It is only when looking back, now that I have reached the mature years, that I realise all the sections of my life have contributed to a far superior life plan than I could have chosen. Apart from the purchase of a house and a pension plan I imagined myself a ‘free spirit’ jumping carelessly from event to event, without thought or care. I little knew all those earlier escapades and adventures were there to prepare me for the sheer joy of my sunset years.
Like most things in my mature years, moving to Asia had been bizarrely easy. I knew nothing about Asia; I didn’t want to know anything about Asia - yet this is where I ended up.
In the years before my retirement, I did all the traditional things that women from my country did. I got pushed through school to get my required A levels and then excitedly set off for University. I only saw University as a way of getting a husband (another traditional step to be taken). My parents hoped that I would find a potentially successful, ambitious man who would earn pots of money and keep me to the style and comfort of living that my parents felt I deserved. I was keen to get married (frankly, to anyone) but had no desire for children. This made getting my life-long partner a problematic task. It turned out that successful, ambitious men carefully picked their university-graduate wives to produce children, usually primarily sons. The plan was that the offspring would acquire the intellect of both university-educated parents and germinate the upper-crust, opulent dynasty that ambitious husbands yearned for.
So there I was in my 20s, husbandless and childless, but I had a degree. It was not a science degree, so clearly, I was destined for teaching or administration, which I duly did. I had no idea that in my unambitious head, I was slowly preparing myself for a ‘well-deserved’ comfortable retirement. I had chosen a job with a good pension scheme, whilst friends who were likely to breed went off backpacking to Morocco or Nepal. I would look at my dad searching to find things to do in his retirement whilst my mother furiously vacuumed the carpets, dusted relentlessly, and ensured that lunch and dinner were served at an exact hour each day. I had no idea that this was the future I was preparing myself for now that I had graduated. They at least had a child, and they hoped, eventually, grandchildren; but I only had a cat, admittedly a very loving cat, to provide me with solace and comfort.
I met a man in my 30’s. He was honestly everything my mother wanted, and she would bore her neighbours to death about the man her daughter had ensnared. He was ferociously ambitious, successful, and didn’t want children. He took me to live in the States for two beautiful years, and we had a glorious time in Texas and California. If only I’d found him sexually appealing, all would have been wonderful. I found to my surprise, that no matter how often he was promoted, how many books he had published, or how famous he became, despite increasing my alcoholic intake I couldn’t bear him to touch me. God knows why - I just couldn’t. After 13 almost sexless years, he dumped me for a much younger woman who presumably regularly enjoyed seeing to his sexual needs. The narrative of me being left for his ‘bit on the side’ played well into my story of the self-pitying, lonely, middle-aged woman. It never seemed appropriate to mention how much I was drinking and how I wouldn’t let him touch me.
By my early 40s, I was alone in the sitting room with just the TV and cat for company when the bloody cat decided to die. My middle-age years were not all I had dreamt of.
I was finally invited by a long-standing friend to go and live in London. My friend was a staunch feminist and had recently been dumped by her much younger husband; he disappeared with a much older woman. She was insistent that we didn’t need a man. To be clear, we definitely didn’t need a woman either! So we became celibate and were apparently enjoying ourselves! This didn’t fit my plan, so I increased my drinking. Eventually, I was lucky enough to be befriended by a neighbour who felt sure I needed Alcoholics Anonymous. I felt certain I didn’t until she casually talked about the very handsome, rich, successful men attending AA. I was now in my late-40s, and it was apparent that the older and more alcoholic I got, the less likely I was to meet the man who could magically produce the retirement of my dreams.
So I went to AA and stared around the room at the potential fodder. She was right. They were a good-looking bunch. Most wore expensive, smart suits and the shiniest polished leather shoes I had ever seen. How long could it be before I was seriously involved with one of these city slickers? Unfortunately, the alcohol clearly had to be jettisoned - these guys seemed to take AA very seriously.
I got involved with a guy whose whole life story of success, money, and length of sobriety was a complete lie. The sex was good, but his personality got more and more peculiar the longer we were together. We went on a holiday, and his behaviour was so dreadful that the hotel where we stayed said I could stay, but he could not. In my imagination, I began to notice where the cat had previously sat purring; the space was now occupied by a totally horrible man, slugging back alcohol and being vile. He was rapidly dumped from my plan.
By my early 50s, I was beginning to feel unfulfilled, rudderless, and stressed about having no plan. I tried a couple of other men - all disappointing in so many ways. So clearly, a man would not do it; that was obvious. I had by now ended up with an excellent job, a good pension for when the time came, no longer drank or smoked, and owned a house. Despite being comfortably off, I was apprehensive about my 60s looming and visualised only retirement and boredom on the horizon. It seemed that by 60, I would be sitting in front of the TV clutching a bag of sweets and peculiarly looking more and more like both my retired parents.
Feeling all was lost, and only routine tedium staring me in the face, quite phenomenally as I reached my mid-50s, I fell in love with a huge 25-year-old orang-utan called Awang. I had been granted sabbatical leave from my job. It was the ‘Thing’ huge companies did in the 2000s - to keep their staff from leaving when they got fed up. Friends of mine went to build toilets in Namibia, but I went to Borneo to play with baby orang-utans. I was trained at Kuala Lumpur Zoo and worked in the Ape Centre. However, instead of the cute, cuddly babies, I was assigned an enormous dark-brown orang-utan to be my special ‘boy’. He initially terrified me simply because of his vast body size and huge hands. However, soon I began to find I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and run to see Awang. He loved me, and I loved him - it was that simple. We would sit on either side of the cage staring into each other’s eyes. Before long I would pop a kiwi fruit into his huge mouth to watch him suck and gurgle like a child, and taking one of his offered huge hairy hands I would gently stroke it.
My daily job was to clean the cages and feed the orang-utans and chimpanzees. When the cages were emptied, I would dive in, clean up all the poo, make new beds, and proudly leave cages looking spick and span ready for their owners to return. I felt this was excellent training for my retirement future. In my imagination, I felt if forced to share living accommodations with another old retired lady, should she be gripped with incontinence during the afternoon TV session, at least one of us was trained in poo cleaning!
At this juncture, I still had the posh job in London. I couldn’t see how to include being a full-time zoo keeper in Asia and keep that big salary. So after a while, Awang and I sobbed our goodbyes and eventually, I returned to my job in London. But Asia had left an indelible impression on me, and I knew I would have to return. Distressingly Awang died before I managed a return visit.
On returning to London from Asia, I started to become increasingly anxious about my future. I had bought a house many years before, but even thinking about living in it gave me panic attacks. Surely I couldn’t work with orang-utans, recover from alcoholism, live in different countries and then end up in a small two-bedroomed house in Wales. How odd that moving into the house when I retired was THE plan, but now that the time was approaching, I was horror-struck.
I was made redundant in the middle of all this post-Asian planning. As I visualised myself packing and getting onto the train for Wales, a friend of mine asked, ‘Do you fancy China?’
In my late-50s, I set off for China. My friend had arranged for me to work at Nanchang University in Jiangxi Province. None of it meant anything to me. What would a Chinese University be like? Where was Jiangxi Province and, more importantly, where the hell was Nanchang?
Newly ‘retired’ from my posh job, clutching my recently acquired teaching certificate, I set off for China, unable to comprehend why all my friends seemed so awestruck and amazed. I had no fear whatsoever until I changed planes in Beijing for Nanchang. I was the only non-Chinese passenger on the aircraft, and the plane was full to bursting. Most passengers on the plane stared at me for the whole 90-minute journey whilst others took out cameras and took snapshots of me. All of the announcements were in Chinese. The snack was frankly alien and smelt unappetising. I watched in amazement as all the Chinese chowed down with pleasure whilst my fellow passengers stared at me uncomprehendingly as to why I was not eating.
Finally arriving in Nanchang tired, confused and frankly amazed at how truly Chinese China was, I couldn’t move for cameras stuck in my face. I realised I had mysteriously become a celebrity simply because I couldn’t speak Chinese and had blond hair. My suitcase pulled by Mr Wu was touched and stroked by as many passengers as could get near it. Mr Wu would occasionally raise his fist to make the crowds step back. I had arrived in China.
Once settled in my teacher’s flat in International House, I found how extraordinary and challenging life would be for a woman from Central London approaching her senior years. At the time, the wealth of China was just around the corner but had not yet arrived. To my shock, there was no tea or coffee, no Cafe Lattes, no coca-cola, cakes, ice cream and worst of all, no deodorant. The electricity supply was spasmodic and frequently necessitated me climbing eleven floors to get to either my unheated flat in the winter or my non-air-conditioned home during Nanchang’s summer furnace heat.
The University campus comprised 90,000 staff and students, including 12 foreign teachers (none British). UK friends were shocked by the deprivations I would be required to endure and asked what would make me stay. ‘A friend’, I said with confidence - after all, I had landed three chums already, and I’d only been there for a short while. Before long, the University asked me to sign my next year’s contract. I was exhilarated to spend time in incomprehensible China with three exciting foreign friends and instantly signed up for another year. Having signed, I was amazed when two of my particular friends told me they were going home, never to return. The plan I had envisioned for life in China crashed in front of me. The friend left was the one I felt the least affinity for; Oleksandr the Ukrainian who taught classical Russian Ballet. He could barely speak English and didn’t seem very enamoured of me as he dourly explained in broken English, ‘Russians do not like the British’ - not a good start.
I ended up staying eight years in Nanchang as Oleksandr and I became attached at the hip. He was 30 years younger than me, he was gay, and I was straight. He longed for a male friend but ended up instead with a senior UK woman. I taught him English, and he taught me true friendship.
In my mid-60s, the University told me I had now reached retirement and must leave China. Despite our ages, social and cultural differences, I couldn’t imagine moving far away from Oleksandr. Instead of flying home to my little house and tiny sitting room in the UK, I finally retired to Chiangmai, Thailand, so we could keep in close contact and have our annual vacations together.
So as I sit here in the shade of the magnolia trees protecting my pale skin from the searing Thailand sun, I reflect on all the twists and turns my life has taken. I am surrounded by friends of varying ages and backgrounds, discussing our exciting plans for the day amid frequent interruptions caused by the introduction of yet another new friend. Experiences of different countries visited or about to be explored are shared amongst us. None of this resembles how I imagined life as a 70-year-old.
My education, relationships, career choices, and alcoholism were somehow the Plan. All the romances, adventures, and nightmares were carefully choreographed and designed by fate despite my being convinced that I was in charge and I was carefully following a chosen path.
At this precise moment, whilst fate continues to weave its magic, I contentedly remain in Thailand, hoping for China to re-open its borders post-Covid so that I can meet up again with Oleksandr - who mysteriously evolved into the son I thought I had never wanted.