Wendy and Owen and I got together to play music at our house on the first Saturday in December.
After we had met Wendy at my school back in October, Emma had checked her other books out of the library and read them both. She had been hoping for an opportunity to meet her again soon; in this respect, however, she was to be disappointed. A couple of weeks after our first meeting I emailed Wendy, asking if she would like to come over to play some music with Owen and me. She replied immediately, saying that she would be interested at some point but she was especially busy right then and would get back to me later. After that I heard nothing from her, and gradually I came to the conclusion that even though our meeting at the school had been enjoyable, she was not really interested in renewing our old friendship.
It was Owen who pointed out to me that there might be another explanation. “She might just be genuinely busy, you know”, he said.
“You think so?”
“Well, it’s term time right now, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so”.
He grinned at me. “You’ve forgotten when Oxford university terms run, haven’t you?”
I smiled sheepishly at him; “I guess I have”.
“Michaelmas term lasts from mid October to the end of the first week in December, and if you remember, it’s rather intense. And Wendy’s a single mother with a teenage boy still at home”.
I nodded; “She takes him to a lot of sports events, too”.
“Give her a chance; she probably hasn’t got a minute to call her own”.
“I never thought of that”.
Wendy called me after supper on the last Sunday in November; I was working at my desk up in my den when the phone rang. “Tom?” she said; “It’s me – Wendy”.
“Hello there – I was wondering when I would hear from you!”
“Yes, I’m sorry – I don’t get many moments to call my own once term starts. What about you – have I caught you at a bad time?”
“No, not at all; I’m just doing a bit of prep work for tomorrow”.
“Do you want me to ring you back in an hour or so?”
“No – this is fine. So how’s your term been?”
“It’s always busy – tutorials and lectures and individual conferences with students, and I do some curriculum work too”.
“Are you doing any more writing?”
“I’ve been exploring some ideas but I haven’t got anything in process at the moment”.
“Will you write about George Eliot again?”
“I don’t think so; I think I’ve said everything I’ve got to say about her. No – I’ve been doing some lectures on 18th and 19th century poetry and I’m toying with the idea of working them up into a book”.
“That would be excellent!”
“Yes, you always were a lover of poetry, weren’t you?”
“I still am”.
“I think you might enjoy some of my lectures. One of them concentrates on George Crabbe and John Clare; you were a big fan of Clare, weren’t you?”
“I still really like him”.
“You were the one who first got me interested in him; I’d never really paid much attention to him before you and I met”.
“I didn’t know that”.
“You thought I spent a lot of time ignoring you, didn’t you?”
I laughed softly; “You had pretty strong opinions. Wendy”.
“I know – I’m sorry about that”.
“I wasn’t complaining; I always enjoyed our conversations”.
“Me too. How’s Emma?”
“She’s well. She’s been reading your earlier books, actually; I think she’d love to ask you about them”.
“I would enjoy that”.
“Apart from that, she’s still busy volunteering at Marston Court, and spending time with family and friends”.
“She’s made some friends, then?”
“We’ve started going to a little Baptist church in north Oxford; she’s gotten to know some of the young people there”.
“I didn’t know you were a churchgoer”.
“Yeah, that’s something that happened since I moved to Canada. I married into a Mennonite family and it kind of rubbed off”.
“I’ve gone back to church over the last few years too”.
“Yes – it happened after we moved back to Oxford”.
“It would be fun to compare notes”.
“I’d like that”.
“So are you interested in a visit with Owen and me?”
“Yes I am, but I want to make sure you both understand that I haven’t sung any of our old songs for a long time”.
“That’s fine, Wendy. Like I said the other week – singing or not, it would be good just to have a visit”.
“Yes, it would”.
“So when were you thinking?”
“Would next weekend work for you?”
“Saturday would work. Sunday we’re kind of tied up – it’s Emma’s eighteenth birthday”.
“Well I certainly don’t want to interrupt that! We can wait a bit longer if you want?”
“No, I think it would be fine. We’re having a family party at Owen and Lorraine’s place on Sunday evening. My sister and Emma are cooking jambalaya and I’m baking the cake, and that’s about the limit of my responsibilities”.
“Did you tell me Owen and his wife had children?”
“Yes – Andrew and Katie. They’re quite a bit younger than Emma but they get on really well with her”.
“Is that why the party’s over there?”
“No – it’s because there are going to be sixteen of us, and their house is bigger”.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few more days for our visit?”
“Let me talk to Owen – I think he might enjoy a couple of hours on Saturday”.
She came over to my house on Saturday afternoon, dressed casually in faded jeans and an Aran sweater, her hair hanging loose to her shoulders. Owen and his family had come for lunch earlier, and then Lorraine had taken the children and Emma out for the afternoon; I had told Emma I thought Wendy would be less self-conscious about singing with us if there was no one else around.
Owen and Wendy greeted each other warmly; I made tea, and then we sat around the living room for a couple of hours, singing our old songs. Wendy asked Owen and me to sing a few by ourselves at first, but eventually she began to join in, and it quickly became clear that even though she hadn’t sung the songs for a long time she still remembered them very well.
“Nothing wrong with your memory!” Owen said mischievously after we finished one of our old favourites.
“I’ve always liked ‘Reynardine’”, she replied with a grin.
“What about some newer stuff? Surely you boys haven’t stopped learning songs since we last saw each other. Do you still play in public, Owen?”
He nodded. “I’ve got a band, actually; we call ourselves ‘The Oxford Ferrymen’”.
“Is that your band?” she exclaimed with a smile; “I’ve seen posters around town from time to time”.
“Yes, we do gigs at the ‘Plough’ and a few other places; occasionally we go a bit further afield”.
“What sort of music do you play?”
“Mainly Celtic stuff; I’ve learned to play bouzouki and cittern since the last time you and I saw each other”.
“You didn’t bring them with you today, though?”
He shook his head; “Hopefully there’ll be another chance”.
We sang a few more songs, including some that Owen and I had learned in the years after we had lost touch with Wendy, and then I made another pot of tea and we talked. Wendy was sitting in Emma’s easy chair by the hearth with her feet up on a footstool; “This has been really good”, she said softly. “Thank you both”.
“It’s really great to see you”, Owen replied.
“You too, Owen. Have you always worked in Oxford?”
“Yeah – I joined a little practice after I finished my training and eventually I became one of the senior partners. Tom’s sister Becca works at our practice”.
“As a doctor?”
“I didn’t know she was a doctor. Actually, I didn’t really know much about her at all; the last time I saw her I think she was about eleven. Didn’t she come to that concert we did for your mum’s music society, Tom?”
“Yes, I think she did”.
She glanced at Owen again. “You’ve got a family too, I hear?”
“Yes – I’m married to Lorraine and we’ve got two children; Andrew’s twelve and Katie’s nine. It took us a while to get going on the reproduction business”.
Wendy laughed again. “Did you already know Lorraine when we were here together?”
“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually; she showed up there one Sunday in September of ’82”.
“Are you still a churchgoing family?”
“I’ve gone back to church myself in the last few years”.
“Tom told me that”.
“My dad’s pleased, of course”.
“Where do you go?”
“When I first started I just went to Merton Chapel, which is where I was confirmed, but it only has regular Sunday services during term time and they’re in the evenings, which isn’t very convenient for family meals. So after a couple of years I started going to St. Michael and All Angels here in New Marston; I sometimes sing in the choir and I get on pretty well with the vicar. I’m still involved in some Merton Chapel activities though, and now and again during the week I sing in their choir too, so I suppose you could say my church life is a bit schizophrenic. What about you?”
“We go to St. Clement’s; I was going there through most of my student years”.
“I went there once or twice but it was a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.
“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.
Wendy nodded, looking across at me; “You said you’d started going to a Baptist church?”
“Yes, but Emma and I are actually Mennonites”.
“Right – you told me your wife’s family were Mennonite”.
“Yeah – I guess I sort of married into it”.
“I expect there was a bit more to it than that”.
I nodded; “There was”.
“Do you mind me asking about it?”
“Not at all. Kelly’s dad Will Reimer was the principal of my school in Meadowvale and he and his wife were very helpful to me in my first few months there. They were pretty strong in their faith, but Kelly had strayed away from it for a while as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back. She and I talked about it, and I also had some really good conversations with her brother Joe; he and I became really good friends. And of course I’d been getting interested in spirituality for a while; Owen and I had been talking about it before I left England”.
Owen nodded; “We exchanged a few letters about it after you moved, too”.
“Kelly came back to her faith, then?” said Wendy.
“She did; we made that journey together, and eventually we were both baptized on the same day”.
“An adult believer’s baptism, you mean?”
“Yes; that’s the Mennonite tradition”.
“Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”
“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”
“No we’re not; peace and justice are a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.
“Emma’s a practising Christian too?”
“Yes – it’s very real and personal for her”.
“That’s brilliant; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She frowned thoughtfully; “What was it you found attractive about the Mennonite faith? I mean, I came back to the church I was raised in, but you moved to something completely different”.
I shrugged; “I didn’t really know very much about different denominations; it wasn’t as if I was evaluating all the local churches to see which one I liked the best. Kelly and her family were all Mennonites and their pastor, Rob Neufeld, had been one of the people who guided me on my way into Christian faith. So it just seemed natural that after I became a Christian I would stay with the people who had helped me find faith”. I grinned; “Rob was sneaky, actually; he invited me to play music in their church before I became a Christian. Kelly’s dad played guitar and Joe’s wife Ellie played the fiddle, and we worked up some gospel songs together, and before we knew it the people liked us and they wouldn’t let us stop!”
Wendy laughed, and Owen said, “They’re wonderful people, all of them”.
“You’ve been out there, then?” Wendy asked him.
“Oh yes – several times. Lorraine and I really loved Kelly, and of course we were kind of fond of this bloke too”.
“It was mutual”, I replied softly.
“Lorraine had difficulty conceiving when we first got married”, said Owen; “We tried for a few years and nothing seemed to work. She got really upset and angry about it, and then one time when we were out at Tom and Kelly’s on holiday Kelly spent a lot of time with her, just listening to her and loving her. She was a remarkable human being; I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone else with such a gift for sympathy and love”.
“She’d had struggles of her own, of course”, I said.
“With her cancer, you mean?” asked Wendy.
“Yes. After her first go around with it she lost both her ovaries, which meant she couldn’t have any more children. That was a real heartbreaker for her”.
“I can imagine”.
We were quiet for a moment, sipping thoughtfully at our tea, and then Owen smiled and said “So what about you, Wendy Howard; what have you been doing all these years?”
“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She looked down at the floor, gathering her thoughts, and then said “I went to London, as you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out and we moved in together”.
“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.
“It might have been better if we had been. Anyway, my daughter Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate at UCL, and Mickey did well in photo-journalism and set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic locations to take photographs for magazines, and later on he got a name for going to dangerous places on assignment”.
“That must have been stressful”, I said.
“Yes. Anyway, by the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at UCL. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.
Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which she had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was just opening my mouth to speak when we heard the front door open, and after a moment Emma came into the living room with Becca behind her, both of them still wearing their coats, with shopping bags over their shoulders. “Look who we found in the covered market!” she said with a triumphant smile.
“I was shopping for ingredients for jambalaya”, said Becca, “because someone told me she’d like to have it for her birthday”. She glanced at the three of us; “Sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt”.
“Not at all”, I replied, getting to my feet. “Becs, you probably don’t remember Wendy Howard? Wendy, this is my sister Becca”.
“Actually, I do remember you”, said Becca as Wendy got up to greet her; “I think I must have been about ten or eleven the last time I heard the three of you play together”.
“Did you hear us more than once?” asked Wendy; “I thought perhaps it had only been that one time we played for your mum’s music society”.
“You came to the house to practice a couple of times; I remember you using Mum’s music room”.
“So we did!” Wendy held out her hand, and Becca took it with a smile. “Are you going to sing some more?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know; I should be going soon”.
“Do one song for us, at least”, Emma asked eagerly; “I’ve heard so much about the three of you and I’d love to hear you play together”.
I glanced quizzically at my two partners; Wendy shrugged, and Owen grinned and said, “Take your coats off, then, while we try to think of something that won’t embarrass us too badly!”
“Is there tea in the pot?” Emma asked.
“I think there is”.
So Becca and Emma hung up their coats, Emma poured tea for them both and then they sat down with us. Owen glanced at Wendy; “What do you think?”
“What about ‘The Recruited Collier?’”
“Good choice!” Owen looked across at me; “Key of E Flat?”
“I’m on it”.
The song was not one of the pieces we had played earlier, but it had been one of our favourites years ago. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and after a moment Wendy took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:
“What’s the matter with you my lass, and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up, and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town, and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk, and he’d better have gone to the gallows”.
For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:
“The very sight of his cockade it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice; I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.
“When Jimmy talks about the wars, it’s worse than death to hear him.
I must go out and hide my tears, because I cannot bear him.
A brigadier or a grenadier he says they’re sure to make him,
and still he jibes and cracks his jokes, and bids me not forsake him”.
Emma was sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out in front of her and her back resting against the front of the sofa, a smile of pure pleasure on her face; Becca was sitting forward in her chair, her legs crossed, obviously captivated by the music. Wendy and Owen and I sang the last verse together:
“As I walk o’er yon stubble field, below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there, but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands, it sets my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er, oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground, for of single life I’m weary”.
When the last chord died down there was a brief silence in the room, and then Becca shook her head and said, “My God – that was absolutely gorgeous!”
Emma nodded; “Beautiful!” she said softly. “I had no idea…”
Wendy coloured slightly; “You’re both very kind”.
“Will you do another one?” Emma asked.
“Oh, I don’t know”, Wendy replied; “I should be going soon. My daughter’s joining us for supper tonight, and I need to get something ready”.
“Speaking of families”, said Owen, “Did you lose mine somewhere along the way, Em?”
Emma laughed; “Lorraine told me she had a couple of other things she needed to get, so she sent me home with Becca”.
Owen gave her a knowing grin; “I see how it is!”
“That’s what I thought!”
“Are they coming back here to get me, then?”
“I think that’s the plan; Lorraine told me to tell you if there was any change you should call her on her mobile”.
Wendy smiled at Owen and me; “I really should be going”, she said.
We all got to our feet, and the next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I really enjoyed myself”.
“So did we”, Owen replied; “Let’s do it again soon”.
“Absolutely”. Wendy turned to Emma; “Happy birthday tomorrow”, she said.
“I hear you’d like to talk about my books some time”.
Emma gave her a delighted smile; “I really would!”
“Well, we can make that happen. Get my e-mail address from your dad”.
“Thank you – I would love that!”
I followed Wendy out into the narrow hallway, took her coat down from the peg and helped her on with it. “That was very thoughtful of you”, I said; “You must be really busy”.
“Term’s over now; I’ve got a bit more free time”. She wound her scarf around her neck, zipped up her coat, and turned to face me. “Tom, I wonder if you and Emma would like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event?”
“What sort of event?”
“I mentioned my daughter Lisa; she’s up at Christchurch reading Modern Languages, but she also sings in a chamber choir called the Radcliffe Singers, and they’re doing a Christmas carol concert at Merton Chapel on the Sunday before Christmas. It’ll be an evening event, of course”.
“A Christmas carol concert?”
“Yes. The university’s down so there aren’t many people around, but they usually get a good turnout for their concerts; if you want to come I should get tickets for you fairly soon. They’ve arranged to have a reception in hall afterwards, if you’d like to stay”.
I smiled; “I’m actually rather fond of Christmas carols”.
“They’ll probably do a few of the less well-known ones”.
“All the more interesting. Put me down for sure, and I’ll talk to Emma and see if she’s interested, too. How much are the tickets?”
She shook her head; “Come as my guests”.
“Are you sure?”
“All right, then; I’ll talk to Emma and get back to you as quickly as possible”.
“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “This was a really good afternoon”, she said; “Thank you”.
“I’m glad you could come, and I know Owen is too”.
“I hope you have a wonderful party with Emma tomorrow”.
“I’m sure we will”.