A touching account of how two people found each other at the right moment to really ditch their old, crappy lives and embark on something new and beautiful together. House sitting that is, and plenty of it.
Saturday June 24, 2006
Friday evening, January 4 2002. I’d just received a text message telling me I’d been stood up by someone I had yet to meet in person – we had arranged the date via the chatroom of a singles website. So instead of being in my bachelor pad, preparing for a romantic evening out, I found myself in Tesco, holding one of those bachelor baskets: two bottles of beaujolais, a bag of rocket salad and a frozen pizza.
At the checkout, her eyes briefly met mine and we raised barely perceptible smiles for each other. She looked as if she’d been at that conveyor belt for the past seven hours. I’d been in suicidally tedious marketing meetings all day.
‘Do you need any help with your packing?’ she said in that singsong, ‘don’t-care-if-you-do-or-not’ way.
‘Do I really look like such a useless single bloke that I couldn’t pack a carrier with half a dozen groceries?’
She looked up. ‘Single? You? How come?’
I blushed, visibly. ‘Well, I dunno … Married for 12 years, then she buggered off with a bloke half her age. What can you do?’
‘She must’ve been mad. Seventeen pounds 60, please. Have you got a Clubcard?’
‘Oh, Club … no …’ I stammered. I tried to say something clever. Anything, in fact, but nothing came out except, ‘Thanks, see you later.’
It was as if an invisible rope was drawing me inexorably towards the exit while my mind scrambled for something to say before it was too late. The rope won. Thirty seconds later I was in the car park, trying to remember where I’d left my nondescript, middle-management Toyota saloon. Suddenly, it was as if something inside me upbraided my timid ego. I threw the bag into the boot and, seizing the moment, re-entered the store and approached the customer services desk. I scribbled ‘Call me’ on the back of my business card and, after pausing a moment, added a potentially risqué solitary ‘X’. I asked the supervisor to hand it to the woman on till 14 after I’d left the building. I remember thinking this simple impulsive act could change my life irrevocably.
We met up in a quiet local pub the next evening. She was divorced, I was separated. I’d been trapped in a childless, faded marriage and an office job I hated. She’d been hemmed into her council estate by bringing up two kids while her husband worked away. Now they’d grown up and were soon to leave home. We went on more dates. After a couple of weeks, I said that if anything happened between us, it probably would never last – as soon as my decree absolute came through, I wanted to travel, to keep moving, to work my way around the world. I didn’t feel that I was too far past it at 39. She was 41.
‘Want a travelling companion?’ she asked, in a matter-of-fact way.
Twelve months later we’d packed in our jobs. Her kids moved into a rented place together. We bought a nearly derelict two-up-two-down from our savings, in the dreariest part of the East Midlands. I’d hardly done more than put up a shelf in the past but, with patience, the place was fully renovated within a year. We lived in it briefly, finding work from agencies. Soon, after Linda had a cancer scare, we weighed the value of our time left on this earth versus the criminal squander of amassing possessions. It wasn’t a difficult decision. As soon as the all-clear arrived from the hospital, we remortgaged the place as a buy-to-let. We bought a long caravan and a big old Peugeot.
Last year we rode a Harley-Davidson from New York to San Francisco, then drove a camper van from Brisbane to Perth, house-sitting as we went. Now we make a living as we travel. Sometimes I pick up design work, or bear the pain of early starts as a middle-distance lorry driver. Lin will take anything from cleaning to catering. We have our own limited company and we pay our taxes like good citizens. We spend the winters doing odd jobs in the nicer parts of Europe.
We returned from Bergerac this spring, having looked after two cats and a winery. Each morning, our breath hung in white clouds as we chainsawed dead trees for the wood burner. We walked for miles around the estate, casting long shadows in the stark winter sunlight. We shall be working in Cornwall until August, then a house-sit in a Kent village. From autumn, who knows? There is one certainty, though – wherever we travel, we will travel together.
copyright Guardian (UK)