Throughout 2011, I was living under the threat of being made redundant, following the completion of a building project to convert my place of work, a historic house, into a hotel. When the axe fell, I was actually relieved. I had been employed as a domestic caretaker for four years, having previously been the reluctant manager of a failing B&B and weddings business – in he same house. The ‘caretaker’s flat’, which I occupied rent-free, was in any case becoming untenable: I had endured two winters of unpleasan severity, without heating or water. I was now being marmorialised in stone dust, plastered in mud whenever I ventured out, and vibrated by drilling all day until my teeth fell out!
In fact, the owners decided to ‘let me go’ at the end of January 2012, imagining (wrongly) that the project would be sufficiently advanced to enable them to employ a ‘proper manager’. Happily, they were persuaded to package it as a redundancy and I received three months’ pay, which I am living on. Being otherwise homeless, and having inherited in 2010 a share of a family investment trust, in September 2011 I diverted the capital to buy a small house locally; so that I would have a roof over my head, and to accommodate our son while he was still at school.
I moved into the house on 1 February. From this point on, July 2012 began to swim into focus as a watershed. My ex-wife had managed to sell our house, and was anticipating completion in early April, whereupon she and I would realise our shares of the equity. Enough to enable me to live for a time, to make improvements to my new home, to pursue new opportunities; but it would also prevent me from claiming benefits. By July, our daughter would have graduated, our son have finished A-levels and be preparing to go to university himself. I would have no further family or work ties to the area. But what to do, how to live?
My plans, still unresolved, centre on one dilemma: stay, or go? Practically everyone I have known for the past ten years lives in this area. If I can be said to have friends, they are mostly all here. The supports, the groups I’ve joined and work with, are here. Yet something is pulling me away: I like my little house, but I don’t like the area much or, in general, the people.
Various teasing options soon arrived: a response to my placing my CV on a caretakers’ website opened up a possible opportunity to live (free) and work (also free) in the South of France. This would resolve half of the dilemma: if I decided to sell my house in town and buy a retirement home in France, for not much less money, what would I live on? The answer was now clearer: with free accommodation, I would have potentially £500 a month rent, either from my house in the UK, or from buying and renting-out a house in France until I was ready to move in.
As so often happens in such cases, I have not heard from the property owners again since the interview. In the meantime, I have been offered a conditional place on a degree course, that I applied for months ago – conditional, that is, on surviving a terrifying audition. It would almost certainly require me to sell the house here and buy a place to live near the university; renting-out would not produce enough income. But again, what income would I then rely on, if my remaining capital was going to be swallowed up by tuition fees of £9,000 a year? And did I really want to embark on an intensive, four-year degree course at the age of 63, rather than have an agreeable lifestyle pootling in the sunshine with a bit of music, painting and writing to fill one’s days?
I wish that I really felt my age, and did not continue to harbour ambitions, as the prospect of doing nothing forevermore horrifies me. How hard could it be, just to buy a mountain shack, a firewood axe and a woolly cardigan and become an old bloke living alone with his dog? Instead, I am having private coaching in music, acting, singing – without real prospect of a career. Certainly, those professions pay only the top few per cent a living, so competitive are they. My confidence waxes and wanes with the coffee percolator.
Having assets but too little income is a genuine bind: you can purchase whatever fantasy lifestyle you can afford to entertain, a house, a car, but only as a two-dimensional construct. The more important dimension is not how you live, but who you become in the process? Apart from my selfish pursuits, I have no real purpose without some kind of employment to square the triangle, as it were. I suspect that no longer being in a relationship except with my lovely dog-boy may also be at the heart of it: after 32 years of marriage I don’t feel in the least bit lonely, I can take care of myself; but it might be nice to have an equal partner to share with.
Anyway, I have signed-up to do a qualifying course as a ESL teacher. This will occupy the whole of July, after which, if all goes according to plan, I shall have a new trade to ply wherever I live. But then, what ever goes to plan? Just to see what would happen, I placed an ad in the paper offering my house, my car, some of my surplus possessions. Surprisingly, there have been replies, to which I am now expected to respond. Should I let matters run their course, see what comes up, what is confirmed rather than merely sketched? Without work, without a partner, but with a roof over my head (that I own!) and the prospect of a little money to see me through to – what? – I confess I am agreeably confused.