The following day was a Friday, and Emma and I had arranged to spend the entire weekend at Northwood. We drove out just after supper, and Emma fell asleep in the passenger seat almost as soon as we left Oxford. It was a cold and windy night, and the rain began coming down in sheets as we drove into the outskirts of the village. I turned the car into the courtyard beside my parents’ home, shut off the engine and looked over at Emma; in the dim light I could see the lines of exhaustion on her sleeping face. I touched her hand lightly. “Em, we’re here”, I said.
She stirred, opened her eyes, looked at me in surprise for a moment, and then sat up in her seat. “Sorry!” she said; “I must have fallen asleep”.
“You did; maybe you need an early night”.
“I think so!”
My mother had given me a key to the house, and we ran through the rain to the back door, our bags in our hands. As we entered I could hear the sound of piano music, and I felt a sudden thrill as I recognised it. It was a Beethoven sonata, and it was my mother’s playing.
“Your Grandma’s playing the piano”, I said; “I haven’t heard her play in years”.
“I thought it was a CD”.
We left our bags at the foot of the spiral staircase and tiptoed quietly over to the doorway of the large piano room at the back of the house. A few old chairs were scattered around the room, and the upright grand piano was sitting in the far corner; my mother was playing, and my father was sitting in an easy chair beside her, a blanket over his legs to keep him warm. I took Emma’s arm to stop her from going in; we stood silently in the doorway, unnoticed by my parents, as the sonata continued. It was obvious that my mother’s playing was rusty; she was making a few mistakes and stumbling over some passages, but nonetheless I was thrilled to hear her again.
The sonata came to its conclusion, and we clapped enthusiastically. My mother and father looked up, startled, and then smiled at us as we entered the room and walked across to where they were sitting. I hugged my mother and said, “That was wonderful, Mum. Don’t stop because we’re here”.
“Have you had anything to eat?” she asked.
“We ate before we left home”, Emma replied as she leaned over to give my father a hug. “Are you going to play some more, Grandma? I’ve never heard you play before”.
“Bring one of those chairs over here and sit beside me, Emma”, my father said. “When I first met your grandma, she used to play like this all the time”.
“Can I make you both a cup of tea or something?” my mother asked.
“We know where the kettle is!” I replied with a smile. “You play, and we’ll get tea if we get thirsty”.
We sat for over an hour listening to her play. She gave us another Beethoven sonata, tried her hand at some Bach, and then moved on to Mozart, her favourite composer. My father’s eyes were closed, but most of the time he wasn’t sleeping; he looked as weak and frail as ever, but there was a strange peacefulness about him too. I knew that he was awake, because after each piece of music he and my mother would exchange a few comments; she might joke about being especially out of practice on that one, and he might say something about remembering another time she had played it.
Eventually my mother said, “Well, that’s about the limit of what I can do without serious practice, and I seem to have put Emma to sleep”.
Emma had pulled her chair up close to my father’s; her head was on his shoulder and her hand was in his, but I could tell by her breathing that she was sound asleep. “Is her head too heavy for you, Dad?” I asked.
“Not at all, and even if it was I wouldn’t dream of asking her to move it”.
I got up, crouched down in front of her and put my hand on hers; “Em”, I said softly, “wouldn’t you rather go to bed?”
There was absolutely no response, and I reached up and touched her cheek with my fingers. “She’s exhausted”, I whispered.
“Of course she is”, my father replied in a low voice; “We all know how much time she’s been spending with Sarah. The poor child needs a good night’s sleep”.
I glanced at my mother; “Is her room ready?”
I put my hand on Emma’s and squeezed it gently. “Em, do you want to go to bed?” I asked.
She stirred, then opened her eyes and looked at me. She blinked, gave me a smile and said, “Did I fall asleep again?”
“I’m afraid so”.
She sat up slowly and smiled apologetically at my mother. “I’m sorry, Grandma; I must have missed some lovely music”.
“That’s quite all right, my dear; you obviously needed some rest. Would you like to go up to bed?”
“I think I’d better!” She stretched, reached out and took my father’s hand. “Thanks for being a lovely pillow, Grandpa!” she said.
He gave her a warm smile; “It was my pleasure”; he replied.
“Do you need anything?” my mother asked her; “A cup of tea or something?”
Emma got to her feet; “I don’t think so”, she replied; “I think I’ll be asleep again as soon as my head hits the pillow!” She smiled at us, then turned and slipped quietly out of the room.
Later on, my mother and I sat together in the living room, drinking our hot chocolate. We were facing each other in the easy chairs by the fireplace, our feet sharing a single footstool. She looked mellow and relaxed; she had just helped my father get ready for bed, leaving me by myself for half an hour, and I had taken advantage of the opportunity to do some of the marking I had brought with me. Now I was glad to set it aside and enjoy a solitary conversation with her.
“Becca’s bringing Mike out for dinner tomorrow afternoon”, she said.
I raised an eyebrow; “She told you they’d been talking again, did she?”
“She told me about it a couple of weeks ago, but she was a bit nervous about telling anyone else; I think she was afraid that it might come to nothing”.
“She talked to me a couple of days ago. She didn’t say they were back together or anything, just that she was going to bring him out for dinner”.
“I’m looking forward to it”, I said; “I haven’t seen Mike since they came to visit us in Meadowvale. Becca’s taking the entire weekend off, you know; she’s not even going to be on call”.
“Yes, she told me that”.
“Did she talk to you about staying overnight?”
“She said she might stay; I told her to do whatever was convenient and not to worry about letting me know. We’ve got lots of room”.
“I talked to her this morning; she said that she thought she’d be staying but Mike wouldn’t, so he’s going to drive her out and then I’ll take her back into town on Sunday”.
I drank some of my hot chocolate, cradled the mug in my hands, and said, “It was wonderful to hear you play again tonight. I haven’t heard you in years; I’d even begun to wonder whether you still played at all”.
“Since your father’s been ill I haven’t had as much time to practice; that’s why I was so rusty”.
“You sounded pretty good to me!”
“Liar!” she replied with a twinkle in her eye; “I was stumbling over some of those passages, and if you didn’t hear my mistakes then you’re a worse musician than you claim to be!”
I laughed, raised my hands in mock surrender and said, “Guilty as charged! I will now stop trying to be nice!”
“Do you ever play the piano any more, Tom?”
“Occasionally, if I’m in a place that has one; I haven’t entirely forgotten everything you taught me”.
“I’m glad to hear it! But it was so lovely to hear you and Owen and Wendy singing together at Emma’s party; it was just like old times, wasn’t it?”
I smiled; “It made me think of being back in the Plough in the old days, and of that time when we played for your music society”.
“That was a wonderful evening; I’ll never forget hearing Wendy sing”.
“She still sounds just as good, doesn’t she?”
“She’s got a beautiful voice. Are you two seeing much of each other?”
“I had a drink with her a couple of nights ago”, I replied.
“You haven’t told me anything about her”, my mother said; “Is she married?”
“She’s divorced. She has two children; Lisa is nearly twenty-one, and you might remember that Colin was at Emma’s party”.
“Of course”. She looked across at me hesitantly and said, “I’m never sure whether I’m going too far, Tom, but I wondered if…”
I shook my head; “Wendy and I aren’t dating, Mum; we’re just rediscovering our friendship, that’s all”.
“I’m sorry; it’s really none of my business”.
“Not at all; you would have to get a hundred times more nosy before you were being really nosy! Ask anything you want, any time; if I don’t want to talk about something, I’ll tell you”.
For a few minutes we sat quietly together; in the hallway the grandfather clock chimed the half hour.
“Dad seemed very knowledgeable about your music tonight”, I observed.
“Yes, he knows quite a lot about classical music”.
“Dad? My Dad knows about music?”
“Of course; that’s one of the things that brought us together in the first place”.
“Mum, you astound me!”
“I suppose so; we haven’t told you very much about that story, have we?”
“No; do you feel like telling me about it now?”
She smiled shyly; “Well, since you’ve given me permission to ask you about anything in your life, I can hardly refuse, can I?”
“Am I being too nosy?” I asked with a grin.
“Oh, you!” she exclaimed, nudging me with her foot. She looked up at the ceiling for a moment, trying to work things out in her head. “Now let me see – yes, your Dad was going into his last year of law studies, so it would have been the autumn of 1954 or thereabouts when we first met. It was at a piano recital; I had done a year of music studies at the university, and some of us students were doing a recital at the Holywell Music Room for the beginning of the Michaelmas Term. It wasn’t a very big thing; there might have been a hundred people in the audience, most of them students. I do remember that I played a piece from the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ and a Mozart piece. Afterwards there was a little reception, and Frank came over and introduced himself to me”. She smiled; “I remember that he looked very dashing in a dark suit and tie, but what really made an impression on me was that he was such an intelligent listener. We talked about the pieces I had played, and he asked me about other pieces he knew by Bach and Mozart; he wanted to know if they were in my repertoire too.
“After that I saw him quite often at recitals, and he always came over afterwards to talk to me. Eventually he took me out for tea one afternoon and we had a long conversation; I think that was the first time he told me he was reading Law. I asked him why he wanted to be a lawyer, and he seemed surprised by the question; he told me that his father was a lawyer and it had always been assumed that he would follow the family tradition”.
“Now, I know that story from personal experience!” I said.
“I remember that I pressed him on that particular issue; I asked him what would have happened if he had wanted to study any other discipline. He said that he didn’t think his father would have paid for any other kind of education for him”.
“Good old Masefield family dynamics!”
She frowned and said, “Please don’t be unjust, Tom. Your Dad financed the entire cost of your five years of university, even though he wasn’t able to persuade you to study the Law. I know he made life very unpleasant for you, but it’s not fair to him to say that he behaved in exactly the same way as his father”.
“I’m sorry, Mum; you’re absolutely right, of course. Now I’m going to stop interrupting and let you tell the story”.
She sat in silence for a long time, her eyes down, and I began to think I had offended her. Eventually I asked, “Are you okay? Have I upset you?”
“No, I’m all right; I’m trying to decide whether to tell you something I’ve never told you before”.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Because I think it will shed some light on past events for you”. She paused for a moment, and then nodded and said, “Yes, I think I’m going to tell you the story, Tom”.
She took a sip of her hot chocolate, and then said, “During the early years of our marriage your Dad changed quite a bit. What I want you to try to understand is that the change was not all his fault. I expect you’ve often wondered why I stayed with him; we must have seemed so different from each other. But we weren’t always like that, and I’ve always hoped that eventually the man I married would come back to me”. She stopped for a moment and took out a handkerchief; she wiped her eyes, and then stuffed the handkerchief down the side of her chair.
“Mum, don’t talk about this if it’s going to upset you”, I said softly.
“No, Tom, this is too important. You need to know this story”.
“Okay, if you’re sure”.
“I am. Now let me see, where was I? Ah yes – your Dad articled at his father’s law firm when he finished university. We got married that same year, and in the early days of our marriage he worked really hard to keep some kind of balance in his life. He tried to take me out to concerts and plays, and he tried to work reasonable hours so that we could have time together.
“But his father kept putting pressure on him; he told him that if he wanted to be a successful lawyer he would have to be prepared to work longer hours and bring more work home and so on. And gradually, as the months went by, Frank gave in and did what his father wanted. He was dreadfully insecure, you see…”
“Insecure?” I exclaimed; “My father, insecure?”
She shook her head; “Tom, I know what you’ve suffered in your relationship with your Dad. But you’ve never seen the man I fell in love with; in the space of about five years he became someone very different from the Frank I had married. But yes, believe me, he was dreadfully insecure. Just think for a moment about the way he treated you when you were growing up, and ask yourself the question, ‘Where did he learn to be that kind of father?’ The answer is, he learned it from his father, and that’s why he was so insecure. Imagine him receiving from his own father the same kind of treatment that he gave you; if you can do that, you might be able to identify with him”.
She looked at me in silence for a moment, and then continued. “I tried to help him stand up to his father”, she said, “but I wasn’t strong enough. He was hungry for his dad’s approval, and there was only one way he could get it”.
“Being a successful barrister”.
“Yes – and you see, when you were in your teens you had one advantage he never had; your friendship with Owen and his family. Owen’s father gave you the sort of affirmation and support you weren’t receiving from Frank. I knew that; I don’t mind telling you that I shed some tears over it sometimes. Not that I begrudged it to you; I only wished you could have found it from Frank. But he didn’t know how to give it to you; no one had ever showed him how. You were lucky; Owen’s father showed you another way, and I think Kelly’s father did as well, so that you were able to break the mould. You were able to learn how to be a real father, and of course Emma’s benefited from that. Don’t imagine that Frank doesn’t see that, Tom; he sees it very clearly. He sees how dearly Emma loves you, and how close the two of you are; he watches the easy and open relationship that you have, and he feels so much regret about how deeply he failed you as a father”.
“Mum, forgive me for asking, but how do you know he feels this way?”
“Because we talk about it, of course”.
“Dad tells you that he regrets failing me as a father?”
“Yes, and many other things as well. He talks about what a wonderful job you and Kelly did in bringing Emma up, and what a remarkable woman Kelly must have been. He talks about how much he regrets that he couldn’t swallow his pride and visit you in Canada while Kelly was still alive”.
“Why doesn’t he talk to me about this?”
“Because he’s afraid of you, of course!”
“Afraid of me?”
“Yes. Can’t you see that?”
“Mum, when I was twenty-three he attacked me with a walking cane! It’s absolutely ridiculous to say that he’s afraid of me; he’s never been afraid of anything in his life!”
She shook her head slowly, fixing me with sad eyes. “If only you knew…”
“No, Tom, it’s not for me to tell you about your Dad’s fears. I’ve probably already said too much. But he and I have talked a lot these last few months, and especially since Christmas…”
“Why since Christmas?”
“Can’t you guess?”
“No; what do you mean?”
She took her legs down from the footstool, sat forward in her chair and put her hand on mine. “Since he was taken ill on Boxing Day, he’s accepted the fact that he’s going to die”.
It was my turn to sit up. I grasped her hand and held it tight; “I know what you’re going through, Mum”, I said softly.
“I know, Tom; believe me, it helps”.
We sat there in silence, looking at each other; I had heard the sadness in her voice, but in her eyes I could see only serenity. “You’re incredible, Mum”, I whispered; “How are you managing to be so much at peace about this?”
I watched as the ghost of a smile played around her lips; “Well, it’s rather late in the day, but I’m beginning to get my wish”.
“My wish that the man I fell in love with would come back to me”.
“And has he?”
“He’s started to. And when he gets his courage up, I know he’ll talk to you about the things that matter; he knows he hasn’t got long, and there’s a lot he wants to say to you and ask you about. But please believe me when I tell you how afraid he is to say the things he wants to say”.
“So how can I help him?”
“You’re doing very well; you visit him, you talk about the things you’re doing and the things you’re reading, and you bring Emma to see him. You kept coming to see him after that awful fight the two of you had in November, and you swallowed your objections to him helping Emma with her university fees. Don’t think for a moment that he hasn’t noticed all that; he sees it very well, and he’s trying very hard to learn a different way of relating to you. But he’s over seventy, and old habits die hard”.
We lapsed into silence; I finished my hot chocolate and held the mug on my lap, staring into the fireplace.
“Would you like another cup?” my mother asked.
“Actually I think I’d like something a little stronger. Is there any Scotch in the house, by any chance?”
“I think there’s a new bottle in the kitchen; would you like me to get some for you?”
“No, you sit tight; I’ll go and get it. What about you?”
“Why not? Just a little one”.
I went back to the kitchen, found the bottle, poured Scotch into two glasses, and then stood for a moment in the darkness, my mind running over our conversation and over the many other things that were going on in our lives. My head was spinning, and suddenly I longed for the relative peace of our life in Saskatchewan. But at the very same moment, the overwhelming certainty came to me that Emma and I were exactly where we were meant to be, and were doing exactly the things we were meant to be doing.
I carried our drinks back into the living room and handed one of them to my mother. I sat down across from her again, put my feet back up on the footstool, and said, “Emma and I are going to go away next weekend; Wendy’s invited us to go down to Essex. I want to give Emma a real break, and Wendy says there are lots of good places to go walking near Chelmsford, where her brother lives”.
“So you’re going to stay with her brother?”
“Yes; her mum and dad live in a nursing home in Chelmsford, too. Her brother’s a vicar; apparently he lives in an enormous vicarage with lots of room for visitors”.
“It will be good for Emma to have a break, I can see that”, she replied.
“Is Dad coming in for a blood transfusion next week?”
“Yes, on Wednesday”.
“Will you be up to having us for supper on Thursday?”
“Of course; come whenever you can!”
“I’ll have to see what Emma’s schedule looks like, and she may want to go in and spend the evening with Sarah if she’s going to be away for the whole weekend”.
“Have you been talking to your brother lately?”
“Not for a few days”.
“Do you know what’s happening about the charges?”
“I know the police have talked to him several times, and he’s talked a lot with his lawyer. I get the sense that they aren’t agreed on trial strategy”.
“What do you mean?”
“Rick’s lawyer wants him to contest as many of the charges as possible; he says there were a lot of factors involved in the accident, especially the bad weather. He thinks the crown will have a difficult time proving that Rick’s intoxication and dangerous driving were the decisive factors. Rick, on the other hand, isn’t as anxious to duck his responsibility in that way. I won’t say his mind’s set, but just before he got out of hospital he and I had a long talk about what it would mean for him to plead guilty to at least two of the charges”.
“And what would it mean?”
“Well, he’ll get jail time, but he’s going to get jail time anyway, Mum, and if he accepts responsibility and can show honest attempts at change, perhaps the judge will look a little more kindly at him. On the other hand, the young woman who was killed was a single mum with a four year old child, and the public mood is definitely in favour of stiffer sentencing for drunk drivers, so he may not be so fortunate”.
“What’s happening to the child, I wonder?”
“I don’t know, but when the trial starts I’m sure the crown prosecutor will tell us”.
“I suppose so”. She shook her head slowly; “What on earth are Alyson and the children going to do if Rick goes to prison?”
“Alyson’s got a good job with the conservation authority”.
“Yes, but without Rick’s income she’ll never be able to earn enough money for them to keep that house”.
“If they sell it and buy something a lot smaller, they might be all right”.
“They won’t know how to live, Tom”, she said; “They’ve always lived in such a luxurious style”.
“We’ll all have to help them; especially while they’re learning to cope with Sarah. She’s going to need a lot of help and support while she learns to look after herself”.
“Do you think she’ll be able to look after herself?”
“In time she will. She’ll have movement of all her limbs above the waist, and she’ll learn to get around with a wheelchair; plenty of people with her sort of injury go on to lead productive lives”.
“It’s going to be very difficult for Alyson if she has to be the sole breadwinner in the family, while at the same time Sarah needs all this extra support”.
“That’s where the rest of us come in, Mum”.
“There are going to be a lot of demands on you and Becca”.
“We’ll be fine. I’m sure Alyson’s parents will help out as well”.
“Yes, they’ve been very generous to Rick and Alyson in the past”. She got to her feet slowly. “Well, there’s no point in us going over and over all of this, is there? Worrying isn’t going to help us at the moment. Not that I’ll be able to stop worrying, of course; that’s what mothers are best at!”
“Are you heading up to bed now?”
“I think so; I’m very tired. What about you?”
“I’ve got about another half hour’s worth of marking to do, so I’m going to sit up and do it tonight”.
“You look tired, too; are you sure you wouldn’t be better to go to bed now and come to it fresh in the morning?”
“No, I’ll sleep better if I know it’s done”.
“All right, then”. She bent and kissed me on the top of my head. “Good night, Tom. I’m very glad you and Emma are here”.
“Good night, Mum”.
The next day the weather turned fine, and by early afternoon the sky was clear and the temperature had climbed to about six or seven degrees. Emma and I went for a long walk along the river together in the morning, and on the way back we stopped in to see George and Eleanor Foster for half an hour. By the time we got back to my parents’ home my father was up and around, and he seemed quite cheerful at lunch time, although I noticed that he looked weary and ate very little.
Becca and Mike arrived shortly after three o’clock. Mike was quiet and soft-spoken, and he treated Becca with gentle courtesy and a playful sense of humour. We all had afternoon coffee together in the living room; my father was still looking tired and frail, but he sat with us anyway, listening to the conversation and putting in a word here and there. Later, my mother and Emma worked together on a light supper, which we ate on trays in the living room, as my father was comfortable in his easy chair and didn’t want to move.
Mike had to go to work very early the next morning, and so shortly after supper he left to go back into Oxford. Not long after that my father excused himself, apologizing for his tiredness, and went up to his bed again. The rest of us played Scrabble for a while, but I could see that Emma was fading fast; her accumulated exhaustion was catching up with her, and she went to bed not long after my mother.
Becca and I made our hot chocolate and took it into the living room, where we dimmed the lights and sat down together on the couch across from the fireplace. There was a contented look on my sister’s face that I had not seen for a long time. I grinned at her; “So things are going well between you and Mike?” I said.
“They are”, she replied with a warm smile.
“So did you go out on your supper date?”
“Actually, we’ve been out together three times in the last two weeks”.
“Three times!” I exclaimed; “You don’t let the grass grow under your feet, do you!”
“Well, it’s not as if we’re just starting out with each other, you know!”
“You’re telling me you’re a couple again?”
She nodded. “We are”, she replied; “it didn’t take me long to realize that I’ve never really stopped loving him”.
“That’s great, Becs; I’m really glad for you”.
“Thank you”. She smiled at me again; “What about you? We haven’t talked for a couple of weeks; how are things with you?”
I got to my feet, picked up a poker, knelt at the hearth and poked at the embers for a moment. I used the tongs to put a few more coals on the fire, then got up and took my seat again beside her. “Good question”, I said. “Actually, I’ve got something fairly major to tell you about”.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes, everything’s fine, but I’ve got a story to tell you. It goes back all the way to 1982, and it involves Wendy Howard. In the last few months before I left for Canada Wendy and I spent a lot of time together; she’d had a rather messy breakup with Mickey and she was trying to stay out of his way, so she came over to my place in the evenings quite regularly. I think I might have already told you about that, but what I haven’t told you is that on one of those nights Wendy and I slept together”.
I paused, and after a moment she said, “I’ve wondered for some time whether you’d told me the whole story about you and Wendy. I’m not particularly surprised”.
“I’m not done yet”. I sipped at my hot chocolate for a moment, staring into the glowing coals of the fire; then I turned to her and said, “I thought that was the end of the story, but since I’ve returned to England I’ve discovered that it wasn’t. In fact, Wendy and I conceived a child that night, and she never told me about it. For over twenty years now I’ve had an older daughter I didn’t know about”.
She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again, reached out and put her hand on my arm. I covered her hand with mine and said, “I’m fine; I’ve known about this for about six weeks now”. I told her how Emma’s comment had alerted me to the truth, and how I had confirmed it by checking the school records, and then I described what had happened between Wendy, Lisa and me over the past few days. When I was finished I said, “So there it is, Becs. Like I said, it’s pretty big”.
She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m okay; don’t forget I’ve had six weeks to get used to the idea”.
“Right, but it’s not exactly been a stress-free six weeks, has it? I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you to try to cope with Rick and Sarah’s accident, while all the time you had this other thing hanging in the background!”
“Funnily enough, in a bizarre sort of way, it seemed to help. At first I was pretty angry with Wendy, and Owen had to talk me out of going over and challenging her about it. But after the accident, somehow I had a better sense of what mattered and what didn’t matter, and I found it easier just to wait, and let her make the first move”.
“You already talked to Owen about this?”
I saw the hurt in her eyes, and I took her hand and said, “Becs, Owen already knew about Wendy and me and our night together; I told him about it not long after it happened. You were only eleven then, and even though we were close, it wasn’t really something I was going to talk to an eleven-year old about. Then we went through that bad patch for a few years, and the next time we really talked you were seventeen, and you were going through your own troubles. And by then I hadn’t heard from Wendy for five years and I assumed that we were past history; I had no idea I had a four-year old daughter. And since we came back and I found that Wendy was here in Oxford again – well, by the time I realized Lisa was my daughter, it quickly became clear that I couldn’t tell anyone else about it until Wendy and I had talked – it was a question of respecting her privacy. I really did find it hard not to be able to talk to you about it; over the past six weeks I’ve often wished I could tell you, but I just didn’t think it would be right”.
“I understand”, she replied; “I hadn’t really thought it through; I’m sorry I got upset”.
“No, not at all. The next thing for me, of course, is to talk to Dad and Mum about it”.
“God, yes! I wonder how they’ll take it?”
“I think they’ll be surprised, like we all were, but once they get over that, I expect they’ll be curious. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dad wanted to meet Lisa as soon as possible”.
We were quiet for a few minutes, watching the glowing coals of the fire and listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock. After a while Becca drained her mug, looked across at me and said, “So how are you and Wendy getting along?”
“Good; I think we’re both glad to be friends again”.
“No chance that it could turn out to be something more than a friendship?”
“That might be a little more difficult”.
“Because of Emma?”
“No, Emma’s quite all right with the idea of me dating someone”.
“Yes; she’s already told me that. Mind you, she warned me that she plans to vet my potential dates!”
We both laughed; “Good for her!” Becca replied. Then, more tentatively, she continued, “So if the problem’s not with Em…?”
“It’s with me”.
“It’s complicated”. I finished my hot chocolate, leaned forward and put the mug down on the coffee table, and then sat back again. “I like Wendy, I always have, but I also remember that the last time I tried to make our friendship into something more than friendship, I succeeded in destroying it for two decades. And then there’s Kelly; I know it’s been nearly three years since she died, but I still really miss her, and there’s a part of me that can’t seem to get past that”.
She reached out and put her hand on mine again; we sat quietly for a moment, and then she said, “Tommy, there’s something I want to tell you. When I visited you the Christmas before Kelly died, she and I had a conversation about this”.
“About the possibility of you eventually coming to love someone else”.
I looked at her in astonishment; “Why haven’t you told me this before?”
“Well, it would have been rather insensitive for me to tell you about it right after she died, and it wasn’t something I wanted to mention to you on the phone or by email. If we were going to talk about it at all, I really wanted to do it face to face, and of course opportunities for that were few and far between. Also – well, to be frank, until now there hasn’t seemed to be any real need to mention it; as far as I know, you haven’t actually dated anyone since she died”.
“That’s true. What did she say to you, Becs?”
She kicked off her slippers and turned to face me, pulling her feet up on the couch and hugging her knees. “This might turn out to be a bit hard for me, all right, so let me take my time”.
“We had the conversation a day or two before I left to come home. I’d told you and Emma to go out to Myers Lake for the afternoon – do you remember?”
“I do; you said we’d been cooped up in the house for too long”.
“Well, after you’d gone I sat with Kelly in her room; she kept falling asleep, but every time she woke up we would talk. I think we both knew that it was probably our last chance to have that kind of talk”.
“What did she tell you?”
“She told me the kinds of things you always tell me – she told me not to get so caught up in my work that I didn’t have time for living; she told me that love is real and God is good and all those other amazing things she used to say, despite the fact that the cancer was eating her body away to nothing.
“Well, after she woke up from one of her little naps that afternoon, we started talking about you. At first it was just a general sort of conversation, but at some point she said – and I’ll try to remember her exact words – she said, ‘Becca, we need to talk about what happens after I’m gone’.
“Of course, that was absolutely the last thing I wanted to talk about; she was my wise older sister and I loved her, and I couldn’t bring myself to face the reality of her death, so I said all the usual pathetically stupid things – ‘you’re not going to die’, ‘the chemo and the radiation will work eventually’, and all that. But then she just put her hand out and touched my lips and said, ‘Don’t; we both know I’m going to die, and I need to accept it so that I can make the most of the time I have left to me’.
“Then she said, ‘Becca, you’re going to have to help Tom, after I’m gone’. And I said, ‘I can’t; it’s going to be such a bad time for us both’, and she said, ‘You don’t have to be strong for him – you just have to be there for each other when one of you needs a familiar shoulder to cry on and a familiar pair of arms to hold you’. And when she put it like that, I realized that I could do that, so I said I would try.
“Then she started talking about Emma. She told me how happy she was that Emma and I so obviously loved each other, and she hoped I would be able to help her out from time to time when she needed – when she needed an older sister…”
I had been staring into the fire, listening to her and picturing the scene in my mind, but now I glanced at her and realized that her eyes were wet with tears. I reached over and took her hand, and she pursed her lips and nodded at me, pausing for a moment in an obvious struggle to get her feelings under control. Eventually she squeezed my hand and said, “I’m sorry, Tommy; it was like she was passing the torch – asking me to do for Emma what she’d done for me – and the fact that she trusted me to do that for her only daughter was such an honour, and it made me feel that perhaps I really could do it”.
“You have done it”, I replied softly; “I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am”.
“No, no” she replied fiercely; “It’s been a joy for me, it always has been, since the summer I first met her when she was just a toddler; she’s given me far more than I’ve ever given her.
“Anyway, Kelly and I talked a bit more about Emma, and then she started to talk about you again. She talked about how you had made her so happy, and she knew she’d done the same for you, and she had never dreamed it was possible for a man and a woman to be so close. And then she said, ‘But now we have to pay the price, of course, and it’s going to be the hardest for him, because he’s going to be left behind’. She said, ‘I know he’s going to mourn for me for a long time, and I know that’s the way it has to be, but I want you to promise me something else’. And I asked her what it was, and she said, ‘Promise me you’ll try to help him not to get stuck in the past. I don’t want him to spend the rest of his life mourning for me; if I wanted that, I’d be the most self-centred woman in creation. I love him too much for that. I want him to move on’”.
Becca looked at me nervously; “That’s what she said. And of course I protested and said that we were all going to miss her and we’d never forget her and so on, but she was very firm with me about it, and so in the end I had to give her my promise”.
We sat in silence for a long time, holding hands as we had done when she was very small, except now it was my turn to feel like the sad little boy who needed comforting by his sister. Eventually she said, “I’ll say one more thing on the subject, Tommy, and then I’m done and I’ll shut up and mind my own business. It’s not for me to tell you how you should proceed in your relationship with Wendy; that’s between you and her. But you’re only forty-five; you’ve got a lot of years ahead of you, and I know you well enough to know that deep down inside you’re a very lonely man. Surely you don’t want to be this lonely for the rest of your life? Kelly didn’t want that to happen; she loved you too much for that. Now, after all this, if it turns out that a simple friendship is enough for you and Wendy, that’s fine. But if there’s a chance that your relationship could develop into something more than that – well, I think you shouldn’t be afraid of letting that happen. God knows, you and Wendy have both had a lot of pain in your lives, and you both deserve some happiness”.
I didn’t reply; I simply held her hand, glad of the comfort of her presence, my thoughts far away. We sat together in silence for a long time, watching the fire slowly diminishing in the fireplace. Eventually she spoke very softly: “Have I upset you?”
I shook my head. “No, but you’ve given me a lot to think about”.
“Are you all right?”
“Well, if you’re all right, I think I’m going to go and find my bed. How about you?”
“No, I think I’m going to sit here and think for a while”
“Is it all right if I leave you to it? I’ll stay with you if you want”.
“No, I’m fine; you go on up”.
“Are you and Emma going to church in the morning?”
“I’ll come along with you, if you don’t mind”.
“That’ll be fine, Becs; I’ll bring you a cup of tea in the morning, if you like”.
She smiled again, a young girl’s smile, very reminiscent of my baby sister when she was young. “All right; I’ll see you in the morning”.
After church the next day, we ate a traditional Sunday dinner before Emma, Becca and I went back into Oxford. After the meal, while we were still sitting at the dining table, I told my parents that I had something to share with them. I told them about Wendy and Lisa as briefly as I could, and when I finished the story, there was a long silence at the table. I could see by their faces that they were both stunned by the news, and were struggling to take it in. My father, who had already been looking pale and gaunt when he came down that morning, was the first to break the silence.
“So what happens now, Tom?” he asked.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, what sort of relationship will you be having with them?”
“Wendy and I are friends, and that’s going to continue. Lisa’s only just found out about me, and we’ll proceed at a speed she’s comfortable with. I’m not placing any expectations on her; that’s up to her”.
“Are we going to be able to meet her?” my mother asked.
“Would you like to?”
She and my father exchanged glances; “I think we would”, he said.
“Then we’ll try to make it happen”, I replied.
“She’s a student, is she?” my mother asked.
“Yes; she’s studying modern languages at Christ Church – Russian and German. She seems to be quite brilliant, but she’s also been through a lot of trouble in her life. Wendy’s marriage was an abusive one, and Mickey went to jail a few years ago for assaulting her and Lisa. Wendy doesn’t talk about it a lot, but I know it’s been very hard for them”.
My father looked at me across the table, and I could see the sympathy in his eyes “This must have been quite a shock to you, Tom”, he said.
“It was at first, but I’ve had six weeks to come to terms with it”.
My mother put her hand on Emma’s arm. “How about you, Emma?” she asked; “How are you coping with this?”
“I’m all right. Like Dad said, at first it was a big shock. But Lisa came over to our house on Thursday night and we had a visit, and I’m going to call her and get together with her next week some time. And as for her Mom – well, I’ve liked her ever since the day I met her. She’s written some wonderful books, too”.
“Your Dad told me about that”, my mother said. “I actually met her years ago, when she was singing with your Dad and Owen; they came out to Northwood and did a concert for our music society. It was a wonderful evening; it was the first time I’d heard her singing voice. Of course, we had no way of knowing she’d go on to be a writer and a teacher at the university. Have you read her books, then, Emma?”
“Yes, and I like them a lot. They’re all about George Eliot, and she’s one of my favourite Victorian novelists”.
“Victorian novelists”, my father observed, giving me a wry grin; “I can see how the two of you might have something in common”. He gave a quick frown, and then said, “We met Wendy’s son at your party, Emma; how old is he now?”
“Seventeen”, she replied.
“We’d better be careful about not leaving him out of things”.
I nodded appreciatively; “That’s a good thought, Dad”, I said.
“If you do invite them to come here to visit us, be sure to invite him as well”.
“I’ll do that. I don’t expect anything will happen before next weekend, though; we’re going down to Essex with Wendy and Colin, and maybe Lisa too. Perhaps Mum mentioned that to you?”
“Wendy thinks we all need a break, especially Emma. Wendy’s brother’s a vicar in Chelmsford and he has a huge vicarage with lots of room for us all; Wendy says there are lots of good country walks close by. Her mum and dad live in a nursing home in the city; her dad’s a retired clergyman”.
I saw the amusement flicker across my father’s face. “A clergyman’s daughter? I wonder what her father thought when he found out his daughter was pregnant?”
“Wendy had dropped out of organized religion by then, Dad. She’s actually come back to it in recent years”.
“It seems to be contagious”, he observed with a wry grin, glancing at Becca, Emma and me; “Perhaps I’d better make inquiries about an effective vaccination to protect myself!”
We laughed, and Emma said, “It’s not a dangerous infection, Grandpa; you might be surprised to discover that you like it!”
I glanced at him, wondering for a moment whether he would take offense, but he gave her a little smile and said, “I’m afraid I’ve got an incurably skeptical mind, my dear”.
A few minutes later we got up from the table; we helped my mother to clear the dishes and load the dishwasher, and then we took our bags out to the car for our trip home. My parents came to the door to see us off; the afternoon had turned fine again, and the sun was shining brightly out of a clear sky. My father came out into the courtyard, leaning on his cane, and just before I got into the car he put his hand on my arm and said, “After you get back from Essex, come and see me, if you can, Tom – just you, by yourself”.
“Okay, I’ll give you a ring when we get back, and we can arrange something”.
“Good; there are things we need to talk about”.
“Yes”. I held out my hand, and he grasped it firmly. “Have a good week, Dad”, I said.
“You too. Drive safely”.
“I’ll do my best”.