I landed at Heathrow Airport on the first Sunday of spring break in the early afternoon. I had left home the day before, leaving Emma to look after the house and enjoy the company of her cousins for the holiday, while I flew back to England to visit my parents and do a couple of job interviews. I had already done three by phone, but two schools had been glad to schedule face to face interviews with me when they found out I was coming over.
There was low cloud over Heathrow that day, and the aircraft seemed almost to drop out of it onto the rooftops of the houses below. The buildings sped by under the wheels; I caught a glimpse of moving cars below as we flew over a major road, and a moment later the runway rose up to meet us. The aircraft landed heavily, and the whine of the engines turned to a dull roar as they were thrown into reverse. We slowed to taxiing speed, and the voice of the flight attendant welcomed us to London.
Security was tight at Heathrow that day; a few weeks before, the Americans had begun their invasion of Iraq, and Britain had joined their ‘coalition of the willing’. Customs officials were giving passports and luggage a careful screening, and by the time I got to the arrivals lounge almost an hour had elapsed since my plane had landed. As I emerged into the lounge dozens of people were gazing expectantly in my direction from behind a rope barrier. I slowed to scan the sea of faces, and after a moment I found the familiar face toward one end of the crowd; my sister Becca, twelve years my junior, who had driven over from Oxford to meet me. Slightly shorter than me, her blonde hair cut just above her shoulders, she was dressed casually in jeans and a light spring jacket. She was smiling broadly, having already seen me as I emerged from the double doors; I walked quickly over to her, and she greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss.
“You look exhausted”, she said. “Here, give me your bag. How’s Emma?”
“Good; I left her with Jake and Jenna”.
“There’s a coffee shop over in the corner there; do you want to pick up some takeout coffee before we go to the car?”
“That’d be fine”.
So we lined up for a few minutes to get coffee, and then made our way up to where her car was parked on the top level of the car park. She opened the doors, threw my bag into the trunk, and said, “In you get, then!”
I slipped into the car beside her, and she leaned over and gave me another kiss on the cheek. “It’s good to see you!” she said. “Owen and Lorraine send their love. They’re really sorry not to be here to meet you”.
“Too bad they had to be away”, I said, stifling a yawn. My old friend Owen Foster, who had been a doctor in the Oxford area for many years, was Becca’s senior partner.
She started the car, pulled out of the parking spot, and drove toward the exit ramp. “Looks like you’ll be needing that coffee to keep you awake!” she said with a smile.
“Sorry – you know how bad I am at sleeping on planes. How’s Dad doing?”
“He’s lost a lot of weight, and he gets tired very quickly”.
“How’s his treatment going?”
She shook her head; “It was always a long shot, Tommy”.
“How do you mean?”
“Lymphomas like his are lethal, and they move quickly and steadily. If he were younger, the prognosis might be better, but his age is counting against him, I’m afraid”.
“Why does that make a difference?”
“Because the sort of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation he needs has nasty side effects, and they’re a lot harder to handle for older people. The most serious one is loss of white blood cells, which makes him more susceptible to infections”.
“I remember that with Kelly”.
“Of course you do. Then there’s the nausea, the tiredness, the ulcers in the mouth, the low platelet counts in the blood, and so on. Dad’s finding it very difficult. He’s supposed to have injections every week, but I think he’s missed several already – and of course, that cuts down on the effectiveness of the chemotherapy. And there’s another problem, too – he’s in denial”.
“Didn’t Mum tell you?”
She pulled the car up at the ticket machine, paid for her parking, and then pulled out onto the busy road. “He’s talking as if it’s just a matter of going through the chemo and the radiation, and then things will turn out right in a year or so”.
“But you don’t agree?”
“You can never say for certain, of course; you can think you’ve made an accurate assessment, and then something can come along that will really surprise you. But in Dad’s case, all the signs are pointing down; I’ll be surprised if he lives another eighteen months”.
“Does he still go into the office?”
“Not any more; he hasn’t got the energy. Rick’s glad about that, of course; ever since Dad retired, Rick’s been wishing he would leave him alone and let him run the business”. Rick was my younger brother; he had followed the career path my father had wanted for me, and was now the managing partner of my father’s old legal firm.
“Dad’s never found it easy to let other people run their own lives, has he?”
“I’m afraid not; that’s one of the constants you can rely on, no matter what else changes!”
We both laughed, and then she said, “So two interviews this week, right?”
“Yes, one in Headington and one in Cowley; I’ve already done phone interviews for two in Reading and one in High Wycombe”.
“I’ll be hoping for Headington or Cowley; it would be nice to have you so close”. She reached over and put her hand on mine. “How do you feel about this move? Are you sad?”
“Mixed feelings, I suppose”. I looked out of the passenger window as the cars flashed past; “I’ve lived there for a long time”.
“How’s Emma feeling about it?”
“Her feelings are mixed too. She’s excited about spending an extended period of time in England and getting a closer look at her English roots, but there’s another part of her that’s dreading the thought of leaving Meadowvale”.
“Well, she’s lived there all her life, and Kelly’s family have always been so close…”
“Yes, and I know she doesn’t want me to sell the house, either. It’s one more link with Kelly, you see”.
“Then there’s the business of her plans for the future”.
“She still wants to go into nursing, so she tells me?”
“Yes; she’s been volunteering at the senior’s lodge for the past year, and she’s really good with the old people. I don’t have any difficulty at all seeing her making a career of geriatric nursing”.
“Well, there’ll always be a need for geriatric nurses in England. If the move here did turn out to be permanent, she’d never be short of a job”.
“We haven’t talked about making a permanent move, Becs”.
“I understand; one day at a time”.
I dozed a little in the car as Becca negotiated the roads; we took the M40 from the London area northwest towards Oxford, and at times the traffic was heavy. When I was awake, we talked quietly about our family and reminisced about the past. She had visited us many times in Saskatchewan, both before and after Kelly’s death; when she was seventeen she had spent a whole summer with us, and after Kelly’s funeral she had stayed for a month to help Emma and me get back on our feet. She knew our Meadowvale family and friends well, and we were soon sharing stories and memories of her visits. The hour’s drive seemed to fly by, and before I knew it we were getting close to Northwood.
I thought of Northwood as my childhood home, but in fact we had moved there from Oxford when I was eleven. My earlier years had been spent in the Oxford suburb of Summertown, but I had preserved very few links with the place of my birth and early childhood. Northwood is a village of about two thousand people, situated in the Thames valley about four miles north of the town of Wallingford. At that point, the Thames is a fairly narrow stream flowing sedately between picturesque, tree-lined banks. It flows past the western edge of the old village; the newer, more modern housing estates are located across the bridge on the opposite side of the river.
We drove into Northwood around three-thirty, on a road that had once been my paper route, down a low hill into the east side of town. We went through the centre of the village with its narrow high street flanked by shop windows, the ancient church looming on our left. Becca turned at the church, and I looked around at the street I had once known so well, noticing the absence of some familiar buildings in the six years since I had been here last, and the addition of many more new ones. On the south side of the village we turned left onto a long private driveway running down past a copse of ancient elm trees; at the end of the driveway loomed the familiar bulk of my parents’ home. Built in the late eighteenth century, it was a large two-storey grey stone house with an old courtyard and stable complex off to one side, which had long since been converted into garage space. Behind the house there was an apple orchard, a wood, and a small lake.
Becca pulled the car up by the front door. “Well, here we are”, she said as she turned off the engine, “and here’s Mum; she must have been watching at the window”.
My mother was emerging from the front door. She was in her late sixties now; in her youth she had been a concert pianist, and it was she who had encouraged me in my own interest in the arts and music. Getting out of the car I advanced toward her, noticing the new lines on her face since I had last seen her at Kelly’s funeral nearly two years ago. “Hello, Mum”, I said.
“Hello, Tom; welcome home”. We put our arms around each other and held each other for a long moment, and I felt her emotion in the tightness of her grip.
Becca was already lifting my bag out of the trunk of the car; she kissed my mother on the cheek and asked, “How’s Dad today?”
“Alright this afternoon; he slept a bit earlier on. Let’s go inside, shall we?”
We followed her up the steps and through the doorway into the hall. The well-remembered spiral staircase swept up on our left; I took in at a glance the polished wood floor, the antique telephone table, the ornate wallpaper. My mother was already leading the way into the large living room. It was built on the southwest corner of the house, with bay windows on the outside walls providing plenty of light, and today there was a small fire burning in the fireplace. Two armchairs and a chesterfield were grouped around the hearth; on the opposite wall a sideboard held a tray of bottles, and some other chairs were scattered around the edges of the room. As we entered, my father rose slowly out of one of the armchairs by the fireplace, and as I crossed the room toward him he held out his hand.
“So you finally came home again”. His voice was not as strong as I remembered, and in fact as I took his hand I was struggling to relate his obvious frailty to the enormity of his stature in my mind. He had always been tall and wiry, but now he seemed gaunt and skeletal, his back a little bent, his face narrow and pale, wisps of grey hair combed straight back from his high forehead. The ravages of the deadly disease he was fighting were plain.
“How are you, Dad?” I asked.
“Not dead yet, at any rate”, he replied. He greeted Becca, smiling at her as she kissed him on the cheek, and then moved over to the sideboard, asking “What will you have to drink, Tom?”
“Becca? Dry sherry?”
“Yes please, Dad”.
He poured drinks for everyone and passed them around; “Sit down, everyone”, he said. We found our seats, he and my mother on each side of the hearth, Becca and I side by side on the chesterfield.
“So”, my mother asked, “How’s Emma? Did you bring us some new pictures?”
“I did”. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, brought out my photographs and passed them to my mother.
“She’s let her hair grow long”, my mother observed as she looked over the pictures one by one, passing them over to my father as well. “Are these recent?”
I nodded. “Just a month or two ago”.
“She still looks so much like Kelly”.
“That’s what I always think”, Becca said softly.
My father glanced at the photographs my mother handed to him; “A month or two ago, you say? Plenty of snow still, at that time”.
“You never can tell how long it’ll stay”.
He looked at me with a smile of amusement; “You’ve certainly picked up the accent over the years!”
“It comes and goes. In Canada they say I sound British”.
“So you’ve got two interviews this week?”
“Yes, one in Headington and one in Cowley; I’ve already done three by phone”.
“Headington or Cowley would be nice”, my mother said. “Would you still be teaching English?”
“You could live here”, my father suggested.
“We could do that, or we could start out here and then look for a place of our own once I get my feet on the ground”.
“Don’t be ridiculous – prices are far too high around here. On your salary you’d never be able to afford it. With what you could get from selling a house in Saskatchewan you’d be in no position to buy. Living here would be the only reasonable thing to do”.
“If I get a job nearby, I’ll certainly think about it, Dad”, I replied.
My mother passed the photographs back to me. “Rick and the family are coming for dinner tonight”, she said; “I hope you don’t mind?”
“Of course not, but I wouldn’t mind a little nap before then; as usual, I didn’t sleep too well on the plane overnight, and my body’s not quite sure what time it is”.
“Of course; I’ve got your old room made up for you”.
“Maybe I’ll go up and get settled in, then”.
Excusing myself, I slipped out, picked up my bag in the hall and climbed wearily up the spiral staircase. As I pushed open the door to my old room I was confronted with a world of memory; the wallpaper and some of the furniture had been changed, but the view from the window out over the fields was still the same, and some of my childhood books were still in the bookcase against the wall. Putting my bag down on the bed I went out to the bathroom; a moment later I returned, opened my bag and took out a framed photograph of Kelly. I had taken it myself, on a camping trip four years ago; she was wearing a light jacket, her hair was blowing free in the wind, and she was smiling intimately at me. I remembered the occasion well; it had been the year before she was diagnosed with her second bout of cancer. I looked fondly at the photograph for a moment, then placed it carefully on the bedside table and began to unpack the rest of my things.
My brother and his family arrived just before six o’clock; we were sitting in the living room again when we heard the sound of the car pulling up in front of the house. My mother went out to greet them, and a moment later we all stood up as they entered the living room. Rick’s curly blond hair was beginning to turn grey and his face seemed pale and thin; I could see he had come straight from work as he was still dressed formally in dark suit and tie. He held out his hand to me; “Welcome home”, he said.
“Thank you; it’s good to see you”.
I turned to greet his family. His wife Alyson was petite, with dark hair and a pleasant Scottish accent, dressed quietly in a skirt and sweater; she worked as a research assistant for a wildlife conservation unit at the university in Oxford. They had brought their three children with them; Eric was sixteen, Sarah fourteen, and Anna eleven. None of the children knew me well, of course, since it had been six years since I was last in England, and they had never visited us in Canada.
My mother and Becca moved some extra chairs into the semi-circle around the hearth, and my father handed drinks around. “Why don’t we sit down?” my mother suggested; “Tom’s got some lovely photographs of Emma”.
And so my pictures made the rounds again. Sarah, a petite redhead who looked older than her fourteen years, asked, “How old is she now?”
“What does that mean in Canada; is she doing something like A-levels?”
“She’ll be finishing Grade Twelve this June, which is like getting A-levels where we live”.
“So will she be going to university if you move over here?”
“What does she want to do?” asked Eric.
“She wants to be a nurse”.
“And what does she like to do when she’s not working, Tom?” Alyson asked.
“We both like doing outdoor things – camping, hiking, canoeing. She likes cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, and she reads a lot as well, and plays guitar”.
My brother gave a wry grin; “Chip off the old block”, he said.
“Well, I won’t take responsibility for everything about her; the old block she got the nursing from was definitely her mother, not me!”
“Eric’s started to play guitar this past year”, Alyson said, glancing at her son.
“I’m not very good yet”, he said.
“Your Uncle Tom’s been playing since he was a teenager”, said Rick.
My mother got to her feet; “Well”, she said, “dinner’s ready, so Becca and I will go and put it on the table, if everyone wants to wash up”.
After dinner my brother surprised me by suggesting that we take a walk in the garden together. It was dark outside by then, of course, but the evening was clear, the temperature cooling off with a hint of moisture in the air.
We skirted my father’s flowerbeds in silence. At the bottom of the garden Rick glanced across at me and said, “So you’re really thinking of moving back, are you?”
“I really am”.
“Not thinking of going into the Law at long last, though?” he said with a smile.
“No, I’ll leave that to you. How’s it going?”
“It would have been a lot better if Dad had just let the thing go when he retired. It’s been nearly two years, and until he got sick there wasn’t a week went by that he wasn’t in the office at least twice. He hasn’t got the energy to come in any more, but even now he’s still aways asking me questions about it; it’s as if he thinks I haven’t got a clue!”
“He has had that effect on us, hasn’t he?”
My brother gave a short laugh. “We’ve got that much in common, haven’t we?”
“I’m afraid so”.
He stopped and turned to face me; “What’s this really all about, Tom?” he asked.
“This move back to England. By all accounts you’ve got a nice cosy little pad out there in Canada, and your reports about the place are always glowing. Why are you giving it all up now?”
“Because Dad’s dying, of course”.
“And that means what? That you want to be sure of inheriting some of the money?”
I turned away for a moment; “I’d always assumed that he’d leave everything to Mum”, I replied darkly, my back to him, “but perhaps I’m wrong”.
“I expect he’ll leave most of it to her, along with the house, of course. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if he left some for the three of us as well”.
I turned back toward him; “That kind of thing honestly never entered my head”, I said as we resumed our walk. “I know I’ve been the black sheep of the family for many years, at least in Dad’s eyes, and I want to try to build some bridges while I still can. I really don’t want him to die without my knowing that I’d done my best to make things better between us”.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Well, rather you than me. Despite what appearances might seem to suggest, he and I aren’t exactly a cosy united front against your Canadian rebelliousness. We’ve got some scars, too, and I wouldn’t like to bet on our chances of healing them before he dies”.
“It doesn’t hurt to try”.
“I suppose not; have you got a plan?”
“Not really. Hopefully I can move back here, get a job, visit Mum and Dad and try to listen and be as helpful as I can. Then there’s Emma; it’ll be important for her to have known him a little better, I think”.
“She’s a pretty good kid, I hear?”
“Yes; she takes after her Mom”.
“Sorry about your wife, Tom”.
We lapsed into silence for a few minutes, walking slowly along the path. Eventually I said, “Dad doesn’t look well, does he?”
“You would notice that more, coming here after being away for six years. For the rest of us, it’s been coming on so gradually that it’s only now we’re noticing it. When someone points it out to me, I can see it, but it would have taken me a long time to notice it myself. That’s Becca’s department, isn’t it?” he observed with a nervous laugh.
“I guess so”.
“Well, shall we walk back up to the house? I’m ready for a drink”.
I spent a quiet few days at my parents’ home, visiting with my mother and father, going for walks in the village and the old familiar countryside around, and making occasional trips into Oxford with Becca. The atmosphere when my father was awake was as tense as ever, but he usually slept for at least an hour after lunch, and then my mother and I had some long, quiet conversations. In the middle of the week Becca drove me to Cowley for a morning interview there, and afterwards we had a long and satisfying conversation together over a pub lunch.
On the day before my flight home to Canada I had my last interview in Headington, at a high school with a good reputation for the teaching of languages and a solid academic record in other areas too. The interview went well, and I left with the sense that there was a good possibility I might be successful there. Alyson picked me up from the school and drove me out to Northwood; her greeting was friendly enough, but she seemed somewhat subdued as we made the short journey out to Northwood.
My mother had invited the whole family to dinner again that night; it was already almost six by the time we arrived, and everyone else was already there. My father was looking even more tired and pale, and there was a vague unidentifiable tension in the air. But my mother greeted me warmly when I entered the living room; I turned down a drink and asked for tea, and as she handed me a cup she asked, “How did the interview go?”
“Alright, I think. As far as I could tell no one thought my application was a total waste of time, anyway”.
“How soon will you know?” Becca asked, sitting with her legs curled under her on the chesterfield, a glass of sherry in her hand.
“Within a couple of weeks, I think”.
“Any sense of which way it might go?”
“Not really. I’m so unfamiliar with the process that I don’t even know how to read the signs”.
“Did it feel different, being back in English schools?” asked Alyson.
I took a seat on the chesterfield beside Becca. “A little, I suppose. I’m used to teaching in a smaller school; I keep forgetting how big some of the schools around here are. I guess that could be a little daunting, if I wanted to think about it”.
“You can’t let them know that, though”, my father said. “They’ll read it as a sign of weakness. You can’t appear to be weak, or they’ll take advantage of it”.
“Who are ‘they’, Dad?”
“Your pupils, of course”.
“Well, I haven’t actually met any of them yet, so the situation hasn’t arisen. I’m sure the learning curve will be quite steep if I get the job. I know I’ll have to adapt to a different school culture from what I’m used to. I’ve never been under the impression that moving here would be easy”.
“At least the hours will be good”, Rick observed with a laugh, taking a sip of his drink.
I frowned; “Sorry?”
He grinned at me; “What is it, nine until three each day? You’re lucky you don’t have to survive in the business world, Tom!”
I looked at him in surprise, and suddenly began to notice his flushed face, and the speed with which the level of Scotch in his glass was going down. The vague tension in the air was becoming clear to me. I had known for a long time that my brother was fond of his drink, but in recent years, according to my sister’s letters, the problem was becoming more acute. Tonight, I realized, I was going to have an opportunity to observe the situation firsthand.
“Well”, my mother said, “the meal will be ready now. Shall we go into the dining room?”
The next morning, as Becca and I were sitting having coffee at a crowded café outside the departure lounge at Terminal Three, I said “I see what you mean about Rick’s drinking”.
“Yes, it’s become much worse since the last time you were here”.
“He’s not pleasant to be around when he’s had too much, is he?”
“He’s very rarely abusive, but his sense of humour loses all its inhibitions; his comments get quite off-colour and the sexual innuendo starts flying thick and fast. It’s very embarrassing for Alyson and the children”.
“I saw that. Has it begun to affect his work?”
“I don’t know; I never see his partners, and of course he’d be the last one to discuss it with me. I can see that Alyson struggles with it, but she and I aren’t very close and so I don’t know how she deals with it on a day-to-day basis”. She paused for a moment, her hands cradled around her coffee cup. “I’ve actually given it quite a lot of thought”, she continued; “Alcoholism’s something I’m quite interested in”.
“I didn’t know that”.
“I’ve taken some specialist courses in addictions over the years, and I’ve read a lot about it”.
“Are you finding it’s a common problem?”
“Much more common than we’d like to think”.
“So what are your thoughts about Rick?”
“I’m worried; I suspect he’s already done a lot of damage to his health. It’s very unusual now to see him in the evening when he hasn’t been drinking; I was quite surprised to see him sober that first night at Mum and Dad’s. Alyson usually drives when they’re going home together from an evening event, but she can’t be with him all the time, of course”.
“Do Mum and Dad ever talk about it?”
“The only one who talks about it is Dad, and his usual reaction when Rick’s been drinking is to lose his temper and yell at him”.
“Yes, I can see Dad hasn’t lost his forceful courtroom style around the house”.
She gave a wry grin; “Being sick hasn’t made him any easier to live with, has it?”
“It certainly hasn’t. I’m not sure how Emma will take it, actually”.
“Are you going to take them up on their offer to live there?”
“It wouldn’t be my first choice; you know how Emma and I live”.
“You’d be welcome to stay at my place, you know, and I’m sure Owen would make the same offer”.
“Thanks, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. The situation might not arise; I might not get a job nearby”.
“If one of them is offered, will you take it?”
“I think so. If I really want to build bridges with Dad and Mum, it makes sense to be close, doesn’t it? Also – well, to tell you the truth, it was nice to be around Northwood again. Despite all the conflicts with Dad, I enjoyed growing up there. If I do get a job close by, I’ll enjoy looking up old friends and exploring old haunts, and I’ll enjoy showing Emma around”.
“It would be really good to have you here”.
“Thanks”. I watched for a moment as an East Indian couple sat down at a table across from us, their coffee cups in their hands. Then I said, “Becs, can I ask you a personal question?”
“Of course; what is it?”
“Do you have any contact with Mike?”
Immediately my sister looked away from me. Mike Carey was a paramedic; he had been her boyfriend for eighteen months, and they had lived together for almost a year, but he had ended their relationship just after Christmas. The previous summer, while they were still together, Mike and Becca had come to Meadowvale to visit Emma and me, and we had taken them camping in Jasper National Park for a couple of weeks.
“I know where he’s staying”, she said, “and we know each other’s phone numbers, but we haven’t talked intentionally since…”
“Sorry”, I said; “I shouldn’t have asked”.
“Don’t be silly!” she replied; “You and I don’t keep these things secret from each other; I know you’re concerned, and believe me, I’m grateful. To be honest, I’m still finding it pretty hard. The hardest thing, of course, is knowing that it was my fault”.
“You don’t know that”.
“Tommy, spare me the sympathy on this point; you and I have talked about this enough times to know that I’m the one who’s got to learn to get my compulsive work habits under control. Mike was sick and tired of getting short-changed when it came to my time, and who can blame him? I certainly can’t!” She shook her head slowly; “It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it”.
“You’re good at what you do, and you enjoy it”.
“Owen’s good at what he does, and he enjoys it, but he’s not driven like I am”.
“Do you still see Stevie regularly?” Stevie Fredericks was my sister’s closest friend from her high school years; she and her partner Nick lived in the Jericho area of Oxford.
“Yes, we still swim together once a week, and we always go for coffee afterwards”.
“You don’t do gymnastics any more, though?”
She laughed; “Not for a long time!”
I smiled at her; “I seem to remember that you and Stevie did pretty well in gymnastics competitions in high school”.
“We did”. She returned my smile and said, “Those were good days”.
I glanced at my watch; “Well, I’d better go through to my gate”.
“That time already?”
“I’m afraid so”.
We got to our feet, and I led the way out of the restaurant down toward the security check-in. “Give my love to Owen and Lorraine”, I said.
“I will – and you give Emma love and hugs from me”.
We reached the line up for the security check in, and I turned to face her. “Take care of yourself, Becs”, I said.
“You too, Tommy; see you soon”. We hugged each other tightly for a minute, and then I stepped back, gave her a grin, and turned toward the desk. I presented my passport and boarding card to the uniformed attendant; she scanned them briefly, then handed them back to me with a nod. I looked back, gave Becca one last wave, and then made my way through the door to the security lounge.