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The Reluctant Guide
Chapter One – Introduction
Whenever my wife and I are asked: ‘So, why no kids?’ I have a standard joke.
“Ah well,” I’ll say, “We just had new carpeting put in, you see.”
That would usually make it quite clear to whoever was bold enough to ask the question this was not a suitable topic of conversation. Men aren’t asked this question all that often anyway. My wife had to deal with it all the time, but she usually vaguely implied we couldn’t have any.
“It’s a problem,” she’d say ominously. That scared other women off sufficiently.
The truth of the matter was: we didn’t want any kids. We didn’t want to give up our free time, all that space in our large house, the mad budgets for extended vacations plus our not having to attend swimming lessons or soccer matches. We didn’t want our house torn down, our stuff covered in poop and vomit… We wanted to read books, work on our careers, save our money. Is that antisocial? Perhaps, but not more so than having kids when you can’t really afford them, or because you got blind drunk and knocked up.
Still, our siblings DID have kids. Of course they did. We were very much in favour of this, because it gave our parents grandchildren and our country future tax payers. Though, given how smart our siblings and their spouses were (if indeed they were married by the time the first kid appeared), we didn’t have high hopes for HM Revenue and Customs.
Still, we invested in these kids, as a good aunty and uncle are supposed to do. We got them nice toys, new bikes, took them on occasional outings and we even had sleepovers after we’d moved a bit further away from the central nexus of our family. We could afford an even bigger house after I sold my first company (which sounds very grand but really, it wasn’t that big of a deal) and found one in Torquay. The rest of ‘them’ were still in and around Romford, in their terraced houses, on streets lined with cheap cars. I don’t blame people for living in Romford, but I do blame them for believing luxury smart phones are ‘free’ even though they come with 35 pound monthly subscriptions. It was nice to get away from that stupidity, that shortsightedness.
There was, as always, an exception to the rule. I had one niece I was really rather fond of. Elizabeth was a very happy kid, I don’t recall ever seeing her sulking. She was blonde with freckles and a ponytail and she even had a very brief career as a ‘model’ for a line of kids tricycles. She was on the packaging and in some magazine adverts. If you drew a stick figure of a happy kid, it would look uncannily like Lizzy. She had an older brother, Nigel, who wasn’t a bad kid and would someday make an excellent car park attendant, but Lizzy was different. I didn’t actually mind Lizzy coming over, when we were still living nearby. She seemed drawn to the peace and quiet of our house and was also interested in my wife’s cooking skills. They’d bake cakes together on Sunday, where I was the good natured judge of the final result. That was not a bad job to have. Cake is a bit like sex in that, even when it’s not that good, it is still very good.
My brother Edward and his wife Suzy both had full time jobs and Nigel was a bit of a handful, so over time Lizzy developed the routine of coming to our house after school, where she could do her homework without being disturbed by music or used as a valet by her brother. I worked from home even then, so I’d usually be the one to greet her with a cup of tea. We’d go through her homework together, she’d do the easy stuff and if there was any testing to be done or some new mathematical concept to discover, we’d do it together. She usually had at least a vague idea of what was being asked and explaining it to me helped a lot. Then my wife would usually get home from her job and take Lizzy home, while I prepped dinner. I can’t really cook, but I can chop and weigh with the best of ’em.
When Lizzy was 14, we moved to Torquay. She didn’t like that news at all, but she was old enough to handle it. She could stand up to her brother and her mother now worked part-time, so we figured she’d be alright. For a year, we were very busy with the move. The new house, a three storey free standing Victorian manor house (as the estate agent called it, though it wasn’t quite the Hearst Castle replica his brochure made it out to be), was in good nick but all the painting and decorating kept me busy for a while.
The gardens around it were quite large, but I made a good deal with a local landscaping company and so, after about a year, I could sit in my office in the attic and overlook my grand estate. At that time I was 42 and only had to work about 2 hours every day to keep things ticking over. My wife couldn’t say the same; she trained as a GP, which for our American friends translates to ‘a doctor’, or General Practitioner. These days she didn’t practice family medicine but worked for the NHS as the head of an A&E department, which was what made it so easy for her to move 250 miles and not miss a day of work: they need those people everywhere.
We met because I started a company which produced prosthetics. I sold that one and began a new business, importing medical devices from China. If I could have been bothered to work 8 hours a day on that, I’d probably have been rich. But I have always been someone who has more interesting things to do than work, so I had automated my business as much as possible and basically I got by on 2 hours of sending emails and, very occasionally, visiting a warehouse or a trade show somewhere. My wife and I didn’t see each other very often, except for an hour or two in the evenings and on long and ridiculously luxurious vacations. The marriage had worked like this for 15 years so far.
Early January, when Lizzy was about to turn 15, I called my brother and asked her what she’d like.
“An iPad,” he said. “I mean, she’d like money to put towards an iPad. She’s almost there.”
“Lovely. Nice and simple. And how is she doing? With Nigel, I mean?”
“Well, you know… They’re like cats and dogs, most of the time. But Nige is about ready to move out.”
I chuckled. Move out on what salary? He’d barely passed his GCSEs and now worked as a waiter, hoping to get into art college. He’d be home for a while, I was sure of that.
“Well, best of luck with that. I’ll come over and help him move, if that day ever comes. Give Suzy a kiss, speak to you later.”
Ten minutes later, I’d ordered the latest iPad online and had it inscribed to read: ‘To Elizabeth from her secret admirer’, which I knew she’d get a kick out of. The thing took a few days to get there, but I knew it had when the phone rang and someone was shouting at me like they’d just won the National Lottery.
“Thank you SOOOOO much, it’s fantastic, and it has more memory than I thought I could get! I was actually going for the previous model too! You are such a great uncle thank you thank you thank you!” she panted.
“Who is this?” I asked, which dumbfounded her. Two seconds later, I heard her laughing. It wasn’t the childlike half-laughter, half-screaming I had gotten used to, though. This was a far more mature sound. Very pleasant, like crystal bells ringing in Christmas.
“Will you thank aunty Linda from me?”
“I will. Get yourself a nice cover for that and turn on ‘Find my Ipad’, okay? Because you’re not getting another.”
“I have a lot to learn about this stuff,” she sighed. “I had a cheap one for a while, but it was just too slow. Can I call you if I have a question?”
“Any time, pet.”
I always called her pet. It’s a distinctly Northern term of endearment and not at all what we’d say in the South. I am not British by birth and so I feel free to use any regional accent I like, though I tend to come back to what is called ‘Received Pronunciation’ or in other words how BBC newsreaders used to sound. That’s how I picked up English as a kid and somehow that was the accent that had hardwired itself into my brain. Add to that some imperfect grammar when I get tired and most anything I say comes across as charming or funny. Lizzy chuckled and rang off.
Two days later, I got an iMessage. Lizzy had guessed I was registered on my private email account.
“Uncle Martin? It’s Lizzy!”
I didn’t see her message for a few hours, having been to Waitrose for the weekly shop. When I came home she wasn’t online when I typed:
“For brevity’s sake and because it’s getting on my tits, call me Martin.”
A few hours later I heard the iMessage sound.
“I have renamed you Secret Admirer.”
“Best make that Secret Admirer1. There’s probably going to be a bit of a queue this year.”
“Here’s hoping! xxx”