Look, I’m not saying my life was boring. Okay, I AM saying my life was boring. Not unpleasant, not arduous, but it made the hero of Groundhog Day seem to live a positively unpredictable and spontaneous existence in comparison.
For days, weeks on end, it didn’t bother me, at least not on the surface. There was something comforting, or at any rate, something that meant I never had to feel uncomfortable about it seeming like a major event if I changed my breakfast cereal (and I didn’t really like cereal that much, but it was a habit I had got into) or went to the cinema on a Tuesday instead of a Wednesday, or used the cashpoint by the leisure centre instead of the one outside the bank itself. I had hated wearing a uniform at school, but now quite liked wearing one at work – I worked in the local Tourist Office. Okay, I suppose it was technically more of a dress code than a uniform – white or pale blue top, black or dark blue trousers or skirt, scarves and jewellery allowed, but don’t overdo it. Sometimes I half wished there wasn’t the blue/black or trousers/skirt option.
I advised visitors about places that they were sure to enjoy and that (I told myself) I might get round to visiting one day. Not that I was alone in that. There’s some truth in the cliché about never seeing the places of interest in your own neighbourhood.
Lunch was from the local sandwich bar, and though they offered a good range, I generally narrowed it down to a choice between tuna and mayo or cheese and pickle.
I had authors and music and TV shows I liked, and also told myself I might get round to trying something different. One day. Perhaps.
It was a rut. But it was a rut I was used to (which is in the very nature of ruts) and a nice rut.
Although predictable, my life was not puritanical. I had a weekly flutter on the National Lottery, and liked a glass or three of white wine (I told myself I might get round to having red for a change) and probably spent more than I should on scented candles, though I never strayed beyond cinnamon or lavender.
At times my Mother (a wonderful woman, but one who thought there was no obligation to always say what I wanted to hear) said she was worried about me being set in my ways. The “nice boy” she had hoped I would find had metamorphosed into a “nice young man” and now, as years passed, simply a nice man. But she genuinely wasn’t too hung up on that, and once said, “Look, Barbara, if you want to stay single, that’s fine, though I know you won’t thank me for reminding you about the biological clock. I just think you should be getting more out of life – a bit of excitement!”
Her mention of the biological clock gave me pause for thought, but, in all honesty, didn’t pierce below the surface too much. I liked children. I got on well with my niece Samantha, whom I generally looked after on Saturday afternoons, but she was a bright and bookish and rather droll nine year old, and babies don’t tend to come into the world in that state. I had heard her, when she didn’t know I was in earshot, refer to me to a friend as “Good Old Auntie Babs” – and she meant it affectionately, and I didn’t see anything wrong with being “Good Old Auntie Babs” – did I?
Then I won the Lotto. I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t one of those folk who, genuinely or otherwise, said it was all about helping the good causes and the money didn’t matter. I wasn’t one of the absolute mega-winners, but I was, as the saying went, set up for life. I paid off my parents’ mortgages, gave donations to two of the charities I had always supported, and then let the money sit in the bank.
I had chosen to avoid publicity, but my colleagues knew, and were pleased for me. Of course I treated them, but then carried on as if nothing had happened. I did treat myself, in a rare impulsive moment, to a linen white blouse rather than my usual synthetic, but discovered it was often more trouble than it was worth.
It was my colleague and – yes, friend – Louise who took me to task. “Listen, Barbara,” she said, as we ate our sandwiches – I had cheese and pickle and if I recall she had some combination of salmon and peppers and mustard that I’m sure were never meant to be combined. “You’re a lovely person and I don’t begrudge you your win. Do I envy you a bit? Of course I do. I’m only human. But you know what really bugs me? That you seem to be getting absolutely nothing out of it. Okay!” she held her hand up in a conciliatory gesture as I was about to protest, “I know you’ve helped your parents and your charities, and you’ve been so sweet to us, too. But I always used to get vaguely annoyed about those Lotto winners who said they’d never change a thing, and now it’s come pretty close to home, so to speak. For pity’s sake – I’m not suggesting you buy a massive mansion, or a wardrobe full of designer clothes or live on caviar – personally I always thought fish eggs sounded pretty gross, anyway! – but do SOMETHING! Have a decent holiday or – oh, I don’t know, get a new computer instead of that ancient laptop of yours. At least! I know you’ll say it’s none of my business.”
Why is it that people think that stops you saying it? Still, it worked. She sighed after we had both been silent for a few seconds. “I LIKE you, Babs! You deserve a chance to get something out of life, and now it’s come.”
“What makes you think I’m not getting anything out of life?” I asked – not angrily, but realising after the words were out I might not necessarily like the answer.
“Okay. Maybe I should have said more out of life.” She unwittingly echoed Mum’s phrase. “But you know me, I don’t watch every word.”
“I’ll think about it,” I promised – the classic cop-out.
But I did think about it. And I won’t say I had one of those Road to Damascus moments, but I acknowledged she had a point. I also realised that if I seriously intended changing absolutely nothing, then rather than just let the money sit in the bank, I should at least give it to charities and to my family and friends. All of it, or at least a very meaty chunk of it.
The trouble was – I wasn’t quite ready to do that. To burn that bridge.
In what I preferred to call a compromise, and some might have called “Boring Barbara” (I knew I had been referred to as that though people felt vaguely guilty after saying it) I decided that for me it was possible to do what politicians failed to, and to have my cake and eat it. Forgive the cliché. But you’ll have noticed I do use clichés. It’s all part of how I am.
I did get a new computer, and if it wasn’t quite high end absolutely state of the art, it certainly wasn’t one I’d even have thought of before the Lottery win, even if I hadn’t been so set in my ways. But you know what? I still tended to use my old one. I was used to it. It might be slow sometimes, but it did everything I needed. I have finally got a decent phone, too, but to be frank I still regard it as an amusing toy rather than one of life’s necessities.
I was not about to give up work or go on a world cruise or the like. But I did decide I could allow myself more than a couple of weekend city breaks a year, and extend the number of cities. And perhaps stay in a slightly posher hotel and treat myself a bit more.
This weekend I’m in Carcasonne. I’m a fan of Kate Mosse’s (the one with an “e”, not the model!) books, and suppose that tomorrow I might get round to hunting out some of the sites associated with the Cathars, and soak myself in the atmosphere and all that stuff.
I have made a point, if only to prove that point, of eschewing my usual “chain” hotel – though since my win, the chain has generally been promoted to Holiday Inn or Mariott from Ibis or Premier Inns! – and stayed in a hotel that came with universal 5 star reviews on the relevant websites. It’s in the town centre, is called the Cheval Blanc (and I suppose in the old days white goats may, indeed, have been driven past it – so far as I know the meaning isn’t purely symbolic) and has character. There’s nothing I can complain about – just the opposite. It’s a genuinely historic building that has been (as an estate agent would say) tastefully renovated, but still has wrought iron balconies, and pine panelling and a little courtyard with wisteria and weeping willow. Madame Lucas (the owner, but still quite happy to staff the reception desk) is kindness itself and a mine of information, quite a lot of it about those “off the tourist trail” places that make the guest feel privileged and in on a secret, though I suppose by now a fair number of people are in on the secret!
The last break was in Munich, and the next one is in Seville. I enjoy them. I like the feeling of being able to afford them and not have to worry about it, and to go to new places and meet new people. Of course I do.
But there’s still part of me that would swop the historical and quirky Cheval Blanc for something more sterile and familiar that could be more or less anywhere.
I still have my routines. I still need my routines. True, my self-barred cage has widened, and become better furnished, and my flyabouts are more frequent, and I often have different foods for breakfast or listen to different music, simply because they, or it, are on offer.
There are people who complain about being rich – well, I’m not one of them. It’s nice. It has its advantages. But It’s not a thrill a minute. Not that I’d want it to be.
When I first started this regular holiday business, I went through the pretence that I cut myself off from what was going on “at home” but realised that made me uncomfortable, and there was no point to doing, or not doing, something for the sake of it.
I won’t pretend the news about the Tourist Office closing was unexpected. Frankly, we had been expecting the axe for years. My colleagues seem to be philosophical – in Lou’s case, at least, even grateful. I phoned her today. “At least we know. I’m not saying certainty is always better, but I don’t think it’s any worse.”
Mercifully, there will be no actual redundancies. Jack’s nearly at retiring age anyway, Lou is being transferred to the office in the county town, where she has family connections, and Sophie will move over to the library where they’re opening what they call a Tourist Information Point, lending itself to the amusing acronym TIP, where they’ll at least have some leaflets and information, though she’ll be expected to lend a hand with the regular council work (their office is in the same building) too.
This afternoon, as I sat sipping a cup of excellent café au lait and some delicious little cakes without really tasting them, and walked round a museum Madame Lucas had advised and I was sure was fascinating, my thoughts, admittedly not for the first time, were elsewhere.
The Tourist Office on the Market Place by the church doesn’t have to close, I thought. For once I can use my money for something useful. I can easily afford the lease on the building, and employ Lou and Sophie, and Jack until he retires, and then take on someone new. I felt, in passing, like the Fairy Godmother.
That was until it occurred to me – not while I was sitting in the café or walking round the museum, but here, in my room overlooking the square, where I am now, watching the fireflies flicker round the streetlamps and the evening clouds gather over the Pyrenees – Lou and Sophie would be polite, but I doubted they’d thank me for it, and Jack had said only a couple of days ago that he had loved working there, but was looking forward to his retirement. Although the general economic climate wasn’t that great, a new supermarket had recently opened in town, and there wasn’t a shortage of jobs. I wasn’t even sure, come to think of it, if a “private” tourist office would be allowed. And even if it were – did the town need it? Would it be anything more in essence, than a child playing shop? A child who was scared of facing change.
I might still buy out the lease on the building, though there was no denying it was dingy and though there were some historic buildings in the town, it wasn’t one of them. Perhaps I would run it as some kind of private museum like the one where I had paid so little attention, but might revisit.
Then again, I might do no such thing.
It’s not as if I don’t have options.
True, I’m never going to go on an arctic expedition or buy shares in a diamond mine. I have my limitations.