“You were never really on board with the plan, were you?”
Ruth is nothing if not direct. My daughter-in-law and I haven’t enjoyed a close relationship, but there’s always been a healthy respect between us, and we cut each other a lot of slack. She is, as usual, correct in her assumption.
“Being consulted might have gone a long way towards smoothing the path,” I remark acidly, even now, after all this time.
“I said they should have waited till you came back.”
I believe her.
She places the last of my ornaments in the packing case. “Is that everything now?”
“That’s it,” I say, looking around.
A chapter is coming to an end.
It’s funny how life trundles on, day after day, the same old routine and then suddenly it swerves dramatically off the old familiar path. I remember the shock of that moment, even now.
I’d been away for a month, visiting my sister who’d just come out of hospital. As I turned into our road, I’d been stunned to see a “Sold” sign outside my own home.
“I hope you gave someone a rocket for that,” I observed, setting down my case and pecking Joe on the cheek. “Who’s selling up? I thought everyone round here was rooted in concrete.”
“I’ll make a cuppa, love,” muttered Joe. “We need to have a little chat.”
It hadn’t been an estate agent’s mistake. Joe had been sheepish, defensive, but determined as he’d unfurled his plan. His plan. Not mine. It had been assumed, by both Joe and our son Greg, that I’d go along with it. The estate agent had jumped the gun, it seemed, before they’d had a chance to discuss it with me.
“Our Greg needs to get started, Ellie, surely you see that? Him and Ruth. They need a proper home, not that cramped council flat. Our grandkids need a garden, space to play.”
“Of course they do, but what’s that got to do with selling our house?”
“Look,” and his tone had become painstakingly patronising, “our house will go to them in the end anyway. But this way they get the benefit early, right when they need it most. We sell up, they use the money from the sale to buy a house. Greg will build an extension on that house, a granny flat for us. It’s perfect, don’t you agree? They’ve already found a house, and I’ve seen the plans for the extension. We’ll be separate from them, our own front door and everything, but we’ll still be there for them. You can look after the kids when they come home from school, just like you do now, we can babysit without having to trail over the other side of town, and best of all…”
He’d paused for effect. I could recognise a ‘ta-da’ moment when I saw one.
He continued triumphantly, “… they’ll be on hand to look after us when we need care.”
Now that truly was a ‘ta-da’ moment.
“Care…?” My voice rose an octave, and I’d steadied myself with a deep breath. Joe was staring at me.
“And where do we live while they’re building the extension?” I asked, watching his shoulders relax slightly, as he construed my question as the first step towards acceptance.
“I’ve found a few park homes for us to look at. Nice places, with a bit of a garden so you can still have the grandkids round after school. They’re available for rent for a twelve-month period, by which time the extension should be completed. And if construction runs on a bit, we can extend by six months if necessary.”
“You want us to move from here and live in a caravan?” Now I really was screeching.
“Oh, look Ellie, these park homes aren’t caravans nowadays. They’re quite luxurious, loads of old folk are buying them, freeing up capital so that the young ones can get started. There’ll be quite a community spirit there, you’ll see.”
Old folks…? Who’s that then?
The bickering continued.
And Joe turned to censure.
“You’re being self-centred, Ellie. Young people need to get a foot-hold in life. And we can make that possible for them, whilst they’re still young enough to enjoy it.”
“I know all that,” I protested, though I briefly wondered who had given us a ‘foothold in life’. “And if I’d been involved from the beginning maybe I’d have felt differently. But you’ve all worked behind my back, without a thought for my feelings.”
Time now for hurt disappointment on Joe’s part.
“I suppose I just assumed you’d want the best for them, Ellie. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that for granted, but I thought I knew you well enough.”
“If you knew me well enough, you’d have realised I’d hate having this sprung on me without consultation.”
Over the next few days it seemed every turn in the conversation brought us to confrontation. Things were very uncomfortable when Greg and Ruth visited, and I noticed my daughter-in-law nudging Joe out into the garden for a private word.
After that Joe switched back to a defensive approach.
“We just went to investigate the position with the estate agent. The buyers were in the area at the time, looking for a detached house. The agent arranged a viewing that same day, just to confirm it was the kind of house they were after. And they loved it. I did ask the agent not to put the sign up until I’d spoken to you, but you know what they’re like…”
And that, it seemed, was that.
In the days that followed, I’d sensed I was being watched, talked about. It was unnerving to feel like a particularly undesirable fly in the ointment, and it was uncomfortable, feeling selfish, when all I’d really wanted was to be consulted. Or was that true? Was that all I wanted?
There must have been a ‘euphoric’ period, as the three of them fleshed out the project. There’d have been stages when Greg and Ruth were in turn incredulous, then grateful, then excited as the plans took shape. But I’d missed out on all that. By the time I got involved, it was signed, sealed and delivered. Everyone was knee-deep in practicalities, and I was up to my neck in resentment.
The house sale went through quickly. Far too quickly. Moving house is stressful. Moving from a house you’ve lived in for thirty years is really hard work. But moving house when you’re simply not committed to the idea is practically impossible. I tried my best though, once I was over the initial shock and outrage. And I must have been convincing enough.
“I’m glad you’ve seen it our way, Ellie,” said Joe one night, gripping my hand and shaking it gently, “you had us all worried there for a bit.”
There it was again… ‘you’ and ‘us’… ‘your’ and ‘our’.
“You’re a brick, Ma,” said Greg, “you’ll never know how much we appreciate this. And I’ll get the extension built quickly so you’re not in the park home for long. It’ll be great having you so close. I know you love having the kids after school, and this way you’ll see them all the time. Ruth can get a proper job, now she won’t have to take time off for school holidays. We really should have done this sooner.”
My fixed smile, the one I painted on each morning, and peeled off every night, must have calcified into a rictus grin. I did love having the children after school, but it was equally lovely during school holidays when Ruth took time off work to look after them. I felt most ‘ungranny-like’, but I didn’t want to spend my life in the role of permanent baby-sitter.
It was the kids though, and only the kids, that kept me focused, ensuring I stayed ‘on song’ over the following months.
“Awww Gran, we’ll each have our own bedroom. And there’ll be a garden, and we’re going to have swings and seesaws. It’ll be terrific, really mega. And you’ll be there all the time, so we can get a dog and maybe a rabbit, because when we go on holiday, you can look after them … and you can drive us to scouts and swimming and dancing… “
Their joy was infectious and I’d loved it. Their schedule for the remainder of my life was rather less appealing.
“Is that everything then?” Ruth repeats, glancing around the cramped space I’ve called home for the last twelve months since the house was sold.
“I’ve everything I need,” I say. “There’s not a lot of room on a narrow-boat.”
She takes hold of my hand.
“Are you sure about this, Mum? It’s a big step, you know.”
I think that’s the first time she’s called me Mum. I realise that in all the time I’ve known her, she’s never added a name tag in conversations, not even my Christian name. Perhaps that omission lent a mutually comfortable distance. But we’ve become closer recently. We’ve learned things we never knew about each other – such as the fact that her parents often took narrow-boating holidays – as did mine. We share a passionate interest in boats, and Ruth even came with me to look at the one I’ve bought, and she’s going to help me move it to a base closer to home. Their home. Theirs and Joe’s.
I smile at her.
“I’m sure, Ruth. Never more so.”
I don’t mention the second thoughts I’ve had along the way. I’d saved a small nest egg for a rainy day, but when my sister died a few months ago, the fact of my own mortality really came home to me, pushing me onward. And the few thousand she left me in her will helped me realise the dream.
Joe isn’t here. He’s working with Greg on the extension at their new house. Twelve months down the line, the work has only just started, and I suspect it might never have started at all if I hadn’t sprung my plans on them. I think they imagined I’d change my mind if they got a move on, but it won’t work. My son and husband have been incredulous, angry and resentful in turn. I’ve been accused, once again, of being selfish. Maybe I am.
Joe’s been hurt, but I’m hopeful he’ll get over it, so that we can remain friends. And he’ll be well looked after, living in the grandad-flat with everyone close by, giving assistance when he needs it.
Ruth sits back on her heels, staring at me. “You’re a tough cookie, aren’t you?”
Am I? You can go on, day after day in the same old routine, and suddenly something triggers a deviation. You may have engineered it yourself, but more often than not, someone or something else is the catalyst. We tend to drift inexorably into the compulsion to maintain and nurture the status quo. But once change begins to disturb the equilibrium, the need for more change just seems to grow exponentially. There’s a kind of ‘ta-da’ moment.
I’m sure I’ll miss them all, and I hope they’ll make me welcome when I visit, which I hope to do regularly.
But I’ve been anchored for too long, bobbing around on the waters of life, allowing everything to happen around me.
Now I’ve realised there’s a whole new world to discover out there. And time is in short supply.
“Will you rename the boat?” asks Ruth, shoving the packing cases towards the door with her foot. “It’s supposed to be bad luck, but personally I’d find it hard to live with ‘Serendipity’ for very long.”
“I think I might,” I say, “I’ve got a few ideas floating around in my head.”
“How about ‘Phoenix’ then?” She grins at me.
I smile. “Nice one, but I think I’ve got something in mind.”
I look round the tiny lounge one last time.
I’m going to name the boat ‘Ta-Da’.
Sandra Crook, a former Human Resources Manager from Dorset, UK, now cruises the French waterways in a Dutch barge several months of the year. A number of her short stories, flash fiction pieces and articles have been published in magazines, newspapers and anthologies. She’s recently enjoyed several competition successes.
You can meet Sandra on her website: https://castelsarrasin.wordpress.com
You can find Sandra’s story, alongside the other short story runners up in Hysteria 5, the anthology from the Hysteria Writing Competition 2016. You can purchase it direct from the shop.