Back in the mid 1990s, when the Lawyer and the Vet were small we regularly holidayed in Devon. Soon enough this became a tradition – the early start, the Little Chef breakfast and the difficult choice of Butterfly farm/Otter sanctuary/model railway at Buckfast or the caves and model village at Torbay before checking into our cottage for the week.
Happy days. We loved it. So much so that when one of the cottages we stayed in, in Kingston, near Buckfast, came to be offered on a timeshare basis we decided to buy a week – the first week of the school holidays in July. This cottage was one of about ten that had been developed out of old farm buildings and which surrounded a rather magnificent old manor house.
We had been going for three or four years when we decided to invite my Mum and Dad to join us. The children could share a room and show the petting farm and the lanes around the complex to their grandparents. That year we also decided that, loving Devon as we did, we would take a second cottage in the north near Barnstaple and move on there after our timeshare week.
All the way down to Devon the children competed over who would show which grandparent what favourite thing. We took our time, having agreed to meet Mum and Dad by the manor house at 5pm – they were coming straight from their house in the New Forest.
The day was balmy, the mood upbeat and, as we pulled in front of the big house, Dad climbed out of his battered old rover with a large grin on his face.
‘Not bad, boy.’ He always called me ‘boy’. By my late 30s I’d got used to it. I could afford to be magnanimous and indulge his irritating little ways. After all we were to be the gracious hosts for the week. The Lawyer and the Vet grabbed Mum’s hands and pulled her to see the rabbits and goat. The Textiliste went in search of the milk and bread we had pre-ordered and I led Dad to meet the owner, a delightful man of military bearing and a somewhat careworn disposition, though always friendly.
Mr Wotsit (I’ve let his name slip away over time) opened the door and I introduced myself (assuming he wouldn’t remember me from a year before) and my father. ‘Mr Le Pard. Er, well, welcome. I’m er, why don’t you come into the office?’
He wasn’t his usual welcoming self. Oh well, I thought, it must be trying for him, the change-over day.
‘Now, where are we?’ Mr Wotsit pushed his glasses up his nose and fiddled with the papers on his desk. No computers back then, of course.
Meanwhile the Textiliste appeared. She raised an eyebrow. ‘No milk or bread.’
Mr Wotsit looked perturbed. “Really? I’m so sorry. Look, let’s get you booked in and I’m sure we can sort that out.’
‘There’s another car in front of our cottage.’ She said this, just stating the fact but Mr Wotsit grimaced like he was having appendix problems. ‘Oh dear.’
Time for Mum and the children to join us. ‘When can we show granny her room?’ The Lawyer was bouncing with excitement, mostly because he had been freed from the tyranny of the car seat restraint.
Mrs Wotsit joined us. Somehow, when bad news is imminent there’s a magnetism that draws people in, like to a public hanging. I think I knew something was up when I heard the milk and bread weren’t ready.
‘I’m sorry Mr Le Pard….’
If I could I would have stopped him there. Just let me ease everyone away, like rubber-neckers passing an accident, I silently begged; I didn’t need them all gawping at my inevitable demise.
‘What’s up?’ Dad was always a great person to have on your side in an argument. The bellicose side of his nature was building up a head of steam. In a way, I should have been grateful that he was making an assumption in my favour. If there’s an error, so his tone indicated, it’s not my son’s. He’s a partner in a firm of solicitors. He’s a big cheese, the grandest of fromages. It can’t be his error, whatever it is.
Instead of gratitude, I just wished he wasn’t there.
‘It seems there’s been a mistake with the dates,’ said Mr Wotsit.
‘Well,’ said the old man, growing into his self-appointed role as defender of his son’s honour, ‘what are you going to do about it?’
‘I’m sure we can sort something out,’ Mr Wotsit whispered to his wife who nodded, like this wasn’t the first time such an error had occurred.
I glanced at the Textiliste who smiled in sympathy. ‘Can you explain, Mr Wotsit, what the problem is?’
‘I’m afraid, Mrs Le Pard, that you are due next week. You are a week early. And,’ he didn’t need to add this but he was determined there was no misunderstanding, ‘ your cottage is let to someone else this week.’ That would have done but on he went. ‘And we have no spare accommodation.’
Dad looked around at the assembled multitude. At least the presence of his grandchildren excised the expletives from the next sentence. ‘He’, everyone knew who ‘he’ was, ‘He got the week wrong? How on earth do you get the week wrong?’
‘Oh it’s easy,’ said Mr Wotsit. He really wasn’t helping. ‘The school holidays are shown in red, as the high season, but these are the state school holidays. If your children are at a private school with different term dates…’ For once he left it hanging. ‘I’m sure we can find a solution.’ Even to me, now desperate for some sort of reprieve, it sounded lame.
By now Dad had shifted allegiance. ‘Let me get this right. It is Saturday evening at 5.30. In the holiday season. We don’t have any accommodation for the night let alone for this week….’
‘… next week, you have the cottage here and you are, of course, welcome…’
Dad held up a hand, ‘…next week he,’ the ‘hes’ were being increasingly emphasised, but not in a good way – he hadn’t started the finger jab yet but the jaw jut was in overdrive, ‘he has two cottages, one here and one in Barnstaple. Well, bully for him. What about tonight?’
‘Shall we have some tea?’ Mrs Wotsit looked at Mum.
Mum nodded. ‘Can I help?’
‘I need something a f…’ Dad wasn’t to be mollified by tea.
‘… damn sight stronger than tea.’
‘Scotch?’ Mr Wotsit was a shrewd judge of character.
‘Best thing you’ve said since we arrived. He…’ me again, ‘doesn’t drink.’ This was said as if it partly explained the catastrophe that confronted us.
The Textiliste put a hand on the heads to the Lawyer and the Vet. ‘Why don’t you show me the goat? I think Daddy and Grandpa want to have a little chat with nice Mr Wotsit.’
I understood her motives; shelter the children from acts of violence however justified; hide them from examples of family breakdown. But it felt like desertion.
Dad waited until he heard the front door shut behind his grandchildren.
‘How effing incompetent are you? You tell me you hold down a job? No one, surely, no one in their right mind..’ He lost thread and started again, ‘A lawyer, are you? People pay you to help them make complex decisions and here you are as useless as a chocolate teapot, as an ashtray on a motorcycle. I knew lawyers were full of bullshit but you take the biscuit,’ my dad could be extraordinarily eloquent when on a roll. ‘You know you should set up a holiday company as a side line. You could call it Dickhead Tours and plan to take people away when they don’t want to go. That’d be your USP. Pillock.’
I’ve been the subject of many of dad’s exponential rants but, fortunately, Mr Wotsit was a man with both an admirably equitable temperament and a neat line in damping down incendiary guests. ‘Mr Le Pard?’ We both turned to look. He was holding a phone to his ear. ‘I’m calling my sister-in-law. She runs English Country Cottages. Maybe something is available.’
‘Don’t be bloody ridiculous, man. It’s Saturday, it’s nearly 6 and…’
‘Could you pour us a drink Mr Le Pard? I’ll have a Laphroaig.’ Malt whiskey was probably the only thing that, right then, could have distracted Dad.
By the time he had served two generous measures, Mr Wotsit was talking to someone. Dad whispered to me, calmer now he had a medicinal glass in his hand. ‘God knows why your darling wife is so calm. If I were her, I’d have …’ Even he couldn’t decide on the punishment.
‘I think she realised you’d do it for her.’
‘Hmm. Wise woman.’ Dad slumped in a chair, nursing the amber liquid and awaited confirmation that I was irredeemably hopeless. We didn’t have to wait long.
‘Good news. There’s a cottage – about ten miles away, near Bantham – that is due to be made available next week but it is all set now. It doesn’t have the English Country Cottages’ welcome box but I agreed we would provide that. It has three rooms, a bit smaller than here and, of course, it doesn’t have all the amenities but it is…’
‘We’ll take it.’ I didn’t want to seem too keen.
Mr Wotsit beamed, luxuriating in his role as hero. ‘Shall we tell your wife?’ He picked up his scotch and led us to the hall. Mum and Mrs Wotsit appeared with the tea-things and we went outside to meet the children and the Textiliste. She has one very expressive eyebrow, her left. Just then it rose in the obvious question and I gave a small if rather vigorous thumbs up. Tea was laid on a small table, scones offered to the children and Mum poured.
‘Now Mr Le Pard.’ Mr Wotsit was back in business mode. ‘Next week. Do you want to keep your cottage here, or go to Barnstaple?’ The Lawyer led the chant of ‘here, here’ followed by the Vet and, laughing, the Textiliste. Mr Wotsit’s smile reached his ears. ‘Marvellous. I will speak to my sister-in-law and see if we cannot sell the Barnstaple week for you. No promises.’
My father had been somewhat deflated by my stroke of luck and was only just joining us at this point. ‘Sell the week? He’s not going to get money back, is he?’
‘Oh I should have thought so. Cottages are like gold dust and…’ Even Mr Wotsit was shrewd enough to realise this wasn’t good news for everyone. ‘There will of course be an administration deduction and it may not be possible to get the full rate.’
We found the new cottage easily enough. The ECC rep was helpfulness personified. I filled in the forms, wrote a cheque for the week and we moved in. The Vet’s antennae has always been acute. ‘Grandpa, will you read to me tonight?’ Dad loved reading to the children.
And so we enjoyed the week; it wasn’t as good as our timeshare, but the cottage had a swimming pool and it was only about three miles for the enormous sandy beaches at Bantham and Bigbury. Everyone had a splendid time.
The rep appeared on the Tuesday, to check everything was ok. When we assured him it was, he asked me if we could have a quick word. ‘Mr Wotsit suggested I speak to you in private,’ he glanced nervously at my dad who was feeding eggy soldiers to his grand-daughter. ‘Just to let you know we’ve managed to sell the Barnstaple Cottage for you. I have a cheque here.’ He handed it to me, folded. I opened it and slipped it in my wallet. We said no more, nodded our farewells and went our separate ways.
Half an hour later, as Mum and Dad were making ready to go out, the Textiliste sidled up to me. ‘Well, why the cloak and dagger?’
‘They sold Barnstaple.’
‘Great.’ When I didn’t volunteer any more, she said, ‘And?’
‘We made a profit. I’ve got back more than this cottage cost.’
We both looked at my father, coming downstairs with a big smile on his face as he swung the Vet off her feet. It seemed a shame to ruin the rest of his holiday.