I’d always fancied a cruise. Even as a little girl, I used to gaze in wonder at films on the television of big ocean liners leaving port, their passengers crowding the balconies, waving excitedly at someone or no-one in particular on the shore. I would dream that one day, I’d be on a ship like that, sailing off to somewhere warm and exotic.
Of course, my parents could barely afford to take my brothers and me on a week’s holiday in a caravan in north Wales. The closest we ever got to cruising was hiring a pedalo and bumping up and down on the waves at Llandudno.
As a teenager, I dreamed of meeting an older man who would fall passionately in love with me and whisk me off on a Mediterranean cruise, where we’d spend a week or two being pampered and indulged on the high seas. How exciting, I thought. How romantic, how sexy that would be!
I did eventually meet my ‘older man’. Ken, his name was. Lived a few doors away with his mum. I’d known him all my life but had never really spoken to him until that fateful day when the tyre on my bike had a puncture. He was standing on his doorstep smoking a cigarette and saw me pushing it home. He came out to help me, intercepting me half-way up the street. After he’d expertly fixed the puncture, I was so grateful I asked him what I could do in return and he said, bold as brass, ‘Come to the pictures with me tonight!’
I was just twenty. He was nearly thirty. We married the following year.
I didn’t mind that he wouldn’t let me work. He said it was a man’s job to earn the money. I kept myself busy in the little house we were renting, keeping it clean and tidy, the way Ken liked it. I couldn’t grumble. Money was tight though. Ken gave me a notebook, with instructions to write down everything I spent. It was a ritual we followed every Friday night: Ken would look at the notebook and ask me questions about what I’d spent, giving me tips on how to make the money go further. Then he would ceremoniously hand over next week’s housekeeping allowance. He gave me what he thought I needed to run the house and pocketed the rest. I never saw his wage packet, never knew how much he earned.
I asked him about it once, but you’d have thought by the look on his face that I was asking him if he was having an affair! I never asked again.
When the babies started coming, things got even tougher. He still gave me the same amount of money each week and still expected me to account for every penny. I had to ask him for money when I needed clothes or a hair-do. He never actually refused me, so I couldn’t grumble, but he always handed it over grudgingly, as if he was disappointed with me.
Just after our youngest started school, Ken got a promotion at work. ‘Well done,’ I said to him, anticipating a nice increase in my housekeeping. It didn’t happen. He claimed that there was no extra pay with the new job, just the glory of having a supervisory role. I didn’t believe him.
We had a quiet life together, no dramas or upsets. Ken never messed around with other women like some of my friends’ husbands did. And he never raised his voice or his hand to me. I couldn’t grumble. But there was little passion or excitement and no prospect of the cruise I’d always yearned for. ‘Waste of money,’ he’d say if I mentioned it. ‘And you’d only get sea-sick.’
No, Ken’s only passion in life was stamp collecting. The only time I ever saw him animated was when one of his precious First Day Covers arrived. His face used to light up like a child’s on Christmas morning. I didn’t understand it – ‘Postage Porn’, I used to call it. Ken wasn’t amused.
He kept all of his stamps in a tin box under the bed. He forbade everyone in the house from touching it, even our little Philip who was showing some interest in his father’s hobby and longed to share it with him.
When the kids grew up and left us, I was bereft. Ken didn’t seem to notice that the kids had gone, let alone that I was grieving. He continued to keep me short of money but he had by now at least dropped the weekly expenditure audit, so I suppose I couldn’t grumble.
I often paused to wonder what he spent his money on. He wasn’t a profligate man. Apart from his love of stamps, he didn’t smoke, hardly drank and never gambled, as far as I knew. No, I couldn’t grumble. There were worse husbands in the world.
I was only fifty-five when he died. He was just sixty-five and a few weeks away from retiring. He got up one morning, walked to the bathroom and collapsed, calling my name as he crumbled onto the cold, hard floor. Massive heart attack the doctors said. Went out like a light. It was such a shock, though I suppose I couldn’t grumble – at least I didn’t have to nurse him through some terrible disease that took him slowly and painfully away.
I cried when I saw his tin stamp box under the bed some months later, when I was feeling strong enough to start clearing out his things. I opened the box and carefully lifted out album after album of his beloved stamps. I couldn’t believe how many he’d collected over the years, bless him.
I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I couldn’t just throw them away. My son Philip suggested I take them to a dealer to be valued. He said some of them looked like they might be worth something.
The dealer, Mr Ellis, said he had not seen such a fine collection in years. Yes, I thought, I went without all my married life so that he could waste his money on small squares of paper that he hid under the bed! Anyway, Mr Ellis told me that some of the stamps were very valuable and one of them – he told me to sit down before he said this – was worth a small fortune…
A glass of chilled champagne in my hand, I look around my stateroom, taking in the large bed, the flat-screen TV, the glass doors opening onto the private balcony. And beyond that, the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean.
No, I can’t grumble.