I'd driven over to Kent to have some electrolysis, and instead of travelling back as I usually did, via Tunbridge Wells, I decided to come off the A21 just north of Sevenoaks, and take the A25 westwards until it met the A22, when I would turn south towards home. I reckoned this would at least avoid the tiresome traffic that builds up at Tunbridge Wells in late afternoon. But it would also be a novelty. I hadn't driven along the A25 for a very long time. I recalled that it went through some attractive countryside, and was the epitome of leafy Surrey. The towns I'd encounter - Sundridge, Brasted, Westerham, Limpsfield, Oxted - were all small and I should be able to bowl along with few stops, not especially fast, but without maddening holdups. To keep moving does give an illusion of progress!
There was a time, long ago, when this section of the A25 was part of my daily commute by car from home to Bromley and back again. I was then the Investigation Manager at Bromley 1 tax office, a position I held from September 1985 to September 1990, before getting a less welcome transfer to Southwark in the heart of London. It was a busy period for me, as my job tended to expand with add-ons now and then, such as being appointed Liaison Officer for South East London between the investigation teams in the Revenue and their equivalents in Customs & Excise, two government departments with very different cultures. But it was for the most part a happy time at work.
At first I commuted to Bromley by train from Merton Park (near Wimbledon) in southwest London. But after moving house to Horsham (my first foothold in Sussex!) in the autumn of 1989, I decided to drive. It was a long cross-country drive too, but I enjoyed it very much, summer and winter.
It was by then not so good at home. I'd got married to W--- in 1983, taking on her daughter A---, then aged twelve, at the same time. I'd done six years of parenting, conscientiously but always with a light hand, and A--- and I had a great relationship. As for W---, I had wanted to marry her; I had rescued her from an unexciting housing association flat; and I'd given her a second chance at making a success of marriage. We had four good years trying. Then, little by little, it went sour. I saw even then that A--- was the glue that kept us united and focussed on holding everything together.
After A--- took her A-Level exams in the summer of 1989, she got on the plane to new Zealand to spend a year with her father. From then on, W--- and I began to flag. She had her job, I had mine. We didn't socialise much, except with family. We began to get ratty with each other, not because we disliked each other, but because the glue had gone, we'd lost our way, and the differences in temperament were loosening the bond.
It's a very sad thing, to realise that something is wrong and yet see also that it's not realistically worth the effort of repairing. One shouldn't be happier at work than at home, but that's how it became for me. And my long drive home often gave me opportunities of stretching the journey out, to savour the gap between the demands at the office and the demands that might face me at home.
In John Braine's 1962 novel, Life at the Top, the hero Joe Lampton, the company accountant, the Northern-lad-made-good, who married the boss's daughter after getting her pregnant, has become a smooth, respectable and compliant lapdog - a role he chafes at. The book opens with Joe and his wife Susan habitually starting to bicker after nine years of marriage. Neither wants that, but dissatisfaction is setting in. Just like myself and W---. Not just dissatisfaction; there is a realisation that one has failed; and that one must lie in the bed one has made for oneself, at least while it can be borne.
Joe's life is at a crisis. In a hundred small ways, he has lost his grip, lost the feeling of being essential and important. He has achieved enviable material success and comfort, but through a cheating shortcut and not by hard graft, his accountancy skills not mattering. He hasn't worked his way up from the bottom, he has slid in smoothly at the top. The steelworks boss, his father-in-law, a hard, sneering, devious old-school industrialist, despises him; so does his son; his wife has almost had enough of him; and only his little daughter still worships him. He knows that he puts up with his life only because of his daughter.
It was so easy for me, at the time, in 1990, to identify with most of this.
In Chapter 2 of the book, Joe is driving home, ruminating over two things imposed on him by his father-in-law that afternoon - a business trip to London, and his nomination (and certain election, because his chairman father-in-law will see to it) to the local council as a Conservative Party member:
The fact was, I realized, I didn't want to go home. It wasn't only that Susan would be angry about both my trip to London and my going on the Council; it was something much worse. For ten years now this drive home had been an escape; every inch nearer to Warley had been a farther distance between me and my father-in-law and my father-in-law's world...now he was going to be a fellow-councillor. Or rather he was going to continue being my boss...There wasn't going to be any escape...there was nothing to be done about it once the Selection Committee had made their decision; as Harry Runcett had once said in his cups, the Park Ward was so safe a seat for the Tories that they'd elect a f---g cat if the party chose to run one...Now, driving along Hawthorne Main Street in the rain I knew what the cat was. And it wasn't a tom. It was a neuter, a big fat neuter, that always did just whatever its father-in-law told it to do.
I put my foot down and the Zephyr gathered speed up the slope. The sooner I was home, the sooner it was over with...Then I was over the crest of the hill and I could see Warley; despite myself I began to feel more cheerful. ...I slowed down and opened the window to let in the rain and the smell of the forest...for a moment I was tempted to stop the car and for the duration of a cigarette sit quietly with the quietness.
I changed down into second; then changed up again; what I wanted to do was innocent and harmless and utterly impossible. I could hear the voices now... he's drunk, of course, they said. Why else, my dear? Why should he stop so near home? Trying to sober up, frightened to go home.
I wasn't drunk, and I had no overbearing father-in-law, nor was I going to be the subject of malicious gossip, but I did sometimes crave the chance to pull in, and let life flow by, rather than go home and (it always seemed) face the music night after night after night after night - until I had had enough. I exaggerate a bit of course: but like poor Joe Lampton, there came a point when I really did not want to go home.
As you drive through Limpsfield on the A25, and then under the tall railway bridge, and then up on East Hill into Oxted, there are some flats on the left. They were there in 1990. They would catch my eye. I began to imagine how it would be if things got too bad at home. Could I buy one of these flats? I thought only of buying, but it seemed perfectly feasible to do that, rather than rent - we had downsized to get out of London, and the Horsham mortgage was quite small. Surely I could at a pinch continue to cover most of the costs of our little house in Horsham, as a home for W---, while buying one of these Oxted flats for just myself?
I dismissed the thought every day that I passed by. But I could not get it out of my mind. It was at least a plan, an escape route if I couldn't take any more. I imagined a bust-up, a hastily-arranged short tenancy somewhere, and then moving in, my money now all gone, with only my car and basic personal possessions. No furniture, just packing cases to sit on, or scattered cushions on the floor, and a camp bed in a corner. Central heating, but a bare kitchen. But I'd be free. And I'd have peace.
It was a comforting notion, something to cherish, to cling to, and it sustained me up to the end of 1990. Then something else happened, and the notion never had to be turned into reality. W--- and I finally found that moment to discuss our marriage seriously. We separated in February 1991, W--- going back to London (what she really wanted) and leaving me in possession of the Horsham house, although not of course free to sell it. In fact, W--- forced me to wait five years before I could commence divorce proceedings and finally sell up at Horsham. By then, my preferred place of residence was near Brighton, rather than close to London, and so I never did end up living in one of those Oxted flats, sitting on a packing case, cup of tea in hand, soup heating in the bare kitchen, completely strapped for cash but in control of my life. And beyond hurt and vexation.
I think my present reluctance to form a bond with anyone, to share my home with them, has its origin not in my shattered relationship with M---, but that earlier failure with W---. In saying this, I am not especially condemning W---. I was inexperienced with what it meant to 'live together' and I am quite sure that I did not give W--- all that she might have expected, and that she had just grievances against me for my lack of understanding and patience.
But the first failure does cut the deepest. And of course the two consecutive failures undoubtedly reinforce each other, so that I am now desperately unwilling to risk yet another.
However, as a friend said the other day, never say 'never'. When I think of the people I bump into on holiday, and how in some cases the chemistry seems so promising, I can't at all dismiss the possibility of one more attempt at home-building. But I'm watching myself like a hawk.