For nearly twenty years I've been curiously detached from the social life of the village. That's now beginning to change. But until quite recently, I knew very few people in the village, and my face was virtually unknown.
When I was working, I was a commuter, living in the village but absent from it during the day. But I never went to any of the village pubs in the evening or on weekends, unless it was to eat with M---, or Mum and Dad, something we did only now and then. I did of course regularly visit the doctor, the dentist, the post office, the local supermarket and so on, but not to linger and chat with anyone. So I remained a stranger.
M--- and I shared a relationship, but until 2005 we each lived in our own nearby houses. We were however friendly with the same set of immediate neighbours. But I was always second fiddle in our relationship. She took the lead, and I was never the one who saw the tradesmen, or did the talking, or arranged things. I allowed her to run most of my life.
I could easily have had an active, purposeful social life of my own. But I never was a person to join local clubs and societies. And the urge to play badminton regularly (for exercise mainly) had ebbed away, because of knee injuries. I had no interest whatever in DIY, nor gardening. I was the quiet, amiable, little-seen person who stayed indoors and pursued my own particular solo indoor interests. Or drove off somewhere to take photographs, or go for a stroll, or both, usually with M---. My life in fact mostly centred around M---, and whatever she wanted to do; or else whatever my parents suggested. I had only a tiny friend base, nobody that I'd see often. I didn't regard myself as a hermit, but I felt that, away from work, my social skills had fallen by the wayside. It seemed not to matter too much. Wrong. I had become socially isolated to a concerning degree.
This social isolation became worse after retiring in 2005. I had sold my own house, and was staying with M--- in hers, until I found something smaller. I was her paying guest. I always paid my way handsomely, never taking the slightest advantage. But it compromised and undermined our relationship a bit, making me her 'lodger' or 'tenant', and she the 'landlady'. Certainly it was always her house, carrying with it the notion that I was there by arrangement, ultimately by sufferance, that there were stipulations, and that I had to fall in with her ways and routines. I did so easily and willingly, but her house did not become 'our house'. Nor could it be, as 'living together' in any proper sense might put her pension entitlements in danger. It was always the case that one day, and not too far ahead, I would have to buy another place of my own and move out.
Hence my name (and only my name) going on the Piddinghoe cottage we purchased together in 2007. I had a decent sum to fling at this property purchase. But as house prices had surged ahead so much, my money would run only to a nice flat. M--- loaned me her entire pension fund so that I could buy Ouse Cottage, a large and attractive village property otherwise well beyond my reach. It was an investment, to be sold again at a good profit, and meanwhile lived in as much as feasible.
What a mistake we made! It truly seemed like a property investor's dream. But it was my awful financial downfall.
This wasn't however my own blinkered personal project. I would never have bought it on my own. I wouldn't even have considered buying it. M--- discovered the place, not me. M--- pushed for the immediate viewing, not me. M--- conducted the negotiations, not me. M--- called the tune on almost everything - including the new decor and who was going to be invited to the Cottage. This upset me a bit - wasn't I to have any input at all? No. I could help out with the gardening, and the furnishing, but otherwise this was all M---'s vision. The Cottage was a stepping-stone in her dream to own a lovely million-pound country retreat. She made the error of assuming that I shared that dream, and was content to tag along. My task was to sink £202,000 of my money into it, and although I'd have sole title, she was going to control the Cottage as her own.
I should never have allowed this. I should have made a stand. But by 2007, and practically a recluse, with no friends of my own to talk the project over with, I was too short on assertiveness to think of stopping the show. And I saw no danger in our rather one-sided loan agreement, which guaranteed that M--- could suffer no financial disadvantage if the project went wrong. I wince now at my misjudgement and lack of foresight. I should have seen the signs that the property market was running out of steam. I should have known that serious joint investments of money always put relationships at risk. Our relationship was attacked by another matter already mentioned in past posts, but the financial strains of owning (and trying to sell) Ouse Cottage soured our relationship like nothing else. Never again!
In fact, I want no loans of any kind ever again, no matter how small, no matter from whom. I have been stung too badly. The years of frightening indebtedness to M--- have scarred me. At the end, when we finally sold the place in 2011 after four nerve-racking years, I took a thumping personal loss of £200,000. But that wasn't the thing that left the scars. It was the harrowing fear of being in debt by so much, owing M--- an agreed £325,000 at the end (which is about £405,000 in 2015 values). And watching bankruptcy get closer and closer. From 2009 I'd owned two houses, because I'd inherited Mum and Dad's home when they died. But you can't run two houses on one so-so pension. M--- stopped me letting the Cottage as a solution. And my remaining capital was almost exhausted. By 2011 I was selling off camera equipment to fund the Council Tax and heating oil payments. The caravan might be next to go. Then what else? Fiona? Mum and Dad's house? I was starting to feel a bit desperate.
I absolutely floated on air when that dreadful weight of debt was removed in 2011. The utter relief to my spirits completely overwhelmed any regret at losing £200,000 forever. It wasn't a smooth sale. Reluctant to finally abandon her property dream, M--- almost vetoed the sale - as she was entitled to do under our agreement. But it went through. She got all her money back, plus interest, and so financially she was all right, her capital fully restored, the rest of her life fully-funded. She was now proof against any catastrophe that money could fix. I got back next to nothing, and had no such safety net. But that awful, hope-destroying debt had been lifted off my shoulders, and I felt free. I'd got my life back, and all the possibilities that fact could offer.
And in a funny way I got my soul back too. I was now my own woman. I finally had freedom to live my life on my own terms, without anyone else having a say.
I often declare my love of the Independent Life in this blog. But it's not just about having a relationship or not. It's also about holding all the cards, having total control of one's affairs, and not having anybody around who can say no. That's how it is for me. That's how it will now stay. Perhaps this does completely rule out any kind of future relationship, but it's a self-defence thing, a reaction to several years of crushing debt. And not because I don't like people.
2015 is turning out to be the Year For Making New Local Friends. I have turned a mental corner.
I'd been keeping out of village life in case I ran into M---, who still lives in the village. I hadn't seen her to speak to face-to-face since early 2011. Our last exchange over the phone, or by email, was in the autumn of 2012. My last communication to her (without response) was a letter in early 2014, some months before her 70th birthday, sending my greetings for the occasion, and explaining that they were made well in advance so that if they upset her, she would have time to recover her composure, and the day (presumably a family gathering) wouldn't be spoiled.
Thus my last act towards her had been entirely friendly.
Even so, I feared that a surprise meeting - or confrontation - would be painful for both of us. And as M--- was an emotional person, and also a person driven by her beliefs and personal sense of truthfulness, she might launch into an embarrassing denunciation of me. She wouldn't be able to help it. I cringed at the thought.
And yet, this was my village too. I lived here. I had lived here - except for six continuous months in 2009 - ever since 1996. Why shouldn't I go anywhere I wished to in the village, see whom I liked, do whatever I liked, and, in particular, join any local class or activity that appealed to me? Just as she was free to do?
It was time to get over this fear of encountering M---. In any case, surely by now she was several years into whatever new life she had built for herself, and though she might be equally apprehensive about meeting me, was nevertheless well in control of herself, and, who knows, even completely unconcerned about any encounter? Besides (as people pointed out to me), what might she really say? Surely I'd get nothing worse than a very wary and careful hello?
So it was that when Maddy (one of my new girl friends here) urged me to come with her to a pilates class, I felt spurred on to phoning Nancy (who runs the class) and arranging to be there with my mat, towel and bottle of water last Friday morning.
And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. From the moment Maddy picked me up I had no concerns about meeting M--- at the class. I forgot my fears. I met several very pleasant ladies. I got on well with Nancy, and managed most of the pilates exercises. Most, except those involving an element of balancing. I'm rubbish at balancing. But I didn't cheat, and I did everything properly, if I could manage it at all. It was the first pilates class I'd attended for six years, and even though - like everyone else - I felt very well exercised after one hour, I had no aches. And I haven't been aching since. Some say you haven't done it properly if you don't ache. Maybe! But perhaps I'm more lissom and bendy than I thought.
Afterwards, I gave tea and coffee back at my house to Maddy and another nice lady named Jo. In the evening, my neighbour Jackie came in and we spent a few hours sipping wine and nibbles while discussing many topics, including these local social events and their significance for me. (Jackie knows all about me, and tells me exactly what she thinks) I am sure that by the end of 2015 I will have a wide friend base in the village, and many allies.
When I think of how it was for me ten years ago, there is no comparison. True, I had M---. But it was a case of all my eggs in one basket. That wasn't M---'s fault. I should have made the effort to find friends and cultivate them. She wouldn't have stopped me. It's my fault for not doing so, and by not doing, not having anyone to discuss things with. You need to hear several different points of view, not just one person's, especially if - most of the time - you are in complete accord with that one person.
To her credit, M--- usually had great ideas, was a good planner and thought things through thoroughly. But she was also a strong personality, determined to have her way, and hard to resist. No wonder the Old Me, who was compliant and easy-going, let her have the overriding say most of the time. It made for a simple life, free of strife. The New Me is harder to deal with, and much less inclined to agree. If something won't do, I will now say so, and be unabashed about it. And - wonder of wonders - I now plan my life without consulting anyone, or explaining why. Why should I need to explain or justify? It's all down to seeing what other people do, and learning how to be more confident, and more honest about what one really wants.
I'm looking forward very much to next week's pilates class. No stopping me now.