Not In The Guide­book by Teresa Ashby

Tom’s par­ents had been on a round-the-world trip – but how would they re­act to the new ad­ven­ture that was wait­ing for them?

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THEY are due any moment and I’ve never been so fright­ened in my life. They have every rea­son to hate me. I’d hate me if I was them.

I would run away if I could, but there’s no es­cape. I’m in too deep. Ariadne and Adrian are go­ing to walk through that door and ev­ery­thing will change.

They took a year out from teach­ing to cel­e­brate their thir­ti­eth wed­ding an­niver­sary and went off on a world tour, go­ing wher­ever the fancy took them.

They’ve spent the past year sleep­ing in pods, ham­mocks, lux­ury ho­tels, tents and even on benches in rail­way sta­tions.

They’ve climbed moun­tains, been white­wa­ter raft­ing, vis­ited nu­mer­ous im­por­tant ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites – they even went pen­guin spot­ting in the Antarc­tic.

I’ve seen all the pho­tos of the Taj Ma­hal, Uluru and Machu Pic­chu on their Face­book page. Not to men­tion the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Lib­erty, and a per­fect white beach be­side Zanz­ibar’s crys­tal wa­ters.

But the real sur­prise is wait­ing for them when they get home.

Be­fore they left, Ariadne stuck cork tiles all over one wall in the din­ing-room and put a huge world map on it, and it was Tom’s job to track every place they vis­ited.

That’s how we met. He came into the sta­tionery shop where I work and asked if we sold pins. By the time he left we had a date.

We were up­front and hon­est with each other from the start about ev­ery­thing, or so it seemed.

“I’m stay­ing at my par­ents’ house while they’re away,” he told me. “I moved in af­ter my di­vorce, but I’ve de­cided to wait un­til they get back be­fore look­ing for a place of my own. I’m tak­ing care of the pets as well as the house.”

“It’s tough when you break up,” I said. “You don’t just lose your mar­riage, but of­ten your home, too.”

“Speak­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence?”

“Di­vorced, too. Two kids, ten and eight. You?”

“No kids,” he said. “We weren’t mar­ried long enough even to talk about start­ing a fam­ily.”

He didn’t seem at all put off. You’d be sur­prised how many men were.

“Bag­gage”, one guy had called them.

“Can’t they live with their fa­ther?” an­other asked.

I’d moved four times since the di­vorce. We’d just set­tle some­where and ei­ther the rent would go up, or the land­lord would de­cide to sell.

It had got so bad that I still had stuff packed away in boxes. It hardly seemed worth un­pack­ing them. The lo­cal re­moval firm loved me – they’d even started of­fer­ing me spe­cial rates.

I found my­self telling Tom all this and laugh­ing about my semi-no­madic ex­is­tence.

“I can’t imag­ine how dif­fi­cult it must be when you have kids,” he said, so sym­pa­thet­i­cally I al­most crum­bled on the spot.

But I’d learned that feel­ing sorry for my­self didn’t help.

“We’re used to it,” I said. The con­ver­sa­tion turned to Tom’s par­ents. He felt a dis­ap­point­ment to them, he said. They’d been fond of his wife and up­set when they split up.

“I think they still hope we’ll get back to­gether,” he said rue­fully. “Hay­ley’s liv­ing with some­one else now and we’ve both moved on. They think I’m pin­ing for her, but the truth is I just haven’t met any­one I want to be with.”

He looked at me steadily and added the words that melted my heart. “Un­til now.”

Tom be­came the most stead­fast, re­li­able thing in my life. The kids loved him. He wasn’t ter­ri­fied of them and was com­fort­able around them, not talk­ing down to them or be­ing awk­ward.

Af­ter a while, we started go­ing to his par­ents’ house for meals, and he’d show the kids their progress on the map, along­side the pho­tos on Face­book of all the places they’d vis­ited.

“I want to go to Ni­a­gara Falls when I grow up,” Nathan said.

“I want to go

ev­ery­where,” El­lie said, de­ter­mined to go one bet­ter.

“Well, you can,” Tom said. “You can go any­where you like. My par­ents had never been fur­ther than France in their lives be­fore, and now look how many places they’ve seen.”

He pointed at the map, smoth­ered in pins. Then he turned to look at me.

“We could have an ad­ven­ture like this one day. All of us.”

I’d never ex­pected to find love again af­ter be­ing on my own for six years. For a while I’d looked, go­ing to sin­gles clubs, let­ting friends “fix me up”, and even speed dat­ing, but the whole ex­pe­ri­ence had left me feel­ing it wasn’t worth the bother.

Then Tom walked into the shop and it hap­pened, just like that.

I’m still re­luc­tant to call it love at first sight. You have to get to know some­one be­fore you can say you love them, but it seemed like I knew Tom from the very start. We were en­gaged so quickly, but it just felt right.

“Once my par­ents get back from their trav­els, we’ll start look­ing for a place to­gether and set a date,” he said.

“Are you sure you want to?”

“I’ve never wanted any­thing so much in my life,” he said.

And I’d never felt as spe­cial in my life. Even in the good times my ex­hus­band had never made me feel as loved and wanted as Tom did.

Ev­ery­thing was go­ing so well. Then I re­ceived no­tice from my land­lord that he was putting the house on the mar­ket.

“I’m sorry, Me­gan, but I’m cut­ting back my prop­erty port­fo­lio. My health hasn’t been too good and I’m re­duc­ing my work­load. Is there any way you could buy the place?”

I al­most laughed at that. Me? Get a mort­gage?

“Well, it goes with­out say­ing I’ll give you an ex­cel­lent ref­er­ence for your next land­lord,” he said.

One night when he met me out of work, Tom saw de­tails of other prop­er­ties pok­ing out of my bag. “You’re mov­ing again?” “The house is go­ing to be sold,” I said.

“Shall we look to­gether?” He leafed through the par­tic­u­lars. Rents had gone up a lot in our area.

“These have only two bed­rooms, Me­gan,” he said. “Surely you need three?”

I didn’t tell him it was all I could af­ford.

“I can share with El­lie. It’s all that’s avail­able just now,” I said.

It wasn’t a lie – it re­ally was all that was avail­able in my price range.

“How about buy­ing a place?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help my­self. I had no money for a de­posit, and even if I did, I couldn’t af­ford a mort­gage.

“You’re the se­cond per­son to sug­gest that,” I said.

“Well, why not?”

He was smil­ing at me. Tom’s en­thu­si­asm and op­ti­mism was in­fec­tious and for a moment I al­most be­lieved it was pos­si­ble.

Some­times he seemed very young, with his any­thing-is-pos­si­ble at­ti­tude, and other times very ma­ture in the way he made me feel safe.

“What’s to stop us find­ing some­where now and mov­ing in to­gether? I have to stay here un­til my folks get back, to look af­ter the house and the pets.

“But we should start mak­ing plans.”

He was hold­ing my hand and pulled me to a stop out­side an es­tate agent. We looked in the win­dow.

The prices seemed way out of reach, but tucked away in a corner was a project.

It was cheap be­cause it needed a lot of work, and big enough for all of us.

For the first time in a long time, the kids would have a gar­den to play in, and it was within walk­ing dis­tance of the school.

“Let’s have a look at it shall we?” he said.

So we did. And we both fell in love with it.

Struc­turally it was sound, and the work needed was mainly cos­metic. A lot of it we could do our­selves, and I was a dab hand with a paint­brush.

It was de­cided that we’d buy it and I’d move in there with the kids un­til Tom’s par­ents got home, then he’d move in with us. Be­tween us we earned enough to cover the mort­gage.

But noth­ing in life is ever that straight­for­ward. Not for me, any­way. We still hadn’t ex­changed con­tracts when my ten­ancy ended.

“Noth­ing else for it,” Tom said. “You’ll have to move in with me at my par­ents’ house.”

Why wouldn’t I? We were a cou­ple, en­gaged to be mar­ried. My kids had al­ready started calling him Dad with­out even think­ing about it. That’s how right it was – how right we were.

But one night I saw a cer­tifi­cate on the wall of the room Nathan slept in. It was for swim­ming and it had the date and Tom’s age on it.

I kissed my son good­night and went down­stairs.

“You’re only twenty-five,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “So?” “I’m thirty-three. When Nathan was born, you were still at school. When I was go­ing through a di­vorce, you were prob­a­bly do­ing your A-lev­els.”

He looked gen­uinely per­plexed.

“What does it mat­ter? It doesn’t bother you, does it? Age is only a num­ber, Me­gan.”

I love him and he loves me, but it will mat­ter to his par­ents. Prob­a­bly to his mother most of all.

How will she feel com­ing home to find her son not only has a ready-made fam­ily, but has moved them into her home?

Will she be heart­bro­ken that the ship had well and truly sailed as far as Tom get­ting back with Hay­ley?

We still haven’t ex­changed con­tracts on our house, and the so­lic­i­tor has warned us it could take sev­eral more weeks. So there’s no es­cape. I have nowhere else to go.

I’ve ti­died up in readi­ness for their home­com­ing. When Tom left to meet them at the air­port, I was tempted to pack up ev­ery­thing and find a B&B.

But I love him and Nathan and El­lie love him. I’ve got din­ner on and the kids have strict in­struc­tions to be on their best be­hav­iour.

The car pulls up. I wait, hands clasped in front of me, ter­ri­fied, as Ariadne sweeps in, tanned and beau­ti­ful, with her sun­bleached hair piled up loosely on her head.

She looks so young, as if she could be my big sis­ter rather than my fu­ture mother-in-law.

If Tom and I are to­gether af­ter thirty years, I’ll be in my six­ties!

“You’re Me­gan?” Then she’s hold­ing out her hands, tak­ing hold of mine. “So you’re the per­son who’s put that big smile on my son’s face? Wel­come to the fam­ily.”

I laugh ner­vously. She doesn’t know how old I am. She has no idea that I have a son just fif­teen years younger than Tom.

“So where are your lovely chil­dren?”

And they ap­pear – my son who is al­most as tall as me, and my daugh­ter who isn’t far be­hind – and Ariadne’s de­light seems gen­uine. Like Tom, she has a nat­u­ral way with chil­dren, and she knows ex­actly how old they are.

Tom and Adrian come in, weighed down with bags. Adrian’s hair is white, and at first I think he’s one of those men gone pre­ma­turely grey, but as he drops the bags and comes over to greet me I re­alise he isn’t.

He’s got to be at least ten years older than Ariadne, pos­si­bly fif­teen. Maybe even more.

“So pleased to meet you,” he says, hug­ging me. “Din­ner smells won­der­ful!”

Ariadne and Adrian are just like Tom. In a mat­ter of min­utes, they’ve made me feel as if I be­long.

And I can’t wait for us to start our next ad­ven­ture to­gether. ■

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