I talked to Emma about the concert at Merton Chapel, and as I had expected she was quite interested. The following evening, when we came home from her birthday party and drank our late night hot chocolate in front of the gas fireplace, she said, “I was talking to Alanna tonight about that concert with the Radcliffe Singers; she thinks she’d like to come along with us. Do you think that would be okay?”
“I’m sure it would. I don’t think I can ask Wendy to cover the cost of another ticket though”.
“Oh no, of course not – Alanna’s going to get her own ticket. She says she knows the pianist who plays for that choir”.
“A friend of hers?”
“A fellow-student; she says she’s really good. And Alanna really likes choral music”.
“Why don’t you ask her to come over here for a light supper that night? We could go down together afterwards”.
“That would be great – thanks, Dad”.
On the weekend before Christmas the weather turned cold and clear. We went out to Northwood on Friday night; Rick and the family joined us for dinner on Saturday, along with Becca and Auntie Brenda, and that afternoon while my father was sleeping Emma and Becca and I went for a long walk in the country. My father was looking quite well; he and Emma had enjoyed a long conversation in the living room that morning while my mother and I were playing Christmas carols in the music room.
“What were you talking about?” I asked her later.
“Lots of things. He asked me about some of my favourite books, and then we started talking about school in Meadowvale, and then we got onto family. That one kind of kept us busy for a while!”
“He has a good sense of humour, you know”.
I shook my head. “No”, I said quietly; “I didn’t know”.
On the Sunday morning we drove home early in order to attend the service at Banbury Road Church. Alanna McFarlane came back to our place afterwards, and she and Emma went out together for a couple of hours while I had a nap, read for a while, and got a few things ready for a light supper.
“Is this a dress up kind of thing tonight?” Emma asked as we were eating.
“I don’t know”, I replied. I smiled at Alanna, who was wearing jeans and a brightly coloured sweater; “You don’t seem too worried about that!”
She laughed; “The choir will be dressed up, but I’ll be surprised if the audience is. Although, if there’s a reception in the hall afterwards…”
“I wondered about that, but Wendy didn’t mention anything. You guys are still skipping the reception, right?”
“Yeah, we are”; Emma replied, “we’ve got that thing with Matthew and his friend. I’ll probably be home around eleven or eleven-thirty; I’ll call you if that changes, Dad”.
We cleared up and did the dishes and then I went up and changed for the evening, putting on a tweed jacket and open-necked shirt. Emma nodded her approval when I came down; “Very posh”, she said in her best imitation of an Oxford accent.
“I’ll do, will I?”
“Okay; let’s go”.
We had decided to take the bus rather than try to negotiate parking in the centre of Oxford; we got off on the High not far from St. Mary the Virgin church, and then cut through Magpie Lane to Merton College. The ancient buildings of Oriel College loomed high on our right; straight ahead was Merton Chapel with its high square tower. A few people were standing in a loose cluster around the chapel door and I recognized Wendy among them, bundled up in a grey duffel coat and scarf against the cool air. She waved and smiled when she saw us. “You’re just in time; the pews are already starting to fill up in there. My friends Bev and David are saving places for us”.
“It’s rush seating, then?” Emma asked with a grin.
Wendy laughed; “I’ve never heard that phrase used to describe an event at Merton Chapel before, but yes – it’s rush seating!”
“Is Colin here?” I asked her.
“No; Lisa’s choir’s not really his sort of thing. It’s mutual; she doesn’t often go to his football matches either”.
She led us into the chapel; we stopped for a moment at the back of the nave to hand in our tickets and get our programs, and as our eyes adjusted to the light I remembered that – as in most of the college chapels in Oxford – the pews here faced each other across the centre aisle, rather than the usual orientation toward the front of the church. We passed under the carved wooden screen; the ceiling above was high and ornate, and on each side of us tall pointed windows were recessed into the plastered stone walls. As Wendy had said, the pews were already beginning to fill up, and there was a low buzz of conversation in the building.
Emma took my arm and whispered “This place is enormous! Are you sure it’s just a college chapel?”
“Yes, and it’s not the biggest one in Oxford either”.
“How do they get the money to keep these places up?”
“They’re all paid for by rich dead people”.
She laughed; “I guess it’s useful to have the dead on your side!”
Wendy led us to a pew about half way up the length of the chapel, where she introduced us to an elegant-looking woman and a jovial man with curly grey hair and a thick beard. “Tom, can I introduce you to some good friends of mine?” she said. “This is Bev Copeland; she teaches Classics here at Merton. We’ve known each other since we were students in London in the seventies. This is her husband David Wiseman; he’s an archeologist across the road at Oriel”.
Bev Copeland took my hand with a smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you; Wendy’s told us quite a lot about you”.
“Not that I really know all that much!” Wendy added, glancing at me with an embarrassed look on her face. “Most of my knowledge about you ends in 1982!”
We took our seats with the Wisemans; Wendy had removed her coat and I saw that she was wearing a grey skirt and a thick woollen roll-neck sweater. “I’m relieved to see you’re not in formal evening dress”, I said; “I wasn’t quite sure what I should be wearing”.
“You look fine; most of us are just trying to keep warm!”
At about seven-thirty a young clergyman in a black suit and clerical collar walked up to the front; Wendy whispered in my ear that he was the college chaplain. He welcomed us all to Merton Chapel and said a few words about the Radcliffe Singers, and then as he sat down the choir made a formal entrance from the back, the men in black suits and bow ties, the women in black dresses and red scarves. They took their places at the front, each one carrying a music folder; off to one side a young woman with long red hair took her seat at a grand piano. A thick-set man who was obviously the music director took his place out front, facing the choir, and as he was getting ready I leaned over and whispered to Wendy, “Which one is Lisa?”
“First from the left, on the front row”.
She was strikingly beautiful, standing there in her black dress with her long dark hair hanging loose down her back. I saw the resemblance to her mother immediately, and to Colin, although she was noticeably taller than him. I opened my mouth to speak again, but at that moment the music director raised his hands, the choir members opened their folders, and the pianist began to play the introduction to the first carol.
The concert lasted for about ninety minutes; it included familiar pieces as well as some I had never heard before. I recognized some of my favourites: the Wexford Carol, ‘Adam Lay Y-Bounden’, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’, ‘Gaudete’, and a wonderfully light and fluid arrangement of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. Most of the songs were accompanied by the pianist, but a few of them were performed a cappella, and these I found particularly enjoyable.
The last carol of the evening was ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, sung in full four-part harmony with piano accompaniment on all but one verse. When it was finished, the audience rose to their feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation. The choir members bowed a couple of times and then, as the applause continued, they processed out to the back of the chapel.
“That was awesome!” Emma exclaimed, taking my arm as the people around us began to put their coats on and the low buzz of conversation began.
“You enjoyed it?”
“I really did; I’ve never heard anything quite like it before. Especially the a cappella ones; they were my favourites”.
As people began to make their way out of the chapel Alanna slipped out of the pew and went over to talk to the young woman at the piano. Wendy had been talking to the Wisemans but now she turned back to us with a smile. “Well, what did you think?”
“It was totally amazing!” Emma said; “Thank you so much for inviting us!”
“I’m really glad you liked it”. Wendy hesitated and then said “Emma, would you mind if I introduced you to Lisa? I asked her to wait for us outside the hall because I knew you wouldn’t be going in for the reception”.
“Sure; that would be fine”.
At that moment the young clergyman came over to us with a smile on his face; “I’m Stephen Jeffreys”, he said in a high-pitched voice.
“Tom Masefield”, I replied as we shook hands.
“Stephen, these are the friends I told you about”, said Wendy. “Tom and I were students together; this is his daughter Emma”.
“Ah yes – the Mennonites; how fascinating! Wendy mentioned to me that you were coming; I don’t expect you get this sort of thing very much in your churches, do you?”
“Not very often”, I replied, “although at one time there was a real tradition of unaccompanied four-part singing in Mennonite churches. It’s not as common these days as it used to be”.
He shook Emma’s hand; “Are you going to be staying for the reception?”
“I’m afraid not, but my dad is”.
“Have you ever seen Merton Hall?”
“No I haven’t”.
“You must come in for a minute and have a look, even if you’re not staying; it’s really worth seeing. Wouldn’t you agree, Wendy?”
“It is rather lovely”, Wendy agreed with a smile, “but perhaps Emma’s got another commitment she needs to get to?”
“I’ve got a minute”, replied Emma. “Matthew’s not going anywhere fast”.
Not everyone in the audience stayed for the reception but there were still a good many who made their way across the front quad to the old thirteenth-century hall. Lisa was waiting for us outside the entrance, and I saw she had put on a coat and scarf against the frigid night air. There was a young man of her own age standing beside her; he was a little taller than her, with very short blond hair, and I recognised him as one of the tenors from the choir. Wendy went up to them with a smile and kissed Lisa on the cheek; “You were excellent of course!” she said.
Wendy introduced us; “This is my daughter Lisa and her boyfriend, Mark Robarts”.
Lisa took my outstretched hand with a dazzling smile. “I’ve heard quite a lot about you, Mr. Masefield; it actually feels rather intimidating to meet you!”
Emma grinned mischievously; “Yeah, my dad can be intimidating sometimes!”
We all laughed, and Emma continued “Your mom’s right, Lisa – you guys were outstanding”.
“Dad plays a few of those songs, but of course they sound quite different on guitar”.
“You play Christmas music on guitar?” she asked me.
“Shall we go in?” Wendy suggested; “I want Emma to have a chance to see the hall before she and Alanna have to leave”.
I had been in Merton Hall two or three times in my student days when Wendy had invited Owen and me to eat there as her guests. As we entered from the back I took in at a glance the high beamed ceiling, the wooden floor, the tall pointed windows in the plaster walls, and the old portraits hanging in various places around the room. Three dining tables ran the length of the hall, with the high table at the front, but for the reception the chairs had been removed so that people could stand around. There were trays of finger food on the tables, and servers were already moving around the room with drinks.
Emma spoke in hushed tones. “This looks like an old church. Who are all the people in the paintings?”
“College dignitaries from a long time ago”, Wendy replied.
“How old is this college?”
“It was founded in 1264. The hall dates back to not long after that, although there isn’t much of the original structure left”.
“And this is just the dining hall?”
“Are there classrooms too?”
Wendy smiled. “There are lecture rooms all over Oxford, and science labs and things like that, but in the English school we do most of our teaching in small group tutorials in the fellows’ rooms”.
“How small is small?”
“Years ago they were one on one but these days they’re usually in groups of three or four; your dad must have told you about it?”
“Actually”, I said apologetically, “I don’t think I’ve told Emma very much about how we did our studying”.
“That’s something you’re going to have to make up for real soon, Dad”, Emma said with a grin.
Emma glanced at Alanna and then smiled at me; “Well, I guess we need to be making tracks”.
“Do I have time to walk with them to the gate?” I asked Wendy.
“Of course – all we’re going to be doing here is standing around for an hour talking and drinking wine!”
Emma and I followed Alanna out of the hall and across the quad to the porter’s lodge; I put my arm around her and said “There’s going to be a designated driver, right?”
She grinned at me; “Have you been worrying about that all night?”
She reached up and kissed my cheek. “Don’t worry – I may be eighteen now but I still don’t care for drinking. And anyway, Alanna and Matthew aren’t into that kind of thing; it’s true we’re going to a pub but it’ll be about the conversation, not the beer”.
“Sorry – just being a dad, I guess”.
“That’s fine”, she replied softly as we walked through the alley onto Merton Street; “You keep right on with that”.
“Okay. Ah – there’s Matthew waiting for you”.
Back in the hall I found Lisa standing with her boyfriend beside one of the tables, a glass of wine in her hand. She smiled when she saw me; “Would you like a drink?”
“Sure, but don’t worry – I’ll snag a server next time they come by”.
“Do you really play Christmas music on guitar?”
“I actually rather like Christmas music – the spiritual sort, that is. I’ve been arranging old carols for guitar and voice for years”.
“Arranging for performance, you mean?”
“Occasionally. I was one of the music leaders at our church back home, and sometimes I played in coffee shops and house concerts and that sort of thing”.
“Do you still do that?”
“Not so much; we’ve been pretty busy since the summer”.
“Mum said she had a wonderful time singing with you the other week. She used to sing with my dad when I was little but she hasn’t done anything like that for a long time now”.
“She hasn’t lost her gorgeous voice, though. When I first heard her sing I thought it was the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard in my life; I still think it comes pretty close”.
“She is a really good singer. Oh, here comes a server – let’s get you a drink”.
I helped myself to a glass of red wine from the server’s tray and then turned back to Lisa and Mark. “I was actually a little surprised to hear that you were into choral music”, I said to her; “I assumed you’d pick up your musical tastes from your mum or your dad”.
“Not from my dad; I picked up as little from him as possible”.
I heard the hard note in her voice and I decided to steer clear of it. “So I know you’re at Christ Church and I know you’re reading Modern Languages, but I don’t know much beyond that. Do you have plans?”
“Actually I do – I want to be a translator. I’m not sure at the moment whether that would mean written work, or actual oral translation for governments or the UN or that sort of thing. But I enjoy languages and I’ve always had an ear for them”.
“I expect good translators are always in demand”.
“It depends on the languages” she replied, taking a sip of her wine. “I’m studying Russian and German – I like them both and they give me good opportunities to work in Eastern Europe. I’d actually like to go on and do a postgraduate degree but I might feel differently after I’ve finished four years here”.
“So you’re in your third year now?”
“Yes. I spent eight months last year studying at Yaroslavl in Russia; it’s northeast of Moscow”.
“On your own initiative, or is it required for the course?”
“It’s required for the course; all beginners in Russian have to go to Yaroslavl State University for their second year. I didn’t do Russian in high school so that was the program I had to take”.
“Did you get to go with her?” I asked Mark.
“I’m afraid not”, he replied with a grin. “I’m in biochemistry, not modern languages, so I was rather busy around here. I did fly out to spend a few weekends with her, though. It was certainly very interesting”.
“How’s your Russian?”
“That must have been quite an experience then”.
He grinned at her; “Well, I always had my own private translator with me, so I was alright”.
“It was nice to see him of course”, Lisa said with a mischievous grin, “but he was a bit distracting”.
“Glad to see me come and glad to see me go?” he said.
“Something like that”.
“So you had a good time, all in all?” I asked her.
“It was outstanding. I was able to do some travelling to places like Moscow and St. Petersburg, I made some good friends, and I got a really good working knowledge of the language and culture”.
While she was speaking Wendy appeared at her elbow, a half-empty wine glass in her hand. “Her mother, of course, got a few more grey hairs!” she said with a smile.
I helped myself to a piece of shortbread from the table. “I actually have a family connection with Yaroslavl”.
“How so?” asked Lisa.
“Well, Emma and I have relatives in Russia”.
I saw the surprise on her face; “Really?”
“Yes. My wife was a Mennonite; the Mennonites are originally from western Europe but some of them migrated to Russia in the late eighteenth century. Kelly’s ancestors lived for over a century in a big Mennonite colony just north of the Crimean peninsula; her grandparents fled from Russia after the First World War and moved to Canada”.
“Fled from persecution, you mean?”
“That was part of it, but there were other factors too; it’s a long and complicated story. Not everyone was able to get out; lots of people got left behind and some of them died in the Gulag. Some just disappeared and we don’t really know what happened to them. But some survived, so we have living relatives over there today. Kelly got interested in the family roots back in the nineteen-eighties; over the years she made contact with some of the folks in Russia and found out about their stories”.
“Do they live in Yaroslavl?”
“One of them, Stepan Konrad, but the person Kelly was mainly in touch with was a woman called Justina Wiebe. She and her husband live in Zaporizhia. Justina and Kelly were third cousins, although there was quite an age difference between them – I think Justina’s sixty-five this year”.
“Zaporizhia’s in Ukraine, isn’t it?”
“Yes – just across the river from where the Mennonites lived before the First World War”.
“That’s a long way from Yaroslavl”.
“Yes”. I grinned at her apologetically; “It would take a long time to tell the story of the travels of all our relatives! But getting back to the Konrads, they’re descended from one of Kelly’s great-aunts, Gertrude Reimer; she married Heinrich Konrad in the early nineteen-hundreds. Their great-grandson Stepan teaches at the university in Yaroslavl”.
She shook her head; “I don’t think I’ve heard of him. Do you know what he teaches?”
“Something scientific, I think”.
“That makes sense – all my classes were in the faculty of communications and philology, so I wouldn’t have had any reason to know him”.
I smiled at her; “Emma will be very interested to hear you’ve been to Russia and you speak Russian”.
“Has she picked up on her mum’s interest in the family history?”
“Yes, especially since Kelly died”.
“I’ll have to have a talk with her. What are her plans in Oxford?”
“She’s taking a gap year at the moment, spending time with family and volunteering at a nursing home not far from where we live. She wants to be a nurse; she’s got her application in to Oxford Brookes for the autumn term”.
“Rather her than me; I don’t think I’d have the patience for nursing”.
After a few minutes Lisa and Mark excused themselves momentarily; in their absence I turned to Wendy and said, “Well, I’m impressed with your girl”.
“I’m glad. Of course, she’s turning on the charm for you right now”.
“You’re telling me there’s a non-charming side?”
She shrugged; “I shouldn’t really be talking about her. Things between us are – well, we don’t always have an easy relationship, let’s put it that way”.
“I’m sorry, Wendy”.
She shook her head. “Just normal parent-child issues; you must have your share of them with Emma, too?”
“Actually I’ve been very, very lucky with Emma; her mum did a good job of passing on her basic stability and common sense”.
Wendy laughed; “I’m sure you had something to do with it as well”.
I shrugged; “Maybe a little, but I’m pretty sure it was mainly Kelly”.
I stayed at the reception longer than I had expected. Wendy introduced me to a couple of her colleagues, the Wisemans asked me about Canada, and for a while the young chaplain quizzed me about Mennonite Christianity. I found some of his mannerisms a little odd, but there was no mistaking his genuine interest in the spiritual journeys of others and I could see why Wendy got along well with him.
It was after ten o’clock by the time Wendy and I emerged onto the quad with Mark and Lisa; the darkened sky overhead seemed to be overcast and I thought I caught a hint of snow in the frigid air. Lisa turned to her mother; “Well, I’ll see you later”.
“I’ll probably be in bed and asleep. Still, come in and let me know you’re home, alright?”
“It’ll probably be very late”.
“I don’t mind – I’d rather know you’re home”.
The girl smiled indulgently; “If you insist”, she said, leaning forward and kissing her mother on the cheek. “It was lovely to meet you, Mr. Masefield”, she said to me; “I hope we see you again soon”.
“Nice to meet you, too, Lisa”, I replied. She flashed me a brilliant smile and then turned and slipped out of the main gate.
“They’ve got another engagement tonight?” I asked.
“I think they’re going out to a club for a little while. Mark’s a very nice young man and he’s always very polite to me, but for some reason I’m wary about him; I really don’t know why”.
“Has she being going out with him for long?”
“They’ve known each other since their high school days but I think they started dating in their first year at university”. She smiled apologetically at me; “I’m probably just being a typical paranoid mother. How about Emma; what are she and Alanna doing tonight?”
“They’ll probably be home in a couple of hours; they went out to a pub with Alanna’s brother Matthew and one of his friends. Emma assures me they’ll be behaving themselves”.
“Is she taking advantage of her newfound freedom to buy drinks in public?”
“Actually Emma’s never liked alcohol, not even wine, and certainly not beer or hard liquor. She’ll probably be the one drinking tea tonight”.
Wendy laughed; “Have you got any idea how lucky you are?”
“Yeah, I know. Well, I’d better be going”. I leaned forward, kissed her lightly on the cheek, and said “Thanks for inviting me, Wendy; I enjoyed myself”.
“I’m glad to hear it. Would you like to get together again some time in the not-too-distant future?”
I nodded; “I would. Shall I give you a phone call in a week or so? We’re going out to Northwood tomorrow night to spend Christmas with my parents and we won’t be back for a few days. Maybe we can do coffee or something during the holidays”.
“I’d like that very much but it’ll have to closer to New Year’s. We’ll be visiting with my brother and my parents down in Essex over Christmas; we’ll probably be back around the 29th or 30th”.
“Alright; I’ll talk to you soon, then”.
“Good night, Tom; thanks for coming”.
I was able to catch a bus quickly and I got home around ten-thirty. I knew it would likely be a while before Emma came in and I didn’t want to go to bed without knowing she was alright, so I made myself a cup of herbal tea and went up to my den; I had a couple of little jobs I needed to finish off to put the term to rest, and I needed to access the school website to be able to complete them. I worked quickly, sipping at my tea from time to time, and by about eleven fifteen I was done. I thought of texting Emma to see what time she thought she would be home, but decide against it; the last thing she needed, I told myself, was a father who gave the impression of not trusting her.
I don’t remember exactly what led me to search for Lisa’s school records; I suppose I was curious, having enjoyed our conversation earlier in the evening. I used my password to access the school’s central filing system and then typed in the name ‘Lisa Kingsley’. The search came up blank, so I tried again with ‘Lisa Howard’. The machine stirred and the information appeared on the screen in front of me: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, date of birth February 25th 1983, Acton, London.
It was a moment before I realized the significance of the date in front of me. Wendy had told Owen and me that Lisa had been born about a year after she and Mickey moved in together, which would put her birth some time in the summer of 1983; February 25th was definitely not in the summer. And immediately I began counting back in my mind; nine months of pregnancy meant that Lisa had been conceived toward the end of May 1982, after Mickey and Wendy had broken up, but before I left for Canada.
At that moment I heard the front door open, and Emma’s cheerful voice calling out “I’m home; are you still awake?”
I quickly quit the program and shut down my computer, my mind still reeling. “I’m up in my den”, I called.
I heard her bounding up the stairs two at a time, and a moment later her head appeared around the doorway. “Did you have your hot chocolate?” she asked.
“I was waiting for you”.
She came over and kissed me on the top of my head; “Where you working?”
“Just finishing off a few things; I was just shutting down when you came in”.
“I’ll go down and make the hot chocolate then”.
“Alright – I’ll be down in a minute”.
A few minutes later the two of us were sitting on either side of the gas fire, our mugs in our hands. “So – how was it?” I asked.
“Interesting”, she replied with a grin; “We went to the Eagle and Child”.
“Ah – the Bird and Baby!”
She laughed; “Matthew reminded me about the history of the place. Did we go there once last time we were here?”
“Yes; we had lunch there with Becca”.
“I was pretty sure I remembered that. You talked to me about Lewis and Tolkien and all those guys writing their books there, didn’t you?”
“I don’t think they actually wrote there, but they used to meet there to read to each other”.
“Right – that’s what Matthew was saying”.
“Is he interested in that kind of thing?”
She shrugged; “He seems to know a lot about it, anyway. He’s read a few of their books”.
“You guys had a good time?”
“We did”, she replied, smiling mischievously at me, “and in case you’re wondering, Matthew and Alanna and Neil had one pint each, and I had a whole pot of tea to myself”.
I smiled apologetically; “I wasn’t really worried”.
“Yeah – you were!” she replied mischievously.
“Alright – maybe just a little!”
We both laughed, and then she said, “How about the reception?”
I told her about my conversation with Lisa, and as I had expected, she was very interested to hear about her time in Russia and her interest in the Russian language. “Maybe I can get together with her some time”, she said; “I’d love to find out more about what it’s actually like to live there”.
“I’m sure she’d be glad to talk to you”.
“You know, I’d love to go there some day”.
I nodded; “Somehow I’m not surprised to hear you say that”.
“It’s interesting to think about our roots, isn’t it?”
“It was really important to your mom”.
“She’d be glad to know you were interested”.
“Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with all those notes she wrote”.
“I know”. I took a sip of my hot chocolate; “Tell me about Matthew’s friend Neil – what was he like?”
She laughed; “He was the strange one!”
“He’s very ‘theological’”, she said, making air quotes with her fingers.
“Yeah. I think someone needs to tell him that Jesus didn’t say ‘Follow me, and I will teach you to be weird!’”
“A little other-worldly?”
She laughed again; “More than a little!” she replied.
We went to bed around midnight, but it would be a long time before I went to sleep. I tossed and turned in the darkened bedroom, my mind going over the events of those spring days back in 1982.
After that first time she had come to my bed-sitter Wendy and I had gradually started to spend more time together. Mickey was not taking his dismissal from her life lying down and he began to come to her room in the evenings, knocking on her door and refusing to go away unless she let him in. In order to avoid him Wendy began to come over to my place to study, and from time to time the two of us would go out to see a movie or share a late drink in a pub. Owen, Wendy and I were still playing music together occasionally, but as our final exams drew closer we found it more and more difficult to make time for it.
A number of people assumed that Wendy and I had begun to date; Owen in his straightforward way once asked me about it directly. We were out walking together on a fine Saturday morning in late April and he said, “Sorry if I’m prying, but are you and Wendy a couple now?”
“No – we’re just friends. She seems to be turning to me to help her get over Mickey but I’m not about to fall into one of those rebound love affairs. Anyway, she knows about my plans for Canada”.
“Told your mum and dad yet?”
“There’s nothing to tell, since I haven’t definitely got the position”.
“But you’ll tell them when you get it?”
I shrugged and looked away. “I think I’d prefer to leave it as long as I can, to cut down on the amount of time I have to listen to my father doing his volcano act”.
“Up to you, but I think the longer you put it off, the more violent the eruption’s going to be”.
I had told him the truth about Wendy and me; we were not dating, and we were certainly not sharing a sexual relationship. There had been times, when she was feeling particularly low, that she had asked me to hold her as I had on that first night, but that was as far as it had gone.
The digital clock on my bedside table showed 1.15 a.m.; tired of lying there sleepless, I got out of bed quietly, slipped out of my room and made my way as noiselessly as I could down to the kitchen. I boiled the kettle, made myself another cup of herbal tea and went to sit in the darkened living room. The mantelpiece above the hearth was full of Christmas cards from Canada and our tiny Christmas tree stood in the corner of the room by the front window, a few gifts clustered underneath it waiting to be taken out to Northwood for the holidays. I was looking but not seeing, while my mind was reliving the vivid memories of twenty-one years ago.
One night in late May Wendy appeared at my door as usual after supper. “Hello there”, I said; “I just made the tea”.
“Getting predictable, aren’t I?” She followed me into the room, dropped her canvas backpack on the floor and started to take out her books; “Did you have a busy day?”.
“Yes, but a good one”.
I gave her a mug of tea, and we sat at my table in near silence for the next couple of hours, both of us studying our respective books and notes. From time to time we would make comments about what we were reading, and occasionally those comments led to longer discussions. At around nine o’clock I made a fresh pot of tea and put some quiet music on my record player. At this point I moved over to the couch; a few minutes later she joined me there, her back against the other arm of the couch and her feet tucked under my left leg. We sipped our tea for a few minutes without saying anything, listening to the music and easy in each other’s company.
Eventually I drained my cup, put it down on the coffee table in front of us and said, “Well, I’ve got some news”.
“I’ve got the job”.
“The one you applied for in Canada?”
“Wow – congratulations!”
“Are you pleased?”
I nodded slowly. “It’s not that I won’t miss a few people – yourself included of course”.
“And Owen; you’ve been friends for a long time”.
“What’s the name of the place again?”
“Meadowvale; it’s a small town in Saskatchewan, on the prairies. I’ll be teaching English at the local high school”.
“Do you know much about the town?”
“It’s pretty small; the school’s got about six hundred pupils, I think”.
She smiled at me. “Mr. Tom Masefield, high school English teacher. Well – I’m proud of you!”
“Thanks; to tell you the truth I feel a bit nervous about it. Studying is one thing, but actually doing it – in a foreign country, in a place I’ve never seen – that’s completely different”.
“You’ve done alright with your student teaching, though”.
“Yeah – for the most part it’s gone well”.
She looked at me in silence for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her face. Eventually I smiled awkwardly; “What is it?”
“I’ll miss you”, she said softly.
“I know, Wendy; I’ll miss you, too”.
She reached over and put her hand on mine; “You’ve been a big help to me over the past couple of months”.
I shrugged; “All I’ve done is given you a chair at my table for studying”.
“No, you’ve done more than that, and you know it”. She leaned forward and kissed me gently on the cheek, and then shifted around beside me on the couch, laying her head on my left shoulder, her face against my neck. I put my arm around her, and we sat there in silence for a few minutes; I was breathing the intoxicating fragrance of her hair, and I could feel my body beginning to stir in response to her proximity.
“Do you mind me cuddling with you like this?” she whispered.
“Of course not”.
“I know I’m not really being fair to you, but…”
“Hush, Wendy; you say that every time”.
We lapsed into silence again, listening to the music in the background, our senses full of each other. Time in the room seemed to be standing still. Eventually I touched her cheek with the fingers of my right hand, prompting her to turn a little on the chesterfield and lift her face to mine. Our lips were only inches apart. I hesitated, and then slowly crossed the distance, leaning forward and kissing her, tentatively at first, but then with greater confidence as I felt her lips open to mine.
When we drew back, I searched her eyes and asked, “Do you mind me kissing you like this?”
“I don’t think so”, she replied in a barely audible voice.
“Do you mind if I do it again?”
“I want you to do it again”.
I had finished my cup of herbal tea, but my body felt no closer to sleep. I was surprised at the vividness of my memories of that night. Part of me – the part that still felt like a married man – even felt a little guilty as I remembered the warmth of Wendy’s body as we made love together on the bed in my one-room flat. I got up from the chair and walked around the room for a few minutes, trying to get warm. It was after two o’clock now, and even the street outside was silent and still.
Wendy and I woke up when my alarm went off at seven o’clock. It had not been a good night for sleep; my bed was not really big enough for two people, and we were forced into continual contact with each other’s bodies. In the first part of the night, when our hunger was strong, this had just led to more sex, but later, when we were exhausted and sated with each other, it had simply become uncomfortable. At about four o’clock I had moved over to the couch, where I was curled uncomfortably when the unwelcome morning came.
I got up painfully, shut off the alarm and looked at Wendy lying on my bed with the blankets and sheets wrapped crazily around her. Her long dark hair was messy and her eyes were red from lack of sleep. I crouched beside the bed and put my hand on her shoulder. “Would you like some tea?” I asked.
“Yeah”, she replied with a yawn, “and then I’d better get out of here”.
“I could make you some toast if you want”.
She pulled herself into an upright position, the sheets and blankets falling away from her naked body, and pushed her hair out of her face. “I don’t think so”, she said. “I’d better get back to Manor Place before things get too busy around here”.
She pulled on her clothes, washed her face and brushed her teeth in my sink, tried to bring some order to her hair, and then accepted a cup of tea from me gratefully. As we stood there, drinking our tea and looking at each other, she said, “Tom…”
“It’s not that I don’t care for you…”
I raised my hand and touched her lips; her hand came up and held my fingers to her cheek. “You’re such a good friend…” she whispered.
“…but friends and lovers are not the same”.
“You understand”; the relief was plain in her voice.
“I understand what you think about the subject; I might not agree, but I know you feel strongly about it”.
“It’s not that I don’t care about you, or that I didn’t enjoy myself last night…”
“I think it was this morning, actually!”
We both laughed awkwardly, standing there facing each other, our tea mugs in our hands, knowing instinctively that no matter how much we tried to minimize its impact, what we had done could not be undone, and it had changed everything between us. A few moments later she left my room with her backpack slung over her shoulder.
I climbed the stairs back up to my solitary room at around two thirty. I was not hopeful that I would fall asleep any time soon, but at least I could lie down and rest my weary body. Suddenly, as I sat on my bed, I felt an overwhelming sense of desolation. My mind was moving to the conclusion of the story of me and Wendy, but at a different level my heart and my body were aching for Kelly; it was always at these times of sleeplessness that my bed seemed far too big and empty without her. I shook my head and offered a silent prayer for a sense of God’s companionship. Then I lay down on my side and pulled the comforter up around my neck.
That night was the only time Wendy and I ever had sex with each other. I knew in my heart that I would have been happy for our relationship to continue to grow, but Wendy’s views about mixing friendship and love were firmly and stubbornly held. And in a sense it turned out that she was right. After that night she never came around to my room again. It was as if she knew instinctively that I would want to make love with her again, while what she needed most from our relationship was my friendship and support. We met a few times to study in cafés and pubs, but our conversation was awkward; our night together loomed too large in our thoughts, but we knew we couldn’t talk about it without risking our friendship even further.
The only person I told about it at the time was Owen. One evening at the beginning of July he and I went out to the ‘Plough and Lantern’ for a quiet drink; the pub was only half full that night, and we found a secluded table in a corner and chatted quietly about our future. My move to Canada was only four weeks away and for both of us it was casting a dark shadow over everything. After a while he gave me a significant glance. “I notice you and Wendy aren’t spending so much time together; is everything all right?”
I had thought long and hard about whether I would tell him what had happened, but now that the opportunity had arisen it seemed natural to talk about it. “Well, we spoilt our platonic relationship”, I said. “We spent a night together at the end of May”.
“I had a hunch that might happen sooner or later”.
“You don’t approve, of course”.
“The more important issue is if you approve. Has it been good for your relationship with her?”
I shook my head. “She’s so stubborn about not combining friendship and love. If I wasn’t leaving for Canada, I’d have a stab at changing her mind, but I think it would be really selfish of me to try to force the issue, given the circumstances”.
“So all in all it hasn’t been a good thing?”
“No; in fact, we’ve probably spoiled our friendship without gaining anything in its place”.
“I’m sorry to hear that; you two were pretty good friends”.
“We were, but now I don’t know where we stand”.
Emma had to go out early to Marston Court; unusually, I didn’t wake up until I heard her closing the front door behind her. I took a hot shower, drank a cup of strong coffee, and then turned on my computer and went back to the school records. There was the information again, staring at me from the screen: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, date of birth February 25th 1983, Acton, London.
The truth was staring me in the face: Wendy had lied to me, wanting to continue to hide the truth about her daughter’s parentage. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that Mickey and Wendy had not been sharing a sexual relationship in May of 1982, and it was inconceivable that Wendy could have been sleeping with anyone else. The only possible explanation was that Lisa was my daughter.
I sat there for a long time, thinking about the implications of this fundamental shift in my universe. Emma was not my only child. For nearly twenty-one years I had been the father of another daughter, and the secret had been kept from me. I found myself thinking back to the years when Kelly was struggling so hard to accept the fact that she would not be able to have any more children; a big family had always been her dream, and it had taken a long time for her to come to terms with the hard reality that Emma would be her only child. It had not been such a huge issue for me – I had been relieved that she had survived ovarian cancer at all – but there had been a few times over the years when I had found myself wondering what it would have been like to have another daughter, or perhaps a son. And all that time, unknown to me, my older daughter had been growing up in England. For all I knew, perhaps she had always called Mickey her dad and assumed he was her biological father.
After a few minutes I picked up the phone and called Owen’s clinic. When his receptionist answered I said, “Hi, Janet, it’s Tom Masefield here. Could you ask Dr. Foster to call me at home when he has a free minute?”
“I think he’s free right now, Mr. Masefield; shall I put him on the line?”
A moment later I heard Owen’s voice. “Tom – what’s up?”
“I need to talk to you about something, preferably face to face. Do you have any free time this morning, or early afternoon?”
“Actually, I’m free now; I just came in to check a few things, but I’m not really working”.
“I really need to bend your ear if you’ve got a minute”.
“Of course – would a coffee shop be okay, or do you want to come in here and have me charge it to the National Health Service?”
I chuckled; “No, let’s meet at that café round the corner from the clinic. I don’t want Becca to know we’ve talked”.
“Well, now I’m curious! See you there in about fifteen minutes?”
We sat in the corner of the dimly lit café, sipping our coffee while I tried to get my thoughts into order. Owen was dressed formally in suit and tie, but he had loosened his tie and undone the top button of his shirt. “So”, he said, “what’s this about?”
“It’s about Wendy’s daughter Lisa. Tell me if I’m remembering this right: the day before Emma’s party Wendy told us she moved to London in the summer of 1982 and moved in with Mickey, and Lisa was born about a year later”.
“That’s what she said”.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes – why?”
“She was lying to us. I checked the school files last night and the dates don’t match. Lisa isn’t Mickey’s daughter at all; she’s mine”.
He stared at me; “You can’t be serious!”
“I’m very serious”.
He put his cup down on its saucer, his eyes searching my face. “And how are you doing with this piece of information?”
I shook my head; “I hardly know how to answer that”.
“Royally pissed off with Wendy?”
“Really pissed off! How could she do this to me? How could she keep this from me for over twenty years? What sort of an act of friendship is that?”
“I suspect there’s only one person who can answer that question and I strongly advise you not to ask her about it while you’re angry with her”. He frowned; “How did you begin to suspect?”
“I didn’t; it was totally accidental. I met Lisa at that concert at Merton last night and we had a good conversation afterwards. I happened to be on the school website after I got home and I just got curious and looked up her records. It’s there in black and white: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, born February 25th 1983”.
“Damn”, he swore softly; “Then there’s no question about it”.
“None at all”.
“I take it you haven’t talked to her yet?”
“No; I decided to talk to you instead”.
“That’s what I thought”.
We drank our coffee in silence for a moment, and then he looked across at me again; “You’re worried about Emma, aren’t you?”
“I sure am – she’s an only child, and since her mother died we’ve been even closer to each other. This is going to break her heart”.
“I don’t think so”.
“You and Kelly have done a great job of raising that girl; she’s an unusually secure teenager. Yes of course, it’s going to be a shock to her at first, but I think she’ll work her way through it and she’ll be fine”.
“I wish I could be sure about that”.
“I understand, but I don’t think you should be too worried. She’ll probably have a quiet talk about it with Becca or Ellie, but that’s nothing new, is it? And it surely won’t come as a surprise to her that you had relationships with other women before you met her mother?”
“The conception of a child puts this in a rather different category, don’t you think?”
He grinned; “Well, that’s true, I suppose”.
“I’m just having a hard time picturing how I’m going to tell her that I had a one-night stand with Wendy six weeks before I left England”.
He sat back and looked me in the eye; “Well, for a start I would encourage you not to use the phrase ‘one-night stand’”.
“You yourself admitted to me years ago that you would have liked your relationship with Wendy to go further. I think you’d started to fall in love with her”.
I shook my head vehemently; “That’s too strong a word; it was…”
He leaned forward and put his hand on my arm. “Tom, this isn’t about loyalty to Kelly; she wasn’t anywhere on your radar screen at the time. This is about honesty about the past. Let’s tell the truth to each other here; Wendy was fundamentally wrong about friendship and love, and you know it. In 1982 your friendship with her was beginning to turn into love, whether or not either of you wanted to admit it. So I don’t think it does you any good to describe that event as a ‘one night stand’. You weren’t strangers; you had been talking with each other at a deeper level for some time. Of course the sexual element came into your relationship too soon, but I know you pretty well and I’m sure in my own mind that the night you spent together wasn’t only about sex. Tell me – am I wrong?”
For a long time I didn’t answer; I avoided his eyes, drinking my coffee and staring out of the window. Eventually I shook my head slowly; “No, I don’t think you’re wrong”.
“So then – why not admit that, and frame the picture a little differently?”
“So you think I should tell Emma the whole story, including the fact that I’d started to fall in love with Wendy?”
“I do. You and Emma aren’t in the habit of keeping secrets from each other”.
“No, but as I said…”
“I understand that this is a big one, but she’s a big girl with a heart full of love for her dad”.
I nodded slowly; “You’re right about that”.
He finished his coffee and set the cup down on the saucer. Pointing at my own cup, he said, “Want a refill?”
He picked up both cups, got to his feet and went over to the counter. A few minutes later he returned with fresh coffee, sat down and said, “So what do you want to do about this?”
I shrugged. “There are all kinds of things I’d like to know, but there’s a basic problem, isn’t there?”
“You’re talking about the fact that Wendy still doesn’t want you to know the truth”.
“That’s a tough one. Are you going to try to talk to her?”
“I think I have to – otherwise it just becomes the big elephant in the room, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. You’re not going to rush into this though, right?”
“Well, I’m not going to see her until after Christmas; she’s going down to Essex to spend time with her family. I told her I’d give her a call closer to New Year’s”.
“Good. And while you’re out in Northwood, go for some of your long morning walks and try to think this thing through. I’m on call Christmas Day but we’ll probably be out to see Dad and Mum on Boxing Day, and you and I can go for a walk and a talk if you want”.
“That would be good”.
“Meanwhile, I’ll keep it to myself”.
“I’d appreciate that”.
“Are you going to talk to Becca about it?”
“Probably not until after I talk to Wendy, and then Emma”.
“When you talk to Wendy, be gentle with her, okay?”
“What do you mean?”
He frowned; “I’m trying to work out how she might have arrived at the decision not to tell you she was pregnant. She must have been really torn; she must have at least considered the possibility of telling you what was happening and asking you to stay in England and help. After all, you and she had become very close. Granted, you weren’t in a good space with your own family, but she knew you were basically a good guy and you’d been giving her a lot of support since she and Mickey broke up. Surely she would have at least considered asking you to change your plans”. He paused, thought for a minute and then went on, “But then, maybe you were already in Canada when she found out she was pregnant. And she knew the two of you had moved into a sexual relationship prematurely without really being sure that you wanted to be a couple; with you being already in Canada she probably didn’t want to put any pressure on you to come back to England and marry her just because she was pregnant”.
“No, let me finish. It probably didn’t take her long to realize that she had another option – she knew Mickey was in London, gainfully employed, and she was still at least a little bit in love with him. She also knew that in London she could go to university and work on her doctorate”. He nodded; “Yes, it’s all coming clear to me now. And I understand why she cut me out of her life so decisively: once she’d chosen to conceal the child from you she couldn’t risk any contact with me because she knew that once I found out about it I would figure out the dates, and she knew I couldn’t possibly conceal such a thing from you. But she’s got to have paid a price, hasn’t she?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, you know what Mickey was like, even when we knew him. What do you think his reaction would have been when she went to him in London and said, “Mickey, I’m pregnant, Tom’s the father and he’s gone to Canada without knowing about it. Will you please take me back, help me raise Tom’s child and support me through my doctoral study?”
I stared at him; “He must have gone ballistic”.
“Exactly. So that’s why I’m saying, be gentle with her. Think about what came of this decision she made. She married Mickey, and their marriage was so abusive that eventually she charged him with assault and he went to prison. If she hadn’t done that – if she’d called you in Canada and told you she was pregnant – you might well have come back and married her. I mean, Wendy’s a great person, but I don’t think you seriously want not to have been married to Kelly, do you?”
I shook my head emphatically; “Kelly was the best thing that ever happened to me”.
“Right. So Wendy did you a good turn twenty years ago, but she didn’t do herself any favours at all”.
“I see what you mean”.
“So – when you talk with her, be gentle, all right?”
“I’ll do my best”, I replied.