My father was not able to attend Eric’s birthday party; he was too ill. Emma and I did not find out about this until we arrived for the party.
My brother and his family lived in a large house built on slightly sloping grounds at the foot of Cumnor Hill on the west side of Oxford; it was only a few years old and was situated well back from the road on a sizeable lot. The ground floor windows were all latticed, and there was a large double garage on one side of the house. There were several cars already parked in the driveway when we arrived; I recognised Becca’s little Renault and my brother’s Rover, and there was also a black BMW off to one side. I pulled my old Escort up behind it, turned off the engine, and glanced across at Emma; I could almost see her social activist hackles rising. She gave me a wry grin and said, “I smell money!”
“In a feisty mood this afternoon, are we?”
She laughed; “I’ll try to behave myself, but if you think I’m getting dangerously close to mouthing off in ways that aren’t going to be very helpful, just kick me. Actually – even better – you remember that verse from the book of James about human anger not achieving God’s righteousness?”
“I remember it”.
“Well, could you just look at me and say, ‘James’?”
I smiled; “You’ll do fine, Emma Dawn”.
“I wonder where Grandpa’s car is?”
“Perhaps they’re not here yet. Shall we go in?”
We got out of the car and walked up the driveway. It was an unusually warm afternoon for late September; Emma was dressed in shorts and a sweatshirt in anticipation of a game of tennis, and she had a backpack slung over her shoulder with a change of clothes in it. Alyson met us at the door, dressed in a smart skirt and pastel-coloured jacket; she smiled warmly at us and said, “Welcome to our home; I’m so glad the two of you could come”
She led us through the reception hall, and I noticed the woodblock flooring and the dark polished staircase leading up to the bedrooms. The living room had the same woodblock flooring, partially covered by a colourful rug; there was an open brick fireplace with a tiled hearth, and at the back of the room French windows opened onto the large back garden. Off to the left, an arched doorway led through to the kitchen area.
My brother was sitting on an easy chair as we came into the room, talking with a couple I didn’t recognize who were seated on the chesterfield across from him; on the glass coffee table between them there were several plates of hors d’oeuvres and a tray with a cafetière and some cups. When he saw us, Rick got to his feet and held out his hand to me. “Good to see you”, he said. “Let me introduce my partner Gavin Scott and his wife Lesley. Gavin and I were up at university together. Gavin and Lesley, this is my brother Tom and his daughter Emma”.
Gavin Scott peered at me from behind rimless glasses when we shook hands. “You’ve just moved back from Canada, I understand? One of our former classmates from Oriel is practicing in Vancouver now; he seems to think it’s the nicest city on earth”.
“It is pretty nice”, I replied, “but it’s a long way from us – about a thousand miles by road”.
He laughed; “We English always forget just how big your continent is! Where do you live, then?”
“Ninety miles northeast of Saskatoon, right in the centre of the prairies”.
Emma glanced at the open French doors and said, “Is Eric out back, Uncle Rick?”
“They’re all out there”, Rick replied. “There’s a tennis game going on; it turned out to be a perfect day for it, didn’t it? They’ve got some lemonade and other stuff; feel free to go and join them, Emma, or stay with us old folks if you like. I see you’re dressed for a game, anyway”.
“Are Dad and Mum not here yet?” I asked.
“Your father and mother can’t come, Tom”, Alyson replied. “They rang us about an hour ago; your father’s got a nasty infection, and they’ve put him in the John Radcliffe Hospital this afternoon”.
Emma went suddenly very still, and I instinctively knew why; that word ‘infection’ had loomed large in our vocabulary during the last year of Kelly’s life. At that moment Becca came wandering into the room through the French windows, dressed comfortably in a denim skirt and a loose sweater. She greeted us both with smiles and hugs, and then Emma asked her, “Do you know anything about this infection Grandpa’s got?”
“I haven’t talked to your Grandma yet”, she replied, “but it’ll be linked to a shortage of white blood cells; they’ll probably keep him in hospital and try to build them back up over the next few days”.
“Can we go see him?”
“That probably wouldn’t be a good idea for now; he’ll only just have gone in, and the doctors will be doing tests and organizing his treatment. Tomorrow would probably be a better time”.
I took Emma by the hand and said, “Let’s go out to greet the birthday boy, shall we? Rick, what’s the procedure with gifts; do we give them now, or is there a grand presentation later on?”
“He’ll be opening them after dinner”.
Out behind the house there was a grass tennis court on which Eric and a few of his friends were playing a fierce doubles match. Sarah and Anna were sitting at a picnic table with a couple of other girls watching the game; we sat with them for a while until Eric’s partner won the game for them with a spectacular spike. The girls then invited Emma to join them on the court, and I sat with the boys for a while to watch the game. I was taking in my surroundings, speculating about how much this luxurious property was worth in the inflated market of Oxford, and wondering what my brother had thought when he had seen the little house Emma and I were renting.
When the game ended Emma and Sarah slipped upstairs to Sarah’s room, and I went back inside to join the growing company in the living room. Eventually the girls came back down, having changed out of their tennis clothes, and I saw by their wet hair that they had taken showers as well. Emma came over to where I was sitting and kissed me affectionately on the back of my head.
“Did you have a visit with Sarah?” I asked.
“We had a great visit. She’s got hundreds of books in her room”.
Supper was served around six-thirty as promised; it was a professionally catered buffet laid out on the dining room table. Later on, after the birthday cake had been cut and shared out, it was time for Eric to open his gifts. The young people had been sitting in one corner of the room by themselves, but now Emma came and sat herself down on the floor in front of my chair, leaning her back against my knees.
Eric of course received many gifts, some of them quite expensive. Emma and I had given him a CD and a card with a cheque for £50. Eric read the card out loud: “This is the first £50 toward your new guitar”. He beamed over at us, and said, “Thanks!”
“Are you getting a new guitar?” Rick asked him; “I thought you already had one”.
“No”, I replied, “He’s got a cheap imitation guitar. He’s already progressing beyond what that little thing can do for him; soon he’s going to need something better”.
My brother shrugged his shoulders and smiled awkwardly; “Just goes to show how much I know!”
“Nothing”, one of the other men commented; “You probably don’t even know which end of a guitar to play!”
The room dissolved into laughter at Rick’s expense. Emma smiled up at me; it seemed we had gotten away with our gift, with its gentle suggestion of better things to come for Eric.
After the festivities were all finished, Rick touched my shoulder and said “Some of the other fellows are coming down to the den for a while. Care to join us?”
“Certainly”. I got to my feet and followed him down the corridor to the other end of the house. An arched doorway opened onto a room with a sunken floor and a large fireplace; one wall was covered with bookshelves, and a painting I thought I recognised as a Constable hung above the mantelpiece. Three or four other men were sitting in comfortable chairs around the fireplace, and I took a seat on the dark leather chesterfield beside Gavin Scott. He smiled at me and said, “You sounded very knowledgeable about guitars in there, Tom; are you a guitarist?”
“I am actually, yes”.
“Tom and I are adult survivors of compulsory piano lessons”, Rick interjected, moving over to the sideboard. “It doesn’t seem to have done him any harm, though”.
“Don’t you approve of compulsory piano lessons, Rick?” asked Gavin.
“He doesn’t approve of compulsory anything!” one of the others interposed, prompting a general laugh.
“Grossly unfair misrepresentation!” my brother protested with a grin.
I suddenly realized that he was taking a decanter of whisky from a cabinet. “Who’s for Scotch?” he asked with his back to us.
A couple of voices responded affirmatively, but I felt a sudden chill inside, remembering his promise to keep Eric’s birthday party alcohol-free. “Actually, I think I’ll just stick to coffee tonight”, I said, getting to my feet again; “I’ll just run down to the kitchen and get myself another cup”.
“Suit yourself”, Rick replied; “This is eighteen-year Glenmorangie”.
By the time I got back with my coffee several people were drinking Scotch, and there were a couple of pints of beer on the go as well. Gavin Scott asked me a few polite questions about Canada, and I was in the middle of telling him about life in small-town Saskatchewan when Eric appeared in the doorway of the den, with one of his friends beside him. They had been talking cheerfully with each other, but when Eric saw what was going on, the smile on his face quickly faded. “Dad!” he exclaimed reproachfully, “you promised there would be no alcohol tonight!”
The room went silent, every eye suddenly on Rick. He gave Eric a patronizing smile; “And I kept my promise”, he replied; “the party’s pretty well over now, isn’t it?”
I saw Eric fix his father with a withering glance. “It would have been nice if you could have waited just a little bit longer before you started your drinking”, he said as he turned and left, his friend behind him.
There was silence in the room for a moment, and then one of the other men got to his feet and said, “Well, I think I’d better be going, Rick”.
There were a few nods, and Gavin Scott added, “Lesley will be wanting to leave soon, too”.
“No need to be in such a rush, Gavin”, Rick replied.
“I think I’d better be going, too, Rick”, I said; “Emma and I have a commitment in the morning”.
The next day Emma and I went to church with Owen and his family in Headington. We had not yet found the time to look for something more like our kind of church, but for myself I was quite happy to sit with my oldest friend and his family that Sunday, even if it meant taking part in a service that was a little more formal than I would have preferred. Owen’s church sat quite lightly to liturgical traditions anyway, and the coffee hour afterwards was warm and friendly. Owen, genial as ever, introduced Emma and me to at least a dozen people, and by the time we left we had already received three or four invitations to supper, one of the ministers had invited us to join a study group, and Emma had been invited to a youth group social evening the following Saturday night.
After lunch we walked down to the John Radcliffe Hospital to visit my father; the ‘J.R.’ was only about a fifteen-minute walk from our house in Marston. We found our way to the front desk, where my mother had promised to meet us. The entrance area was crowded with people, but after a moment I saw her standing beside the reception desk, waving at us. We went over to where she was standing, and as she leaned forward to give me a hug I asked, “How’s Dad?”
“Better today. He’s still in intensive care, but they don’t seem to be unduly worried about him. Apparently this is not unusual. They think they’ll be able to transfer him to an ordinary room by tomorrow”.
“Can we see him?”
“Certainly; let’s go up”.
My father was in a room in the crowded intensive care unit, surrounded by the sounds and smells of serious illness. He was lying on a hospital bed with his head and shoulders slightly raised, and I could see at least two IV tubes attached to his arms. He looked pale and thin, and the dark circles under his eyes were larger again. He gave us a weak smile as we squeezed into the room, and when Emma leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, his arm came up briefly behind her back.
“You didn’t have to trouble yourselves about this”, he said; “Just a little set back, that’s all; I’ll be perfectly alright in a couple of days”.
I saw Emma scanning the instruments around the bed with her embryo nurse’s eye. She then looked up at the IV bags and said, ‘They’ve got you on an antibiotic, I guess?”
“I think so; I suppose you know all about that sort of thing, do you?”
She laughed softly; “No, not really – I’m a long way from being a nurse yet! But I remember when this sort of thing happened to Mom”
“Speaking of nursing, Emma”, said my mother, “are you going to apply to Oxford Brookes to study here?”
“Becca and I were talking about that; of course, we don’t know how long we’re going to be living in England, but it would make sense to make a start, anyway. I’ve been doing a little research, and there is one little snag”.
“Sit down, all of you”, my father encouraged us in a thin voice; “There’s no need for you all to stand around the bed. Irene, Tom, you take the chairs; Emma, you sit on the bed and tell me about this little snag”.
We sat down as we had been instructed; Emma took her grandfather’s hand and said, “Well, I seem to have fallen through a crack. Apparently, if you’re a U.K. resident, you can apply for nursing training, and the National Health Service will pay your fees. But if you’re not a U.K. resident, then not only will they not pay your fees, but they don’t want you to apply for training at all until you’ve lived here for at least three years for purposes other than education”.
“Never heard of anything so ridiculous in all my life!” my father exclaimed; “that must be a Labour government policy”.
“You mentioned ‘falling through a crack’, Emma?” my mother inquired.
“Well, apparently my situation is unusual, because on the one hand I’m not a U.K. resident, but on the other hand I didn’t move here specifically for the purposes of attending university; I moved here with my Dad, because he got a job here. And I am a British citizen, through my Dad. So the University is busy trying to figure out which category I fit into. Whichever one they put me into, though, I don’t think the National Health Service will pay my fees”.
“How much money are we talking about?” my father asked me.
I could see where this conversation was going, and I didn’t like it. “Several thousand pounds,” I replied, “but don’t worry about it, Dad; I’ve got most of the money we got for the house in Meadowvale, and I’d rather spend it on Emma’s education than anything else”.
For a moment I thought my father was going to argue with me, but then I realized that he was just too weary to object. He squeezed Emma’s hand; “I don’t like to see your education suffer because you moved here, my dear”, he said.
“Don’t worry about me; it looks like in a week or two I’ll be starting to volunteer at a nursing home not far from here, a place called Marston Court. I just have to wait while they do all the police checks; apparently that’s going to take a little longer than usual, because my records are all on the other side of the Atlantic!”
“Ah yes; I suppose they would be, wouldn’t they?”
We talked for a few minutes about the birthday party; my mother said she was sorry to have missed it, but my father, with a twinkle in his eye, commented that he’d had a lucky escape from several hours of rock music. Emma laughed and told him that he should be more open-minded about these things; she’d been to classical music concerts that were just as loud, she said. I was surprised to see my father bantering with Emma; this was a side of him I had rarely seen, and I realized that my daughter was quietly charming her way into his affections.
On the crowded table beside his bed there was a thick paperback book; Emma glanced at it, and said, “Do you like Dickens?”
“Yes, he’s one of the few Victorian novelists I’ve got any time for. What do you think?”
“Well, I like quite a few of them actually. I haven’t read that one, though: Bleak House. It sounds depressing!”
“Well, I suppose you could say it’s depressing in parts – most of his books are depressing in parts, aren’t they, Tom?”
I was taken by surprise; I had not expected my father to consult me on a point of English literature. “There aren’t many Dickens novels that don’t have their dark side”, I agreed; “Some of them are very dark”.
“Can I read to you for a little while, Grandpa?” Emma asked. “Dad and Grandma might like to go and find a cup of tea, or something”.
It was my father’s turn to be surprised; for a moment he obviously didn’t know what to say, but my mother looked at me and said, “That would be nice; Tom and I haven’t had much chance to chat yet, just between the two of us, have we, Tom?”
I shook my head. “Would that be okay with you, Dad?” I asked.
“Fine, fine; if Emma wants to read to me, I’m happy to be read to. Obviously she thinks I’m only one step from my dotage, but who am I to complain – at least she’s here, and not six thousand miles away – aren’t you, my dear?” He squeezed her hand, and she flashed him a smile before reaching across and picking up the book to read to him.