The plan for today was for me and Sandy to visit John & Lisa in their new house in Wales, where they moved to around seven months ago. However, we are doing so with just the two of us, as we are leaving Jae with Dad and Joey with little Jacky. As such, this will be the first time in living memory that Sandy and I will have gone anywhere without one or both kids in tow. Something tells me this will be a somewhat strange experience for the two of us. The plan was that I would drop Jae off with Dad, which is an hour east of Stevenage – and back again. Then we’d leave Joey with little Jacky while Sandy and I drive a further three and a half hours west of Stevenage. We had collectively decided yesterday that Jacky and Ella would join me in the two-hour round-trip drive to South Ockendon to drop off Jae. Shortly after 7am, however, just as I was stirring, I received a WhatsApp message from little Jacky letting me know she and Ella were too tired to go with me this morning.

I went downstairs to find Jae was awake and getting ready to leave. I loaded her things into the car just as Sandy was getting up. Sandy helped identify everything I needed to put into the car, which was fortunate as I would most certainly have gotten it wrong…as would Jae

With everything loaded into the car, Jae and I set off towards South Ockendon. The fifty-five-minute trip was uneventful. Instead of driving directly to Dad’s, we stopped off in the centre of my former hometown of South Ockendon to pick up a few provisions. Jae wanted a few things, like ready-made meals and some snacks. Dad had asked if I could grab a couple of bags of potting soil and some cigarettes. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have entertained the idea of getting him some cigarettes. The truth is that I don’t condone the smoking and am loathed to do anything to further encourage it. I’m the only member of my family who has never smoked – excluding all the excessive second-hand smoking I did from having grown up in a household full of smokers. Mum’s health was seriously and adversely impacted by her smoking habits over the years. Besides all that, I just find the smell of cigarette smoke nauseating. Dad is now 85 years old. He told me a few days ago that his doctor had effectively given him permission to continue smoking. His lungs are perfectly clear and if smoking in his final years gave him some satisfaction, then so be it. Dad is quite frail. He can’t walk unaided and can barely even stand. I decided not to take on the moral battle about his smoking and allowed myself to pick up some cigarettes for him. Not being a smoker myself, I found the sticker shock of £10+ per pack of 20 quite intense. Reluctantly, for more reasons than one, I bought him five packs. In addition to the potting soil, I also picked up a few pot plants for his garden. Over the next few days, Jae is going to help tidy up his garden and will pot some of the plants for him. Dad is too frail to do anything in the garden. In fact, I think it would be a stretch for him to even make his way into the garden at all.

Laden with the provisions, flowers, potting soil and several packs of cigarettes, we made our way over to Dad’s house. As I got out of the car, I realised I only had 4 packs of cigarettes with me. At some point between the town centre and Dad’s house, I had obviously dropped a pack. At £10+ per pack, this was more than a little irritating, but the damage was done and no use fussing about it now.

Jae and I unloaded the car. Once Jae was settled in, I thrust a few banknotes into Dad’s hand before bidding my farewell. With just a hint of trepidation, I drove out of the car park and set back off towards Stevenage again. I’d gotten about as far as the town’s perimeter when I realised there was a pillow and blanket still in the car. To be on the safe side, I pulled the car over to a safe spot and called Jae. Sure enough, she needed the pillow and blanket, so I had to double back to drop those off again. When Jae came down to the car to collect them, she pointed out she had left her pyjamas on the back seat also, so that was another bullet dodged.

An hour later, I was back at little Jacky’s again in Stevenage. Sandy had already packed those things we needed for the next few days at John & Lisa’s in Wales. I gave Joey some spending money, and Ella some belated birthday money as well. Jacky has been terrific with Joey these past few days. He seems to really have taken to her and she handles him well. As such, we had high hopes that entrusting her with him for the next few days would work out well. Here’s hoping.

With everything now packed and with Joey seemingly in a good mood, Sandy and I set off in the general direction of Wales. Sure enough, the fact that we were on our way somewhere with no kids in tow did feel rather strange. Hmmm.

About halfway through the three-and-a-half-hour journey across country, we were in the vicinity of Coventry, so decided this would be as good a place as any to stop and grab spot of lunch and to break up the journey. We figured that just driving through the outskirts of town would result in us spotting a nice pub somewhere before too long. Alas, we kept getting closer to the town centre and still not a pub anywhere to be found. Eventually, I stopped the car and searched for a nearby pub on the satnav. It located what seemed like something suitable about a five-minute drive from where we were, so I pointed the car in that direction. When we reached the destination, there was no pub to be found anywhere. Reluctantly, we pressed on further into the town centre until we eventually reached it. Working under the assumption we’d surely find something suitable in the centre of town, I parked the car in a multi-story car park, and we meandered into town on foot.

It was a bustling city centre with plenty of people milling around. With the help of a couple of passers-by, we were directed to a couple of pub lunch possibilities. After a few sight-seeing photo opportunities, we landed at a table inside one of the recommended options. For whatever reason, Sandy had a hankering for a British meat pie. This would normally be a staple addition to any pub menu but for whatever reason, this vendue just didn’t serve them. This being a big enough city, surely there must be plenty of other options to choose from. With no real time pressure, other than the fact that John would be cooking us a roast dinner this evening (so we didn’t want to eat lunch too late), we decided to get up and find another venue. After all, if Sandy wanted a meat pie, who was I to stand in her way. With the help of yet another passer-by, we were pointed in a given direction and eventually found another place that looked promising. Luckily, this one did have meat pies on the menu, so we sat and considered the menu before I walked up to the bar to place our order. When asked what we would like to drink, I said a Coke or Pepsi. Unfortunately, the only options they had were the Zero & Light variations, neither of which Sandy nor I enjoy. Indeed, this was enough to motivate us to leave and find another option. A few buildings further, we found another lunch venue, which just happened to be an LGBTQI+ bar. It turned out to be run by the same company as the place we had just vacated, which meant they had the same drinks on offer. The helpful young lady behind the bar explained that they normally have the full-fat variations of soft drinks but that a current supply problem meant they just didn’t have anything in stock. At this point, we were both still hungry so we decided to fall back onto what we thought would be a safe bet, which was a good old classic British fish & chip shop. Meat pies are a guarantee there. Alas, it transpires that Coventry doesn’t have a single fish & chip shop anywhere in the city centre. There are some on the outskirts of the city, but none in the city centre itself. We decided to get back into the car, locate a chip shop on the satnav and drive there instead. It was a 10-minute drive in the general direction we needed to continue anyway, and when we got there…it was closed. This was now starting to get a little irritating. The universe seemed to be trying to tell us something.

With little other option, we left Coventry (and good riddance!), and continued our journey towards Wales. Since we needed to stop at some point for a bathroom break, we decided to bite the bullet and to pull into a motorway services stop instead. There was a Burger King there, so we decided to grab a simple burger and a chicken sandwich. It wasn’t really what either of us wanted but we really needed to eat at least something. These two items came to a whopping £12+. Perhaps it was fortunate but for whatever reason, my bank card wasn’t being accepted. It was working earlier today (we had no problems paying to exit the car park in Coventry) but even after several attempts, I couldn’t get it to work. As much out of frustration as anything else, we gave up on the Burger King idea altogether. Instead, we picked up a few snacks from another shop inside the service centre but this time with the aid of the credit card. With any luck the problem with the bank card was a problem on this end rather than with the card itself. Hopefully, this won’t be an ongoing problem for the rest of the trip. We can’t find any indication of a problem from within our banking app. So, instead of a relaxing lunch in a quaint British pub, we ended up snacking after a stressful run-around.

Onwards we soldiered towards Wales. Fortunately, the rest of the trip was uneventful. We were greeted in Wales by some lovely scenery. Sandy was chatting online with John & Lisa. Evidently, we just needed to drive into the village and there was no chance of possibly getting lost – so small was the Welsh village. We drove the car directly to the point indicated on the satnav. When we got there, we looked around but couldn’t see any house that looked remotely like the one in the photos we’d previously seen. It seems the impossible had happened – we were lost.

After a quick call, we double-backed and took the previous turn-off, not more than twenty meters from where we had turned off. John was there waiting for us. He got into the car, and we drove up the hill to where their pretty little house was situated. It’s an idyllic setting at the base of some foothills. The entire village can’t have more than a couple of dozen houses altogether. There are no shops – just a few houses surrounded by fields with dozens of sheep roaming around. With a warm welcome from John & Lisa, we spent a while exploring this home of their which they moved into just seven months ago.

We eventually found some time to unload the car and to get settled in. After a refreshing drink, we all took the dog out for a walk through the nearby church grounds and cemetery. From what I could tell, no new graves had been dug for the past fifty or so years. Many of the gravestones were well over a hundred years old. It was a very pretty setting.

The church was literally a couple of minutes from the house, so we found our way back home and got ready for the promised roast dinner John had been telling us about. True to form, it was a lovely dinner and well worth the wait.

For the remainder of the evening, we played cards around the kitchen table and just caught up on what has been happening in our respective lives. We know John & Lisa extremely well, having even lived with them for almost a year in the past (this was before we had kids). We’re probably closer to John & Lisa than we are to any other family members. After just a few hours, it feels like we only just saw them yesterday.

We rounded out the evening by playing a few games of cards like we normally do whenever get together. It felt very comfortable. We’re not entirely sure how the next few days will pan out. We might visit a nearby castle, or perhaps go to the beach. I suspect we’ll just play it by ear.