We’d all had breakfast together the morning after the party and chatted about the do with our bacon and eggs cooked by Dad and had a cool time. I was pleased how well Tim, Dad and Tracey got on. The next hurdle for me was to meet Tim’s parents. We had arranged to spend the next weekend at his parents house. I was a little on edge about this; I was worried that I might seem what? ordinary, uneducated, mercenary, flash; I even worried about the impression my silver Audi TT would make. I’d had to buy a different wardrobe for the visit, country type clothes, and I’d been to different shops than the ones I usually bought my designer clothes from. I think Tim was nervous about it as well but for different reasons. He’d met my parents and knew how different the world I inhabited was from that I was about to enter. I think he was worried his folks would seem cranky and his home tatty.
We set off early on the Saturday morning on a bright overcast day. I enjoyed the drive, the scenery once we were in Wales was just stunning. We were heading to a small-holding in the hills above Caernarfon. Tim entertained me and told me about his parents. His Dad had trained as a Civil Engineer and had become very interested in self-sufficiency after working on an eco housing development and was now an advisor for a company that did installations of solar heating, photoelectric systems, heat exchangers and that sort of thing. His mother was a highly qualified nurse but had decided that it was more important to bring up her children than follow a career so for years she was a housewife who also looked after the small holding. She worked part time as a home visitor now the older two children had left home. Unfortunately both his parents had recently become vegans so the chickens, cow and goats had gone. I love animals and would have really liked to have seen what Tim called the menagerie. So, I mused, our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. I thought his might explain Tim’s down to earth approach to life, his straightforward honest attitude and, of course I fancied him rotten. I tried to imagine what he saw in me. I knew I had a good figure and if I made an effort I could look reasonably attractive (he said very) but in some ways I felt wanting. I had had a sheltered life, hadn’t really done anything off my own bat and because of this I felt inferior in the company of educated or well travelled people. To counter this I knew I had a strong character, was good socially and could hold my own anywhere.
“Turn left here” woke me from my thoughts. At the end of the rough drive I could see a modest stone-built cottage on a hill surrounded by small trees and some outbuildings. My first impression was that it was as untidy and run down as I’d expected.
“Park here” said Tim pointing to a clearing not far from the cottage which already housed an old tractor, a boat on a trailer covered by a tarpaulin, an old van and a Morris Minor. A slim lady who was wearing dungarees and Wellington boots and had shoulder length frizzy grey hair, a big smile on her face and dirty hands who I presumed was Tim’s Mum appeared from behind the cottage.
“Hi darling, how lovely to see you, and you must be Sophie. You are gorgeous! Excuse my appearance I’ve just been mucking out the hen house now they’ve all gone. Wonderful manure. Anyway welcome to Cwm Dinas.”
“Thanks you, it looks absolutely lovely.”
“We’re absolutely parched, Wendy. Are you coming in or shall I put the kettle on?”
“John’s inside. See if you rouse him enough to make you tea. I’ll be finished very shortly so make me a cuppa too please.”
So he called his Mum and Dad by their Christian names. I’d never met anyone who did that before. Inside was as foreign to me as outside. It wasn’t dirty or anything, just kind of scruffy. My face can be read like a book so Tim said,
“I can see your first impressions are well not exactly favourable. They don’t really care about appearance, so long as it works. Come through to the sun room, I expect that is where John will be.”
The sun room was obviously an add-on to the cottage with a wooden floor, polystyrene ceiling and a glass wall overlooking the Menai Straits which glistened through the trees in the afternoon sun.
A grey-haired grey-bearded man, who I assumed was John, was sat on a kneeling chair in front of an old desk with a state of the art computer on it. He stopped what he was doing and turned towards us. His hair was almost as long as Tim’s and he had sparkling blue eyes and a kind face. He looked like a grey haired Father Christmas.
“What a wonderful view.” I said as I walked in. It really was.
“John, this is Sophie. Sophie this is John, my father. Wendy wondered if you would make us a cup of tea, her too as she said she’s almost done. I ought to go and fetch out bags in. ”
“OK. Yes. Right. Sorry I’m terrible at names. Tell me again.”
“Do sit down, Sophie, and make yourself comfortable. Sophie, Sophie.” He muttered this as he disappeared presumably to make tea.
“My folks are into self sufficiency, so they grow most of their veg and fruit and heat the whole house with just a second hand range. They cook on that too.”
“They both seem very nice and the house is lovely and warm,” I say to say something positive. “Have you any brothers or sisters?”
“Yeah. I’ve a sister who’s older than me and married, Teresa. And a brother, Stanley, who is still at school. Don’t you remember I came back to his birthday party before our first date? I think I heard him come in just now. He’ll be very curious and ask you lots of questions.”
“Hello Sophie, do you play games?” Stanley asked as if we’d known each other for ages. He must have been about 13 and looked like a younger version of Tim but with short hair. His voice was just starting to break so varied from treble to bass as he spoke.
“You must be Stanley. I’m Sophie.”
“I know. Well do you?”
“I play tennis and hockey. What do you play?”
“I play rugby but I meant board games, cards, that kind of game.”
“Stanley don’t show off. Behave yourself.” Tim intervened.
“That’s alright.” I said to Tim.
“I like games so hopefully we’ll get round to playing together.” I said to Stanley.
“Great. Is it true your Dad’s a millionaire?”
“Stanley. Behave yourself. We’re going to have a cup of tea then you can show Sophie your pony. You’d like that wouldn’t you Sophie?”
“That’d be lovely. You didn’t mention there was a pony here. What’s it’s name.”
“He’s called Zebra because he’s got a stripe down his nose.”
“What a great name. Different too.”
Tim’s Dad, John, appeared with a tray.
“Do you take milk and sugar, erm, lets see, Susan wasn’t it.”
“John, you’re hopeless, Sophie.”
“I do take milk but not sugar thanks.”
“I’ve made nettle for Wendy, Tim which would like?”
“Normal now please.”
After tea and home-made biscuits I was given a guided tour of the estate, which had a paddock with Stanley’s pony, an orchard, a vegetable and soft fruit plot, and a small wood as well as some sheds. A light drizzle came down before we’d seen it all and we cut the tour short as it started to get heavier.
In the late afternoon we all sat round the pine table in the kitchen area and had a meal of steamed vegetables, all from the veg plot, baked potatoes and a lentil cake. No meat, cheese or eggs which I’m sure was a first for me but I honestly can say I enjoyed it. As soon as the dishes had been cleared away, Tim washed up, which impressed me and Stanley dried. Then out came the cards – Stanley’s request to play Monopoly was dismissed by both John and Tim, thank goodness. Not my favourite game. We used to play it at home and it seemed to bring out the worst in Dad and my brother, Craig. They both got very competitive and loved to annihilate the losers, usually me or Mum.
Instead we played a kind of whist that they called blob. It was good fun to play but the scoring looked quite complex. Stanley was sent to bed after a few games and the four of us chatted pleasantly for a while, drinking herbal tea, coffee in my case. Tim went out to fetch the bags from the car which had been forgotten and I found out that we’d been put in the same room. I hadn’t known what to expect and felt slightly uneasy, not because of sleeping with Tim, but just because his parents were there. I wasn’t sure where Tim would have been put in our house, if Mum was still there. I suppose she would have been asked what I wanted. There was only one bathroom and the window was covered in bubble-wrap which looked gross. I was wearing the sensible pyjamas I’d bought specially. Once we were both in bed Tim started caressing me putting his hands under my pyjamas. I had to apologise and tell Tim I couldn’t do it with his parents there. I was too tense. This was the first time we’d slept together and not made love. Tim was very good about it and gave me a lovely gentle goodnight kiss and snuggled up to me.
After a breakfast of porridge and toast we finished the tour of the estate, obviously a source of great pride to Wendy. A bit later on I found myself alone with John. Tim and Wendy were in the other room. John started on what I later discovered was one of his favourite subjects, energy conservation. I tried to look interested. He thought it was a very exciting time, something about wind and solar power being as cheap or cheaper than gas or nuclear. He was a subscriber to Greenpeace who were trying to stop some power station being built which would be the most expensive building on earth. Then he wanted to show me something but couldn’t find his glasses. When he eventually found them and put them on he gave himself a dressing down.
“People who need glasses often don’t wear them because they’re too vain to want to be seen in them,” he said. “They think they will look old. Actually they’re wrong. They seem old because they can’t see properly. And if they’re like me, they have to find them to read something or look at a photo and faff about. The same applies to hearing aids – not that I need them yet. When your hearing deteriorates and you can’t hear what’s going on around you you get cut off. You have to pretend to hear what people are saying and hope the odd nod or shake of the head is the correct response. This really ages you far more than if you’re seen wearing a hearing aid yet people again don’t wear them out of vanity. I keep reminding myself of this when I find myself unable to read something. I’m not even allowed to drive without glasses so I should put them on in the morning when I get up and take them off when I go to bed. By the way I’m not vain, as you can probably tell, I just haven’t got into the habit of putting my glasses on.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to do,” I said weakly. Fortunately Tim arrived just then and I didn’t have to look at whatever John had wanted to show me. I think he’d forgotten anyway.
“I’m going to take this young lady away I’m afraid,” said Tim. “I’m taking her over to Anglesey for a pub lunch, just the two of us.”
Then he said as we went upstairs to collect our bags, “I thought you might be a bit overwhelmed with it all and maybe missing meat?”
“No I really enjoyed myself and thought your parents absolutely charming.”
“I tried to imagine how the place must have appeared to you, what your first impressions would have been. Difficult for me as I’m so familiar with it all I don’t judge it. I suppose it must seem a bit tatty and very eccentric?”
“No, not at all. I admire what they’re trying to do. If everyone followed their example I don’t suppose global warming would be such a problem.”
We had an average meal in a pub with superb views over the Menai Straits and Snowdonia and then spent some time skimming stones, or in my case trying to skim stones, on the water. Then it was time to drive home, dropping Tim off on the way. He wanted to get some study time in so I wasn’t invited in.
“Yes thanks, Dad. I’ve been to Wales to meet Tim’s folks. “Tim, Dad, the boy I was with at your 50th.”
“Oh yes. Met his parents did you. Nice house?”
“I liked it but I doubt you would.”
“Well they’re into self-sufficiency so everything is um a bit rustic, untidy, well-used. Not new and flashy.”
I regretted that word as soon as I’d said it and immediately tried to wriggle out of it.
“It’s quite small too.”
Fortunately Dad wasn’t really listening so my rudeness passed him by.
“Where are you tomorrow, love?”
“I’m in the warehouse, learning how to book things in, price them and send them out to the shops.”
“So your training is going alright is it?”
“Yes fine Dad but it’s not easy going into all these places and being the bosses daughter when they know so much more than I do.”
“Well I want you to learn every aspect of the business before you get a proper job here.”
“What have you got in mind for me?”
“I haven’t made up my mind yet. But of course you have some say in all of this.”
I didn’t want to tell Dad that I’d really like out and was thinking of a way of making my exit from the business when Tracey appeared bearing two glass of something and ice and lemon. She offered one to me but I said I was tired and went upstairs.
The morning after I’d finished my exams I was woken by a phone call from Wendy to say that Teresa had gone into labour and was in hospital in Aberystwyth. Jock was already there but Wendy said she and John were going to drive over to see them anyway. I wasn’t sure what to do. I would have liked to be with them all but I knew Teresa didn’t like a fuss and anyway there wouldn’t be anywhere for me to stay. Laura and I had stopped with them for a weekend the previous summer so I knew the size of their place. It was a two bedroom cottage and if John and Wendy were stopping there would only be the sofa in the lounge for me. I’m not sure why I thought that would be a problem as I could sleep anywhere. I so much didn’t know what to do with myself I phoned Sophie at work and arranged to meet up for lunch. Afterwards we went back to my place and spent the afternoon in bed.
We were still there dozing when Wendy called to say that Teresa had had a baby boy and that he and Theresa were absolutely fine. She suggested I should come over the next day. I’d already worked our my route. I’d have to catch the train to Shrewsbury and change there for Aberystwyth. They would pick me up from the station.
Sophie left for work next morning and dropped me at Crewe station on the way. It wasn’t a long journey and I was still so exhausted after my Finals that I slept most of the way. John picked me up in Teresa’s car and took me straight to the hospital. The maternity ward was brand new, everything shiny and clean looking. Teresa looked tired but so happy. It was a real privilege to see the new baby at my sister’s breast, a new generation of Smiths! What could be more uplifting? Jock was there too with a big grin on his face but he looked exhausted as well. We all had to leave before I had the chance to hold my new nephew as Teresa needed to rest.
Teresa came back home the next day, the baby in his new car seat all wrapped up in a lovely blue blanket Theresa had knitted for him with a hood and ears. My sister was very clever with crafts. We took it in turns to hold the baby who was now called Oliver. John refused to hold him saying he didn’t want the responsibility. I took a turn but I can’t say it did much for me. He was soft and warm but he seemed so helpless and, if I’m honest, rather ugly. I thought he looked best at Teresa’s breast. This was Wendy and John’s first grandchild and Wendy looked ecstatic.
Next day my folks said I could go back to Cwm Dinas with them while I sorted myself out and had a rest. Although I knew Sophie would not be pleased and I would miss her, I thought that was a cool idea and took them up on the offer. Only when I arrived I was not so sure I’d made the right decision. John was anxious to know what I planned to do now I’d finished college and kept on about it. I wasn’t ready to talk about it and resented his assertiveness. Wendy was more understanding and told John to let me have some space. She fussed over me a little but not in an unpleasant way. I just sat in front of the TV for most of the evening. I didn’t take much notice of what was on as I felt in limbo land.
I should have been relieved that my finals were over at last but now I had to face up to a new set of problems: I had to find work; where I lived was not secure; I needed a car; I needed money. And whereas before everything was mapped out now everything was uncertain. It was all a very unsettling. I realised I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t even sure where I wanted to live. The thought of emigrating was quite attractive, particularly to New Zealand, but I didn’t think I could leave my family. I even considered doing VSO. But I realised that was just postponing the decision so when I came back from wherever I’d been sent I’d be in exactly the same position then as I was now. And, of course, Sophie had become another factor in the decision, an important factor. I hadn’t let her know I was even vaguely considering VSO or emigrating as I didn’t want to upset her unnecessarily but I did want to keep all my options open. I had made one positive move before I left Crewe – I had signed on at the Job Exchange to obtain job seekers allowance. This would at least allow me breathing space so I could continue living in my shared house for a while. Hopefully that would allow my mind to settle until I had some idea of where I wanted to be or until something came up. I thought I might see if Cannon Pet Supplies would take me back while I applied for permanent jobs. That way I’d have more money, wouldn’t be beholden to the state and, most importantly, could continue seeing Sophie.
After a few days at my folks home I caught the train back to Crewe. It lovely to be in my own place and to see Sophie again. Although I’d only been away less than a week I’d really missed her. She suggested I needed a holiday and thought that would help clear my brain. I thought she could be right, however her idea of a holiday and mine were miles apart. She proudly showed me on her laptop a 7-day package holiday on Mallorca for £500 including flights. It looked frankly awful – a vast building with hundreds of balconies, overlooking a pool, in the middle of similar vast hotels in a resort called Magaluf. I’d heard of this place and it certainly didn’t appeal to me. I tried to be tactful but failed miserable and Sophie became angry and upset.
I said “From what I know you’ve only been on package holidays and on your father’s yacht. I think you should expand your horizons, try something different. I bet you’ve never been camping. That’s fun and also nice and cheap.”
“How is camping going to expand my horizons? My horizons don’t need expanding, thank you very much. You arrogant pig.”
“Sorry Sophie. That was awful of me. We have to find something that will suit us both, don’t we?”
After we’d both calmed down and accepted that we would have to compromise and after a lot of further discussion Sophie did agree to a cycling holiday in Devon, staying in bed and breakfast places. I knew that wouldn’t necessarily be cheap but at least Sophie would be doing something a bit more adventurous and I knew I’d enjoy it. My parents generously put £200 into my bank account towards the holiday as they knew I was not exactly flush and we booked up the trains and accommodation for a couple of weeks time.