Chapter 9

SOPHIE

After our holiday I went back to working for dad and Tim tried to get a job. He’d worked so hard to get a degree and yet didn’t seem able to get a job. It didn’t seem fair.  He went for several interviews but I don’t think he wanted any of the jobs he’d applied for even if he’d been offered them. They all seemed to be miles away from here and I was getting quite worried about the future.

Then one day he surprised me saying he wanted to start a business. He said he’d been influenced by my dad. He said he’d realised how much better it would be to work for himself rather than someone else. He’d seen what you can achieve. I suppose because I’d grown up in a family business I’d not really appreciated what he was getting at.  And I was only too aware of the negative side – the commitment, the hard work, the long hours. Tim said that wouldn’t bother him; also that his dad wished he’d broken away sooner as he didn’t have the scope to do what he wanted as a civil servant and he didn’t feel that his efforts were appreciated. The three of them, Tim, John and Wendy had come up with an idea that they thought would work, a nursery. I thought that was a great suggestion as Tim loved plants and his degree should give him the knowledge.

Anyway I took his idea on board, encouraged him and offered to help. I went online looking for potential locations to start a nursery and after several hours of fruitless searching I found an existing business for sale with three large greenhouses and a bungalow just outside Nantwich. The owners wanted to retire and even offered to stay on for a month’s handover period. Tim thought it was great but wondered how he’d be able to afford it.  I thought it was good value and even offered to lend Tim the whole purchase price but Tim didn’t think that was a good idea at all. He said he valued his independence too much and anyway was worried it would alter our relationship. He said he’d found it difficult on our cycling holiday that we had such different perceptions of value for money and that anyway what would happen if we split up. I was upset that he’d said that, I suppose I’d found the love of my life, or thought I had, and expected him to feel the same way.

Anyway I was determined to make it happen so together we drew up a business plan. My experience working for Dad helped enormously. His parents had offered to help by growing plants on their small holding. I could see that was a great idea as his mother really needed a project now her offspring had all but left home, she loved gardening and had green fingers. Tim took the business plan and details of the profitable existing business and approached the bank for a loan but was turned down.

“Never mind,” I said, “I’ve had a idea. I’ll guarantee the loan. I don’t see why the bank could refuse the loan if it’s guaranteed and that way it’s at arm’s length between us and you’ve a proper business arrangement with the bank.”

Tim thanked me very much for that. He said he was touched that I had so much confidence in him but he still didn’t think it was a good idea for us to have that kind of financial commitment. He said the relationship was too young and anyway his parents had offered to help. They said they hadn’t contributed much to put Tim through college so he’d ended up with a huge student loan but they would like to help now. They’d apply for a second mortgage on their property and loan Tim the money. All Tim had to do was to find the extra mortgage repayments.

This process seemed to take a massive amount of time and as all this was going on we were both on tenter hooks in case someone else came in with a better offer. The old couple selling the business were great. They were sympathetic about the delays and seemed to be prepared to wait until Tim could pay. They even paid Tim to work there temporarily and trained him up at the same time. It was early in November when it all finally came together – not the greatest time to start but Tim was undeterred. Ronnie and June, the vendors, honoured their offer to stay on for a month, working for nothing and his mother bought a poly-tunnel and got busy sowing seeds ready for the spring. Tim said the timing was not a problem as he’d be able to make the most of the Christmas trade, selling poinsettia plants, Christmas trees and wreaths.

One thing I suggested was that he have an official opening party. So for the three weeks when he was just an employee he gave out invites to every customer that came on the premises. He put an advert in the local press and I managed to persuade Dad to get the Mayor to come and declare the new business open. It was quite a successful occasion and I really enjoyed handing out the glasses of bubbly and canapés to the 75 or so people that turned up. Again, at my suggestion, each of them went away with a free small pot plant. I hoped this would generate lots of goodwill and customer loyalty. He actually made a profit on the evening and sold out of almost all his Christmas stock.

I was jealous as I was still working for my dad and not really enjoying it. I wanted to break out and hoped there would be room for me in the new business which he’d named Cwm Dinas Nursery, after his parent’s small-holding. I did quite a bit to help the business get off the ground. The previous owners, Ronnie and June, were very old-fashioned and didn’t do anything electronically. With what I’d picked up from working with Cannon Pets Supplies I was able to advise Tim about point of sale systems that were linked into an accounts package. It was going to be expensive to set up but I knew how vital it would be to the success of the business. He would be able to track which lines were the most profitable, know when to reorder stock, and keep track of wastage. Ronnie was very put out by all this. I thought this was because he might feel inadequate because really he should have embraced this technology years ago but actually the reason was the stubborn old chap thought we’d come unstuck if we didn’t use pen and paper.

TIM

I think it was my involvement with the Cannon family that made me think of having my own nursery.  It wasn’t that I wanted to be rich, more that I could have the freedom to do things the way I wanted to and I would be involved in something I could be passionate about.  Obviously I wound need an income but I wasn’t interested in all the trappings that went with being wealthy.  I love plants, I love watching them germinate, I love tending them, I love propagating them and,  imagining how much pleasure they’re going to give, I think I’ll enjoy selling them.  Knowing the Cannon family had just provided me the appreciation of what running a business would involve and given me the confidence to try it out for myself.

I felt indebted to Sophie for her encouragement, and for putting in the effort and finding the place for me.  I’d been so negative, so sure I’d never be able to find any suitable premises I’d really made very little made any effort myself.  I was also touched that Sophie was prepared to give/loan me money to help me buy the nursery.  But I wanted to be independent of her,  I wanted to be able to keep the business and my relationship separate.

Once we’d found the premises and come up with a business plan I went to several banks for their support and was shocked with their reaction as they showed no inclination to give me a loan unless I could provide some extra security against it –  I thought the nursery premises would be sufficient.  When I told Sophie the news she offered to provide surety to the bank.  I don’t think she could believe their attitude as she’d always found them very accommodating.  

“One rule for the rich and one for the poor,” I said.  “To those that have shall be given.”

I thanked her for her generosity but said I’d see if my parents could help.  I think she was a little offended but I tried to explain that I didn’t want anything to spoil our relationship if the business went sour.  When I phoned home I had very different reactions from John, my dad, and Wendy, my mum, when I told them of the situation.  Wendy was pleased I’d found something I wanted to do and offered to help both financially and practically.  She said she would have no problem guaranteeing a bank loan and would enjoy growing plants for me to sell.  This was another good idea of Sophie’s.  John, on the other hand, was very negative about the whole idea.  

“I never saw my son as a businessman,” he said sadly.  “I think you’ve been too influenced by your current girlfriend and her capitalist father.”

“John, it’s true I have been influenced by them to some extent but I’ll be doing what I want to do and I’ll be free to do things how I want to.  I’ll never be a capitalist like David Cannon.  I’m just not that interested in money and the world of status symbolism – flash cars, Rolex watches and so on – that leaves me cold.  I’d like to be able to make the nursery successful enough to support me and my family, if I have one, in comfort but that’s all.”

“Well we’ll see.”

“Any way you’ve often said how you regret your own career;  how you’ve felt you always operated with your hands behind your back.  So I can’t see why you’re so negative about the idea. Wendy’s already offered to help by guaranteeing a bank loan but if you feel that way I’ll have to decline her offer.  I know you always like to agree on everything.”

“No Tim.  I’m sorry I’ve been negative.  I’m willing to accept that I’m just a bigoted old man who is out of step with the world.  If your mother wants to help you I’ll be happy to accept her decision.  I’m sorry I expressed my doubts.”

“Are you sure?” I said anxiously.

“Yes, I’m sure.  I wish you good luck.  And I’m sure Wendy will benefit if she’s going to be involved.  It’ll give her life more purpose.  I could help in my little way by advising you how to make your nursery energy efficient.  I’ll have to come and have a look and then come back and think of what to do.”

I was relieved and felt great affection for him.  I was happy with the support my parents were prepared to give me – I’d made my choice and they would do what they could to help.  I couldn’t help comparing their attitude to that of David.  He had made the career choice for Sophie and she had had to go along with it.

I had been impressed with the way Sophie had helped me and made it possible for me to have a future that appealed to me and became more certain that, in spite of the different ways we had been brought up, we could have a successful long-term relationship.  I knew Sophie was unhappy living with her father and I wasn’t happy living in the house I shared with Chakka so I started to wonder whether we should get married.  We were virtually living together already and spent every opportunity we could to be with each other.  The more I thought about it the more I was convinced that was the way ahead.  She was a lovely caring person, generous to a fault, and I thought she’d make a great mother.  I thought of discussing the idea with Gordon first but I thought he was almost certain to be negative about it bearing in mind his current state.  In the end I phoned my sister Teresa and asked her if she thought I was mad to even consider proposing to Sophie.  Her reply rather took me back.

“Have you read a book called Future Shock?”

“No.”

“Well the basic concept is that each major change in one’s life creates stress and if you take more than one major step in your life at the same time it creates so much stress that it takes years to get back to normal.  So if you start up your new nursery business and get married at the same time it’s a big risk.”

“Well setting that aside what do you think?”

“Sophie’s a lovely girl.  No doubt about that. The only other problem I see apart from the future shock is the huge disparity in wealth between the two of you and this is bound to cause problems.  The main reason for divorce is arguments about money.”

“Thanks for those words of wisdom.  I can see I’ll have to be careful.  I’ll take what you’ve said on board.”

“I was only playing devils advocate.  I hope you aren’t offended.  And good luck with your nursery idea.”

“Thanks, sis, hope to see you soon.”

I don’t know why, maybe my youth, but Teresa’s warnings made it easy suddenly to decide.

SOPHIE

It was Valentine’s day and we’d been together for over 9 months. I didn’t know what to expect. Tim was not really into that kind of thing but he knew I was. The post in our house always arrived after I’d left for work so I didn’t know all day whether there would be a card or anything for me.  I’d asked friends to post joke Valentine cards, filled in with different pens in different writing, from different parts of the country and I’d had them all sent to the nursery so I knew he’d get them. He had said vaguely about keeping the evening free but that was over a week ago. At least my cards would remind him that it was February 14th.

He phoned when I was on my tea-break. I was filling in for a sick member of staff at our Stafford outlet and there were several of us in the staff room at the time.

“I hope you remembered to keep this evening free?” he asked.

“Did you get my card?” I asked back.

“Which one was from you?” he said, “or were they all?”

“What do you mean?” I said. “Did you send me one? I haven’t seen the post yet.”

“Well you’ll have to wait and see if I remembered,” he said. The way he said it I knew he hadn’t forgotten.

“They were all from you weren’t they? Nice touch.  Anyway tonight put your glad rags on,” he said jauntily, “I’m taking you out for a Valentine meal.”

Well I was thrilled. There was a card waiting for me – one from Rob too, straight in the bin. Tim’s said “with all my love,” wow, my heart skipped a beat. I wasn’t sure what kind of place Tim would choose but I put on my favourite dress of the moment – shades of blue and grey, flared at the waist, knee length, low neckline with ruffed short sleeves; my pearls and a matching pearly handbag and shoes.

“Yes,” I thought, “you’ll do.”

I asked Fred to drive us so we could both drink. He said he quite liked these evening jaunts as it got him away from the telly. He liked listening to music and Jean, his wife didn’t. I think it was punk so I wasn’t not surprised. I phoned Tim to let him know but he was a bit put out. He’d arranged for one of his friends to pick me up and drop us off at the restaurant and thought we’d get a taxi back. 

I don’t think Tim approved of chauffeurs but I was certain he’d appreciate being driven to and fro.  We were taken to a little bistro in Sandbach that I’d heard of but never been to go to. It was quite cosy, lit entirely by candles and scented with joss sticks. Tim had reserved a table in a little alcove and a glass of champagne each arrived with the menus. I was impressed and thought he looked really dapper in the new jacket I’d bought him as part of his Christmas present. It was a fixed price menu which meant I could order what I wanted without worrying whether Tim could afford it.

I ordered the pate and the duck and Tim had the avocado and prawns and the lamb. Everything was beautifully cooked and we chatted away through the meal as usual. I could sense he was on edge about something which worried me but he wouldn’t let on what it was. We were on our coffees when out of the blue he said:  “Sophie, um, well, er will you marry me?”

I was really taken aback and didn’t say anything back. I was too surprised.

“I waited until the end of the meal as I wanted to enjoy it whatever your answer.  Oh, by the way, I went to see your father this lunchtime to ask for your hand in marriage and he had no objections. All he said was that it was about time somebody took you off his hands. He was joking.”

“You’ve been to see Dad? Wow! I was gob-smacked when you asked me but I’m even more surprised at that. How sweet!”

I was playing for time. It wasn’t as if it was the first time I’d been asked. Rob, my previous, must’ve asked me a dozen times. That was easy though. I had no intention of marrying him so I just fobbed him off as gently as I was able. This was different. I was deeply in love with Tim. I couldn’t imagine ever loving anyone more. But we were very different. My being rich and him not meant we looked at everything differently. This meant we would both have to do a lot of compromising. That’s why I didn’t reply straight away. Of course I’d wondered about marriage to Tim, lots of times. My heart said yes,yes,yes but I hadn’t yet resolved the wealth issue in my head.

“Sorry to shock you,” he said. “I don’t expect an answer straight away. I’ve had months thinking about it. And I know what a big decision it is.  Just one thing I’d like to say. It’s not your money I’m after – I know you’ve quite a bit – it’s because I love you and I’d like to spend the rest of my life with you and have a family together.”

“You’re right Tim. It is a biggie and I know you’re no gold digger and I love you just as much as I think you love me. It’s just I’d not thought about it before. We’ve only been together about 9 months. Anyway I’ll sleep on it and let you know soon.  Fancy asking Dad.”

“Oh and another thing. I haven’t bought a ring. It would have presumptuous. I thought we could choose one together. After all you’ll be the one wearing it and you might not like my choice.”

I got Fred to drop him off at the nursery so I could have time on my own to collect my thoughts. We hardly spoke on the journey although we did hold hands in the back of the car and I gave him a real smacker when we dropped him off.

Dad was there watching the box. He looked at me quizzically but didn’t say anything so I went straight up to bed. I couldn’t sleep for hours, tossing and turning, my mind racing in one direction, then in another. Then suddenly I knew what to do, what I really wanted, so I sent him a text. It must have been about 2 am. It simply said “Yes my darling.” Then I feel asleep.

Dad and Tracey were both there when I went downstairs for breakfast. They both gave me such a look I had to say something.

“I’m engaged,” I blurted.

“Congratulations my love. I hope you’ll both be very happy.” That was Dad.

“Well done Sophie. He seems a lovely lad and you both seem so well suited.” That was Tracey.

“Has he chosen a ring yet?” asked Dad.

“No, he wanted us to choose one together.”

“Good,” said Dad. “Take him to Picadilly Jewellers in Hanley, you know where I took you for your diamond necklace and earring set. I can get him a good discount there.”

I wasn’t sure about that as Dad couldn’t help interfering – usually for the right reason – but I wanted Tim and I to be free from his influence. On the other hand Tim didn’t have much money and I wanted a nice ring, probably costing more than Tim would want to afford. He wasn’t really into jewellery, thinking the money could be spent on something more useful.

I told Tim about the discount we could get in that jewellers and I could tell that he wasn’t entirely happy to have the initiative taken away but he did agree to go there. We went after work on Tuesday, which was late-opening night in Hanley. The owner there had obviously been primed by Dad. I had been told to ask for him in person. He was nauseatingly obsequious and I could see Tim was uncomfortable. The jeweller took us into a back room and sat us both down, excusing himself for a moment and returning with a tray of rings. They were beautiful.  “Well young man how much do you want to spend? Don’t shout it out or madam will know what you think she’s worth, just write it on this piece of card.”

Tim wrote down a figure which he told me later was £500. A lot of money for him to find but not much for the kind of ring I wanted.

“Great,” he said, indicating the tray,”You can choose any of these.”

I tried various rings and eventually settled on one with a sapphire surrounded by diamonds. There was no price on it or on any of the others for that matter. By then I’d twigged that we’d been set up by Dad. I could see by the expression on Tim’s face he also suspected what was happening. I half expected him to storm out and when we got outside he told me he’d thought of doing just that.

“I wanted to buy you a ring and I had scrimped and saved so that I could buy you a nice one. I thought we’d just be getting a discount, not a huge subsidy. It’s not like I’ve bought it now.”

He was really upset.

“I’m sorry.” I said. “It’s Dad. He wants the best for me and he values everything in monetary terms. He will want to show off my ring to his friends and relatives and he knew you wouldn’t be able to buy one that was good enough for him.”

“It’s not about your Dad. It’s our wedding.”

He stayed upset all evening and I could see why.  However I knew he’d never have been able to buy me anything so lovely with his meagre wages.  I stayed at his place that night and tried to make him better in the way only a woman knows how.  Afterwards he was more sanguine and eventually said:  “Anyway I suppose it’s a lovely ring and I’ve got to accept this kind of thing if I’m marrying into a wealthy family.”

Off to work next morning.

Dad arranged for the ring to be collected when it had been resized and it was delivered to Stafford at lunchtime next day. The ladies there all had a look and made all the right noises. I bet they were green with envy but they would have been completely unaware of the difficulties it had caused. Anyway I was engaged and was making the most of it, enjoying the limelight and loving my ring.

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