I thought when I wrote that heading that I’d invented a new word.
But no; I’ve just checked the Oxford English Dictionary. It does exist, it tells me: a long-winded-sounding noun to express the feeling of belonging. It’s exactly the word I want to suggest the longing for a family in whose bosom to feel secure; a grounding, a tribe. After all, it’s a very basic human characteristic fixed in our genes; a deep human need, is it not? As the bard said, No man is an island.
Recently I read and reviewed a very moving book, an autobiography by Linda Hoye. Linda is an adoptee, by parents who were as loving as if she were their biological own. And yet for all that, she grew up feeling an aching sense of apartness; of not fully belonging. It took the discovery of the surviving remainder of her ‘real’ family and the dogged unearthing of the facts surrounding her birth mother and biological father to bring her complete inner peace.
Here is my review:
This is certainly the most moving book I’ve read this year. Those of us fortunate enough to have been born into conventional nuclear families, those in which biological parents keep and cherish their offspring, can really only guess at how it must feel to grow up in an adoptive one knowing that, even if your surrogate parents are genuinely loving, they aren’t really your natural mum and dad; not your proper ones.
In this beautifully written autobiography, Linda Hoye poignantly describes her feelings of not entirely belonging (she was told that she was adopted as a child), of apartness, of low self-image. After all, she reasons heartbreakingly, she must have lacked something; been in some way unlovable for her real parents, or possibly single parent, to have simply given her away, unwanted.
Poor, poor girl. Reading her often wistful but never self-pitying account, I felt enormous sympathy and empathy. This is often an uncomfortable read, as Linda tells of making a huge mistake in choice of life partner, one which results in an unhappy, abusive marriage, because she’s so desperate for acceptance on almost any terms.
Her account of her search for her biological parents and extended family after the death of her adoptive mum and dad is often harrowing too, with many disappointments, but by contrast there are touching descriptions of unalloyed joy too, such as when her first grandchild is born and her happiness that the child will grow up in a happy and loving family, rooted in her true tribe.
Technically this is an excellent book too, and exceptionally well-written. I liked the way the author wrote in the first person (obviously!) and present tense. That conferred immediacy and intimacy and I felt myself to be present, a privileged guest in her mind, party to her thoughts and feelings. The narrative was strong and highly readable so that it felt to me almost like a fiction novel.
The book begins on an emotional high, thus drawing you in, and Linda saves the fitting of the final pieces of the jigsaw of her origins until the last, so it finishes satisfyingly climactically.
This book will certainly be one of my top five reads this year, if not the top two or three. Or even number one. I think it should be required reading for everyone, particularly students, as a lesson in compassion and empathy. ‘Inspirational’ is a much overused cliché, but for this book it entirely fits.
Thank you so much Ms Hoye. It’s a lovely, lovely book.
Linda’s book resonated with me a little because my nearly-completed novel, The One of Us, deals with adoption, amongst other things, too. Obviously, as a work of fiction, and because its author, thankfully, grew up in a fairly normal nuclear family, it can only scratch the surface of how some adoptees feel. Only feel an inkling. I could only guess at it really. But I tried to write with as much empathy as I could.
In a previous blog, Not so Rosie, I showed an extract where the – literally – twin protagonists of the story, who are abandoned foundlings, meet a potential surrogate mum and dad in a children’s home. Here’s another extract in which the boys, now teenagers, who have been adopted separately, meet for the first time. One of them forcefully expresses his anger; his feeling of rejection by their natural mother . . .
To Wayne’s great relief, because it would be a bit brass-monkey just traipsing around the streets, Penny’s cafe is open. He wonders why she’s bothered to though; only two other tables are occupied. A mournful-looking elderly man sits at one with an empty mug at his elbow (perhaps he’s there just for the warmth and a modicum of human contact) and a young couple with a small boy are arranged triangularly around another, determinedly working their way through a plate of scones and cakes. They aren’t day trippers, surely? Perhaps escapees from some boring Christmas family get together, more likely.
They find themselves a table next to a radiator and shed their coats. Wayne, knowing his manners, orders teas and Yorkshire parkin for his guest. Tomos remarks that it’s quite like a similar Welsh delicacy: bara brith. Now it’s Wayne’s turn to look puzzled, so Tomos translates: speckled (because of the dried fruit) bread.
They sit on opposite sides of the small, round, red gingham plastic tableclothed table, hands wrapped around mugs, taking each other in. They still can’t really get over it. It’s like looking in the mirror. Helen had wanted to come too, but Maureen had gently suggested that, this first time, the boys might prefer to be alone together.
Wayne breaks the rather awkward silence that has fallen since the food small talk.‘Well I just can’t get over this: us being identical twins an’ all, can you?’
Tomos agrees. ‘Yes, it was a pretty amazing discovery. I don’t know why my parents didn’t tell me sooner. About being adopted and having a twin as well. Then we could have tracked you down before now.’
‘Yeah, true. Poppy and me have known about the adopted thing for over a year now, but not about me having a twin.’
Tomos says, ‘It’s funny how it’s worked out, isn’t it? Just think, my parents went to that children’s home before yours, when we were there together, and if they’d decided they wanted both of us, we’d have stayed brothers and been brought up together. That’s quite a thought isn’t it?’
Wayne grins. ‘Certainly is! I always wanted a brother really. Poppy’s alright, she’s a good kid, but she’s just at that awkward age now, you know? She’s a pain in t’ neck sometimes, quite honestly.’
Tomos also smiles, relaxing a little. ‘Yes, my sister went through a phase like that too. In fact it was a long phase with her; lasted until she was eighteen and went to uni!’
The smile on Wayne’s face slips just a fraction. Bloody hell; here we go again! He forces himself to be civil. ‘Your sister though; she’s a lot older than you, isn’t she?’
‘Yes, nine years. And she’s my parent’s biological daughter. Although my parents treat us equally; always have done.’
‘That’s good,’ Wayne says approvingly. ‘It would be horrible if they favoured her. Do you get on well with her, her being so much older and everything?’
‘Yes, I do really. Although she’s left home now, anyway. She teaches at the uni she went to, in Cardiff.’
‘Yeah, right.’ Wayne wishes he’d stop talking about sodding university.
But Tomos expands. ‘Yes. Actually I went on a demo a couple of months ago, with her and her partner. To London. Protesting about the bombing of Afghanistan.’
The smile deserts Wayne’s face altogether now. He repeats the monosyllable, but unenthusiastically. ‘Right.’
He feels any newly-discovered sibling affection evaporating. Oh, really, he thinks darkly. One of those, are you? What do they call them now; conscientious objectors or something? You think we should just stand by and let these murdering terrorists do what the hell they like, do you?
There’s another awkward silence. Wayne feels disinclined to talk. But they can’t just sit and say nothing. Tomos searches for another topic of conversation. ‘Er, what do you do with yourself in your spare time?’
Wayne brightens a little. ‘Well, I go to Scouts quite a bit. Not quite as much as I used to though, now I’m going out with Helen.’
‘She looks a nice girl,’ Tomos says politely.
‘Yeah, she’s great,’ Wayne enthuses, his eyes alight again, back on uncontentious ground. ‘I’m lucky, I reckon.’
He pauses, debating whether to confide in his brother. ‘Only thing is, she’s not keen on me joining t’ army, so I might try for t’ police instead.’
‘Yes, well I can imagine the police being quite an interesting career,’ Tomos says rather icily.’ You’d have good opportunities for promotion, I should think.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I thought,’ Wayne says levelly. He hasn’t failed to spot the slightly condescending tone of Tomos’s voice. ‘It’d certainly beat Tesco’s, any day of t’ week.’
Tomos nods agreement; makes no comment. The conversation drifts onto other things as they explore each other for commonalities of interest or outlook, but don’t, as far as Wayne is concerned (and he’s a little irritated by it) find very many. Wayne asks Tomos whether he’s got a girlfriend and gets a curt, lets-not-go-there, ‘No’. They talk about their childhoods, exchanging early memories of growing up in such different environments. Wayne has to admit to himself that he’s impressed by Tomas’s bilingualism, and tells him so. He can’t really get his head around the idea of a part of Britain speaking another language, and is astonished when Tomos says that his perfectly-spoken (and better than Wayne’s, actually) English is his second language, and waves the flattery aside as if it’s no big deal.
Wayne gets onto the subject of their mysterious biological parents.
‘Do you know owt about our real mum and dad?’ He stares at his brother, hoping he knows more than he does, which is bugger-all, really.
Tomos smiles wryly; shrugs. ‘No, very little. They seem to be a complete enigma.’ He notices Wayne’s blank, faintly hostile gaze. ‘Er, a total mystery. I don’t think my parents know anything about them. All they know is: we two were abandoned. In a ladies toilet in Liverpool. You weren’t told that then?’
Wayne’s eyes are wide; irises perfect white-bordered orbs.
‘Yes, apparently so. That’s what my parents were told.’
Wayne’s voice has risen, angry. The couple with the child cast disapproving glances in their direction.
Tomos semaphores him to keep his voice down. ‘Well they just don’t know really I suppose, if we were foundlings. There may not even have been a couple. Perhaps just a woman. Or a teenage girl who just couldn’t cope. Who knows?’
Wayne’s face is drained, stricken. ‘Jesus Christ! The bitch! So we were just dumped, like? Like a litter of unwanted pups or summat?’
Tomos is rather shocked by the vehemence of his resentment. ‘Well, as I say, no-one seems to know the facts. But it sounds as if it was probably a pretty desperate situation. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge them or her too harshly.’
‘Judge?’ Wayne cuts in, furious. ‘Why the hell not? It’s diabolical! Don’t you think so?’ He glares at his brother, daring him to disagree.
Tomos raises palms in supplication. ‘Yes, of course it was. But we did okay, as it turned out, didn’t we? We ended up with good adoptive parents who love us. Well I certainly did. Didn’t you?’ He looks at Wayne, anxious that it might not be so.
Wayne is slightly mollified. ‘Yeah, right. Us did. Can’t complain, really.’
He grins, but with teeth gritted. ‘But even so, the thought of it. Being just chucked away like that. Not wanted.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Tomos sympathises. They lapse into private silences.
After a while Tomos picks up the conversation. Wayne, soon out of his mood, joins in. They speculate as to whom they inherited their red hair from: their real mother or father. They compare notes about being teased about it, and it seems to Wayne that his experience has been worse.
At five-thirty, when Penny ejects them from the cafe, they make their way back to Wayne’s home to find the adults getting along famously. Helen casts slightly accusatory looks at Wayne when she reappears from Poppy’s bedroom. Maureen, with Helen’s help, conjures up her buffet-style meal.
Finally, at ten in the evening, a taxi is summoned to convey the very mellow Rees’s and their son to their Bed and Breakfast. It has been, Jim and Maureen agree too, a wonderful getting-to-know-you.
To round off, and this has nothing to do with adoption but everything to do in its first part with familial love, is another chapter of Wishing for the Better.
Wishing for the Better/13
So far, apart from describing the disastrous periods of my life, I’ve enjoyed writing my chronicle. This coming section is going to be anything but enjoyable though. The following day I went to stay with Derek, to do a dog walk. It was a newly opened one near him in aid of the Macmillan cancer charity. I felt that I could safely be away for a few days, and I had to earn money where I could. In those pre-mobile phone times, I had left Derek’s number with Robert in case he needed to contact me urgently. Today it’s considered normal to be constantly in touch on a daily, if not an hourly basis, but I had become insular, and would bitterly rue it.
The few days passed and I did all that I’d planned to do. On the Friday morning, Derek and Jane had gone to work and I was preparing to leave. Their telephone rang. Assuming it would be a call for them, I didn’t pick up. I returned to Henblas, and as soon as I got through the door I was straight on the phone to Robert to see how things were. Jenny had died a few hours earlier. It had happened with appalling suddenness. I had no idea that it was so close. The phone call I’d so stupidly ignored was from Sarah, to tell me that Jenny was fading away. I would not have got back in time – Pembrokeshire was quite a long way further on from mid Wales – but I should have rung the previous day to stay in touch. Then, as I’d been present when she struggled into the world, so I would have been there when she left it, so cruelly before her time.
After a shocked call to Sarah, who gave me the details of Jenny’s final hours, I rang Derek at work to ask if he’d look after Bethan for a few days. It would be easier if she were temporarily out of the way. Bless him, he left work and drove immediately all the way to Wales, virtually following me over, to pick her up, leaving me free to rush to Pembrokeshire.
We had a simple funeral for her in the chapel of Neyland cemetery. The chapel was touchingly full. I composed a short eulogy. People told me afterwards that it was beautiful, but I thought it pathetically inadequate. It didn’t begin to say all the things I should have said to her, and now couldn’t. We decided on cremation, and Simon and I visited a garden centre to buy a commemorative tree. We chose a weeping, flowering one: it seemed appropriate. The checkout lady, innocently unaware of the reason for the purchase, wished us Happy Gardening.
The day after the funeral we – just the family – gathered to put her in the ground. Steph gently placed her casket, as we silently watched. Poor Steph: how hard that must have been. No one could think of anything to say. Later I designed and had made a plaque to go at the foot of the tree. It said simply:
1966 – 1996
who brought light into the world
for thirty years.
That said it all. Four months later at Christmas there was an incident almost more heartbreaking than her death itself. Knowing that she wouldn’t be with us then, she had bought us all Christmas presents in advance. Steph and Sarah knew about this and had had the terrible task of wrapping presents to themselves, but it came out of the blue to me. It completely floored me.
There’s the old cliché that time heals. Well, perhaps it does on a superficial, day-to-day, moving on sort of basis. But the scar will never go away. Nearly eighteen years on, I wept to write this. When I think of her it still hurts. I still feel the anger that she was so outrageously robbed of possibly two thirds of her life. To slightly misquote Dylan Thomas: she went gentle into that good night, (she would) but I still rage, rage against the dying of her light.
Jenny enriched us all with her sweetness and inner beauty. For the years, the too few years that I knew her, she was a blessing.
But life would have to move on of course, and it did, but it would be many months before I stopped thinking about her at least once every day. I was fortunate that I had something to mentally occupy me; I was at the start of another project. It was good distraction therapy.
First there was a problem to solve. The little house was only two bedroomed. I didn’t want to sacrifice one of them for a bathroom. But that would mean putting it downstairs, with a third bedroom (I wanted to have three for selling-on purposes) and a separate dining room, in an extension. Doing that would mean building a large single storey addition behind the house that would be out of scale with the original. Also, apart from not being the most practical place to put it, it would be problematical locating a bathroom downstairs. The ground sloped diagonally up behind the house and the cottage next door, which had a septic tank in its garden. On buying Henblas (I learned it meant ‘Old Palace’ in English) I had acquired the right to share this. But there would be no fall for drainage to it from a ground floor bathroom behind my house. The only other alternative would be a two-storey extension with the bathroom upstairs, but that would have been a lot more difficult to build logistically, involving removing part of the back slope of the existing roof at some point. Not having built anything as ambitious as an extension yet, I didn’t fancy the prospect.
But sketching possibilities on paper, I discovered a reasonable solution. The larger of the two existing bedrooms ran from front to back of the house, with windows front and rear. It could be divided into a front single room and a rear bathroom, which would drain via an ordinary external soil pipe to the septic tank. The other one, slightly reduced to give a little more space to the single bedroom and create a small landing giving access to it, would still be large enough to be a viable double bedroom. Then, there could be a simple two-room, single storey extension, giving a dining room and a third bedroom or study. Problem solved quite neatly.
Remembering the early sanitary improvisations we’d had to make at Kingsnordley, the first priority was installing a toilet and connecting it to the septic tank. It wasn’t too difficult, and to begin with the bathroom facilities consisted of just the toilet sitting in solitary splendour in the corner of the still undivided bedroom. Washing was done downstairs in the Spartan kitchen, which had water heating provided temporarily by the bottled gas heater I’d used at Penrorin. It was all a bit basic, but I’d been there before. Things soon began to improve though: I installed a bath, so now I could enjoy proper submerged ablutions, and then they became positively luxurious when I added a washbasin. Then they even became private (although that wasn’t particularly an issue as I lived alone) when I repartitioned the walls to form the new room layout.
I don’t know why I did it really, as I’d drawn full detailed plans for Penrorin myself, but I called in a man who advertised architectural plan drawing services. He made several visits, took copious measurements and charged quite a lot of money, but produced only plans and elevations which I could easily have done. It seemed that as it was a fairly simple proposal, full plans weren’t required anyway. Oh well, I told myself, you live and learn.
Because full planning permission wasn’t required, the simple plans were processed quite quickly and I was soon able to start. The first job was to excavate a large chunk out of the sloping back garden. I hired a mini-digger, and Rob from the Penrorin days, who enjoyed himself operating it. As he began to claw huge gobbets of earth away, large stones were exposed. I hovered nearby, eagerly seizing and putting them to one side. They could be used for the outer face of the extension walls. Because it was, quite literally, local stone, it exactly matched the stone of the existing cottage. When I’d finished the extension you could hardly tell new-build from original: it was very pleasing. It was also quite gratifying that it didn’t cost me a penny.
I found that I’d really fallen on my feet as far as good neighbours went. The ones next door were tremendously nice. May was a plump little twinkly-eyed lady, the quintessential all-purpose mum/ granny/favourite aunt. She was lovely. She lived with her similarly built bachelor son, Michael, who was equally nice. Looking at them sitting comfy either side of their fireplace, they seemed more like an elderly married couple, a cosy Darby and Joan, than mother and son. Every now and then May would invite me in for Sunday lunch, and I would suspend my vegetarianism so as not to offend. Across the road lived Ceridwen and Emlyn, who was a dead ringer for the verger in Dad’s Army. It was uncanny, and always made me secretly smile. Devout chapel-goers, they were just as hospitable. And there was the added bonus that Emlyn was a retired builder (well, supposedly retired: although turned seventy he still did work around the village) and therefore a very useful neighbour to have. He helped me install my bath, and resolutely refused any offer of payment.
Then there was Ruby and Glyn who were farmers from just outside the village. Ruby was amazing. Even by the high standards of Llawryglyn, she was famous for her hospitality. Often, I’d be working outside and see her approach in her car. She’d screech to a halt, climb out and shout, more in the manner of an order than an invitation, ‘Come to supper! See you at six!’ There was no getting out of it, not that I wanted to. After the meal, I was never sure how long I was expected to stay. I would stay for an hour or so, then thank them profusely and leave. These people were all terribly nice. I’d been forewarned about it by Dai from Penrorin, and he was absolutely right. It was as though they were all vying with each other to make me welcome, in some sort of contest. Or perhaps, living alone, I came across as slightly pathetic and in need of kindness. Perhaps I brought out the ladies’ mothering instincts.
1996 became 1997. All this kindness was wonderful, but my thoughts began to turn again to the romantic. After the catastrophe and hurt of Liz, followed by the much greater upset of the loss of Jenny, I felt in need of emotional sustenance. Surely there must be a nice suitable lady out there somewhere waiting for me? I tried another lonely-hearts advert, this time in the dog magazine I wrote for. Surely a fellow dog lover stood a fair chance of being a kindred spirit? As I’d found before, there was quite a good response, and as before I found myself in the position, as the advertiser, of being the one doing the choosing. The most appealing respondent was a lady of about my own age who seemed
to share my outlook and attitudes in many ways (although perhaps not quite as radically), and almost by definition, this time was a dog owner. So there’d be no conflict there. She was a semi-retired schoolteacher, which appealed, was also divorced and also Left-leaning. The only downside was that she was hardly local: she lived in Hertfordshire. It would have to be a rather long-distance relationship, to say the least.
I replied, and my letter quickly led to telephone contact. We got along famously. We seemed to reach a deep level of agreement and rapport surprisingly quickly, fuelled I suppose by common need. I blush to record it now, but I felt myself rushing unstoppably into yet another love affair. And all this on the telephone, without even meeting. Each call cranked up the longing further. It became unbearable. She confessed to similar feelings. I suppose we were equally vulnerable, similarly needy. We arranged a meeting. Rather ungallantly, I suggested she come to me. She was intrigued by my description of the cottage and my plans for it; and of Llawryglyn. It was a world away from her conventional modern house in Home Counties suburbia. Maybe I came across a tempting rebel, a romantic gypsy boy (albeit a middle aged one) who would rescue her from her mundane life. Perhaps I made it sound idyllic.
So Mary came to see me, cautiously booking into a bed-and-breakfast for the weekend rather than staying with someone she’d yet to actually meet. It was all terribly intriguing and exciting; she’d sent me a photo of herself but said that as far as she was concerned, my appearance was irrelevant. So I got away with just a description of myself. It was a wonderful weekend of further discovery. We could each now put a face to the disembodied voice we’d spent so long talking to and fervently agreeing with. I wasn’t disappointed, and I don’t think she was either.
The relationship quickly developed into visits every other weekend: almost always her coming to me. Again that seems selfish of me, looking back. Perhaps it was. But she did seem eager to do it, and see the progress I’d made on the house in the intervening period between visits.
And there were two other factors: even as a semi-retired senior teacher she was quite a lot more affluent than me – she could easily afford the cost of a long journey every fortnight; and (I repeat: perhaps selfishly) I had to keep at it with the project. The more time spent working meant the sooner it would be finished, the sooner onto the market and the sooner the capital unlocked. A long weekend (taking into account the travelling time) away on a regular basis would be quite a lot of time out. On the other hand, I wasn’t so selfish as to expect to spend the weekends when Mary visited working on the house, as I normally did.
One thing I soon discovered about Mary as opposed to Liz was that she was not at all practical. So, whereas Liz was happy to spend weekends with me doing the same sort of activities I liked doing for relaxation, like gardening, or for that matter working on the barn, Mary preferred the more conventional things like days out visiting places or shopping. That was fair enough, I could see; she was travelling a long distance for her weekends; she didn’t want to spend them being dully ‘domestic’. Although with her, we did have the commonly enjoyed activity of walking our dogs. And it was surprisingly pleasant, I discovered, to spend every other weekend doing what normal people do.
It wasn’t too long before we were talking in terms of living together one day. I found myself being unusually sensible though. Remembering my last experience – and her divorce hadn’t been amicable either – I suggested that if we did so, there’d have to be a clear understanding of what would happen in the event of failure. Perhaps it would even have to be legally binding, like a prenuptial contract but without the marriage. She fully agreed. But anyway, we were not going to rush it. She had a few more years to go in her part time job, and there was also the issue of her parents. They were in their eighties and Mary was their only offspring. The three were bound closely in a web of emotional interdependence. When one parent died this would obviously only increase. The only scenario Mary could imagine if she came to live with me would be if her parents moved to Wales too. The sensible part of me was a little dubious about that. It would be a tremendous upheaval for an old couple, and what if things didn’t work out? It would be an enormous risk to ask them to take.
But if this was a possible problem for the future, we were both studiously ignoring it. I was putting it to the back of my mind and she was convincing herself that they’d be quite willing to relocate in a very radical way late in life. Meanwhile, I quite liked the arrangement as it was – although usually I didn’t have to do the travelling. It seemed quite a good situation: having the emotional security of a partner with whom I spent a reasonable amount of time and on whom I could rely, without the possible pitfalls of full cohabitation. After the stress of the latter part of the last relationship and its painful aftermath, this seemed an ideal compromise. And I could still spend most of my time living my chosen lifestyle. But, as I keep saying, perhaps it was selfish really.
As for the love aspect, it felt pretty much like the marriage had done. The initial excitement of new (and still, even in middle age, testosterone-charged) love had waned, but I enjoyed her company. It was nice having a companion, someone quite like-minded, to talk to. It had been that side of my marriage that I’d most treasured, before complacency had thrown it away. I supposed that this was low-key, marriage-type love. So the relationship cruised pleasantly along.
Meanwhile, the project was going well. By the Christmas of 1997 I had the extension finished. I’d used second hand slates for the roof and the end result blended very nicely into the old building. Although I say it myself, it looked quite good. Now came the other good bit: renovating the sitting room. Henblas hadn’t, fortunately, suffered wholesale modernisation, but some pretty nasty things had been done to it all the same. I never discovered how old it was, but it must have been quite aged. Neighbour May told me that it had originally been single storeyed. She had a wonderful old photo, taken some time around the turn of the twentieth century, of her ancestors with a very diminutive Henblas in the background. (I borrowed it and had it copied: it’s now one of my treasures.) It was certainly old enough to have a big wide inglenook fireplace occupying most of the gable wall of the house.
When the house was improved sometime in the early twentieth century by having a second storey added (it was done very nicely; you could hardly see the join) a modern, narrower and shallower brick chimney breast had been inserted inside the inglenook. Presumably it would have contained a black-lead range. The spare space either side was filled in, creating a false back wall. Then later again, around the middle of the 20th century at a guess, the range (if there was one) was removed and the inevitable tiled fireplace inserted. The reduced inglenook opening was wallpapered with ghastly stone effect paper, and its nice high old oak lintel was varnished a glossy dark brown and partly obscured by a tacked-on mantelshelf. That was how I found it. It was horrible.
I wanted to take the fireplace opening back as far as possible to the original. There was a slight problem though. It would be difficult to remove the brick chimneybreast because of the chimneystack above it. My predecessor at Kingsnordley had done just that, leaving the stack hanging in thin air, but I didn’t want to risk it. The two obvious possibilities were to either (riskily) remove the breast and install support for the stack, or remove both of them. But then, I wanted to retain a flue for some sort of heating appliance. I wouldn’t make the same mistake as at Kingsnordley of going for an inefficient open fire for the sake of historical accuracy. So the best thing, it seemed, was to remove the tiled fire surround, revealing the chimneybreast’s nicely arched opening and retain it within the larger inglenook. A nice woodstove would sit inside the chimneybreast.
I did that, and hacked off old (but not original) plaster from the inglenook. The back of the fireplace aperture was also taken back to original stone. This restored a sense of the original size of the inglenook. Then I removed the tacky mantelshelf and painstakingly chipped the varnish from the lintel. When it was cleaned back to clean wood, and the chimneybreast and inglenook painted a near-white colour to homogenise them with each other, the effect was superb.
But that wasn’t the end of works around the hearth. The cottage was entered at one side of the inglenook. At the opposite side, at the foot of the stairs, there was a mysterious infilling of masonry that seemed to serve no purpose. I needed to create more space in that area to make an access through the back wall into the new study/bedroom, and some of it would have to go. Removing some of the stone and rubble of the infilling, half way down I suddenly encountered a brick. Taking away more, I found another one, aligned with the first. Removing still more, a third one appeared. Interesting! This was clearly deliberate building, not simply bricks thrown in haphazardly as infill. Continuing, I began to uncover what looked like a vaulted brick top. Could this be what I was beginning to suspect it might be? I looked carefully at the sidewall of the inglenook that I’d exposed. Although some of it was obscured by the later-built false wall, I could see the outline of a filled in rectangle.
Removing a stone, my crowbar suddenly found no resistance. I waggled it around a bit to make a bigger hole and tried pushing it further in. Its entire length disappeared. Clearly, it had found a large void. Excited now, I took out more stones until I’d revealed an arched-topped aperture. I rushed to find my torch and shone it into the darkness. There was a large, circular, dome-roofed brick chamber. It was an old bread oven! What a find! This was architectural archaeology at its most exciting. The aperture I’d revealed would have held its cast iron door. Frustratingly, that was no longer there. The aperture must have been filled in when the range was fitted and the brick oven became redundant. Had I not discovered its roof by poking around at the foot of the stairs, I would never have found it. I could hardly wait to tell Mary about it when I rang her that night.
Now it had rediscovered the light of day, it needed to be displayed in some way. There probably wouldn’t have been anything visible by the foot of the stairs strictly speaking, but as I’d uncovered part of its roof now and had needed to remove masonry for the bedroom access, I left the partly exposed dome as an interesting feature. Inside the inglenook, I removed a rectangle of the false back wall adjacent to the oven opening, so that it could all be exposed. If I’d intended to stay, it would have been good to track down an authentic oven door, but I compromised and made a simple boarded wooden door, like one for a spice cupboard (also sometimes found in inglenooks) and painted it black.
Finding this fascinating relic didn’t really tell me anything about the age of Henblas. It may or may not have been built with the house. They were sometimes added later to pre-1800 cottages, but not before. Before that time poor cottagers could not have afforded to bake their own bread, and anything needing to be baked would probably have been cooked in a ‘Dutch oven’, a pot with a close-fitting lid, on the open fire of the hearth. Whenever it was installed, there appeared to be no separate flue for it. So it was probably the simplest form, which would have been heated by building a wood fire inside, bringing the oven up to heat, raking the embers out and popping the bread mixture in. The hearth is the proverbial heart of the home, and my home’s heart had certainly turned out very interesting indeed.
1998 was an eventful year, one way and another, for the various Needhams. The previous year Sarah had found herself a new boyfriend. In the August she had announced herself pregnant. Like her sister before her, she was unmarried and looked unlikely to become so. After the unconventionality of my own life, that didn’t particularly bother me. As far as Steph and I were concerned, the stigma of ‘illegitimacy’ belonged to another, less tolerant era. As long as she was happy, that was all that mattered.
On the first of May she duly gave birth to my second grandchild, a little girl. Poignantly, she was named Jenny in memory of her aunt. Sarah had had the consideration of my feelings to ask how I felt about that before she finally decided. I’d said yes, fine, touched that such a thought should occur to her. So now that name, with such sweet connotations, lives on. I’d voiced approval then, and for ninety five percent of the time I have no problem with it, but every time I hear the name spoken my thoughts immediately go back, return nearly eighteen years now, to that other Jenny. I don’t want to forget her. I want to be reminded. But to be reminded still hurts.
Things happened with Simon too. He became the only one of my children to do the conventional thing and marry. It was a surprise: still unmarried in his early thirties, I had him down for a lifelong bachelor. I suspected that, like me, he didn’t find the getting of girlfriends easy. Apart from anything else, he – again like me – had an all-consuming passion, except that his was mountaineering, rock climbing, potholing and all things outdoor. It might be difficult to divide himself fairly between all that and a spouse. So Denise was the perfect partner. She was a fellow member of his mountaineering club. (She was also a fellow accountant, but I think that’s just a coincidence). They’d known each other quite some time. She had been going out with another member of the club, but he had been tragically killed on one of their overseas climbing trips.
Simon and Denise subsequently got together, then – sensibly – lived together for a time before surprising us by getting married. The deed was done late that summer with a minimum of fuss in Slough register office, followed by a boat trip on the Thames. They seem to have the perfect relationship, cemented by a common interest. They’ve never had children, presumably as a deliberate choice. Little ones would certainly cramp their style a bit. It’s strange: after Simon seeing me as (I presume) something of a role model when we had walking holidays together, now we’re as different as chalk and cheese. Whereas I’m completely a stay-at-home-feathering-the-nest-sort of person, for Simon I think that a house is simply a roof over the head when he hasn’t got brightly coloured plastic over it. Bless him; he’s not domesticated at all.
But between these events there was another, happening to me. Earlier in the summer, Mary left me. It goes back to what I was just saying about Simon and Denise. The rift was over my own all-consuming interest. She was spending some of the school holidays with me. We planned to spend some of the time going places, but I also wanted to spend some of it working on the house.
Having done all the good bits, the next job was not my favourite: it was plumbing. I had had an oil-fired boiler installed and put in a hot water cylinder myself. Now I had to do the central heating. Proper professional plumbers – obviously – work quickly and efficiently. I, on the other hand, lacking their years of experience, take forever over it. Having learned by bitter experience in the past that more haste is definitely less speed when it comes to plumbing – making joints is the care-demanding bit – I was taking my time. Mary thought I should be devoting my time to her. I said that I had to get the job done, and then I could do so. Feeling I suppose that there was no point in being with me (simply living with me for a few days was not, apparently, enough) she returned to Hertfordshire.
On her next visit the subject came up again. There was a long conversation about me not meeting her needs. I said we had to accept each other for what we essentially were. She left again, and it was final. I found myself feeling neither upset nor relieved, which I suppose demonstrated my ambivalence about the relationship. I had been happy to cruise along the way we were, possibly oblivious to her lack of fulfilment. I didn’t want to be the one to do the rejecting again: the one causing the hurt.
I’d reached the conclusion that no relationship is perfect: I was content to rub along, accepting things for what they were. But she wanted more than that, which was absolutely fair enough. So that was it: the end of another beautiful friendship. Perhaps it was never really viable while her parents were alive. And it wouldn’t have been fair to expect her to continue with this long-range situation for what might have been years. Speaking selfishly, at least this time it hadn’t progressed to full time cohabitation and there was no sordid dispute about money. Perhaps, having spent so many years solo, I’d become a natural bachelor, generally happy to exist alone. I could take a relationship if it was reasonably stress-free, but preferred to leave it if it wasn’t, and was certainly not troubled by loneliness. Perhaps there’s a relationship-making gene, and it’s not very dominant in me – to the extent that I wouldn’t now enter a relationship just for the sake of being in one, anyway. Or perhaps I’m just plain selfish. Lots of ‘perhapses’. I would make one final attempt to find a soul mate the following year, but it didn’t get off the ground (I was rejected again), and after that I gave up on ladies.
So now I was back on my own, and able to concentrate fully on finishing the project. I completed the kitchen, doing it in much the same simple, understated way that I’d done Penrorin. Upstairs I finished the bathroom, insulated and dry lined the walls and decorated the bedrooms. Downstairs the extension rooms were decorated, the other walls insulated and the usual insulated shutters made for all windows. The last and most satisfying job was to finish decorating the sitting room. It looked so, so much better than when I’d first seen it. It was one of the most successful interiors, as was the project as a whole, that I ever did.
That left the outside. I re-pointed the stone work where necessary and painted the brick window and door surrounds grey on both original cottage and extension, to further unify the whole; and decorated windows and doors. I created a gravelled off-road parking area and made double wooden gates. Lastly there was some landscaping work to do. I used left over stones that were too big and irregular for house walling to build a retaining wall-cum-rockery around the extension and planted it up with shrubs and alpines. The final result, taking house and garden together, was tremendously pleasing.
So by June 1999 it was time again to go on the market. The agent suggested £50,000 – a 100% increase on my buying price. Although this was a lot less than I’d realised on Barratt’s Hill, like Bridgnorth Road it would prove to be one of my most successful and rapid sales. The first week on the market brought several enquiries. Among them was a young Welsh couple who were seeking a rural place from which to run an outdoor pursuits business. They were very taken with Henblas and loved what I’d done to it. They thought it would suit them down to the ground. The day after their visit I heard that they’d offered the asking price. I was delighted. But then another, middle-aged couple came to look. I told them that I’d been offered my price, but they still wanted to look round. They too were impressed. Later that day the agent rang to say that they’d also made an offer, a higher one of £50,500. Yes, I said, yes please, I’ll take it. But then, an hour later, the agent was back saying the first couple had raised their offer to £51,000. This was unbelievable: I was in an auction! When I thought that this must surely be it, the agent rang yet again to say the second ones had raised their offer yet again, to £51,500.
At this point the young couple, disappointed, withdrew. They’d reached their limit of affordability. I felt sorry for them: they seemed to have their hearts so set on Henblas. So it went with the others, and this had all happened within five days. It was Bridgnorth Road all over again. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Now, of course, there was the sudden urgent need to find another place. I’d been keeping an eye on the local agents’ windows, but there seemed to be few candidates to do up on the market. Another one like Henblas had been, priced at around £30,000, would have been ideal. As it had done in England before, the market in Wales for places to renovate had dried to a trickle too. I tried looking further afield, taking exploratory trips further to the south to towns like Llandrindod Wells and Builth Wells. I did find one or two places at agents there (although, as I kept being told, they were usually snapped up very quickly) but being close to the English border the prices they could command were higher. I would have had to pay as much to re-buy as I’d be getting for Henblas, and that wasn’t the object of the exercise. To keep the scheme going, I needed to trade down.
I found myself going further and further south in my desperate search. I looked at a place in a not very pretty former mining village south of the Brecon Beacons national park, swayed by the fact that my final potential partner lived down the road in Swansea. It was an Edwardian villa, cheap enough to afford and capable of becoming nice, but (I had ruefully to admit) in not very nice environs. Then the would-be relationship petered out anyway, so the decision as to whether or not to go for the house was made for me. I was quite relieved to withdraw my interest in it.
Finally, back further north again in Llandovery, I saw a cottage advertised on the outskirts of a village, Llangadog, on the western edge of the national park. I went to have a look. The first thing that struck me was that it wasn’t well sited. It was in a row of houses beside the busy A40, the main trunk road into south-west Wales. Remembering how I’d hated a similar situation before, at Hilton, I knew that it was a negative.
On the other hand, the cottage itself was quite pretty, or at any rate potentially so. It was a semi of early nineteenth century vintage and clearly in need of rescue, joined to a rather dreary partner, but with a slightly unusual feature. There was a porch, obviously a later addition, not on the front but on the gable end. It had flat concrete top with a balustrade of wavy-edged masonry. It was really quite pretty. External steps led up to the top of the porch and a door opened into the upper storey. (I would later learn that it was to give a very large lady who’d lived there in the past easy access to the bedroom, avoiding the very narrow and steep internal staircase.)
There was a single living room in the original cottage. It was tatty and utterly charmless, with a pine-boarded chimneybreast and a 1970s stone fireplace. Ceiling joists had been rustically ‘distressed’ (that is: had pieces deliberately chipped out of them). At the rear there was a dining kitchen in a later-built, substantial, single-storey rear extension of brick. The asking price was £35,000 and it had been on the market for some time. The owner, a young woman from Norfolk, had returned there and was anxious to sell. It was intimated by the agent that a lower offer might be accepted.
I returned home and thought about it. Certainly, it wasn’t in a situation that I’d choose. But then I wasn’t yet ready to be looking for a final place, so it didn’t really matter. On the other hand, from a practical point of view Llangadog was a large enough village to support a small supermarket and several other shops, with the towns of Llandovery and Llandeilo five miles away in each direction. And the house itself could be made quite desirable. And the price was about right. I rang the agent and offered £30,000. He put it to the seller, who said she’d accept £32,000. We agreed on that. It would mean net sale proceeds to me of £17,695 – less than I’d realised moving from Penrorin to Henblas, but just about enough to live on, frugally, and fund the doing up.
I think that at this stage in my house renovating career I was rather in a state of denial. It was clear that with each sale the trend was one of diminishing returns. I was quite happy, considering the glimpses of unconventional living I’d had in the past, to live a low-income, pretty non-materialistic sort of life. And the loss of Jenny had certainly put things in perspective. But there were limits to the extent to which you could do this of course. I certainly wasn’t bothered about things like having a new car every other year now, although I was ignoring the fact that my present one was now eleven years old and couldn’t last forever. At some point I’d have to find the money for a replacement.
It was a pity that I couldn’t make more of a go of writing. During the time at Henblas I’d continued doing articles now and then, still restricted somewhat by thinking that I could only write credibly about things I was either reasonably well versed, or at least very interested in. So (with the exception of a couple of walking articles for camping and motor home magazines) most of what I did was for the dog magazine, which although it was quite enjoyable to do, wasn’t highly lucrative by itself. I did more dog walks in mid Wales and then spread the net as far as I reasonably could, travelling to Shropshire, Worcestershire and even south west Cheshire to do others. But throughout the Henblas days I didn’t earn more than £1,000 in total. If only I could have earned a viable living writing: then I could have stayed in my lovely little house, with my lovely neighbours, in Llawryglyn.
But as far as I could make out, it just couldn’t be. I’d made my rather unusual bed: now I must continue to lie in it.
The sale of Henblas went smoothly, and so did the purchase of Ashfield Row. Although it had a name (Gerallt: Gerald in English) it was the only house I would have in Wales that had a number. Soon the time came for departure. The stay here had started with heartbreak, and it would end with a different sort of sadness: that of reluctant leaving. Rob agreed to help me move for a third time. It being long-distance, I hired a pick-up truck to move my building stuff myself, and then a large box van for the furniture. On the final moving day Rob arrived with the van and his two young sons, along for the ride. We loaded up and he set off, leaving me to say my goodbyes and follow in my car.
I walked around the village, bidding farewell to all my good friends, feeling quite traitorous. I’d previously gone to say goodbye to John, Freda and Bob Morgan and left them feeling profoundly sad. There were many expressions of regret at my going and exhortations to call in when I was in the area.Then I returned to Henblas and knocked on neighbour May’s door. ‘Come in and have a bite to eat before you go’, she said, hospitable to the last.
‘Thanks, but I’ll have to be quick’, I said, ‘my mate’s already left’.
I followed her inside, and could have wept. Her idea of a ‘bite to eat’ was a full laid-out buffet, with sandwiches, sausage rolls, Welsh cakes (drop scones), traditional Welsh bara brith (rich treacly fruit loaf) and cakes of many varieties. It must have taken her ages to prepare it all. Dear, sweet kind May. She wanted to give me a good send off. She bustled around brewing a pot of tea as I set to trying tackle all this bounty, but it was just too much. I would have been there for hours. I dearly wished I could be. But it was no good. I had to set off in pursuit of Rob (he would get there long before me and be sitting waiting). After gulping down the tea and nearly making myself sick trying to cram in as much food as quickly as possible, I had to kiss her, apologise and guiltily take my leave.
That was such a kind thing to do. She really didn’t deserve what would happen a couple of years after I left: her son Michael, her comfy companion and also a lovely man, was to die in his forties of a heart attack. Later still, another son would also die. Poor May.
I drove out of the valley of Llawryglyn that day with a very heavy heart.