A Time to Mend – chapter 18

Link to Chapter 17

I got home from the pub about nine-fifteen; Emma had a Bruce Cockburn album playing on the CD player, and she was curled up in her easy chair by the gas fire, a cup of hot chocolate at her elbow, reading a book. She smiled at me as I hung up my coat in the porch, but I saw the dark circles under her eyes.

“You look exhausted”, I said as I moved into the living room, bending to kiss her on the top of her head.

“I am a little tired”.

“How’s Sarah?”

“Not too bad tonight; it sounds like they may be moving her to a rehab hospital soon”.

“That’s good”, I said, standing opposite her with my elbow resting on the back of the other armchair; “Is the water in the kettle still hot?”

“Probably; I only made the hot chocolate about five minutes ago. Sorry I didn’t wait for you; I wasn’t sure when you’d be back”.

“Did you see my note?”

“Yeah, I did”. She gave me another smile; “So you and Wendy went for a date?”

“It wasn’t a date; it was just two old friends spending some time together”.

“Including having a drink at a pub?”

“Friends do that sort of thing all the time, you know”.

“Sorry, Dad; I’ll stop bugging you about it. I just think it’s great, that’s all”.

I stared at her; “You do?”

“Yeah”, she replied softly, “I do”.

“I thought you’d be upset at the idea of me going out on a date with someone”.

“Well, that depends on who the someone is!” she replied with a mischievous grin. “I have standards for you, you know!”

I laughed; “You’re going to vet my possible future dates, are you?”

“I sure am! Wendy’s okay, though; I approve of her already”.

“I’m glad to hear it. Well, I’m going to make myself some hot chocolate”. I listened to the music for a moment and then said, “Nothing But a Burning Light; I haven’t heard this for a while”.

“Yeah, every now and again I feel like listening to some of Mom’s music”.

“She had good taste in music”.

As I slipped out into the kitchen Emma called, “Oh, Dad, I forgot to say – there’s a message for you from someone called Jack Scovill. He wants you to call him back”.

“Thanks; I’ll do that now”.

I plugged in the kettle again, then picked up the cordless phone and punched in Jack’s number. When he answered, I said, “Hi Jack; Tom Masefield here”.

“Ah yes, thanks for calling me back, Tom. I just wanted you to know that I had a conversation with Rick today”.

“I thought he’d gone home from the hospital?”

“He had; apparently he went home full of determination to lay off the booze, and ended up getting plastered a couple of nights ago. He called me after lunch today, and I went over to his house for a visit after supper. I don’t want to say any more about it, because it would be breaking confidences, but I just wanted you to know what was going on”.

“Thanks, Jack; will you be able to keep me posted?”

“Well, not in detail, because of confidentiality, but I hope that before too long he might see fit to keep you posted himself”.

“Alright; I appreciate your letting me know about this”.

I made myself a mug of hot chocolate, went back into the living room and took my seat across from Emma by the gas fire. She had turned off most of the lights, giving the living room a cosy and somewhat subdued atmosphere.

“We’ve been invited to take a trip to Essex with Colin and Wendy”, I said.

“When?”

“Not this coming weekend, but the next”.

“I don’t know if I can get away, Dad; Sarah will be moving into the rehab hospital any day now”.

“And where will that be?”

“Aylesbury, I think”.

I leaned forward, took one of her hands in mine, and looked into her tired eyes. “You need a break, Em. Wendy says there are lots of nice country walks near Chelmsford, and we could take her car and do some exploring. If the weather’s good we could spend the whole of the Saturday out of doors. You haven’t had any real outdoor time for weeks, honey, and I know you well enough to know that you don’t feel right unless you get that time. Now, I know you’re eighteen, and I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I really think you should clear that weekend and come to Essex. Spend a bit of extra time with Sarah the day before if you like; I’m sure she’ll understand that you need a rest”.

She looked back at me silently; I thought at first she was going to argue, but eventually she nodded and said, “Can I think about it?”

“Okay; I doubt if we have to give Wendy an answer right away”.

She sat back in her chair, cupping her mug in her hands. “Tell me some more about Wendy, Dad”.

“What would you like to know?”

“Was she in the same college as you?”

“No – she was at Merton, so it’s a nice piece of serendipity that she’s a tutor there now”.

  “Was she at Oxford the whole time you were here?”

“No, she did her undergrad degree in London and then came up to Merton to do a Master’s in English Lit.”.

“Weren’t you taking English Lit too?”

“Not at the same time as Wendy. I’d done my undergrad degree in English Lit, but when I met Wendy I was doing my teacher training”.

“Of course; I should have remembered that. And you told me she had a boyfriend at the time?”

“Mickey Kingsley; she ended up marrying him”. I told her about Mickey, about how we had first met him and Wendy when they were playing together at the ‘Plough and Lantern’, and about the unusual relationship he and Wendy had. “Wendy had a strange theory about relationships”, I continued; “She thought that love and friendship didn’t mix. I was uneasy about that idea, but she believed it very strongly. She made no claim to being Mickey’s friend; they were in love with each other, and that was it – or so she said”.

“But it didn’t work out for them?”

“No – it ended up being an abusive relationship; Mickey was charged and spent some time in prison”.

She stared at me, her eyes wide. “That must have been some pretty awful abuse”, she said quietly.

“I think so; Wendy told me she had broken bones, but she didn’t specify which ones”.

“Is he still in prison?”

“No, he’s out, and living in London again. Before he and Wendy were married he was working as a photojournalist for one of the Sunday magazines, but eventually he started his own business. Apparently he’s become very successful; he travels all over the world to do photography on contracts for magazines and publishers. He’s spent most of the past year in the Middle East”.

“Iraq?”

“I believe so”.

“I hope he took a flack jacket”.

“I expect he did; I’ve heard that he enjoys those sorts of assignments”.

She was quiet again for a moment; she finished her hot chocolate, put the empty mug down on her end table, and looked at me hesitantly. “Dad, can I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course you can”.

“Ever since I can remember, Owen’s been your best friend, and we’ve seen a lot of him over the years. But I’ve never met Wendy before, and you’ve hardly ever talked about her; I’ve seen a couple of photographs of the three of you, and you’ve mentioned that she was a member of ‘Lincoln Green’ and she had a nice voice, but that’s about it. As far as I know, when we’ve come over to England you’ve never contacted her or met her or anything like that. But at my party, when the three of you were together, I saw you giving each other a three-way hug, as if you and Wendy were just as close as you and Owen. So I’m just trying to figure out why we haven’t seen anything or heard of her over the years?”

For a moment I didn’t answer; she didn’t realize, of course, that she had given me exactly the opening I had been looking for, but still I wanted to choose my words carefully, breaking the news to her as gently as possible.

She noticed my hesitation. “I’m sorry”, she said, “Am I prying?”

“No, you’re not, but you’ve touched on something big”. I leaned forward in my chair again and said, “First, I want to apologize to you for not being entirely truthful about this when you asked me the last time, back in October. I didn’t tell you any lies, but I didn’t tell you the whole truth about Wendy and me”.

“So she was your girlfriend for a while?”

“No – I’ve just said that I didn’t tell you any lies. What I said to you was true – Wendy was never my girlfriend. But there was more to our relationship than simple friendship”.

I sat back in my chair and continued. “During our last year at Oxford Wendy and Mickey went through a very painful breakup. Mickey had a drug habit, and one day Wendy found him lying on his bed after he’d taken a drug overdose. Obviously, his life was saved, but Wendy decided she didn’t want to share that kind of life, so she broke up with him.

“Mickey didn’t take his dismissal from her life lying down, and he started to harass her. He would come around to her room in the evenings and bang on the door; he wouldn’t leave her alone until she let him in. You have to understand, Em, that Mickey and Wendy had been a couple for seven years, since Wendy was sixteen, and even though she had made the decision to break up with him, she was still more than half in love with him. So she told me what was going on, and she asked me if she could start coming over to my place in the evenings to study. Of course, I agreed to that.

“For a couple of months she came over to my room almost every night. I would make tea, and we would study for a couple of hours. We weren’t studying together – we were taking completely different courses – but still, we often talked about what we were reading. Then I would make another pot of tea and we would move to the sofa and talk for another hour or so before she went back to her place. In fact, I would often walk her home, just to make sure Mickey wasn’t hanging around there”.

“At Merton, you mean?”

“No – she had a room at the Merton College residences in Manor Place; they don’t have room for all their graduate students in the actual college buildings, you see. It was the same at Lincoln; I didn’t actually stay there while I was doing my teacher training, even though I was a Lincoln student”.

“Okay, I didn’t know that”.

“Anyway, Wendy and I had this strange sort of relationship for a couple of months. Until then we’d played music together with Owen, and we’d gone out for walks in the country, but it had almost always been the three of us together, or just Owen and me. Now, for the first time, Wendy and I became really close friends. Other people noticed it; some of our other friends assumed that we were dating, but we weren’t. Well, if I’m honest – and I said I would try to be honest with you – I was starting to fall in love with her, but nothing had been said or done about it between us, other than lots of talking and the occasional cuddle on my couch.

“However…” I stopped, and although I was avoiding her gaze I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was watching me intently.

“You don’t have to tell me any more”, she said quietly;  “I think I know where you’re going”.

I shook my head; “No, having gone this far I do have to tell you the rest, because if I don’t, I’ll never be sure about what you’re assuming about Wendy and me”.

“Okay. I take it that at some point the two of you slept together?”

“Just once. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that ‘it happened by accident’; it was a choice we made, and we could have chosen not to do it. But when we looked at each other in the cold light of day the next morning, I think we both felt really awkward. And that was the end of our friendship, basically; she didn’t think love and friendship could co-exist, I wanted our relationship to go further than she did, and I think she knew that. She never came around to my room again after that; we met a few times for coffee or a beer, but things were always awkward between us”. I shrugged; “That’s probably why we didn’t keep in touch with each other after I left England; our friendship was basically over by then”.

She reached out and took my hand. “Dad, I’m sorry I’ve embarrassed you; I really had no right to ask you about this”.

“No, that’s all right; I’m glad we’ve talked about it”.

“Does anyone else know about this? Does Becca know?”

“No; Owen’s the only other person who knows”.

“You didn’t tell Becca?”

“She was eleven at the time, so it didn’t seem appropriate; since then there’s never been the need or the opportunity for us to talk about it”.

“Do you mind me asking – did Mom know?”

“Yes; Mom and I didn’t have any secrets from each other”.

We sat together in silence for a few minutes; then she said, “Thanks for telling me about this, Dad; I appreciate you being so honest with me”.

“Actually, Em, I haven’t finished being honest with you yet”.

She frowned; “What do you mean?”

“Well, since we came back to England I’ve discovered there’s more to the story than I thought there was. After I moved to Canada I wrote to Wendy a few times, but she only answered me once, and after that there was only silence. Eventually I came to the conclusion that she just didn’t feel comfortable with being in touch with me, because of what had happened between us, and I had to accept that and get on with my life. So I did, and that was where things stood until I saw her again last October.

“But I know now that there was more to it than that. The main reason Wendy cut off contact with me was that she didn’t want me to know that she and I had conceived a child together that night”.

Her face went white, and I saw the shock in her eyes. “You and Wendy have a child?”

“We do”.

“Who?”

“Lisa”.

“Oh, Daddy”. She got up quickly from her chair and left the room; I heard her footsteps on the stairs, and then the click of her bedroom door closing.

After a moment I got to my feet, picked up our mugs, and went out to the kitchen. There were a few other dishes in the sink; with the busy lives we were both leading, Emma and I often left dishes unwashed for a day or more. I ran some hot water in the sink and began washing them, slowly and methodically, all the time praying quietly for Emma and me. I had no idea how long it would be before she came down; I knew her well enough to know that it might not be until tomorrow.

I finished the dishes, went back into the living room, took out my guitar and began playing softly. After a moment I slipped instinctively into some early Bruce Cockburn numbers, songs that Kelly had known and loved long before she and I met. I sang the words softly, my fingers moving lightly over the strings; in my mind’s eye I could see Kelly’s face as she listened to me playing the songs for her, and I could hear her voice filling in a quiet harmony line on some of the tunes.

I got lost in the music after a while, and didn’t notice Emma standing in the doorway from the kitchen, listening intently. When I finished playing ‘All the Diamonds in the World’ I heard her hesitant cough; I looked up and saw her there, her eyes red, her face still pale.

“Mom loved those songs”, she whispered.

“Yes”. I got to my feet, propped my guitar against the couch, went over and put my arms around her. I felt her arms coming up around my back, and I tightened my grip around her. “You are the most precious thing on this earth to me, Emma”, I whispered.

“I love you, Daddy”, she replied.

We held each other for a few minutes, the only sound in the room the quiet ticking of the clock on the wall. Eventually I released her, stepped back a little, and said “Are you ready to talk some more?”

“I think so”.

We took our seats again; she stared into the gas fireplace for a few minutes, and then said, “How did you find out, and when?”

“Actually, you were the one who tipped me off about it”.

She looked up at me in surprise; “Me?”

“It was the night of the dinner at Merton; you and I were sitting here talking about Lisa. Wendy had told me that Lisa was born in the summer; she still didn’t want me to know that I was Lisa’s father, you see, because she was afraid I’d be angry with her for keeping it from me for all these years. But when I mentioned that to you, you told me that Lisa’s birthday was in February; you and Colin had been talking about her twenty-first birthday coming up soon”.

“Oh yeah – I remember that. So that was when you guessed?”

“I wanted it to be more than a guess, so the next morning I went into the school and checked the school records. Lisa’s birthday was right there: February 25th, 1983. That meant she had been conceived in May, and I knew that the only person Wendy had slept with in May 1982 was me”.

“That must have been a shock”, she said softly.

“Yes; I was all ready to call Wendy and demand an explanation, but fortunately Owen talked me out of it. Then that evening we went to Northwood for Christmas, and as you know things got a little complicated after Boxing Day. I gradually decided to leave the ball in Wendy’s court and let her tell me the truth in her own time”.

“Does the fact that you’re telling me now mean she’s finally told you the truth?”

“Yes; she told me tonight. Actually, we kind of got forced into it”. I told her about my conversation with Mickey earlier that night, and his subsequent phone call to Wendy. “She was afraid he’d just blurt out the whole story to Lisa and Colin out of spite, you see”, I explained. “So Wendy wanted to tell me about it before she told Lisa; that’s why she and I went out to the pub tonight”.

“So it wasn’t a date at all”. She shook her head; “I’m sorry, Dad; I really blundered on that one, didn’t I?”

“You had no way of knowing what was going on”.

“So – wait up, I’m still catching up here – when Wendy and Mickey got back together, he knew that she was pregnant and that you were the father?”

“Yes”. I told her what Wendy had told me about her conversation with Mickey in London. “Knowing Mickey as I do, I find it hard to believe that he didn’t hold it over her head all the years of their marriage”, I concluded.

“Poor Wendy” she said thoughtfully, looking down at the blue flames of the gas fire; “She must have had an awful life”.

“She says not; it’s been difficult at times, and there’s been abuse, but there have been lots of good things, too. She’s a remarkable person, actually”.

“You like her, don’t you, Dad?”

“Yes, I do”. I looked across at her; “Is that okay with you?”

“I think so”. She searched my face and asked; “So – what happens now?”

“I don’t know. Wendy was going to go home and arrange to have lunch with Lisa tomorrow; Lisa stays at Christ Church, you see, and Wendy thought it was a bit too late to go over there tonight to talk to her. We’ll have to wait for tomorrow and see how Lisa takes it”.

“Are you going to try to talk to her?”

“I’m going to wait and see what she wants”.

“Will Lisa be going down to Essex with her Mom and Colin?”

“I don’t think so”.

She leaned forward, put her hand on mine, and said, “I want to go down there with you. Even if Lisa doesn’t go, you and Wendy and Colin and me need some time to talk about this”.

I nodded gratefully, covering her hand with mine. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, Dad – ask me another! The whole world’s just shifted under my feet, and you want to know if I’m okay?” She smiled and tightened her grip on my hand. “But I know it must have been hard for you, too, when you first found out. I need some time to think about this, though. Can I talk to Jake and Jenna about it?”

“I think that’d be fine”.

She looked away for a moment, a slight frown on her face. “I think I’d like to talk with Lisa, too?”, she said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah”. She turned her head to face me again. “I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to be brought up in a situation where you’re afraid of your own father. I’ve led such a sheltered life”.

“Some people would say that you’ve gone through the worst sort of tragedy in the past three years”.

She nodded; “Yes, but it was a clean break, you know? Lots and lots of sadness, but no regrets”.

“Yeah – I know exactly what you mean”.

“Does Lisa have any close friends?”

“I don’t know; I know she’s got a boyfriend, and I know her Mum feels a little uneasy about that, but I can’t really put my finger on the reason”.

She grinned; “Parents and daughters; no-one’s ever good enough, you know!”

“Got that right!” We both laughed, and then she said, “Let’s have a second cup, Dad”.

“Okay; I’ll put the kettle on”.

The following day Emma started working in the afternoon and didn’t expect to be home until around ten. I got home from school around five-thirty to find a note from her on the table:

‘Hi Dad. I made you some Mediterranean pizza; it’s in the fridge, ready to go in the microwave. I’m just off to the hospital and then to work. See you late tonight. Love you lots. Em’.

  I smiled, went to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. While the kettle was boiling I looked in the fridge and discovered a pizza large enough to feed four people and still have leftovers. I felt vaguely hungry, but somehow the thought of a quiet half hour with a book was more attractive. I took a mug of tea into the living room, sat back in my armchair and picked up my current book from the end table.

I was jerked out of my sleep by the sound of the telephone ringing out in the kitchen; I pulled myself to my feet, glancing at the mug of cold tea on the end table beside me, and went out to get it. Picking it up, I stifled a yawn and said, “Tom and Emma’s”.

“Mr. Masefield? It’s Lisa Howard”.

Suddenly I was wide awake; “Lisa!”

“Mum said you wouldn’t mind if I rang you”.

“She told you, then?”

“Yes, she did”. There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then she said, “This is very strange, isn’t it?”

“Yes; it must have been rather a shock for you”.

“Rather. Mum tried to soften the blow – at least, looking back, I can see that was what she was trying to do – but in the end there really wasn’t any way to make it easy”.

“Was it a blow?”

“Perhaps that’s the wrong word. The world suddenly looks very different, let’s put it that way. Were you shocked when you found out?”

“Yes, very much”.

“Were you angry at Mum?”

“I was, at first, but I got over it. How about you?”

“To tell you the truth, I’m really not sure how I feel: shocked, relieved, amazed, angry, resentful…”

“Angry with your Mum?”

“Yes. By the way, I asked her not to phone you tonight until after you and I had talked”.

“Okay”.

“Do you understand why I did that?”

“You didn’t want your Mum and I to be comparing notes about you behind your back?”

“That’s right”.

I looked at my watch; it was about six-thirty. “Lisa, have you eaten yet?”

“No”.

“There’s some cold Mediterranean pizza in my fridge; Emma made it and then left it for me to warm up. There’s more than enough for the two of us. Would you like to come up and help me eat it?”

“Where’s Emma?”

“Working until ten”.

“I haven’t got a car or a bike here; the bus might take a little while”.

“I can come and get you, if you like”.

She didn’t answer immediately, and I wondered for a moment whether I was being too pushy with her. “Perhaps you’d prefer not to?”

“Mum said some pretty complimentary things about you today. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to be an improvement on the bastard she married. I must say I’m quite relieved to discover that I’m not biologically connected to him after all”.

“Has he contacted you today?”

“Not yet, but I’m expecting him to send me an email soon, breaking the shocking news to me that I’m the product of a one-night stand. As if that could be more repulsive to me than the idea of being his daughter!” She laughed grimly; “Forgive me if I’m rather profane and abusive about Mickey, Mr. Masefield; he did his best to fuck up all our lives, and unlike my Mum I feel no obligation to be Christian and forgiving towards him. Of course, you don’t approve”.

“It’s not for me to approve or disapprove; I’m happy just to listen”.

“You know, I think I’ll take you up on that pizza offer. Do you know how to get to Christ Church?”

“Yes”.

“I’ll wait for you outside Tom Tower. What are you driving?”

“A rather elderly red four-door Ford Escort”.

“About fifteen minutes, do you think?”

“That should be about right”.

The mist was rolling in over Oxford again as I drove down into the city. I was thoroughly acclimatized to the dry cold of the prairies after twenty-one years of living there, and I felt colder in the damp Thames valley winter than I ever had in Meadowvale.

I saw Lisa standing under the huge bulk of Tom Tower as I pulled up to the sidewalk; she was bundled up in a thick coat, with a long colourful scarf wrapped around her neck. She darted out from under the arched entrance to Tom Quad, opened the door of my car and slipped in beside me. “It’s a cold night out there!” she exclaimed as she pulled the door closed.

“It is”.

“What were you doing when I rang?”

“I was asleep in the chair, actually”.

She laughed; “Sorry I woke you!”

“I’d meant to drink a cup of tea and have a read before supper, but apparently my body had other plans”.

“You said Emma was working?”

“Yes”.

“So she got the job she was hoping for?”

“She did”.

We chatted about Emma’s job as I turned the car around and headed back up St. Aldate’s. The mist was even heavier now, and I had to slow the car right down as we got closer to Marston. When we got back to my house, I unlocked the door and stepped back to let Lisa go in ahead of me. I took her coat and hung it on a peg in the porch beside my own, taking in at a glance her faded black jeans and oversized white shirt open at the front to reveal a tight black top. “Make yourself at home in the living room”, I said; “I’ll go and put the pizza in the microwave”.

I worked in the kitchen for a few minutes, warming up the pizza and getting out some dishes and cutlery. When I started carrying things through to our tiny dining table at the back of the living room, I noticed her examining our CDs.

“Anything there you recognize?” I asked as I went back out to the kitchen.

“Your tastes are a lot more eclectic than I’d expected”, she replied, following me and leaning against the doorway while I took the pizza out of the microwave. “I thought you’d just have traditional folk music; I never expected to see the Clash or U2 or Bryan Adams”.

“We’ve got a bottle of Shiraz that needs finishing off in here”, I said, nodding at the fridge; “Care for a glass?”

“That would be very nice, thank you”. She inclined her head a little, and I felt a thrill of recognition at Wendy’s characteristic pose. “What on earth should I call you, anyway?” she asked.

“I’d be very happy if you called me ‘Tom’”.

“It somehow sounds presumptuous of me to do that, though”.

“No, really, I’d be quite okay with it”.

“Alright”, she replied with a shy smile; “Thanks”.

“Could you give me a hand carrying these glasses and things into the other room, please?”

We sat down at the table together; I lit the candle, poured us each a glass of wine and served the pizza. Taking my cue from our earlier conversation, I said, “My wife’s musical tastes were a lot more eclectic than mine. When she and I met I was really only interested in traditional folk music. Kelly liked that, but she also enjoyed a lot of contemporary stuff, as well as classic rock. The CDs of Bryan Adams, the early U2, the Police, the Clash, Talking Heads – that was all her stuff. She was also a big Bruce Cockburn fan”.

“There’s some pretty hard edged stuff there”.

“You’re a classical music fan, though”.

“Yes”.

“Any particular genre?”

“My tastes are quite eclectic. Do you know classical music at all?”

“My mother’s a classically-trained pianist, and she had music playing in the house all the time when I was growing up, so it kind of seeped into the pores of my skin, you know”.

She laughed; “That would either have put you off it forever, or made you a devoted fan”.

“Well, I quite enjoyed it, but I can’t claim to have taken a great interest in it since then. Still, I know the composers pretty well – tell me about your favourites”.

She ate a mouthful of pizza, took a sip of her wine, and said, “I love the standard ones, of course – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart. I like Byrd and Gibbons and most other sixteenth century choral music, and then I like Sibelius and Vaughan Williams, especially Vaughan Williams”. She smiled at me again; “I expect I got that from Mum”, she added. “So much of his work is based on folk tunes, and Mum used to sing a lot of those old folk songs when I was a little girl”. She took another sip of her wine, gave a little frown, and asked, “Does Emma know about me?”

“Yes, I told her last night”.

“Was she upset?”

“I think it was a shock at first, but she’ll be okay”.

“My Mum says you and Emma are really close”.

“We are”.

“Mum and I used to be close when I was younger, but I’m afraid we’ve drifted apart”.

“Tell me about that, if you want”.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Lisa, I want to know anything about you that you feel like sharing with me”.

She looked at me steadily, and I was struck by the fragile beauty of her face and the depth of pain in her dark eyes. “There’s a lot about me that you don’t want to know”, she said.

“Maybe; I might surprise you there, but that’s up to you”.

“Mum probably told you that she’s worried about my boyfriend”.

“She did mention something about that”.

“His name’s Mark Robarts; he’s a third year biochemistry student”.

“Have you known him long?”

“We were in high school together; I met him when we first moved here from London”.

“So he’s from around here?”

“Yes, his family live in Headington, in one of those mansions in Pullen’s Lane. His father’s a stockbroker; the family’s very wealthy”.

“What do you like about him?”

“He shares a lot of my interests. He likes the same sort of music as me; in fact, he sings tenor in a little chamber choir, and plays the piano a bit too. He’s easy to talk to”. She shrugged; “I don’t know; sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why you like someone”. She gave a short laugh; “I can’t deny that I like the fact that he takes me on expensive dates!”

“Nice restaurants?”

“Yes”. She shrugged; “I know his family’s rich, but they don’t flaunt it like my Kingsley grandparents”. She grinned mischievously at me; “Or I should say, my former Kingsley grandparents!”

“Are Mickey’s parents still alive?”

“Yes, they still live down in Halstead. We hear from them occasionally. What about you? I don’t know much about you at all; did you grow up around here?”

“I was born in Summertown, but when I was about eleven my parents moved to Northwood, down near Wallingford. I went to high school in Wallingford and then came up to Lincoln College in 1977”.

“My Mum mentioned something about some friction between you and your parents”.

“My father; he’s a lawyer and the son of a lawyer, and he always assumed I would follow in his footsteps. I rebelled; my best friend’s father was a high school English teacher, and I couldn’t think of anything finer to do with my life than to be like him. My Dad and I fought about it for several years. He never forgave me, and I realized eventually that I’d have to leave the country to get away from his need to control my life. That’s why I went to Canada. We had minimal contact while I lived there; it’s only lately that we’ve begun to have a better relationship. But don’t get me wrong – my family life wasn’t all bad. My Mum got me into the outdoors and into music, and I have a baby sister, twelve years younger than me; she and I are very close”.

“Colin and I get along pretty well, too”, she replied. “He’s in your tutor group, isn’t he?”

“Yes, and Emma and I have pounded nails with him a few times at a Habitat for Humanity building site”.

She smiled; “That’s one interest you and my Mum won’t have in common”.

“Well, I wasn’t much of a carpenter back in my Oxford days, either, but I learned to enjoy it in Canada. Your Mum and I were saying last night that twenty-one years is a long time”.

“Has she changed a lot?”

I helped myself to another piece of pizza while I considered the question. “I haven’t seen that much of her since I got back”, I said, “so I’m not sure I can really answer that one. She seems a little more mellow than she used to be”.

“Mellow?”

“Yes; she was pretty feisty in our university days. She was never shy about letting you know if she disagreed with you”.

“You and my Mum had disagreements?”

“Of course”.

She gave me a shy smile; “What did you disagree about?”

“Well, our biggest argument in our university days was about whether lovers could also be friends. She was determined that friendship and love were incompatible, and I was sure she was wrong. Of course, at that time she had a lot more experience than me; she and Mickey had been a couple for a few years when I met them, and I’d rarely had any long-standing relationships. She used to throw my lack of experience in my face; she’d say ‘You’ll learn!’”

“And did you?”

“Yes, I learned that she was wrong!”

“So you had a good marriage?” She frowned suddenly, shook her head and said, “I’m sorry – what a presumptuous question for me to ask! It’s absolutely no business of mine!”

“Not at all; I don’t mind you asking. Yes, my wife was my best friend, and she and I were in love with each other until the day she died”.

“How long ago did she die?”

“It’ll be three years in May”.

“What happened?”

“She had breast cancer”.

“I’m very sorry; you obviously miss her a great deal”.

“I do”.

“And yet you still believe in God?”

“Yes”.

“That makes no sense to me at all, I’m afraid. When I think of how Mickey repeatedly assaulted my Mum over the years I ask myself, ‘If there’s a God who’s so loving and powerful, where was he when that was happening?’ And then I look at all the suffering in the world, and the people like your wife who die of awful diseases when they did nothing to deserve it, and I just can’t make sense of it”.

“No, that’s a tough one for me, too”.

She looked at me in astonishment; “Pardon?”

“That’s a tough one for me, too”.

She shook her head slowly; “You’re full of surprises”.

“It’s a surprise to you that a person can believe in God and still struggle with doubts?”

“It’s a surprise to me that a person can believe in God and admit to doubts”.

I smiled. “When Kelly died, I raged against God for months; it made absolutely no sense to me that God would allow that to happen to her, or to us. Three years later, it still makes no sense to me, but God’s still there, listening patiently, and every now and again I get a sense of his presence. What was absolutely overwhelming for me, when Kelly died, was the love of Christian people – how they went above and beyond the call of duty to care for Emma and me. That’s not a rational argument for the existence of a loving God, I know, but somehow it was enough to carry me through. I freely admit that I still can’t make sense of the pain in the world, but I know that the world makes even less sense to me if I leave God out altogether”.

“Have you got a picture of your wife?”

“Yes”.

“May I see it?”

I got to my feet, crossed the floor to the mantelpiece, and picked up a framed photograph of Kelly and me, taken the summer before she was diagnosed with cancer. I handed it to Lisa, and she looked at it intently for a moment. “She’s very beautiful”, she whispered. “Where was this taken?”

“Jasper, in the Rocky Mountains”.

She handed the photograph back to me, and I replaced it on the mantelpiece. When I returned to the table, she said, “Can I ask you a really personal question?”

“You can ask, and I’ll do my best to give you an honest answer”.

“What’s happening with you and Mum?”

“Right now, you mean?”

“Yes”.

“We’re old friends, and we’re enjoying getting to know each other again”.

“You’re not in a romantic relationship?”

“No”.

“What about when you knew her in university?”

“What’s she told you?”

“She said that she started going round to your room in the evenings because she felt safe there, and that you used to study together and then talk. She said that you became really close friends during that time”.

I thought for a moment, and then said, “The truth is that your Mum and I haven’t had a chance yet to talk about what was going on between us at that time. After the night when you were conceived, things got really awkward between us; I think we both knew instinctively that we couldn’t talk about it. Now I think we probably can, but we just haven’t had the opportunity yet. So I think I’m going to wait for a while before answering your question”.

“Fair enough; I’m sorry if I’m prying”.

“Not at all; you’re curious about me, and that makes sense to me because I’m very curious about you, too”.

She laughed; “I suppose you are!” she said.

We had finished eating our pizza by now; I got up to clear the plates, and said, “Would you like coffee or tea?”

“Coffee, if you have it. Can I help you make it?”

“Come out to the kitchen with me, anyway”.

We cleared the table together and she helped me carry things out to the kitchen. I filled the kettle and plugged it in, took the cafetière down from the shelf and spooned ground coffee into it. While I was waiting for the water to boil I started to fill the sink, intending only to soak the dishes, but she said, “Will you let me wash those?”

“I wasn’t really planning to wash right now”.

“It’ll only take a minute; I’ll be done before the coffee’s made”.

“All right then; you wash and I’ll dry”.

We worked side by side, Lisa washing the dishes and placing them in the drying rack, me picking them up, drying them and replacing them on the shelves. While we worked, we continued to talk; she asked me to tell her more about our university days, and I told her about Owen, Wendy and me and our gigs together. After I had finished drying the last dish I turned to pour the hot water into the cafetière while she emptied the sink. “Do you take anything in your coffee?” I asked.

“Cream and sugar, please”.

“Shall we take it into the living room?”

“Alright”.

When we were seated by the gas fire with our mugs in our hands, I said, “Lisa, do you want to talk about Mickey?”

She stared into the fire for a moment, a frown on her face. “What do you want to know?”

“Anything you want to tell me. If you don’t want to tell me anything, that would be fine, too”.

“You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘coercion’, do you?”

I shrugged; “I just don’t want to go any faster than you want to go, that’s all”.

“Tom, if you don’t mind, I think I won’t talk about Mickey tonight. I’m feeling very comfortable and mellow here right now, and I don’t know how to talk about him without using the f-word and a few other choice phrases. He’s a monster, and I will never, ever forgive him for what he did to us. I hate him, I really do. There, see, I’m already getting angry about him. I’m sorry; can we talk about something else?”

“Sure; what would you like to talk about?”

“You and your family, and Emma, and your life in Canada, and – well, everything about it”.

“We’ve got thousands of photographs; would you like to have a look at some of them?”

“Yes, that might be fun”.

“Okay; I’ll just go upstairs to get a few of the albums”.

When Emma came home around ten o’clock, Lisa and I were still pouring over photo albums. We had gone through my earliest albums of Meadowvale, when I was still single and was exploring Saskatchewan on weekend trips to provincial parks and recreation areas. I had shown her the pictures from my first trip to Jasper to visit Kelly, and the months when our friendship was gradually turning into something deeper. I had told her about some of our early hiking and canoeing experiences together, and showed her a few of the photographs; she admitted that she was not an outdoor person, but she was captivated by the scenery from the lakes of northern Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains. I had also found a very old photo album from my Oxford days, which included some shots of Wendy, Owen and I on stage at the ‘Plough and Lantern’, and a couple of pictures from country hikes the three of us had done together. We were still laughing at the clothes and the long hair in these pictures when I heard Emma’s key in the front door. A moment later I heard her cheerful greeting out in the porch: “I’m home; are you still up?”

“Yeah”, I replied, “and we’ve got company”.

Emma pushed the door open and slipped into the living room. Lisa immediately got to her feet; for a brief moment her guard slipped and I saw the anxiety on her face. I knew instinctively what that expression meant; she was unsure of her welcome, hoping Emma would be happy to see her, but wary of getting her hopes up. All this I saw in an instant; then her guard was back up and the polished smile was back on her face. “Hello, Emma”, she said.

I saw the sudden surprise on Emma’s face; “Lisa!” she exclaimed.

“Lisa’s Mum told her the whole story today”, I explained. “Lisa called me tonight, and I invited her up for a bite to eat and a chat”.

“But I should be going now”, Lisa added quickly; “I shouldn’t have stayed so long. I don’t want to intrude on your time together”.

I saw Emma’s face change, and I knew she had recovered from her surprise, and had understood immediately how important this moment was. “Oh, no!” she exclaimed, crossing the room and putting her hand on Lisa’s arm. “I’m sorry; I just wasn’t expecting to see you here. Please don’t leave on my account; I’ve been wanting to see you ever since Dad told me”.

I sat there riveted, looking at my two daughters facing each other: Lisa, tall and dark, with her willowy form and fragile beauty, and Emma with her trim athletic figure and long blond hair, looking up at the older girl with a warm smile. For a moment neither of them said anything, and I could see the uncertainty lingering in Lisa’s eyes; then she gave Emma a shy smile, and said, “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“Not at all. Dad and I usually have a hot chocolate together at this time of night; the last one through the door gets to make it. Would you like to join us for it?”

“That would be really nice; thank you”.

I was still sitting at the table looking up at the two of them; Emma turned to me and kissed me. “You okay, Dad?”

“Oh yeah”.

“Lisa, come on out to the kitchen with me”.

I watched as the two of them disappeared through the door to the kitchen. I got up and moved to the other side of the living room; the house was small enough that voices carried easily from the kitchen, and I wanted to give them some space. My guitar was leaning against the couch; I picked it up and began to pick out an old folk tune, my mind still dwelling on the image of Lisa and Emma face to face.

After a few minutes they came back into the living room, and Emma came over and handed me a mug of hot chocolate. “Mind if I take your chair, Dad?” she asked.

“Not at all”. They took their places across from each other by the fireplace, and I set my guitar aside and sat back on the couch.

“We were just talking about Grandma and Grandpa”, Emma said to me. “Are you planning on telling them about Lisa?”

I looked across at Lisa; “That’s entirely up to you”, I replied. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know; I thought you didn’t get along”.

“My mother and I have always gotten along well with each other. My father – well, he’s dying of cancer. That’s why Emma and I moved here, so that he and I could have a chance to learn to get along better. It hasn’t been easy, but I think we’re getting somewhere”.

“Didn’t you have some family members involved in some sort of car accident recently?”

“Yes; my brother had some broken bones, and my niece Sarah had her spinal cord severed”.

“Oh my God! Is she paralyzed?”

“Yes, from the waist down”.

“I was in to see her at the hospital this morning”, Emma added. “In the early days after the accident she was just overwhelmed by it all, and then they had to put her in traction because her pelvis was broken in two places. She was in a really dark depression for a while. But now they’re talking about moving her to a rehab hospital in the next week or so, and she’s starting to think in terms of having a life after hospital, even if it is in a wheelchair. That’s real progress for her”.

“What Emma’s not telling you”, I said, “Is that she’s been visiting Sarah just about every day. She’s become Sarah’s number one support system”.

“Dad exaggerates, of course!” Emma replied with a grin; “Plenty of people have been helping out”.

Lisa was obviously trying to get our family straightened out in her head. “So you’ve got a brother, and a younger sister?” she asked me.

“Yes, I’m the oldest, Rick’s two years younger than me, and then Becca’s ten years younger than him”.

“And they have families too?”

“Rick has; Becca doesn’t”. I told her about Rick’s family, and also about the charges he was facing as a result of the accident. “His family’s going to have a rough ride in the next few months, I think”, I said.

She was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking this over. Eventually she looked at me and said, “They’ve probably got enough on their plate right now without having me to deal with, don’t you think?”

“That’s up to you, Lisa, but there’s another angle you might like to consider. My Dad’s not going to live much longer, and I think it would be important for him to know about you and to meet you before he dies”.

“But what’s he going to think?”

“Like the rest of us, he’s probably going to be very surprised at first. I don’t think you need to worry about anything more than that”.

She looked away, and for a few moments the silence hung between the three of us. I glanced at Emma; she was watching Lisa’s face intently, but I knew she would wait for the other girl to speak before saying anything more herself.

“Alright”, Lisa said; “If you think it would be a good thing, I’m willing to give it a try”.

Emma gave her a warm smile; “Great!” she said. Gesturing toward the table, she asked, “How were you getting on with those photo albums?”

“We were just looking at some really old ones, actually, from the time when your Dad and my Mum were in university together”.

“The really cheesy ones with the long hair and the baggy pants?”

Lisa laughed; “They are rather funny, aren’t they?”

“Would you like to look at some more of them?”

Lisa glanced at her watch; “I don’t want to keep you up too late”.

“Let’s look at one more, anyway”, I suggested, “and then I can run you back down to Christ Church”.

Link to Chapter 19

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Published by

Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

3 thoughts on “A Time to Mend – chapter 18”

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