You know, sometimes life can throw some real curve balls at you. Then you can finish up getting left to make choices that really you're not sure which way to go on. My problems started when I got talked into doing something really quite innocent, but which had consequences I never really expected. Before I knew it I found that I'd come to a point where I had to re-evaluate almost everything that had happened in my life before and make a serious decision about my future.
The decision that brought me to that particular point in my life came about a few months after the wedding of one of my friends. Well, to be honest, she had really started out as just another girl who worked in my office. I was never really sure why she had latched on to me in the first place, or even how it came about that we started going to lunch together. After all, I was nearly twenty years her senior.
Maybe she figured I was a safe bet, as I hadn't made a play for her when she started working in my department. Or maybe, as I was the boss and old enough to be her father the thought of me making a pass at her had never crossed her mind.
I think nearly all the other guys in the place - whether single or married - had had at least one try at chatting her up over the five years she'd been with the firm. And I've got to admit, she'd made a pretty good and sometimes very public, job of shooting them down. She didn't really need my help on that score.
I don't mind telling you Theresa or Terri as she was known in the office, was one hot looking young lady. You know, her body went in and out in all the right places and she wore clothes to show it off to its best advantage. And I am going to admit that I really did enjoy the looks I got when we went to the café or pub together for lunch.
I'm willing to bet that quite a lot of guys would get jealous when they saw her hanging on my arm. But I'll tell you now that the friendship between Terri and I was strictly platonic. She treated me more like a surrogate father than anything else, although I did get some nice kisses under the mistletoe at the firm's Christmas dos over the years and I do believe there were a few rumours flying around at times.
Whatever, I didn't really care; it kept the gold diggers at bay. I was one of the high earners in my company and before I retired it was rumoured I'd be in the running to be top dog.
Terri's own father had passed away whilst she was still at school and I soon found out she missed him a lot; it could be that's why she had chosen me as a mentor when she first joined the firm. From what I had learnt over the years, there didn't appear to be anyone else in the frame for that particular job and I assume Terri had decided I was the best candidate around.
As the years had passed, I'd come to know first Terri's mother Brenda, and then her boyfriend Kevin, who eventually became her fiancé, very well. Theresa's mother was about my age, extremely good looking, and with a very vivacious personality. Brenda, or Terri and her fiancé would quite often baby - or should I really say, child - sit my children for me when required.
Wow, wow, wow, now don't any of you go getting ideas about Theresa's mother and I. We had on occasions gone out for a meal or to see a show together, and she had been a wonderful help to me with the children. But there was definitely no chemistry there and we both knew it. We had a long and very personal conversation shortly after we first met, we had come to treat each other almost like brother and sister. Any affection that we felt for each other was strictly on those grounds. Funny really when guys asked Brenda out, they found themselves presented to me for my approval.
And if you must insist, I will admit that Brenda and I had shared a bed on occasions. We'd had some fun and kept each other satisfied, but that was as far as it went. I believe we'd successfully kept those liaisons a secret from Terri and my children though. We had no intention of showing any of the children that Brenda and I considered sex outside of wedlock acceptable behaviour.
Over the years Brenda and Terri had produced what appeared to me to be a never-ending line of women to whom they enthusiastically introduced me. I have never been able to understand why it is that women think all unmarried men need to be clapped back into irons. I was doing quite nicely, thank you, on my own. Well, with the kids around, that is!
Anyway eventually it came to the time when Terri had finally accepted Kevin's proposal and she decided was going to deign to walk down the aisle with him. Terri had that poor guy twisted around her finger. She asked me to have the honour of giving her away. She claimed that there was no one else she could ask to do the job and made it quite clear that there was no way I was going to get out of it. Ah, yeah, I think I was under her spell as well, almost as much as Kevin was. If only I'd been a few years younger!
In these modern times, I did suggest that Brenda could have done the job quite easily, but neither of the women thought that was a good idea. Probably for the best actually, because Terri's mother was in tears (of joy) for most of the ceremony and I had to almost carry her back up the aisle. I also had to support her (physically) during the photo call, and the receiving line at the reception. Well, she was losing her only child.
It also fell upon my shoulders to read Brenda's speech at the end of the meal, as she had to give up after about three or four attempts at starting it; she kept breaking down in tears. Terri's new husband, Kevin, had asked me to make a little speech also; he said that I was the nearest thing Theresa had to a father, so I did the best I could.
Whilst I read out Brenda's speech, I had been concentrating on reading it from the piece of paper she had handed me. But when it came time for me to have my little say, I was reciting from memory most of the time. Until that is, I saw 'her' sitting there at the back of the room!
I must have stopped speaking for a moment, because I suddenly became aware of the silence in the room and that everyone was looking at me expectantly. My mouth suddenly very dry, I fumbled around until I found where I thought I had broken off in my little diatribe; then I did as good a job as I could of reading the rest of it out. I think that the latter part of my little offering didn't go quite as well as the beginning.
The speeches over and the cake ceremonially cut, the tables were moved from the dance floor. As usual Terri and Kevin had the first waltz together and then Kevin's father came over and took Brenda's hand; I had been asked to do the honours with his wife Shirley.
We had only been on the dance floor for a couple of moments when she said, "Okay, Jack, who the hell is she?"
I think I should tell you, that I had gotten to know Shirley and Ken (Kevin's father) quite well in the weeks leading up to the wedding. Besides that we'd met many times during the previous few years, whilst Kevin and Theresa were courting. I think I can refer to them as good friends. But I'll add that I'm a fairly private person, and I rarely talk about my past with anyone.
"Pardon, Shirley, what do you mean?"
"Come off it, Jack. You saw someone out there and it knocked the stuffing out of you. You struggled through the rest of that speech. Come on, tell me who could have had that effect on the Rock?"
"Sorry, the Rock?"
"Jack, you're a Rock. Just what Brenda and Terri would have done over the last few years without you around, I don't know. Now I know they've introduced you to every available female within a hundred miles. But from what they tell me, you have never been in the slightest bit interested. Then quite suddenly you saw someone out there in this room this afternoon and you went completely to pieces. Now come on tell me who she is?"
"Okay, you've got me. If you insist on knowing, it's my ex-wife."
"Oh, my, and you didn't know she was coming?"
"I haven't seen her since the divorce ten years ago."
"Doesn't she ever come to see the children?"
"Oh, blimey, Shirley, they aren't Claire's children! They aren't even mine really; they're my brother's."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know. So that would explain why they call you Jack; I had always thought that was a bit strange. You know, a disrespectful way of them addressing their father."
"My brother and his wife were killed in a skiing accident; an avalanche in Alps eight years ago now. I took the children in; there was no one else. Probably the best thing I've ever done in my life, for them and myself. The children called me Uncle Jack for a long while, but it's a mouthful so we dropped the uncle bit sometime back. You know in the last few years some of the time they call me dad. Makes me feel kind of good and sad at the same time."
"Hmm, so the iron man isn't quite the tough guy he makes myself out to be?"
"You've lost me, Shirley?"
"Well, you put on this air of being strong and independent. I'd always thought that you were a widower left with the onerous task of bringing up three children on your own. Which you are making a really good job of, by the way."
"I had thought that you couldn't bear the idea of anyone replacing your wife, and that was why Brenda's matchmaking plans have never worked. But it turns out you'd chosen to take your brother's children in. And you are still very much in love with your wife."
"Still in love with my wife? You've got to be joking. Where'd you get that idea from?"
"Oh, come off it, Jack. If I'd walked over there and hit you on the head with a bloody frying pan, you wouldn't have been more gob-smacked than you were when you clapped eyes on her. You almost lost it completely; I wasn't the only one who was looking to see who'd had that effect on you, you know. We almost saw the Iron man melt in front of our eyes."
"It was just the shock of seeing her here, Shirley, that's all."
"You believe what you will, Jack. I know what I saw in your face."
The dance came to and end but, before I could get off the dance floor, Terri grabbed me and dragged me back out there again.
"Okay, what was all that about?"
"Don't you start. I've had Shirley giving me the third degree."
"I want an answer, Dad."
"You are today whether you like it or not. Now tell me what's going on?"
"My ex-wife is here."
I didn't think Terri's eyes could get much bigger. But they did.
"Oh, shit! Who is she? Where is she?" Terri demanded, at the same time as she twisted and turned trying to look at everybody in the place at once.
"Terri! Terri!" I said to get her attention, not that it did much good. "If you say I'm your father tonight, then leave it. Claire and I broke up a very long time ago. My reaction when I spotted her was just because I hadn't seen her in a very long time. It took me completely by surprise, that's all."
"Ooh, I see her! She's the beautiful blond sitting at that corner table," Terri said, completely ignoring what I'd just said to her.
"How do you work that one out?"
"I'm right, aren't I?"
"I think possibly you are." I was trying 'not' to look in the same direction as Terri. "But how do you know?"
"She's watching us and trying to pretend she isn't. Oh, and she's got that same look in her eyes as you had in yours, when you first saw her. Are you going to ask her to dance?"
"I very much doubt it, no. We weren't exactly the best of friends when our marriage broke up, you know."
"Tell me what happened?"
"Terri, this is neither the time nor the place. Now please drop the subject of Claire."
"Okay, Dad, if you insist; but you can be a real spoil-sport sometimes, you know," Terri said, but somehow her tone told me she was far from dropping the subject completely.
I was glad when that dance ended. But as we arrived back at our table, I became acutely aware that all the conversations that had been going on around it as we approached abruptly stopped. I noticed Terri make a sly gesture to Brenda who, I think, had been talking with Shirley as we had approached. Then Brenda and Terri headed for the female strategic planning and information dissemination centre together. That's ladies powder room for those of you who haven't been initiated into the inner workings of the female mind. The place where all women retreat when they are planning something they shouldn't be.
They hadn't been gone for more than a couple minutes before Shirley, along with my eldest daughter, Angela, got up and followed suit. I realised that I had to put a stop to this before things got completely out of hand; so I got up as well and followed after them.
I was standing in the lobby when all four girls finally came out of the powder room together, still in excited conversation. On becoming aware of my presence, they stopped and went silent; all of them had looks on their faces as if they'd just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. I could guess but I hadn't actually heard what they had been talking about inside, although they didn't know that.
"Okay, girls, this has got to stop before it starts; now here's how it's going to work," I said, trying to get into control of the situation. "So now you're all aware that my ex-wife is here. Well, for your information, when Claire and I parted, we weren't on what you could call very friendly terms with each other. We had loved each other once, but that all kind of fell apart over the years. Don't ask me how or why, I don't know, but that's how life goes sometimes. Now I know that Brenda here has been trying to play cupid since the day I met her. But you are all barking completely up the wrong tree on this one."
Brenda went to say something, but I put my hand up to silence her and spoke on.
"There is no way in the world that Claire and I could ever get back together again and that's the end of it. So, Brenda, let's have none of your silly little games this evening, shall we?"
"Why? Did one of you partake in extra marital activities or something?" Brenda demanded.
You might think it surprising that I didn't take umbrage at either Brenda's nosiness or the straightforward approach she took when asking her questions. But Brenda and I had developed an extremely close friendship as I have already said. We'd learnt to lean on each other as a man and wife would usually do and just about nothing was a taboo subject for us to talk about.
However the subject of Claire was an extremely sore point with me, and one I had managed to avoid talking about, even to Brenda. So a think my voice was a little sharp when I replied and probably said more than I would normally do, considering the company we were in.
"No, we did not! We fought with each other like cat and bloody dog, over nothing. We just fell out of love with each other, that's all. It's just something that happens sometimes; our life together turned into a bloody nightmare, not far short of World War Three. The best thing that we ever did for each other was to walk away from that marriage. Now I'm asking you please, stay out of it, all of you?"
Having said that, I turned on my heel and returned to the function room before any of them could speak. Four rather quiet and somewhat sheepish looking women followed me. I was at the time satisfied that Claire's presence would soon be forgotten. But I was wrong on that score, although I'll admit I didn't become aware of any more conspiring amongst the four girls.
It was probably half an hour or so later that I spotted first Kevin, and then his father-in-law Ken, dancing with Claire. Both of them to my mind made a point of sweeping Claire past our table. Claire however averted her eyes as she passed me. How do I know? Because I was bloody well watching her pass; in the same position, you'd have done the same damn thing.
I looked daggers at the girls, who all shrugged their shoulders back at me and denied all knowledge. Then all four of them made a strategic withdrawal onto the dance floor together.
Obviously things were getting out of hand. So I thought my only option was take the bull by the horns and get back into control of the situation, even if it did call for some rather drastic and unexpected action on my behalf. As the next waltz started, I walked down the room to the table that Claire was sitting at.
"May I have the honour, my lady?" I asked, holding out my hand and bowing.
Claire smiled up at me and taking the offered hand replied. "Thank you, fine sir, I'd be delighted." Then I led her onto the dance floor.
"This is a surprise. I didn't think you'd ask me to dance," she said as she settled in my arms.
"We've been divorced a long time, Claire. Surely the war is over and we can be civil to one another, if not friends."
"Friends, I hope," she replied.
"You're looking well," I said, trying to make innocuous small talk. I figured that once the girls saw that Claire and I could be together without swooning over each other then they'd let things alone.
"Thank you, so are you."
"I was quite surprised to see you here."
"So I gathered. I'm sorry, Jack. I should have made sure you saw me earlier, but I stupidly did the opposite thing and tried to stay out of your sight. I even dodged the receiving line. On reflection, that could have been a mistake.
"No real harm done. Other than some slight embarrassment on my part and a near heart attack."
"Honestly, Jack, I wouldn't have come if I'd known you were going to be here."
"Hmm, how should I take that?"
"I mean, I didn't intend to embarrass you and your wife."
"Wife? What bleeding wife are you talking about? Why does everyone want to get me married off all the time?"
"I'm sorry, I just assumed. I did hear the bride call you dad. Aren't you married to her mother?"
"Good God, no, Claire. Terri works with me, I've just got very friendly with her family and she looks on me as kind of a father figure. She calls me dad sometimes, just to wind me up. I can't really get angry with her; both her and her family have helped me a lot with the children. You know, baby sitting and the like."
"Children! You've got children! So you did get married again?" Claire said, with that very familiar hard edge to her voice, that instantly brought back unpleasant memories.
It suddenly occurred to me that Claire knew nothing about my brother and his wife's death, or about my having adopted their children. But then why should she know? It all happened some years after we'd separated and we did live in different towns almost a hundred miles apart. The way we'd felt about each other when we had divorced, l hadn't bothered to keep tabs on her so I very much doubted that she had kept tabs on me either.
"No, Claire, I didn't get married again. I might have made a fool of myself once. But you know the old proverb, once bitten twice shy. Brian and Marie were killed in an accident some years ago. So I've adopted their children."
Claire's face at first showed a little confusion as I spoke, and then maybe a little annoyance at my little dig at her, finally taking on a look of concern when she came to understand the situation.
"Oh, my god, I'm sorry, Jack. The poor little mites. What happened to Brian and Marie?"
"An avalanche in the Alps."
"Oh, Jack, I am sorry. Brian was the last of your family, wasn't he?"
"I've still got the children."
"Yes, that's one good thing. I suppose they must have been some consolation to you. Are they here? Oh, god, now that's a silly question for me to ask, of course they are. Now I think about it; I've seen them, haven't I? The two girls are bride's maids and I'll bet that handsome young usher at the church was Graham. I thought he looked familiar when he showed us to our seats. They were so young when I last saw them I didn't recognise them immediately. It must have been the family likeness that made me notice them."
"Yeah, most folks think I'm their real father."
"In a strange way, you're lucky, Jack. Do you think it would have been different for us? You know, if we'd had children together?"
"Shall we stay out of uncharted waters, Claire? Now you've got some idea of what I've been up to. How have you been getting along since... ?
"Don't ask, Jack. Not too good, I'm afraid. I tried the dating game for a while and met a couple of nice guys. Both of whom turned out to be married so that was the end of them. What others there were, were only after one thing and I made damn sure they weren't going to get it from me.
"There was one guy who I could have really fallen for, but he was arrested for fraud. Luckily before I lent him any money. That turned out to be his modus operandi; he'd meet a widow or divorcee, flatter her silly and ask her to marry him. Then he'd borrow or steal as much cash from her as he could and follow that up with a moonlight flit.
"Anyway I've sworn off men now. It looks like I'm not very good at picking them."
"Oh, um, your not still with Viv, are... ?"
"No, I'm bloody not! How could you infer such a thing, Jack? Vivian got married and moved out of town about a year or so after our divorce. I've hardly seen her since." I sensed Claire was angry with me but she was doing a pretty good job of controlling her feelings.
Ah now, you won't know about Vivian; I'd better tell you. Vivian had been Claire's closest friend and confidant in the latter years of our marriage; whilst, that is, Claire and I were in open warfare. In the heat of battle, I'd hinted quite often that there was something funny about the two women's close relationship. Yeah, you get the idea - not very nice of me, but all's fair in love and war.
It was nonsense, of course. If Claire had only known about the times when we'd first met her that Vivian - who was divorced, by the way - had made several passes at me. Christ, just after the divorce was finale, the bloody woman even rang me up one evening and invited me to join her in bed at a local hotel, although I never did tell Claire about any of that, not that she would have believed me anyway. Oh, and no, I didn't!
No, the digs and not so subtle hints I had made about Claire and Vivian's friendship were all part of the on-going battle between Claire and I. I suppose the inference I'd just made was the fallout from the old war. You know, old habits die-hard.
"I wasn't inferring anything, Claire. I was just asking."
"Come on, Jack, you know me better than that. No, I've just given up looking for someone to spend the rest of my life with." I sensed Claire trying to get her emotions back under control and remain civil. "If a man turns up in the future, then so be it. But I'm not actively looking for anyone anymore. And what about you, how's your love life been going?"
"Not a subject I like to talk about Claire. Not that I've had much time left to chase after women in the last few years. What with looking after the children and holding down a job at the same time."
Claire looked thoughtful for a few seconds. "Would you mind if... ? What I wanted to ask you was, may I meet the children, Jack?"
"Of course you can. After all, you are kind of related to them."
"I suppose I am when it comes down to basics. Am I still their Auntie even if we are divorced?"
"I haven't got the faintest idea, girl, but I can't see why not. Whatever you're their godparent anyway. Come on, I'm sure they'd love to meet you again."
"Hmm, not a very good godparent, am I? Do you think they will remember me? They were all quite young when we..."
"I'm sure they will, Claire; they've seen you enough in Brian's old cine-films."
The tune ended — well, it could have been the second tune, I have no real idea exactly how long Claire and I had been dancing and talking. Then I led Claire over to the table where just about all of what remained of my family and my closest friends were sitting.
My oldest daughter, Angela, jumped up as we approached and threw her arms around Claire. She had obviously remembered her. I didn't get a chance to make any formal introductions, as Kylie and Graham quickly followed suit. Although I'm not sure the younger two, besides having seen her in those films, would have remembered Claire from when we were married.
Kevin came over and collared me for something. When I got back to the table, I found Claire and Brenda in deep conversation. When Brenda saw me approaching, she smiled and, rising from her seat, dragged me back out onto the dance floor.
"My god, Jack, how did you let her get away?"
"Wow, Brenda, don't let looks fool you. I told you, Claire and I were at war for the last few years of our marriage. We couldn't stand the sight of one another by the time it ended. You know sometimes love is not enough."
"And the reason you were fighting?"
"Buggered if I know, Bren. We just rubbed each other up the wrong way, I suppose. We forgot that marriage takes a little work. You know what I mean."
"No, I don't! Are you telling me something was missing from your lives."
"I suppose it was, but I've no idea what."
"Ah, sore point there. Oh, Christ, Brenda, don't mention children to Claire. She's not infertile but she's got a problem, you know. She can't carry an embryo successfully. God knows we tried enough times. Try to make sure no one else talks about babies either; Claire can get quite upset by the subject."
"Jesus Christ, Jack, I thought you had some brains in your head, but sometimes you can be a real idiot!"
"Children, Jack, the moment I asked why you never had any. You tell me not to mention children to Claire. That means you are aware that she was upset about not being able to have any."
"Of course I was aware. Once we discovered Claire had a problem we never discussed children again. God, I bent over backwards not to upset her with the subject. I did everything I could to make sure the subject of children wasn't brought up when she was around. Damn it we rarely visited my brother and steered clear of my folks whenever I thought Brian and the kids would be there. Christmas, Christenings and things were bloody murder.
"And you still don't understand why your marriage failed."
"Look over there?" Brenda said, as she swung us around so that I could see our table. "Look at Claire with the children, you fool. That's what I'll bet went wrong between you two. She's a lovely person and a natural mother if ever I saw one. Just like you're a natural father. Remember how the children accepted you in place of their parents and now look at how they are enthralled with Claire. I think Claire thought she was letting you down by not being able to give you the children that you desired. And it could be that you showed some resentment to her also."
"Hold on there, Brenda. You've only just met Claire, you don't know anything about her or our marriage and what went wrong with it."
"I'm a pretty good judge of people, Jack. No one pulls the wool over my eyes. Not even you!"
"Now don't you go getting any of your ideas, Brenda. Claire and I divorced a long time ago. We are two different people now."
"All right, Jack, if you insist, I'll hold my peace. But I can see when two people are made for each other. Even it they can't!"
"The tune ended, but before I had returned to my seat, Angela came up and wanted to dance with me. Angela is my second favourite dance partner. I'd originally learnt ballroom dancing with Claire, but I'd hardly danced at all, after we'd divorced. When Angela had taken up dance classes, she'd wanted her brother to go with her as her partner. Young Graham however refused; he didn't want to lose face with his friends by going to a dancing school with his sister. So that honoured duty fell on my shoulders, and together Angela and I had become pretty good on the old dance floor.
As we danced Angela talked about Claire, as I had surmised she would. But she never made any hints about Claire and I getting together. Looking back now I realise that Angela was the crafty little monkey. I imagine her mind was working the same way as Brenda's, but with a little bit more subtlety.
Let's just say that I was well aware that the terrible three - Theresa, Brenda and Angela - along with help and encouragement from my younger daughter, Kylie, had been trying to get me married off for some time by then. Claire must have looked like a godsend to them.
Why is it that women can't know an unattached guy and not try to either seduce the poor bugger, or marry him off to one of their friends? Or any eligible unmarried female they happen to come across.
Anyway as I said, Angela is a wily little character. Besides saying that she liked Claire and that she wondered why we had separated, she steered clear of the subject. She made no subtle hints about us getting back together. By the time we returned to our table Claire was in the process taking her leave to return to the friends she'd come with.
For those interested, Claire had come to the wedding with one of Kevin's aunts who did not wish to make the hundred-mile drive alone, her husband being out of the country on business that weekend.
As Claire was leaving our table, I decided it wouldn't hurt to have one more dance with her, we'd always liked dancing together, right up to the end. Then I led her back to her friend's table. About an hour later, the group that Claire was with left. Shortly after, Terri and Kevin had made they're ceremonial departure for their honeymoon.
Well, that's what everyone thought. Actually Terri and Kevin had gone to a hotel out on the edge of town for the night. I'd rented the bridal suite for them for their first 'official' night together. The following day I was due to drive them to the airport. But Brenda and I were the only people who knew that.