy it. He asked me to take it over, pretend to be staying with him, if anyone asked, and just pay the bills. It was good news for me, as the rent was less than half what I was paying in Harrow. In addition, the flat was well-decorated, warm and bright, and much bigger. I had also applied to rent a property from the Crown Estate, as they had subsidised rent flats available, for government workers. The waiting list was notoriously long though, so I took the offer of the Hertfordshire flat. I moved in during the spring, and looked forward to a better way of life, and being able to enjoy the large garden. Although it was a lot further out than Harrow, it took no longer to commute to work, as the route was less congested.

That was a good summer all round. My girlfriend had finally agreed an amicable set-up with her husband, and I was becoming tolerated, if not accepted, by anyone who mattered. We tentatively began to talk about the chance that we might buy a house together. She could sell the family home, and with both jobs, we could afford a very nice house in the Thames Valley area, this side of Oxford. There was nothing concrete, but favoured areas were discussed. That would all be a long way off though. For now, we enjoyed life, and had nice times together, as well as with her son. One thing worried me. She was visiting Ireland a lot more. As well as missing her family, and taking her son to see his relatives, she was also working out there, attending Nursing conferences and seminars, and recruiting for the hospital in London. On her return, she stopped over less and less, and although we both seemed to be as much in love as ever, no future was ever discussed, or even hinted at. As the end of that year approached, we were static. I was still in another bloke’s rented flat, and planning to spend Christmas pretty much alone, as she was off to Ireland for two weeks. When she returned in January, she came round to see me, and we had a massive argument. A lot was said, by both of us, and she left without stopping the night, with the pair of us raging, and unrepentant.

The following week, I received a letter to say that I had come up on the waiting list for a Crown flat, and would be interviewed the week after. The situation I was living in was ideal for this, as I could truthfully say that I was staying with a friend, and had nowhere to live otherwise. At the same time, my girlfriend’s house sale went through, and she moved with her son, into a hospital flat, a stone’s throw from her work. She had put all her personal stuff into storage, until deciding what she was going to do. I visited this flat sometimes, and they occasionally came to Hertfordshire. However, every part of me knew that she was ‘off the boil’, and things were not right. My flat came through, with a moving date of 1st March. It was going to be in Camden, and priced almost the same as the current rent I was paying. It was ideal, and I was really pleased. I arranged the move, and she arranged a trip to Ireland, an early Easter visit. Very early.

When I saw her again, it was almost April. We had chatted on the phone, but she had been evasive, non-committal. I could tell immediately that the news was not good, as her face was flushed. However, she suggested a trip to Brighton the next weekend, which threw me completely. As a fan of the seaside, I readily accepted. Her son was going to stay with her best friend, all was arranged. I should have realised, the condemned man always gets some treats before sentence is carried out. Maybe I was blinkered, or perhaps I just didn’t see it. I hardly remember now. The first night in Brighton, we went to a very good Chinese restaurant on the front. I was babbling on, all good-humour, seaside excited, and pleased to be with her again. She said that I should listen for a while, as she had to talk. I ordered a second bottle of wine. I had a feeling that I was going to need it.

What she told me was much worse than I had anticipated. I had thought that she was going to just break up with me, and that was that. But it was more painful than that. She was going to buy a house in Ireland, and had accepted a job there. It would be good for her son, as he would go to better schools, and get a more disciplined upbringing. Although her husband would stay in England, with his girlfriend, and new baby, her son could come over for visits, and it would all work out for the best. He could have more space, go horse-riding, and be brought up near his family. Her parents were getting old, and it would enable them to see their grandson, without travelling; they were delighted at the news. I would not be able to visit her at this new house, if her son was there at the same time. This had been agreed with her family, and her husband. She would still come to London at least three times a year, and would be happy to see me on those occasions, and to stay at my flat. She did not want to end our relationship.

It took a while for that to sink in. She did not want to end it, but was going to live in another country, and only see me three times a year. Had I got it right? She said that was about the size of it. I found myself getting upset, as it suddenly dawned on me that I would never see her son again. The small boy that I had befriended, and loved in my own way, for almost three years, was gone to me now. I looked across the table at someone I no longer knew. I felt the affection drain out of me, replaced by tiredness, and the familiar weight of failure, like a heavy overcoat, wet from the rain.

We went home the next day. I did not accept her deal, but wished her well, and told her that we would never meet again. We did speak a few times on the phone after that, but we never did meet again.

It was the year 2000, and I had a fresh start, in a flat in Camden, with all my life ahead of me. Well, not quite. I was 48 years old, and alone once more.