Chapter 12

(i) Tim and his nursery

We had a terrific time on our honeymoon in Sri Lanka although I wondered if Sophie wasn’t a bit distant as I felt our sex life wasn’t as passionate as it had been.  We swam a lot and we were quite adventurous as well.  We hired a car and driver and went inland to Pandy and Nuwara Eliya, where we stayed in a beautiful but rather tired old colonial hotel.  I even managed to get Sophie out for a few hours on traditional sailing boat, known as a Oruwa.   This is like a hollowed out tree trunk with the sides built up and an outrigger to stabilise it.  There isn’t a fixed bow or stern so the boat moves either way.  The sails have to kept wet to make them efficient and the boatman does this by throwing buckets of seawater at them. 

After we returned from our honeymoon we moved into the bungalow that came with my nursery business which had been done up whilst we were away.  I had been living there for a few months already but Sophie said it needed money spending on it before she was prepared to live there.  It had a completely new kitchen and two new bathrooms and the whole house had been redecorated.  All our wedding presents had been installed by David and Tracey and the place looked very smart.  Sophie was pleased but said she would have to personalise it up before it would seem like home.  I was more preoccupied with the nursery itself and left Sophie happily making it how she wanted it. 

Ronnie and June, the previous owners of the nursery, had agreed to look after the business whilst we were on our honeymoon as their wedding present to us.  Part of the deal when I purchased their business was that they would come in two days a week for the first month to enable me to find my feet and learn how to run it.  I think they were pleased that it was going to continue and wanted me to make a success of it.  The figures that I was given before I bought the business showed that recently they had only just been breaking even.  I wasn’t concerned though as I considered they let things slide as they hadn’t had the energy to keep innovating which is necessary to keep a business profitable.

I did learn a lot from them – where to buy plants, what quantities of each plant to buy, what profit margins I could put on different ones, when to discount stock that was getting close to the sell-by date, how best to display the stock and lots of other minor things.  However I could see that the business needed to be brought up-to-date and made more efficient.  Ronnie and June still used an old fashioned till and did the accounts longhand in a cash book and without a proper stock system. They seemed to run out of their best lines regularly.  I wanted to change that and bought an integrated till/stock system, a bit similar to the one I had seen at Cannon Pet Supplies, so that, as each item was sold, it was automatically taken out of stock.

The next thing I instigated was a planting schedule.  Wendy had offered to grow stuff at Cwm Dinas and between us we worked out the kind of plants that could be successfully grown in the North Wales climate.  Wendy was enthusiastic.  I suppose just growing stuff for the family had become routine and wasn’t a challenge anymore and the farmers’ market outlet that she’d been trying hadn’t been a huge success.  Rabbits were a big problem for growing but Wendy roped John in to design and build a rabbit-proof enclosure. She also persuaded him to build some shelves for the poly tunnel so that she could bulk-grow trays of lettuce, herbs, brassicas, peas and beans.  Of course it was too late in the season for this selling season but she planted some trays anyway as an experiment.   

Sophie was also extremely helpful.  The training she had had courtesy of her father meant she understood the whole process of retail from purchase through to sale and she helped me set up the systems so that both the stock and the finances were handled in tandem.  Ronnie just didn’t get it.  I think he thought the new system was a complete waste of money – ‘could have bought a lot of plants with that money instead.’

It was my first Christmas as a married man.  I really wanted to spend it at home – by that I mean my parents home, as I have all my life, but I had a new family and I knew that Sophie would want me with her.  Fortunately, though, David and Tracey decided to go away from 20th December until after the New Year so Sophie was happy to come to Wales with me. I was hoping Teresa and Jock would come too as then it would be more fun and Wendy would be forced to cook something other than nut roasts. I really wanted Sophie to feel part of my lovely family and I was sure she’d have a good time.

A few days before we were due there Craig invited me to a daytime Christmas lunch at a local snooker club that he belonged to.  It was an all male affair and Sophie warned me that it would be a drunken affair.  Apparently Craig has organised events like this for the past couple of years.  The lads he invites, his friends, are mainly sons of rich local businessmen like himself.  I didn’t think it would be my scene but I was pleased I’d been invited and I felt obliged to go.  It was a busy time at the nursery – selling Christmas trees, Christmas cactus and poinsettia plants – which made it difficult for me.  Fortunately I’d employed a student from my old college for the Christmas rush and I had to leave him in charge and hope he could cope.  Sophie was busy at her work with Christmas so unable to help.

Sophie took an early lunch break and agreed to drop me off at the club.  There were a few lads there when I got there.  The club had 4 full-sized billiard tables, one of which was occupied with 4 men playing in pairs.  The others were at the bar, drinking lager.  There was no real ale on tap but they did have some good bottled beers from one of the local microbreweries.  I tried to buy a round but was told there was a tab.  Apparently whoever lost at a game of spoof that was played later was going to have to settle the whole drinks bill.  

Craig asked me to partner him on one of the other tables.  Although I had played a lot of pool I was a little nervous as I had not played snooker on a full-sized table before and I knew Craig was very competitive.  I’d had a couple of beers by then and actually played better than I expected and we won the first game.  We were halfway through the second one when we were called up for dinner.  I’d already seized up the company and made sure to sit between two of the quietest lads, one who was the son of an owner of a famous old pottery firm and the other an estate agent.  Most of the others were very loud and judging by their conversation and attempts at humour, arrogant and bigoted.  I was uncomfortable with some of the racist stuff they were spouting as, I think, were my two neighbours, although we didn’t say as much.   There was also a lot of boasting about various drinking sessions and womanising.  

“Hey Craig, how drunk were we in Amsterdam?” said one of the ones next to Craig.  “Tell them about that whore.”

“Well we were absolutely fucked,” shouted Craig, “somehow we found the red light district.  We both chose the same whore.  She was fucking gorgeous, wasn’t she Phil?  Long blonde hair right over her tits; firm they were with great big nipples.  Anyway she was prepared to take us both on so Phil started fucking her while she sucked my dick.  Next thing I knew I was climbing on top of them both and I shoved it up her arse so we both fucked her at the same time.  Fucking amazing.  She said she’d enjoyed it too.”

That tale seemed to top the womanising stories and they then started talking about other drinking sessions, football and their flash motors.

The food was delicious and plentiful and we were served lovely wines with our glasses regularly topped up by the two girls serving up.  It was embarrassing to hear all the f-ing and blinding in front of these two but worse was to come as people got drunker.  After the plum pudding a magnificent cheese board appeared and a decanter of port passed round.  One of the older men there, he must have been at least 40 and was very vocal, climbed onto the table and paraded around.  He was rubbing his groin and shouted at the one girl who was serving coffee cups.   “Oh you’re a real Black Beauty my dear.  Nothing I’d like more than a bit of black cunt.”  He started to unzip himself and made to pull his penis out but there was a general shout of “Put it away.  Leave her alone you dirty old fucking bastard.”  Craig stood up and said to the girl, “I’m sorry about my friend here.  He’s very drunk and his wife left him recently.  His behaviour was completely uncool.  Godfrey apologise to the lady.”

At this point I’d had enough and said I had to get back to Craig.  “How much do I owe you?” I asked.  “Spoof, spoof,” shouted Godfrey and some of the others joined in.  So we were herded into a circle and each told to put 3 coins into our left hand.  Then to put both hands behind our backs and transfer as many coins into our right hand as we chose before thrusting them into the circle.  Each person then had to guess in turn how many coins there were in total in the circle.  When our hands were opened the total number of coins were counted and the person who guessed the correct number or closest to the correct number was let out of the circle.  I was concerned as the bar bill ran into hundreds of pounds and there were only four of us left when I guessed correctly and was free.  I’d worked out as the game progressed that you could have some control of the game by either putting 3 coins out and guessing high or putting an empty fist forward and guessing low.  This worked particularly well when there were only a few players left.

The snooker club was close to the bus station so I decided to catch the bus to the nursery instead of a taxi. I was curious to know how Dan, my temporary student employee, was getting on.  I was very drunk and knew I would have to do my best to disguise this so I kept very much in the background.  I could see that we had almost sold out of Christmas cactus but the poinsettia were not going so I drafted a notice to say “HALF PRICE POINSETTIAS WITH EVERY XMAS TREE PURCHASED,” in the hope of increasing their sales.  I had to leave Dan to cash up and sloped off to crash out on the bed. The next thing I knew was when Sophie woke me at 2200 asking if I was all right.  Although my hangover wasn’t good I tried to act normally, got up and had a cup of black coffee.  I wanted to be on the ball for work in the morning.

The first few months running the business were a real struggle, trying to keep up with my loan repayments, business rates, electric and water.  At times I felt completely out of my depth.  It didn’t help that Sophie was finding the change in her life style difficult.  I was so busy I wasn’t able to give her the support she needed and in turn I could have done with more support from her.  After the New Year it became clear to me that the bungalow didn’t measure up as far as Sophie was concerned even though, as far as I was concerned, the way it had been done out and furnished was fine – far more tasteful than the Cannon mansion where she’d been living before.  However, it wasn’t ideal being on the premises the whole time. 

Sophie’s friends were of an age and we kept getting invited to weddings which were always at the weekend so, because of work, I couldn’t go until after closing time, 18:00.  So Sophie had to go on her own which she hated. Because of her background she didn’t seem able to understand why I couldn’t miraculously somehow staff the nursery and go with her. Fortunately after 4 months she became pregnant and that seemed to calm her down a little but at the same time it gave her further ammunition in her objective to get me to accept that we needed a more suitable family home.  I could see that I had to give way and also to accept that in effect it would be her money that would be buying our next house. 

After several more months searching we finally found somewhere that we both loved. We both had agreed on all the preceding viewings that we didn’t want to live in any of them and we were beginning to wonder whether we would ever find anything we both liked so it was a huge relief to both of us that Bowden House suited us both.

It’s a 5-bedroom house that had been built in the grounds of an estate with wonderful mature gardens.  It had been built in the 70’s and needed modernising.   I wanted to replace the windows which had little panes and fake old glass with bottle ends as soon as possible.  I like large expanses of glass and couldn’t see the point of spoiling the view with lots of bars.   Sophie wanted a new kitchen with an Aga cooker and new bathrooms.  I didn’t like the Artexed ceilings and wanted them smoothed.  

(ii) Christmas with her in-laws

I was looking forward to Christmas for the first time in ages although I did feel a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of being charge of sending cards and buying presents.  Christmas had been a bit of a damp squib ever since Dad and Tracey got together.  Before that  Mum always made a big thing of it;  took us out to the carol service on Christmas Eve; made us wonderful stockings and cooked a big Christmas lunch for the four of us and Aunt Susan, Uncle James and my cousins, Nicola and Alisa.  But since then Tracey and Dad have gone abroad each year and although I’ve been at Mum’s it hasn’t been the same.  I’ve felt like an outsider as it’s all about Derek, her new partner, and his family – his mum and dad, his daughter and his sister.  Craig came one year which made it better but then chose to go to Jacqui’s family as he said it was more fun.  

As regards cards and presents Tim told me not bother but I just said, “ya, boo, humbug.”  He hasn’t been any help at all regarding what to buy which was extra difficult for members of his family.  I said I’d take champagne, wine and port but since neither of his parents drink that’s not of much use to them so I’m going to take flowers and chocolates as well.  I thought I’d take Stanley a 1000-piece jigsaw, Jock a good malt whisky and Teresa a nice pregnancy outfit.  I think I’ll get Tim a new iPhone as his current phone is out of the ark.  Mum said she’d send me a list of all the addresses of people I ought to send cards to.  I was going to have really nice cards printed with our names in so I didn’t have to write these in but Tim was adamant this was a naff idea, pretentious and impersonal.  I can see where he was coming from but I didn’t like his suggestion of sending out cards bought from 38 degrees, an internet political pressure group, so I purchased them from the Red Cross charity shop instead.

I wanted to put up decorations in our home but Tim said that would be a waste of time since we were going to be away on Christmas Day.  We were invited to Craig’s on Christmas Eve and I was  thrilled that Mum was there as otherwise I wouldn’t have seen her at all over the festive season.

Tim worked until quite late, selling Christmas trees so we didn’t arrive until after 6 and only one of us was able to drink because we had then to drive to North Wales and be there before 10.  Tim volunteered to drive.

I fell asleep on the journey to Wales as I’d had a few glasses of bubbly and Tim said I’d been snoring loudly which had helped to keep him awake.  Jock was playing Christmas songs when we walked in and there was a lovely late evening homely atmosphere.  Teresa plied us with mulled wine and I fell asleep on the sofa.  Next thing I knew was Tim moving me so he could make up our bed.  Jock and Trish had been given the room we normally slept in and we were on a bed settee in the lounge.  While I was sleeping my darling husband had brought in all our luggage from the car, including the presents and a strange pillowcase.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Aha, you’ll have to wait till morning,” he replied knowingly.  I guessed then that Mum had done me a stocking, bless her.  I enjoyed opening it next morning even though it was full of silly little things, like deodorant, clementines, note pads, an egg slicer to name a few.  It was nice to have a Mum who cared enough to take the trouble.

We all went for a brisk walk after a breakfast of porridge and toast.  I was dressed for the occasion with a flat Andy Capp hat, Barbour waxed coat and walking boots.  None of these items had been worn before I met Tim and I had asked Teresa to take a picture of me on my phone so I could put it on Facebook and amuse Tracey and Sarah.  The weather was a bit iffy but it wasn’t actually raining.  It was wet and muddy underfoot and I appreciated my boots although it was sad to see them get soiled.  We had a hot drink when we got back into the nice warm house.  Wendy and Teresa started preparing the lunch and Jock opened a bottle of bubbly.  It was good that although it was a dry household no one seemed to mind those of us who did enjoy a drink having one or two.  Tim and Stanley went upstairs to prepare games for the afternoon leaving me with Jock and John.  I thought I’d prefer the company of the ladies and went over to help.  Teresa was making pigs in blankets so I took over after she showed me what to do.  I didn’t like the feel of the cold greasy meats but I did enjoy being part of the ladies group and was quite pleased with how well I managed.  Maybe I’ll try to learn to cook.  Tim said there was nothing to it, especially if you followed a recipe.

Tim and his brother looked pleased with themselves when they came back downstairs.  They’d prepared a game for us to play before lunch.  I was told to pull an envelope out of a stack that had apparently been shuffled like a pack of cards.  Then I had to shut my eyes while someone took out a fixit note out of the envelope and stuck it on my forehead.  Everyone had to do the same and then to find out who we were and who we were partnered with by asking questions that could only have a yes or no answer.  Unfortunately they hadn’t quite thought it through and as the pairing made it too obvious.  I was Elvis and Jock was Presley.  Then there was channel and tunnel, washing-up and liquid so when my first question, “am I a singer?” was answered in the affirmative I knew I had to be Elvis because I could see Jock’s note and there weren’t any other singers.  We had a laugh though.

I was a bit tipsy by the time lunch was served and it was quite a squash round the rectangular table with me squeezed between Tim and Jock.  I wasn’t happy about this as I’d already felt uncomfortable vibes coming from Jock and it wasn’t long before I felt his hand on my thigh.  I pinched the loose skin on the top of his hand hard and that was enough deterrent.  Four of us had steak while John and Wendy and Stanley had a nut roast.  Pudding was Christmas pud with brandy sauce for the non vegans and fruit for John and Wendy.  I was amazed that the vegans seemed to enjoy their food as much as we did and the non-drinkers seemed to behave just as stupidly as those of us who were by now quite drunk.

The men did the clearing and washing up and Stanley made us our various teas and coffees.  I’d never heard of nettle tea before!  Then it was at last time for present opening.  We’d been given specific instructions about this a few weeks ago.  Our names had been put in a hat and each of us was required to buy just one present for the person pulled out.  Stanley handed them out.  My present had been bought by Stanley and was a deluxe scrabble set.  I had been selected to buy for for Wendy and had chosen a lovely hat, scarf and glove set which went down well.  I’d also bought Tim a new iPhone which he was was very pleased with.

Will had another game after this, called the sofa game.  The women sat on one sofa and the men on the other (their sofa included a chair).  There was another empty chair on the women’s side. Everyone’s name went into a hat and we took it in turns pick out a name at random.  I picked John and that was my name for the game.  I went first and called out Wendy.  Jock obviously had chosen Wendy’s name so he got up and went to the vacant chair, leaving a vacant space where he’d been sitting.  This space was on Tim’s left so he got a go, calling out Sophie.  Teresa got up and sat in this space.  The object of the game was to remember everyone’s party names and try to move the people in your team onto the opposition’s sofa.  It was a cool game for a party and the women won.

The telly went on after that and I dozed off.  I’d had a lovely Christmas Day.