Jim Mason knows the exact moment, shortly before he retired, when he realised he was falling in love with his assistant. Liz was 33 years his junior. As she climbed into the car one day, she turned to him and said: “Come on – let’s go.” Mason doesn’t recall where they were heading. “It was the way she said it as though we were a complete item.”
They had worked together for the NHS for several years. “There was never anything in it. I went in and she coped with me, and I coped with her.” But his marriage had ended in his mid-50s and he had “imploded in on himself” in the lonely years that followed. He liked watercolours, and Liz liked photography. They began to hang out at weekends, at first as friends; then the relationship developed.
After a while, Liz told him: “I love being with you but I’ve got a life to lead and I want children.” Mason already had a son and a daughter, of similar ages to Liz. “I could have bailed out there,” he says. Instead, Liz moved in and, at 61, Mason became a father again.
At antenatal classes and hospital appointments, he says, “Liz was the brave one. She toughed it out. But I felt embarrassed … You have to appreciate that everyone thinks I’m Liz’s dad.” After a while, Mason realised that “age exists but it doesn’t matter. I became more happy and contented with me.”
On the day their first child, Isobel, was born, Mason bought a clock. “I remember it distinctly because I wanted to leave her something.” He doesn’t know why it had to be a clock, only that it needed to be in a state of disrepair and he would be the one to fix it. “I think it’s something to do with new beginnings,” he muses. Each day he visits his workshop at home in Normanton, Nottinghamshire, and sets his 40-odd clocks ticking. “People say: ‘Aren’t you ticking your life away?’ But it gives me a sense of wellbeing.”
Three years after Isobel, now 12, came Elsie, nine – and Mason began to discover that he was a different sort of parent this time around. At 73, he lives in the house where all four of his children have grown up, but he occupies it very differently. “I used to walk out in the morning and come back at night, hot, tired and dusty. Now when Liz comes back from taking the kids to school, everything is tidied, breakfast put away.” He spends quality time with Isobel and Elsie. “I sit and draw with them for hours – tractors, mainly. I’m here living it,” he says.
At work, Mason managed multimillion-pound programmes. “One thing you can’t do is act spontaneously.” When he and Liz moved in together, everything changed. “I became much more outrageous in my approach to life.”
He eschewed hotels to go backpacking with Liz. He bought a paddock. Rare-breed sheep followed. (As a child he loved visiting his uncle’s farm, also in Normanton.) He visited an auction for clocks, returned with a beehive and now keeps 500,000 bees. Mason says he believes in “happy accidents” – by which he means “no plan, but something at the back of your mind”, a hankering or hope noted and saved for future action. “The brave people seize on them.”
Has Mason’s whole personality changed, or is he giving expression to a self long hidden? “I think that’s probably a better description,” he says. “I have come more and more free of the trammels of life.”
Mason’s son, Chris, and his daughters Elaine, Isobel and Elsie “all think they are brother and sisters”, he says. “They will not entertain the word ‘step-’.” Mason and Liz discuss the future, though he wonders if he’ll live to see Isobel and Elsie have children of their own. “I might get there, but who knows?”
Meanwhile, when the car appears on the drive, Isobel and Elsie “rush in, the door slams, they come straight to find me and kiss me. Can you imagine the joy that gives an old fogey like me?”