It was midday on the 21st March, on the day before I set off on my present West Country Tour. I'd just had my hair done in Cuckfield, and I was filling in a spare hour and a half before meeting the girls for lunch. A special lunch, too: it was Sue's birthday. I'd decided to pop up to Nymans, the National Trust property not far away. I'd had a quick look at the gardens, but despite it being a fine day they were not yet at their springtime best. It was still March, still rather chilly, and just too early in the year. One month ahead it would all look lovely; but on this day it seemed better to get out of the breeze and while away the remaining time over coffee in the Trust's café.
The café was pretty full, but I found a table for two, and settled down in one of the seats. More people came in. It was almost one o'clock, and despite it being a Tuesday, a lot of people clearly had the leisure to visit Nymans with some kind of lunch as part of the pleasure. I began to feel a little guilty, it being a busy time. Here I was, a single person with a coffee cup, occupying a table that a couple eating a meal might have had. So I was relieved when a man, clearly on his own, asked me if he could share my table. 'Of course,' I said, 'Please do.' He smiled.
He seemed a nice man. He had a semi-retired, fiftyish-sixtyish look to him. Not older. I took in grey hair, scarf, jacket. We began to chat. I soon needed to explain that I was retired, and spent my time doing little more than seeing friends and taking endless photographs on holiday. He in turn explained that he used to be a golf pro, and still played at a well-regarded golf club not far away. I said my Dad used to love his golf, and played well until arthritis got him. Dad had to give it up completely when he had a double-knee replacement operation in 1993, when he was seventy-three. After that, however, he had become an armchair golfer, watching the game avidly on TV until he died. The man opposite me said he was sorry to hear of Dad's arthritis. He had his own aches and pains, but so far they hadn't stopped him playing. And indeed he looked fit enough.
We discussed the way retired men played golf. I said I'd walked round with Dad once or twice, years ago of course. It was an addictive game. My companion always played in the afternoons, after the sun had dried out the greens. He was amazed at the number of golfers who insisted on playing in the early morning, when dew was on the grass. What sort of game could they hope to have? Perhaps, I said, they did so in order to get home well before lunch. To be with their wives, perhaps. He pondered this. Yes, that might certainly be a reason. And yet, I went on, some wives would be happier if they played later, and even stayed out most of the day, so that their husbands wouldn't be under their feet. Do you think so, he asked. Oh yes; not every wife, of course, but I assured him that busy wives might well prefer their husbands to be out doing something like golf, rather than getting in the way at home. (The male half of the couple next to us gave me a startled look as I said these words. I ignored him)
By this time his food had arrived. 'I hope you won't mind if I eat while speaking to you,' he said. 'Not at all. Please go ahead. After all, I've been slurping this cup of coffee!'
He mentioned that he still had a proper living, if being a landlord was such a thing. Well, I had concluded that he must have some money coming in. People who drop in for lunch at out-of-town National Trust properties on a weekday were generally not total wage-slaves. They were usually retired, or otherwise in a position to run their lives according to their own convenience, not somebody else's. But although comfortable, he wasn't well-off enough to own a home of his own. I sensed a marriage break-up that had left him short, compelling him to chose between buying a small place, or keeping his remaining capital intact. The let properties would represent most of that capital - safe in bricks and mortar, but not liquid cash in the bank. And the income from them would not necessarily make him rich. So he had to rent.
No doubt it was somewhwere nice; but the property - presumably a large flat, or perhaps a cottage - wasn't his. He wasn't too bothered by that; but still mentioned that he'd already had to move twice in recent years. He confessed that ruefully. I could imagine the upheaval involved. He believed he was now all right for some time ahead in his present home - the owners lived abroad - but still had to proceed on the basis that he could be given notice to quit at any time, and probably when he least expected it.
It struck me how lucky I was, to actually own my own home. If I so wished, I could live there until I died. Nobody could evict me. And I didn't have to meet the cost of rent. Nor make mortagage repayments, come to that. But the chief thing was that I couldn't be slung out. 'Lucy Melford' was on the Land Registry record (they don't have 'title deeds' any more), and that was the end of it. I was immune from any hassle, or meddling with my right to occupy. I was, for all practical purposes, safe and untouchable in my little castle.
I began to feel sorry for his unenviable position. How could a rented place truly be a 'home'? Didn't there have to be some permanence to a home? What did it do to you, if you were always under the threat - however small - of being deprived of your personal living space? Surely it would make your life seem very flimsy? As if you were a potentially homeless from moment to moment?
Life in a rented property must be an awful strain. It must nag at your most basic feelings of security. Someone else, the owner, had a key and could invade your space, or send his workmen in, or throw you out.
If you lived on a boat that you owned, you would feel secure in a way denied to you when renting a house. It was the same for a caravan. I could live in my caravan. And because I owned it, I would feel it was inviolably my 'home' in a way I wouldn't feel if someone else had hired it to me, and might want it back. Neither boat nor caravan were things planted solidly on a definite plot of land. One floated; one was on wheels. Both had to be moved about from time to time, one to another mooring, the other to another pitch. But that necessary mobility didn't affect their status as proper homes, albeit small ones. Putting it another way, nobody could take my caravan away, and deprive me of its shelter. It was mine; I could refuse entry; the space within was for me alone. But this man was vulnerable to all the shock and distress of having to uproot himself at short notice, again and again and again. If I were in that position, I would be very unsettled, unable to feel completely happy and content, and quite possibly my health would suffer.
I looked at him closely. Did he understand it the same way? Or was he so used to his home life having this fatal flaw, this terrible impermanence, that he coped without fear? I wondered.
Our time ran out all too quickly. I would rather have liked to talk more with him. But I mentioned Sue's birthday lunch in fifteen minutes' time. I really had to leave. He rose from his seat and we shook hands. 'By the way, I'm Lucy,' I said. 'I'm Chester' he said in reply. It was hard not to kiss him farewell, as if he were an old friend. I left before I had time to think of something else to say, or tempted to make some ongoing connection. Perhaps I should have.