For the next ten days, we seemed to live at the John Radcliffe Hospital. During the week, Emma was volunteering her mornings at Marston Court, but as soon as she was finished she walked down to the hospital and spent the best part of the afternoon there. I would walk or take the bus over from home in the late morning, having first put together some food that could easily be reheated at supper time, because most of the family had fallen into the habit of coming either to our place or to Becca’s flat for supper. My mother, however, would rarely join us for these meals, as she preferred to sit with my father. He was finding it very hard to shake his infection, and I also noticed that he rarely spoke now about it being just a matter of time before he got over his cancer. I mentioned to Becca privately that I thought he was sliding into a depression, and she replied that she had been expecting it sooner or later.
In the evenings Emma usually went back to the hospital, and I often accompanied her. She visited my father regularly, but spent the bulk of her time with Sarah; she would stay as late as she could in her cousin’s room, and the two of them were often alone together. I asked her at one point whether she read to Sarah or what they did, and Emma shook her head and said, “We just talk, Dad. About everything. Actually, a lot of the time she talks and I listen”. I also noticed that when the family was at our house for supper Emma spent a lot of time talking with Eric and Anna; they often went up to her room for half an hour after the meal and before going back to the hospital, and a couple of times they stayed overnight at our house, Anna sleeping in Emma’s room and Eric on the couch in the living room.
For myself, I was as concerned about Sarah as the rest of the family, but I was also really worried about my brother. He and Alyson seemed to have slipped into a seriously adversarial relationship; her visits to him were rare, and when they did happen they often concluded with harsh and bitter words on both sides. Of the other members of the family, only my mother seemed to be spending time regularly with him. He was not an easy person to visit; he was going through an unwilling withdrawal from drinking and his nerves were as tight as bowstrings. When I went to see him he was often irritable, but he always apologized before I left and thanked me for coming.
On the evening of the first Sunday of January I was feeling very tired; I still had a little work to do in preparation for school, which was beginning again the next day, so I decided to stay home from the hospital. After everyone left I washed the dishes, leaving them on the tray to dry, and then made myself some herbal tea and went upstairs to my office. I had been working at my computer for about an hour when the cordless phone rang on the desk beside me; I picked it up automatically and said, “Tom and Emma’s house”.
“Well, stranger, you said you were going to contact me after Christmas, but I haven’t heard from you, so I thought I’d take the initiative myself”.
“Wendy!” I sat back in my chair, running a hand over my face. “I’m sorry; things have been pretty wild around here”.
“Did you have a busy Christmas?”
I got to my feet, holding the phone to my ear, and went downstairs to the kitchen to pour myself another cup of tea. “My Dad was taken into hospital on Boxing Day”, I said; “he needed a blood transfusion to get his platelet levels back up. He also had an infection, and he still hasn’t been able to shake it. Then a bit later that day my brother and his daughter were involved in a serious car accident”.
“Oh no! Are they all right?”
I poured tea from the pot into my cup and said, “They’re still in hospital. My brother had a broken arm and leg, three broken ribs, a punctured lung and a mild concussion. But my niece Sarah is in worse trouble, I’m afraid; her spinal cord was severed at the top of the lumbar region. She’ll never walk again”.
“Oh, Tom! How old is she?”
“I’m so, so sorry; I shouldn’t be bothering you at a time like this”.
“You aren’t bothering me; actually I’m glad to hear your voice. How was your Christmas?”
“Tom, don’t be ridiculous! How can you be even remotely interested in my Christmas after what you’ve gone through?”
“Well, I am interested”, I replied, going into the living room and sitting down in my easy chair by the gas fireplace. “I seem to have spent the last ten days going between this house and the hospital; it seems an awful long time since Emma and I came to Nine Lessons and Carols. So yes, I really want to know – how was your Christmas?”
“It was very quiet. I went to church on Christmas Eve, and of course we opened our presents on Christmas Day. Lisa was out with her boyfriend a lot. Colin and I went to Essex for a couple of days to stay with my brother and his family and to visit my Mum and Dad. For the most part I read, went for long walks, and – you’ll be amused to hear – listened to CDs by Martin Carthy and Anne Briggs and Nic Jones and the rest”.
I laughed; “Have you got the folk music bug again?”
“That was a wonderful half hour with you and Owen; I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in a long, long time”.
“I’m glad. It felt pretty good to be singing together again”.
“It felt really good, Tom”.
“Your term doesn’t start again for a while, if I remember correctly?”
“No, the university’s down for the better part of January. But you’re starting again tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“I won’t bother you about getting together, Tom; I expect you’re spending a lot of time at the hospital”.
“I am, and Emma’s spending even more. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take a night off”.
“Well, do you want to go out for a drink or a cup of coffee some time this week?”
“Can I call you back on that? I need to consult with Emma and the rest of my family about how we’re going to handle this week. At some point in the next few days Sarah’s going to have surgery again; as well as her spinal injury, she’s also got a fractured pelvis that needs some more work, and there’s some other stuff that needs doing to her spine that I don’t understand”.
“Should we just leave it for a while? It sounds as if I’d just be adding to your busyness”.
“No, I’d really like to get together for a visit with you; I just need to organize it a bit. Is the week reasonably free for you?”
“My evenings are wide open right now. For that matter, we could even meet for coffee Saturday morning if you like”.
“That might be a good option. I’ll talk to the family and call you back tomorrow or Tuesday – promise!”
“Okay, Tom. I’ll look forward to hearing from you. Goodnight”.
Sarah had the surgery on her spine and pelvis later that week, and Emma spent every free moment with her in the hospital. I made a point of dropping by every day after school for an hour or so, but I wasn’t able to spend as much time there as I would have liked. I managed to snatch a few minutes’ conversation on the phone with Owen, but the rest of my week consisted of school and school-related work.
I met Wendy at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House on Saturday morning around nine o’clock; I had been up until after midnight, and planned to spend as much time as possible that day at the hospital. It was still barely light at that time in the morning, but the coffee house was brightly lit. It was divided into two rooms, with small round tables, and a glass-covered counter off to the side showing all sorts of delicious-looking baked goods. Wendy was already there when I came through the door, and she waved to me from a table in the back corner. She was dressed casually in faded jeans and an old shirt and top; a hardback book was open on the table in front of her, and as I approached she removed a pair of reading glasses and looked up at me with concern in her eyes. “You look shattered, Tom”, she said as she got to her feet; “You must be absolutely exhausted”.
“I am a little tired; we were at the hospital until visiting hours ended last night, and then I had all my usual schoolwork to do after we got home. I think I got to bed about twelve-thirty”.
We exchanged kisses on the cheek and then sat down together; I smiled at her and said, “Never mind that, though; Sarah seems to have come through her surgery okay. The surgeon’s very good; he tried to explain exactly what it was he was doing to Sarah’s spine, but I soon lost him. She also had to have some pins put into her pelvis”.
A waitress appeared at my elbow; I ordered the strongest cup of coffee she could make for me, and then after she left I explained to Wendy the circumstances of the accident and the strained relationship between Rick and Alyson. I also told her about the charges that Rick was facing as a result of his drunk driving and the death of the young woman in the other vehicle. By the time I had finished the story the waitress was back with my coffee; I smiled and thanked her, then turned back to Wendy and said, “Enough about our troubles; what are you reading?”
“Oh, it’s just a dry academic book about the Lake Poets; I try to keep up to date with what the scholarship says, but sometimes I think they’re all so busy trying to find the one angle none of us have noticed before that they’re blind to the things any ordinary reader of Wordsworth or Coleridge could see a mile away. It’s a relief to turn back to Wordsworth and Coleridge, actually, after reading this sort of stuff”.
“A teacher’s work is never done, is it?”
She smiled; “You’ve got that right!”
“So you’ve been at Merton about six years, you said?”
“Yes, I’m in my seventh year now; we moved here in 1997”.
“Do you find it strange, moving back to the college where you were a student?”
“Interesting; I now know what goes on behind all the mysterious closed doors!”
We both laughed; “You must be pleased, though”, I said; “I doubt if it’s easy to get a fellowship at an Oxford college. How did you get it?”
She shrugged; “It was much like getting any other job, I suppose; the position was advertised, I applied for it, I interviewed, and eventually I was offered the job”.
“How long had you been at UCL before you came here?”
“Eleven years altogether, eight of them full-time”.
“So it took you a few years to get on there, then?”
“Yes. I moved to London in July of 1982, after you left for Canada. I – well, I was missing Mickey, and so on the spur of the moment I decided to apply at the last minute to do my doctoral work in London. It wasn’t a very big change for me, really; I’d done my undergraduate degree there, and my doctoral supervisor had been one of my teachers before. As I said to you before, Mickey and I were able to reconcile our differences, and we ended up moving in together. He’d started working for the Telegraph Magazine by then, and of course he was doing well; he was always a gifted photographer and it didn’t take them long to find that out.
“There were a few complications; I got pregnant very quickly and had to take a break from studying for a while after Lisa was born. But by the summer of 1986 I had my doctorate, and that September I started teaching part time at UCL; Mickey and I were married by then. I got a full-time position in 1989, and I taught there until I came back to Oxford in 1997”.
“By which time you’d written some books, too”.
“Yes; the first one grew out of my doctoral thesis – you did tell me you’d read that one, didn’t you?”
“I’ve read all of them, actually; I really enjoyed them”.
She gave me a shy smile; “Thanks, Tom”, she said. “It turned out that Oxford University Press was quite interested in publishing the first one, so I was lucky that way. Not that it became a bestseller or anything…”
“But the academic community noticed it”.
“Apparently. A few years later I wrote Appearance and Reality, and that did well too. But then my supervisor suggested that I write a big-picture introduction to Eliot, incorporating some of the ideas I’d touched on in the first two books. That one was a harder book to write; potentially the audience was wider, you see, if it could be used as a text book for undergraduate courses, so I needed to work really hard to write at an entry level”.
“Emma’s read it and she really liked it, so you must have succeeded”.
“Emma? Does she like George Eliot?”
“She first read Middlemarch about a year ago, and since then I think she’s read just about everything Eliot wrote. She’s a big fan”.
“You must be pleased; nowadays there aren’t many girls her age who like that sort of thing”.
“Well, she’s been raiding my bookshelves for a long time”.
“Do you point her in the right direction?”
“No, I let her read whatever tickles her fancy, and if she has any questions, I answer them. She saw the Pride and Prejudice miniseries a few years ago, and that got her started on Jane Austen. She hasn’t really looked back since then. But back to your last book; you must have done a lot of the writing for that one after moving here to Oxford?”
“I’d started to plan it in my last year at London, but then I got a little preoccupied with things at home. My marriage was breaking up, and I needed to get out of London and re-establish myself somewhere else. Bev Copeland and I had been on the faculty at UCL together; she had already moved to Oxford by the time I left Mickey, and she told me that the English Fellowship at Merton was available, but I didn’t think I had much chance at it, of course. But it turned out that Doug Macintyre was going to be consulted by the people at Merton; he was one of the senior people in the English Faculty at UCL at the time, and he and I are quite good friends. He told me that Merton was actually rather interested in me, and he promised to put in a strong word of support. To my surprise, they called me in and offered me the position. It came along at just the right time, and so we moved here in the summer of ‘97, as I said, and we’ve been here ever since”.
“Your children have adjusted to the move?”
“Lisa loves it. Of course, they both grew up in London, but she was really getting tired of it. We had visited Oxford occasionally, and she would always say that this was the kind of city where she wanted to go to university. And I think that, in her mind, London is so closely associated with Mickey. I’m afraid – well, I shouldn’t tell you her story, Tom, but she and Mickey were pretty well estranged by then”.
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you and Mickey”.
“Well, you and Owen always warned me, didn’t you? I’ve got no one but myself to blame; I should have seen it coming and left well alone”.
“The victim of abuse is not to blame, Wendy”.
“I know, but I was the one who put myself into an abusive situation, and all the signs were there, all the way back to that last term at Oxford when he kept harassing me after we broke up. I should have seen it coming, but of course I was in love and I was only seeing what I wanted to see. And my Mum and Dad had been warning me about him long before you and Owen came into the picture”.
“How are your Mum and Dad? I think you told me they were living in Chelmsford?”
“Yes; they’re very old and frail now. They’re in a nursing home; my brother Rees lives not far from them, and I go down once a month to see them. Colin and I were there over New Year’s. Colin really likes them; he got his interest in carpentry from my Dad, you know”.
“I didn’t know that; I thought your father was a clergyman”.
“He is, but carpentry was always a hobby of his on the side, and he got Colin into it when he was a little boy”.
“Wendy, can I ask you one more question about Mickey? I don’t want to cause you pain if you don’t want to talk about him”.
She finished her coffee, put her cup down in the saucer and said, “Ask away; I’ll tell you if I don’t want to answer”.
“You mentioned at Emma’s party that Mickey was charged with assault and went to prison. Were you very badly hurt?”
“I had broken bones. And it wasn’t just me; Lisa was involved as well. Rees and I had a lunch appointment that day; he used to come into London once a month on a Saturday to meet me, and when I didn’t arrive at our usual restaurant that day, he came over to the house to see if I was all right. He found Lisa and me, and he got us into hospital. He was the one who persuaded me to have Mickey charged”.
“I’m so sorry; it was really none of my business…”
“No, I don’t mind, Tom; you were a good friend to me, and I always appreciated your concern”.
“Thanks”. I smiled at her; “Would you like another cup of coffee?” I asked.
“I think I would”, she replied.
I signaled to the waitress, and Wendy said to me, “What about you? Tell me your story”.
“Oh, my story is quickly and easily told. I went to Canada, I met a girl, we got married, we had a daughter, we were all very happy together, the girl died, I miss her. That’s pretty well it”.
We sat in silence for a moment while the waitress took our coffee cups. When we were alone again Wendy said, “Would you prefer not to talk about your wife, Tom?”
“No, I don’t mind talking about her”.
“Tell me about what happened after you left Oxford, then”.
“Well, I arrived in Meadowvale in the summer of 1982, and was immediately confronted with the vastness of prairie geography: Meadowvale is ninety miles northeast of the city of Saskatoon, and there are only three other towns in between”.
“Really? So it’s just wide open spaces?”
“It’s open farmland, the bread basket of Canada. When Kelly’s parents were born most farms in Saskatchewan were only one quarter-section – that’s a hundred and sixty acres – but as the years have gone by farming has become less labour-intensive, and so the farms have gotten a lot bigger and the farmhouses have gotten fewer and farther between”.
“How big a place is Meadowvale”.
“About twenty-five hundred, larger than the average Saskatchewan small town; so far it’s survived the shrinking rural population. Plenty of small towns have died as more and more people have moved to the urban centres; plenty of grain elevators have been closed, too, which has meant that farmers tend to truck their grain further and do their business in larger towns now. Meadowvale has benefitted from that, but lots of the smaller places around are struggling to survive”.
“What sort of a community is it?”
“Well, really multi-ethnic, for one thing; there are English and Welsh, French, Dutch, Austrian, South African, Polish, Chinese, native Canadians and Metis, and also a rather healthy population of Mennonites, who are ethnically German but who actually came to Canada from Russia in the 1930s”.
“So it’s mainly a farming community?”
“Agriculture is the main thing, yes, and there are a couple of concrete grain terminals and lots of farm supply businesses. The service industries are built on that base, and there’s also a small hospital and a seniors’ lodge with a nursing home. Life there is pretty basic, and you won’t hear many coffee shop discussions about postmodernism, or even the religious themes in the writings of George Eliot!”
She laughed; “Perhaps they’ve had a lucky escape! Tell me about the people”.
I frowned; “Well, I don’t want to give you the impression that they’re not some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life, because they really are. Most of the older guys who were born in Meadowvale can do pretty well anything they put their hands to. They were raised on farms, so they know about farming; they can fix tractors and build barns and houses, and they can work long hours during harvest and get up the next day and work the same hours until the job’s done. But they don’t seem to define themselves by their careers the way we do; that’s what they do to make a living, but they can turn their hands to other things, too, if need be”.
The waitress was coming toward our table with our coffee cups in her hand; I waited for a moment while she placed them on the table between us, thanked her, and then as she turned to leave I continued. “Of course, a lot of younger folks have left town and moved to the city, and they see life much the same as we do. Some of them have moved back, though; my brother-in-law Joe Reimer went to Saskatoon and trained as a vet, but he came back and set up his practice in Meadowvale, and at harvest time he helps his cousins out on their farm just like his grandfather would have done years ago”.
“You obviously really like them, Tom”.
“I do. Not that it was an easy community to move into; most of the people have been there for a few generations, and newcomers don’t always find it easy to break into that”.
“Was it like that for you?”
“It was at first, until Will Reimer and his family took a liking to me. Will was my principal at the school, and he and his family invited me to Thanksgiving dinner that first October I was there. Thanksgiving is major family gathering time in Canada, you see, and Will and his wife Sally had a bunch of family members over to their place. They had three kids: Joe, Kelly, and Krista. As I said, Joe had not long moved back to town after qualifying as a vet; he eventually became my closest friend in Canada, and his two kids Jake and Jenna are like brother and sister to Emma. And then there was Kelly; she was working as a nurse in Jasper in the Rocky Mountains, but she’d come back for the weekend. She was very beautiful; she had long blonde hair and she lived in jeans as much as possible, and I was attracted to her right away. We soon found out that we had a lot of interests in common. I saw her again at Christmas, and I went to visit her in Jasper at Easter and in the summer time. She took me out hiking and canoeing, and we talked a lot, and things followed their natural course. She moved back to Meadowvale and got a job at the seniors’ lodge as the resident nurse. We got married at Thanksgiving two years after we first met”.
She smiled; “Tom Masefield, that was very romantic of you!”
“It was, wasn’t it? Emma was born just over a year later, and then not too long after that Kelly got sick for the first time. She had ovarian cancer, and between surgery and chemo and all that, she was down for about a year. But she got through it, and after that we seemed to have a much stronger sense of how precious life was. Anyway, however it happened, we made a good marriage. By the way, you were quite wrong, you know!”
“I’m sure I’ve been quite wrong about many things; which one do you mean in particular?”
“About love and friendship not mixing. Kelly and I were in love with each other until the day she died, and we were also each other’s best friends”.
She looked down at her coffee cup; “I envy you”, she said quietly.
“I’m sorry, Wendy; I’m not trying to gloat”.
She looked up at me and smiled, but I noted the sadness in her eyes. “I know”, she said, “and I’m sorry for taking it that way. Go on with the story”.
“There’s not much more to tell, really; by the time we were married we had both become Christians – or rather, I should say, Kelly had returned to the faith of her childhood, and I had come to it for the first time. We came back here to visit once before we were married and three times afterwards, but somehow we couldn’t seem to click with my Dad, and our visits at his place never lasted more than a week or so. Dad didn’t come to Meadowvale for our wedding and he didn’t come for Kelly’s funeral, either, although Mum came. But Owen and Lorraine came a few times, and Becca came a lot. We developed a really special relationship with Becca. She spent a whole summer with us when she was seventeen; she was really messed up at the time, and Kelly spent pretty much the whole summer listening to her and helping her sort things out”.
“I remember how Becca spoke so warmly about Kelly at Emma’s party”.
“She really loved Kelly. She came to visit us every year, and that’s why she and Emma are so close. The year Kelly died, she came and stayed with us for a whole month after the funeral; she was as shattered as we were, of course, but she was a big help to us”.
“You and Becca were always close, weren’t you?”
“We were, although we were estranged for a while after I moved to Canada. But after that first summer she spent with us, things came right again between us”.
“She must be very happy to have you back here”.
“We’re both enjoying it, yes”.
“But you and Emma must miss your life in Canada”.
“We don’t talk about it a lot, but every now and then she’ll say something that lets me know she’s thinking of home. We talk to people there a lot”.
“Do you plan to go back after…?”
“I’m not planning anything at the moment, Wendy”. I paused, and then said, “Speaking of Emma, when I told her you and I were going to meet for coffee, she gave me strict instructions to ask after Colin. Did he have a good Christmas?”
“I think so. Colin and I get along quite well; we talk quite easily, and his temperament is pretty even. Also, he’s always happy when we go to visit his grandparents. Lisa’s a bit more difficult. We used to be really close when she was younger, but when she got into her early teens we had some problems, and I’m afraid we haven’t been able to regain the easy relationship we used to have”.
“Is this about Mickey?”
“I’m afraid so. By the time Lisa got into her early teens the situation with him was getting very bad, but like the fool I am, I stayed around for a few years, hoping things would get better. I blamed myself for our troubles, of course, and I thought that if I just tried harder to be a good wife, Mickey wouldn’t get so angry sometimes. At that time he wasn’t abusing the children – just me. The first time he ever went beyond an ordinary spanking with one of the children was the day he put Lisa and me in hospital, and that was the day I left him. But Lisa blames me for staying in the marriage and exposing her to what happened that day. Not that she’s ever nasty to me or anything like that; she very rarely loses her temper or shouts or anything, she just keeps her thoughts to herself most of the time. I miss the good times we had when she was younger; I miss them a lot, actually”.
I saw the sudden depth of sadness in her eyes. “I’m sorry”, I said; “It really was none of my business”.
“Tom, you don’t have to keep apologizing for asking me questions about my life. Everyone has pain; lots of people have worse pain than me. Besides”, and she gave me a shy smile, “we were close friends once, and I hope…”
“Yes – so do I”.
She tilted her head a little to one side, the smile lingering on her face. “Really? I’m glad”.
I returned her smile. “And what about your friends? I know I’ve made a couple of really close friendships since I went to Canada; have you?”
“A few – well, actually, more since I moved away from London. I knew Bev before, but we’ve become really close since I came to Oxford; we make a point of getting together for a good visit once a week at Merton, at her rooms or mine. And then Stephen Jeffreys and the chapel community have become a good support group for me. When I came back to Oxford I was just thinking about getting back into Christianity. Stephen wasn’t here at that time – he’s only been with us for about three years. But his predecessor was very helpful too. Of course, the student chapel community changes all the time, but there are a few other dons who attend, Bev and David being two of them, and as well as going to services we all do things together regularly on an informal basis. Stephen’s been so good about finding ways to build community; we do barbecues and dinners and we go out to movies and do occasional day trips and that sort of thing. And I like the fact that none of it’s based on academic brilliance or performance or anything like that – do you know what I mean?”
“I think so, but tell me more”.
“Well, you know, Stephen’s a bit odd, isn’t he? Surely you must have noticed!”
I laughed and nodded my head; “Emma was on the verge of getting really annoyed with him that Sunday night when we came to Nine Lessons and Carols! But later on I realized that he wasn’t trying to be offensive – that was just his way”.
“Exactly! And the thing is, he’s helped us all to accept those oddities about each other. Oxford Christianity can be so academic, and he can hold his own with the best academics, too, but he’s helped us so much with the relational side of it all. And that was really helpful for me, because when I moved here after fourteen years of being married to Mickey, I’d pretty well forgotten what a normal human relationship looked like”.
“I’ve got a pastor back in Meadowvale like that, too – he’s very strong on relational stuff”.
“What’s his name?”
“Are you close to him?”
“Yes – especially since Kelly died. He’s really helped me a lot over the past couple of years. Not so much by giving advice, though, if you know what I mean”.
“I know; sometimes it’s not so much advice that you need, is it?”
“No; I’m afraid a few of the good Mennonite old-timers in Meadowvale don’t understand that”.
“Full of wise advice, were they?”
“They meant well. I’m thinking specifically of the time just after Kelly died. Don’t get me wrong – most of them were wonderful; they understood that warm hugs and casseroles were the best thing. But a few of them took the opportunity to point me to all sorts of helpful Bible verses, and to tell you the truth, for the first few weeks I wasn’t really sure I believed in God any more, so the Bible verses were rather less than helpful”.
“It must have been a terrible thing, to lose your wife like that”.
I nodded; “It was awful”.
“But you came through it somehow”.
“Yes, although I still struggle with the ‘why’ questions”.
“Some questions can’t be answered, can they? I used to think there was always an answer for everything, if you just worked at it long enough. Now I’m not so sure. Some things just can’t be fixed, I think”.
I felt the lump in my throat; “I think you’re right”, I agreed.
“But at least people can be there for each other. That helps”.
“Tom, how are things going between you and your father?”
I shrugged. “We have our days. At the moment I think we’re doing a little better”.
“You and Emma gave up an awful lot to come back here; I can’t help thinking that if I was in your shoes, I’d be a bit resentful sometimes”.
I looked down at my coffee cup. “It’s not always easy, I admit; he’s not the easiest person in the world to get along with”.
“The past gets in the way?”
“It does. We had a major blow-up back in November”.
I looked up at her; she was sitting very still, watching me, her eyes inviting me to continue.
“It was about Emma, actually”, I said.
I told her about the argument between my father and me, and my subsequent conversation with Emma. “The thing is, she was absolutely right”, I concluded. “I was being stubborn and unreasonable about it. Why couldn’t I just accept the fact that he wanted to be kind to his granddaughter?”
“Sometimes the past won’t stay in the past”.
“You’re right. Sometimes I think I’ve laid it to rest, but at other times I’m not so sure”.
“What about your brother? I remember that when we were up here, you hardly ever saw him or talked about him”.
“No – well, when we got into our teens we had so little in common. And Owen and I became such good friends, and sometimes…”
“Sometimes you think Rick resented that?”
“I know he did. And then when I refused to go into the Law, all my Dad’s hopes for an heir passed over to Rick, and that really strained things between us, because he seemed to embrace it enthusiastically, and whenever I came home all I heard from my Dad was what a good son Rick was and how he was going to make such a fine barrister”.
“Tom, you never talked about this when we were at university”.
“No, well – I wanted to forget about it, I suppose”.
“So, now he’s lying in hospital…”
“Yes, and all I can think about is how awful I’d be feeling if I was in his shoes – if I’d been the one whose drunk driving had put my daughter in a wheelchair for the rest of her life”.
“I can’t begin to imagine that”.
“How are his other children doing?”
“We’ve seen quite a bit of them, actually. Emma’s really taken Anna – that’s the youngest one, she’s eleven – Emma’s really taken her under her wing. She and Eric have become good pals, too”.
“They were all at Emma’s party, weren’t they?”
“Yes, that’s right, you would have met them there. Eric’s started playing guitar, so he and Emma have that in common”.
“You’ve passed that on to her successfully”.
“Yeah, I’m really pleased about that, of course. What about you – are your two interested in music at all? Lisa told me she likes classical music”.
“They both like music, but neither of them play anything, although Lisa sings in choirs from time to time. Colin likes some classical music too, and some contemporary rock, and he also listens to my old folk music albums”.
“Have you done anything musical yourself since you came back to Oxford?”
“No – I’ve very rarely even been out to a concert, which is a shameful admission when there are so many live events in Oxford. But to tell you the truth, Tom” – and she tilted her head to one side again, looking at me with a wistful expression on her face – “you and Owen spoiled me for making music with anyone else. I tried singing again with Mickey in the early years of our marriage, but the magic was gone. I never realized how much I enjoyed singing with you two until it was over, and I always regretted that I’d never told you that”.
I smiled at her. “Thanks”, I said; “Those were good years”.
“Yes, and while we’re talking about regrets, there’s something else I want to say. That night in your flat – well, I really spoiled things between us after that night; as you said, I was really fixated on this idea that you couldn’t combine love and friendship, which seems more and more bizarre the more I think of it, and I let that night spoil our friendship. That was a really ungrateful way to pay you back for all the kindness you’d shown me after Mickey and I broke up, and it was a pretty rotten thing to do to you after we’d become such good friends. I’ve felt bad about that for years. I’m very sorry, Tom”.
Even though she hadn’t addressed the issue I thought she was going to address, still I was moved by her words. “I was probably as much to blame as you”, I said. “I’m sorry, too”.
We sat in silence, looking at each other, knowing that the moment was special and fragile, and neither of us wanting to be the one to bring it to an end. Eventually I was the one who looked away, glancing at my watch. “Well, I should be getting over to the hospital”, I said.
“Going to see your father?”
“And Sarah. Oh yes, I almost forgot – Owen told me to be sure to give you his regards”.
“Bless him! It would be wonderful for the three of us to get together again before too long. But of course, at the moment your schedule’s rather tight”.
“Not too tight for old friends, though”, I replied as I got to my feet. “This has been a real pleasure, Wendy; thanks for taking the initiative and calling me”.
Tilting her head on one side in her characteristic pose, she said, “I’m glad I did. Take care of yourself, Tom, and don’t wear yourself out; you won’t be any good to your Dad or Sarah if you get sick, too”.
I smiled at her; “I know, but sometimes it’s hard to remember that”.
She held out her hand, and I took it, leaning forward and kissing her on the cheek. “Take care, Wendy, and give my regards to Lisa and Colin”.
“I will, and you give mine to Owen – and to Emma too. Tell her to keep on reading George Eliot, and to ring me if she wants to talk”.
I smiled; “She’ll like that; she really did enjoy your books”.
“All the better”, she said with a grin; “authors always enjoy talking to their fans!”
We both laughed, and I said, “Well, I must be on my way. Bye now, Wendy”.
“Bye, Tom; see you again soon, I hope”.
“I hope so too”.