Date: 5th February 2005
Subject: The ear of a stranger
Place: Picton, South Island, New Zealand
The ear of a stranger
One of the many privileges of our nomadic life is the ability to ride into and out of others lives. And when the Wickes family orbit collides with yours you can be fairly sure there’ll be a little interplanetary chaos. A travelling family of four with two toddlers is not a lightweight proposition so we’re always very touched and impressed by the bravery of those who invite us into their homes. And we do our best to be on our best behaviour, recall how to behave in a civilised fashion and limit the damage. We’re pretty sure that when our whirlwind visits end our hosts must breathe a sigh of relief and wonder what just hit them. We would.
Attracted by a picture
Ian was initially attracted to a photo of our Burley trailers in the Christchurch Press. A committed cyclist and Burley aficionado, he looked us up and bravely emailed us an invite, trusting that if we bought Burley we must be good people.
“…Thought you might like to pop in for a wee feed… can do a good mince and tatties… and my gravy is most excellent.. Mmmmm.. gravy.”
His offer was hard to refuse, he sounded fun and as a father of two boys seemed well equipped to handle a brief invasion. “…. I’ve lots of toys for wee and big boys. And an electronic childminder known as DVD, Sky and playstation… Mmmmmm.. Playstation. Youse will be treated like royalty.” We emailed our acceptance and looked forward to the meet.
These blind dates are a strange affair for both host and visitor who know little of each other and take a lot on trust. Our trust was well placed in Ian.
“Hello, we’re the Family on a Bike,” said Kirstie as we arrived at the driveway.
Two boys were playing in the late afternoon sun.
“Dad, they’re here,” shouted one as they both scurried shyly inside.
A slim, dark, fit man came out to welcome us.
“Hello, I’m Ian,” he said in a thick Scottish accent, “Come in, put your bikes in here.”
He led us into the cool of his garage, a cyclists’ paradise stuffed with bikes for every age and inclination; mountain bikes, touring bikes, road bikes, tandems, tag alongs and a sleek and elegant recumbent.
“Come up and I’ll get you a wee drink, how about a beer?”
When our boys finally ventured bravely off and sat quietly with the electronic childminders, we knew we could relax here and enjoy the company. We sat for a while in the garden, drinking beer and finding out a little about each other. His wife joined us for a drink and, in a way that only mums can, chatted, drank and got her boys ready for their first day back at school; trimming hair and nails, brushing teeth and ushering them away to bed. It was a scene familiar to anyone with school age children and a sneak preview of how life might be when our boys come of school age.
A musical interlude
At these strange family sleepovers, it’s generally us that makes the waves; devouring any food within reach, scattering playthings and spreading our detritus across the family home while encouraging others to take to the road en famille. Tonight was different.
“Do you like music?” asked Ian.
We sipped our wine and nodded. He stirred the spaghetti and put down his wooden spoon. His wife picked up a guitar and they met half way between stove and table. They looked at each other and serenaded us in impromptu harmony with a familiar song from home, ‘Flower of Scotland.’ Then, taking turns at cooking, drinking and playing, the floor-show continued with a series of sweet, sad solo spots.
“It’s a Scottish tradition to do a wee turn, do you want a go?” Ian asked.
For once we declined, happy to be entertained. And like at the best restaurants, our hosts took no offence and continued to serve up food, music and wine until we were full and more than a little drunk.
“It’s the first night we’ve been apart you know,” Ian revealed after his wife left a little unexpectedly. “She’s a good girl you know, a really good girl. She’d do anything to help me, even find me a new girlfriend… but that’s really not what I want.” He paused for a moment and wiped his eyes. “We’re trying to keep it really civilised for the boys. I’ve told them it’s like a holiday from each other… but I think she really means it. But you never know….” I could almost hear the hope in his voice. We drank some more and some more again. I listened, offering Ian the only thing I had to give, the ear of a stranger.
I went to bed late, my head spinning with a simple truth he kept repeating, “….you never know what’s around the corner… you never know.” As I lay on the floor next to Matthew, Cameron and Kirstie I felt grateful for our family happiness and sad for Ian’s circumstances.
You’re very welcome
“Youse are very welcome to stay another night,” Ian said as we tended hangovers at breakfast the following morning.
I wondered if he could do with some company but our schedule was too pressing to stay any longer.
“It’s a really kind offer but we need to move on.”
In his heart of hearts I think Ian knew he really had to do the same.
“I don’t envy you at all you know,” he said as he surveyed our laden bikes while we prepared to leave.
I thought the same but said nothing. We wheeled our bikes out onto the drive, shook hands and said goodbye,
“Listen if you find yourself back in the UK, do look us up, you’d be very welcome,” I said. I meant it.