It took longer than a few days for my father to get out of hospital. The infection proved to be very stubborn; it was actually two weeks before he was able to go home, and even then he was very weak and not able to do much more than sit in his armchair.
The J.R. was within easy reach of my school, and while my father was a patient there I dropped in to visit him almost every day after classes. Most days I only stayed for twenty minutes or so, and then walked home to Marston. Emma and I took turns with the cooking, and with both of us busy during the day we rarely sat down to eat before about six thirty or seven.
It was almost the end of September when my father went home, and shortly after that Emma finally got word that all her security checks had come through and she could start at Marston Court any time she liked. She began almost immediately; some days she helped the recreation co-ordinator with activities for the residents, some days she helped at mealtimes or assisted with baths, and some days she went over very early to help some of the residents who needed a little more assistance with getting up in the mornings. She was busy almost every day, but I could see immediately that she was enjoying herself.
As for me, I was gradually adjusting to my new school environment. The buildings were different, the students wore uniforms, and their culture was urban rather than rural, but beneath the surface differences the kids were much the same as they had been in Canada. I had the same range of abilities to cope with in each class, the one major difference being the racial mix, with a large number of kids from ethnic minorities.
Colin Kingsley continued to be one of my challenges. He was cheerful and co-operative, but he was obviously struggling in all his academic courses. I gave him extra tutorial help, and did my best to be supportive and encouraging, but still it seemed to make little difference.
The one area he was doing well was in the vocational courses he was taking at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College. I decided to find out what I could about this, and so in early October I asked for an appointment with one of the staff there, a man named Simon Bennett who taught carpentry and joinery. We met after classes one afternoon at Simon’s classroom-workshop at the college.
Simon turned out to be a rough-hewn Yorkshireman with a big nose and a rascally look about him. He showed me around his workshop; individual carpentry benches were arranged in rows on the shop floor, with lathes and other specialized equipment off to one side; the smell of glue and sawdust hung in the air, and at the back were some samples of the work his students had done. A beautifully finished cabinet was standing in one corner; he pointed to it and said, “That’s what your boy did for me last week”.
I was astounded; “That’s amazing, Simon!” I said. I ran my finger over the smooth varnished surface; “Is this the kind of work he turns out all the time?”
“Damn right it is. He’s not just going to be an ordinary carpenter, our Colin – he’s going to be a cabinet maker, and a bloody good one, too. He’s at the top of the class”. He glanced at me; “Do you want a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“That’d be fine, thanks”.
He led me over to a crowded corner of the workshop where his ancient wooden desk was situated. Papers and files were strewn over the surface of the desk with no semblance of order at all, and there were dark rings where cups of coffee had overflowed and no one had wiped up the mess. He plugged in a kettle on the counter under the window, took a jar of instant coffee and two mugs from a nearby drawer, and spooned the coffee into the mugs.
“Are you worried about Colin?” he asked.
“Not really. I know he’s trying hard; he’s just not cut out for academic achievement. I’ve seen from his report cards that he does well over here; that’s why I wanted to come over and get a firsthand look at the other side of the picture”.
“Since he’s been coming here I’ve been a sort of mentor for him, I suppose”, he said. “He needs some positive male role-models. Not that his Mum hasn’t been really supportive”.
“I actually knew Colin’s Mum in university, but I haven’t seen her in over twenty years; I moved to Canada, and we lost touch with each other”.
“Yes, I spent nearly twenty-one years in a little school in rural Saskatchewan. Just came back this summer, actually”.
He grinned at me; “You didn’t lose your posh Oxford accent over there!”
“Well, apparently it comes and goes. When I talk to my daughter I sound more Canadian, so I’m told”.
“You notice a big difference, coming back?”
“It’s taking some getting used to; the pace of life is a lot faster over here”.
The kettle came to boil, and he poured the hot water into the mugs and stirred the instant coffee. “Milk and sugar?” he asked.
“No thanks – just black”.
He sat down on his desk and beckoned me to the chair. “I’m not worried about Colin”, he said. “He’s never going to be an academic, but right now the building trade’s crying out for lads like him. Do you know what the average age of a journeyman carpenter is in Oxford? Fifty-five! If you were to ask for a cabinet-maker to come to your house and build you a new set of custom-made kitchen cabinets, you’d probably have to wait six to eight months. But parents don’t want that for their kids, you see; they want them to go off to university and get degrees. That’s the nice thing about Colin’s Mum; she’s not trying to pressure him into an academic life that he’s not suited for. She gets good marks in my books for that. She’s really supportive about his sports interests, too; she goes to all his football games and encourages him in athletics and all that”. He gave me a mischievous grin. “What about you – do you know how to bash away with a hammer?”
“I’ve done quite a lot of it, actually; why do you ask?”
“You ever heard of Habitat for Humanity? It’s a charity that builds houses for people who can’t afford home ownership by the normal route”.
“Yes, I know about Habitat; last year my daughter and I went to Mexico to help them build houses”.
“Oh, well, I’m preaching to the converted, then! Habitat’s just getting going around here. They don’t do any building in Oxford, but there’s a group of students at the Uni who travel to Southwark and Liverpool to help out with builds. I’ve been involved with them for a couple of years now, and we’re going into Southwark on Saturday to do some finishing work on a couple of houses; Colin’s coming down with us”. He sipped at his coffee and said, “If you’re involved in Habitat, you know it’s a Christian outfit. I’m not much of a churchgoer myself, although I believe in being a good person and all that. But I like these Habitat types – they’re not all talk, you know, they actually do something about it”.
“I like that too – despite the fact that I’m one of those wordy churchgoers”.
“No offense, I hope?”
“None taken. Anyway – did you have something in mind for me and my hammer?”
“I wondered if you’d like to come along to Southwark with us on Saturday? We generally take the bus about 7.30 in the morning and we’re back about the same time in the evening. Like I said, Colin will be there. You should come along – you can pound finishing nails to your heart’s content if you want”.
“I might just do that, and bring my daughter Emma along too. She especially likes painting”.
“We’ll have lots of work for her, then”. He dug around in the piles on his desk for a moment, found a piece of paper and a pencil, and scribbled down a phone number. “That’s my mobile number; do you know where the bus station is?”
“Actually, if we do go, we might go by ourselves the night before; I’ve been promising Emma a weekend in London for a while”.
“Right; I’ll give you the address of the site, then”.
He scribbled on the paper again. “Wear work clothes and boots with steel toes if you have them”, he said as he handed the paper to me. “If not, ring me and I’ll find some for you”.
“We’ve got them – like I said, this won’t be our first Habitat build”.
I wrote my own phone number down on a card, passed it to him, drained my coffee cup and said, “Well, I’d better be getting along. This has been a real pleasure, Simon”.
He took my outstretched hand and grasped it firmly. “Thanks for coming over, Tom”, he said, “and don’t worry about Colin; he’ll probably end up making more money as a cabinet-maker than you or I will ever see!”
The next day I had a meeting with Margaret Greer, who was Head of Year for the Year Eleven students, and my immediate superior in the tutorial system. She was a pleasant-mannered woman in her early fifties, with short grey hair and big glasses which she kept on a cord around her neck. Her office was delightfully disorganized, and she had to move a pile of books to make room for me to sit down. We talked about several of my students who were struggling in one way or another, and eventually our conversation turned to Colin. Like Simon Bennett, it turned out that Margaret was not seriously worried about Colin.
“He’ll never be one of our great successes, but then he probably doesn’t need to be, does he? I expect he’ll leave school at the end of this year and go to a vocational college or something”.
“Yes, I went over to Oxford and Cherwell yesterday to see some of his work. He’s got an amazing talent for cabinet making. It’s actually a little weird, him being in my class; I knew his Mum in university”.
“Yes; she was doing her first postgraduate degree and I was doing my teacher training. But then I went to Canada, and she went to London, and we never heard from each other again”.
“She’s an excellent person; quite delightful to talk to, and very supportive of Colin. I’ve taught both her children”. She smiled; “Lisa and Colin couldn’t be more different!” she said.
“Oh, you didn’t know about her? Yes, Colin’s Mum’s got an older daughter too. She’s been at university for a couple of years now, I think. Excellent student – she specialized in Languages and she went out of here with A2s in English, French, German and Latin. She’s reading Modern Languages at university now – here in Oxford, I think, but I don’t know which college. I taught her French and German; she was a real delight to have in class. She’s got a very good ear for it; she sailed through her A2s with very little trouble”.
“Funny how siblings can be so different!”
“Isn’t it? That’s so often the way, though”.
Emma and I took the train into London on Friday evening after supper. We stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast, and took the Tube down to the Habitat building site in Southwark the next morning.
The house the group was working on was a simple brick-built duplex, and I could see as we walked up to it that the exterior was almost finished. Inside, however, there was still a lot of work to do. Simon Bennett was already there, dressed in worn blue overalls with a yellow hard hat on his head; he seemed to be acting as the foreman, and he was already assigning his volunteers to various tasks. When he saw Emma and me walking up to the site he gave us a roguish grin. “Here’s the English teacher!” he exclaimed, “but who on earth is this stunningly attractive young lady with him?” He held out his hand to her; “I’m Simon Bennett, and I’m told that you like to paint!”
“Emma Masefield, and I love to paint!”
He spent a few minutes filling out the required paperwork with us. He then found hard hats for us and sent Emma off to paint in the unit where construction had progressed the furthest. He took me into the other unit, and almost immediately we met Colin, standing in the middle of the kitchen area with three finished cabinets on the floor at his feet. “I brought you an assistant, Colin”, said Simon jovially; “He can help you get those cabinets up properly”.
Colin was startled; “Mr. Masefield! What are you doing here?”
“Mr. Bennett invited me to come along”.
“I didn’t see you on the bus”.
“No – my daughter and I came down by ourselves last night”.
Colin and I quickly started working together, and our first job was to get the kitchen cabinets fastened to the walls at the right height, and properly in line. One of the university students was helping too; her name was Stephanie Grainger, and I soon discovered that she knew Colin’s sister Lisa. “Yeah, we’ve been up at Christ Church together for over two years now”, she said, “although she was in Russia for most of last year. We’re in the same program; not that I’m anywhere near as brilliant as she is”.
“Modern Languages?” I asked.
“That’s right; how did you know?”
“I heard it from a teacher; I work at her old school, you see”.
“Oh yes, of course – Colin’s in your class”.
We worked together for a couple of hours, and then we took a break; Colin and Stephanie found bottles of water, and I chased up a cup of coffee. Stephanie stepped outside for a few minutes, and Colin and I sat down together side by side on the unfinished kitchen floor, with our backs against the wall. He had taken off his hard hat, and his long dark hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat.
“I don’t know if your Mum has told you”, I said, “but she and I knew each other when we were students”.
“Yeah, she mentioned that when she saw your name for the first time. She said you used to sing together”.
“Does she still sing?”
“A bit. When I was really little I remember her and Dad singing some, but then…” His voice trailed off wistfully, and I said, “Your Mum and Dad aren’t together any more?”
“They broke up a few years ago. Dad lives in London. Did you know him too?”
“Were you friends?”
I considered the question for a moment. “I wouldn’t say friends”, I said; “We were acquaintances, and now and again we played guitar together. But we didn’t have a lot in common – even our taste in music was different. Why do you ask?”
“My Dad and I don’t get along very well”.
“I’m sorry to hear that”.
At that moment Stephanie came back into the room; “Ready to get going again?” she asked cheerfully.
“If you say so”, I replied, draining my coffee cup.
We worked together inside the house throughout the day. At noon the whole crew stopped to eat lunch in the living room area of one of the houses; Emma and I sat together, and I introduced her to Colin. He enjoyed pointing out to her that she had a smudge of white paint exactly in the centre of her nose; they seemed to hit it off immediately, and they talked together until the lunch break was finished.
By the time we finished work at about six o’clock my back was getting stiff and the muscles of my arms and shoulders were sore. I had seen very little of Simon all day long, but he came over to me as I was taking off my coveralls; he gave me a cheerful grin and said, “You managed to survive the day, then?”
“Yes. I feel every one of my forty-five years, though!”
“It’s good for you”. He took out a package of tobacco and began to roll a cigarette. “Colin tells me you had a good time together”.
“We talked a little, but of course it was about more than the talk”.
“That’s right. Your Emma did a great job in the other unit, too. I hope we can get you down here a few more times; we want to get these places finished as soon as possible”.
“I think we’ll probably be back”.
“Good”. He finished rolling his cigarette, stuck it between his teeth and lit it. “Just about time for us to be going”, he said. “Are you two going back to Oxford tonight?”
“No – we’re staying in London for the rest of the weekend”.
“Seeing the sights?”
“Something like that”.
“Good. Well, let’s keep in touch, Tom. Perhaps we could meet and have a coffee some time in the next week or two?”
“I’d like that”.
Simon and I met for a late afternoon coffee after school a week or so after our Habitat experience. He wanted to hear about Canada and so I told him about my life in Saskatchewan and my experiences of teaching in a small school. In his turn he told me something of his story; I discovered that he was divorced, that he had two children who lived with their mother in Slough, and that he was a recovering alcoholic. “Been sober for about six years now”, he explained. “It was the drinking that broke up my marriage, of course. I don’t blame Julia for leaving me; I was pure misery to live with when I was drunk, and I was drunk most of the time. She’s happily remarried now, and I get to see the girls a couple of times a month, which is more than I had a right to hope for in my drinking days”.
I told him about Rick’s alcohol problem and the impact it was having on his family; I also told him about Becca’s interest in the subject, and he took out a little pocket notebook and wrote down her name. “We’re always on the lookout for doctors who know about alcoholism, you see”, he explained; “There’s a lot of ignorance out there”. When I parted from him just before five-thirty, we shook hands warmly and promised to meet again before too long.
In mid October, just before the end of term holiday, the Year Eleven short reports were due to go home. At the end of Colin’s report, I typed the words, “Interview requested”. Then, on a separate piece of paper, I wrote a handwritten note:
I was very surprised to find your son in my tutorial group here. I’ve just returned from Canada this past summer, and expect to be teaching here for a couple of years. Colin’s struggling a bit, as I’m sure you know. Please call or email me to set up an appointment. The official appointments are in the evening, but I can do late afternoon too (i.e. after four o’clock) if that works better for you. Please let me know. It will be nice to see you again after all these years.
Two days later I found a reply in the in-box of my school e-mail account:
Yes, it was quite a surprise to hear about you from Colin. Friday at four will actually work quite well for me for an interview. I look forward to seeing you again.
I was just finishing my last tutorial on Friday when Wendy slipped quietly into my classroom; I saw her out of the corner of my eye as I worked with one of my Year Eleven students on a history project. When we were done, I praised the girl and told her to keep up the good work over the holidays. She laughed, wished me a good holiday too, and left the room, and I got to my feet and went over to greet Wendy.
She was wearing a formal coat over a wool sweater and grey skirt. Her dark hair was a little shorter than I remembered, with streaks of grey here and there; there were some lines around her eyes, but apart from that her face was barely altered. I smiled and held out my hand to her. “It’s been a long time, Wendy”, I said quietly.
She took my hand and gave me a slow smile; “You look well, Tom. What brings you back to England?”
“I’m afraid my Dad’s dying of cancer”.
“Oh – I’m sorry to hear that; do you get along any better with him than you used to?”
“We’re working on it. What about you; are your parents still alive?”
“Yes – a bit old and frail, but living in retirement down in Chelmsford”.
“I read your latest book – congratulations!”
She gave me a shy smile; “Thank you”.
“Well, come over and sit down, and we’ll talk about Colin”.
She followed me over to the corner of my classroom; I offered her a seat beside my desk, sat down in my own chair, and opened Colin’s file. I scanned it briefly and unnecessarily; I already had it practically memorized.
“I was over at Oxford and Cherwell Valley the other week”, I began; “and I saw some of Colin’s work”.
She smiled at me; “What did you think?”
“I was pretty impressed. I’ve also worked beside him a couple of times in the last few weeks at the Habitat build in Southwark”.
“He told me he’d seen you down there”.
“He’s a great worker”. I paused, and then said, “Here, on the other hand, he’s struggling. I’m new here, but my colleagues tell me this isn’t a new story with him; I’m assuming you’ve tried everything there is to try at home?”
“I think I have”, she replied. “Of course, I can’t sit with him every night. But I ask to see his journal, and I remind him about homework, and I work with him regularly. I also try to encourage him in his other activities; I go to his football games and athletics meets, and we do a lot of things together. I really enjoy his company, and I think he enjoys mine”.
“What about his Dad?”
“Mickey and I split up about six years ago; we’ve been divorced for three”.
“I’m sorry. I understand from Colin that he and Mickey have a difficult relationship”.
She was quiet for a long time, looking down at the floor, and I began to wonder if I had said something to upset her. But eventually she looked up at me again; “Mickey’s involvement in Colin’s life was always part of the problem, Tom. The reason I left him was that he was abusing me. He couldn’t control his temper, and I got tired of being assaulted. Since our divorce I’ve done my best to keep Mickey’s involvement in the children’s lives to a minimum”.
“I’m very sorry, Wendy; I didn’t know”.
She shook her head; “Of course you didn’t; there’s always more to the story, isn’t there?”
“There is”. I looked down at my desk for a moment, and then I said, “Look, the truth is that I’m not really worried about Colin; we all know that not everyone’s cut out to be an academic, and with the skills he’s got he’s not going to have any difficulty finding a job. But I’m just wondering if there’s anything more we can do to help him with his academic work, even just a little. Would you like to go through his classes with me for a minute?”
“Yes, of course”.
She moved her chair over beside mine, and for a few minutes I took her through the list of classes Colin was taking, going over my records, talking with her about the homework he had handed in and the marks he had received. I was impressed with her knowledge of his homework; she remembered many of the assignments, and on occasion she made comments about particularly difficult ones, and how Colin had stayed up late working on them. When we were finished, I sat back and smiled at her; “I have to say I’m impressed!” I said.
“With you, Wendy! You’re really on top of all this”.
“I try to be, anyway”. She shrugged and looked at me, tilting her head a little in a characteristic pose that I remembered well. “In my mind, I’ve accepted the fact that he’s not going to be a university student, but I suppose somewhere inside I keep hoping that if I just try hard enough with him, something will click eventually”.
“Spoken like a true parent”.
“Are you a parent?” she asked.
“Yes I am”. Turning to my computer station, I pointed to the framed photographs of Emma and Kelly in the corner. “That’s my Emma; she’s seventeen”.
“May I see?”
“Of course”. I reached over, picked up the photograph and handed it to her. She looked at it in silence for a moment, then glanced across at its mate on the desktop. “Is that her mother?”
“They look so much alike. Are you a close family?”
“We were; my wife died of cancer two and a half years ago, so now it’s just Emma and me”.
“Oh, Tom, I’m so sorry!” she replied. “Is Emma in school here?”
“She finished her Grade Twelve back home in June. She’s volunteering at a nursing home in New Marston right now; she plans to go into nursing training at Oxford Brookes as soon as we can get all the red tape worked out. She enjoys working with elderly people, and I think she’s pretty good at it”.
“You’re obviously very proud of her”.
I nodded; “I only have one child, but I’ve been very fortunate in her”.
She looked down at Emma’s photograph again. “She’s a very beautiful young woman”.
“She is; she takes after her Mom that way – and in many other ways, too”. I gave her a smile and said, “Anyway, getting back to Colin…”
“Yes; is there anything else I need to know?”
“Well, we should probably talk about his mock exams”.
“Of course – they’re coming up in a month, aren’t they?”
“Yes – at the end of November. You know the drill – he has to do well in the mocks, or the school won’t recommend that he take his GCSE’s. Even if he’s planning to go straight from here to a technical college or something like that, it’ll be a real help if he’s got even a couple of good GCSE’s under his belt”.
“So what you’re telling me is that the next four weeks are crucial”.
“That’s right. I don’t have anything new to say to you about helping Colin study – you’re doing it all already, and more besides. But I’m going to try to impress on him the importance of these mock exams, and it would be helpful if you would do the same”.
“I’ll do my best”.
“I assume he’s planning on leaving at the end of this academic year?”
“I think so; as you said, he wants to go into cabinet making”. She gave me another smile; “We’ve got some of his cabinets on the wall of our kitchen, you know!”
“That must be really encouraging for him”.
She laughed; “They’re a couple of years old, and he gets quite embarrassed about them now; he says they’re not up to acceptable standards. Sooner or later, I know he’ll replace them”.
At that moment there was a knock on the door of my classroom. “Excuse me a minute”, I said; “I’ll just see who that is”. I got to my feet, went to the door and opened it to find Emma standing there, an impish smile on her face.
“Did you get lost?” I asked; “If I remember correctly, home’s in the other direction!”
She laughed and reached up to kiss me. “I thought I might walk home with you”, she replied; “I’ve been doing baths, and we finished about half an hour ago. Are you almost ready to go home?”
“I’m nearly done. Come in for a minute; there’s someone here I want you to meet”.
She followed me into the room, and I said to her, “This is Doctor Wendy Howard; we’re old friends from university. Wendy, I want you to meet my daughter Emma”.
Wendy got to her feet, shook hands with Emma, and said, “Your Dad’s just been telling me about you, Emma”.
“Wendy Howard – you’re Colin’s mom, aren’t you?”
Wendy was surprised; “How do you know Colin?”
“I met him at a Habitat for Humanity building site”.
“Right – your Dad was just telling me about that”.
“Do you remember Owen and me talking about ‘Lincoln Green’, Emma?” I asked.
“Oh!” Emma exclaimed, giving Wendy a bright smile; “You’re that Wendy! I’ve heard Dad talk about you; he said you had one of the most beautiful singing voices he’d ever heard in his life!”
I saw Wendy colour slightly; “His memory may not be as good as it used to be”, she replied. “Anyway, I’m afraid I’ve got to be getting along. It was lovely to meet you, Emma, and good to see you again, Tom; I’ll have a talk with Colin about what you’ve said. Thanks for all your help with him”.
“Not at all”. I shook hands with Wendy, she said goodbye to Emma and me and then slipped quietly out of the classroom.
The skies looked grey and threatening overhead as Emma and I walked home together. On the way up Pullens Lane she asked me about Wendy; “Does she teach at one of the colleges here?”
“Yes – Merton. In fact, I’ve got a book she’s written at home, and I think you’d be interested in it. It’s about George Eliot”.
“Oh yeah? What sort of book is it?”
“It’s a critical introduction to Eliot’s books; it’s written at a scholarly level but I think you’d be able to handle it – in fact, I think you’d really enjoy it”.
“Can I read it?”
“Of course; I’ll find it for you when we get home. She’s also written two other books about George Eliot, but I haven’t bought them yet. I only just discovered that she was a writer. In fact, I didn’t even know she was living in Oxford until I found her latest book on the shelf at Blackwell’s when we stopped there on the way back from our holiday”.
“You didn’t tell me about that”.
“No; I guess I didn’t really know what to say”.
“How do you mean?”
I hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Well, I suppose the honest truth is that during the last couple of months before I left Oxford, Wendy and I hit a rough patch in our friendship, and things were quite tense between us. Then after I moved to Canada I only ever had one letter from her, and I always wondered where I stood with her. So I wasn’t quite sure what to tell you about her, and that’s probably why I didn’t show you the book”.
I knew instinctively that she wanted to ask me more about my relationship with Wendy; I also knew that she would not inquire any further unless I gave her permission. “Look”, I said, “I know what you’re thinking, and I just want you to know that Wendy was never my girlfriend. We were good friends, and I helped her through a difficult patch in her life in our last year in college, but we were never romantically involved”. I was choosing my words carefully; I was telling her the truth, but I wasn’t telling her everything, and I felt an immediate stab of guilt. I had never lied to Emma, and strictly speaking I wasn’t lying to her now, but my conscience was not happy with me.
However, she seemed to be satisfied; she put her hand on my arm and said, “I always assumed you had other girlfriends before you met Mom, you know; it wouldn’t have bothered me if Wendy had been one of them”.
“That’s very magnanimous of you!”
We both laughed, and at that moment I felt a drop of rain on my head. “Did you bring your umbrella?” I asked.
“Good; I think you’re going to need it”.