Link back to Chapter 8
Eric’s birthday party was the occasion for our first visit to Rick and his family in their house at Cumnor Hill; it was only a few years old, and was situated well back from the road on a sizeable lot behind a high hedge. The ground floor windows were all latticed, and there was a large double garage on one side of the house. There were several cars already parked in the driveway when we arrived; I recognized my father’s Rover, along with Becca’s Renault and Rick’s Range Rover. I pulled my Escort up behind them, turned off the engine, and glanced across at Emma; she gave me a wry grin and said, “I smell money!”
“In a social activist mood this afternoon, are we?”
She laughed. “Actually, I was expecting this; Sarah told me about it”. She glanced at the cars on the driveway; “Look’s like Auntie Brenda’s not here yet”.
“Unless Becca picked her up. Shall we go in?”
Alyson met us at the front door, dressed in jeans and a white blouse; she smiled warmly at us and said, “Welcome to our home; I’m so glad the two of you could come!”
She led us through the reception hall, and I noticed the woodblock flooring and the dark polished staircase leading up to the bedrooms. The living room had the same woodblock flooring, partially covered by a colourful rug; there was an open brick fireplace with a tiled hearth, and at the back of the room French windows opened onto the large back garden. Off to the left, an arched opening led through to the kitchen area.
My brother was sitting on an easy chair as we came into the room, talking with Mum and Dad and Becca who were sitting on the chesterfield across from him; on the glass coffee table between them there were several plates of hors d’oeuvres and a tray with a coffee pot and some cups. When he saw us, Rick got to his feet and held out his hand to me. “Good to see you”, he said; “Any trouble finding the place?”
“No, it was pretty straightforward. Is Auntie Brenda not here yet?”
“She rang a few minutes ago to say she’d be here about five”.
Emma glanced at the open French doors; “Is Eric out back, Uncle Rick?” she asked.
“He is. He’s got a few friends with him, and Sarah and Anna are out there too. Feel free to go and join them, Emma, or stay with us old folks if you like”.
“Maybe we’ll both go out for a few minutes and greet the birthday boy”, I said.
“Cup of coffee to take with you?”
“That would be nice – thank you”.
“How about you, Em?”
“I’m fine thanks”.
Out behind the house there was a long lawn dotted here and there with trees and shrubs. The French windows opened onto a stone patio with a few lawn chairs arranged around a circular table; Eric and one of his friends were playing guitar there, with a few others sitting around listening, including Sarah and Anna. Eric looked up and smiled when he saw Emma; “Did you bring your guitar?” he asked.
“I didn’t think about it; sorry!”
We sat with them for a while, listening to the songs and chatting on and off with the other young people. I was taking in my surroundings, speculating about how much this luxurious property was worth in the inflated market of Oxford, and wondering what my brother had thought when he had seen the little house Emma and I were renting.
After about half an hour we went back inside; Emma and Sarah slipped upstairs to Sarah’s room for a while, and I joined the growing company in the living room. Becca and Alyson were sitting together on one of the couches; I helped myself to another cup of coffee and sat down with them.
“How was the music?” Becca asked.
“Very enjoyable. I didn’t quite catch who the other guitarist was, but they sounded good together”.
“Jeremy Venn”, Alyson said; “He’s Eric’s best friend”. She shook her head; “I’m sorry I didn’t think to ask Emma to bring her guitar along; I’m sure Eric would have enjoyed that”.
“Don’t worry about it; there’ll be other times”.
“Have you and Emma had a busy week?”
“It’s getting busier, with school starting and all that. She’s about to start volunteering at a local nursing home, too”.
“Does she like that kind of thing?”
“Was it Kelly who got her interested?”
Alyson shook her head slowly; “It doesn’t seem that long ago that she and Eric and Sarah were babies”.
“That’s for sure”. I frowned; “You have an older sister, don’t you?”
“Yes, Sheila; she’s three years older than me”.
“I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen her since your wedding, but I remember you and Rick talking about her a few times. Wasn’t she married to a banker?”
“Yes – Alistair Cameron. Unfortunately they broke up a few years ago; he’s living in Switzerland, and Sheila’s back in Edinburgh working for my dad”.
“Did they have any children?”
“Two boys, Ewan and David; they live with their mum. Ewan’s sixteen and David’s thirteen”.
“That’s tough on the kids when a marriage breaks up; Kelly’s cousin Brenda went through something like that”.
She nodded; “Sheila and I weren’t especially close while she was married, but she tells me it had been going wrong for a long time. Of course, I never saw any of that”.
“What do we really know about what goes on in other people’s marriages?”
“Isn’t that the truth? Sheila and Alistair always looked fine to me; I suppose they were just good at keeping things private”.
“Brenda and Gary were the same”.
“Brenda and the kids seem to be doing alright”, said Becca.
“They are. Of course Bren’s always busy with the Beanery; she tells me owning a coffee shop is a lot like being married!”
“It’s been a long time since she and Gary split”.
“I was with you when it first came out”.
“That’s right, you were; it was when we had the first Reimer family reunion”.
Becca shook her head slowly; “It doesn’t seem like ten years ago”.
“It must have been a bit overwhelming for you”, Alyson said to Becca, “walking into the middle of a big family event like that. You wouldn’t have known many people there, would you?”
“Actually I knew quite a few of them; I’d visited Meadowvale almost every year since about 1987, and Tommy’s father in law usually hosted a family barbecue to welcome me. When I was there this year for Emma’s grad they all greeted me like a long lost cousin”. She smiled at me; “They’re always so good at making me feel like part of the family”.
“You are part of the family; that’s how they’ve always seen it, since the first time they met you”.
Supper was served around six; it was a professionally catered buffet laid out on the dining room table. I noticed that my father stayed in his chair in the living room while my mother filled his plate for him; he had been coughing on and off, and from time to time I saw Becca watching him, a little frown on her face.
“Is Dad okay?” I asked her at one point when we were both refilling our plates at the same time.
“I don’t think so; I think he’s got a chest infection”.
“Should we do anything?”
“I asked him earlier on if he was feeling okay, and he just about bit my head off”.
“That would be a ‘no’, then?”
“I’m afraid so”.
After the birthday cake had been cut and shared out, it was time for Eric to open his gifts. The young people had been sitting in one corner of the room by themselves, but now Emma came and sat herself down on the floor in front of me, leaning her back against my knees.
Eric received many gifts, some of them quite expensive. Emma and I had given him a CD and a card with a cheque for £50. Eric read the card out loud: “This is the first £50 toward your new guitar”. He beamed over at us; “Thanks!” he said.
“Are you getting a new guitar?” Rick asked; “I thought you already had one”.
“He’s getting to be a really good player”, I replied; “but a quality guitar would do a lot for him”.
My brother shrugged his shoulders and smiled awkwardly. “If you say so; I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject!”
When the gift opening was over the conversations continued in different parts of the room. Rick came over and sat down on a hard chair beside Emma and me, a cup of coffee in his hand; “Thanks for coming”, he said, “and thanks for your gifts for Eric”.
“Thanks for having us, Uncle Rick”, said Emma; “It’s really nice to be able to come to family birthdays and stuff”.
“Emma’s got one coming up soon”, I added.
“How old are you going to be, then?” Rick asked her.
“I’ll be eighteen on December 7th”.
“Ah – a party of some significance!” He grinned at me; “This is when you surrender all responsibility for her, is it?”
I laughed; “She’s been pretty responsible for a long time”.
He frowned; “I wish I could teach my son a bit of that. You know, no offence intended, but I’d prefer it if you didn’t give him too much encouragement in this guitar-playing obsession. It’s a great relaxation, I can see that, and for you two that’s all it is, but the trouble is he’s got this idea in his head that he can become a professional musician, and I can’t see anything but grief on that path”.
“It could be challenging, I guess”, I replied.
“Well, do you know anyone who’s making a go of it as a full-time musician?”
“Grandpa Campion did”.
“Ah yes, but he was a professional organist, and he didn’t really support himself by performing, did he? He was an organ teacher and a busy one, but it didn’t exactly give him a very comfortable lifestyle. If Mum hadn’t married the old man, we’d have been raised in abject poverty, bro!”
I shrugged; “I’ve never heard Mum complain”.
“No, she wouldn’t, would she?” He frowned again. “I just wish Eric would set his mind on getting a good, well-rounded education. I want him to get a good degree that will give him a lot of options. I’m not naive enough to think I can talk him out of trying to make a go of this music business, but I want him to have something else he can fall back on if it doesn’t work out for him”.
“What else is he interested in?” I asked.
Rick shook his head; “Not much, actually. He spends all his time listening to those old blues singers, and when he reads at all it’s them he’s reading about – not like Sarah, who reads absolutely everything she can lay her hands on. I’m trying to persuade him to aim at a business degree: it’s such a flexible thing to have and you can apply it in so many different fields. Of course I understand that it’s not his favourite thing right now, but the day might come when he changes his mind and realizes just how useful it can be. I just hope that day doesn’t come too late”. He shrugged and said, “Oh well – sorry to burden you with my worries. What about you, Emma – what do you want to do? I suppose you want to be a professional musician too, do you?”
She laughed; “No, I’m with Dad – I’d rather do it for fun. I actually want to be a nurse”.
“Oh right – your dad did tell me about that, now that you mention it. Following in your mum’s footsteps, then?”
“Yeah. It’s not like she ever tried to push me, but somehow from hearing her talk about it I realized it was what I wanted to do”.
“Well, somewhere in the world someone’s always going to need a nurse. I don’t expect you’ll ever get rich but you’ll probably always be able to find work”.
“I’m not too worried about getting rich; I don’t spend much, so I don’t need much”.
Rick grinned at me again; “Chip off the old block”, he said.
After church the next day Emma and I were just getting our lunch ready when Becca called. “I was right”, she said; “Dad’s got a chest infection”.
“Is he going into hospital?”
“He’s on his way to the John Radcliffe as we speak”.
“Should we go in to see him?”
“Maybe not today; I expect they’ll be getting him hooked up to antibiotics, and they’re going to try to get him to rest as much as possible. Tomorrow night might be a better idea”.
“Are you sure? It seems weird not to go in today some time”.
“Trust me on this, Tommy; his doctors are going to be trying to keep people away from him so he can rest. Also, he might not want you to see him when he’s feeling really rough”.
“Right – I didn’t think about that”.
“He can be hard to take when he’s sick”.
I laughed softly; “He can be hard to take when he’s healthy, too!”
“True! Feel free to ring Mum later on tonight if you want; I’m going to pick her up after supper and drive her home”.
“Okay, I’ll do that. Thanks, Becs”.
The following evening we went over to the John Radcliffe Hospital; the ‘J.R.’ was only a fifteen-minute walk from our house in Marston. My father was in a room in the crowded intensive care unit; he was lying on a hospital bed with his head and shoulders slightly raised, and I could see at least two IV tubes attached to his arms. He looked pale and thin, and the dark circles under his eyes were larger again. My mother was sitting beside him; they both looked up as we entered the room, and my mother said, “Well, here’s Tom and Emma!”
My father frowned and shook his head; “There was no need for you to come out”, he said gruffly. “Just a little setback, that’s all; I’ll be up again in a few days”.
“It was no trouble”, I replied.
“But you don’t want to be hanging around in the hospital; you hear so much about people picking up viruses and getting sick from being in here”.
“I’ve done my share of hospital visiting, Dad”, I said softly.
“Well, then you know…”
Emma leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “How are you feeling, Grandpa?”
“A bit rough, thanks, but at least I’m not coughing as much as I was yesterday”.
“They’ve got you on antibiotics, I guess?”
“I think so; I suppose you know all about that sort of thing, do you?”
She laughed softly and shook her head; “I’m a long way from being a nurse; I just remember when Mom went through it”.
He looked up at her in silence for a moment, and then shrugged and said, “Well, since you’re here, you may as well sit down. There’s room for you at the foot of the bed there; Tom, there’s an extra chair in the corner if you want”.
We sat down as we were told, and my mother smiled at Emma and said “How are your other grandparents? Have you been talking to them?”
“We talked to them for a few minutes this morning, actually”.
“I expect they miss you a lot”.
She nodded; “They’re used to having us all around”.
“Are you still thinking of applying to Oxford Brookes University?”
“I think I probably will. I don’t know how long I’m going to be in England, but it would make sense to make a start. I actually did some research before we moved here, and there is one little snag”.
“What’s that?” my father asked.
“I seem to have fallen through a little crack. Apparently if you’re a U.K. resident you can apply for nursing training and the National Health Service will pay your fees. But if you’re not a U.K. resident then not only will they not pay your fees but they don’t want you to apply for training at all until you’ve lived here for at least three years, for purposes other than education”.
“That’s ridiculous! Typical Labour government policy!”
My mother frowned; “You mentioned ‘falling through a crack’?”
“I guess my situation’s unusual – on the one hand I’m not a U.K. resident, but on the other hand I didn’t move here specifically to go to university. And I am a U.K. citizen through Dad. I think the university’s busy trying to figure out which category I fit into. But whichever one they put me in, I don’t think the NHS will pay my fees”.
“How much money are we talking about?” my father asked me.
I could see where this conversation was going, and I didn’t like it. “Several thousand pounds, but don’t worry about it, Dad; we’ll be fine”.
For a moment I thought he was going to argue with me, but then I realized that he was just too weary to object. He glanced at Emma; “I don’t like to see your education suffer because you moved here”.
“Don’t worry about me, Grandpa; it looks like in a week or two I’ll be starting to volunteer at a nursing home not far from here. I just have to wait while they do all the police checks; that’s going to take a little longer than usual, because my records are all on the other side of the Atlantic”.
“I suppose they would be, wouldn’t they?”
On the crowded table beside the bed there was a paperback book; Emma glanced at it and said, “The Constant Gardener; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that one”.
“Are you familiar with John Le Carré?”
“He writes spy novels, doesn’t he?”
“He does; I rather like them”.
“I think I read one of his a couple of years ago; did he write The Russia House?”
“He did; what did you think of it?”
“I enjoyed it, but I thought it was kind of bleak”.
My father nodded; “He’s got a rather dark view of the world; I expect it comes from having worked for MI5”. He glanced at me; “What about you? Are you familiar with him?”
“I’ve read a few of his books; I think he’s very good, but I don’t especially care for that style myself”.
“No, I suppose not”. He looked across at my mother; “Perhaps you people would like to go down and find a cup of tea or something?”
“We came to visit with you, Dad”, I said.
“I know, but I’m actually feeling rather tired”.
“What do you think, Mum?” I asked.
She and my father exchanged glances, and then she shrugged and said, “Perhaps it would be a good idea; I think your father wants to sleep a bit now”.
“Sorry about that”, my mother said to us as we took our seats together on stools around a high table in the little hospital coffee shop. “He’s really not good at having people around him when he’s sick”.
“Becca warned me about that”, I replied, “but I must admit it felt pretty weird”.
“For a minute there I thought it was going to be okay”, said Emma.
“He likes you, my dear”, my mother replied with a smile. “I know it might not always be easy to tell…”
Emma shook her head. “I understand; people don’t always say what they really feel”.
My mother was quiet for a moment, and then she reached out and put her hand on Emma’s. “You’re very wise, Emma Dawn”, she said softly.
Emma smiled awkwardly. “Thanks; I learned a lot about that kind of thing from my mom”.
My mother nodded; “Of course you did”, she replied.
Link to Chapter 10