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?
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. ■