On the last weekend of August Emma and I moved into our new place in New Marston, on the outskirts of northeast Oxford. The village of Old Marston, just north of us, had an unspoiled beauty that I had always loved, with its old cottages, its narrow winding roads, and its proximity to the tree-lined east bank of the River Cherwell; however, the housing there was well outside my financial reach. Our new home was a small terraced house on a quiet pre-war cul-de-sac on the edge of Marston Recreation Ground, with a living room, dining area and kitchen downstairs, and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Behind the house was a small back yard, with an area of lawn, a garden shed, and a little stone patio by the back door. The previous tenants had created a small vegetable garden in one corner of the yard, and although they had cleaned out most of the produce before they left, there were still a few raspberry canes and some tomato plants for us to enjoy.
We had given most of our furniture to relatives for safekeeping when we left Meadowvale, but we had shipped the best-loved items to England, arranging for them to arrive toward the end of August, and since coming to Northwood we had bought a few more items in second-hand shops in Oxford. Owen and Lorraine helped us move in, and to my surprise Eric and Sarah arrived early on the Saturday morning to help as well; apparently Emma had invited them, and we were soon glad of their assistance. Owen quickly became our acknowledged foreman, and his irrepressible cheerfulness kept us going through the long day of moving and arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, and putting things away in cupboards and closets.
By late afternoon we had assembled the beds and manhandled most of the furniture where we wanted it, although there were still many boxes lying around waiting to be unpacked. I knew that after church the next day I would have to make it my priority to set up my home office; the beginning of school was only hours away for me, and I needed to have everything organized and ready for Monday morning.
Becca arrived at about five in the afternoon with a pager hooked over the belt of her jeans; she was on call that weekend. She and Emma made some more tea, and the seven of us were just sitting down to drink it in the shambles of the living room when we heard another car pulling up in front of the house. Emma was sitting in a chair with her back to the front window; she was wearing faded jeans and a bright yellow tee-shirt, and her hair was pulled up in a pony-tail tucked into the back of her green Saskatchewan Roughriders ball cap. She turned in her chair, glanced out of the window, and said, “I guess we’d better make another pot of tea; Grandma and Grandpa are here”.
“Oh shit!” Becca exclaimed, then covered her mouth with her hand and smiled in embarrassment as we all laughed at her. “Sorry, everyone!” she said, getting to her feet; “I’ll put the kettle on again”.
The week before, my father had been well enough for chemotherapy, and he had been sick for several days afterwards. By now his already thin hair had begun to fall out, and as I opened the front door to welcome them I noticed that he was a little bent and was walking with the aid of a stick. He was dressed in a tweed jacket and white shirt, but my mother was wearing a light summer dress. She smiled at me, her eyes twinkling, and said, “We thought we’d come and have a look at the establishment; I hope that’s all right”.
“Certainly”, I replied, standing aside to let them in the door. “I’m afraid it’s still a mess, and we might have to give you boxes to sit on. How are you feeling, Dad?”
“Not bad”, he replied. I watched as he stepped into the living room, straightened up slowly, and surveyed the scene. In the front part of the room, two armchairs faced each other on either side of a gas fire, with a sofa against the opposite wall, a coffee table in between, and a bookshelf in one corner. At the back of the room, in the dining area, a small dining table and four wooden chairs sat in front of a window looking out onto the back yard. The whole ground floor could have fit easily into the large piano room at the back of my parents’ house; looking at it through my father’s eyes, I knew that the little place must seem ridiculously cramped.
Emma went up to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Would you like the tour, Grandpa?” she asked in her usual soft-spoken voice.
“Certainly, my dear”, he replied; “Lead the way!”
So she took my parents around to the tiny kitchen, and then took them out to the back yard and told them her ideas about gardening; she and my father had a lively discussion for a few minutes about plants and vegetables, about the ones that needed more sun and the ones that could flourish in the shade. After they had been upstairs for a quick look at the bedrooms and the room that would become my home office, Becca poured them tea, and we all sat in the living room and drank another cup with them. They were quiet, and I knew without a word being spoken that my father disapproved of our poky little house and the way of life it represented.
Eric and Sarah, however, seemed oblivious to the silent emotional undercurrents in the room. Emma had apparently told Eric that Owen and I had been in a band together; now he spoke up and said “Uncle Tom, are you and Owen going to play some music for us?”
Owen was sitting on a stool in the doorway, his black jeans and tee shirt stained and covered with dust, his tea mug in his hand. He looked inquiringly at me; “What do you think?”
“Have you got a guitar handy?”
“As it happens, I put mine in the car, just in case”.
I half-expected that the prospect of our music would be enough to scare my father away, but he was still there when Owen came back into the room with a solid guitar case in his hand; he was sitting in the most comfortable armchair we possessed, beside the gas fireplace, and my mother had moved a wooden chair from the dining set over beside him. Owen sat down on his stool again, opened his guitar case and lifted out his old Fylde Oberon acoustic guitar. My own guitar case was standing in the corner of the room, and I had already taken out my instrument and begun to check the tuning. As Owen was tuning his guitar I looked around and said, “Any requests?”
“Something a bit livelier than your normal miserable stuff”, Becca replied with an impish grin.
Owen glanced across at me, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He took a pick from his pocket, ran up and down the strings with it a couple of times, and then began to play a rhythmic, string-bending introduction. I recognised the tune immediately; it was ‘Baby Driver’, a raucous cover song that had been one of our favourites as teenagers when we were trying to sound like Simon and Garfunkel. When he finished his introduction I launched into the rhythm part on my guitar, and we both began to sing simultaneously. By the time we finished the first verse everyone in the room except my parents was clapping along in time to the song, although personally I doubted if Eric and Sarah had ever heard it before. After the second verse I nodded at Owen, and while I kept up the driving rhythm on my guitar, he launched into a fiery instrumental break in his best acoustic rock style, ending with a dazzling run all the way up the fingerboard and a sliding chord down to the bottom again. He grinned and acknowledged the applause in the room as we launched into the last verse.
After the last crashing chord everyone applauded us, and I grinned over at Owen. I had suddenly realized that in all the busyness of our move from Meadowvale and our weeks at my parents’ home, this was the first time he and I had sat down to play guitar together.
“I didn’t know you played that sort of music, Uncle Tom!” Eric exclaimed; “I thought you only did folk songs”.
“Give us some of that old sixties stuff, Dad”, Emma requested.
I glanced at Owen, and the silent communication between us was instantaneous; he immediately strummed two opening chords and we launched right into the old Beatles classic ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’. By the time the song was over everyone was smiling; Owen gave a triumphant whoop, and Becca said, “You two are hot!”
Owen grinned at me; “You’ve been practicing”.
“A little”, I agreed; “How about some Louis Armstrong?”
This time I was the one who kicked off the song, an instrumental version of ‘What a Wonderful World’, with a gentle arpeggio running in the background. Owen and I took turns providing the melody and the accompaniment, and at one point when he was playing the lead he filled in some variations on the tune which took me a little by surprise. I could see the mischievous grin on his face as he led me back into the familiar melody, and the song cruised to its leisurely conclusion.
“Very nice”, Becca enthused; “I’ve never heard you play that before”.
But we were already moving seamlessly into an old American blues number, ‘I Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes’; I was more familiar with this piece than Owen, and I played several instrumental breaks in between the verses.
“Nice!” Eric enthused when the song ended; “You can play lots of different stuff!”
At that point my father, who had been silent throughout, said, “Well, I think we’d better be going”.
I put my guitar down and got to my feet. “Thanks for coming over”, I said as my mother stood up and helped him out of his chair. The others in the room murmured their goodbyes, and Emma and I followed my parents slowly out of the front door into the warm early evening air.
Just before we got to their car my father stopped, turned to me and said, “Tom, you can’t be serious about living in this house”.
I stiffened, feeling the instant resentment. “I certainly am serious about it!” I replied.
“The place isn’t big enough to swing a cat around”, he said. “If you had to move out of our house, why didn’t you ask me to help you get something better? It’s not as if I’m short of money, you know!”
“It’s not that much smaller than our house in Meadowvale”, I replied defensively.
“What’s that got to do with it? There’s absolutely no reason for you to be in a place like this; I’m very sorry to see you living at this level”.
I smiled; “There’s a living room and a kitchen, bedroom space for us both with an extra room for a home office, and a yard out back with room to grow a few vegetables in the summer. What more do we need? Trust me, Dad – we’ll be fine”.
“I suppose you think you’ve got something to prove, do you?” he said sarcastically.
Emma was standing at my side, listening quietly and watching our faces intently. Now it was her turn to speak. “Grandpa”, she said in a voice that was quiet but firm, “Last year Dad and I went to Mexico with Habitat for Humanity. We saw poor people living in one-room shacks, sometimes two or three families in one place. Mom and Dad often talked about that kind of thing when I was growing up – how the poor had so much less than us, and how it was our responsibility to live simply, so that we could help them. I’m sure there are lots of people living in poverty in England, too; I think this place would probably look pretty good to some of them”.
I could see that my father was taken aback by her intervention, and by the quiet conviction with which she spoke. Nonetheless, he was quick with his reply. “The last thing the poor need is handouts from you, Emma”, he said. “They already get far too much from the government. People in this country know a good thing when they see it. There are a lot of people who refuse to work because they can get more money living on social assistance. You don’t know this country; you don’t know how these people play the system. It doesn’t help them if people take a sentimental attitude to them. That only encourages their irresponsibility”.
I expected Emma to retreat, but to my surprise she stood her ground. “How many of them do you know, Grandpa?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how many of them do you know? Do you know their names?”
“Don’t be ridiculous; how would I know their names?”
“Then how do you know so much about how they work the system?”
I saw my father’s face reddening; he was not accustomed to being contradicted by a seventeen-year old. He opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment my mother intervened. “Well”, she said dryly, “you two aren’t going to resolve this issue on the pavement in front of Tom and Emma’s house; come and see us again soon, Emma, and you and your grandfather can debate poverty and social assistance to your hearts’ content. Frank, we should be getting home”.
“You’re probably right”, he admitted; “I am getting a bit tired”.
My mother hugged Emma and me, and then my daughter stepped up to her grandfather, kissed him impulsively on the cheek, and said, “I love you, Grandpa”. I saw the surprise on my father’s face; he mumbled something inaudible, and then he and my mother got into the Rover. My mother was driving, something that would have been unheard of even a few months ago; I realized that the chemotherapy had sapped my father’s strength beyond the point where he could pretend there was nothing wrong. Emma and I watched as the car pulled away down the quiet street, waved as it disappeared around the corner, and then turned back toward the house. I put my arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.
“I shouldn’t have spoken like that, should I?” she said.
“I don’t think he liked it when I spoke back to him”.
“I was proud of you”, I said. “It made me feel good to hear you speak out for the poor like that”.
“Thanks”, she said quietly as we went back into the house together.
The hour was late; Owen had driven Eric and Sarah out to their place before going home himself, and Emma had decided to have an early night. But Becca had brought a bottle of red wine with her, and she and I had decided to sit outside for a while. We were sitting in a pair of old lawn chairs with only the dim light from the dining room window providing illumination for us. The night air was warm, we were now onto our second glass, and the conversation had turned to my father’s health.
“He’s getting weaker, isn’t he?” I said.
“I’m afraid he is”.
“Is this sort of deterioration expected?”
“Well, let’s just say I’m not surprised. With chemo, in the short term, the cure has the same effect as the disease”.
I nodded, recalling Kelly’s growing exhaustion. “It seems to be really tiring him out; is that because of his age?”
“Probably. He’s only been able to manage one set of injections every two or three weeks. He should be receiving one a week, but if his system can’t handle it, there’s not much his oncologist can do other than put it off. But of course, that doesn’t help arrest the spread of the cancer cells; with high grade lymphomas, you need really aggressive therapy to have any chance of success”.
“Are there any other options?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to second-guess his doctors. If things don’t turn around in the next couple of months, they might consider bone marrow transplant, but that’s a tough piece of surgery even for a younger person, and I doubt if Dad’s system is strong enough for it. Normally it isn’t even considered unless you’re facing a recurrence of the lymphomas”.
“Too bad he couldn’t get some energy from sheer bloody-mindedness!”
I saw the smile playing around her lips in the semi-darkness. “Was he giving you a difficult time?”
“He doesn’t approve of our tiny little house, but then, I didn’t expect him to”.
“It is a bit small, Tommy; are you sure you and Emma are going to be okay here?”
“We’ll be fine”.
She drained her wine glass, put it down on the garden table between us, and said, “Do you find yourself feeling a little torn?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I’m used to being on the defensive with Dad all the time; for as long as I can remember, my habitual position with him has been resistance. And as you say, he’s still bloody-minded enough sometimes to warrant that. But then when you look at how frail he’s getting…”
“A little confusing, isn’t it?”
“Yes – I’m not really sure how I’m supposed to feel”.
“How do you feel?”
“Helpless, angry, sad, all rolled into one”.
I held out my hand to her; “Are you okay, Little Becs?” I asked gently.
She reached out and grasped my hand; “You haven’t called me that in a long, long time”, she replied, and I noticed that her voice was a little shaky.
Much later that night, I found myself lying awake in my bed, thinking about Becca. I was twelve years old when she was born; I suspect that her birth was a surprise to my mother and father, but for some reason I very quickly took a liking to this new member of our household. Looking back now, I realize how unusual it was for a twelve-year old boy to take such an interest in a new baby girl, but nonetheless I was fascinated with her. I helped my mother care for her when she was still small; later, as she was growing up, I played with her and read to her and took her for walks. After Owen and I moved to Oxford to go to university when she was six, it was my little sister I missed the most; although I stayed away from home as much as I could, there were times when I would simply take the bus to Northwood, arrive at the front door and explain to my mother that I wanted to spend some time with Becca. My mother, aware of the close relationship between us, would sometimes drive her into Oxford on a Saturday so that she could spend the day with me.
Becca was eleven years old when I moved to Canada, and she told me later that she felt abandoned when I left. For several years we had little contact with each other, the only time in our lives when there was anything resembling a rift between us. However, when Kelly and I first visited England together, before we were married, Becca had taken a liking to my bride-to-be, and two months later she and my mother had come to Meadowvale for our wedding.
When she was seventeen she wrote me a long letter, the upshot of which was that Kelly invited her to come and spend the summer with us in Meadowvale. It was a significant summer for all of us. The previous year, my wife had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer; after surgery, she went through several months of chemotherapy and radiation, which concluded around Christmas time when she was given a clean bill of health. However, she had taken a long time to get her energy back, and by the time the summer came she was still not as strong as she wanted to be. But, being Kelly, she somehow managed to hang on to her serenity and optimism, and it wasn’t long before my sister was opening up to her. Becca had recently ended a long term relationship with a boy at school after she had discovered that he had been cheating on her with one of her close friends; she had spent the last few months of the school year in a deep depression, and until she came to visit us she had said very little about it to anyone.
Emma was eighteen months old that summer, and Becca quickly warmed to her. The four of us did some traveling together; we went camping in the mountains in Alberta and British Columbia, swam in some of the prairie lakes, and had lots of time to talk. Many nights that summer Kelly and Becca sat up talking till late; I would get up to use the bathroom at one or two in the morning and find them still talking quietly in the living room, or out on the deck with the citronella candles burning to keep the mosquitos away. My wife was eleven years older than my sister, but she was a patient and sympathetic listener, and Becca was able to work through a lot of personal stuff with her. From that time on, I knew that Becca saw Kelly as the older sister she had never had, and their relationship was always close.
After that summer we tried to see Becca once a year; if we were not going to England (and we usually were not), we would send her the air fare to come and visit us. She wrote to us constantly while she was doing her medical training at the University of York, and afterwards when she was working hard as a young doctor at Owen’s clinic. She came to spend Christmas with us during Kelly’s last illness, and came back again the following May for my wife’s funeral, staying afterwards for a month to help Emma and me, although in reality I knew that she was almost as stricken by grief as we were. During that month the relationship between Emma and Becca, which was already strong, had become much deeper and more open. Emma and I were close, but I knew there were things she had said to Becca about Kelly’s death that she had never said to me.
Despite our closeness, there were still some things about Becca that were a mystery to me. True, she had rejected the Masefield family stereotypes, as I had, but in many ways she was every bit as driven in her medical career as my father and my brother were in their lives as barristers. I knew that this was the main reason Mike Carey had left her after they had lived together for eighteen months; he had explained to her quite openly that he was looking for more than leftover minutes at the end of each week. That had been hard for Becca to hear; she and I had talked about it for hours by phone and e-mail. Since I had moved to Oxford I had been gratified to see the amount of time she had taken off work to spend with Emma and me, and I hoped that perhaps she was learning to find a better balance in her life. Secretly I indulged the hope that Emma and I could have a good effect on my sister in this way. I personally felt I owed her a great deal because of all the love and care she had given to us after Kelly’s death, and I wanted to do my best to return that love and care now that we were living close to each other again.