Joanna’s philosophy of life was beautifully simple.
Good news: champagne.
Bad news: gin.
This humble ideology had kept us going for three years. You’d think, given our lives at the time, on a lot more spirit than fizz. But there was a further refinement to Joanna’s so straightforward thesis:
If there is the tiniest smidgeon of any doubt whatsoever, it’s probably champagne.
There was not much ambiguity that evening.
A juniper night. Having just lost all that compensation, and the possibility of our own home.
However, perhaps because it was after eight o’clock, we broke with custom and hit Mensun’s rather good library of whiskies instead of Joanna’s usual Blue Bombay.
Seeing as Mensun was out.
“It doesn’t matter,” Shaun consoled me.
“It really doesn’t,” Joanna echoed. “Shaun’s got a job to go to. That’s what matters.”
“We’ve got nowhere to live,” I pointed out.
“We’ll find something,” Shaun said.
“It’s not that we want to lose you,” Joanna said. “We’d love to have you next door for ever. But what you’ve always wanted is to move on. Now you can.”
She was emphatic.
“It’s only money.”
“But it isn’t,” I said. “That’s the whole point. It isn’t only money.
“It’s my parents’ last years with us.”
That money represented something much more important than money. Presumably money often does. A loving, godly couple in their early nineties, who had poured out their whole lives caring for others, and were now increasingly unable to care for themselves.
Money could have spelt the difference between misery and happiness, for the gloaming of their days. The end to their increasingly desperate loneliness. The difference between being unable to leave the house even to shop, my mother now so dependent on my father; nothing and no one to look forward to, except church once a week; the simplest of suppers on their own, which my father could barely cook any more; dwindling into the dark, alone...
Or being surrounded by loving young family, as every old person or couple should be.
That was the difference. It wasn’t money. It was people and love and no less than they so richly deserved.
And it was gone.
Joanna poured me another finger of Talisker.
Mensun got in around ten to find his single malt some way below the Plimsol line.
“Just ringing to say we’re coming home, Ben.” He had stayed in the cottage, Rosie asleep upstairs. “Any news?”
Strange… But not that strange: they hadn’t bothered to tell us after the meeting, nearly four years earlier, which left us homeless. We had waited hour after hour, then; Shaun finally, most reluctantly, ringing the vicar just after eleven, when I absolutely said he had to, to learn that we had no roof over our heads as of tomorrow.
We got up. Just saying our goodbyes, Ben again. “You left yet?”
“Just about to.”
“Don’t. Stay there.”
We settled back down. Five minutes. Ten.
What was he doing? What fresh disaster had overtaken us?
Following my blog as he is, Ben insisted, over supper last night, that I tell his side of the story accurately.
There he was, minding his own business (and his sleeping sister) in that tiny little cottage… one delightful eccentricity of which was that its front door stood directly on the pavement; and on the inside of the door, invisible to the caller, were several steps up into its cramped hallway. So anyone inside the cottage answering the door was automatically two foot taller than the person on the street.
(Given that we lived with Serena’s Great Dane whose head was already four foot off the floor, this could be quite disconcerting when you rang the doorbell for the first time, and found yourself greeted by massive jaws hallooing you through the large letter box, at the height of your average Tyrannosaurus Rex.)
When the doorbell rang at around eleven o’clock that night, Ben opened it to find the person who’d been bullying us relentlessly for quite a long time now, his head just about reaching Ben’s navel.
“Is your father in?”
This was not how the script was supposed to go. We should have been there, doing nothing, hour after hour after anxious hour...
“She’s out too. Would you like some tea?” Ben added charmingly. He knew, of old, that Pinky was addicted to tea.
“No!” He collected himself, “thank you. You’d better give them this.”
Given the look on his face, Ben judged that we might not want to bump into him in the street. On a dark and lonely night.
Indeed, we never saw him again.
(Though curiously, because his name has the same initials as our son-in-law’s, I’ve lost count of the times my telephone has nearly dialled him by mistake. Someone in the family recently asked why I didn’t delete him… or substitute the name for something rather more rude. Sentimentality, I suppose. And a proper upbringing.)
Ten days earlier Shaun had come in through that kitchen door, having just been offered the job that spelt our so delirious liberation. An age later that evening Ben come down the same old, worn stone steps between our two gardens, through the friendly night, letting himself in through the same ancient and kindly stable door.
Bearing an A4 manilla aloft.
“Got it,” he said.
Ben knew nothing of the call just after eight, asking if Shaun had a job already. Nor of my call to Mark Jones immediately afterwards, confirming what I feared. Nor that we had given up all hope hours ago.
He must have thought we’d been imbibing a lot more than whisky.
“The money. They’ve signed.”
Having been brought up in a vicarage, however, Ben did know, all six foot of him, that if a woman bursts into tears and howls and grabs you round the waist and refuses to let go, you just hold her quietly until she’s finished.
“I think,” Joanna said, “we need to open some champagne.”